The Politics of Film:

Captain Volkonogov Escaped and the Art of Resistance

P. Stuart Robinson
Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov's Captain Volkonogov Escaped offers a gripping portrayal of life in Stalin's Soviet Union. This article discusses the film's evocation of an oppressive social structure and its pertinence as a stimulus and means to comprehending and critically appraising authoritarianism in contemporary times. The film pays close attention to micro-level dynamics of intimidation, fear and division, as well as their potential counters of empathy and resistance. It is this kind of social realism, eschewing the superficiality of conventional period ‘costume’ drama, that facilitates speaking truth to power. As such, it illustrates the potential of cinema, as one powerful form of cultural expression, to harness the historical imagination and illuminate the parallels between past and present calamities. It also suggests that resistance of violence and oppression depends on cultural engagement, and hence boycotts are counterproductive. These impede the capacity to build solidarity among the oppressed, both within and outside Russia. Forms of expression like film provide the means of mutual understanding on which such solidarity depends.
Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov, Captain Volkonogov Escaped, Stalin's Soviet Union, authoritarianism, NKVD, politics, micro-level power, cultural engagement, solidarity, resistance, film analysis, and film phenomenology


The Politics of Film

Film in Action

Film Effects






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From the first moment of Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov’s Kapitan Volkonogov bezhal / Captain Volkonogov Escaped (2021, Russia, Estonia, France) we are among them, at work and play, a crack team of serious tough guys, and none tougher than our protagonist. They are Stalin’s assassins. Then, before we can dismiss them as thugs or villains, the action draws us into their own unease, their own vulnerabilities. Indeed, there is barely time to digest the first impression of the trusted captain (Iurii Borisov), this picture-perfect archetypal hunter, pack-leader, honed athlete, alpha male – disciplined, beautiful, at the peak of his powers. For cracks are already appearing in his aura of assured professionalism. It begins on arrival at work as a colleague falls to his death, practically at his feet, from an upstairs window. He starts a little but keeps his cool. A day like any other? Not entirely. The suicide foreshadows the way his own quiet assurance will soon morph into dark desperation. In classic Kafkaesque style, we never learn exactly why Volkonogov himself is suddenly no longer a valued cog in Stalin’s machine, but preparations for an extraordinary audience with superiors are tantamount to an invitation to hell, with full attendant horrors, both known and unknown. Certainly, many are known all too well to this professional interrogator and executioner.

The tense and soon frantic opening sequences of the film represent a powerful exercise in the imaginative ‘sharing’ of human experience, fictionalised as it may be, in this case: having one’s whole world, all one’s customary routines and expectations, abruptly upended. The power of the narrative – as fictional experience – lies ultimately in the purchase it exerts on the human capacity to suspend disbelief, to embrace and even identify personally with the faux reality of the imagined and craftily visualised characters and events. Let us state at the outset that this is no politically neutral exercise; it is a vignette designed to illustrate the murderous logic of a profoundly oppressive social order, the Soviet Union in the thrall of Stalin. The film thus speaks – and eloquently so – about authoritarianism, and not any old variety, but one made in Russia (or its close associate, the Soviet Union), albeit the Russia of nearly a century ago. Given the shackles imposed by its contemporary analogue, the film represents an admirable attempt to ‘speak truth to power’, albeit by the circuitous route of an excursion into the lessons of a distant yet easily recognisable past, the height of Stalin’s purges, what the historian Robert Conquest (1971) dubbed “The Great Terror” in order to invite comparisons with the notorious excesses of the French Revolution.

