Central planning meets film: The censorship of a mass medium

soviet film

In the Soviet Union, the 1930’s were characterized by massive state-led transformations in agriculture, industry, and culture. The revolution in culture represented a shift away from aesthetic values that existed in the previous decade. This shift did not occur on its own, rather it was carefully implemented by the state.

In 1930 the Soyukino, a bureaucratic entity designed to coordinate film production and release, was formed. The Soyukino was led by Boris Shumiatskii, and his goal was to eliminate the 1920’s trend of avant-garde film-making which was deemed elitist. Rather, Shumiatskii sought to ensure films were easily understandable to mass audiences. The avant-garde films of the 20’s were seen as a threat that would split the Soviet audience. This quickly inhibited popular avant-garde filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein from making films. For example, Eisenstein was able to create four films between 1924 and 1929, but was only able to create one film in the entire decade of the 1930’s (The Cinema of Stalinism: 1930-1941). In fact, the Soyukino drastically slowed the process of film-making in general. The censorship of the 1930’s made script-writing a difficult process. It wasn’t uncommon for films to be abruptly cancelled at any point during production.

Despite the increasingly complicated process of film-making throughout the 30’s, the Soyukino achieved its goal of releasing widely popular films. The above image shows an advertisement for the popular 1934 film Chapaev. The film was directed by the Vasilyev brothers. Chapaev depicts the life of a Red Army commander during the Civil War. In a 1934 editorial in Pravda, Chapaev is celebrated as a film that brings the glory of the revolution back to life. The editorial clearly states the purpose of art in this era of Soviet history: “It is precisely this role – that of the crystallized artistic reproduction of our country’s past – that Soviet art is called upon to fulfill alongside its other tasks.” The editorial also says that the film would be shown in every corner of the country. Chapaev represents the party’s mission to create films that support and glorify the Soviet cause. A clip from Chapaev can be viewed here.

film soviet

While Chapaev was a film that clearly stated the political values of the Soviet Union in the 30’s, it was not the only style of film approved by the Soyukino. Humorous musicals were also popular at this time. The above image is an advertisement for the 1934 film Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows, directed by Grigorii Aleksandrov. The film tells the story of a shepherd who is discovered for his singing ability and soon finds himself leading a jazz band in the capital. The film is lighthearted and features many musical numbers that captivated its Soviet audience. A clip from Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows can be viewed here. 

While the Stalinist era should be criticized for its extreme censorship, great feats were established nonetheless. This era brought sound and music to the cinema, independent from western influence. While the suppression of avant-garde films severely inhibited artistic expression and experimentation, films such as Chataev and Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows were able to create a defining moment in Russian film history nonetheless.

comrade corner

This post received a “Comrade’s Corner” award from the editorial team.

Images (in order):

A.P. Bel’skii: Advertisement for Chapaev (1935). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History. 

I.V. Gersimovich: The Starlet Orlova (1934). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Videos (in order):

Georgii and Sergei Vasiliev: Chapaev (1934). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History

Grigorii Aleksandrov: Happy-Go-Lucky-Fellows (1934). Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Sources:

Geldern, J. V. “Popular Film Industry.” Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

Pravda Editorial, “The Whole Country is Watching Chapaev.” November 21, 1934. Retrieved from: 17 Moments in Soviet History.

“The Cinema of Stalin: 1930-1941.” Retrieved from: Film Reference.

9 thoughts on “Central planning meets film: The censorship of a mass medium

  1. Kathryn, I loved your focus on films during this period. I liked how you brought up the difficulty of creating new films during this time period, and how the government was becoming even stricter than it had in decades past. However, I think it’s important to note that not all films were blatant propaganda machines– although many were. Great work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Your post brings up an interesting point about the creation of art in all its forms under a heavily censored government. Many people would argue that under such extreme censorship, true art can never be fully expressed but it is art created in these cases that art shows a fair amount of strength in working to gets its message across while also skirting the edges of legality. Is this piece of film really propaganda or is it turning such on its head?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree that true art cannot be restricted. However in the case of Aleksandrov’s Happy-Go-Lucky Fellows, Aleksandrov was able to accomplish a great feat by creating the first Soviet musical. In this case, his film did not necessarily exist to spread a political message, instead it sought to create a humorous film with musical numbers that would appeal to a mass audience. On the other hand, Chapaev had a stronger political message and it is likely that the Soyukino played a larger role in the writing process.

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      1. Yes, although as visions of a hoped-for reality, films like Happy Go Lucky Guys can be seen as political as well — by offering a happy and carefree vision of the future they convey a sense of the Soviet ideal.

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  3. bmester

    I think your post is quite interesting. The small thought you submit about “Shumiatskii” looking to ensure the movies were easily understandable to the masses was thought provoking. I wonder how in particular Shumiatskii changed the films.

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  4. It’s crazy to think how many films must have been suppressed during this era. So many of today’s popular movies are at least somewhat political, so I can’t even imagine how difficult it must have been for a screenwriter to write something worth seeing.

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  5. Katelyn

    I really liked this post. I love foreign films and I have never watched these films so I really need to check them out! I do agree that in terms of the technicalities of the film industry definitely improved and milestones were made however the stories and characters of those films definitely lacked.

    Like

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