Stalinist Masculinity in Soviet Film & Society, 1953-68

A review of Rescripting Stalinist Masculinity: Contesting the Male Ideal in Soviet Film and Society, 1953-1968, by Marko Dumančić.

Marko Dumančić’s dissertation examines models of masculinity as presented in films of the post-Stalin Soviet Union, and uses them as a lens through which to investigate de-Stalinization and its relationship to pan-European cultural trends. Dumančić writes of the central role played by cinema in offering male Soviet viewers a fundamentally new perspective on their selves, everyday lives, and the larger world. What emerges is a highly valuable study given the dearth of works on post-Stalin masculinity and the increasing attention scholars are devoting both to transnationalism and the relationship between personal experience and official ideology in the post-Stalin USSR. In this analysis of what might be called post-Stalin subjectivity in transnational perspective, Dumančić emphasizes “liberal” or “reformist” change, and argues that “the post-Stalinist project was more than an exercise in political liberalization; it was a cardinal reinvention of seeing and experiencing reality” (pp. 31-32).

Dumančić explores this reinvention in commendable detail. At the center of his project are twenty liberal films released in the first fifteen years after Stalin’s death (1953-1968) and chosen because they garnered the most attention among Soviet viewers, critics, and authorities. Dumančić places these films on a background of archival sources such as censorship records and documentation of meetings of the cinematographers’ union, as well as published sources including memoirs and movie reviews. As he maintains, these films had no less than a revolutionary impact on the ideal of “hypermasculine supermen” (p. 39) promoted under Stalin. Working to overthrow this “hegemonic masculinity,” in the terms of R.G. Connell (p. 21), was an intergenerational group of reformist filmmakers that included Mikhail Romm (1901-1971), Grigorii Chukhrai (1921-2001), and Marlen Khutsiev (1925- ). Liberal directors projected onto screens and in turn (they hoped) into Soviet life images of young men of modest and imperfect build who embraced independent thought and action, emotion rather than reason, rich personal lives, and (heterosexual) romance. As Dumančić makes clear, these qualities did not limn a single model of masculinity; various ideals circulated in what he calls “the long 1960s,” a multiplicity that made central control difficult — not only of gender models but of the larger Soviet project. To be sure, the reformists met opposition from their conservative counterparts and Party-state officials, as well as from Soviet viewers who were interested in lighter fare than these intellectuals had to offer. Yet the masculinities they introduced, Dumančić argues, would have an enduring effect on Soviet culture.

Dumančić devotes his first chapter, “Dethroning the Stalinist Hero,” to revealing the precipitants of this revolutionary change. He profitably shifts our attention from the implications of political milestones such as Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956 to larger social and cultural trends. As he explains, a crucial development in the post-Stalin period was a “dramatic escalation of films being released — from a dozen in 1952 to over a hundred in 1958” (p. 63), which overextended the censorship apparatus and thus created autonomous spaces in which filmmakers could work. Other causal factors, he points out, included the establishment of the Cinematographers’ Union in 1957, the influx of young filmmakers into the industry and the encouragement they received from their mentors, and greater openness with respect to Western Europe.

Having established the reasons for their rise, Dumančić in Chapters 2 through 4 moves on to an examination of the new “celluloid masculinities” themselves. Centered on three films, Little Sergei (Serezha, 1960, dirs. G. Daneliia and I. Talankin), Clear Skies (Chistoe nebo, 1961, dir. Grigorii Chukhrai), and Lenin’s Guard (Zastava Il’icha, 1962, dir. Marlen Khustiev), Chapter 2, “Not My Father’s Keeper,” demonstrates the ways in which reformist directors dismantled the Stalinist myth of the great Soviet family. This myth, Dumančić writes, “reserved its validation for men who followed the lead of their elders to willingly sacrifice themselves whenever necessary” (p. 68). In its place, reformist filmmakers presented more democratic male communities and fathers who learned from their sons rather than vice versa. The latter, as well as their elder charges, were more sensitive, more reflective, and more allied to their own personal truth.

