When 13 Ukrainian soldiers were defending Snake Island in March, Russian forces told them to lay down their weapons. In response, the Ukrainians said “Russian warship, go f**k yourself!”.
This maritime call sign has its precursor in the naval drama U311 Cherkasy (2019), directed by Tymur Yashchenko.
U311 Cherkasy was the first Ukrainian film about the annexation of Crimea, and the film has been important in shaping the national identity.
It is a film about a little minesweeper: the U311 that took on the might of the Russian navy and gave them the proverbial finger.
Ukrainian film industry
From 2014, Ukrainian cinema has been in an active process of recovery, with increased financial support from the government since 2017.
It is a modest film industry, with considerable documentary production. But there has been a steady increase in the number of quality mainstream feature films released theatrically. More than 24 films were released in 2020.
It is worth noting President Volodomyr Zelenskyy features in three of Ukraine’s top ten box office hits.
A touchstone of resistance
U311 is based on real events during the annexation of Crimea and the capture of the Ukrainian navy in March 2014.
In the siege of Ukraine’s Southern Naval Base, all Ukrainian naval vessels were blocked from entering the Black Sea at the narrow entrance of Lake Donuzlav. The blockade was initiated by the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva.
This would be the same warship told where to go by the Ukraine defenders of Snake Island.
In 2014, the Ukrainian navy was terribly outnumbered. They surrendered one by one to the Russians. There was no other way. Only the U311 Cherkasy refused to surrender and continued its courageous – though hopeless – struggle for more than three weeks.
The ship’s resistance became a national touchstone.
The film creates the context to this foolhardy, opening with the ship’s commander defying the Russian ultimatum. The action then winds back to 2012, following Lev (Dmitry Sova) and Mishko (Yevhen Lamakh) and their senseless, drunken antics in their village. The only meaningful escape from their small town is joining the navy with all its beatings, rotten food, cramped conditions and hazing rituals.
Early in the film there are scenes of “friendly” rivalry between the Ukrainian sailors and Russian soldiers based in Crimea: they play off against each other at tug-of-war and arm wrestling. While the Russian soldiers make slurs against the Ukrainians, this is nothing compared to the institutionalised hazing rituals the young recruits experience at the hands of the older sailors and officers.
The young Ukrainian men are forced to eat rotten food and live in substandard conditions. They don’t respect the system as they don’t understand their mission. They seem unprepared for any conflict.
But when the defining moment arrives, the least likely stepped up.
The friendly relations between the Russians and the Ukrainians don’t last, as the Russians become increasingly violent in the act of annexing Crimea. Russia asserts the Ukrainians must surrender, but the Ukrainian officers announce to the sailors the minesweeper is not going to surrender. Those who disagree should leave immediately.
Keeping morale high
The film is not a documentary, and it does take some liberties with the truth, but the actual commander of the minesweeper, Yuriy Fedash, was also the main consultant for the film.
I don’t really think that me and my crew are heroes. We just tried to do what every member of the Defence Forces is tasked to do. We tried to escape the situation, while remaining human.
The only thing Fedash regrets is that he did not give the order to sink the Cherkasy. At the time, he hoped the Russians would return the seized ships to Ukraine. He didn’t want his ship to end up rusting in Russia.
In one of the strongest scenes of the film, when the Ukrainian sailors realise their time is up, they lock themselves in the hull and start singing – keeping their morale high even when the ship is overrun by heavily armed Russian special forces.
In March 2014, the actual Ukrainian sailors released a YouTube video singing Warriors of Light, a Belarusian punk song that became one of the anthems of the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv. This video became a viral sensation and the stimulus for Yashchenko to write the script of U311 Cherkasy.
In the film, the soldiers make a similar YouTube video and then watch it on TV in their mess hall when it goes viral. They ask “will we just hand over our ship to them?”.
They know it is just a matter of time before they are overwhelmed by the Russian forces.
There are differing opinions, there is internal conflict and some fantastic combat scenes.
And then there are poetic moments of a drone shot over the dark blue water with seagulls flying in different directions and the sad promise this battle is just the beginning.
First time director Yashchenko told The Hindu “it is not an easy film to watch; it’s not for everyone.”
I was trying to show the collective image of the Ukrainian Navy, but I went much deeper and tried to show a portrait of Ukraine. It is just a lot of my love, a lot of my support and a lot of me as a Ukrainian.
U311 Cherkasy is available with English subtitles on Amazon Prime.