Discover Ukraine Through Film – Soviet Ukraine
6 May, 2020
"Discover Ukraine Through Film" is a project by journalist Lee Reaney teaching Ukrainian history through cinematography.

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.

As we look through the history of Soviet Ukraine, we’ll get to know Ukraine’s two most famous directors – Oleksandr Dovzhenko and Serhiy Paradzhanov – and discover what made them so revered.  We’ll also look at some of the most harrowing events in Ukraine’s entire history – from the horrors of the Holodomor to the struggles of Soviet dissidents to the catastrophe at Chernobyl. You know what they say – you have to know the past to truly understand the present.

Soviet Ukraine (1922 – 1991 CE)

Earth (Zemlya) (1930)

One of the greatest films to come out of the Soviet Union is Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s pièce de résistance, "Earth" (Zemlya). The socialist-realist film about the Soviet policy of collectivisation by Ukraine’s preeminent director has regularly been cited as one of the best films of all-time, most recently by UNESCO, while alongside Sergei Eisenstein ("Battleship Potemkin"), Dovzhenko is considered the USSR’s finest director. Originally commissioned to champion the collectivisation process, where Ukrainian landowning farmers were stripped of their lands and forced to send food to the cities, the film is instead a love letter to nature, with sweeping shots of the Ukrainian countryside, an epic montage of the breadmaking process, and plenty of vibrant Ukrainian traditions. While the film was almost universally well-received, it wasn’t quite up to snuff for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, and Dovzhenko was forced out of his position teaching at the Kyiv Film Institute. Shortly after Dovzhenko's death in 1956, Ukraine named its national film studio after the director, which went on to produce many of the country’s biggest films, including "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors", which we feature next, and "A Prayer for Hetman Mazepa", directed by "Earth" cinematographer Yuri Ilyenko (featured in Episode 2 of the project).

Where to watch:

Can I watch in English: It is a silent movie, but English subtitles are provided for all script

Trailer: No trailer

Learn More: Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, 1 Vasylkivska St., Kyiv

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964)

If Dovzhenko is Ukraine’s most important filmmaker, then his student Serhiy Paradzhanov would likely be No. 2. His "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" could be Ukraine’s second-biggest international export and marked a major break from the mandated socialist-realist style of the USSR. This led him to be blacklisted and jailed several times in his career, where he became a popular cause célèbre among filmmakers worldwide – the Oleg Sentsov of the late 1970s. Set in the Ukrainian Carpathians, the film tells the story of doomed love between children of feuding families, earning it the label “Romeo & Juliet of the Carpathians”. If you’re looking for authentic Ukrainian customs, unique Hutsul folk rituals, and wild depictions of traditional sorcery, this is the movie for you! Filmed in the Hutsul dialect of Ukrainian, the movie is notable for being one of the few in the USSR to be released in its original language. "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" was filmed in an in-your-face, fasten-your-seatbelt style thanks in part to a young Yuri Ilyenko, the then-cinematographer that would continue the tradition with his own "A Prayer for Ivan Mazepa" some 40 years later. Wildly popular on the 1964 film circuit, the film still holds at 100% rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

Where to watch: On YouTube for free –

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


Learn More: Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Film Studio, 44 Peremohy Ave., Kyiv

Mr. Jones (Tsina Pravdy) (2019)

Continuing along Ukraine’s harrowing path under communist rule, we next look at "Mr. Jones" (Tsina Pravdy), which tells the story of the horrors of the Holodomor through the bespectacled eyes of the man who introduced the horrific event to the West – Gareth Jones. The Holodomor, for the uninitiated, was a man-made starvation that gruesomely claimed the lives of 4-7 million Ukrainians (according to different sources) in just two years. Thanks to Stalin’s policy of ‘collectivisation’ (ably outlined in Dovzhenko’s "Earth"), peasants were disincentivized from working their fields properly. First, if they were paid, it was FAR below market value. Second, due to poor harvest conditions in 1932-33, there just wasn’t enough food to go around. So, the Soviet government brutally stole the food from Ukrainian farmers to feed the starving cities. Ukrainians found to have “stolen” so much as a handful of their own seeds could be sent to prison for 10 years or even killed! This was not well-known in the West until Jones snuck away from Moscow to see for himself firsthand. And when he let the world know what he saw, many did not believe him – thanks primarily to the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize for parroting the Soviet line. In an age where disinformation is once again a buzzword, Mr. Jones reminds us that the problem is nothing new, while admirably telling the story of one of the greatest foreign friends Ukraine has ever known.

Where to watch: On Amazon Prime from 34 hryvnias  

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn More: National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide, 3 Lavrska St., Kyiv

Forbidden (Zaboronenyi) (2019)

It can be difficult to make a movie about legends – especially when there are still many people around that knew them personally. Just ask the producers of "Forbidden", Ukraine’s first attempt at telling the important story of Soviet dissident Vasyl Stus. For Ukrainians, the name "Stus" is as common as Taras Shevchenko or Ivan Franko; students learn the works of the tragic poet at school. For those that don’t know, Stus’ story is that of several Soviet dissidents. He was expelled from university and lost his job after protesting during the premiere of Paradzhanov’s classic "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" (see above). He then was sent to prison for five years, exiled for another two, and sentenced again in 1980 after his return. He died of a hunger strike in 1985 at age 47 after being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The 1980 trial, in which he was sentenced again and sent to notorious Soviet gulag Perm-36, became something of a sensation when portrayed in the film. Turns out that well-known Ukrainian politician (and godfather to Vladimir Putin’s daughter Darina) Viktor Medvechuk, who was Stus’ lawyer at the trial, wasn’t pleased with his portrayal in the film. After threatening a lawsuit, his name was eventually dropped (although the scene remains intact), but the ensuing press storm ensured that "Forbidden" became one of 2019’s cinematic curiosities. There are plenty of critics of the quality of the film, but virtually no one argues of its importance of introducing a crucial dissident figure to an entirely new generation of filmgoers.

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

Can I watch in English: Not yet, but as producers hope to use the film as a teaching lesson, a translation is expected soon


Learn More: Ukrainian Sixtiers Dissident Movement Museum, 33A Olesia Honchara St., Kyiv

Chernobyl (2019)

Sometimes a story is just told properly. When HBO debuted its impeccable "Chernobyl" miniseries last year – some 33 years after the event – many Ukrainians questioned why it took a foreign company to tell the national tragedy of Chernobyl so capably. If you haven’t seen it, "Chernobyl" is the definition of must-watch TV. The five-part series is one of the highest-rated programmes of all time and was nominated for 19 Emmys, winning for Outstanding Limited Series, Outstanding Directing, and Outstanding Writing. More than just a retelling of the events of that terrible tragedy, HBO’s "Chernobyl" looks at the role the Soviet system played in the tragedy, how individuals risked their lives to save others, and the impact on Ukrainian families. Virtually guaranteed to impress viewers of all tastes and backgrounds, if you haven’t seen it yet – "Chernobyl" should be on the top of your viewing list.

Where to watch: On Hulu with free trial (for new subscribers)

Can I watch in English: Yes


Learn More: Ukrainian National Chornobyl Museum, 1 Khoryva Lane, Kyiv

/By Lee Reaney