Revolutionary reels: Soviet propaganda film and the Russian Revolution

By Shalon Van Tine 

December 6, 2019  — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Cosmonaut — In 1896, the Lumière brothers visited Saint Petersburg to present their collection of moving pictures to a small Russian audience, marking the first viewing of film in Russia.[1] The first film to be made in Russia was during the same year: a filming of the coronation of what would be Russia’s last monarch, Tsar Nicholas II.[2] It would take nearly a decade for Russia to have its own film studio, and the advent of World War I slowed the influx of foreign cinema, leaving Russia to launch its own film industry instead of relying predominantly on foreign film distributors.[3] Once established, Russia’s film industry grew, and, by 1914, about half of Russia’s urban population regularly attended the movies.[4] 

However, the Bolsheviks would revolutionize Russian cinema as leaders recognized the potential of film propaganda as a way to influence the political and social attitudes of the people.[5] Vladimir Lenin clearly understood the power of film, as he stated, “Of all the arts, for us, cinema is most important.”[6] The Bolsheviks nationalized the film industry in 1919, giving the People’s Commissariat for Education control over film production, with a mandate to use cinema to promote the Communist cause at home and abroad.

Before delving into Soviet film in particular it is crucial to first understand why film stood out as a key propaganda tool in the early twentieth century. Film was a new medium. While propagandistic images had been used in various ways throughout history, moving images offered something fresh. One of the most well-known tales in film history about the impact of film on early viewers is that, upon watching Lumière’s Arrival of the Train, audiences shrieked in horror at the train coming directly towards them from the background of the image.[7] Even though this story may have been embellished, early audiences were intrigued by film’s ability to animate real-life imagery. Thus, film offered unprecedented realism beyond the traditional effect of pamphlets, posters, and even photography. Furthermore, since a majority of Russia’s population were illiterate peasants, film could reach a widespread audience who would not have responded as well to written propaganda.[8]

The Bolsheviks focused their film industry on promoting specific communist themes among the Russian people and around the world. Different times meant different goals. During the years from the 1917 Revolution to the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, Soviet propaganda adjusted to reflect the needs of the party in three periods: the Revolution, the Civil War, and New Economic Policy (NEP) (1917–1927); Stalinization, modernization, and the Great Purges (1927–1938); and the prewar, World War II, and postwar years (1938–1953). Over the course of these periods, Soviet film focused successively on the following key objectives: enshrining the ideals of the Revolution; solidifying the Bolsheviks’ version of history and justifying Bolshevik leadership; promoting international revolution and calling on workers everywhere to unite against their oppressors; demonstrating the power of the people working together; elucidating the concept of the “New Soviet Person” and of the cultural revolution; showing the ongoing struggle against class enemies; promoting the controversial policy and methods of collectivization; demonstrating how industrialization would improve the lives of ordinary people while bringing society closer to the communist ideal; and celebrating Stalin as the strong leader of the Russian people and justifying questionable means to protect the people from enemies foreign and domestic. In short, Soviet film propaganda evolved in both content and style to reflect the changing political goals of the party during these periods. 

Soviet Film Propaganda during the Revolution, the Civil War, and NEP

The tumultuous period from 1917 to 1927 began with a Tsar who ruled over the Russian Empire and ended with a Communist Party leader who exercised unrivaled control over the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). During this time, the Bolsheviks grew from being one of many political parties agitating for revolution into the only party—the Communist Party—which would wield power until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.[9] These years would shape Soviet leadership and would see the development of a new, impactful style of propaganda film: Soviet montage.[10] The radical filmmakers of these years would advance an innovative film style to capture the spirit of a revolutionary age.

The February Revolution of 1917 saw the collapse of the Tsarist government, which was replaced by the Provisional Government, in which power was shared between various political factions, chiefly through the bourgeois-dominated legislature, the Duma, and the councils of workers and soldiers, the Soviets.[11] Alexander Kerensky, one of the leaders in the Duma who supported the February Revolution, rose to prominence in the Provisional Government and, after the July Days, became the effective head of state. The Provisional Government sought to balance the interests of competing factions of Russian society until elections for a constituent assembly could be held. In the meantime, it continued to honor Russia’s war commitment to the Allied Powers, seen by many workers and soldiers as a betrayal of the February Revolution, which had been precipitated largely by the fury of the hungry women of Petrograd who had had enough of the horror of World War I.[12] The Bolsheviks, who early in 1917 were just one of a variety of socialist workers’ parties, adopted the slogan “peace, land, and bread,” and by autumn 1917, they gained the majority in the Petrograd Soviet. The Bolsheviks argued for an end to dual power, embodied in the slogan “all power to the Soviets,” and they organized Petrograd workers to seize power from the Provisional Government in the October Revolution of 1917.[13] The Bolsheviks declared the Soviets to be the sole organ of power, and thus began the Soviet Union, marking the first time in history that workers seized and held power for themselves. This momentous event would be celebrated in many Soviet films—first from the Bolshevik point of view, later with a Stalinist interpretation.

