The Soviet Union was a remarkably diverse country and its cinema reflected this. Although dominated by the Russian-language film industry, other Soviet republics -- like the Ukrainian, Georgian, and Kazakh SSR's -- made important contributions to Soviet film. Upon the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, the film industries of the former Soviet republics set about forging new national cinemas.
Here are five of the best movies to come out of the former Soviet Union in recent years. All are streaming online.
Title: Russian Ark (Russia, 2003)
Plot: Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark has a gimmick so impressive that it alone suffices to justify the movie: The film consists of a single, uninterrupted shot. Shot in one take at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, the movie travels through 300 years of Russian history, following 19th-century traveler Astolphe de Custine through reenactments of Russian court life, from Catherine the Great, to a Persian embassy in the 1800s, to a ball hosted by Nicholas II in the years before WWI. Russian Ark is a sumptuous and elegiac spectacle, and one that offers one of the greatest technical feats in all of cinema.
Historical background: The works of Aleksandr Sokurov are divided fairly evenly between fiction and documentary, although they all contain the filmmaker's hallmarks: disorienting camera angles and flattened perspectives, muted earth tones, and intense spiritual and sensual elements. Sokurov's films also tend to be deeply engaged with the weight of history, as can be seen in Russian Ark and his "Tetralogy of Power," a cycle of films dealing with Lenin, Hitler, Hirohito, and the Faust legend. This unique and inimitable body of work marks Sokurov as one of the greatest filmmakers to emerge out of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Where it's streaming: Netflix, Fandor.
Title: The Light Thief (Kyrgyzstan, 2010)
Plot: When a cheerful Kyrgyz electrician who is known as the Light Thief (Aktan Abdykalykov, who also wrote and directed) sets out to bring wind turbines to his underdeveloped region, he faces unexpected resistance from the political and corporate status quo. Part Ibsen and part development parable, The Light Thief is all Abdykalykov, whose energy and charm pervade this quietly affecting film.
Historical context: Kyrgyzstan does not have a large profile on the international scene (cinematic or otherwise), but in the post-Soviet era they've built up a respectable corpus of film, in no small part thanks to Abdykalykov, whose 1998 film Beshkempir: The Adopted Son was a big hit on the festival circuit, and exemplified some of the defining features of Kyrgyz cinema: a focus on simplicity and naturalism in the tradition of Iranian cinema, and an engagement with spiritual concerns that bears comparison with the Soviet/Russian works of Tarkovsky and Sokurov.
Where it's streaming: Amazon.
Title: Elena (Russia, 2011)
Plot: When Elena, a nurse with an adult son from a previous marriage, marries Vladimir, an aging, well-to-do businessman, she hopes he'll be able to help her son and his impoverished family. But the icy Vladimir has no interest in helping anyone. What follows is a searing portrait of a passive-aggressive marriage played out against the broader backdrop of class conflict and social decay in contemporary Russia.
Historical background: Filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev has built his career on charting the corruption and despair that pervade Putin's Russia. His grim but compelling films are richly textured and deeply personal, and draw on a pessimism with little precedent in Soviet cinema. Launched onto the global film scene with The Return (2003), and cementing his reputation with the Golden Globe-winning Leviathan (2014), Zvyagintsev has an oeuvre that is a worthy companion to Sokurov's, sharing much of his visual aesthetic while plumbing depths of realist squalor that the more spiritually minded Sokurov tends to shy away from.
Where it's streaming: Amazon.
Title: Vanishing Waves (Lithuania, 2012)
Plot: A team of Lithuanian and French scientists use electrodes to attach the mind of Lucas, a healthy young man, to that of a comatose young woman, thus allowing him to travel "inside" her unconscious brain. Once inside, Lucas and the young woman engage in a passionate romance set against the surrealist backdrop of a damaged psyche, forcing Lucas to question to whom he owes a greater loyalty: his employers, himself, or the young woman he loves and might be able to bring out of her coma.
Historical context: The cinema of tiny Lithuania was largely stagnant and state-controlled during the period of its captivity within the Soviet Union. But since the reforms of Gorbachev, and especially since the collapse of the USSR, Lithuanian cinema has attempted to assert itself on the international scene. They average about two feature films a year, of which Vanishing Waves is a prime example: a Lithuanian-French co-production drawing on the visual imagery of Andrei Tarkovsky and the storytelling of more Western-style sci-fi movies (an obvious comparison is Inception, but Vanishing Waves lacks the bloat and incoherence that marred Christopher Nolan's journey to the center of the mind). It is with bold and distinctive films like Vanishing Waves that a country with a film industry as small as Lithuania's can nonetheless distinguish itself internationally and escape from the shadow of the Soviet Union.
Where it's streaming: Hulu, Amazon.
Title: Maidan (Ukraine, 2014)
Plot: When protestors took to the streets of Kiev in 2013 and '14 to demand closer ties with Europe and the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa was there to catch it on film. In stunning documentary detail, he follows the protest from its peaceful beginnings through its dramatic growth in early 2014, climaxing with the violence and street fighting that precipitated Yanukovych's flight from the country and the civil war and Russian military aggression that have plagued Ukraine ever since.
Historical context: During the Soviet period, there was rarely a distinction between Ukrainian and Russian films: Ukrainian filmmakers worked in Russia and vice versa. In the post-Soviet era, there have been two major trends in Ukrainian filmmaking, both of them embodied by Loznitsa at different stages of his career. There has been a tendency to continue working within the sphere of the former Soviet Union -- Loznitsa's My Joy (2010) was set in Russia and In the Fog (2012) in Belarus -- and there has been a parallel movement to create distinctly Ukrainian films, of which 2014, so catastrophic for Ukraine in other respects, provided strong examples, with Loznitsa's Maidan and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's The Tribe bringing Ukrainian stories to a highly receptive festival circuit. Whether Loznitsa, in the wake of Maidan, will be able to work in Russia again is an open question, but recent developments have shown that Ukraine is fertile ground for local filmmakers.
Where it's streaming: Netflix, YouTube (VOD).