Russia and Soviet Union

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Russia and Soviet Union

ORIGINS: 1896–1918
THAW AND NEW WAVE: 1954–1968
SITUATION: 1985–2002


The often problematical concept of national cinema takes on particular complications in the case of Russian and Soviet cinema. The first century of cinema encompassed intervals of Russian history from the late imperial period (1895–1917), through the era of the Soviet Union (1917–1991), to the emergence of the post-Soviet Russian Republic and the other newly independent states (from 1992). Much of twentieth-century Russian history coincides with the seventy-five-year presence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, during which time period Russia represented just one member—the dominant one, to be sure—of a fifteen-member federal union. Russia's national culture was subsumed into the cultural politics of that larger union and guided by the political goals of the Soviet ruling elite.

Another ongoing issue for the region's cinema was its dynamic relationship with the West. The course of Russian and Soviet cinema has been influenced through the decades by periodic interaction with Western Europe and the United States. The twentieth century saw episodes of active cultural exchange (the 1920s) as well as periods in which Russia was cut off from foreign influences (the late 1940s). This give-and-take shaped and reshaped the region's indigenous cinema.

ORIGINS: 1896–1918

Cinema was introduced into Russia through the initiative of Europeans. One sign of foreign influence on Russian cinema is the number of cognates in Russia's film lexicon. One finds German (e.g., the Russian word for cinema, kino, derives from the German Kino) as well as many French traces in the language (e.g, the Russian montazh derives from montage). The Lumière organization first ventured into the region in 1896, with successful public showings of programs in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The company also dispatched the camera operator Francis Doublier to Russia to film local scenes. Other foreign companies, including Pathé and Gaumont, followed suit over the next few years, shooting actuality films, short documentaries on everyday life, that took advantage of local color and helped cultivate a possible film market in Russia.

Russian cities proved receptive to European film imports, and by the turn of the century film viewing emerged as a leisure activity available to the urban working and middle classes. Numerous "electro-theaters" (elektroteatry) appeared in Russia's major cities, showing continuous cycles of four or more shorts in thirty- to sixty-minute programs. These modest, storefront establishments gave way after 1980 larger, more ornate cinemas with announced seating times and expanded programs. By 1913 there were over 1,400 permanent movie theaters in the Russian Empire; the leading markets were St. Petersburg, with 134 commercial cinemas, and Moscow, with 67.

Russian filmmaking began as something of an off-shoot of this European film presence. The first generation of Russian film entrepreneurs often had connections to foreign companies. Alexander Drankov began filmmaking in Russia after acquiring movie equipment from England in 1907 and using his status as a photographer for the London Times to help fund his fledgling movie business. He made the first Russian story film in 1908, a version of Stenka Razin, the well-known Russian tale of a Cossack hero. The crude, eight-minute film consists of simple excerpts from familiar parts of the tale, but it proved to be a great popular success. Drankov continued his film career through the pre-revolutionary era, shooting mostly low-budget entertainment and actuality films.

A leading Drankov competitor was Alexander Khanzhonkov, who began his career in Pathé's Russian office before starting his own film distribution service in 1909. He soon moved into film production, and his company grew into a powerful force in the still developing Russian film market. Khanzhonkov produced some seventy films in the five years leading up to World War I and pushed the industry toward more elaborate feature-length productions. He was joined in 1911 in "up-market" activity by the producer Joseph Yermoliev (1889–1962), who was able to capitalize his new Moscow studio for one million rubles. These and several smaller Russian companies set production patterns for Russian cinema through the 1910s. Domestic productivity increased steadily through the prewar period, from ten Russian-made story films in 1908 to 129 in 1913. Nevertheless, imports still dominated the market; when Russia entered World War I, only about 10 percent of films in Russian distribution were homemade.

The major producers like Khanzhankov and Yermoliev cultivated a taste for sumptuous melodramas and literary adaptations that found favor with the urban middle class through the 1910s. These elegant dramas borrowed something of a theatrical aesthetic, with elaborate sets, striking lighting effects, and very little editing. From this situation two major artists emerged, Yevgeni Bauer (1865–1917) and Yakov Protazanov (1881–1945). Bauer's feature Nemye svideteli (Silent Witnesses), produced for Khanzhokov in 1914, illustrates the best of this melodramatic tradition, with a visually rich mise-en-scène that sustains the emotional force of the drama. Protazanov is best remembered for his literary adaptations, including his elaborate rendering of Leo Tolstoy's Otets Sergei (Father Sergius, 1917) for the Yermoliev studio.

The world war cut the Russian Empire off from foreign trade and abruptly ended the importation of new European movies. Domestic studios increased production levels to meet demand, but they were eating into a fixed capital base. The nation lacked factories to produce new film equipment or raw film stock, having relied for years on importation for such materials. Supplies ran out after 1916, leading to an industry crisis that continued into the early Soviet era.


When the new Bolshevik regime began to organize its own governmental agencies in early 1918, the leadership took stock of the nation's extant cinema resources in the hope the medium could serve as an instrument of political persuasion. Authority for cinema affairs was assigned to the Commissariat of Education and its energetic head, Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky (who served in that post from 1917 to 1929) who found the Russian film industry had plunged into recession. Movie theaters closed during the last year of World War I and the tumultuous early months of the revolution. Veteran film personnel fled the country, taking film assets with them. Resources dwindled through the late 1910s and early 1920s, and the Soviets could not resupply because of a trade embargo mounted in Western Europe. Although a White Russian film community succeeded in making movies in regions outside of Bolshevik authority (such as the Crimea) in the late 1910s, the nation's film industry all but shut down by 1920. Vladimir Lenin's famous decree nationalizing cinema in 1919 was something of an empty gesture, since there were precious few film assets to take over.