In times of war the stakes are raised, the enemy looms larger. Old yet freshly troubling questions re-emerge: How to express oneself, how to negotiate new relationships, not only with those poor souls framed in their very innocence by the ravages of war, but also with the now implacable and progressively demonised adversary – the ‘clear and present danger’ – and his many associates? This is the peculiar and yet hardly unusual context in which Merkulova and Chupov’s Captain Volkonogov Escaped happens to find itself. War does not necessarily transform political relationships and attitudes, but it invariably throws them into sharper relief.1 The effect is one of heightening more than transformation. Wars, as “exogenous shocks” to the social order (Ruggie 1993: 155), nevertheless become the crucibles of potential political change. However calamitous, the invasion of Ukraine represents in this regard an opportunity, not only analytically, but politically, not least for any progressive or emancipatory agenda. This is illustrated by the mixed ramifications of war for a film of this kind. On the one hand, it throws its very reception – its communicative viability – into question. Should it become part of a boycott of Russia, given this new confirmation of its already burgeoning pariah status, at least from the perspective of a broadly conceived ‘West’? On the other, war turns its own oppressive spotlight upon the very substance of Captain Volkonogov Escaped, heightening its effect, relevance, and importance. This has been the impetus, among other things, for making the work the focus of the following discussion.

What follows, on one level, is a point about policy, that is, the policy of engagement or disengagement with Russia, as an international pariah, as the purveyor of tyranny at home and, not least, abroad, given the privations of what Michael Walzer (1977: 29-33) so eloquently dubbed the “tyranny of war”. This is a rather simple point, but one employing much more intricate grounds by way of support. Indeed, the grounds for advocating engagement with Russian culture, that is, with Russian artists and writers, are more important than the suggestion itself, in all its specificity. For the grounds entail an argument about the character of political struggle per se and the role played in this regard by aesthetic expression in general and film in particular. In this sense, the pros and cons – and/or appropriate dimensions – of a cultural boycott are to be used to highlight much broader questions about the operation and role of cinema. These are not primarily questions about what film is or how it works, but rather what it does: the marks it leaves on its spectators, its place within, and workings upon, the social fabric.

The film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, back in those simpler, headier, ‘post-Covid’ days, in the autumn of 2021. By the time it had made it – just – to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF), in July, 2022, the “special military operation” (in the dissimulating language of Russian authorities) was well underway and with no apparent end in sight. Festival programmers must have thought long and hard about whether to screen it and then, having elected to do so, they certainly felt obliged to provide a public statement explaining their rationale. Inevitably, Captain Volkonogov Escaped, as a Russian made and publicly funded film, was already deeply embroiled in the turmoil and controversy surrounding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This apparently disrupted or at least complicated what would otherwise likely have been more-or-less routine appearances on the festival circuit. Having premiered to acclaim in Venice, the film becomes, according to custom, a prime candidate for other festivals over the following year. There is little doubt that the February 2022 invasion has impeded its circulation, however.2 It was screened at KVIFF nonetheless, almost a year after its initial release but, in the event, it behoved the festival organisers to provide a rationale and justification – at least partly prompted by collective objections raised by a group of Ukrainian filmmakers.

The festival’s official position was essentially that this Russian film was far from being for Russia or, more precisely, for the oppressive regime currently shaping its destiny and its foreign misadventures. According to the joint statement on behalf of the festival by its president Jiří Bartoška, executive director Kryštof Mucha and artistic director Karel Och:

Although the film is set in 1938, quite obvious parallels with the current situation can be found in its story. We believe that the film provides a fitting description of how the manipulative actions of a despotic leader can influence the mindset of the majority of the society, purposefully create enemies of the regime in the name of ideology and ruthlessly annihilate them, and how such actions ultimately lead to a national tragedy. In this sense, we see the film Captain Volkonogov Escaped as an indirect, but very distinct criticism of the current Russian state regime (Bartoška, Mucha and Och 2022).

The film’s embrace is justified by its relevance to an appropriate political stance vis-à-vis the vicissitudes of Putin’s regime. Such relevance lies in the power of the evocation of the past, and the presumption that the present-day spectator can readily identify with the experiences of bygone times because of their essential commensurability. The film, in other words, engages the historical imagination in a way that lends itself readily to transhistorical comparisons. It will be argued in the following pages that Captain Volkonogov Escaped illustrates the political importance of the historical imagination and the peculiar power of film in putting it to work.

