Non-Fiction Cinema in the USSR


A review of Le cinéma de non-fiction en URSS. Création, production et diffusion (1948-1968) [Non-fiction Cinema in the USSR: Creation, Production and Distribution], by Irina Tcherneva.

Soviet non-fiction films are not high on the agenda of scholarly research. The genre is broad and elusive. It includes documentary, educational, scientific and industrial films as well as newsreels and advertisement. One can say that with the exception of the last category the borderlines within the genre are not always clear. Especially in Soviet conditions where, as Stalin put it already before WWI, agitprop was supposed to operate with hard facts. Soviet makers of non-fiction films were expected to disseminate the regime’s message by selecting and presenting facts. Few of them were cynical brainwashers. One way or another they accepted the Soviet project even if they could be inclined to harbor doubts as for the ways it was realized. This was especially true in the early 1960s when the repudiation of the Stalin period and hopes in a radical renewal the system inspired many intellectuals.

Irina Tcherneva’s pathbreaking dissertation starts with the lean postwar years of Soviet cinema and ends in the late 1960s when doubts once again began to outweigh optimism. Her focus on the period does not exclude flashbacks and short excursions in future developments. Tcherneva follows the meandering itinerary of the making, unmaking and remaking of the institutional framework for producing and creating non-fiction films. The story she writes is not simply that of a genre. It is the social history of Soviet institutions and the sociological exploration of a specific milieu as well as its relationships to what it was filming, to the people it was filming and to the public it was filming for.

The study is founded on an astonishing range of primary and secondary sources. Tcherneva prospected in fifteen archives for original documents and the list of the books and articles she consulted fills sixty pages. She uses her material with great analytic acumen. She is attentive to significant details and able to follow the thread of her story by combining very different kinds of sources. Tcherneva also interviewed fifty directors, cameramen, scriptwriters and other moviemakers. She collected four types of archival sources. She explored central archives of the institutions deciding and implementing cultural policies. She also worked in regional and local archives of the party and state administration. Besides, she consulted the archives of two film studios. Last but not least, she studied one hundred sixteen films related to her project.

A great innovation of the dissertation is its break with the traditional russocentrism of Soviet studies and with the heavy concentration on a few outstanding artists which characterize works on the Soviet arts. Tcherneva studies the interaction of policies, institutions and artistic practices by following the fortunes of the film studios of Sverdlovsk (today Ekaterinburg) and Riga, the Latvian capital. The inner workings of artistic teams and their relationships to different administrations are at the center of her investigations. The choice of Riga is especially judicious. Latvia became fully Sovietized only after the war. Its artists and public were different from those of the rest of the country.

A long introduction situates the topic in the context of the stifling atmosphere of the late Stalin era and the Thaw period which eased the party-state’s pressure on the rest of society. The first chapter focuses on a documentary, the 235,000,000 Faces (Riga, 1965-68) the deep changes in Soviet non-fiction movies which evolve from the illustration of the fatherland’s greatness and might towards attempts to show individuals and their daily environment as the foundations of a society embodying humanistic values. The second chapter shows how institutional changes and especially the decentralization of decision-making and control affected non-fiction moviemaking. It touches upon issues of institutional in-fighting and conflict and the growing competition with television.

The third chapter is about the position of the studios between central and local administrations and the formation of a body of national artists. It describes the stabilization of a new organigram of non-fiction moviemaking, the social and political implications of creating a cinema which the authorities would accept as national and the delicate balance between Soviet and national themes studios were expected to strike. Tcherneva manages to avoid the pitfall of focusing on Soviet ethnic policies instead of following long-term trends in the development of institutions in the context of the regime’s changing priorities. This way she can demonstrate that to a large extent the Sverdlovsk and the Riga studios were confronting the same problems.

The fourth chapter deals with the professionalization of non-fiction film-making and with the dilemma of combining artistic creation with cost-effectiveness. The problem of profitability appears in the fifth chapter too where the ways and places of showing non-fiction movies are discussed. The sixth chapter shows that debates about the choice between entertainment and art in moviemaking were related to cost-effectiveness. They stimulated research about the public’s tastes and led to experiments with creating special venues for non-fiction films.

The last two chapters return to the topic of the first one. They are built on the same sort of analyses but this time Tcherneva places the films in the perspective of the previous chapters. She decodes the pictures as the meeting points of the cultural policies and creative practices as they had been emerging and evolving between the late 1940s and the end of the 1960s. Tcherneva shows how the socialization and professionalization of the authors of non-fiction were motivating them to devise artistic languages in order to seize social relationships and assert themselves as creators of a specific genre and its Soviet styles. She makes clear that these processes were closely related to the regime’s attempts at economic reform and to a new social dynamics. They facilitated the adoption by the moviemakers of new methods of creation as well as artistic innovation and technical modernization following foreign models.

In many ways, the dissertation is about the formation and self-assertion of a professional milieu which finds itself in a complex configuration of social change, cultural policies, institution-building, economic imperatives, personal convictions and aesthetic choices. The films this milieu is making are supposed to be about what is understood as reality by politicians, by officials of the movie industry, by the public and by the artists themselves. The understanding of reality by these social spheres is not uniform. Moreover, it is evolving over the time and so does the art of the moviemakers who are struggling hard to reconcile the regime’s demands, professional obligations, the public’s expectations and their own preferences which are not necessarily compatible with each other.

Their work and its outcomes reflect contradictions the filmmakers are not always aware of, not even those who are looking back to the 1950s and 1960s in our days. Tcherneva succeeds in identifying and analyzing these contradictions and in deciphering cultural and artistic practices and codes which embody them. She interprets hidden messages of films as well as social practices and self-perceptions of moviemakers which appear only in the light of historical and sociological research.

Irina Tcherneva wrote a pioneering dissertation. There is no comparable study about her topic. Specialists of all genres of the Soviet cinema and of the cinema as such will discover a hitherto unknown universe thanks to this work. Historians of the Soviet era as well as everybody exploring the transformation of societies, modern institutions and their interplay with creative practices and the arts will find precious material in an eventual publication in book form. The dissertation is a gold mine for colleagues studying the formation and workings of artistic milieus and professional groups which are cornered in interacting with policy-making institutions and government agencies.

Gábor T. Rittersporn
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique
Paris, France

Primary sources
Historical Archive of Latvia (LVA), f. 270, 416, 463, 1405, 1412
State Archive of the Sverdlovsk Region (AEOS), f. 2258, R 2581, R 2520, R 2534, R 2103
Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts (RGALI), f. 631, 2329, 2450, 2453, 2456, 2944
Latvian State Arcive of Film and Photography (LVKFFDA) 62 films, 24 news reels
Sverdlovsk Regional Archive of Documents of Social Movements (TsOOSO) f. 4, 376, 2252

Dissertation information

École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris, 2014, vol. 1 769pp. vol. 2 185pp. Primary advisors: Alain Blum and Valérie Pozner.

Image: Man With a Movie Camera, 1929.  Wikimedia Commons.

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