The Gender Representation of Male Veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian War in Ukrainian Feature Films (2019–2022)

As of May 2023, when this article was completed amidst the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, it is imperative to contemplate cultural works that depict the return of combatants to civilian life, as this process of integration awaits Ukraine after its victory. Although, admittedly, feature films may not accurately portray reality and should not be used to assess Ukrainian society, nevertheless, this paper aims to facilitate a moment of societal introspection, drawing on the cinematic representations of this topic.

The paper was developed during the “War and Media” course at the Invisible University for Ukraine, guided by Oksana Sarkisova (CEU), and Taras Fedirko (University of Glasgow) prepared for publication in collaboration with Kateryna Lysenko (University of Leipzig). The research was supported by the Open Society University Network (OSUN) and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

Around summer 2022, I noticed new billboards hanging around Kyiv. They had a distinct message—“Yes, I’m a veteran and I continue to defend.” That affirmative “Yes, …” was a declaration of a person’s presence, yet unnoticed. “Yes,” as if Molly Bloom’s last word in Joyce’s “Ulysses” was a statement of being, opening up myriads of narratives. Before Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine had already been a country of veterans who fought in the East since 2014 and returned to civil life [Bryuxovec”ka L, p. 19]. Or continued to defend the country. I think those billboards stating “Yes, I’m a veteran and I continue to defend” amused me by opening up a part of Ukraine’s history I was spot-blinded at.

People depicted on those billboards were young; one would meet them in a supermarket without military clothing and think they had just finished university and were desperate to find an occupation in life. Regarding this, I wondered what makes an image of a veteran recognizable. Which attributes state, “Yes, I’m a veteran”? And what is more important, whether there is uniform imagery of Ukrainian veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian war, of those who defended Ukraine in 2014–2022 and returned to civilian life or have continued to defend?

These questions are broad and require a big, thoughtful study. In this paper, I will only try to answer those questions by examining how male veterans of the Russia-Ukraine war are represented in Ukrainian feature films of the last few years. I’m interested mainly in feature films as they create imagery that is quickly circulated among broad audiences, forming a particular presence and representation in the viewers’ minds. Moreover, feature films require distance, not to say Homer’s “epic distance,” and these films  rethink these events in an artistic form; it’s not instantly constructed imagery and definitely not instantly financed. I believe, speaking generally, that feature films, in some sort of way, indicate how societies want to represent themselves and how they want to be seen, especially if the government finances a film. I didn’t include documentary films about Ukrainian veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian war in this research, as the documentary genre requires completely different optics for my analysis. Even though the distinction between the two, documentary and feature films, sometimes is not evident, here I rely on the directors’ statements whether a film is one or another.

This research paper is also limited by gender, as I will only analyze the representation of male veterans. The foundation for this perspective is derived from masculinity studies, which constitute an integral component of gender theory, focusing on comprehending and scrutinizing the male encounter. Here, I’m interested in what gender qualities of male veterans feature films prescribe or allow to be expressed in cinema. Thus, I will specifically be looking at how male veterans’ masculinities (gender performativity, so to say) are portrayed. Through this research, I hope to gain insight into what possibilities Ukrainian feature films give to the masculinities of veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian war.

As for the content, the representation of male veterans of the Russia-Ukraine war in Ukrainian feature cinematography is infrequent. The paucity of such portrayals is evident, with only a few films, namely “Atlantis” (2019, dir. V. Vasyanovych), “Bullmastiff” (2020, dir. A. Bukovska), and “Butterfly Vision” (2022, dir. M. Nakonechnyy) featuring male characters who have returned from the war zone to civilian life. I will focus on the ways Serhii (“Atlantis”), Mitia (“Bullmastiff”), and Tokha (“Butterfly Vision”) perform their genders as veterans and how their challenged masculinities are represented in the films.