In Chapter 3, “Universalizing the Feminine and Feminizing the Masculine,” Dumančić examines the “stereotypically feminine qualities — empathy, vulnerability, and emotiveness” (p. 114) with which liberal filmmakers began to characterize their male heroes. In analyses of films such as Chukhrai’s The Forty-first (Sorok pervyi, 1956) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (Letiat zhuravli, 1957), Dumančić writes, too, of characters marked by deeper and more intricate psychologies than those of Stalin-era protagonists. For the Thaw-era hero, domestic life, once the domain of the heroine, became newly important as well; indeed, the new man was now to be a “loyal husband, respected neighbor, and supportive father” (p. 133). Chapter 4, “Engineers and Scientists as Archetypal Celluloid Heroes of the Reformist Intelligentsia,” focuses on films such as Mikhail Romm’s Nine Days of a Year (Deviat’ dnei odnogo goda, 1962) and Sergei Mikaelian’s Into the Storm (Idu na grozu, 1965). Here Dumančić makes the fascinating observation that the science-obsessed Stalinist state did not in fact cast scientists as heroes; such a development would occur only during Khrushchev’s Thaw. Intriguingly, too, Dumančić points out that scientists were not only depicted as heroic, but also “epitomized the notion of ‘cool’” (p. 173). Their heroism and coolness, of course, was a function of the epistemological autonomy they promoted.

In Chapter 5, “Selling Masculinity: The Effects of Foreign Blockbusters and Sociological Research on Soviet Celluloid Heroism,” Dumančić investigates how the post-Stalin film industry and the renascent profession of sociology began to tie a film’s success not to official opinions but to its popularity and box-office revenues. What this metric revealed was that different viewers wanted different heroes and consequently were drawn to divergent masculine ideals. Importantly, it also demonstrated that Soviet viewers were not much interested in watching movies featuring thoughtful and “effeminate” young men, which created a worrisome opening for foreign, ostensibly lesser films. A third position thus materialized in the world of Soviet cinema; alongside the liberal and the conservative emerged the popular, for which a stronghold of sorts became the magazine Sovetskii ekran.

The transnational angle is the subject of the sixth and final chapter, “Soviet Masculinity in a Pan-European Perspective.” Here Dumančić puts forward the productive argument that similarities between reformist and European (both eastern and western) films were a result not of cultural transfer but of a shared context. Both the Soviet Union and Europe, Dumančić argues convincingly, were characterized by the rise of consumerism and youth culture, Cold War anxieties, and a need to come to terms with the legacies of the Second World War.

Marko Dumančić situates his dissertation relative to various bodies of historiography and gender theory, and it deserves indeed the attention of scholars who work in these fields. Scholars of Soviet film and post-Stalin subjectivity will find the dissertation especially relevant, particularly the discussion of the Sovetskii ekran “phenomenon” and the fifth chapter more generally. Historians of both the Soviet Union and Europe will find the final chapter on transnationalism profitable. Finally, gender scholars will no doubt be interested in Dumančić’s meticulous investigation of how gender ideals change, and quite radically at that, in a (relatively) closed society governed by a single party.

Anatoly Pinsky
Visiting Assistant Professor
History Department
The European University at Saint Petersburg
apinsky@eu.spb.ru

Primary Sources

Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv literatury i iskusstva (Russian State Archive of Literature and Art) – f. 2936 The USSR Cinematographers’ Union (Soiuz kinematografistov SSSR); and f. 2468 The M. Gor’kii Moscow Film Studio (Moskovskaia kinostudiia im. M. Gor’kogo)
Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv noveishei istorii (Russian State Archive of Contemporary History) – f. 5 Apparat of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2010. 356 pp. Primary Advisor: Donald J. Raleigh.

 

Image: Still from the film Into the Storm (1965, dir. Sergei Mikaelian). From kino-teatr.ru.

 

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