This list contains the top 25 Russian war films of all time. Many of them are not well known to global audiences, but they are all more than deserving of your attention! In many places heavy and heartrending, these movies show each in their own way the harsh realities of wartime, covering conflicts throughout the centuries. As you might expect, though, the majority of them focus on WWII – or as it is called in Russian, “The Great Patriotic War.”
Throughout the list, you’ll find links to Russian Film Hub pages or elsewhere where you can watch these special films. Enjoy!
After having won WWII, the Soviet Union wanted to see itself as a triumphant victor, and not an abused victim. Therefore, the main theme of war movies in Soviet cinema became the heroic opposition to Nazism, and not the death of countless helpless people at the hands of the ruthless German invaders. Elem Klimov’s Come and See completely inverts this formula, demonstrating the terrible massacres of SS soldiers and their collaborators over the inhabitants of a Belarusian village. The script of this horrifying film was co-written by Klimov, who escaped the Battle of Stalingrad as a boy, and Ales Adamovich, who himself served as a partisan fighter in Belarus during WWII. This harrowing film is essential, but difficult viewing.
Klavdia Vavilova, a Red Army commissar during the Russian Civil War, feels well adjusted to her hard-going military life and proves herself to be a ruthless commander. However, when she finds out she is pregnant, it becomes clear that it is impossible to continue on as normal. She soon has to decide between her commitment to a Bolshevik soldier’s life and allowing herself to be a happy mother to a cared for child. Her eventual decision, the movie clearly says, is a waste. As such, it calls into question the classic Soviet hero myth of the Civil War.
The Cranes are Flying is the only Russian or Soviet movie to have ever won the prestigious Palme d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. The almost flawless and innovative cinematography of director, Mikhail Kalatozov’s psychological drama did not just show the world the highest class of directing, it also turned out to be one of the key films of the Khrushchev “thaw,” when authorities loosed censorship on many previously hushed topics. The main theme of the Cranes is the emotional heartbreak of a young couple separated by the onslaught of WWII. The main character, Veronika, endures a devastating journey that rarely leaves viewers not crying by the end of the film.
Sergei Eisenstein’s legendary drama, Alexander Nevsky, was released in 1938, when the threat of war with Nazi Germany hung over the Soviet Union. And the theme was not chosen by chance – the knights of the Teutonic Order were directly associated by Soviet audiences with the troops of the Third Reich. In the film, after the Teutons capture the city of Pskov, a Russian council convenes in Novgorod to fight back. Prince Alexander of Pereyaslavl (later Alexander Nevsky) becomes the Russian people’s commander-in-chief and epically defeats the Teutonic forces in the memorable Battle on the Ice.
Famed Russian director, Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought for Their Country is a heroic tale of Red Army soldiers who defend the approaches to Stalingrad while countless Soviet soldiers and civilians retreat under German pressure. The film is a screen adaptation of Mikhail Sholokhov’s heavy, but no less exciting novel. Fans of Soviet cinema appreciate the film’s star-studded cast that includes Vasiliy Shukshin, Vyacheslav Tikhonov, Yuriy Nikulin, Georgi Burkov, Nonna Mordyukova, and Innokentiy Smoktunovskiy.
So, Seventeen Moments of Spring is a television series and not a film, but this list would simply not be complete without including this historic phenomenon of Soviet mass culture. When it first aired on television, it ran for 12 consecutive nights in the summer of 1973. Each episode, between 50-80 million Soviet viewers tuned in to this WWII drama about an undercover Soviet spy, Stierlitz, serving behind enemy lines. The legend of the show continues to this day, as many Russians associate Vladimir Putin with this celebrated Stierlitz character.
There are few such powerful debuts in the history of cinema as director, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. This film about a 12-year-old boy who, after the death of his mother, became a front-line intelligence officer, strikes the viewer right in the heart. This is a tense war drama, and a requiem for a kidnapped childhood. The hero, Ivan, is a premature man who only in his dreams can live the life of a 12-year-old boy. Ivan’s Childhood was awarded the Golden Lion, the main prize at the Venice Film Festival – a spectacular achievement for a director who would soon become one of the all-time greats.