Lunacharsky set about rebuilding the film industry in the early 1920s when Lenin instituted the semicapitalist New Economic Policy (NEP), in which market practices returned to the Soviet economy. This revived the urban economy and the Russian middle class. Lunacharsky calculated that city dwellers, who had provided the audience base of pre-revolutionary cinema, would return to movie theaters if new foreign product could be brought in. He arranged for the renewed importation of foreign films beginning in 1922, the same year the trade embargo ended. German, French, Scandinavian, and especially American movies once again filled commercial movie theaters in Russia, attracting paying audiences. Income went to the purchase of new film supplies and to the refitting of movie studios. Soviet productivity increased gradually through the 1920s, even as foreign movies enjoyed long commercial runs. In 1923 the USSR released just thirty-eight homemade features; by 1928 that figure was up to 109.

Meanwhile, the regime campaigned to "cinefy" the countryside by spreading the exhibition network to reach the entire Soviet population. By 1928 urban spectators could see movies in 2,730 commercial movie theaters, almost twice the number from 1913. This commercial exhibition network was complemented by worker clubs, a Soviet innovation to provide industrial workers and their families with entertainment and cultural enlightenment during leisure hours. Some 4,680 worker clubs regularly showed movies at discount prices to proletarian audiences. And for the first time, cinema was reaching the vast peasant population. Both fixed and portable projectors served villages by the late 1920s: in 1928, 1,820 villages had permanent installations and another 3,770 portable units toured rural circuits.

The union-wide film market was also reorganized to encourage the USSR's member republics to develop their own film studios and distribution networks. The Russian Republic remained dominant with 70 percent of the USSR's film market and the leading studios Sovkino and Mezhrabpom. But other republics in the Soviet system developed indigenous film activity during the middle 1920s. Leading non-Russian studios included Georgia's Gosinprom Gruzii and Ukraine's VUFKU. This rehabilitated infrastructure made possible the great creative achievements of Soviet silent cinema, including the innovations of the montage directors Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948), V. I. Pudovkin (1893–1953), Alexander Dovzhenko (1894–1956), and Dziga Vertov (1896–1954). All produced their most acclaimed works in the brief period of film prosperity in the mid- to late-1920s.

The seeds for the montage movement had been planted earlier. The State Film Institute in Moscow was established in 1919 to train a new generation of filmmakers during the rebuilding period. Lev Kuleshov (1899–1970) joined the faculty in 1920 and surrounded himself with a promising group of students, including Pudovkin and (briefly) Eisenstein, who studied with him in the early 1920s, and then began their own filmmaking careers in the middle 1920s once the film industry resumed productivity. Kuleshov and his students took note of the sophisticated editing techniques evident in the American movies playing in Moscow's cinemas. They embraced editing as the key to successful filmmaking and as a welcome contrast to the theatrical style of pre-revolutionary Russian cinema. Rapid editing also seemed to offer a dynamic style that paralleled some of the modernist techniques of the USSR's artistic avant-garde.

Among the montage directors, Pudovkin is commonly regarded as having followed a more conventional narrative line, consistent with his acknowledged interest in Hollywood-style continuity editing, whereas his colleague Eisenstein explored a more radical montage possibility. Pudovkin's preference is evident in his adaptation of the Maxim Gorky novel Mat (Mother, 1926). This account of the 1905 uprising treats revolutionary activity through the experiences of a single title character and often subordinates editing to the demands of character development. Eisenstein's more aggressive aesthetic is illustrated in his parallel treatment of the 1905 rebellion, Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, also known as Potemkin, 1925). He eschews conventional protagonists in favor of a collective hero, and his more discontinuous editing stresses conflict rather than linear development.

b. Sosnitsa, Russia (now Ukraine), 12 September 1895, d. 26 November 1956

Alexander Dovzhenko is regarded as Ukraine's premier filmmaker and the nation's most revered artist of the twentieth century. In nine fiction films and three documentaries, as well as a number of literary works and drawings, Dovzhenko gave creative form to Ukraine's difficult historical progress toward modernity during the Soviet era. His film work takes up themes of the social and economic modernization program sustained by the Soviet regime, while also invoking traditional motifs from Ukraine's national heritage.

Dovzhenko was born in rural Ukraine and raised in a conservative peasant culture that stressed national and folk traditions. By the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917–1918, however, he was drawn into radical political activism and allied himself with the Bolshevik Party. He subsequently sought to fashion a role in the community of revolutionary artists who emerged in the early years of the Soviet system. After a brief career as a painter and political cartoonist, Dovzhenko entered the cinema in 1926, working first on comic shorts and then on a series of features that addressed the effect of Soviet modernization and industrialization on Ukrainian society.

