The film industry would greatly benefit by making more films that prominently illuminate the horrors of Soviet Communism.
I’m not simply writing this because my family fled the Evil Empire. The rise of socialism in this country should alarm us all. With culture being upstream from politics, Hollywood should use its clout to promote films that educate filmgoers on the horrors of socialism.
Very few films have deeply explored the toll global communism had on the planet, as over 100 million people in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean died as a result of it last century. Today, countries like Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and others still struggle with socialism.
Three films, however, come to mind as movies that get the basics right.
A recent movie is Death of Stalin (2017), a dark comedy film on the aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s death. It gives viewers a brief glimpse into Joseph Stalin’s tyrannical reign, who had a well-documented proclivity for ordering the killing of “enemies”—even his fellow communists—if he suspected the slightest trace of betrayal to his agenda or the USSR.
Sunshine (1999) follows a Jewish-Hungarian family from the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Ralph Fiennes plays the main roles across three generations. Throughout the film, the characters admit they were sympathetic to communists until the Soviet Union’s policies got to them.
A third film is Moscow on the Hudson (1984) starring the late Robin Williams. He plays a circus musician named Vladimir Ivanoff who defects from the Soviet Union in a New York City Bloomingdale’s while visiting the United States. Despite his frustration with and confusion about his new homeland, Ivanoff’s journey from political refugee to naturalized American is a familiar story for many of us with family that fled the Soviet Union in the 70’s and 80’s.
Enter Ashes in the Snow (2018). It’s the film adaptation of Ruta Sepetys’ bestseller historical fiction novel, Between Shades of Gray. It was filmed entirely in Lithuania, adding to the authenticity of the storyline. The book has been translated into 27 languages and is required reading in many schools today.
The film adaptation came out last Friday in several theaters across the country and is available to download on video streaming services. The film’s director, Marius Markevicius, is the son of a prominent businessman who was forced to leave Lithuania as a child.
Much like the book, the film is based on true events surrounding the illegal Soviet annexation of the Baltic Republics under the Molotov-Ribbentrop (Stalin-Hitler) Pact of 1939, which led to the occupation of these nations in 1940. It’s even more uncommon to see a film center around Lithuania, which was the first Soviet-occupied country to break away in March 1990. If you recall, the Soviet Union physically disintegrated in 1991.
Ashes centers around a female protagonist, 15-year-old Lina Vilkas, played by British actress Bel Powley, a talented artist who “draws what she sees” during her 1941 imprisonment in one of Stalin’s gulags in Siberia. She, her mother Elena, brother Jonas, and others are sent to die for alleged crimes against the Soviet Union, a common charge placed on Lithuanians by Soviets during occupation since they viewed them as “fascists.”
Lina is determined to keep a log of their exact whereabouts during exile.
Much of the film is focused on their imprisonment in a labor camp in the Altai region in Siberia. It is in this location they witness starvation, intimidation, harsh labor, betrayal, and death—common aspects of internment in Soviet gulags. Later, they are sent to another labor camp above the Arctic Circle, Trofimovsk, on the Laptev Sea.
The film, like the novel, is harrowing but masterful. This is the typical Lithuanian story of last century.
I thought Bel Powley portrayed the lead character very well. The actors who played the NKVD agents spoke in convincing enough Russian accents to go along with the brutality associated with their roles. Some of the scenes found in the film recreate actual facets of Soviet terror, including interrogations, mass starvation, attempted rape, and death by gunshot. I believe the scenes were sufficient enough to get the point across. Any more graphic and I think the film would lose people.
The cinematography was second-to-none, especially for an independent film. Seeing the scenes from Kaunas and Palanga reminded me of my first visit to Lithuania back in 1999. It’s a beautiful country with a tragic past, much like the rest of Eastern Europe.
I thought the LA Times did a decent job of offering a fair account of the film, noting:
Based on Ruta Sepetys’ 2011 bestseller “Between Shades of Gray,” the historical drama “Ashes in the Snow” reopens a chapter of World War II largely overshadowed by other atrocities: The Soviet Union’s violent annexation of the Baltic states. The soldiers are wearing the uniforms of the Red Army instead of Nazi Germany, but there’s a familiar grimness to this story of human exploitation and forced labor camps.
Some critics who lambasted the film admit they haven’t read the novel :
The depictions of degradation and sadism are arguably accurate, yes. But they’re executed in a context that’s almost entirely free of meaningfully specific historical detail, to the extent that one comes to suspect this movie of commodifying human suffering. I haven’t read the novel, but the script and direction seem so intent on making Lina and her situation immediately “relatable” (this is the first period film penned by Jones, whose prior output included contemporary dramas about youngish protagonists including “Like Crazy”) that the events seem to take place in a world specially created to accommodate them. They’re dealing with actual historical atrocities and tragedies, and distilling them into another resilience-of-the-human-spirit bromide. We know nothing of Lina except her shyness before imprisonment and her defiance after; there’s no sense of character richness, only of her simplistic functions within a glum parable.
Another film critic suggested what the Soviets inflicted on the Baltics was not as bad as the Nazis but just as serious as Japanese internment camps. Huh?
So the atrocities that the Russians inflict on the Baltics are heinous, to say the least. Thankfully, it’s not as awful as the Holocaust but it’s much more serious than the Japanese internment camps. As heartbreaking as the film’s events are, it’s inspiring to see the human spirit triumph over major adversity. Much of that has to do with Lina’s character arc. She goes from innocent and naive to strong and resilient. Essentially, we get our strength through her journey.
The Soviets didn’t just kill people in the Baltics. They killed millions more throughout Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia. The Soviets killed well over 60 million people from 1917-1987 compared to the over 20 million who died under Nazi occupation. Both were equally evil regimes, but the severity of Soviet occupation of the Baltics shouldn’t be discounted because fewer people were killed in that part of Eastern Europe.
This film depicts horrors many of our family members endured following the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939. My maternal grandpa was lucky to survive 17 months at the Belomor Canal. Millions of others weren’t as lucky as him and died after succumbing to the ghastly, inhumane conditions forced upon them during this dark period in history.
As Russia today seeks to reassert itself in the region it previously brutalized and socialism continues to rear its ugly head here in the United States, films like Ashes in the Snow are needed to educate people about the ills of socialism. More importantly, the film equally honors the over 100 million victims of global communism well—specifically the Lithuanians shown here.
To watch the film, download it on iTunes, Amazon Prime, DirecTV, and other video platforms.