The Bolsheviks ended Russian involvement in World War I with a treaty in March 1918, but the fight to consolidate Soviet power had just begun. The Civil War broke out between the White Army of anti-communists and the Red Army of the Bolsheviks and their allies, such as the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries, whose members would later be either absorbed or purged.[14] In 1923, after years of fighting, social and economic upheaval, famine, brutal tactics to crush counterrevolution, conscription, nationalization of industries, crop seizures, and millions dead, the Bolsheviks achieved a ruinous, costly victory, and the future of Soviet communism and of all that they had fought for was far from certain. Lenin instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP), a “strategic retreat” from many of the communist policies of the Civil War and a partial, temporary reinstitution of a market economy.[15] NEP probably saved the Soviet Union from economic disaster and allowed the Bolsheviks—renamed the Communist Party in 1918—to solidify their control.

During the 1920s, the Communist Party launched a great propaganda campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Russian people—and to stir workers throughout the world to revolution.[16] Lenin, the preeminent leader of the Bolsheviks, died in 1924, and party leaders contended to fill the power vacuum. Stalin consolidated power within the party bureaucracy, and, by 1927, emerged as the head of the party. Stalin’s rivals, chief among them Leon Trotsky, were purged from the party, and their roles in history were often diminished or distorted in Stalinist propaganda.[17] But in the years before Stalin crushed all opposition and stifled both political and creative freedom, groundbreaking master filmmakers, such as Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin, invented an exciting Soviet cinema unlike anything produced in the world thus far. In the first Soviet decade, these innovators brought to the silver screen—and, thereby, to the world—the spirit of the Revolution and a vision of its fruits.

Sergei Eisenstein changed the way filmmakers edited film, and, in doing so, increased the excitement and effectiveness of propaganda film. Eisenstein was influenced by some of his Soviet contemporaries who were experimenting with film montage, which he referred to as the “dialectical process that creates a third meaning out of the original two meanings of the adjacent shots.”[18] While there was some disagreement among Soviet filmmakers as to the most effective way to use montage, Eisenstein developed his own theories that proved to have an authoritative impact on propaganda films. His expert use of montage in Strike (1925) and Battleship Potemkin (1925) illustrated the powerful role that film could play in communicating the theory and ideals of the Revolution.

In Battleship Potemkin, Eisenstein created a dramatized version of the mutiny that occurred on the Russian battleship Potemkin during the 1905 revolution, engaging the viewer’s sympathies with exaggerated characters (one might call them “Marxist archetypes”).[19] The film starts by setting the stage for revolt. In the “Men and Maggots” scene, Eisenstein introduces his viewers to his rapid style of cutting from image to image. The film shifts between shots of the distressed sailors and the spoiled meat to the maggots and the conniving expressions of the evil leaders.[20] With this tactic, Eisenstein accomplishes two important things: he wins the viewer’s loyalty to the sailors and he establishes the Tsarist leaders as a force that must be eliminated. Eisenstein displays his montage techniques again during the “Drama on the Quarter Deck” scene when he cuts quickly from the commander’s orders to kill the sailors, to the faces of the distraught sailors, and then to the action shots of the chaos.[21] With this style of fast-paced editing between images, Eisenstein establishes a sense of expressive panic and disorder to communicate his themes on both an intellectual and a gut level. Louis Giannetti notes on Eisenstein’s editing that “Eisenstein believed that the essence of existence is constant change. He believed that nature’s eternal fluctuation is dialectical—the result of the conflict and synthesis of opposites.”[22] 

The most effective and famous scene in Battleship Potemkin is the “Odessa Steps” sequence, in which soldiers march down the steps in an inhuman, almost robotic display of oppression, slaughtering droves of innocent people and culminating in a bloody massacre.[23] One of the most powerful series of images is the distinction between the machine-like, faceless Cossacks pitted against the helpless Russian people, such as the mother holding the child walking up the steps towards the soldiers in a desperate, doomed plea for mercy. Eisenstein mastered the editing and the sound precisely so that the viewer felt a sense of panic and fear while being fed such formidable imagery.[24] Battleship Potemkin became the film to capture the spirit of the Revolution—not just in Russia in 1905 or in 1917, but the universal Revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, international and timeless. To Russians it was a call to embrace the vision of communism; to workers around the world it was a call to follow the example of their brothers and sisters in Russia.

