Discover Ukraine Through Film – Kyivan Rus & Cossack Ukraine
27 April, 2020

Stuck at home and looking for something to watch? Why not use the time to brush up on your Ukrainian history? We’ve compiled the definitive list of 50 films to guide you through 1,000 years of Ukrainian history.

We first look back at Ancient Ukraine – the times of kings and Cossacks, princes and peasants, and above all else – conflict. Discover some of Ukraine’s most important historical figures, including Volodomyr the Great, Ivan Franko, Bohdan Khmelnytskyi, Ivan Mazepa, and even the “Greatest Ukrainian”, Yaroslav the Wise. 

Kyivan Rus Ukraine (882 – 1240 CE)

Yaroslav the Wise (Yaroslav Mudryy) (1981)

We begin our journey to discover Ukraine through film with western Ukrainian director Hryhoryy Kohan’s "Yaroslav the Wise". Featured on the 2 hryvnia bill and coin, Yaroslav was voted the “Greatest Ukrainian” in a 2008 Ukrainian television series. The film rather faithfully depicts the events of the earliest days of Kyivan Rus. Yaroslav’s father – Volodomyr the Great (of the 1 hryvnia bill and coin fame) – had just converted the kingdom to Christianity. In doing so, he abandons many of his wives, including Yaroslav’s mother. A bitter Yaroslav plots his revenge and eventually refuses to pay tribute to his father. After Volodomyr’s death, a bitter sibling feud arises, of which, as you can imagine, Yaroslav ends up winning. Unusual for the time, the Soviet film was directed by a Ukrainian, stars Ukrainian actor Yuri Muravitsky as Yaroslav, and is co-produced by Ukraine’s preeminent film studio – Dovzhenko Studios (which we’ll hear more from later). The epic drama took home the jury award at the Tallinn All-Union Film Festival in 1982.

Where to watch: On Megogo with a 1 hryvnia 1-month trial

Can I watch in English? No, but Ukrainian subtitles are available


Learn more: Grave of Yaroslav the Wise at St. Sophia’s Cathedral, Kyiv

The Rising Hawk (Zakhar Berkut) (2019)

One of the most anticipated films in Ukrainian history when it was released last year, John Wynn and Akhtem Seyitablayev’s ‘The Rising Hawk’ is a big budget, high-octane retelling of Ivan Franko’s seminal ‘Zakhar Berkut’ (The Rising Hawk). Ivan Franko, of course, is one of Ukraine’s most influential writers, which is why you will find him on your 20 hryvnia bill. The joint American-Ukrainian epic action flick tells the story of a local band of Carpathian mountaineers battling the onslaught of the Mongolian ‘Golden Horde’. Starring the likes of ‘Terminator 2’’s Robert Patrick and ‘Braveheart’’s Tommy Flanagan, the film required more than 200 actors, two stunt teams, 600 costumes, and 3,000 historically-accurate pieces, like weapons and jewelry – it is simply the most ambitious film project out there about Kyivan Rus Ukraine. While this tale tells of the heroic nature of Ukrainians defending their homeland, it was the Golden Horde that ended the nearly four-century reign of Kyivan Rus in the 1240s.

Where to watch: At from 79 hryvnias

Can I watch in English? The movie was filmed in English


Learn more: Ivan Franko Literary Memorial Museum, Kryvorivnya, Ivano-Frankvisk region, 591 km west-south of Kyiv

Cossack Ukraine (1492 – 1764 CE)

With Fire & Sword (Ogniem i Mieczem) (1999)

Starring Bond girl Isabella Scorupco ("Goldeneye") and Ukrainian acting legend Bohdan Stupka as Bohdan Khmelnytskyi – one of the most famous Ukrainian Cossacks of all-time (and featured on the 5 hryvnia bill and coin) – the Polish production of "With Fire & Sword" ("Ogniem i Mieczem") views like an Eastern European "Braveheart". The most expensive Polish film ever made when it was released in 1999, it tells the story of the Khmelnytsky Uprising – one of the most significant events in Ukrainian history. The success of Ukrainian Cossacks against the Polish-Lithuanian Empire was a defining moment in the decline of the latter and led to centuries of conflict and mistrust between Ukraine and Poland. Featuring a love triangle between a Polish knight and a Ukrainian Cossack, the film is surprisingly deft at exploring the relationship between the two nations, ending with the poignant words “Hatred poisoned the hearts of two brother nations”.

