Considering Russia’s heavily patriarchal society, Battalion (2015) is what seems to be a truly remarkable story, based on true events. In a last ditch effort to inspire war-weary and unenthusiastic soldiers exhausted by the perils of World War I to continue fighting, the provisional Russian Government (in place after the February Revolution) considered the idea of a battalion made up of all-female volunteers–the first of its kind in the world–to be of significant value.
Predominantly, they hoped the female soldiers would encourage demoralized Russian men to continue fighting, or at the very least they expected the presence of the women to shame them into resuming their military duties.
Did it work? You’ll have to read up on history or trust the film to find out. What I want to discuss instead is all the controversy behind the film and what it stands for, or means for Russian society.
Propaganda in Russian Cinema
Joseph Stalin once said: “The cinema is the greatest medium of mass agitation. The task is to take it into our hands.” And exactly like this, Russian cinema has been used as a means of propaganda since the early times of the Soviet Union.
After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, film production was nationalized and documentaries and silent films were produced to further the soviet cause. Currently, it is possible that films like this are being used to bolster nationalistic pride in times that aren’t exactly pleasant for Russian citizens.
In fact, it is no surprise that such patriotic war films are now generally released around Victory Day (May 9), or Defender of the Fatherland Day (February 23), a national holiday that honors and commemorates the role of men in society. Battalion was released on the latter holiday earlier this year.
Other Western countries have their own catalog of films that inspire patriotism as well. America in particular (from my personal experience) tends to downplay the involvement or necessity of other countries in World War II in popular films, or simply depicts them leading in all major scientific (namely, space) developments. When I watch these films, I can’t help but feel a bit proud–so I suppose it works.
So, what makes Russia and Battallion different? Mostly the fact that Fyodor Bondarchuk, the film’s producer, revealed that the Ministry of Culture had awarded the filmmakers at least 50 million rubles with the possibility of even more funding later. Why did a government institution so overtly support this film, and why is it involved in the production of other films?
Is the film meaningless?
As mentioned earlier, the Women’s Battalion was called into action against the Germans during the Kerensky Offensive in hopes of inspiring the men battalions to continue fighting. They were assigned to the 525th Kiuruk-Darinski Regiment and occupied a trench near Smorgon.
Ordered to go over the top to gain ground, the male soldiers hesitated. However, the women decided to push on with or without them. Eventually they fought their way past three trenches into German territory. The commander of the regiment initially praised the initiative and courage shown by the women.
However, relief units never arrived and eventually they were forced to retreat–losing all the territory gained in the offensive. Commanded by Maria Bochkareva, the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death still helped hold the front after the revolution, but shortly disbanded after due to hostility from male troops who resented the volunteers for preventing their retreat many times.
During a press conference, Russian film critic Viktor Matizen asked, “There are two interpretations of Bochkareva’s troop story. One is that it’s a pure feat, that they are heroes and so on. The second is that the actions of the battalion didn’t make any sense because the end of the war was pre-determined. How will you portray this case in your movie and how do you want us to take it – as a feat or as a futility?”
“Why would we give birth to a child if everyone will die anyway?” Dmitry Meskhiev (the film’s director) replied coldly, hinting that just because a story doesn’t have a happy ending, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be told.
The conference attendees burst into applause.
Does it stand up to feminist expectations?
Being a film about the first ever all-female battalion, one might expect to see a strong feminism tone throughout the film. However, some criticize Battalion for its depiction of somewhat weak women throughout the story.
Calvert Journal writes, “The women soldiers, however brave, are constantly proven to be incompetent and useless, unless helped out by men. A scene in which the battalion commander is brutally beaten by her husband is filmed in an almost sadistic manner, drawn out and graphic.”
While I don’t know how true to history it is, I found it unnecessary that a few of the women fell in love with the men training them… as if they couldn’t do something brave without the love and support of a man.
What’s ironic and worse is that Marat Basharov, the actor who plays a minister of the Provisional Government (Alexander Kerensky), was accused of domestic violence in 2014 and has since become a symbol of anti-feminism and patriarchy in Russia.
Is the film historically accurate?
Before the film’s release, a representative from the Russian Military Historical Society announced that the body had been consulted on Battalion‘s story and that no “bad patriotism” was found in the film’s script. “We want films to be based on historical fact,” he remarked. “[Russia] has a 1000-year old history and we must depict it all.”
Vladimir Medinsky, the Minister of Culture, went on to compliment the film for being “completely true to history.”
Wikipedia somewhat contradicts those claims, noting that reinforcements for the women never arrived, but the film clearly ends with male soldiers rushing the Germans when it seems all hope had been lost for the female troops.
Which source can be trusted?
So, what do I think?
I liked Battallion, despite any flaws it may have. The cinematography was interesting, the colors were done in a manner akin to the film Atonement, and the story was one of bravery and heroism.
Maybe the film had some cliche war-movie moments and maybe it was funded by the Russian government and released as propaganda. But does that really matter?
Perhaps the women were sometimes shown to be weak, but for me it didn’t detract from the overall message of the film. The women soldiers did what the men didn’t want to do anymore-they continued the fight for their country. Yes, the territory the women gained was lost but not as a result of cowardice on their part. Although the men are shown to be rescuing the women at the end, it didn’t really give the complete impression that these events marked a turning point for the war.
I agree with Meskhiev–just because this particular war story didn’t necessarily have a happy ending, doesn’t mean that the women shouldn’t have been honored for their bravery in cinematic splendor.