Russian Ark

Russian Ark / Русский ковчег

Published: December 2, 2016

Russian Ark (Русский ковчег) is a 2002 film directed by Aleksandr Sokurov (Александр Сокуров). The film was shot in a single, 96-minute take and filmed entirely inside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. It was an entry into the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

The film features an unnamed narrator who leads a character known as “the European” (said to represent Marquis de Custine, a 19th-century Frenchman) through the Winter Palace. In each room, the narrator and Custine encounter various real and fictional people from Saint Petersburg’s history. The relationship between the narrator and Custine changes periodically throughout the film: sometimes the two seem able to interact, other times not.

The plot begins on a winter day as a group of aristocratic men and women arrive at the Winter Palace by carriage. The narrator leads Custine and the viewer through various rooms, each of which corresponds to a different period in Russian history. The film moves chronologically: we see Peter the Great arguing with one of his generals, operas from Catherine the Great’s era, the Shah of Iran’s formal apology to Tsar Nicholas I over the death of Aleksandr Griboedov, Tsar Nicholas II’s children, a changing of the Palace guard, a museum director in the time of Stalin, and a Leningrad resident desperately building his own coffin during the siege of World War II. Following this, we enter a grand ball with Mikhail Glinka’s music played by a live orchestra, and finally the whole crowd, dressed in period costume, descends down the grand staircase. The narrator leaves the building, and we see what appears to be an endless ocean, which has been interpreted as evoking an ark preserving Russian culture on a sea of time.

Though the film was not a huge commercial success, it enjoyed some critical success. Roger Ebert praised it highly for its unbroken flow of images and dreamlike composition. Rotten Tomatoes gave Russian Ark an 88 percent rating, and Metacritic gave it 86/100. The film won the Visions Award at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival, a Silver Condor Award for Best Foreign Film from the Argentine Film Critics’ Association, the Golden Hugo from the Chicago International Film Festival, and the Nike Award for Best Film.

Find Russian Ark on Amazon


Director: Aleksandr Sokurov (Александр Сокуров)
Star: Sergey Dreyden (Сергей Дрейден)
Production company: Seville Pictures
Box office take: $6,685,748


Official trailer:


Russian Ark


Find Russian Ark on Amazon

About the author

Zachary Hicks

Zach Hicks is a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon. He is currently participating in SRAS's Home and Abroad scholarship program. His main areas of interest are twentieth-century Russian and Soviet literature, socialist modernism, and critical theory. Outside of academics his major interests are martial arts, the outdoors, and music. In Russia, he plans to continue to increase his language proficiency, to learn as much as possible about the Russian underground music scene, its tattoo culture, and to become a student of Russia’s native martial art, SAMBO.

Program attended: Art and Museums in Russia

View all posts by: Zachary Hicks