After the Bolsheviks’ costly victory in the devastating Civil War, they had to deal with the reality that the country faced severe social and economic problems.[25] Russian society was fragmented, and the Bolsheviks needed to demonstrate the power of the people working together rather than through individual action. The portrayal of collective action—a cornerstone of communist ideology—is evident in many of the propaganda films of the 1920s. Eisenstein’s Strike begins with a quotation from Lenin: “The strength of the working class is organization. Without organization of the masses, the proletarian is nothing. Organized it is everything. Being organized means unity of action, unity of practical activity.”[26] The film shows a workers’ strike in pre-Revolutionary Russia and the violent suppression of the strike by the capitalists, famously illustrated through Eisenstein’s montage of murdered workers and slaughtered cows.[27] Throughout the film, the workers are shown working together in groups, not as individuals—so much so that individuals are hard to tell apart and receive almost no unique characterization. Strike served a couple purposes at the time. First, it called on workers worldwide to unite to throw off the yokes of their oppressors. Even though the Russian Revolution had already happened, the Soviet Union still had to promote unity among the proletariat. Second, it promoted a “continuing revolution,” that is, the expansion of an international proletarian brotherhood, rather than the “socialism in one country” of later years.[28]

The Bolsheviks needed to address another concern: justifying their continued leadership. The death of Lenin caused the Bolsheviks to worry about the exhaustion of the revolution, so they felt the need to continue to take advantage of the power of propaganda to keep those fires burning.[29] These fears were tackled in both Vsevolod Pudovkin’s The End of St. Petersburg (1927) and Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s October: Ten Days the Shook the World (1928). Both films were released near the ten-year anniversary of the Revolution, hence their propagandistic portrayal of the historical events and the Communist Party’s declaration that the films were intended to honor “the Bolshevik completion of the Russian Revolution.”[30] In The End of St. Petersburg, audiences were reminded of the suffering of the Russian people before the October Revolution and the need for the Bolsheviks’ bold leadership.[31] In October, Eisenstein and Aleksandrov place the Bolsheviks in the highest regard, showing them as righteous revolutionaries with the people’s mandate to overthrow the Provisional Government.[32] Several scenes in October, particularly scenes involving crowds, are so realistic that they appear almost like documentary footage, blurring the line between history and propaganda.[33] 

In addition to casting the Bolsheviks as the heroic leaders of the proletariat, October is also a noteworthy example of rewriting history to portray Lenin, Stalin, and Stalin’s allies in a positive light while portraying Stalin’s enemies in a negative light. When filming began in early 1927, Trotsky was still a leader of the Communist Party, though he was already at odds with Stalin. By December 1927, at the Fifteenth Party Congress, Trotsky and his faction had been purged from the party.[34] Stalin then stepped up his campaign to discredit Trotsky—not only by branding him a traitor in the present but also by falsely diminishing Trotsky’s important role in the October Revolution and in the Civil War. When it was not possible to eliminate Trotsky’s role entirely, he was instead made to look foolish, inept, or even traitorous in the retelling of historical events. At Stalin’s insistence, October had to be recut to remove most of Trotsky’s role in the portrayal of the October Revolution.[35] Only one scene with Trotsky remains: at a meeting of the Bolsheviks, Trotsky is shown opposing Lenin’s brave plans to seize power in the name of the proletariat. Additionally, October emphasizes the role of individual leaders far more than the earlier Strike and Battleship Potemkin, marking the beginning of the shift from celebrating collective action to celebrating the great leader. Lenin becomes memorialized as almost godlike, and Stalin is cast as his chosen successor.

October displays yet again Eisenstein’s successful use of montage and powerful symbolism. An early sequence depicts the people tearing down a statue of the Tsar—his head topples, then the orb and scepter, then the arms, and then the whole statue falls. Later, when Kerensky’s imperial ambitions threaten the revolution, Eisenstein cuts to the statue sequence in reverse—the Tsar, piece by piece, flies back onto his pedestal.[36] These images are quickly intercut with intertitles expressing the imminent need to save the Revolution from traitorous reactionaries.

Kerensky’s place in history is certainly open to debate. One could argue that Kerensky was an honest caretaker in a tight spot doing his best to balance the interests of many different groups in Russian society during a time of tremendous uncertainty. The Provisional Government was only supposed to be a temporary custodian until elections could be held for the constituent assembly in November 1917.[37] Those elections were held, and while the Bolsheviks won 25 percent of the popular vote, they placed second to the Socialist Revolutionaries who got 40 percent of the vote.[38] To the Bolsheviks in 1917, as well as to Stalin in 1927, Kerensky’s role was necessarily fixed as a villain—a traitor to the February Revolution who sided with the Western imperialist powers against the suffering people of Russia—and the only legitimate election was through the workers’ and soldiers’ Soviets, which had, in October 1917, chosen the Bolsheviks to lead the workers’ seizure of state power. 

