The Hypocrisy behind Early Soviet Cinema


Leon Trotsky phenomenally described the noticeable flaws in popular cinema in his editorial from Pravda titled “Vodka, the Church, and Cinema”. This article initially describes changes in early Soviet life such as vodka prohibition and the eight hour cap on working days, but then expands on the potentially devastating, but useful role of cinema during the free hours of citizens. Trotsky almost sounds vitriolic when he states, “In the daily life of capitalist towns, the cinema has become just such an integral part of life as the bath, the beer-hall, the church, and other indispensable institutions, commendable and otherwise.” Trotsky was the king of anti-capitalism, and a statement about cinema in capitalist areas must have irked him beyond belief. He later states this disdain by saying, “The fact that we have so far, i.e., in nearly six years, not taken possession of the cinema shows how slow and uneducated we are, not to say, frankly, stupid.” Trotsky believed from the beginning that cinema could be used as an instrument of propaganda both for communism and against it. It is somewhat surprising to see that it took the amount of time it did to finally regulate the film industry in the Soviet Union, given the government’s constant paranoia about citizen uprising. The history of soviet cinema is quite interesting and included multiple phases.

The film industry in Soviet days started slowly because of filmmaker antipathy towards the Bolsheviks. This decreased funding and left the medium financially insolvent, thus crippling growth. However, schools began to fill with aspiring directors in varying genres, and the film movement began to expand quite rapidly after the Civil War. Lenin and the Bolsheviks embraced the industry, believing that film was the art of the future for the Soviets. Filmmakers created movies portraying anything because the public was entranced by the moving images. Many younger artists surely thought they were showing off their creative, independent ideals, however, a different story took place in their studies. Teachers indirectly urged students to bring a Bolshevik narrative to their films through filming techniques and images. The portrayal of such socialist narratives became engrained in the minds of those enjoying the films, and was a great means of subliminal propaganda. For the first time, many Russian peasants had the capability to see their new leaders. Adele Barker notes in the Russia Reader, “…more peasants knew what Lenin and Trotsky looked like than they did Tsar Nicholas II, whose portrait many had never seen.” This brought the peasants together with the city people in knowing their leaders and seeing the similarities among all classes. This was just another indirect method of propaganda for the Bolshevik leaders. Battleship Potemkin is lauded for its filming methods and amazing technological achievements for early 20th century film, but was also a pride piece for the Bolsheviks in that it portrayed the 1905 Revolution from a Bolshevik viewpoint.

Freedom in film lasted a short period from 1917 until after the Civil War’s end in 1922. After the Bolshevik victory, censorship began in full effect, thus isolating the Soviet film industry from outside influences, and focusing on socialist ideals. The Soviet Union ironically prided itself on individualistic film achievements, while actually forcing filmmakers to show certain things. Socialist ideals were present in every film, regardless of target age, demographic, or film genre. This arguably diminished the idea of film as a type of art, and turned it into a Soviet propaganda machine. The hypocrisy often ran deep throughout Soviet Russia, but the hypocrisy behind early Soviet cinema, leading to its later stages, was one of the worst offenses by the communist government.



The Russia Reader. Barker, Adele and Grant, Bruce. 365-369.

5 thoughts on “The Hypocrisy behind Early Soviet Cinema

  1. Nice Trotsky quote here (“The fact that we have so far, i.e., in nearly six years, not taken possession of the cinema shows how slow and uneducated we are, not to say, frankly, stupid.”)! I take your point about the hypocrisy of Bolshevik cultural policy in some regards, but imagine that the case of cinema might be more nuanced. There was in fact much debate and many perspectives vying for supremacy on this issue in the twenties. Directors as well as party activists had different ideas among themselves about how best to harness this new medium’s creative energies, and to what ends. Check back on the module in 17 moments and see what you think.


  2. Patrick says:

    I’m surprised it took so long to for censorship to take hold in the Soviet Union, although with such a new technology I’m sure not all of the “dangers” of film and television were obvious to the party leaders. The fact that film was able to penetrate into the lowest level of the Soviet people is really is really telling on the power it held and why it was such an important tool for the Communists.


  3. You make a good point on how Socialist themes were present in every film, no matter what. You set up the backdrop of the Russian film industry and analyze the progression to the Bolshevik film industry. Good job!


  4. Taylor W says:

    Great post! I liked how you point out the irony between the censorship of film and how proud the Soviets were of their achievements in cinema. It is interesting how it seemed to take the Soviets awhile to catch on to the potential propaganda use of the medium of film.


  5. I think you did a great job of analyzing the Soviet cinema “heyday”. The ideas behind Soviet hypocrisy definitely go further than just the cinema industry. The filmmakers back then were obviously influenced by party members in the way they had to present their artistic views. Its just crazy that it took so long for the industry to be heavily regulated as Trotsky wondered!


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