Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Ward No 6

Ward No. 6

Karen Georgievich Shakhnazarov + Aleksandr Vasilevich Gornovsky

An asylum in a provincial town on the outskirts of Moscow

PLOT SUMMARY: The film begins with real interviews with patients in a modern Moscow psychiatric hospital, before continuing as a sort of faux documentary tracing the psychological decline of former head doctor, Andrei Yefimich Ragin. Ragin, who had initially wanted to be a cleric, was forced into the medical practice by his father. An educated man, he is disgusted with both the conditions of the hospital and the provincial town to which he was assigned. He complains that there was nothing to do and no one worth talking to, with the exception of his friend and neighbor, Mikhail Averyanovich. He copes with his unhappiness with the philosophy that any thinking man can be content by ignoring their pain and suffering and instead focusing on inner good.

     For entertainment, he begins to have discussions with a new patient, Ivan Gromov, who has paranoid delusions and a persecution complex. Through these discussions Ragin becomes more and more convinced of the uselessness of both his work and his philosophy, and he begins to deteriorate, drinking more, becoming more secluded, and staying home instead of working at the hospital. Mikhail Averyanovich tries to help, but Ragin is only interested in his discussions with Gromov. Although Ragin insists that he is not sick but instead caught in a vicious cycle, Mikhail Averyanovich and the assistant doctor, Khobotov, force him into the ward as a patient.

ANALYSIS: Based on a short story by Chekhov, the film version of Ward No. 6 continues to play with different types of media. The movie blurs the lines between reality and fiction by including real interviews with patients in a psychiatric hospital, as well as faux documentary interviews and straight acting. By questioning the dichotomy of real and fake, the film also sets up the audience to question other dichotomies, most notably the line between morality and immorality and the false binary of criminal/psychotic and normal.

     Although the plot revolves around Ragin, the point of the film (like the short story) can be found in the philosophical sparring between Ragin and Gromov. Ragin insists that everyone will die anyways so there is little point in alleviating suffering, and a wise person will just ignore pain and suffering. Gromov denounces that philosophy, claiming that evil and cruelty must be challenged, and forcing Ragin to ultimately decide that human beings, himself as an example, are just too weak. These two contradictory philosophies question the nature of justice, and if human society can ever achieve it. Only when confronted with injustice himself does Ragin abandon his philosophy of stoicism and become willing to fight.


“I see no special cause for rejoicing. There will be no prisons or asylums, and justice will prevail as you say. But the real essence of things won’t change. The laws of nature will stay as they are. People are going to fall ill, grow old, and die just as they do now. And glorious as the dawn may irradiate your life, you’ll still end up nailed in a coffin and thrown into a pit.”
“But what about immortality?”
— Ragin and Gromov (27 minutes in)

“I’m not ill, not at all. I’m just trapped in a vicious circle from which there is no way out…”

“You’ll get better.”

“Why say that? The more you try to escape the more you’re caught in the coils. You may as well give in because no human effort can save you now.”
— Ragin and Mikhail (55 minutes in)

“Stuff and nonsense! If you hated doctoring you should have been a minister.”
“There is nothing one can be, we’re so feeble! I used to be detached and argue confidently and sensibly, but it only took a bit of rough handling to make me lose heart and cave in. We’re a feeble, rotten lot.”

— Gromov and Ragin (62 minutes in)

BIOGRAPHIES: Karen Shakhnazarov was born in Krasonodar, USSR on July 8, 1952. His mother was a Russian housewife and his father a politician of Armenian descent (the family can be traced back to the Melik-Shakhnazarayan princes of the middle ages). In 1975 he graduated from the directing program at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography where he studied with Soviet filmmaker Igor Talankin. In 1998 he became the general director of the Mosfilm film company. He has directed, produced, and written dozens of films and television serials, including Ward No. 6, White Tiger, Anna Karenina: Vronsky’s Story, Zerograd, and Den Polnoluniya. Shakhnazarov has been the recipient of both national and international awards, including several Golden Eagles (essentially Russian Oscars), and has appeared at over a dozen international film festivals.
     In addition to being a filmmaker, Karen Shakhnazarov is an active political and cultural figure. He serves on the board of directors of several important institutions, such as the Russian Cinematographers Union, the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Russia, and Russian state television, Channel One Russia, as well as being a member of other important civic and film institutions. Furthermore, Shakhnazarov has been an outspoken critic of Russia’s relationship with the West, and has signed letters endorsing President Vladimir Putin’s controversial policies in Chechnya and Ukraine. 