He is best known for his three silent epics on the Ukrainian revolution and its consequences, Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929), and Zemlya (Earth, 1930). The films manifest support for revolutionary change under the Soviets, but they also reference Ukrainian pastoral art and folklore. This is evident in the conclusion of Arsenal, for example, which celebrates the heroic last stand of a group of Ukrainian Bolsheviks battling nationalist counterrevolutionaries in 1918. When the Bolshevik hero proves invulnerable to enemy bullets in the final scene, Ukrainian audiences would have recognized the reference to a venerable folk legend about an eighteenth-century peasant uprising.

Dovzhenko sustained his account of economic development during the sound era. Ivan (1932) deals with the construction of a massive hydroelectric complex in Ukraine that served as a symbol of the region's move toward industrialization, and Aerograd (Frontier, 1935) takes up Soviet efforts to secure the Siberian frontier as a step toward developing the Soviet far east. Dovzhenko returned to the Ukrainian revolution with his 1939 film Shchors (Shors), treating the exploits of a martyred Red Army commander, and he spent World War II making propaganda documentaries on behalf of the war effort. In his only postwar feature, Michurin (Life in Bloom, 1948), Dovzhenko revisits the modernization theme in a biopic about a Soviet horticulturist whose research promised to improve nature's bounty through modern science.

The increasingly stringent censorship of the Stalin regime frustrated Dovzhenko through the second half of his career, and he completed only four features in the last twenty-five years of his life. He left behind a number of scripts and unfinished projects at the time of his death, some of which were eventually filmed by his wife and creative collaborator, Julia Solntseva. His greater legacy was the body of finished work that chronicled his homeland's uneasy developmental progress under the Soviets.


Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929), Zemlya (Earth, 1930), Ivan (1932), Aerograd (Frontier, 1935), Shchors (Shors, 1939)


Dovzhenko, Alexander. Alexander Dovzhenko: The Poet as Filmmaker. Edited and translated by Marco Carynnyk. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1973.

Kepley, Vance. In the Service of the State: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986.

Liber, George. Alexander Dovzhenko: A Life in Soviet Film. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Vance Kepley, Jr.

The montage style was embraced in different ways by other filmmakers beyond Kuleshov's Muscovite circle. At the VUFKU studio, Dovzhenko developed a trilogy of films on the Ukrainian revolutionary experience—Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929), and Zemlya (Earth, 1930)—and employed a highly elliptical montage style that challenged audiences at the level of narrative comprehension. Working in the documentary domain, Vertov decried the norms of linear narration that he found in most fiction cinema. He called for reality-based cinema and for an editing practice that articulated social and economic relations rather than narrative events, an ambition that is illustrated in his, VUFKU documentary Chelovek s kino-apparatom (Man with a Movie Camera, 1929).

Montage was not the stylistic norm for Soviet silent cinema, however. Most Soviet features of the 1920s followed more conventional norms of storytelling, and many clearly imitated the Hollywood entertainment pictures that enjoyed such success in the Soviet commercial market. Boris Barnet (1902–1965), for example, made genre films in the Hollywood mode, such as the crowd-pleasing comedy Devushka s korobkoi (The Girl with the Hatbox, 1927). And the veteran director Protazanov, who returned to the USSR in 1924 after a period of exile, worked successfully in various popular genres, including science fiction (Aelita, 1924).

Such mainstream genre pictures and Hollywood imports drew a larger audience share than the more avant-garde work of the montage directors. Reports filtered back to the film industry leadership that many Soviet spectators were genuinely confused by the elliptical editing of the likes of Dovzhenko, and they professed a preference for narrative continuity. Meanwhile, the movie audience continued to expand to include a larger share of the peasantry, still the USSR's demographic majority. Cinema officials feared correctly that such new movie viewers would be alienated by the cinema avant-garde, and this sparked a debate in the film community about which style would finally secure the loyalty of the Soviet masses. The debate would be resolved by the force of policy under the regime of Joseph Stalin.


During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party consolidated its authority and set about transforming the Soviet Union on both the economic and cultural fronts. The economy moved from the market-based NEP to a system of central planning. The new leadership declared a "cultural revolution" in which the party would exercise tight control over cultural affairs, including artistic expression. Cinema existed at the intersection of art and economics; so it was destined to be thoroughly reorganized in this episode of economic and cultural transformation.

To implement central planning in cinema, the new bureaucratic entity Soyuzkino was created in 1930. All the hitherto autonomous studios and distribution networks that had grown up under NEP's market would now be coordinated in their activities by this planning agency. Soyuzkino's authority also extended to the studios of the national republics such as VUFKU, which had enjoyed more independence during the 1920s. Soyuzkino consisted of an extended bureaucracy of economic planners and policy specialists who were charged to formulate annual production plans for the studios and then to monitor the distribution and exhibition of finished films.

With central planning came more centralized authority over creative decision making. Script development became a long, torturous process under this bureaucratic system, with various committees reviewing drafts and calling for cuts or revisions. In the 1930s censorship became more exacting with each passing year, in a manner that paralleled the increasing cultural repression of the Stalinist regime. Feature film projects would drag out for months or years and might be terminated at any point along the way because of the capricious decision of one or another censoring committee.

