Холоп / Serf: Learn Russian through Film

Published: January 4, 2021

The 2019 film Холоп (Serf), also known in English as Peasant, Servant, and Son of a Rich, broke the box office record for a domestically-produced film from Russia by earning over forty-two million dollars globally, according to the Russkiy Mir Foundation.

Directed by Klim Shipenko, it made the somewhat unusual move to release in the US before releasing in Russia. Audiences in United States were able to view the film on 24 November, 2019 while those in Russia could only do so as of 26 December, 2019. It followed this with releases in various other countries throughout 2019 and 2020.

It has been nominated for Best Feature Film in the 2020 APKiT Awards and as the Best Global Motion Picture in the 2020 Huading Awards. Холоп was produced in tandem by the companies Yellow, Black & White, MEM Cinema Production, and KIT Film Studio in partnership with Channel One Russia, Russian Cinema Fund, and Super TV Channel.

Холоп is a comedy that incorporates romance, Russian history, and contemporary life. It follows the main character, Grisha, on his journey of transformation from being a rich, self-centered young man into a considerate, thankful man after being tricked into thinking he was transported to a 19th-century Russian village under the rule of Alexander II. His love interest, Liza, becomes the catalyst for his transformation as he learns to live as a serf without the comforts of modern life.

I viewed this film as an intermediate Russian speaker and, together in introducing and analyzing the film, I will be providing commentary on how well the film can be understood by someone with an intermediate knowledge of Russian and what it can teach a foreigner viewing it from abroad.

Russian films in the original can be viewed on Start.ru, a service that specializes in Russian-language films and is run by the Russian streaming major Okko.ru. As of January 4, 2021 Start is offering a seven-day free trial period.


Synopsis of Serf (Moderate Spoilers)

If you are viewing a Russian film without subtitles for the purposes of learning Russian, it’s best to start with an English-language synopsis.

The beginning of Холоп shows Grisha’s lifestyle as a spoiled playboy who frits away his evenings in clubs, seducing various women and using bribes to avoid consequences when he breaks the law. Grisha’s father, Pavel, is a highly successful businessman whose fortune Grisha uses to fuel his lifestyle.

After Pavel bails his son out of jail (and obviously not for the first time) after one attempted bribery fails, and after confronting Grisha about his bad habits, he decides that something drastic needs to happen to set his son on a better course. He does so with the help of an unorthodox psychologist, who designs an elaborate scheme to spur change in Grisha’s character. Together, they create the set of a nineteenth-century village, where Grisha wakes up as a serf. In the initial phase of his banishment, Grisha goes through theories of being pranked, being in a dream, or possibly being dead, but the performance of the hired actors and the pain of getting whipped after trying to escape eventually convince him of the reality of his fate.

Throughout the experiment, the psychologist monitors his reactions to the contrived scenarios and the crew strives to overcome the challenges of maintaining the charade despite many accidents that threaten to reveal the truth to Grisha before the end goal has been reached. Luckily, Grisha’s poor knowledge of Russian history lends a helping hand when he fails to recognize discrepancies in his environment.

The first turning point in Grisha’s character becomes apparent when he apologizes to the peasant girl Liza, a horse breeder. He catches a glimpse of her modern-looking underwear when she dismounts her horse and he tackles her to the ground and lifts her skirts for confirmation. This too, however, is explained away using Grisha’s general ignorance and the charade goes on. After this however, he begins to spend more time with Liza in favor of the love interest the psychologist had intended for him, the experienced actress Polina.

Under Liza’s tutelage, Grisha grows more accustomed to his role in the stables and grows to love her.

Later Grisha catches Polina with another actor who was supposed to be her brother in a compromising position, and Polina and the other actor are fired. Out of spite, Polina then reveals the experiment on the Andrey Malakov talk show and alerts the police to what she now claims are unethical conditions that Grisha is being subjected to. In a desperate final test to make Grisha change, the orchestrators stage the Mongol Invasion, even though in reality, it took place in the thirteenth century and not the nineteenth. Despite his nerve-wracking hesitation when Liza is threatened, Grisha puts himself in danger to save her, riding away from the attackers on a horse and proving that his transformation has been accomplished. Then, the police are convinced that they are really shooting a period film and not undertaking a psychological experiment, allowing everyone to go free.

