Yet another patriotic war movie has taken Russia by storm.
T-34, a high-octane tribute to the Soviet tank that played a key role on the Eastern Front of World War II, is the latest in a series of big-budget history flicks sponsored by the Culture Ministry and lavished with round-the-clock coverage on Russian state TV.
Spanning the years 1941-45, the film tells the story of Red Army Lieutenant Nikolai Ivushkin's unlikely attempt to escape a German prisoner-of-war camp in a T-34 tank that he and three other men are tasked with repairing by their Nazi overseers. The fugitives are cornered in a German village near the Czechoslovak border, where an epic tank battle culminates the movie.
The slow-motion projectiles and video-game graphics give the movie a modern feel, and its simple storyline is thin on nuance. According to director Aleksei Sidorov, the aim of the film was to "tell the story of war in a way that appeals to the youth but doesn't prove controversial among those who still keep the Great Patriotic War [World War II] in their memory," the Culture Ministry quoted him as saying in a press release.
This time, a formula used in dozens of similar films appears to have finally struck gold. T-34 is the third Russian film devoted to World War II-era tanks since 2012 — but unlike its predecessors, 2012's White Tiger and 2018's Tanks, it's proving a major hit with Russian audiences.
Since its nationwide release on Jan. 1, 2019, the movie has raked in more than a billion rubles, securing the top spot at the Russian box office. More than 4 million theatergoers have seen the film so far, according to stats from the Russian Cinema Fund.
Powerful backing played a role. The producer of T-34 is Len Blavatnik, a Ukrainian-born billionaire businessman with Kremlin ties. "For me, T-34 is more than a perfectly conceived adventure flick," Blavatnik told reporters at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017, where the film's budget was estimated at 600 million rubles (currently $9 million). "My grandfather was a World War II veteran, and that great victory is part of our family lore."
The war cost the lives of more than 26 million Soviet civilians and military personnel, and is held up as a point of national pride. The memory of the heroic Soviet campaign to oust the German invaders has often been used as fodder in propaganda, a fact noted by film critic Anton Dolin. But in a review for the independent news site Meduza, Dolin argues that T-34 avoids the primitive methods on display in other war movies sponsored by the Russian government.
"I thank the authors for creating a high-budget war blockbuster almost clear of propagandistic and ideological motives," Dolin writes. "Even the word 'Stalin' is mentioned here only once, and in a facetious context. That's a rarity in our times."
But T-34 is not completely free of references to contemporary geopolitics, it seems. In the tank battle that opens the movie, a cowardly Ukrainian soldier who gets mouthy with Ivushkin dies, while the tough Belarusian who obeys the lieutenant's orders remains by the Russian's side till the happy ending.
The film Tanks, which was released in 2018 and directed by Kim Druzhinin, can be seen as a prequel of sorts to T-34. It tells the story of two T-34 prototypes making their way from Kharkov to Moscow as the Nazi leadership looks for ways to destroy them and preempt the havoc they would soon wreak. The first audience for Tanks, according to Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was servicemen at the Russian-run Khmeimim air base in Syria.
But while Tanks was widely panned by critics and proved a flop at the box office, T-34 has rolled over its competition. Perhaps it's the lazy January holidays that bring Russians en masse before the screens.
"What could be merrier," Dolin writes, than "crushing the fascist toad, and then chasing the victory down with mandarins and champagne?"
This article originally appeared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Follow @RFERL on Twitter.