The Politics of Film

In film analysis the focus is predominantly on the aesthetic qualities of cinema, with an emphasis on formal characteristics. The focus, in other words, is what films say and how they say it. Accounts of what films do, in terms of their human and social impact, are less common. The reasons for this are not hard to uncover. Films’ effects are intangible, uncertain and hence resistant to rigorous analysis. Such intrinsic disincentives have been compounded by the enduring thrall of the positivist ‘revolution’ in American social sciences and humanities in the 1950s and 60s.3 The empiricist turn entailed in efforts to emulate the scientific rigour of the natural sciences lent itself to a narrowing of concerns and approaches. More-or-less self-conscious positivists were inclined to concentrate on what was observable and, where the lives and interactions of human beings were concerned, then this clearly meant behaviour. Speculation about the directly inaccessible mental world, as the opaque repository of all manner of obscure beliefs, motivations, and intentions, is in these terms far too nebulous for the purposes of serious scientific inquiry.

The peculiar outcome of such a point of view over the ensuing decades has been the widespread tendency to settle on some simple presuppositions about relevant motivations and intentions and their relative immutability. It is this that partly accounts for the pervasive influence of one or another form of rational-choice analysis, which more-or-less directly imitates the widely hallowed model and yardstick of neoclassical economics.4 It is the virtual necessity of guiding research by means of one or another form of explanatory argument that prompts the regular albeit reluctant foray into the mysterious internal world of thought and deliberation. In lieu of a long digression into the workings of positivism, it would suffice for the purposes at hand to give an illustrative example of the logic at work. The reader is encouraged to consider if other examples of past and present social-science and humanities research exhibit a similar logic.

Consider the hypothesis of conflict diversion or external scapegoating. Numerous scholars devoted considerable effort in the 1960s and 70s to verifying this hypothesis statistically by compiling large catalogues of meticulously coded examples of armed conflicts between states. This was part of the huge, well-funded, and high-profile “Correlates of War” project, initiated by the acclaimed American political scientist, David Singer, in 1963 (Singer and Diehl 1991), which has continued to generate datasets and their interpretation for over half a century (Hensell and Mitchell 2014). The attempt to demonstrate the conflict-diversion hypothesis was at any rate largely in vain, without seeming to diminish interest in the idea (Blomdahl 2017). Setting aside the thorny question of whether such an internal-to-external conflict pattern exists or not, let us consider the thinking behind the hypothesis, the necessary grounds for its formulation in the first place. Here lies the familiar rational-actor assumption. Such rational-actor presuppositions are so routine in social science as to be easily overlooked. They are as ubiquitous as they are – usually – implicit, taken almost a priori, as an unquestioned given in human affairs. Such a tendency has hardly escaped comment, even within mainstream IR circles, most famously in the seminal and critical observations of foreign-policy specialist Graham Allison (1969; 1971).

In the case of diversion theory, political leaders are assumed to rationally (that is, systematically) pursue their self-interest (some form of egoism being a given of most rational-actor analysis). They can therefore be expected to take measures to protect themselves in the event of threats to the political order and/or their own position. One such measure with good prospects of success would be to provide distraction from internal grievances and even a scapegoat towards whom the blame might be diverted, in the form of an external enemy. The privations of fighting a war against a common foe might then also draw people together, and encourage them to downplay their own differences, not least any dissatisfaction with their rulers.

What this (and many other similar research exercises) illustrates is that informed and guarded speculation about the internal lives of human beings is indispensable to any serious inquiry into their affairs. By downplaying this tricky but unavoidable dimension of social inquiry, positivists and their fellow travellers effectively adopt the most epistemologically – and politically – conservative position possible. They thus neglect the underlying conditions of, and potential divergences from, dominant, conventional modes of behaviour, which might throw light on the prospects of present or future change.5

It should be emphasised that a consideration of the political effects of film does not exclude the possibility of empirical inquiry, only that any data collected, as always, will provide only indirect indicators of certain, restricted aspects of the ‘objects’ or, more properly, the subjects of interest. Empirical examinations are invariably insufficient in themselves, providing what must operate as limited clues in a broader web of meaning and explanatory narrative. A creative mental exercise of abduction is always a vital (though routinely overlooked and typically underrated) component of any scholarly inquiry, those of the so-called natural sciences being no exception. Abduction is the exercise of placing empirical clues in a broader interpretive frame: What can be plausibly extrapolated from the limited evidence at hand: what are likely or at least possible causal explanations one might reconstruct on its basis? This is the kind of detective work entailed in most serious research in the social sciences and humanities, which tends to be taken for granted.6

