Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Where Are All the Mother-Heroines? Images of Maternity in Soviet Films of the 1930s

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Where Are All the Mother-Heroines? Images of Maternity in Soviet Films of the 1930s

Article excerpt

In 1946 sociologist Nicholas Timasheff proposed that the 1930s marked an era in Soviet history that he termed the "Great Retreat." Timasheff argued that, beginning in 1934, the Soviet government backtracked from its revolutionary stance vis-a-vis women and the family because Party leaders came to see their own earlier policies as destabilizing and potentially harmful to society. He wrote that the effects of legalized abortion and easy divorce created an "unfavorable trend," one that "threatened to undermine both the labor supply and the strength of the nation at arms." (1)

Timasheff's ideas have had a long reach, having been accepted largely without criticism by several generations of scholars of Soviet women's history. (2) More recently, the term "retreat" has been questioned by David Hoffmann, who argues that the use of that word implies a return to pre-Soviet style families. (3) While he dislikes the word "retreat," he does not reject the accompanying idea that the Soviet government engaged in a pro-natalist campaign from the mid-1930s, similar to those undertaken by governments across Europe at the same time, and supported it with a large propaganda drive. Despite their assertions concerning the regime's promotion of maternity in the 1930s, none of the scholars referred to above has actually engaged in a close examination of the Soviet media. (4) The following article proposes to do just that by focusing on the depiction of mothers in Soviet films from the 1930s. Several questions will be addressed. Was there, in fact, a pro-natalist campaign in Soviet film? What types of mothers and families appeared on screen? Did the 1936 family legislation banning abortion and making divorce more difficult have any influence on the way mothers were portrayed? And why did Soviet mothers differ from their European counterparts, particularly those in Nazi Germany?

The emphasis on film in this article is a deliberate one. It is not meant to say that similar messages about maternity were not introduced in other Soviet media. They were. (5) But in terms of control over production and censorship, cinema was more closely tied to the party leadership than any other form of Soviet propaganda, with the possible exception of the central newspapers. (6) According to his daughter, Stalin used to watch films regularly in the Kremlin, usually after his evening meal and often in the company of other Soviet leaders. (7) When they were not at the Kremlin, these individuals were also able to pre-screen Soviet films in the projection rooms built into their country houses. (8) The Soviet leadership was deeply interested in every detail that appeared on screen. There is evidence that Stalin sometimes ordered certain frames or scenes removed from films, edited scripts prior to shooting, and even suggested titles for films. (9) This level of interest and supervision suggests that the mothers who graced Soviet screens in the 1930s presented the official view of Soviet motherhood and that the portrayal of their actions had the sanction of the regime's leaders.

I. The "Traditional" Mother

Cinematic depictions of what are often termed traditional stay-at-home mothers were rare in Soviet films of the 1930s. At the beginning of the decade, one such mother appeared in Nikolai Ekk's Road to Life (Putevka v zhizn', 1931), but it is debatable whether she was meant to endorse this type of behaviour for others. The film opens by contrasting the thievery and sheer physical dirtiness of a gang of orphans with the idyllic family life of Kol'ka, one of the film's eventual heroes. At the center of the idyll stands his mother. The film gives her no other name or function. (10) Indeed, her only memorable attributes are her long hair, which the camera fetishizes by drawing constant attention to it, and her apparent devotion to her family. (11) The film indicates that Kol'ka and his father thrive under her ministrations. Their living space is bright and clean. …

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