Where to watch: On YouTube for free

Can I watch in English? Yes


Learn more: Bohdan Khmelnytsky Museum & Residence, Chyhyryn, Cherkasy region, 255 km south-east of Kyiv

Some Things Never Change: Taking years to build something is not only a modern phenomenon in Kyiv. The Bohdan Khmelnytsky Monument in St. Sofia’s Square was delivered to the city in 1879. It took nine years (!) to find the funds to build the pedestal, so it wasn’t opened until 23 June 1888.

A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa (Molytva za Hetmana Mazepu) (2002)

This film is for lovers of true art house cinema, yet despite its epic scope about one of the most controversial characters in Ukrainian history – Hetman Ivan Mazepa, played by the inimitable Bohdan Stupka – can be a bit of a chore to sit through. That said, its importance to Ukrainian cinema is monumental – not only because of the topic, and because it is one of the only post-independence / pre-Orange Revolution films to make our list, but because it is the seminal work of one of the towering figures of Ukrainian cinema – Yuriy Ilyenko. With his work banned under Soviet rule, "A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa" was his only post-independence feature. If you can manage through the disjointed storytelling, in-your-face camera work, and gratuitous sex and violence, you can at least become acquainted with one of Ukraine’s most intriguing historical figures – Hetman Ivan Mazepa. Reviled in Russia and revered in Ukraine for abandoning the Russian Empire for an independence guarantee from the Kingdom of Sweden, his bid for an independent Ukraine was crushed when the Swedes lost the Battle of Poltava in 1709. He was anathematised and publicly cursed in Russian churches for over 150 years after his death. Considered a traitor by the Soviets, Mazepa’s image was rehabilitated post-independence and he was added to the 10 hryvnia bill (and upcoming coin), leading to this popular anecdote in Ukraine: “Do you think the Russian Patriarchate priest will accept a 10 hryvnia donation?”. Found in its entirety on YouTube with English subtitles, this strange, early-independence epic will whet your taste for one of Ukraine’s most important Cossacks.

Where to watch: On YouTube for free

Can I watch in English: In Ukrainian, with English subtitles

Trailer: Not available

Learn More: Ivan Mazepa Museum (currently seasonal exhibition), Mazepa Tower in Pechersk Lavra in Kyiv

Taras Bulba (1962)

The only Oscar-nominated film on this list is the 1962 adaptation of Ukrainian writer Mykola Gogol’s epic Cossack adventure "Taras Bulba". Starring Academy- and Tony Award-winning actor Yul Brynner in the title role and the dashing Tony Curtis (father of Jamie Lee Curtis) as his son Andriy, the film was a big budget ($6 million) historical epic. Set in the 16th Century when Ukrainian Cossacks were defending their villages from Polish-Lithuanian and Turkish Tatar invasions, the film tells the story of the relationship between Bulba and his son, a love story between the younger Bulba and a Polish princess, and betrayal. While taking liberties, the plot follows more closely Gogol’s second, more Russian-friendly version of the story. Ukrainians only became aware of the author’s original, truly Ukrainian version after its release in 2005, some 170 years after it was first published. A true, Hollywood, swashbuckling action-adventure, the film’s score is considered one of the greatest written for the big screen and might have won the Academy Award were it not for the equally impressive arrangement in "Lawrence of Arabia". The film did, however, popularise Gogol’s words known nearly universally to parents around the planet, “I gave you life. It is on me to take it away from you.”

Where to watch: On 

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn More: Zaporizhzhya Sich Historical & Cultural Complex, Khortytsia Island in Zaporizhzhya, 556 km east-south of Kyiv

Taras Shevchenko: The Last Samurai (Autumn 2020)

One of the most fascinating examples of the cultural renaissance occurring in Ukrainian cinema right now is Roman Perfiliev’s highly anticipated "Taras Shevchenko: The Last Samurai". Due to be released sometime after quarantine, this uber chic, million-dollar effort to reinvent one of the country’s most famous citizens – remember, he’s featured on the 100 hryvnia bill – is sure to surprise audiences worldwide. A mash-up of Western and Samurai genres, much like a Ukrainian "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" or "Kung Fu Hustle", the comedy tells an alternate life story of the Ukrainian "Kobzar". Seeing our hero carry pistols and a katana might be jarring, but the film promises to be a modern, patriotic look at Ukraine’s great national poet. Expected to be released in Autumn 2020, the film took top honours at the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture’s Patriotic Cinema competition in 2018.

Where to watch: The film has yet to be released

Can I watch in English: Undetermined


Learn More: Shevchenko National Reserve, Kaniv, Cherkasy region, 139 km south-east of Kyiv

/By Lee Reaney