Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Prisoner of the Mountains

Prisoner of the Mountains
Sergei Vladimirovich Bodrov
Richa, Dagestan, Russia
PLOT SUMMARY: A squadron of Russian soldiers is ambushed and killed by a group of Chechen Muslims while traveling through the Caucasus. Only two survive: Aleksandr (Sasha) Kostylin, sergeant and squadron leader, and Ivan (Vanya) Zhilin, a young conscript. They are taken back to the Chechens’ village and imprisoned in the compound of Abdul Murat, who plans to trade them for his son, a prisoner of the Russian army.

     While captive, Vanya befriends Abdul Murat’s young daughter, Dina, and begins to view the villagers sympathetically. Sasha, however, insists that they are still enemies and speaks of his desire to kill their captors. The two eventually attempt to escape. They are recaptured and Sasha is executed for killing a shepherd for his gun. Abdul Murat’s son is also executed by the Russian soldiers after attempting to escape from prison. Realizing that Vanya will now be killed in revenge, Dina frees him, but he refuses to run away because of the punishment Dina would face for her actions. Abdul Murat marches Vanya out of the village with a gun, but ultimately spares his life. Several Russian helicopters fly overhead; Vanya attempts to flag them down, but they do not see him and continue towards the village where he and Sasha were held captive.
ANALYSIS: Prisoner of the Mountains boldly contrasts the lives of the Russian soldiers and Chechen villagers: in the opening scenes, Sasha is seen drinking and playing pool with his friend and superior officer the Commander Major. Later, in a half-hearted escape attempt, he and Vanya find a cellar containing various wines and spirits, and Sasha notes that the Chechens’ religion will not allow them to drink. The soldiers are heavily armed with tanks and military helicopters, while the villagers walk or ride on horseback and wield old guns. But, in depicting these differences, the film also brings to light the similarities between them. Both sides are concerned with protecting their families. Both find moments of joy and happiness in the midst of war—by dancing, singing, eating and drinking with friends.
     This emphasizes on the dehumanizing effect of war and “the other.” Firing at an enemy from a distance maintains the illusion that it is not people who are being felled, but mere targets. Up close, however, both Vanya and Dina realize that the “enemy” is just like any other man or woman they have grown up with. At the same time, both sides have committed atrocities: Sasha and Vanya are treated no better or worse than Abdul Murat’s son in captivity. Against the magnificent backdrop of the titular mountains, the film dismantles conceptions of a morally superior party or cause, without dismissing the humanity of either.

Sasha: I am dead, but I like it. Everything is peaceful now. (1:21:55)

(Sasha describes how he wants to return to the village and kill their captors)
Vanya: I don’t want to kill them.
Sasha: You have to, Vanya. It’s war. (0:41:52)

Dina: You are like a dog now. It's not a shame for a dog to smell bad. (1:18:33)
BIOGRAPHY: Born on June 28, 1948 in Khabarovsk, RSFSR in what was then the USSR, Sergei Vladimirovich Bodrov is a Russian film director, screenwriter and producer. He served as President of the Jury at the 25th Moscow International Film Festival. His son Sergei Sergeyevich Bodrov, a popular Russian actor who worked with his father in Prisoner of the Mountains, was killed in an avalanche in 2002.
     Bodrov wrote for the satirical Russian newspaper Krokodil and was openly critical of the war in Chechnya. This eventually led him to make Prisoner of the Mountains in 1996. The film garnered four Nika Awards (including Best Picture and Best Director for Bodrov), and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. For Mongol (2007), Bodrov was once again honored for Best Picture and Best Director, in addition to another four wins at the Nika Awards and an Academy Award nomination. His other notable films include Freedom is Paradise (1989) and The Quickie (2001).


“Prisoner of the Mountains.” IMDb, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
“Sergei Bodrov.” IMDb, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.
Jenkins, Mark. "Sergei Bodrov's War-Movie Stories." Washington City Paper, 7 Feb. 1997, Accessed 12 May 2019.
Wines, Michael. “Rising Star Lost in Russia’s Latest Disaster.” The New York Times, 24 Sept. 2002, Accessed 19 Apr. 2019.


Michaels, Paula A.” Prisoners of the Caucasus: From Colonial to Postcolonial Narrative.” Russian Studies in Literature, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 52-77.
Michaels examines the evolution of Prisoner of the Caucasus, from Aleksandr Pushkin’s original poem to Leo Tolstoy’s short story to film adaptations such as Bodrov’s. She places each work within the timeline of Russian history and the shifting views on colonialism within the country.

Monastireva-Ansdell, Elena. “Trapped in the Prisoner Scenario: The First Chechen War and Sergei Bodrov’s Prisoner of the Mountains.” Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema, vol. 8, no. 2, May 2014, pp. 98–119.
Monastireva-Ansdell contextualizes the film within the history of Russian imperialism, specifically in relation to the First Chechen War.

Prokhorov, Alexander. “From Family Reintegration to Carnivalistic Degradation: Dismantling Soviet Communal Myths in Russian Cinema of the Mid-1990s.” The Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 51, no. 2, 2007, pp. 272–294.
Prokhorov analyzes the representation of the “Great Russian Family” in Prisoner of the Mountains—or, rather, lack thereof. This is of particular interest as the film was shot not long after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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