ReplayRecap—Relive: Male Veterans and their Masculinities

Many films about veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian war were produced with the help of actual combatants. Such assistance was crucial in the production, as the topic was still (and remains to this day) a sensitive one. In an endeavor to replicate or construct novel narratives surrounding the Russia-Ukraine conflict preceding 2022, filmmakers enlisted the participation of military personnel. However, a distinct category of films emerged wherein the principal roles were portrayed by actual combatants, namely veterans. This particular characteristic, whereby combatants assume their roles rather than actors, adds another dimension to the film. It seemingly asserts its ‘authenticity,’ as if proclaiming, “This is genuine,” while simultaneously refraining from transgressing the boundaries of a “documentary” production. Nevertheless, what does this signify for the veterans themselves within this context? It entails re-enacting the immediate and visceral battlefield experiences on camera, thereby reliving those encounters once more.

V. Vasyanovych’s cinematic work “Atlantis” (2019) serves as a notable illustration of this phenomenon. Remarkably, none of the characters in this film were portrayed by professional actors; instead, real veterans, volunteers, and soldiers assumed these roles. Notably, Andriy Rymaruk, a former military scout who actively participated in the initial stages of the Russo-Ukrainian war, enacted the primary male character. Consequently, “Atlantis” embodies a collection of experiences and memories that are reenacted and relived by combatants. It is widely acknowledged that the impact of the battlefield experience is enduring, even permeating civilian life. Numerous literary works, for instance, depict veterans who struggle to escape the grips of haunting memories, as if trapped in a cycle of traumatic recollection that perpetually re-traumatizes the individual. Thus, a thought-provoking dynamic arises when a veteran is required to portray another veteran in a feature film. In the case of “Atlantis,” the film provides Andriy Rymaruk with a platform to reconsider the profound nuances of the combatant experience through the character of Serhii, whom he portrays.

Now, let’s look at how he performs the gender of a male veteran in a film, the actor being a veteran himself. Serhii’s poignant struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder becomes palpable through observable manifestations such as his vacant stare, sudden outbursts of aggression, and an overall air of bewilderment. Within the cinematic realm, Serhii is met with disdain due to his decision to serve as a volunteer in a war in the past, i.e., the Russo-Ukrainian war. Regrettably, his colleagues at the factory perceive him as a deranged individual harboring nationalist ideologies, consequently leading to a loss of trust and respect from others. The portrayal of Serhii, a veteran ostensibly considered a “hero,” depicts a disheartening scenario wherein his military experiences become a source of humiliation. This narrative focuses not on a sense of pride associated with military service but rather on its complete antithesis, as manifested in the character’s self-perception and the perceptions of those around him.

It seems to me that there is a general sense that veterans, particularly those affiliated with the victorious party, should be esteemed and held in high regard within society. At least, this is what I see in today’s Ukrainian society. This sentiment is exemplified by the reverence bestowed upon veterans of World War II who fought against the Nazis. Conversely, those who served as Nazi soldiers, hailing from the defeated side, are largely marginalized and absent from the prevailing discourse. In contrast, veterans who participated in the fight against the Nazis receive significant recognition and are associated with what R.W. Connell terms “hegemonic masculinity,” particularly when considering male veterans. The gender category of hegemonic masculinity denotes a dominant position relative to others in the system of relationships [Connell, p. 76]. This type of masculinity does not necessarily bear a deliberate danger through great physical force or hints of violence (although those may be present); it is more about expansive influence [Edley, p. 44] and the ability of a male to position himself as dominant in every discourse due to social merits—as being from a winning party of war. Authoritarianism and the authority caused by it (or vice versa)—these features best characterize the category of hegemonic masculinity [Connell, p. 77]. As a result, individuals who embody these characteristics and modes of interaction exert dominance over others during social interactions. This manifestation of hegemonic masculinity is predominantly observed among veterans affiliated with the victorious party. However, in the case of Serhii, a veteran whose war had not yet ended but was frozen, the dynamic is retrospective. It seems to me the character is perceived by others as a soldier of a party that lost the war—presumably because he, “the defender,” could not end the war. 

In “Atlantis,” V. Vasyanovych shows a world of the future—2025, expressing the director’s fear that the Russo-Ukrainian war will drag on for longer, never-ending for Ukraine’s victory. It was a general fear of a Ukrainian society that had already experienced 5 years of war at that time, a fear of never-ending conflict. Projecting and even intensifying it, Vasyanovych places a real veteran, Andriy Rymaruk, in a reality where the war he fought in has reached an even worse point.

