Cultural Revolution, Collectivization, and Soviet Cinema: Eisenstein's Old and New and Dovzhenko's Earth
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 11, Number 4, December 1981
- pp. 84-96
- Additional Information
CULTURAL REVOLUTION, COLLECTIVIZATION, AND SOVIET CINEMA: EISENSTEIN'S OLD AND NEW AND DOVZHENKO'S EARTH by Paul E. Burns Old and New (1929) and Earth (1930) were the last silent films made by two world-renowed Soviet directors, Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko respectively. The films deal with the Soviet village during the collectivization of agriculture under the First Five-Year Plan. Most Western discussions of these works concentrate on their directors' unique contributions to filmmaking methodology, and in Eisenstein's case, to film theory. ' Old and New and Earth are indeed distinguished examples of film art, but they are also graphic statements of the contemporary concerns and pressures of a society in unprecedented and mind-boggling flux. This essay focuses on the historical context of collectivization and cultural revolution as a key to understanding their ideological content and as a means of illustrating the interaction of Soviet cinema and society. The cultural revolution which accompanied and assisted "the great turning point" of the First Five-Year Plan in Soviet Russia has recently received systematic analysis by a group of Western scholars. Instead of viewing the period of the First Five-Year Plan as a transition from the tolerant and culturally diverse years of the New Economic Policy (19211928 ) to the repressive and culturally stagnant era of Stalin's "socialist realism," they see the cultural revolution of 1928-1931 as a discrete phenomenon with its own special characteristics. Cultural revolution was the counterpart to rapid industrialization and forced collectivization of agriculture; it reflected the economic and social transformation, but was also intended to foster that transformation. While it was to raise Paul E. Burns is a member of the history department at the University of Eevada at Las Vegas· . 84 the general cultural level of the masses (as Lenin had intended), it was also to advance the working class and Communist youth and introduce a militantly proletarian culture (not envisioned by Lenin). In the crucible of Stalin's revolution, no art form was free from the political pressure to produce works of relevance and ideological correctness. Major Soviet films of the 1920s had already broken with the canons of the bourgeois cinema. Absence of a star system, elevation of the masses or their representatives as hero, eschewal of romantic plots, and positive treatment of revolutionary subjects characterized the avantgarde . But while such revolutionary epics as Potemkin, Mother, The End of St. Petersburg, October, and Arsenal had astounded international film circles, imported entertainment films were the most popular fare of Soviet audiences. As the regime geared up for the First Five-Year Plan, it sought to marshal cinema's mass communication potential. At a Party conference on cinema held in March 1928, A. I. Krinitsky, head of the agitprop department of the Central Committee, characterized the cinema as "one of the most powerful instruments of the struggle for cultural improvement, an enormous factor in the cultural revolution and the socialist transformation of the country."3 He praised the depiction of the Revolution in Soviet films for giving "a class assessment of historical events," but lamented the lack of worthwhile films on the problems of contemporary Soviet life, such as "the union [smychka] of the workers and the peasants" and "the fight for collective forms of agriculture."4 While he called for films "comprehensible to the millions," he also urged the Soviet cinema not to "follow in the wake of the audience. . .it must lead the audience, support the beginnings in it of the new man..."5 In no other area of Soviet life was it so difficult for the cinema to lead and be "a means of agitation for the current slogans of the Party"6 than it was in agriculture. The collectivization of Soviet agriculture followed a tortured path, both in its conception and in its execution . Individual peasant farming was the centerpiece of Lenin's New Economic Policy, and it had led to recovery of Russia's shattered economy. But when the decision to rapidly industrialize was made after long debates in 1927-28, the leadership assumed that the necessary resources for industrial investment would be extracted from the peasantry. Low prices created a crisis in grain procurement during...