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How is Sokurov rejecting Soviet Film or History?

Module: Screening Europe
Module Coordinator: Dr Emma Austin
Academic Year 1 (2020/2021)

This is the fourth of six blog post essays for the module Screening Europe. I enjoyed writing this and had taken on feedback from previous posts to improve my work. Please note that is an academic video sharing platform and simply including the links in the way I have without an embedded video was accepted.

Alexander Sokurov is known for making ‘slow’ films – a style which is exemplified by Russian Ark (Sokurov, 2002), as it was filmed entirely in one take. Ira Jaffe explains the concept of slow cinema:

[Both Van Sant and Sokurov] create films that encourage the spectator to drift off, yet also to think about and fill in aspects of plot, space, time and character deliberately left unclear by the filmmaker. (2014, p. 46).

There are often moments in Russian Ark where very little is happening on screen, but they are expertly timed to not only allow for the next sequence to be set up, but for the audience to process the information from the previous scene as well as be a spectator of the artwork being featured. The majority of the film features artwork closely related to Catherine II and various Tzars/emperors. However, as the film progresses, it becomes clearer that Soviet History has been largely excluded – Jeremi Szaniawski (2014, p. 168) notes that: “The film, however, obliterates almost entirely the Soviet period”.

One brief key scene which addresses Soviet history is either set up by or followed by a slow scene:

‘Clip from Russian Ark’, Russian Ark, 23:30 19/12/2009, BBC4, 90 mins. 00:47:01-00:49:28.

In this scene we see The Time Traveller explaining to The Stranger how during the war the Germans surrounded Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, and more than a million citizens died, mostly from starvation. The scene is dark and cold – The Stranger’s eagerness to explore is quickly overcome with fear as he notices the artwork is missing and the man in the room is crafting his own coffin. Just as they get into the room, they are hurried out and back into the warmth of the brightly lit and colourful hallways. The Stranger’s attention quickly changes to the Russian Tzars and he compliments their sense of taste for the architecture and artwork.

The impression given is that Sokurov feels that the Siege of Leningrad was too important to exclude from the film, but he wanted to move on quickly having covered it. The colours we see in this scene, which are few, are cold and dark – the colour pallet almost shifts entirely to black and white. This is a representation of the struggles the citizens of Leningrad faced in those times.

Two stills taken from Russian ark at 47:46 and 50:39 respectively – less than three minutes between the two, yet they are complete opposites of each other in tone and colour pallet.

During the Soviet era it was very difficult to publicly criticize the Soviet Union without repercussion, so this scene is directly opposing those standards – Sokurov is critical of and ignores Soviet history, because he can. It is not his primary focus, as we know from his fascination with at. In The Calvert Journal (Gray, 2015) Sokurov stated:

Only a great work of art has the capacity to link the past to the future and the present … Paintings may give us an understanding of who we are as Europeans.

Throughout the many different rooms of artwork we see in the film, there is no Russian or Soviet artwork on display. The Winter Palace was created by the Tzarist regime and hosts European art and culture. Sokurov was able to specifically choose which artwork to highlight in the film and is in a way expressing how the Soviet Russia era is less important to be remembered than the other eras and by including the coffin scene he is stating that the loss of so many civilians during the Siege of Leningrad is too important to be forgotten.


  • Gray, C. (2015). War paint: Francofonia director Alexander Sokurov talks art and power. The Calvert Journal.
  • Jaffe, I. (2014). Slow movies: Countering the cinema of action. ProQuest Ebook.
  • Sokurov, A. (Director). (2002). Russian Ark [Film]. The State Hermitage Museum.
  • Szaniawski, J. (2014). The cinema of Alexander Sokurov: Figures of paradox. ProQuest Ebook.