Art, Ideology, and Entertainment in Soviet Cinema

By Saunders, Thomas J. | Canadian Journal of History, April 1995 | Go to article overview

Art, Ideology, and Entertainment in Soviet Cinema


Saunders, Thomas J., Canadian Journal of History


The historical simultaneity of cinema's emergence as a mass medium and the Bolshevik revolution virtually determined that the new regime would appropriate film as a key weapon of mass persuasion. Lenin's famous dictum that "for us the most important of all arts is the cinema" captures the ambition to appropriate all means available, especially modern ones, to effect a programme of sociopolitical engineering. It does not, however, ipso facto mean that Bolshevism played a pioneering and unique role in manipulation of the moving picture. Lenin made rather a confession of faith, by itself entirely derivative and unexceptional, in the power of film to inform and persuade. His statement actually betrayed Russia's relative backwardness, for he projected for Bolshevism what had already been demonstrated under capitalism. Equally noteworthy is that he, no less than Stalin, who later intervened systematically in film production, had almost no appreciation of cinema as art, that is, as a medium of creative expression. Both viewed it in purely utilitarian terms, the former having scant sensibility for the fictional feature film and the latter preoccupied with word more than image and increasingly unwilling or unable to distinguish fictional constructions from reality. Their belief in cinema's enormous public power was expressed primarily, especially in the latter case, through mania for control.(1)

Since Soviet cinema, even more than that of Nazi Germany, arguably provides a case sui generis for state domination of the medium, its historiography has been periodized and heavily contoured by political developments. The relative ideological and economic freedom of the 1920s supported a pluralistic film culture, remembered for the avant-garde and revolutionary classics of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko et al. After the first Party Conference on Cinema in 1928 the film industry suffered progressive economic and artistic decline, being consigned by the tenets of Socialist Realism (reality envisioned in terms of its "revolutionary development") and the Stalin-cult of servility and artistic banality until the 1950s. A quantitative and qualitative revival began under Khrushchev and continued through the late 1960s. The conservatism of the Brezhnev era, while not as suffocating as Stalinism, meant general stagnation as the state prevented release of the more enterprising artistic projects. Only with glasnost in the 1980s did cinema again enjoy freedom comparable to that of the 1920s.

The institutional and aesthetic form of Soviet cinema, as well as its ideological thrust, cannot be understood without reference to politics, especially the ambitions of Lenin and Stalin. Yet the medium also respected other dictates, some artistic and theoretical, some economic and some technical. It is in exploration of these that the recent spate of publications on Soviet cinema proves most illuminating and challenges aspects of the conventional historiography. Even before the dramatic changes leading to the dissolution of the former Soviet Union stimulated rethinking of the Soviet experience, new methodologies in social and cultural history prompted revisionism. Interdisciplinary interest in film, drawing attention to marketing strategies, popular as well as critical reception, international trade patterns, motion picture financing, the paradigms of genre cinema and the studio system, began to chip away at traditional interpretations. In conjunction with the recent opening of archives and unprecedented dialogue between former Soviet scholars and the west, these approaches are generating fresh perspectives on Soviet cinema.

Three of the five books considered here, two of which belong to a new series from Routledge, bring together papers read to international and interdisciplinary conferences at which former Soviet scholars were represented. Historians, political scientists, art historians, filmmakers, and scholars of literature and film theory present topics ranging from detailed formal analyses of specific motion pictures to interpretive readings of periods and genres. …

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