The Early Soviet Film Industry

Notes on Vance Kepley Jr., “Soviet Cinema and State Control: Lenin’s Nationalization Decree Reconsidered”, Journal of Film and Video, Vol. 42, No. 2

dziga-vertovThe Soviet Union and cinema: Lenin and Eisenstein—the beautiful and fatefully inevitable union of progressive politics and [non-capitalist] cinema-as-art (rather than cinema as crude product!)

(Films from the Soviet Union are prima facie art and have to be proved to be otherwise; Hollywood films are base things created by “the studio system” and art arises only whenever a director or producer manages to subvert the system for his own personal or political expression.)

Or was it?

According to Kepley, most histories of world cinema lean too heavily on the historical-thematic crutch of Soviet cinema being a well-wielded Bolshevik sword. The quite unimportant but relied-upon document, says Kepley, is Lenin’s 1919 nationalisation decree that nationalised* the film industry.

As Kepley puts it, the Bolsheviks were nationalising every industry and their sister during the War Communism years (1918-1921) and then sometimes completely forgetting about what they’d taken. And the industries that they did set about controlling were more likely to be controlled regionally than centrally. Film nationalisation was one of many nationalisations and subsequently only sporadically enforced.

In 1915 and 1916 the private studios of Czarist Russia produced 370 and 500 narrative feature films, respectively. Because much Russian film production was dependent on imports, the war, the revolution and their effects on foreign trade cut into how much could be made. Sabotage became a problem and each inch of film became more and more valuable. Nevertheless, between 1918 and 1921, 222 narrative features were made. The catch: 209 were made by private [read: capitalist] studios; the state-owned studios made only 13.

That is not to say that the Bolsheviks didn’t do anything. They did; but they focused on agitational films and shorts. And nationalisation did proceed, but often it meant buying up bits of the film industry that had gone out of business and then dealing with the consequences. In 1919 and keeping that in mind, the Bolsheviks owned, according to one estimate, 30% of the film industry. Without the means of reopening or fixing what they’d taken, formerly-film buildings stood empty and under guard against scavengers who wanted to take them for parts.

When more decisive and complete action was taken, it often didn’t end as well as hoped. For example, the Bolsheviks nationalised all movie theatres in Moscow in 1919. Then subsequently couldn’t pay theatre workers’ salaries and had to close down some of what they’d nationalised. To further muddle the myth, the Bolsheviks knew they didn’t have the personnel to staff a fully conquered film industry (though film industry workers, in contrast to studio owners, were sympathetic to Bolshevism) and when nationalising steps were taken, it was at the behest of small studio owners who were afraid they’d go out of business otherwise.

An unrelated though interesting fact about the nationalising decree is that it only applied, even in letter, to Soviet Russia. Non-Russia parts of the Soviet Union, like the Ukraine and its film industry, weren’t covered.

The conclusion to all this is that the film industry in the early days of the Soviet Union was a mess—in effect, there were two parallel industries: private and Bolshevik. The Bolsheviks respected and utilised the power of film to an extent, but there was no immediate and divine marriage between Lenin and “the tenth muse”. It took the faux-capitalism of Lenin’s New Economic Policy to create what we know as the Soviet film industry.

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