To be perfectly honest, if only artistic criteria were taken into account, Only Old Men Are Going to Battle would probably not have climbed so high in this list. However, when it comes to audience’s enduring love for certain films, this one comes out top. In fact, Only Old Men Are Going to Battle ranks as the highest rated Russian or Soviet film of all time on KinoPoisk, the Russian IMDb. This story about Soviet fighter pilots, brave and cheerful, is deeply human. A sincere and beloved film, it is also filled with some wonderful, memorable music.
The Ascent is a masterpiece by Ukrainian director, Larisa Shepitko, who tragically died soon after creating this, her magnum opus. Who knows what other cinematic gems she might have gone on to produce? Her film tells the story of two Belarusian partisans who fall into the hands of the Germans. While one of them endures excruciating torture and dies a hero, the other betrays his comrades and agrees to help the Germans. This moving work became the first Soviet film to win the Golden Bear, the highest award at the Berlin Film Festival. It also no doubt inspired Elem Klimov, Shepitko’s widower, to make Come and See.
Having met during the Russian Civil War, two young officers, Yumatov and Lanovoy became lifelong friends. For many years and throughout various conflict, fate did not tire of bringing their paths together. The film was a feel-good blockbuster that celebrated the military vocation. Most famously, it popularized the well-known and much loved phrase, “There is such a profession – to defend the Motherland.”
The Dawns Here Are Quiet tells the story of five young female anti-aircraft gunners led by the moody Vaskov. The action takes place in 1942 on the Soviet-Finnish front. After one of the young women discovers two German paratroopers in the forest, Vaskov and his squad set out to neutralize the threat. However, completing the task will require superhuman effort and great sacrifices. As was the case of the Eastern Front in general and as highlighted in this film, many countless Soviet women served heroically in WWII.
Sergei Bondarchuk’s directorial debut, The Fate of a Man, tells the sad story of a soldier who survived the trials and tribulations of WWII, only to lose his entire family during the war. The film does end on a touching and life-affirming note, though, as the main character – played by the director himself – adopts a young boy who also lost his family during the war.
“He could have become a wonderful citizen. He could have built or decorated the land with gardens. But he was and will forever remain in our memory as a soldier. A Russian soldier. ”- these words conclude this brilliant picture by director, Grigory Chukhrai. The film begins with the front-line feats of the protagonist, Alyosha Skvortsov, but then quickly proceeds to show his peaceful life away from battle. He takes a brief period of leave to go see his mother, but along the way gets waylaid with a series of travelers and acquaintances. Through his journey, it’s clear Alyosha was a really wonderful guy who would have continued to be a joy to all who knew him – if only he had survived the war.
A fictional story based on the novel by Dmitry Furmanov and the recollections of eyewitnesses, Chapaev is an early Soviet film about the Russian Civil War that is rightfully considered a classic of world cinema. The character, Chapaev, is a legendary captain fighting in the Red Army against the White Russian forces loyal to the Russian Empire. A poorly educated man, he may not have book smarts, but shines with his virtues of honesty, courage and generosity. Many memorable Chapaev quotations have left him a practically canonized figure in Soviet cultural history. The film was a marvel for its time and brilliantly conveys the spirit of the times and the early Soviet people’s faith in their emerging country.
War and Peace is a grand, large-scale adaptation of the famous novel by Leo Tolstoy. The film’s director, Sergei Bondarchuk, and his team spent about six years shooting this epic film film – the same length of time that Tolstoy spent writing the novel. The film is one of the most expensive to produce in the history of world cinema. General estimates suggest over half a billion dollars in today’s terms was spent on production. And it certainly looks it! Impressive scenes featuring Russia’s wealthiest noble families as well as enormous battle sequences make this an extraordinary film like no other. It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film as well as the main prize at the Moscow International Film Festival.
Moscow Strikes Back is a historically important documentary and is still the only Russian-language winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film’s Russian title translates to “The defeat of German troops near Moscow” and, true to its name, it depicts the all-important Battle of Moscow that raged between the Germans and the Soviets between October 1941 – January 1942. This film chronicled the battle through 15 filmmakers who served right there on the front lines. It is truly a fascinating historical document.