Clearly, from the point of view of the party in 1927, these events required some finessing. The Bolsheviks could contend with some justification to be the representative of the urban proletariat by October 1917, and they chiefly relied on this constituency for their claim to power.[39] Still, the Bolsheviks would look much better cast as heroic saviors of the people’s Revolution from the betrayal of a new Tsar (or a new Napoleon) than as one political party among many who seized an opportunity. To that end, the story of the Great October Socialist Revolution had to be told as the triumph of the people—led by the Bolsheviks—over the monarchical aspirations of a traitor—Kerensky. 

October demonstrated the Bolshevik fear that their Revolution would lead to a new Napoleon. In the film, the audience is shown flashes of Napoleon’s statue with cuts to Kerensky contemplating over a chessboard. Later, a similar scene cuts between images of Napoleon to Kerensky standing in a Napoleonic pose.[40] The Bolsheviks had long been concerned that, after a successful revolution, a Napoleon-like leader might arise:

They had learned the lessons of history and had no intention of letting the Russian Revolution degenerate as the French Revolution had done when Napoleon Bonaparte declared himself Emperor. Bonapartism—the transformation of a revolutionary war leader into a dictator—was a danger that was often discussed in the Bolshevik Party… It was assumed that any potential Bonaparte would be a charismatic figure, capable of stirring oratory and grandiose visions and probably wearing a military uniform.[41]

The message of this sequence in October is clear and compelling: Kerensky was a would-be Bonaparte, and allowing him to remain in power would have been to surrender the promise of the February Revolution. Concurrent propaganda painted Trotsky in a similar light. Ironically, it was not Kerensky, Trotsky, or any other leader who became the dreaded Napoleon, but Stalin himself (an identity cemented in George Orwell’s Animal Farm)—which made it all the more essential to paint Kerensky in that role.[42] 

Soviet Film Propaganda during Stalin’s Revolution and the Great Purges

The years from 1927 to 1938 saw Stalin wield near-absolute power over the Soviet Union. To maintain control and crush dissent—real or imagined—millions of citizens were executed or sent to the Gulag where many died, and any group within the Communist Party which looked like it might form a faction was purged.[43] Fear of attack from the West spread, and hoped-for revolutions in Germany and other Western nations failed. Stalin, therefore, shifted rhetoric and policy from the traditional Marxist aim of international proletarian revolution to “socialism in one country,” which bore a striking resemblance to nationalism, a very un-Marxist concept.[44] In effect, this meant less talk about workers throughout the world and more talk of the Russian people—and of their heroic leader. The cult of personality around Stalin grew, and propagandists analogized to great leaders from Russia’s past, like Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible. If Stalin’s measures were iron-fisted, it was because Mother Russia was threatened by invasion, by spies, and by other class enemies.

The Soviet Union recognized that it was isolated, and that, if the communist ideal was to be achieved, the Russian people would have to do it themselves. The wave of European proletarian revolutions they had hoped for had not occurred. Modernization was a precondition for communism and necessary for defense against invasion, and, in 1928, Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan made modernization the Soviet Union’s top priority.[45] There were three key components to this drive: collectivization, industrialization, and the cultural revolution.[46] Collectivization meant modernization of agriculture. Peasant farmers were forced to reorganize their farms into kolkhoz (collective farms).[47] Industrialization meant building many new factories, increasing output, and bringing backward agricultural practices into the machine age.[48] The USSR wanted to beat the capitalist West at what the West did best, and the USSR knew this would require a herculean effort. Finally, if the Soviet people were to transform their nation and its production, they would also need to transform themselves. Illiterate workers and superstitious peasants would need to improve themselves: they must strive to achieve the ideal of the “New Soviet Person.”[49] Propaganda was essential to show that these three aspects of modernization would improve life immediately (many films from this era include scenes simply showing machines at work, with a celebratory atmosphere) and would help to usher in the new age of communism.

