Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 5, 2021

1942: Unknown Battle

Filed under: Film,ussr,WWII — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

Recently a list of the 10 top Russian war movies cropped up on Facebook, most of which I hadn’t seen. If I were putting together my own list right now, I’d put the newly released “1942: Unknown Battle” at the top of the list. It is based on the battles that took place in Rzhev between January 1942 and March 1943 that turned the tide against the Nazi invaders. Because of the disproportionate losses suffered by the Soviet Army, the campaign became known as the “Rzhev Meat Grinder”.

The film recreates the fighting that took place in and around the tiny farming village of Ovsyannikovo that encapsulated the desperate attempt by an understaffed, underequipped and undertrained Soviet company equipped only with small arms against a Nazi battalion with tanks and heavy artillery and many more men.

The opening scene of this powerful film depicts the Reds driving a smaller detachment of Nazis out of Ovsyannikovo in the most gruesomely graphic fashion of any war film I’ve ever seen outside of Stephen Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”. Unlike Spielberg’s “greatest generation” film that ended with America triumphant, “1942: Unknown Battle” concludes with an exhausted and lightly armed marching toward certain disaster. The contrast between the triumphalist tone of American WWII movies and this Russian film could not be more glaring. The American victory led to the USA becoming the world’s hegemon and ultimately accomplishing what Hitler could not: the ascendance of capitalism in the USSR.

Unlike the war movies made during the USSR, “1942: Unknown Battle” dramatizes the conflict between the average soldier motivated to defend the motherland and the counterintelligence officers imposing repressive Stalinist regulations that threaten to weaken the resolve of those willing to sacrifice their lives for the good of the nation. After a Nazi plane floods the village with leaflets promising safe passage for any Red soldier that defects, the counterintelligence officer threatens the men with a court-martial if a leaflet is found in their pockets. When a grizzled old fighter confesses that he does have a leaflet but only for use as rolling paper for his cigarettes, he is taken into custody and marched across no-man’s land between the two opposing armies. When the counterintelligence officer is wounded by Nazi gunfire, the old fighter drags him into a foxhole, which leads to an extended dialogue about their clashing values. As much as I valued the action scenes throughout the film, it was this scene that will stick with me.

“1942: Unknown Battle” can be rented now from the usual VOD sites listed at Kino, the film’s distributor, for a mere $3.99. For those of us who understand that it was the USSR that was mainly responsible for the destruction of the Third Reich, this film is a must.

The Wikipedia entry for Battles of Rzhev will give you a sense of its troubled legacy. As much as humanity can thank the USSR for the sacrifices the country made, historians have demanded that a full recounting of the toll it took be made.

In 2009, a television movie was aired in Russia entitled Rzhev: Marshal Zhukov’s Unknown Battle, which made no attempt to cover up the huge losses suffered by Soviet forces. As a consequence, there were public calls in Russia for the arrest of some of those involved in its production. In the movie, the casualties of Soviet forces are given as 433,000 KIA. The journalist Alina Makeyeva, in an article of Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper which was published on 19 February 2009, wrote: “The number presented by the historian is too low. There must be more than one million Soviet soldiers and officers killed! Rzhev and its neighboring towns were completely destroyed.”; however, Alina could not present any proof. Journalist in her article which was published in the newspaper The Violin (Russia) on 26 February 2009 also claimed that more than 1,000,000 Soviet soldiers were killed at Rzhev. The number of casualties again was raised with the claim of journalist Igor Elkov in his articled published in the Russian Weekly on 26 February 2009. Igor said: “The accurate number of casualties of both sides is still dubious. Recently, there are some opinions about from 1.3 to 1.5 million Soviet soldiers was killed. It may reach the number of 2 million”.

In my view, the film reflects the thinking of people like Alina Makeyeva, Elena Tokaryeva and Igor Elkov.


  1. This is an incredible film. See it if you can.

    Comment by Michael Daniel Yates — March 10, 2021 @ 5:44 pm

  2. This is, in my opinion, the best Russian WW2 movie yet made and it deserves a better review than one steeped in discontent over national history telling. Neither the Soviets, nor the Brits, nor the US could have stood alone against the Axis. We should celebrate the truly phenomenal circumstances that allowed such different powers to come together to destroy something truly evil. And never forget.
    Respectfully, a fourth generation American veteran.

    Comment by Mark Berman — March 17, 2021 @ 2:49 pm

  3. Well, cutting down Spielberg doesn’t sit well with me since everyone and their mother has stolen his opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. Slow it down after a bomb goes off next to you. Now, yes, the Russians helped defeat the Nazis but you forget why and how. How about the 11.8 billion dollars in lend lease including food and medical supplies not mentioning tanks and airplanes or roughly 180 billion in todays dollars that the U.S. supplied the Russians who begged for help. You might have watched too much of Oliver Stones series about the U.S. but between his series and the modern U.S. versions, the real truth is told. Sorry, but without U.S. support, we would have been fighting Nazis in Russia. On that note, I love Russian WWII movies and series. Oh yeah, the Russians call it the great patriotic war as if they saved the world. Everyone else just calls it WWII.

    Comment by Robert Bart — March 22, 2021 @ 2:16 am

  4. How about some criticism to Soviet leaders that knowingly and willfully conscripted millions to die just like this. Thrown mercilessly into situations they could not win. To the point over 20 MILLION SOVIETS DIED because of communist leadership. That’s almost 4 times what everyone else lost.

    How about that battle in the Pacific? Or the whole western front?

    You sir, don’t seem to know your history at all – but have clearly jumped on the pro-communist bandwagon that’s been flooding social media since Trump. Coincidence?

    Comment by mattfife848345558 — March 27, 2021 @ 10:46 pm

  5. At the end of the movie it was an explanation for the benefit of the viewers however it was in Russian. I don’t understand or speak Russian. Why wasn’t it translated into English. Very frustrating.

    Comment by Shirley Calcaterra — December 23, 2021 @ 6:02 am

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