HBO Max’s selection of Russian movies and shows is great to explore, especially if you’re interested in classic film and art house cinema. In recent years, the streaming service has made an effort to add more Russian content – skewing towards Soviet masterpieces of world cinema.
As of March 2023, here are the top ten Russian movies and TV shows available for streaming on HBO Max. And to further explore Russian film and TV, please also check out Russian Film Hub – the internet’s definitive encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet cinema.
The Battleship Potemkin is a powerful and innovative silent film directed by famed director, Sergei Eisenstein. It tells the story of the 1905 mutiny of the crew of the Imperial Russian battleship “Potemkin” – an event often labeled the First Russian Revolution.
Sailors of the Potemkin rebel against the inhumane treatment they receive from their superiors, and seize the battleship. They sail to Odessa, where the people of the city come out en masse to show their support for the mutineers. However, soon enough loyal Tsarist forces intervene and massacre civilians in a bloody, iconic confrontation during the famous Odessa Steps sequence. The striking, charged way in which this massacre is portrayed is one of the reasons many capitalist governments around the world banned this film – fearing its ability to fan the flames of populist, communist-leaning revolt. At the same time, to this days cinematographers and directors from Hollywood and around the world mimic this sequence to great effect.
The Cranes Are Flying is a breathtakingly moving Soviet film that follows the story of Veronica, a young Russian woman, as her life is torn apart by WWII. This masterpiece of cinema begins with a gorgeous opening sequence in which Veronica frolics around early morning Moscow with her fiancé, Boris. The couple are deeply in love and appear to have a wonderful life together. However, their happiness is interrupted by the German invasion of the USSR. Boris volunteers to serve his country and departs for the front.
While Boris soon dies in combat, Veronica is left not discovering his fate for the entire rest of the war. The film explores how Veronica is left to cope with loss, grief, and uncertainty – ultimately showing her heartbreaking journey as one of resilience and survival, despite the tragedies she endures.
Stalker is a spellbinding film by renowned director, Andrei Tarkovsky. The plot is based on the novel, Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. Set in a dystopian future, the film follows a guide known as the “Stalker,” who leads a writer and a scientist through a forbidden area full of deadly traps and mutants, known as the “Zone,” in search of a room that grants one’s innermost desires.
As the group journeys deeper into the Zone, they encounter numerous obstacles, both physical and psychological – masterfully representing the soul and its path toward self-discovery and enlightenment amid a world of chaos and uncertainty. And, as is typical and iconic of Tarkovsky’s signature style, Stalker is full of stunning cinematography, long, contemplative camera takes, and a meditative, taxing pace.
Solaris is another brilliant sci-fi film by Andrei Tarkovsky. This one is based on the eponymous novel by Stanislaw Lem, and explores the nature of human consciousness and its relationship with the unknown.
The film follows Kris Kelvin, a psychologist who is sent to a space station orbiting the planet Solaris, where a team of scientists have been studying the planet’s ocean. The ocean has been found to possess unusual properties, including the ability to manifest physical copies of the crew’s memories and fears. Upon arrival, Kelvin discovers that the crew is growing insane, and he himself also soon starts experiencing his own hallucinations. Amid poetic imagery and a dreamlike atmosphere, the lines between reality and illusion blur.
Ivan the Terrible: Part I is a historical drama directed by Sergei Eisenstein (of Battleship Potemkin fame). The film tells the story of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who ruled Russia in the mid to late 16th century. This remarkable masterpiece blends the visual brilliance and signature montage of Eisenstein with a powerful, haunting score from renowned composer, Sergei Prokofiev.
The film begins with Ivan’s coronation and early reign, during which he consolidates his power and begins to implement reforms to modernize Russia. However, Ivan is opposed by powerful boyars (noblemen) who seek to retain their own power and influence. As Ivan’s power grows, he becomes increasingly paranoid and ruthless, and begins to eliminate his enemies, both real and perceived. The film portrays Ivan as a complex figure, torn between his desire for power and his sense of duty to his people.
Ivan the Terrible: Part II is the second part of Sergei Eisenstein’s planned trilogy about the life of Tsar Ivan the Terrible. The film picks up where the first part left off, as Ivan consolidates his power, begins to implement his reforms, and grows increasingly paranoid and isolated amid his conflict with the nobility and the church. The film portrays Ivan as a tragic figure, torn between his desire for power and his sense of duty to his people. As Ivan’s power grows, he becomes increasingly ruthless and paranoid, leading to the death of his wife and his closest adviser.
Unfortunately, Eisenstein died before he could complete the final part of the trilogy.
War and Peace is a 1966 Soviet historical epic of vast, sweeping scope directed by Sergei Bondarchuk. The film is of course based on Leo Tolstoy’s novel of the same name, and it tells a larger than life story of love and life during the Napoleonic Wars. War and Peace was a standout success, earning significant praise from all over the world, including as an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.
This first film in the four-part War and Peace film series introduces the main characters: Pierre Bezukhov, a wealthy young man searching for meaning; Andrei Bolkonsky, a soldier disillusioned with the horrors of war; and Natasha Rostova, a beautiful young woman torn between love and duty. As the war between Napoleonic France and Imperial Russia begins, the lives of these characters become intertwined in complex and unexpected ways.
War and Peace Film 2: Natasha Rostova is the second part of the War and Peace film series and focuses on the life of Natasha Rostova, a young and spirited woman coming of age during the tumultuous events of the Napoleonic Wars. The film is a poignant and powerful exploration of love, loss, and the human condition during a time of great historical significance.
As the war approaches, Natasha’s life begins to change. She falls in love with the dashing young soldier Andrei Bolkonsky, but their relationship is put to the test when he is called away to fight. At the same time, Natasha finds herself pursued by the charming and charismatic Anatole Kuragin. Despite her reservations, she is swept up in his advances and the promise of a glamorous life in Moscow. However, her actions have consequences, and she soon finds herself struggling to maintain her reputation and relationships amidst the political and social upheaval of the war.
War and Peace Film 3: The Year 1812 is the third part of the War and Peace film series, focusing on the pivotal year of 1812, when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia and was then forced to retreat.
The film follows the continuing struggles of the main characters, including the idealistic and passionate Pierre Bezukhov, the disillusioned and war-weary Andrei Bolkonsky, and the strong-willed and independent Natasha Rostova. As the war intensifies, they each find themselves facing new challenges and changes in their lives.
War and Peace Film 4: Pierre Bezukhov is the fourth and final part of the War and Peace film series. The plot and resolution of the story focuses on Pierre Bezukhov, a wealthy and idealistic young man, as he tries to find his place in the world amidst the tumultuous events of the Napoleonic Wars.
After being held as a prisoner of war, Pierre returns to Moscow and discovers that his father has died, leaving him a vast fortune and noble title. However, Pierre is not content with simply being a wealthy aristocrat. He wants to use his resources and influence to make a positive difference in the world. He also has amorous urges, and becomes embroiled in a complicated love triangle involving his friend Andrei’s estranged wife, Natasha.