Serhii, who encounters a profound dismissal of his war-related experiences, can be interpreted as an embodiment of marginalized masculinity, drawing upon R.W. Connell’s conceptual framework on the performance of gender among males. Marginalized masculinity is that masculinity, which is “forbidden” to acquire privileges and high status, practically to acquire features of hegemony due to non-compliance with the “norm” [Edley, p. 45]. R. W. Connell points out that such marginalization is unstable and depends on context [Connell, p. 80].

Being a combatant means representing a whole society, country, or nation. If a combatant suffers defeat on the battlefield, this failure becomes emblematic of the broader context for which they fought, thus rendering them a scapegoat for subsequent failures. The weight of this interdependency results in the marginalization of individuals like Serhii within the social fabric, ultimately leading to their exclusion from that very social context. Within “Atlantis,” numerous solitary scenes revolve around Serhii, effectively presenting him as a figure devoid of social interactions. Conversely, when surrounded by others, his status is dehumanized, rendering him virtually invisible. This elucidates why Serhii finds it impossible to escape the desolate atmosphere of the Donbas region, even when presented with an opportunity by a foreign volunteer. Although he could potentially relocate to a different place and commence a new life among unfamiliar faces, this prospect appears unbearable to Serhii. It is within the presence of others that Serhii’s performance of gender assumes a marginalized disposition.

The social exclusion experienced by the marginalized character Serhii in “Atlantis,” as well as in films by other Ukrainian directors depicting male veterans, results in the confinement of his narrative to private scenes. This distinctive feature of V. Vasyanovych’s film reflects the limited avenues for participation and equal positioning denied to Serhii within broader social contexts. Eventually, Serhii forms a romantic relationship with a fellow war participant, a former paramedic. Through this union, they establish an alternative context characterized by the absence of other individuals, effectively creating a space where they can exist outside the constraints of societal marginalization.

Something similar is shown in A. Bukovska’s short film “Bullmastiff,” portraying a veteran Mitya. The character is played by an actual veteran, Yevhen Lamakh, who in the film is invited to play a veteran in a feature film. This complex situation is quite postmodernist, as if creating a triple exposition of war experience. As if once again proving that the Russo-Ukrainian war is the most mediated war, where even former combatants play former combatants in feature films portrayed in feature films.

Apart from this triple exposition of combatant experience, Mitya is presented as a marginalized man within the social fabric due to his war experience, from which he returned neither as a winner nor a loser. This is conveyed through the prevalence of “lonely scenes” throughout the short feature film, wherein Mitya is confined within the walls of his flat. He neither actively participates in social life nor possesses a meaningful occupation. Mitya’s endeavors to translate his war experience into a cinematic performance, specifically by portraying a combatant in a film helmed by an international director, prove fruitless. The film director in the short film “Bullmastiff” perceives Mitya’s portrayal as lacking authenticity. It is reasonable to interpret this scene as a deliberate choice, aiming to underscore the difficulty of adequately expressing and embodying the profound nature of the war experience. This challenge is particularly pertinent in Ukraine, which, by the time of “Bullmastiff” production in 2020, had already endured six years of war and had somewhat lost sight of its impact. Thus, this pervasive despair and the struggle to articulate the war experience contributes to its absence within the discourse. Consequently, when actual combatants endeavor to re-enact their own experiences, their portrayal is met with skepticism and disbelief. 

In “Bullmastiff,” a notable scene towards the conclusion involves Mitya encountering another veteran. This encounter transpires when Mitya, having discovered a stray bullmastiff, is obliged to return the dog to its rightful owner, also a veteran. The scene is significant as it exemplifies the diverse array of identities among combatants. Mitya, a young veteran devoid of destructive habits, represents a solitary individual with a “promising” future ahead. In contrast, the owner of the dog is an elderly, intoxicated man whose behavior is impolite towards both the dog and other people. Furthermore, the elderly man exhibits a pronounced pride in his war experience, reiterating narratives associated with the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War II. Evidently, the same war experience in the eastern regions of Ukraine was perceived and lived through distinctly by these two males of differing generations. The clash between these two veterans serves to dismantle any idealized glorification of former combatants, openly revealing that among veterans, individuals are grappling with alcoholism and struggling to reintegrate into civilian life. This highlights the inherent lack of uniform imagery or representation of veterans from the Russia-Ukraine war. Despite the similarities between Mitya in “Bullmastiff” and Serhii in “Atlantis,” who both occupy comparable settings within their respective films, A. Bukovska disrupts any perceived continuity by introducing a veteran consumed by alcoholism in her short film.

