Everybody loves a good war movie or TV show, and every nation in the world has wars in its history to draw upon, some controversial and others unifying. For Russians, the controversial wars include the Civil War and the “socialist internationalism” intervention in Afghanistan; the non-controversial ones include the Napoleonic Wars and what Russians know as the Great Patriotic War and we call World War II. In recent years, there’s been a flowering of creativity in the Russian motion picture and TV arts (which have always been strong, even under the dead hand of Communism). This has produced some interesting and rare (in the Anglosphere) war films.
Because the TV shows aren’t available with English subtitles, you need to know at least some Russian (which would fairly describe our lack of mastery of the language of Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn: “some Russian”). Hence, this is a capsule rather than an in-depth review.
Narkomovskiy Oboz — “The Narkomovsky Delivery” — was a 2011 TV drama miniseries set in 1941. It begins with a zoom through a rainy window into a solitary worker at a desk: Josef Stalin. Stalin is reviewing a decree about the necessity of, and high priority for, a delivery of vodka to the boys at the front. Stalin signs the order with a flourish, and the mission is set in motion. The order is disseminated by teletype.
Casks of superior Narkomovsky vodka are loaded onto horse-carts and entrusted to a strange military unit for delivery: one tough senior sergeant (starshina) Filippov, played by Sergei Makhovikov; four Red Army women soldiers (of varying levels of martial skill and ardor), and a horse-cart driving old man and his grandson. They also have an woman doctor, shaken by the death of her doctor father in a Nazi air raid, and bound for a frontline field hospital.
They encounter streams of refugees, strafing Stukas, a corrupt KGB guy who wants to commandeer their carts so he can get on with the business of shooting suspected deserters, a political officer who’s conveying those deserters to their final destination, peasants who want to steal the vodka, and German forward reconnaissance patrols. And that’s just in the first episode. Later they’ll shoot it out with Germans and with Russian bandits, meet more refugees, and because it’s Russia, everybody endures lots of suffering.
While the autumn of 1941 is a bit early for the PPSh the lead actor carries, the other weapons and equipment seem correct, and the uniforms at least plausible. The other arms include lots of Mosin-Nagants, including rifles and M38 carbines (no M44s), and Nagant revolvers and TT-33s. The TTs are more likely to turn up in the hands of political officers than combat soldiers.
The “Germans” have MG34s on their motorbikes, but the bikes are Russian ones… not that big a deal, as the Russian motorcycle is a copy of a wartime BMW. Other Germans have Mauser K98ks and MP38s and 40s, and they speak German to one another. (Where it’s needed for exposition, the Germans get Russian-language subtitles; where they’re in contact with Russian elements, which is shown mostly from a Russian POV, they are not subtitled — a subtle and effective decision by the producers and director). That they made a real effort for accuracy shows in details like the rare camo uniforms of two reconnaissance soldiers who show up in the third episode, accurate Russian Ford trucks and Russian cars, and a period AT gun (which appears to be a Russian 45mm, a Krupp unit built under license, mocked up with solid wheels to look like a German Krupp 37mm).
Make sure you catch the Bolo Mauser 1896 in the hands of one particularly bloodless Red officer in a chilling flashback.
The weapons sounds are fairly accurate, to include the fast rate of fire of the Russian submachine guns, and the even faster ROF of the German MGs. Also, the weapons tend to have the right amount of wear on them, unusual in a movie — the guys you’d expect to have used their firearms little have shiny, new-looking firearms, and the grunts have worn ones. Of course, there has to be some horrid Hollywood inaccuracy, and it comes when our hero takes out a German — with a thrown knife. Not just any knife — a thrown Mauser bayonet. You can throw Mauser bayonets from now to the recreation of the Soviet Union, and you’re not going to kill anybody with one. Unless you’re an actor!
Twice they use a flashback to bring you backstory on a character, and both times it’s very effective in explaining otherwise inexplicable character actions.
The actors are unknown to us, but apparently they include some big names in Russia, and they’re all very competent. The women soldiers are dressed in the shapeless uniforms of wartime Russian women soldiers, not like the Hollywood version, or Lara Croft or something. (Lack of make-up doesn’t stop a couple of them from being noticeably pretty, and just like real life, they get prettier the longer you’re exposed to them). The women are not Amazon warriors, but they’re not afraid to fight for their country and their friends, even if they’re at a disadvantage. That makes them very believable, even as the idea that all these adventures befall one small element seems far-fetched.
Some things that may help you: Russian military ranks and courtesies are much like other nations’, but they don’t stand on formalities. In the service uniforms worn by some of the Russians, the collar tab color (and hat band color) denotes branch. Blue is intelligence organs, Red is political officers (who get treated with notable contempt), green is infantry.
One of the best things about this, to us, was that the bad guys were always human and understandable. Nobody was a mustache-twirling Bond villain, not even the most repulsive of the Germans, or the craven political officer. (Indeed, his character weakness is a foil for the contrast of his behavior in the last act, and before that, for comparison with the selfless sacrifice of another politruk.
Maybe if our Russian was good, we’d hate this. Maybe Russian historians laugh at it. We found it entertaining — four episodes, about 50 minutes each. We thought it would make a heck of a 90 minute to 2 hour movie, if edited mercilessly and dubbed into English. If you can’t follow the story, at least you can enjoy the guns on the screen.
Episode 1: (Remember, these are all in Russian language, no subtitles). From the creation of the mission to imminent contact with Germans.
Episode 2: The first encounter with niemtsy — Germans. The first casualties. The mission continues.
Episode 3: Among other adventures, a showdown with ruthless armed robbers.
Episode 4: the pretty tough-to-take climax comes quite a bit before the end. But in the end, the mission is complete.
We enjoyed watching this previously unknown-to-us miniseries. We fear the limitations of language will keep many of you from enjoying it as we did, but we put it out there for those of you that are still interested.