Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 debut film, Ivan’s Childhood (available on Kanopy), follows a 12 year old boy serving as a scout in the Soviet military during World War II. Although it was made a couple decades after the war, this film not only portrays the mental and physical destruction wrought by the war, but also raises fascinating questions about Soviet military life.
Fan-edited trailer for Ivan’s Childhood by David McBryde
The first thing I wondered about as I watched this movie was the role of children in the Soviet military. In the film, Ivan states that he has lost all of his family – his mother was killed by a German soldier. Ivan serves as a scout, using his small size and presumed innocence to obtain information behind enemy lines. Although Ivan’s Childhood is a fictional film, this does not appear far from the truth.
Many children served in the Red Army – estimates range from 60,000 to 300,000. Some served voluntarily, but some were conscripted. A number of children were used in mine-sweeping operations1 after areas had been liberated. Most of the children who served on the front lines of battle did so by choice. They felt the same sense of patriotism and duty that Ivan exhibits in the film. Like Ivan, many of these children were orphans; they often referred to the soldiers2 as “papa.” They were picked up by the army as it liberated areas along the eastern front, and many were eventually legally adopted by officers.
That children served in the Red Army is interesting because it is rarely mentioned. It seems to be a fairly taboo subject, as there is little literature or information from official sources on the topic. There could be several reasons for this – not only was the necessity of children a sign of how bad the war was, but it’s also painful to think that children had to see such atrocities – many, therefore, would rather forget this.
Pictures of child soldiers in the Red Army – video by Youtube user Doppelganger Todd.
Another subject the film briefly mentions is the treatment of women in the Soviet military. Masha, a nurse in the Red Army, is continuously doubted by one of the officers (Galtsev). He even says that “war is a man’s business, it’s not for girls.” Several accounts3 by female Soviet soldiers affirm the prevalence of this attitude among their male peers. Nonetheless, at least 500,000 women served in the Red Army in World War II. Many all-female regiments were formed, the most famous of which became known as the “night witches,” for their nighttime bombings.
In the film, Masha faces another obstacle – unwanted attention from a male officer (Kholin). In one scene, the officer takes her into a secluded area of a forest, where he forcibly kisses her (it’s very much a “because of the implication” scenario). This, too, was not an uncommon occurrence for women in the Soviet military. Two women, Irina Bogacheva and Iuliia Zhukova, specifically wrote of sexually predatory instances in their memoirs.4
Valentina Malyavina as Masha in Ivan’s Childhood. IMDb.
One group mentioned throughout the film were the partisans. Although the state took credit for their formation, the partisans were generally grassroots movements in enemy-held territories that fought against the Germans. Many sprung up in Belorussian forests as well as Ukraine. By late 1943, there were at least 500,000 partisans. While the state lionized them, they often faced resistance from anti-Soviet locals. In addition, food and supplies were scarce. At the end of the war, some partisans felt abandoned by the state, and became part of an independence movement in Ukraine.
Partisans near Leningrad. Seventeen Moments in Soviet History
More than anything, however, this film depicts the soul-crushing destruction wrought upon Russia by World War II. The film opens with Ivan in a field, laughing at butterflies and playing, as a child should. However, this turns out to be a dream – Ivan wakes up and resumes his role as a patriotic, no-nonsense soldier. This contrast of what childhood should be to Ivan’s violent reality perfectly conveys the war’s effect on Russia for years to come. The loss of at least 15% of their population meant that no citizen was untouched by the war’s ravages. Families were destroyed, and those who lived through the war were permanently changed. Tarkovsky’s film communicates all of this in a visually stunning but haunting manner.
“Pelageya will be back soon. That’s my old lady’s name.” – A villager in the movie says to this Ivan as he wanders around the ruins of his village. Screenshotted by me from Kanopy.
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