Before Stalin took full control of the party, many Soviet propaganda films dealt with the themes of continuing the ideals of the Revolution, unifying the people, and preserving Bolshevik leadership. Films such as Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mother (1926), Dziga Vertov’s Forward, Soviet (1926), Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), and Alexander Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora (1928) all reminded the audience that the revolution was necessary and justified in order to continue towards the goal of communism.[50] Some of these themes would continue into the Stalin years, but the focus shifted towards ideas about the “New Soviet Person,” the cultural revolution, and the continued fight against class enemies.[51]

This persistent battle against class enemies was evidenced in the propaganda films that emerged in the early years of Stalin’s leadership, most notably in Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (1928), which takes place in Mongolia circa 1918–20, and involves a struggle between indigenous Mongols—the oppressed people with whom the audience is meant to identify—and two class enemies: British imperialists and capitalists, and Buddhist priests and other Mongol elites. These class enemies work together to exploit the honest and noble people of the eastern steppe.[52] In Storm Over Asia, Pudovkin promotes several themes of Soviet propaganda: the continuing, international spirit of the Revolution; the ongoing struggle against various class enemies, at home and abroad; and the need for modernization to lift the people out of the darkness of superstition and religion.

Two scenes mocking religion and priests are worth noting. Early in the film, a Buddhist priest says prayers over a sick man in a humble hut. The priest employs various superstitious trinkets and noisemakers to heal the sick man—not medicine, just idle noise. In thanks for this dubious service, a family member offers the priest a fur as a “gift for the temple.” When the priest decides that the gift is not valuable enough, he seizes a second fur. The son of the family (the main character in the film) tackles the priest, who ends up running away like a thief caught in the act and lucky to get away with his own hide.

Later in the film, there is a compelling sequence cutting between two scenes: preparations for a Buddhist festival and a British commandant and his wife dressing up to meet the Grand Lama at that festival. The festival shows priests dressing up in colorful, shiny, and “primitive” outfits; meanwhile, the proud British commandant dresses in his fancy and medal-clad uniform, his wife in a gown and jewels. Both sets of costumes require the assistance of servants. Intertitles are unnecessary: the message is clear that both the religious elites and the Western capitalists are class enemies, oppressors of the unpretentious, working people. As the British join the festival and make a grand entrance into the temple, Western pomp meets Eastern pomp, both meant to disgust the viewer. There is a moment of surprise when the Grand Lama—hailed as wise and revered by the priests—is revealed to be a baby sitting on a throne. A priest explains that, “Though the Great One does not speak, still he sees all, hears all, knows all.”[53] The British commandant hesitates for a moment, and then bows solemnly. Again, the message is clear: the Western capitalists will play along with superstitious nonsense if their collaborators require it.

One of the most effective uses of montage in Storm Over Asia occurs in a key scene in which a British fur trader cheats the main character, a poor Mongol. A brawl ensues, and it ends with the Mongol pulling out a knife and cutting the dishonest trader’s hand. The Mongol runs off. The British fur trader holds up his bloody hand, which is followed by an intertitle reading, “Avenge the white man’s blood!”[54] Pudovkin rapidly cuts between close-ups of the bloody hand, images of capitalists shouting for vengeance, and troops marching in. As the Mongols flee, Pudovkin shows a row of riflemen, weapons aimed, advancing on the people who flee before them. In the end, the British commandant announces, “If within twenty-four hours the criminal is not surrendered the entire population will be fined and punished by example.”[55] The sequence ends on another shot of the soldiers aiming their rifles, preparing to fire. Taken literally, the sequence presents a choppy narrative, but it is meant as a visual argument demonstrating the arrogance and racism of the Western capitalists who “buy cheap and sell dear” and the ruthlessness of “those who guard the interests of capitalism.”[56]  

The fruits of modernization, and especially of collectivization, is the main theme of Eisenstein and Aleksandrov’s The General Line (1929). The film also tackles the need for the New Soviet Person to cast off the superstitions and backwardness of the old days. In The General Line, poor peasants with small farms are shown struggling due to drought. The peasants follow gaudy Orthodox priests, idols in hand, in a procession up to a hilltop. There the priests pray to heaven, asking for rain, while the peasants grovel in the dirt.[57] Eisenstein cuts between the people groveling and sheep—thirsty sheep, panting mindlessly. The people catch a brief glimpse of hope when they see a cloud, but, alas, there is no rain, because the priests are frauds (and, of course, they are also exploitative class enemies).[58] In the next scene, the peasant farmers have formed a dairy collective, and a new, shiny machine has arrived which efficiently churns milk into butter. The people are skeptical: they have been fooled before. They watch the machine work. An intertitle asks, “deception or progress?”[59] As the machine churns, the people see that it works, and they rejoice in their newfound prosperity. Much of the rest of the film celebrates the workings of a collective farm with similarly happy results. Production of The General Line began before Trotsky was purged from the party, and so the film was reedited to eliminate any references to him. It was released under the appropriate title The Old and the New.[60]

The reality of collectivization fell far short of what was promised to the peasants, and it was a disastrous failure, largely responsible for famine and the deaths of millions.[61] These embarrassing failures of the Communist Party’s policy made its defense in propaganda that much more important. Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) celebrates life, death, the harvest, the power of the people working collectively, and the coming of the new world promised by the Revolution, all with striking visual poetry. It shows the clash of old and new—oxen versus tractor, class structure versus communism, religion versus atheism, and the individual versus the collective.[62] The past is frequently contrasted with the imagined future, a future in which the proletariat’s work, joined with the power of the machine, would bring prosperity. Unlike the harsh reality of collectivization in the present, this beautiful film was intended to reassure the people of the new future that collectivization would (supposedly) soon bring them.