In his recent release “Butterfly Vision” (2022), M. Nakonechnyi further explores contrasting identities within male veterans. Although the film primarily revolves around Lilya, a female veteran who returns from captivity in the enemy’s territory after becoming pregnant, a significant portion of screen time is dedicated to Lilya’s husband, Tokha. Tokha, too, is a veteran, but unlike Lilya, he voluntarily joined the battlefield and subsequently chose to return to civilian life, eagerly awaiting his wife’s release from Russian captivity. Upon reintegration into civilian life, Tokha struggles to adapt to the tranquility of ordinary existence and instead organizes a volunteer group comprising men who patrol the streets at night. Their activities often involve the physical assault of homeless individuals and members of the Roma community. This aggressive behavior can be understood as a manifestation of Tokha’s protest against his marginalized status as a veteran in society. Tokha is a unique character in this frame, as he remains proactive after returning from the battlefield. His ultra-nationalistic sentiments make him a dangerous person for others, as he patrols the streets and beats people based on their race (the case of the Roma community).

I argue that Tokha employs external means to confront his internal struggles, which encompass his war experiences and the challenges he faces as a husband to a prisoner of war, Lilya. Rather than verbalizing his issues and complex emotions, Tokha opts for physical actions as a means of self-expression. Consequently, his actions manifest as destructive, both towards others and himself. A pivotal moment occurs when Tokha tragically takes his own life following Lilya’s revelation that she became pregnant as a result of rape by Russian forces and separatists during her captivity. This revelation not only undermines Tokha’s sense of dignity as a man but also as Lilya’s husband. Moreover, it also means that, as a former combatant, he lost the fight—his wife, as if to say his “land,” was sexually abused by the enemy. The significance of Tokha’s attempts to reintegrate into civilian life as an active member of society, along with his efforts to shape the community into a “better” place (specifically, one without Roma individuals), becomes overshadowed by the fact that his wife carries the child of the enemy. This realization marks the culmination of his existence, culminating in a spontaneous act of suicide by detonating a bomb he had kept since returning from the frontlines.

Being portrayed by an actor rather than an actual combatant, the character of Tokha in “Butterfly Vision” presents a distinct depiction of veterans of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Unlike other characters who exhibit reticence, concealing their struggles and emotions from the external world and those around them, Tokha is portrayed as lacking internal stability, prone to impulsive masculine behavior, and ultimately driven to suicide. Consequently, it can be argued that he failed to successfully reintegrate into civilian life, as he could not navigate the harsh realities and preserve his sense of dignity. In contrast, Mitya and Serhii can be seen as having “succeeded” in adapting to post-battlefield conditions.

“Atlantis,” “Bullmastiff,” and “Butterfly Vision” provide insightful examinations of the challenges encountered by male veterans during their reintegration into civilian life (and the civil life reintegrating into them) and the gender difficulties they face in adapting to society. Although distinct in their portrayals, these films share a common theme of marginalization within the social fabric. Tokha, Mitya, and Serhii all share the experience of being overlooked and undervalued by others, struggling to assert their worth as former combatants who dedicated their bodies, minds, and actions to defend their country and its people. This examination provides a partial response to the inquiry regarding the existence of a unified representation of male veterans in Ukrainian cinema, revealing a prevalent theme of marginalization and societal neglect. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that these representations, as any other, may not be universally representative of all discourses and apply to Ukrainian feature films of recent years. Future research and cinematic endeavors will likely continue to shed light on the multifaceted nature of veteran experiences and their integration into post-war societies.


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