Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration


Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov
Moscow, high school gym across from court room

PLOT SUMMARY: Similar to the start of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) twelve jurors are gathered after a trial to deliberate a case. However in this Russian remake, the jurors are in a high school gym, and the case is of a Chechen boy who is believed to have murdered his adoptive father. They are told that their verdict has to be reached unanimously. Initially, most of the jurors are unconcerned with the task at hand and simply want to go home. However, when one juror votes “not guilty” against the other 11 “guilty” votes, they are all forced to stay and discuss the case.

     As the jurors investigate the evidence, such as the weapon in question, the layout of the apartment, and the testimonies of the witnesses, they discover discrepancies. Additionally, one by one, each juror shares a life story that ultimately convinces himself to vote “not guilty.” Finally, when there are 11 votes of “not guilty,” the foreman changes his vote to “not guilty” despite knowing that the boy, once free, may be killed by his adoptive father’s murderers. The foreman vows to the boy to find the killers.

ANALYSIS: Incarceration and captivity are presented in many forms throughout 12. In a more physical form, the Chechen boy is kept locked in a cell while the jury deliberates. Cold, and without food or water, the boy is perhaps representative of the harsh treatments faced by accused persons awaiting their verdict in Russia. On the other hand, the less tangible form of imprisonment is portrayed by the jurors and the bird that appears halfway through the movie. The bird circles and chirps about the room, unable to escape. Similarly, the jurors may feel trapped in their inability to decide unanimously on a young man’s fate. Each juror has prejudices rooted in their past, including anti-Chechen sentiments and a strained father-son relationship, that act as a barrier preventing him from coming into the case with a bias free mind. At the end of the film, when the bird finally flies free, it is symbolic of the jurors having made up their minds to overcome their preconceptions and truly deliver justice as the law dictates.

     However, even justice is illustrated as a complicated issue in the film. It raises a question about the two sides of the criminal justice system. One side is represented by the initial juror who votes “not guilty.” He is an appeal to the emotions, a plea for the innocent in order to give the benefit of the doubt and not wrongfully condemn someone. The other side calls for retributive justice, to punish those who have undeniably committed a crime. Both angles believe they are in the right, and the film seems to conclude that the Russian criminal system is more reliant on the power of grace. While the film could have easily ended ambiguously by not revealing the Chechen’s innocence or guilt, and therefore leaving the question of justice unanswered, the Russian film chooses to prove the boy’s innocence and to promise that the true murderers are caught.


“He is after all a human being.” (21:35)

“Our decision, instead of sending the boy to prison, will be signing his death sentence.” (2:21:34)

“We’ve set an innocent person free. … We’ve fulfilled our duties as jurors. … The law after all was made to be observed." (2:26:05)

BIOGRAPHY: Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov was born in 1945 in Moscow. Mikhalkov came from a well-to-do artistic family; his great grandfather was an imperial governor, his father was a children’s literature author and lyricist for the Soviet and Russian national anthems, his mother  was a poet, and his brother is a filmmaker. His own acting career began at the age of 14 when he starred in several small episodes and films. As a child actor, Mikhalkov was well known and loved. He started his education at the Boris Shchukin Theater Institute. Throughout Mikhalkov’s time there, he broke several rules that eventually led to him being expelled for misconduct. He then entered the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) to study cinema; at the time of the Soviet Union, it was a requirement to attend the school to film as a director. He directed and starred in several short films in his time at the institute. In 1971 and after his graduation from VGIK, Mikhalkov joined the army in the submarine fleet. After being taken out of active service, Mikhalkov re-entered the cinema scene.

     Mikhalkov garnered international attention with his movie A Slave of Love in 1976. After this initial success, he continued to gain fame and won several awards at prestigious events including the San Sebastian Film Festival, the 13th Moscow International Film Festival, the  1987 Cannes Film Festival, and the Venice Film Festival. However, his 1994 film Burnt by the Sun is his biggest achievement to date; it won the grand prize at the Cannes Festival and won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In addition to cinematography, Mikhalkov is active in Russian politics; he is a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin and is a nationalist. In his personal life, Mikhalkov currently has four children and is married to former model Tatyana Soloveva.


“Nikita Mikhalkov.” Rating,

“Nikita Mikhalkov.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Feb. 2019,


Gakaev, Dzhabrail. “Chechnya in Russia and Russia in Chechnya.” Chechnya: From Past to Future, edited by Richard Sakwa, Anthem Press, London, 2005, pp. 21–42.
In this chapter, Gakaev writes about the conflict filled history between Chechnya and Russia. He explains how the cultural, economic, and political differences contributed to wars that shaped both Russia and Chechnya today, and why tensions between the regions and the people continue to exist.

Thaman, Stephen C. "The Good, the Bad, or the Indifferent: 12 Angry Men in Russia." Chicago-Kent Law Review, vol. 82, no. 2, 2007.
In this article, Stephen C. Thaman discusses the views the general public has on juries in both Russia and the U.S.— the good, the bad, or the indifferent. The good being justice, the bad being prejudice, and the indifferent being impatience. He also highlights Soviet Russia’s reception of 12 in relationship to other Russian literature about criminal justice.

Thaman, Stephen C. "The Nullification of the Russian Jury: Lessons for Jury-Inspired Reform in Eurasia and beyond." Cornell International Law Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2007, pp. 365-370.
This is an excerpt of a scholarly piece by Stephen C. Thaman on trial by jury in Russia and parts of Europe. Thaman details the evolution of the jury in Russia and its relationship to guilty pleas; will the introduction of this practice lead to avoidance of jury trials?

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