Aleksandr Gornovsky
was born on February 27, 1973, in the city of Irkutsk. From 1991-1995 he studied at the Irkutsk Institute of Foreign Languages, and in 2004 he graduated from Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography under the instruction of Karen Shakhnazarov. He has directed 10 works, including a critically acclaimed short film, Son, several feature-length movies, documentaries, and television serials. His works have been screened at a variety of both student and professional film festivals, where he has been awarded a variety of prizes including the Grand Prix prize at the All-Russian Festival of Visual Arts.

 Most recently, Gornovsky has decided to use his talents to save Lake Baikal by creating a documentary that investigates both the natural and ecological crises facing the lake and its people. His mother was an editor at the East Siberian Publishing House and took him there often as a child. Baikal is where he first became inspired to study film, so it is only natural that he would use this passion to study the lake and inform the public of the challenges it is facing.

“Karen Shakhnazarov.” IMDB. 

Шахназаров, Карен Георгиевич.” Википедия.Шакназаров,_Карен_Георгиевич 

Karen Shakhnazarov: General Director of Mosfilm Cinema Concern.” Mosfilm. 

“Karen Shakhnazarov.” IMDB. 

Шахназаров, Карен Георгиевич.” Википедия.Шакназаров,_Карен_Георгиевич 

Karen Shakhnazarov: General Director of Mosfilm Cinema Concern.” Mosfilm. 

“Aleksandr Gornovsky.” Star Dust Agency,

“Александр Горновский.” Кино-Театр.ру,

Корсика, Рита. «Режиссёр Горновский о документальном кино «Без Байкала» и людях озера.» Ирсити.ру.


Burry, Alexander. “‘A Vicious Circle’: Karen Shakhnazarov’s Ward No. 6.” Border Crossing: Russian Literature into Film, edited by Alexander Burry and Frederick H. White, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2016, pp. 121–139.
In this article, Alexander Burry discusses how Karen Shakhnazarov’s film adaptation of Ward No. 6 both follows and expands upon Chekhov’s original short story. Burry argues that Shakhnazarov emphasizes Chekhov’s focus on the cyclical effects of the mistreatment of children and general family disfunction in relation to degeneration theory. At the same time, Shakhnazarov takes up Chekhov’s focus on the questions of Christian redemption and active resistance vs. passive stoicism in the face of evil.

Wolff, Sally. “The Wisdom and Pain in Chekhov’s ‘Ward Number 6’.’” Literature and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 1, 1996, pp. 134-141.
Wolff discusses Chekhov’s commentary on the medical profession as a whole in his short story "Ward No. 6." A trained doctor himself, doctors and medicine are scattered throughout Chekhov’s stories. In "Ward No. 6," specifically, Chekhov critiques the medical profession’s inability to reduce pain and death in the decaying society of Tsarist Russia. Furthermore, the mistreatment of the mentally ill as criminals and the impersonal, bureaucratic treatment of patients is a main focus of Chekhov’s short story.

Meerzon, Yana. “Interrogating the Real: Ckekhov’s Cinema of Verbatim. 'Ward No. 6' in Karen Shakhnazarov’s 2009 Film Adaptation.” Adapting Chekhov: The Text and its Mutations, edited by J. Douglas Clayton and Yana Meerzon, Routledge, 2013.
In this chapter, Yana Meerzon categorizes Shakhnazarov’s film adaptation of "Ward No. 6" as an analogous adaptation, which is defined as a new work of art is created in response to a canon work, which results in new exploration of the themes of the original work. She also discusses Shakhnazarov’s ability to portray the “inbetweenness” of Chekhov’s original work through creative use of a variety of film techniques. Both the analogous adaptation and the methodology allow Shakhnazarov to convey Chekhov’s original message of social injustice as tragedy.

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