The Enemy, the Communist, and Ideological Closure in Soviet Cinema on the Eve of the Great Terror (the Peasants and the Party Card)

By Shcherbenok, Andrey | Kritika, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Enemy, the Communist, and Ideological Closure in Soviet Cinema on the Eve of the Great Terror (the Peasants and the Party Card)


Shcherbenok, Andrey, Kritika


The figure of the contemporaneous internal enemy was an integral part of Soviet cinema throughout the 1930s. This figure was novel--Soviet cinema in the 1920s found little material in a Soviet reality dominated by the New Economic Policy (NEP) to warrant a violent political plotline; although ideological debates and anxieties were intense, (1) the demarcation lines between "us" and "them" remained blurred, while the representations of the most obvious candidate for the role of the enemy--the nascent NEP bourgeoisie--tended to belong stylistically to comedy rather than political drama. As a result, Soviet avant-garde film, with its inherent predilection for vehement political struggle, concentrated on the past rather than the present: the Revolution and the Civil War--the events, although recent, clearly belonging to a quite different historical period were the subject matter of the films that such directors as Sergei Eisenstein, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and Vsevolod Pudovkin made before 1929.

The situation changed with the Great Break of 1928-29 that inaugurated the collectivization of agriculture and the industrialization drive. The radicalization of adversarial internal politics, with its sharp dividing lines between communist proponents of the new policies and their mortal enemies, coincided with an important development in cinematic art--the introduction of Socialist Realism, which strove to combine the political consciousness and propagandism of the Soviet avant-garde with the engaging potential of mass-entertainment cinema. Socialist Realist films promoted individualized and psychologized characters that replaced the collective hero of the avant-garde, making cinema an important vehicle for the process that Oleg Kharkhordin describes as the individuation/ individualization that the Soviet subject underwent after 1929. (2) This development was greatly facilitated by the introduction of sound in 1931, which made cinema closer to theater with its traditional models of psychologization.

Thus the development of the figure of the contemporaneous, internal, and individualized political enemy in the 1930s was overdetermined by political practice, ideological discourse, the introduction of the new aesthetic, and the development of cinematic technology. Enemies of all kinds--wreckers, foreign spies, and double-dealers--routinely appear in 1930s Soviet films of all genres, including even musical comedies. (3) Their centrality to the plot and their articulateness as characters, however, vary greatly. In many of the 1930s films, the enemy only appears in subplots to give the protagonist an opportunity to display his/her heroism, as in N. A. Kosheverova and Iu. A. Muzykant's Arinka (1939), where an unnamed enemy appears literally from the woods trying to derail the train, or in E. V. Cherviakov's Honor (1938), where a similar attempt to derail the train is made by one of the minor characters. Many industrial dramas of the period include sabotage as one of the obstacles faced by the builders of socialism, as in E M. Ermler and S. I. Iutkevich's Counterplan (1932), S. I. Iutkevich's Miners (1937), or S. A. Gerasimov's Kamsamol'sk (1938). Finally, the detective genre provides, as in Evgenii Shneider's High Award (1939) or A. V. Macharet's TheMistake afEngineerKachin (1939), its share of foreign spies to be traced and captured by the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD).

While the many Soviet films of the 1930s tend to use the enemy as an auxiliary figure to sustain the plot and do not concentrate on the enemy himself, some of them address the subject in a much more thorough and complex manner. Not surprisingly, these films did not pass unnoticed by the Soviet authorities. Ermler's The Peasants (1935), one of the two films I analyzet in this article, was included among just a few feature films to be put in a special preservation safe in the recently opened Soviet film archive; (4) the other, I. A. …

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