The importance and contemporary topicality of engaging in such investigation of film’s social effects cannot be overstated. There is plenty of evidence that the visual in general has deep roots within and abiding influence upon modern Western and, by imperial and neo-imperial association, ‘global’ culture.7 The peculiar power of moving pictures as, in Walter Benjamin’s terms, the quintessentially industrial and mechanised medium (1969 [1935]), builds upon this embedded cultural resonance of visual cues and representations. Progressive internationalisation, fuelled by industrialisation, has further strengthened the salience and power of the visual through its capacity to cut through linguistic differences and achieve a form of messaging that is potentially more culturally mobile. This has been especially important in the burgeoning realm of transnational advertising (Barber 2008).

Film in Action

Let us frame the discussion to follow by identifying the process of interest, already flagged as ‘what film does’. The first step, in other words, is an exercise in process tracing, to delineate the parameters of the chosen analytical focus (see Beach and Pedersen 2013 for an introduction to methods thereof). The goal in this regard is exploratory, to postulate, through informed and hence guarded speculation, the broad shape and direction of such a process for the purposes of further consideration – including, in principle, empirical investigation – and, indeed, correction. Such exploration begins with – and hinges upon – the intended and expected (with more or less justification) effects of the audio-visual narrative itself, in its various aspects. The craft of filmmaking, at its best, promises to achieve what it sets out to achieve. The measure and repository of good filmmaking is in essence its phenomenology, its cognitive and bodily effects.8 Herein lies the film’s capacity to be interesting, affecting and/or, not least, entertaining. The cinematic craftsperson certainly works such corporeal levers in the relative dark – literally and figuratively – dependent on the imaginative construction of the hypothetical spectator occupying their notional theatre seat. Even more obscure are the lasting impressions and enduring power of the medium. Can it change lives, even leave a mark on society per se? Can it at least provide an indicator of more general forces of change? Here connections might be postulated, but little taken for granted, let alone demonstrated. Even surveys compiling spectators’ reported reactions (such as Ji and Raney 2016) are another form of indirect evidence, and one focused narrowly on one stage of a social process. In cases of peculiarly powerful filmmaking, the evidence of its immediate and lasting effects – and affect – can nevertheless be surprisingly compelling. Consider, for example, the veteran Indonesian assassin Anwar Congo’s delayed-effect on-screen reaction to his own crimes, having been encouraged to re-enact them on camera, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s innovative documentary, The Act of Killing (2012), as well as the ensuing heightened social awareness and criticism of the anti-Communist genocide of the 1960s in which he had participated. Timothy Deane-Freeman (2022: 16) makes the highly persuasive case that “[a]t the individual level of Congo’s body, and at the molar level of the social body, this is an instance of change.”

The analysis must begin, at any rate, with what the filmmaker does and more or less consciously intends, and with what degree and variety of success. Captain Volkonogov Escaped tells the story of a functionary of the state in its most extreme and authoritarian form, what some have conceived, not without controversy (though the controversy has faded with time and the spoils of Cold-War victory), as totalitarianism.9 The year is 1938, close to the apogee of Stalin’s stranglehold on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the setting, the opaque and tight-knit organs of ‘totalitarian’ law enforcement.

The captain is one of a group of fit young men working as torturers and assassins for the domestic security agency, The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). As, one-by-one, his comrades are called in for a distinctly ominous-sounding “re-evaluation”, Volkonogov finally elects to make a run for it. For some reason, he hides a case-folder behind a pillar before making his getaway. Before long, disguised as one more scruffy civilian, he is improbably swept up in a late-night work-party to bury, ironically enough, the comrades he recently abandoned to their fates. At this point, the film, in full thriller mode, expresses its first undertones of horror, as, still more improbably, his lately departed closest friend rises from the grave to deliver a warning and a challenge. He will burn in hell for his sins. His only possible escape is to repent and earn the forgiveness of at least one of the nearest and dearest of his many victims. Taking the warning to heart he resorts to the drastic measure of returning to his place of work to retrieve the concealed folder, only to be pursued in his effort to flee the building, and finally cornered by his armed superior, Major Golovnia. Ironically, Golovnia who, one suspects, is dying from consumption, is overcome by a coughing fit at this, of all moments, allowing his captive to slip away. Volkonogov then proceeds to track down one bereaved relative after another, while eluding his pursuers. He meets with everything except forgiveness – madness, despair, conformism, jaded indifference – until finally, when least expected, he finds one more casualty of Stalinism in the loft of a dismal apartment building…