Such redundant oversight slowed down production and inhibited creativity. Although central planning was supposed to increase the film industry's productivity, production levels declined steadily through the 1930s. The industry was releasing over one-hundred features annually at the end of the NEP period, but that figure fell to seventy by 1932 and to forty-five by 1934. It never again reached triple digits during the remainder of the Stalin era. Veteran directors experienced precipitous career declines under this system of bureaucratic control; whereas Eisenstein was able to make four features between 1924 and 1929, he completed only one film (Alexander Nevsky, 1938) during the entire decade of the 1930s. His planned adaptation of the Ivan Turgenev story Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1935–1937) was halted during production in 1937 and officially banned, one of many promising film projects that fell victim to an exacting censorship system.

Meanwhile, the USSR cut off its film contacts with the West. It stopped importing films after 1931 out of concern that foreign films exposed audiences to capitalist ideologies. The industry also freed itself from dependency on foreign technologies. During its industrialization effort of the early 1930s, the USSR finally built an array of factories to supply the film industry with the nation's own technical resources.

To secure independence from the West, industry leaders mandated that the USSR develop its own sound technologies, rather than taking licenses on Western sound systems. Two Soviet scientists, Alexander Shorin in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) and Pavel Tager in Moscow, conducted research through the late 1920s on complementary sound systems, which were ready for use by 1930. The implementation process, including the cost of refitting movie theaters, proved daunting, and the USSR did not complete the transition to sound until 1935. Nevertheless, several directors made innovative use of sound once the technology became available. In Entuziazm: Simfoniya Donbassa (Enthusiasm, 1931), his documentary on coal mining and heavy industry, Vertov based his soundtrack on an elegantly orchestrated array of industrial noises. Pudovkin in Dezertir (Deserter, 1933) experimented with a form of "sound counterpoint" by exploiting tensions and ironic dissonances between sound elements and the image track. And in Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein collaborated with the composer Sergei Prokofiev on an "operatic" film style that elegantly coordinated the musical score and the image track.

As Soviet cinema made the transition to sound and central planning in the early 1930s, it was also put under a mandate to adopt a uniform film style, commonly identified as Socialist Realism. In 1932 the party leadership ordered the literary community to abandon the avant-garde practices of the 1920s and to embrace Socialist Realism, a literary style that, in practice, was actually close to nineteenth-century realism. The other arts, including cinema, were subsequently instructed to develop the aesthetic equivalent. For cinema, this meant adopting a film style that would be legible to a broad audience, thus avoiding a possible split between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema that was evident in the late 1920s. The director of Soyuzkino and chief policy officer for the film industry, Boris Shumiatsky (1886–1938), who served from 1931 to 1938, was a harsh critic of the montage aesthetic. He championed a "cinema for the millions," which would use clear, linear narration. Although American movies were no longer being imported in the 1930s, the Hollywood model of continuity editing was readily available, and it had a successful track record with Soviet movie audiences. Soviet Socialist Realism was built on this style, which assured tidy storytelling. Various guidelines were then added to the doctrine: positive heroes to act as role models for viewers; lessons in good citizenship for spectators to embrace; and support for reigning policy decisions of the Communist Party.

Such restrictive aesthetic policies, enforced by the rigorous censorship apparatus of Soyuzkino, resulted in a number of formulaic and doctrinaire films. But they apparently did succeed in sustaining a true "cinema of the masses." The 1930s witnessed some stellar examples of popular cinema. The single most successful film of the decade, in terms of both official praise and genuine affection from the mass audience, was Chapayev (1934), co-directed by Sergei (1900–1959) and Grigori Vasiliev. Based on the life of a martyred Red Army commander, the film was touted as a model of Socialist Realism, in that Chapayev and his followers battled heroically for the revolutionary cause. But the film also humanized the title character, giving him personal foibles, an ironic sense of humor, and a rough peasant charm. These qualities endeared him to the viewing public: spectators reported seeing the film multiple times during its first run in 1934, and Chapayev was periodically rereleased for subsequent generations of movie viewers.

A genre that emerged in the 1930s to consistent popular acclaim was the musical comedy, and a master of that form was Grigori Aleksandrov (1903–1984). He effected a creative partnership with his wife, the brilliant comic actress and chanteuse Lyubov Orlova (1902–1975), in a series of crowd-pleasing musicals. Their pastoral comedy Volga-Volga (1938) was surpassed only by Chapayev in terms of box-office success. The fantasy element of their films, with lively musical numbers reviving the montage aesthetic, sometimes stretched the boundaries of Socialist Realism, but the genre could also allude to contemporary affairs. In Aleksandrov's 1940 musical Svetlyi put' (The Shining Path), Orlova plays a humble servant girl who rises through the ranks of the Soviet industrial leadership after developing clever labor-saving work methods. Audiences could enjoy the film's comic turn on the Cinderella story while also learning about the value of efficiency in the workplace.


The German invasion of June 1941 produced an immediate crisis of national survival and led to a four-year ordeal for the Soviet population, eventually costing the lives of approximately 20 million Soviet citizens. All major industries were pressed into emergency service after June 1941, including cinema. But the initial military situation also disrupted the film industry's operations. The two major production centers, Leningrad and Moscow, soon came under threat from the German army. Much of the Moscow film community and production infrastructure was evacuated to the east. A makeshift production facility went up in Alma Ata in Kazakhstan. Leningrad remained under daily bombardment for more than two years, and key film factories located in the city sustained serious damage. The army conscripted 250 experienced camera operators to make front-line newsreels, and nearly 20 percent of them died in combat. Veteran filmmakers such as Dovzhenko took military commissions and served the effort by producing propaganda documentaries.