Grisha and Liza, riding their horse, eventually arrive at a gas station, and as Grisha sits in confusion, a sniper tranquilizes him. When he wakes up, Pavel tells him he has been in a coma. Grisha’s changes remain, but he no longer enjoys his former lifestyle, and after running into two of the actors from the village, he realizes that his experience was real. They take pity on him and bring him to Liza’s workplace. After the two are reunited, Grisha forgives his father and reconciles with him. The movie ends with Grisha as a new participant in the same scheme that changed him, showing a new candidate in place of Grisha.


Viewing Холоп (Serf) as an Intermediate Russian Language Learner

As an intermediate Russian speaker, watching Холоп without English subtitles was challenging, but also enjoyable and beneficial. The plot was clear enough to follow from viewing the movie, having read a synopsis beforehand. It is difficult but rewarding to watch Russian films as a language learner, and this movie is a great option at the intermediate level for review of common words, as well as gaining understanding of colloquial speech.

Throughout the film, even beginning learners could recognize words like машина (car), Интернет (Internet), джинсы (jeans), медведь (bear), телефон (phone), и друг (friend). For those at an intermediate level, some common verbs, words and phrases to review or learn before viewing the film are as follows: сон (dream), куда (to where), век (century), сочувствие (sympathy), хамство (rudeness), эгоизм (selfishness), приятного апетита (bon appetite), дурак (fool), идти/ходить(to go by foot), находить/найти (to find), помнить (to remember), поймать/ловить (to catch), попадать/попасть (to hit),  смотреть/посмотреть (to watch), спать/поспать (to sleep), и случаться/случиться (to happen).

It is important to remember that, as an intermediate speaker, you will not understand every word, but watching Russian films greatly helps improve understanding and comprehension. Try to clear your mind and just watch as you would any film. Let your subconscious take over and start making connections from context. While watching Холоп, pay attention to colloquial and abbreviated phrases, learn new vocabulary, and let yourself be proud of how much you can understand!


Analysis of Холоп (Serf) for Students of Russian

Холоп has been given a rating of 6.7 on IMDb, 6.8 on KinoPoisk, and 7.0 on Film.ru. I found the film to be an excellent romantic comedy, including relevant themes of life for filmmakers and actors, contemporary Russian culture, Russian history, wealth and character, corruption, and the capacity of individuals to change. Viewers outside of Russia catch glimpses of city night life in Russia, popular Russian television, and elements of Russian history. Watching Холоп even gives insight into what is common historical knowledge for Russians based on the humorous mocking of Grisha throughout the story for his lack of history-based discernment.

The film does an excellent job of demonstrating character development not only in the protagonist, but also in characters such as Pavel, who learns to pursue a deeper relationship with girlfriend from his experience on the other end of the camera lens. Shots within the movie are also excellently done, showing viewers the scenes Grisha experiences, the behind-the-scenes training of the actors in the village, and the views accessible to the orchestrators from various hidden cameras.

Acclaimed Serbian actor Miloš Biković portrays Grisha in Холоп, and his ability to portray Grisha in various stages of character development draws viewers into the story. Biković has gained acclaim for his various Russian and Serbian roles, including notably his roles in Sunstroke and Soulless 2. The actor has received and been nominated for several prestigious awards.

Other excellent roles in the movie include Aleksandr Samoylenko as Pasha, Ivan Okhlobystin as the Psychologist, Alexandra Bortich as Liza, Mariya Mironova as Anastasia, and Olga Dibtseva as Polina.


Watch the official trailer below. Watch the full film at Start.ru.

About the author

Keegan Lundman

Keegan Lundman is a student at the University of Montana studying Russian, history, and German. She is a Montana native and has lived in Billings, Montana for most of her life. Keegan hopes to dive deeper into Russian history through a graduate program and work in the foreign services after finishing school. At UM, she spends her free time working with Cru campus ministry, attending the Russian and German language clubs, and country swing dancing.

Program attended: Online Internships

View all posts by: Keegan Lundman