The form is in essence classic thriller: its protagonist, the ‘hero’ of the story, faces conflict and a personal challenge, which he endeavours to overcome. Indeed, this is high drama of the quintessentially cinematic variety. The action-packed cat-and-mouse chase across the streets of Leningrad recalls the pacing and exuberance of Tom Tykwer’s offbeat masterpiece, Lola rennt / Run Lola Run (1998, Germany). Here, the protagonist’s flight is breathlessly interspersed with desperate encounters with those to whom, despite their universal reluctance, he appeals for help, the only help left to him in the face of catastrophe: forgiveness. There is another layer and complexity here, however, with distinctly Russian roots.

The film’s formal and generic properties are belied by some key features of story content, whose unconventionality, at least from a Western perspective, promise to destabilise spectator expectations and response. First and foremost, the protagonist is essentially an anti-hero, readily despised for his part in institutionalised atrocities, hampering spectator-identification or embrace even as the action and focus encourage it. He is a far cry from the Western conventional action-hero. The film’s central figure builds on Russian literary traditions, conducive to bringing him to the fore with all attendant potential for the deeply ironic and downright absurd.10 Indeed, the subject and meaning of his drama is laced with tension-confounding predictability and absurdity. The title itself drips with the irony of a place from which there is literally no escape – assuming fidelity to the totalitarian mythology. The tension is slackened then by the extinction of realistic hope. Spiritual salvation is a rather abstract goal for the muscle-toned workhorse of organised terror and is no more promising for all that. If there is a God, then we will hardly expect the poor captain to escape damnation either. The hopelessness is mesmerising and, after a while, transfixing. It follows him everywhere. On the rare occasion this is confronted directly, it resembles a statement of the obvious. A young girl, tending the bonfire of personal effects that will follow the loved-one into oblivion, comments without rancour, “No-one is going to forgive you” – the chilling but unsurprising words of the proverbial truth-telling child.

For Westerners the film recalls a further, deep-seated cultural genre, adding texture to the familiar chase-trope, though this may have limited resonance with Russian audiences. This is the chivalric trial. The true love in the case of this dedicated social outsider is naturally absent, but he endeavours nonetheless to prove his worth, like any honourable knight of the mediaeval realm, in the eyes of God. This probably inadvertent association reflects this mediaeval literary genre’s resemblance, through its structural or morphological similarities (Propp 1968 [1928]), to tropes of broader reach and significance, the biblical lesson and even its still broader, pagan relative, the fairy tale, here transposed with visual panache to the quintessentially modern – and modernist – setting of interwar Russia. As Natascha Drubek-Meyer (2023:199) puts it, the film’s “protagonist must undergo several trials as he completes his mission, adhering to the classical structure of a fairy tale.”

The deeply mined mythic narrative conventions combine with earthy imagery, juxtaposing squalor with apparent grandeur, to lend the film more than a little flavour of horror, in keeping with tendencies not uncommon among fairy tales. Drubek-Meyer suggests that the filmmakers may have taken some inspiration from Gogol’s own classic contributions to Gothic literature, given their previous film-adaptation work in this area (2023:199). The film, at any rate, seems to channel a little of the incipient horror of the brothers Grimm and visualise that horror in a way reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch, renowned illustrator of hell, who, at the reputed dawn of the modern epoch, seemed to capture the essence, at least to modern eyes, of mediaeval brutality. A subtle yet important effect of the visual storytelling should be noted in this regard.