As an immediate response to the crisis, the industry rushed out a series of "Fighting Film Albums" (boevye kinosborniki), short, topical films that combined documentary and scripted materials. Each episode offered a clear, pointed message on the importance of contributing to the war effort. Twelve such propaganda pieces were released in 1941 and 1942 while the industry regrouped. Throughout the remainder of the conflict, film resources went primarily to war-related documentaries and newsreels. Between 1942 and 1945 the industry released only seventy feature films. Most of their stories were set in the present and promoted the theme of national resistance to the German invaders. Characteristic of this trend was the emotional drama Raduga (The Rainbow, Mark Donskoi,1944), the tale of a Russian peasant woman who is captured and mercilessly tortured by the enemy but who never betrays her country during the ordeal.

b. Stalingrad, Russia (now Volgograd, Russia), 9 July 1933, d. 26 October 2003

One of the leading figures of the post-World War II Russian cinema, Elem Klimov's influence was felt as both a filmmaker and as a film industry reformer who helped guide his nation's cinema through the transition to democratization and privatization in the late Soviet era. Born and raised in a family of Communist Party members, Klimov eventually became a critic of the Soviet system, in part because his work often ran afoul of Soviet censors, and also because he championed the reform movement that helped end party control over the arts.

After studying aviation in the 1950s, Klimov was able to enter cinema during the post-Stalin "thaw," which opened up new opportunities for young filmmakers. He studied at the national film academy VGIK and began his film career in the early 1960s as part of a talented "new wave" generation that included Andrei Tarkovsky, Vasily Shukshin, and Klimov's own wife, Larisa Shepitko. His early comic satires, Dobro pozhalovat, ili postoronnim vkhod vospreshchyon (Welcome, or No Trespassing, 1964), and Pokhozhdeniya zubnogo vracha (Adventures of a Dentist, 1965), targeted Soviet authoritarianism, and their releases were delayed by nervous censors. His historical drama Agoniya (Agony), on the final days of the czarist era, was completed in 1975 but not released until 1984.

Klimov's work took a dark turn after the death of his wife, Larisa Shepitko, in a car accident in 1979, cutting short her brilliant film career. He directed a documentary tribute to her, Larisa (1980), and he took over and completed her unfinished project Proshchanie s Matyoroy (Farewell, 1983), a sad tale about the destruction of an ancient village and the relocation of its residents as a byproduct of industrial development. This film too was nearly banned by Soviet authorities, who disagreed with its warning about the environmental costs of progress. Klimov's most severe work was his masterpiece, the relentlessly grim war film Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985). Set in Belarus during the Nazi occupation, the story concerns a sensitive boy who lives through the war's turmoil and atrocities and becomes jaded and hardened by the experience.

Klimov completed no other films in the last two decades of his life. He turned to political activism in 1986, becoming First Secretary of the Union of Filmmakers and a leading spokesman for the Russian film community. In that role he was instrumental in implementing changes supported by the reformist regime of Mikhail Gorbachev under the banner of artistic "openness" (glasnost). Klimov's efforts helped end bureaucratic control over creative affairs in cinema and secured the release of previously banned films. He left office at the end of the decade to resume his filmmaking career, hoping to adapt Mikhail Bulgakov's classic novel The Master and Margarita (translated edition released in 1967). He never finished that ambitious project, in part, ironically, because the film privatization process that he championed actually caused the Russian film industry to retrench in the 1990s.


Agoniya (Agony, 1975/1984), Idi i smotri (Come and See, 1985)


Vronskaya, Jeanne. Young Soviet Film Makers. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972.

Woll, Josephine. "He Came, He Saw: An Overview of Elem Klimov's Career." Kinoeye 4, no. 4 (2004).

Vance Kepley, Jr.

Fewer historical films were included in wartime production plans, but this genre did yield at least one masterpiece, Eisenstein's Ivan Groznyi I (Ivan the Terrible, Part I, 1944). Conceived in 1941 as an epic trilogy on the Russian czar most admired by Stalin, it was produced

under war conditions at the Alma Ata facility. Eisenstein again collaborated with Prokofiev on an operatic score for this lavish production. Part I of the project was completed in 1944 and released to much acclaim in January 1945. With the war still under way, it was treated in the official Soviet press as a history lesson on the importance of Russian unity in a time of national crisis.

After the German surrender, the film industry took stock of wartime losses and looked toward rebuilding. The war had taken a hard toll. Approximately twelve percent of all persons who had been employed in the movie industry in 1941 perished during the conflict. Much of the cinema infrastructure had been in the western regions of the USSR, the areas most affected by the fighting. Over half of the USSR's movie theaters were put out of operation by 1945 because of battle damage. Responding to the crisis, the Soviet government allocated 500 million rubles to invest in the cinema infrastructure over five years (1946–1950), and postwar economic planning supported the recruitment and training of new personnel. The rebuilding program yielded quick results, and by 1950 the Soviet film industry's personnel and productive capacity actually exceeded pre-1941 levels.