The key to the cultural revolution was the development of the New Soviet Person—a person who had shaken off the shackles of the old world (such as religion, superstition, and traditional bourgeois social values) and who embraced the new, modernized Soviet world. As Sheila Fitzpatrick explains:

The kind of renunciation that most interested Soviet authorities was when priests renounced the cloth. Such renunciation, if done publicly, provided dramatic support for the Soviet position that religion was a fraud that had been discredited by modern science. Signed announcements that a priest was renouncing the cloth “in response to socialist construction” appeared from time to time as letters to the editor of the local press during the Cultural Revolution.[63]

Whether such renunciations were real or coerced by Stalin’s operatives, they were useful in promoting the break with old values. These anti-religious themes are on display in films like Storm Over Asia, The General LineEarth, and also in Eisenstein’s Bezhin Meadow (1937). In the film, a farmer, angry at the government, attempts to destroy the crops, and his son tries to stop him to protect the Soviet state.[64] The father, an enemy of the state, is often shown alongside religious icons. Eisenstein provides a contrast between religion and modernization, between the old world and the new. The son is a prime example of the New Soviet Person: someone born into a new generation and free from the baggage of the old regime. These themes are also explored in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), which has no narrative plot, but instead employs modernist themes of speed and movement, and documents the Soviet world of the new generation—a place where the confinements of the old world had withered away and industrialization had created a new, promising life.[65]

Soviet Film Propaganda in the Prewar, World War II, and Postwar Years

The period from 1938 to 1953 was, of course, defined by World War II—or, as it is known in Russia, the Great Patriotic War. The Nazi invasion devastated the USSR, which suffered more casualties than any other European country.[66] Relations between the Soviet Union and the West improved temporarily as they joined against their common enemies, the Axis Powers. Film propaganda from these years focused on the war—as it did in other countries as well—and on Stalin himself, the great leader. Soviet films from the 1940s bear little resemblance to the brilliant montage of the 1920s. Different messages called for different film methods: instead of quick cuts, swift movement, and groups in action, these later films have longer takes showing brave individuals holding the line. The evolution of the work of the preeminent Soviet filmmaker, Sergei Eisenstein, demonstrates this shift: Strike and Battleship Potemkin (both 1925) focus on groups—the proletariat collectively is the protagonist—while Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944) focus on individuals—one strong ruler is the protagonist.[67] With these films, international socialism has been replaced by nationalism and totalitarianism. Gone is the battle cry “workers of the world, unite”; it is replaced with a call to follow the great leader Stalin and to defend Mother Russia against Western invaders. German soldiers are no longer class brothers—they are Teutonic Knights, come to pillage Russia.

Was the Revolution now complete, as Stalin claimed, or had it been betrayed, as Trotsky, Orwell, and others believed? If a filmmaker wanted his work to be seen, he had better take Stalin’s side, and make sure that any hint of criticism was very cleverly veiled. For example, whether or not Eisenstein intended Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946) as a criticism, it was perceived as such, and it was not released until 1958. Not until the thaw following the death of Stalin in 1953 and Khrushchev’s policy of destalinization would filmmakers, as well as musicians, writers, and other artists, find a little more freedom of expression.

Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), a great historical epic, depicts the thirteenth-century battle on the frozen lake, in which Alexander Nevsky led the Russians against the invading Teutonic Knights.[68] Released in 1938, as Hitler was swallowing up Austria and the Sudetenland, it is no mistake that Eisenstein’s subject was a great Russian victory over German invaders. The film even ends with an explicit declaration that any who would attack Russia will be defeated, the warning painted across a vast throng of Russian soldiers. One of the Germans in the film even wears a design that highly suggests the swastika. The film was very successful in the Soviet Union, but Stalin pulled it from circulation in 1939 when he signed his pact with Hitler. Two years later, when Hitler invaded Russia, Alexander Nevsky went back into widespread circulation.

