The best movies to watch before you travel to Russia

If you're planning a trip to Russia, you might want to watch a few movies set there, to get yourself into a Russian sort of mood. Finding them, however, could be trickier than you think.

The 1966 five-Oscar-winner Dr Zhivago, the eighth-highest grossing film of all time, is an obvious choice. But, sadly, it was filmed mostly in Spain with quarry dust doubling as snow, and the famous scene in which resistance members charge across Moscow's frozen river … they were actually pounding over a sheet of cast iron.

How about Gorky Park then, the 1983 crime and corruption thriller also set in the Russian capital? Nyet! The William Hurt vehicle was shot in Helsinki and Stockholm and the Kremlin was, in truth, the ornate interior of Scotland's Glasgow City Chambers.

You think you'd be luckier with a more recent movie, such as the 2017 hit comedy Death of Stalin, for instance. Ah, maybe not. Most of the exterior shots were filmed in Kiev, Ukraine, as well as in London, with only a few making it to Moscow.

Ironically, Russia has a long-standing and thriving film industry, going back to 1925's The Battleship Potemkin, often cited among the greatest movies ever made. The much-copied (and parodied) Odessa Steps massacre scene was filmed in Odessa in what was then the USSR.

But during the Soviet era, access by Western movie crews was severely restricted and the Finnish and Swedish capitals often doubled for Russian cities. Paradoxically, the one Western film that featured real vision of St Petersburg landmarks (or Leningrad, as it was then) couldn't publicise the fact.

For the 1985 Cold War movie White Nights, a travelogue film crew from Finland, known to Soviet authorities for tourist promotions, was hired to surreptitiously film locations for editing into the movie.

Producer Taylor Hackford (Mr Helen Mirren) was frustrated that critics wrongly accused him of using the same old stock shots of Helsinki, but couldn't tell the truth… otherwise the Finnish crew would have been banned from any future work in the USSR.

There were still restrictions around in 1988 when Arnold Schwarzenegger made the thriller Red Heat, so producers had to sneakily film him in Moscow's Red Square, under the pretence of making a home movie.

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As the Soviet system wound down, however, and Russia opened up, Western movie-makers were able to make more of the historic buildings in the country's great cities. The 1990 film adaptation of John Le Carre's novel The Russia House, starring Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, for instance, was shot mostly on location in Moscow and Leningrad.

Yet it wasn't always easy. In 1993, location work on the Police Academy movie Mission to Moscow had to be abandoned when an armed uprising broke out in the Russian capital. In some scenes, you can clearly see the damage to the parliament building caused by troops loyal to the president.

For cost and security reasons, most of the action in the 1995 James Bond film Goldeneye was shot in the UK, although the army tank chase scene actually took place in St Petersburg.

The 1997 version of much-filmed Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina was a lot more authentic. It was mostly shot in St Petersburg, at the palaces and luxurious mansions of pre-revolution Russian nobility, such as the famous Winter Palace, Peterhof, the Menshikov Palace, the magnificently ornate Yusupov Palace, and the city's main thoroughfare, Nevsky Prospekt.

Moscow, meanwhile, had the spectacular car chase scene of The Bourne Supremacy, in which Matt Damon trashes a Russian Lada taxi and many other vehicles, as well as the 2004 movie's ending.

The siege of Leningrad scenes in the movie Downfall, also from 2004, charting the last days of Hitler, were filmed in and around St Petersburg. The Fuhrer's subtitled rant has since become an internet meme.

Recently, as a sign of how welcome Western film-makers have become in Russia, Moscow's Red Square was closed to the public for several hours so that producers could film scenes for the 2012 futuristic horror flick Resident Evil: Retribution.

For those planning a trip to Russia, it's an interesting film to watch for its scenes by the Kremlin, and the incredibly long escalator down to the famous Moscow subway. But as for actor Milla Jovovich battling mutants … Probably, yes, just a steppe too far.

THE DETAILS

Sue Williams travelled to Russia for a cruise from Moscow to St Petersburg courtesy of APT.

MORE

traveller.com.au/russia

FLY

A number of airlines fly from Australia to Moscow, with one stop along the way, including Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad.

STAY

The Hotel Baltschug Kempinski is in Moscow's historic Zamoskvorechye district and offers great view of the Kremlin, Red Square and St. Basil's Cathedral. Rooms from about $290. See kempinski.com/en

CRUISE

APT runs a number of cruising itineraries that include Russia. See aptouring.com.au

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