Yet even as the industry grew in material capacity, figures on annual feature film releases fell to all-time lows. Each year annual production plans confidently predicted the release of eighty to a hundred features, and each year the actual figures proved paltry. Only twenty features were released in 1946; that number dropped to eleven by 1950, and to just five by 1952. This bizarre situation was caused by a draconian episode in the cultural politics of Stalinism. In the late 1940s the arts in general and cinema in particular came under intense Communist Party scrutiny, during what proved to be the single most repressive moment in the cultural history of Russia. A 1946 party decree ordered the banning of several new films, including Eisenstein's Ivan Groznyi II (Ivan the Terrible, Part II, released in 1958), for alleged flaws, and then announced the party would not permit future films to go forward unless they passed the most rigorous examination. This gave rise to an official "theory of masterpieces" in postwar Soviet cinema; whereas very few films would be released, each film approved for release after such exacting review would be, by definition, a masterpiece. This harsh environment meant that most films that passed muster simply embraced party ideology and Stalinist idolatry. Characteristic of this was Padenie Berlina (The Fall of Berlin, Mikheil Chiaureli, 1949), a bloated war drama in which Stalin is credited with making one brilliant military decision after another, thereby defeating the Germans and saving the nation.

In this restrictive cinema environment, Soviet movie audiences had few choices, but they kept attending movies. Spectators would watch every new feature, often more than once, and they had the chance to see rereleases of past favorites such as Chapayev. The meager cinema menu of the late-Stalin era was enhanced by a curious addition, however: so-called trophy films (trofeinye fil'my) became available to Soviet audiences after 1945 and proved to be quite popular. These were Western-made features confiscated from Germany after the Nazi surrender. Most were German, but some were from other nations, including the United States. They went into Soviet commercial release with new printed introductions that instructed audiences to take note of the decadent ways of Western capitalism that were on display in the film. Audiences apparently gave such disclaimers little heed; the films provided welcome glimpses into foreign cultures at a time when the state otherwise forbade contact with the West.

THAW AND NEW WAVE: 1954–1968

Within two years of Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet writers and artists perceived a "thaw" in the party's cultural politics. Statements from the new leader Nikita Khrushchev (first secretary of the party from 1953 to 1964, and premier from 1958 to 1964) promised more creative freedom. Meanwhile, the film industry reorganized in this more tolerant climate to increase both productivity and diversity in annual film plans, gradually boosting outputs through the decade. By 1960 the USSR was releasing over a hundred features annually, the first time in three decades that productivity reached triple digits. Several banned films, including Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible, Part II, were finally cleared for Soviet exhibition.

Whereas in the 1940s newcomers had little hope of getting the few available directing assignments, the expanded production plans of the 1950s allowed a generation of young directors to launch careers. Eldar Riazanov (b. 1927) began his career with the musical comedy Karnaval'naia noch' (Carnival Night, 1956). Its biting satire on bureaucratic interference in artistic expression was clearly an allusion to the Stalin legacy. After graduating from the State Film Institute in 1955, Lev Kulidzhanov (1924–2002) showed his talent with the touching drama Dom, v kotorom ia zhivu (The House I Live In, 1957). A loose story that follows the daily lives of several people living in a communal housing situation, the film evidenced a debt to Italian Neorealism.

Such foreign influences were not accidental. During the mid- to late 1950s, Soviet film artists were able to reenter the international cinema community after two decades of isolation. The USSR began importing foreign films again for domestic release and encouraged its own filmmakers to participate in international festivals. Two films of the late 1950s won acclaim in the festival circuit and helped reacquaint the West with Soviet cinema: Mikhail K. Kalatozov's (1903–1973) Letiat zhuravli (The Cranes Are Flying, 1957) received a Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and Grigori Chukhrai's (1921–2001) Ballada o soldate (Ballad of a Soldier, 1959) won prizes at Cannes and Venice. When the Moscow Film Festival began in 1959, it was clear that the USSR would remain in the international film arena.

This renewed contact with the West proved salutary for the generation of young filmmakers that emerged in the 1960s, including Andrei Tarkovsky (1932–1986), Vasily Shukshin (1929–1974), and Larisa Shepitko (1938–1979). Although they did not view themselves as part of a unified film movement, they are sometimes treated as a Russian "new wave" because of their parallel career paths and similar artistic debts to modern European cinema. All three graduated from the Film Institute and started their careers in the early 1960s, and they all drew their inspirations not from the past giants of Soviet cinema like Eisenstein but from leading European art directors. Tarkovsky is often compared to Ingmar Bergman, and that debt is evident in Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivanovo detstvo (Ivan's Childhood, also known as My Name Is Ivan, 1962). Shukshin's debut film, Zhivyot takoi paren' (There Lived Such a Lad, 1964), with its loose narrative structure and elegant camera movement, bears a resemblance to the early work of François Truffaut. And the subjective episodes in Shepitko's Kryl'ia (Wings, 1966), which sometimes blur the distinction between fantasy and reality, are reminiscent of Federico Fellini.

The Soviet regime hardened its policies in the late 1960s, and renewed censorship stemmed some of the creative energies of these young directors. Signs of this trend were the heavy-handed censorship of Korotkie vstrechi (Brief Encounters, Kira Muratova, 1967) and the banning in 1968 of Komissar (The Commissar, Aleksandr Askoldov), which ran afoul of censors because of its treatment of the sensitive issue of anti-Semitism in the USSR.