Alexander Nevsky is quite different from Eisenstein’s 1920s films. First, there is a shift in story-telling: whereas StrikeBattleship Potemkin, and October feature the proletariat collectively as the main character, in this film, Alexander Nevsky is the hero. The common people are still featured, but they support the great leader and follow his commands. This, of course, echoes the rise of Stalin as dictator. Second, gone is the fast-cutting of Eisenstein’s signature montage. This is at least partly due to Stalin’s insistence that the arts be accessible to the common public. Eisenstein had been severely criticized for being too artsy in his previously aborted film, Bezhin Meadow. For this film, Eisenstein was closely watched, and any “formalist” excursions were reined in by Communist officials. 

Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible is a two-part historical film about Ivan IV of Russia. Stalin commissioned the film because it emphasizes a single, strong leader: a Tsar from Russia’s autocratic history. “Socialism in one country,” effectively a nationalistic ideology, had completely replaced the international ideology of Marxism. Like Stalin, Ivan is an iron-fisted ruler only because he must be for the good of the Russian people. Russia is surrounded by foreign enemies, and is threatened from within by spies and scheming Boyars.[69] At one point Ivan leaves Moscow, only to return when the people beg him to come back. The point is clear: in times of crisis, a strong leader is needed, and ruthless tactics are justified to protect the country and its people from enemies.[70] 

Part I won critical acclaim—even winning the Stalin Prize—but Part II was suppressed, and was only released after Stalin’s death during the Khrushchev thaw.[71] Did Eisenstein depict Ivan as too terrible? Was there too much religious iconography? Was Eisenstein dabbling in too much experimental “formalism,” rendering his work unsuitable for the masses? It is unclear why Part II was suppressed, and also what Eisenstein’s true political views were. Regardless, both the content and the method of film had evolved dramatically from 1925 to 1946 to suit the changing needs of the Communist Party.

The Legacy of Revolutionary Soviet Film

During the Khrushchev thaw, censorship in the Soviet Union was relaxed somewhat, and Russian filmmakers had more freedom in their cinematic expression.[72]  Stalin’s successor Nikita Khrushchev eased travel restrictions and created cultural festivals that allowed an influx of diverse works from writers, artists, and filmmakers to come into the Soviet Union.[73] Thus, Soviet cinema took new forms. For instance, Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1957 film The Cranes Are Flying tells a story of the Great Patriotic War, but instead of the prior patriotic Soviet take, the movie depicts the psychological damage of the war on the Soviet people, especially women.[74] Similarly, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1962 film Ivan’s Childhood also deals with the effects of World War II on the mind of a child.[75] Soviet filmmaker Sergei Parajanov embraced this new artistic freedom in The Color of Pomegranates (1969), a picture that focuses on the life of a poet almost exclusively through experimental imagery.[76] This period demonstrated the diversity of Soviet filmmakers, who began to focus on the personal and the psychological rather than the collective and the political.

While the films during the thaw went a variety of new directions, during the years from the 1917 Revolution to the death of Stalin in 1953, Soviet film propaganda evolved in both substance and form to reflect the changing goals of the Communist Party. Soviet film went through three major periods during those years: The Revolution through the end of NEP, Stalin’s Revolution and modernization, and the Great Patriotic War years. The Communist Party focused on fundamental themes including memorializing the Revolution, rallying the international proletariat, celebrating Bolshevik leadership, uniting the people, promoting the politics of the cultural revolution, and justifying Stalin’s leadership and methods. Through the vivid power of film, great filmmakers promoted the changing policies of the Communist Party to audiences across Russia and throughout the world.[77] 

