Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Burnt by the Sun

Burnt by the Sun 
Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov
Grebnevo, Moscow Oblast, USSR


PLOT SUMMARY: The film, Burnt by the Sun, is set in the USSR in 1936 and follows the events of one fateful day in the life of Colonel Sergei Kotov during Stalin’s Great Purge. Kotov, a revolutionary war hero is spending time with his wife, Marusya, his daughter, Nadya, and other family members at their dacha on the outskirts of Moscow. Suddenly, a man from the family’s past, Mitya, arrives at the summer home. Growing up, Mitya and Marusya were in love, but he had disappeared on a mission for the Soviet Army without explanation ten years prior. He now works for the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.


     Throughout the day, tension and jealousy builds between Kotov and Mitya until Mitya finally reveals that it was Kotov that gave the orders to have him sent away on the mission ten years ago. It was after he sent Mitya away that Kotov wooed Marusya and married her. Marusya breaks down when she finds this out, but ultimately Kotov calms her down and she chooses to stay with him. Once Mitya realizes that he cannot win Marrousya back, he alerts Kotov that he is being detained by the NKVD in a few hours. Knowing he is innocent and loyal to the party, Kotov agrees to go, thinking that nothing bad can happen to him. A car arrives, Kotov says goodbye to his family, and he drives off with Mitya and three NKVD officers. In the car, Kotov is beaten and handcuffed. It is then that he realizes that he is going to be killed and he begins to cry. The next morning, Mitya kills himself in his home in Moscow.


ANALYSIS: This film illustrates the various forms of captivity that Stalin’s regime brought upon the Soviet Union, especially during his Great Purges. In its most literal sense, the film shows how the Great Purge disrupted the lives of so many families and even targeted those that were innocent and loyal to the regime. Colonel Kotov was a hero of the revolutionary war and instilled the values of socialism and nationalism into his family, especially his daughter, Nadya. Nevertheless, he ис detained and later killed by the NKVD for reasons unknown to the audience. However, despite being the target of the NKVD, the purge affected the lives of many others around him. His wife, Marusya, and Nadya аrе also arrested, and Mitya commits suicide because of what he had done.


     Beyond the literal captivity that Colonel Kotov faces, the film also highlights many other kinds of captivity experienced during the Stalin era. First, Marusya feels trapped by her situation, especially when Mitya leaves her to go on his mission. In fact, she attempted suicide. Then, when she finds out about her husband’s hand in what occurred, she threatens to throw herself out a window. Second, Mitya experienced captivity when he was forced to go on his mission and leave the woman he loved. He faced the possibility of arrest if he did not comply. Third, Marusya’s family seems to be trapped in their pre-revolutionary past. The older folks in the film constantly reminisce in the old days and make underhanded comments about the inadequacies of their new way of life. Colonel Kotov seems to be the only one truly dedicated to the socialist ideal and must constantly remind and correct his family’s words and actions. Thus, the film demonstrates various forms of captivity experienced by people during the Stalin era.



“Confession is the source of justice.” (20:12).


“A dazzling smile, his portrait hanging everywhere. And all that will collapse. With one small fick.” (43:23).


 “And I’ll watch you closely when, in five or six days, when you’re crawling in your own shit, you’ll admit, in writing, that since 1920
you’ve been spying for the Germans, and since 1923 for the Japanese, that you’re a terrorist, and that you wanted to murder Stalin! And if you don’t
sign, you bitch, we’ll remind you that you have a wife and daughter.”


BIOGRAPHY: Nikita Mikhalkov was born in Moscow in 1945 into a family of writers and artists. He began acting at the age of fourteen (Festival de Cannes). He studied cinema at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow under Mikhail Romm, a well-known Soviet-era filmmaker (Shelokhonov). He made his debut as a film director in 1970 with “A Quiet Day At The End Of The War” (Erickson). Since then, Mikhalkov has directed several internationally renowned films. His 1994 film, Burnt by the Sun, won the Grand Prize at the Festival de Cannes in 1994 and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1995 (“Nikita”).


     Nikita Mikhalkov is also active in Russia’s political world. He is a strong supporter of Vladimir Putin. In 2007, he produced a television program to celebrate Putin’s 55th birthday. He went on to sign an open letter to Putin that pleaded him to stay in office for a third term (Bayer). In 2009, Mikhalkov was elected to be chairman of the Union of Cinematographers in Russia. However, in 2010, several directors left
the union, citing issues with Mikhalkov’s leadership style and direction (“Opponents”). In 2015, Mikhalkov was one of several cultural figures banned
from entering Ukraine after he voiced his support for Putin’s annexation of Crimea (Kozlov).


Works Cited


Bayer, Alexei. “Sympathy for the Devil.” The Moscow Times, 24 Mar. 2008,


Erickson, Hal. “Nikita Mikhalkov | Biography, Movie Highlights and Photos.” AllMovie,


Kozlov, Vladimir. “Director Nikita Mikhalkov Speaks Out After Ukraine Ban.” The Hollywood Reporter, 31 Aug. 2015,


“Nikita MIKHALKOV.” Festival De Cannes 2019,


“Opponents of Nikita Mikhalkov to Found Alternative Union of Cinematographers.” Russia-InfoCentre, 19 Apr. 2010,




Andrew J, Van Baak J, Brouwer S. "Discipline and punish: the body as a site for Stalinism in Burnt by the Sun (Utomlennye solntsem).” In Body, Spirit, Soul in Russian Culture and Literature, vol. 54, 2005, pp. 351-372.
Andrew et al. interprets the film through a political lens using Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. He argues that the film constantly focuses on the human body and face as a site of both personal and political history.


Kunze, Peter C. “Child’s Play: Nadia and Romantic Childhood in Nikita Mikhalkov’s Burnt by the Sun.” Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, vol. 7, no. 1, 2013, pp. 25–38.
Kunze analyzes the role that Nadia’s character plays in the film. He argues that Nadia embodies the western ideal of childhood rather than the Soviet propaganda ideal, which was a deliberate choice by Mikhalkov to advance a political agenda and make the film more understandable to an international audience.


Larsen, Susan. “National Identity, Cultural Authority, and the Post-Soviet Blockbuster: Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov.” Slavic Review, vol. 62, no. 3, 2003, pp. 491–511.
Larsen investigates what made the works of Nikita Mikhalkov and Aleksei Balabanov (another post-Soviet director) so popular with both Russian and international audiences. She argues that their films attempt to find the new “hero of our time” and connect contemporary Russian society with Soviet culture.

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