State and Cinema in Revolutionary Soviet: A Centenary Perspective

Scope | Binayak Bhattacharya

from Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)

State interventions in creative practices are not received with warm gesture. Such a mindset enjoys a consensus across the ranks of practitioners and connoisseurs of art. However, only a handful of them ever attempt contradicting the interest of big capital in artwork. The reason behind it can be attributed to a prevalent understanding of the relationship between the state and the artist which sees the state as the powerful manipulator of artworks. Even the history testifies that the state does it regularly, often in a blatant manner. On the other hand, the independent capital is considered less manipulative as it generally maintains a certain balance between its agenda and the artists’ interest through a subtle, nuanced manner to ensure maximum economic benefit. Although the politics of such artistic expressions do not necessarily remain subtle, it comes out in the respective representative forms. The politics of artwork or the politics of the art economy hardly remain hidden in either of these cases, be it state-sponsored or independent.

In cinema, the same question demands a specific attention as the production infrastructure, till now, requires a fairly generous financial support. And before the digital takeover, the magnitudes of such dependence were even bigger. And in many cases, the state appeared to be the rescuer to the emerging filmmakers. Be it Indian New Wave or French Cinema or Iranian cinema, a plethora of aesthetic experiments was carried out under generous state patronage.  The films in question there came under state policy and virtually developed a symbiotic relationship with the apparatus. However, there was a phase in history where this relationship took an interesting shape. Cinema and the state emerged almost simultaneously through a rigorous, complex process and developed a unique symbiosis. I refer to the Russian revolution of 1917, the genesis of the Soviet state during its early years, and the simultaneous growth of Soviet cinema. Both of them, the state and cinema, traced a hitherto unknown trajectory of development. Standing at the centenary of the 1917 Revolution, I feel retrospection would be worthwhile to get a glimpse of a unique phenomenon which, in a large way, still appear immensely enigmatic to the film scholars, historians and the common enthusiasts.

By 1917, in the midst of WW-I, the Russian Empire cinema was on a decline. That was connected to the overall corrosion of the economic status of the Empire. It resulted in a sharp fall in production and film exhibition. Interestingly, none of the 1917 revolutions (February and October) brought any immediate change in the degrading status of the film industry. It had to wait till 1919 when Lenin, on behalf of the Soviet state, issued his famous decree of nationalizing the film industry of Russia. It came consequently as the newly formed Soviet state rediscovered cinema as a new weapon to carry forward its programmes. We may remember that the Bolsheviks, more specifically Lenin, had always put a major stress on party propaganda on various platforms. Having film medium under their command, Bolsheviks turned their major attention in utilizing it creatively. Silent films, seemingly unhampered by the language barrier, proved to be ideal for the indoctrination of a huge multilingual and multicultural population. The coinage of slogans such as ‘Cinema lights up the darkness, enlightens the proletariat’ signified the captive energy of the film medium as envisaged by the Bolshevik leaders. With a vision of expanding the reach of cinema even to the remotest parts of the country, trains were converted into film theatres, films were brought by motor cars, even by ships. A large number of political workers were trained to use the medium as an essential tool for their campaign. Initiatives in such magnitudes were possible because of the peculiar character of the state in post-revolution Russia. The party and the state were almost synonymous which, in a way, made theorization about cinema and implementation of the derived tasks possible within the stipulated time. The role of the party, as the ‘vanguard’ of the state, became extremely crucial to think about cinema. And needless to say, the party became excited too.  There was a series of party documents released during the early years of Soviet Union which can testify their increasing interest in cinema. I can name a few here – Lenin’s “Directive of Cinema Affairs” and his consequent discussion with Lunacharsky in 1922, Trotsky’s famous 1923 article, “Vodka, the Church, and Cinema”, Mayakovsky’s impressive statement “Cinema and Cinema” about the artistic and political potentiality of film etc.

from The Fall of Berlin (Mikheil Chiaureli, 1950)

Why are these so significant? Precisely, these were the symptoms of an emerging spectacular manoeuvre.  The Party’s official and serious entry into cinema was ceremonial and unforeseen in history as it brought a wholesome change in the discursive pattern of film appreciation in the Soviet Union. That was not limited only to the practitioners; even the general audiences were trained to the newer understandings of cinema. For a vast Soviet population, the film medium was completely new. Similar to those getting the first opportunity to experience cinema, they were mesmerized by the magical qualities of it. Thus, orienting them with the new mode of film appreciation was simultaneously easy and difficult. Easy, because the first experience always creates a foundational impression about the medium. It gets carried over the years and across the communities. Difficult, as even the activists were not sure about the nature and potential of the medium and they were struggling along with the audiences to grapple with the philosophical perseverance of cinema. The party took a note of this situation. To pursue the programmes, it took a major role in conceiving the film medium in Leninist terms, thereby reducing the chance of getting lost in philosophical riddles. Gradually, cinema became a natural part of their state-organizational structure. Such kind of organic amalgamation was unique and I think had never happened anywhere in the world. By the 1920s, all the major debates about cinema within the party structure started to take place using Leninist terminologies to develop an organisational engagement with the medium. The party discourse of cinema did not take it up merely as a functioning art form of political culture, rather an organic constituent of the revolution itself. This approach was reflected in organizing the cinema apparatus during the first Five Year Plan (1928-32), which importantly made the agenda of ‘collective farming systems’ as one of its primary goals. In cinema too, the ‘collective effort’, rather than individual avant-gardism, was considered as politically affordable for the party and the state. Moreover, cinema had to play an important role in mobilising masses during the development initiatives. This shift in the policy of the state, from allowing space for auteurs to promoting political collectivity, signifies an important change where the very act of defining ‘reality’, a major concern for Soviet filmmakers, became bound the party constraints. In the preceding decades, the filmmakers, committed to the cause of communism, tried to develop their own discourse of reality in their films. In the 1930s, it yielded to a version of reality – ‘as the Party saw it’. The party’s understanding of reality was later idealized in an official discourse as ‘socialist realism’ later in the 1930s.

However, it is difficult to grasp the essence of the early Soviet filmmaking initiatives in this small piece of writing. At best, we can initiate a further study into it. And while going deeper, we must remember that the phase we are talking about was the time when film as a medium had hardly been studied theoretically. It was precisely the filmmakers who had started proposing various theories coming directly from their practice. And that led to the genesis of the first generation film theorists, from the Soviet Formalist School, Kuleshov, Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin, Dovzhenko et. al. Not only because of the medium’s virtual embodiment with the state and the party in the Soviet Union, but also for their attempts towards developing an alternative philosophy for film practice made this era unique and unparallel in history. Furthermore, the success of Soviet cinema in acquiring enough critical acclamation made the way for many filmmakers from all over the world to devise their own strategy in going ahead with their agenda. The centenary of Russian revolution can thus be seen as a moment when we can look back to those years which, with its all attachments, literally shook the world of cinema.

References:

Taylor, R. & I. Christie. (Eds.). (1988). The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

 


About the Writer

Binayak Bhattacharya is an Assistant Professor at Auronya College, Pondicherry. Worked on the topic ‘Leftist Politics and Cinema in India’ for doctoral project. Current research focuses on the Cinemas of Soviet Union and its Global Influence.