Mikhail Romm’s film, Triumph Over Violence (also known as Ordinary Fascism), is a special documentary in which this important director attempted to understand the origins of fascism. To this day, the film is one of the most powerful anti-war and anti-fascist Soviet movies. It reflects on the nature and formation of fascism, and on the reasons why it could have taken hold in Germany. The film uses extensive material from German archives captured by Soviet forces, including footage shot by Hitler’s personal photographer.
It’s the summer of 1943 and heavy, protracted battles exhaust both sides on the Eastern Front. The more confidently Soviet troops attack, the more often a huge, invulnerable German tank, the “White Tiger” appears on the battlefield. After one battle, an almost completely burned boy is found in a wrecked Soviet tank. He miraculously recovers and has an almost supernatural ability to understand tanks. With his expertise, the Soviet command decides to create a special tank to fight the “White Tiger.”
Junior Lieutenant Maleshkin has just graduated from military college and is headed to deployment in Right-Bank Ukraine, where heavy fighting is taking place. He immediately faces a number of challenges in his new command, where all his subordinates are older and more experienced than him. Again and again, Maleshkin can’t get it together and comes off as ridiculous and inept. Hopefully a spin of Lady Fortuna’s wheel will cast him towards heroism and his subordinates’ favor.
Brest Fortress, also known as Fortress of War, is a recent Belarussian production that commemorates one of the most famous early acts of heroism on the Eastern Front. On June 21st, the Red Army soldiers at the Brest Fortress live an ordinary garrison life. However, the next morning German planes appear in the sky and a full-on German assault of the garrison begins. Superior numbers and the element of surprise give the German aggressors the advantage, but the Soviet soldiers are able to hold out the fortress until August. Based on the true course of the war, the defenders at Brest were able to, at least for a short time, serve as a serious obstacle and roadblock for the enemy.
Panfilov’s 28 Men is based on the Soviet legend about a group of 28 Red Army soldiers who heroically hold back a column of 54 Nazi Panzer tanks. This event – whether you believe it happened or not – is supposed to have occurred during the 1941 Battle of Moscow. There are lot of famous, great Soviet movies about WWII, but there haven’t been too many recent Russian ones. As such, Panfilov’s 28 Men gives an interesting insight into how contemporary Russians view the events of the war. And does the mythical nature of the showdown really matter, given we know you could find the sort of heroism and bravery depicted in the film in spades on the Eastern Front?
Twenty Days Without War is a wonderful war drama from the great director Alexei German. It’s the end of 1942 and WWII is in full swing. A front-line journalist named Lopatin, after experiencing all the horrors of Stalingrad, gets a twenty-day vacation in which he goes to Tashkent. However, stunned by his experiences in Stalingrad, Lopatin struggles to adapt to civilian life. All around him everything seems strange and miserable: an endless stream of dismal reports from the Information Bureau, food rationing, funerals constantly announced, and also a theater that oddly enough continues to give regular performances. All the same, Lopatin manages to slowly thrive: he helps shoot a film, celebrates the New Year, and even falls in love.
Enemies is a very different film to depict WWII than most Russian and Soviet war movies. Set in occupied Belarus, it initially depicts a regiment of German soldiers who are able to establish common ground with the small village they’re staying in. However, this fragile peace cannot last long. The realities of the war gradually begin to draw on the two sides. The main character, Natalia, faces terrible choices after her son is arrested for trying to blow up the railway, while she herself is in a relationship with the German commandant in charge.
Liberation is a five-part documentary epic that chronicles the Eastern Front of WWII from 1941-1945. The films cover such events as the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, as well as the crossing of the Dnieper, the liberation of Belarus, and the capture of the Reichstag. The series combines depictions of real-life leaders like Stalin, Zhukov, and Hitler, and also characters whose journeys on the front reveal the collective fates of the WWII generation. Western viewers will liken this dramatic documentary series with the British World at War series.
Director, Alexei German, has since the dissolution of the Soviet Union established a reputation for himself as a must-see art house director. Trial on the Road, though, is his military cinematic masterpiece. It tells the story of a former prisoner of war, who previously voluntarily sided with the Germans, and now is trying to atone for his guilt fighting in a partisan detachment. The film was banned immediately after its creation for deheroizing the popular resistance to the enemy. Today, though, we can view this special work as a wonderful, deeply psychological production on a slippery topic.