The mise-en-scéne is nicely, expertly crafted with rich palette and lighting. Indeed, aesthetic considerations seem to have been paramount, without ever devolving into empty formalism. The filmmakers aim, with considerable success, to create the impression of a cohesive and atmospheric narrative universe. The film’s dense, diverse referentiality, from anachronistic constructivist-style graffiti11 to Clockwork-Orange-style uniforms (Romney 2021) (Fig. 1), lends it a timeless quality. This, I believe, has implications for the character and capacity of period drama per se as social critique. The painstaking attention to authenticity, paradoxically, can, and often does, create its own sense of unreality. It easily tends towards a highly artificial composite of definitively period elements, riven from their own historical context. The arch example to the point of parody would be the ITV (UK) television production of Poirot or Agatha Christie’s Poirot (created by Clive Exton and Brian Eastman 1989-2013). The mise-en-scène of almost every shot is saturated with the Art Deco design for which the period is most noted. Similar, if milder, tendencies can be observed in a new Czech feature, Matěj Chlupáček’s Úsvit / We Have Never Been Modern (2023, Czech Republic, Slovakia), itself billed, a little misleadingly, as a kind of detective story, and which happens to share Poirot’s interwar setting. This is suggestive of the cultural reach of pop-culture output like Poirot and its associated period-drama conventions.

NKVD comrades in uniform, not historically accurate but a stimulus to the spectator's own associations (image courtesy of AS Fidalgo)

The effect of such extreme, literal-minded historicisation is extraordinarily self-defeating, even de-historicising. The social milieu – or habitus – at any historical juncture is a haphazard assemblage of prevailing rules and habituated differentiated roles, together with an array of accumulated material products and environment. In the terms favoured by cultural theorist, Fredrik Jameson, drawing on Marx, to properly historicise the subject is to consider how she is necessarily embedded within a more-or-less stable but historically contingent mode of production (1984: 89-90). In the most prosaic terms, but highly relevant to constituting the visual field, older artefacts and infrastructure tend to recede without disappearing. Canals and railways persist, for example, even if, in the ‘the age of the automobile’, their time – their indispensability to a mode of production – is passed. The historical caricature thus has its own cartoonish unreality, erasing social-historical nuance and connection, be it back into the foundational past or forward into the suppositional future. Such connections are the raw material of social critique, its necessary if not sufficient condition. By erasing them, the sense of the past is of something bracketed in its one-dimensionality, almost devoid of social context or content, and thus hard to relate to ‘real life’, to the personal experience of another time, to the experience, that is, of any historicised subject.

The anachronistic assemblage of visual elements in Captain Volkonogov Escaped does not provide fidelity to the lost reality of the time any more than the sort of visual index of exaggerated temporal specificity with which I have attempted to contrast it. What it does do, however, is provide an intelligible, sensate analogue of place in time. In its rich diversity it problematises pat stereotypes of the past and liberates the imagination. It is possible to imagine, to be specific, a connection to times gone by, to visualise the imprint of mediaeval roots, for example, which are easily erased by the readymade paradigm of the well-oiled totalitarian machine. Just as the roots of the time are more readily imagined, so are the branches that may have grown in the interim.

Consider, for example, the uniformed appearance of the captain and his comrades (Fig. 1). This is not ‘historically accurate’ but the modernist style, the heavy boots and close-cropped hair, easily recall pan-European impressions of neo-Nazi skinhead gangs. Paradoxically, such self-styled neo-Nazis have themselves rifled Germany’s interwar past for elements in the construction of their own, historically specific look. Strident tribal demarcation combined with aggressive in-group conduct; these have realistically recurred and are herein opened to critique. The film does so by using its historical visualisation to highlight the connections and the continuity they make possible. Note that the effect builds on wedding the material features of dress and style to the demeanour and aura of the active subject (Fig. 2). Hence, it is especially easy to see such associations between Volkonogov and contemporary subculture as he is pictured on a tram. He is the outsider, set apart, but confident and even impudent, drawing strength from his uniform and the sense of belonging and superiority it confers. Even in this still form he has a palpable swagger, testimony to the remarkable acting performance by Iurii Borisov.