Interview: learning Russian through films

with 4 Comments

What’s the last movie you watched in Russian? What’s next in your queue? Today I have a very special interview for you with Richard Wess, the creator of Russian Film Hub. By the time you finish reading, you’ll have lots of ideas for which Russian movies to watch next… and how to use movies to create your own language learning process!

Richard, what’s currently your favorite word in Russian?

Мгновение. It means a moment or instant. The way the “m”-“g”-“n” consonants roll off the tongue is just beautiful.

There’s a poem by Pushkin, Я помню чудное мгновенье, that Glinka composed into a beautiful романс. I think of that song whenever I hear the word. Here’s a link to the best rendition of it, sung by Oleg Pogudin.

Do you use Russian for work, for play, or for something else?

Right now, I’m using Russian all the time, as I build out Russian Film Hub. Through that, I watch Russian movies, talk with Russians, and read materials about Russian cinema.

I also spend a ton of time using Russian for pleasure. Most movies I watch and music I listen to are in Russian. I have a blast absorbing all this Russian culture, but I do wish that there were more people I could share that passion with.

Thankfully, though, Russian Film Hub has given me a window to talk to more and more people about Russian and Soviet film. Like you!  

How long have you been learning Russian? What first attracted you to the language/culture?

My first introduction to Russia was as a child through music. Classical music specifically. I found that when listening to radio in the car or looking through CDs at my grandparents’, I always gravitated towards the Russian composers: Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, etc.

And so, from a young age, I realized there was something special about Russian music that resonated from me. Because of that, I jumped on the opportunity to start learning Russian in high school. 

Then, in college, I majored in Russian and spent some time studying abroad in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Through that time my passion for Russian language and culture only grew stronger.

Me in St. Petersburg, September 2014

What was the first Soviet/Russian film you ever watched?

Like many students, the first Russian movie I saw was Operation Y and Shurik’s Other Adventures / Операция „Ы“ и другие приключения Шурика (1965). However, I really didn’t understand what was going on. I mean, I did, thanks to the fact that it’s a pretty slapstick movie. However, I was completely lost with the Russian dialogue and Russian subtitles. 

The first movie I really understood was The Diamond Arm / Бриллиантовая рука (1969), another slapstick Soviet comedy. I watched it just as I was starting my study abroad in Moscow. My Russian level was by then good enough then for me to really understood the humor in the movie.

I enjoyed Diamond Arm so much that I started watching a bunch of other Russian movies. I soon found that there were countless Russian and Soviet movies online. At that time, most of them didn’t have English subtitles, but Russian cinema became a big hobby for me all the same.

Russian Film Hub is an amazing resource for people interested in Russian culture! How do you decide which movies to include on the site?

So, first off, thank you so much for your kind words!

Right now, there are 150 movies (and a bunch of TV episodes) on Russian Film Hub. I’ve picked these movies because I myself have watched almost all of them and they are generally considered the top Russian and Soviet movies of all time.

All these movies are free to watch, thanks to the legacy of communist copyright. Also, all (bar two) have English subtitles. And, what’s more, you can discover new titles by filtering for genre, director, decade, actor, etc.

I do have a database of roughly 500 Russian movies that I would like to add over time. However, before adding them, I want to make sure that the site is serving people well as is. As I learn more about how people use the site, I will find ways to add more and more titles without sacrificing people’s enjoyment of the website.

Screenshot of

How can people incorporate films in their language learning routine? Should they use subtitles, rewatch the same films, take notes, etc?

Film is such a powerful learning medium because it incorporates sights, sounds, context, body language, mentality, and culture. As a native English speaker, films have helped me to understand how Russians really talk and interact much better than any other language learning method.

Dare I say it, films can be even more useful for language learning than going to Russia yourself! Watching a film conversation shows you true Russian, unfiltered by a textbook or a Russian person’s kind attempt to make himself or herself easier to understand. If you want to learn how to speak like a Russian, watch Russian movies! 

To really create a language learning process through film, here’s what I recommend.

Read a summary of the movie before watching. That way, you’ll know the general plot and won’t sit for long stretches of the movie without a clue at what’s going on. 

Watch the movie all the way through with English subtitles. And enjoy it!

Watch the movie again with English or Russian subtitles, but this time also have a Russian script for the movie close to hand. Generally, you should be able to find the Russian subtitle files on or on

Then, not too long after finishing the movie, try to write down phrases and other details you enjoyed in the film. You might want to write an amusing quotation or make a note of a particularly moving song.

What has cinema taught you about Russian culture?

So much! But for the sake of your time, I’ll focus in on some pieces of music I adore from Soviet war films.

  • Dark is the night / Тёмная ночь from the movie, Two Soldiers / Два Бойца (1943). This song came out in the middle of the Second World War and gives a more emotional, human face than many of the marching band-style military songs of the time.
  • Smuglyanka / Смуглянка from the movie, Only “Old Men” Are Going to Battle / В бой идут одни “старики” (1973). The song tells a love story for the ages. A young man tries to seduce a young woman, but instead she convinces him to join the partisans.

As a side note, I really like your post on cool Russian songs from famous TV shows and movies!

Could you give us some movie recommendations? Which films should every Russian learner definitely see?

There’s a batch of comedies directed by Leonid Gaidai that intermediate Russian learners tend to find accessible. They’re also great fun to watch! They include the two I mentioned earlier – Operation Y and Diamond Arm – as well as:

  • Kidnapping, Caucasian Style / Кавказская пленница, или Новые приключения Шурика (1966)
  • Twelve Chairs / 12 стульев (1971)
  • Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future / Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (1973)
  • It Can’t Be! / Не может быть! (1975)

Beyond that, you must see Battleship Potemkin / Броненосец «Потёмкин» (1925), directed by Sergei Eisenstein. This revolutionary propaganda film’s montage editing techniques remain influential to this day. Don’t take just my word for it – the British Film Institute ranked it as the 11th greatest film of all time.

My final recommendation is The Mirror / Зеркало (1975) by legendary director, Andrei Tarkovsky. He made seven feature films, all of which are beautiful and thought-provoking to watch. The Mirror sometimes gets a bit of a bad wrap for being difficult to follow, but really its plot is quite simple. It’s the story of a man who brought much pain to his loved ones. Now he is dying, he tries to ask them for forgiveness, but knows not how.

I’ll leave you with that. Thank you so much for the interview and opportunity to connect with your readers, Katherine!

The Mirror / Зеркало (1975)

Richard, thank you very much for sharing your knowledge of Russian films with us. 😀 I’m excited to explore Russian Film Hub and and the films you’ve recommended here!

Readers, what’s your favorite film on Russian Film Hub? Any suggestions for must-see films that Richard should add?

4 Responses

  1. J.T.
    | Reply

    Hooray! The interview series has returned!

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      🙂 🙂 🙂 They’re fun to do!

  2. Richard Wess
    | Reply

    So great to do this interview with you, Katherine! Thank you for giving your time!

    • Katherine
      | Reply

      Спасибо, Richard! 🙂 It was really cool to do this interview with you!

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