  1. David Gillespie, Early Soviet Cinema: Innovation, Ideology, and Propaganda (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Denise Youngblood, Russian War Films: On the Cinema Front, 1914–2005 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 11.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Gillespie, Early Soviet Cinema, 4.
  6.  Vladimir Lenin, “Directives on the Film Business,” Lenin Collected Works, vol. 42, trans. Bernard Isaacs (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1971), 388.
  7. Martin Loiperdinger and Bernrd Elzer, “Lumière’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth,” The Moving Image 4, no. 1 (2004): 113.
  8. Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception (New York: Routledge, 1994), 2.
  9. Alexander Rabinowitch, The Bolsheviks Come to Power: The Revolution of 1917 in Petrograd (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004), 273–304.
  10. James Monaco, How to Read a Film: Movies, Media, and Beyond (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 401.
  11. Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 45.
  12. Ibid., 48.
  13. Ibid., 61.
  14. Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War (Edinburgh: Birlinn Limited, 2011), 65.
  15. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 95.
  16. Nicholas Reeves, Power of Film Propaganda: Myth or Reality? (London: Continuum, 1999), 45.
  17. Ibid., 61.
  18. Monaco, How to Read a Film, 239–240.
  19. Ian Christie, Eisenstein Rediscovered (New York: Routledge, 1993), 77.
  20. Battleship Potemkin, dir. by Sergei Eisenstein (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1925).
  21. Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989), 143.
  22. Louis Giannetti, Understanding Movies (London: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008), 175.
  23. Battleship Potemkin.
  24. Eisenstein worked with composer Edmund Meisel on the original score for Battleship Potemkin. Unique for the time, Meisel wrote his compositions to line up with what was happening within the film, getting guidance from Eisenstein on how to match the music with the rhythm of the scene. This tactic is, of course, commonplace today, but its use was innovative in early cinema.
  25. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 94.
  26. Strike. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1925.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 114.
  29. Reeves, Power of Film Propaganda, 45.
  30. Robert Keser, “The End of St. Petersburg” Senses of Cinema 46, no. 1 (2008): 1.
  31. The End of St. Petersburg, dir. by Vsevolod Pudovkin (Moscow: Gorky Film Studio, 1927).
  32. October: Ten Days the Shook the World, dir. by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1928).
  33. Richard Taylor, The Politics of the Soviet Cinema, 1917–1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 97.
  34. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 109.
  35. Gillespie, Early Soviet Cinema, 45.
  36. October: Ten Days the Shook the World.
  37. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 66.
  38. Ibid., 45–49.
  39. Leonard Schapiro, The Origin of the Communist Autocracy: Political Opposition in the Soviet State First Phase, 1917–1922, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), 42.
  40. October: Ten Days the Shook the World.
  41. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 108.
  42. George Orwell, Animal Farm (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1946), passim.
  43. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 126.
  44. Ibid., 128.
  45. Elizabeth Waters, “The Modernization of Russian Motherhood, 1917–37,” in The Stalin Years: A Reader, edited by Christopher Read (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 24.
  46. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 129.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Peter Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History, 4th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2013), 135.
  49. Daniel Peris, “The 1929 Congress of the Godless,” in The Stalin Years: A Reader, edited by Christopher Read (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 42.
  50. Gillespie, Early Soviet Cinema, 36.
  51. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 90.
  52. Storm Over Asia, dir. by Vsevolod Pudovkin (Moscow: Mezhrabpomfilm, 1928). 
  53. Ibid.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid.
  56. Ibid.
  57. The General Line, dir. by Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1929).
  58. Ibid.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Christie, Eisenstein Rediscovered, 8.
  61. R. W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1933 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 204–208.
  62. Earth, dir. by Alexander Dovzhenko (Kiev: VUFKU-Odessa, 1930).
  63. Sheila Fitzpatrick, Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, Soviet Russia in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 128.
  64. Bezhin Meadow. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1936.
  65. Man with a Movie Camera. Directed by Dziga Vertov. Kiev: VUFKU-Odessa, 1929.
  66. Fitzpatrick, Russian Revolution, 149.
  67. Anna Lawton, The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema (London: Routledge, 2003), 304.
  68. Alexander Nevsky, dir. by Sergei Eisenstein (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1938).
  69. Ivan the Terrible, Part I. Directed by Sergei Eisenstein. Moscow: Mosfilm, 1944.
  70. David Brandenberger and Kevin M. F. Platt, “Terribly Pragmatic: Rewriting the History of Ivan IV’s Reign,” in Epic Revisionism: Russian History and Literature as Stalinist Propaganda, edited by David Brandenberger and Kevin M. F. Platt (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006), 160.
  71. Karel Berkoff, Motherland in Danger: Soviet Propaganda during World War II (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012), 162.
  72. This essay does not attempt to delve too deeply into Russian film during the thaw, so for more information on society and cinema during this period, see Denis Kozlov and Eleonory Gilburd, eds., The Thaw: Soviet Society and Culture during the 1950s and 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), Josephine Woll, Real Images: Soviet Cinemas and the Thaw (New York: I. B. Tauris & Co., 2000), and Lida Oukaderova, The Cinema of the Soviet Thaw: Space, Materiality, Movement (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017).
  73. Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945–1961 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998), 102.
  74. The Cranes Are Flying, directed by Mikhail Kalatozov (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1957).
  75. Ivan’s Childhood, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (Moscow: Mosfilm, 1962).
  76. The Color of Pomegranates, directed by Sergei Parajanov (Yerevan: Armenfilm, 1969).
  77. The author wishes to thank Tristan van Tine, John Jennings, Rajko Grlic, Steven Miner, and Doug Greene for their insights on Soviet cinema, their discussions on the history of the Russian Revolution, and their feedback on this essay.