Russian cultural historians labeled the 1970s and early 1980s a period of stagnation because of the dissipation of creative energy and innovation in the arts. The film industry became more heavily bureaucratized in the 1970s. The industry's planning agency, now known as Goskino, provided sinecure jobs for veteran Communist Party officials who sometimes proved to have little or no expertise in film. They were often at odds with members of the creative community. In a few cases, outside political interference became scandalous, as when the avant-garde director Sergei Parajanov (1924–1990) was arrested in 1974 and released from prison only after the Kremlin responded to foreign pressure. Nevertheless, the era produced aesthetically sophisticated work in areas that may have been considered safe, such as literary adaptations. In his late career, for example, the veteran director Grigori Kozintsev (1905–1973) concentrated on elaborate adaptations of such canonized writers as Cervantes and Shakespeare; this culminated in the release of Kozintsev's magnum opus, Korol Lir (King Lear), in 1971, four years before his death.

Some of the most innovative work of the era was done in alternative genres, notably in children's film. A respected practitioner in this genre was Rolan Bykov (1929–1998), who often used his otherwise mild, comic stories about children to explore problems inherent in the Soviet system. His charming 1970 film Vnimanie, cherepakha! (Attention, Turtle!) has some gentle fun with the Soviet doctrine of collective action. By the early 1980s, however, Bykov's vision of childhood and the Soviet experience had grown darker. His Chuchelo (The Scarecrow, 1983) took a harsh view of the extent to which the collectivist ideology had turned into an obsession with social uniformity in the story of a nonconforming school girl who is mistreated by her peers.

b. Zavrazhe, Ivanono, Russia, 4 April 1932, d. 28 December 1986

Andrei Tarkovsky remains the most esteemed Soviet filmmaker of the post-World War II era despite having a relatively small body of work. An uncompromising artist and visionary who refused to bend either to Soviet governmental authorities or to commercial considerations, he completed only seven features and one short. His films were years in the making and often faced distribution delays or limited release. Each answered to his personal vision and gave form to the central concern of his own life, the difficulty of sustaining a sensitive, artistic temperament in a harsh world.

After studying music, drawing, and languages, he entered the Soviet film school VGIK in 1954 and completed his diploma film, the short Katok i skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin) in 1960. This elegant children's film about a meek young musician who seeks the protective friendship of a Soviet worker anticipates the central theme of Tarkovsky's later features: the conflict between the artist's sensibility and the realities of the modern world. Tarkovsky's austere narratives found their visual complement in a long-take style that stressed the duration of experience. He rejected the montage tradition of classical Soviet cinema and advocated a style that rendered the linear experience of time in lengthy takes and slow, elegant camera movements.

The image of youth coping with external threats carries over to Tarkovsky's first feature, Ivanovo detstvo (My Name Is Ivan, 1962), a World War II story of an orphaned boy living through the turmoil of war. Tarkovsky's mature work begins with Andrei Rublev (1966, USSR release in 1971), which concerns the tribulations of the great Russian icon painter. Tarkovsky's science fiction allegory Solaris (1972), based on a Stanislaw Lem novel, suggests that modern scientific knowledge is an inferior substitute for creative imagination. His most formally complex film, Zerkalo (The Mirror, 1975), uses a highly elliptical narrative design to trace out the fragmentary memories and dreamscapes of its dying protagonist, who must reflect on a life of emotional failure. In Stalker (1979), Tarkovsky returns to science fiction in a tale, set in the not-too-distant future, of a journey through a dystopian realm called the Zone.

The motif of the artist's alienation from his own society took literal form in the last phase of Tarkovsky's life and career. Nostalghia, an account of a Russian musicologist living in self-imposed exile from his homeland, was shot in Italy in 1983, and Tarkovsky never returned to the USSR, eventually defecting to the West. He made his last film, Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986), in Sweden, but its landscape was chosen to resemble Russia, evoking a homesickness that tormented Tarkovsky until his death.


Katok i skripka (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1960), lvanovo detstvo (My Name Is Ivan, 1962), Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), Zerkalo (The Mirror, 1975), Stalker (1979), Nostalghia (1983), Offret (The Sacrifice, 1986)


Johnson, Vida T., and Graham Petrie. The Films of Andrei Tarkovsky: A Visual Fugue. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema. Translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987.

——. Time Within Time: The Diaries, 1970–1986. London: Verso, 1993.

Vance Kepley, Jr.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the period's movies, cinema remained a strong national institution. The studios thrived in the 1970s, releasing over 125 theatrical features annually. Movie-going remained a vital part of the social routine of Soviet citizens. There was none of the audience decline evident in the United States in the same period, for example, even though the USSR had full television service by the 1970s. Per capita attendance in the USSR was over sixteen movie outings annually, approximately three times the annual attendance rate of Americans.

SITUATION: 1985–2002

In May 1986 the Kremlin hosted the Fifth Congress of the Filmmakers Union, a gathering of cinema leaders and Communist Party officials. It turned into a historic event. Mikhail Gorbachev (1985–1991), the USSR's new leader, had declared a policy of glasnost (openness) in the arts and public media, and he launched a set of reforms to modernize the Soviet economy and democratize its political process. At the May 1986 Congress, the film community embraced the reform program and earned the strong support of the Gorbachev administration. Glasnost encouraged a frank discussion of the USSR's many socioeconomic problems, including an industrial infrastructure that had fallen into disrepair and a society experiencing an upsurge of crime and drug abuse. Such matters had hitherto been hushed up in the USSR's controlled media. Gorbachev calculated that a public acknowledgment of the system's failings would aid the reform effort, and he cultivated the support of writers and artists to help promote his program.

Over the next three years, the movie industry went through a series of reforms that were sanctioned by the Gorbachev administration. The changes virtually eliminated government censorship of movies and substantially reduced the extent to which the old government planning bureaucracy Goskino could influence creative affairs. Studios won autonomy to develop their own production programs and to compete in a more open film marketplace. The Gorbachev regime even supported plans to privatize cinema as part of an effort to reintroduce market practices into the Soviet economy.

One immediate effect of the new openness was the opportunity for previously banned or restricted films to find a wider audience. A Conflicts Commission reviewed and authorized the release of approximately two hundred previously banned films, including Commissar. The Georgian director Tengiz Abuladze (1924–1994) made his allegory on the Stalinist legacy, Monanieba (in Georgian; in Russian, Pokaianie; Confession or Repentance, 1987), in 1984, but his message benefited from the wider release and from the more frank discussions of Stalinism that became possible after 1986.

Documentary filmmakers were among those who immediately seized the opportunity to offer candid accounts of contemporary society. An emerging social problem of the 1980s involved a youth culture infected with drugs and crime. The Latvian director Juris Podnieks (1950–1992) addressed this matter in compelling fashion in his Vai viegli but jaunam? (inLatvian;inRussian, Legko li byt' molodym?; Is It Easy to Be Young?, 1987), which documents the aimless, desultory existence experienced by many members of this troubled generation.

The most widely debated fiction film of the glasnost movement also took up the issue of disaffected youth. Vasily Pichul's (b. 1961) Malen'kaia Vera (Little Vera, 1988) sparked criticism for its blunt, almost crude treatment of the aimless life of its title character, but the film also earned the passionate defense of younger viewers who had firsthand experience of Vera's situation. Shot in a rough, cinéma vérité style, the film takes up such sensitive subjects as youth crime and wanton sexual activity. It even graphically depicts sexual intercourse, which would have been unthinkable as screen material just a few years earlier.

The same filmmakers who were so energized by Gorbachev also welcomed his 1991 resignation and the subsequent collapse of the entire Soviet system. Post-Soviet Russia immediately committed to full-scale capitalism, and the film community envisioned an expanded, profitable film industry that would benefit from free-market practices. But they did not anticipate how harsh that market could be.

The cinema moved headlong toward privatization once the Soviet Union dissolved. Over two hundred new film companies suddenly appeared on the scene in

1992, most of which were small capital formations serving first-time investors who hoped to get rich quick in the giddy atmosphere of Russia's "new capitalism." They scraped together enough startup money to make a film or two before the inevitable industry "shakeout" took place. Some 350 features were produced in the first year of this anything-goes situation, and another 178 were made during the second year. But the Russian exhibition market could not absorb all the product. Many of the films never made it to the screen, and the little production companies quickly folded when the venture capitalists went elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Russian exhibition market experienced its first retrenchment since the late 1910s. The Soviet film industry had not responded to the video cassette revolution of the 1980s, even while Soviet consumers were acquiring VCRs and looking for new product to view. By the 1990s that product was pouring into the country in the form of pirated cassettes and discs. The troubled Russian legal system could not enforce copyright, and both first-run foreign titles and current Russian movies were being openly sold in shops and kiosks, with no financial return to the filmmakers. Customers stayed away from movie theaters, and 35 percent of theaters had closed by 1995.

The industry began to revitalize near the end of the decade through a combination of government subsidies and foreign investment. Directors who had once touted the virtues of a privatized film industry welcomed government subvention for film production in the late 1990s. Certain prestige artists whose work flourished in the international festival circuit learned to cultivate foreign investors. No director proved more adept at this than Nikita Mikhalkov (b. 1945). Characteristic of this co-production practice was his expensive project Sibirskii tsiriul'nik (The Barber of Siberia, 1998), which had a Russian and English cast, and funding from France, Italy, and the Czech Republic as well as from the Russian government.

Foreign investment and a general upswing in the Russian economy helped rehabilitate the cinema as the new millennium began. Antiquated movie theaters were replaced by modern, comfortable multiplexes, with Moscow's Kodak-Kinomir setting the new standard. Audiences returned to these more attractive theaters, and the government renewed efforts to crack down on digital movie piracy.

In this more optimistic situation, the greatest artist of post-Soviet cinema launched his most ambitious project. Alexander Sukorov (b. 1951) vowed to make a feature film that would, in a single, continuous shot, encapsulate the whole history of Russia, a vision realized in his tour de force Russkiy kovcheg (Russian Ark, 2002). In an uninterrupted eighty-seven-minute traveling shot, the camera tours St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum and takes in an array of scenes depicting moments from Russia's past. However, the technical demands of Sukorov's project were such that the film couldnot be made with resources available in Russia. Special technology was developed abroad for the project, and Sukorov had to work with a largely German crew. Thus Russian Ark, which pays homage to Russia, had to be made with European resources. The irony is unavoidable but, given Russian cinema's long, complex relationship with the West, perhaps not surprising.

SEE ALSO Censorship;Marxism;National Cinema


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Vance Kepley , Jr.

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