“Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important”
After the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, Communists needed something to propagandize their ideas and keep them alive. Vladimir Lenin, one of the leaders of the revolution, understood that cinema was the most effective art of all others. That’s why Soviet filmmakers, like Alexander Dovzhenko, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Sergey Eisenstein, and others, started to produce a lot of propagandistic movies that were aimed to support the regime. Those movies partly shaped the society of that time, as they were showing how great the life in Soviet Russia was. During World War II a new kind of propagandistic war movies appeared. One of the most popular films of this period was “Alexander Nevsky” by Sergey Eisenstein. It was about ancient Russian prince, who was fighting against Germans. Iosif Stalin, himself, told that this movie had to inspire the soldiers by the image of great ancestors. It was a time of enormous propaganda, and there was no place for real creativity.
1950s-60s - 1985
In the middle of 1950s and at the beginning of 1960s a new wave of Soviet movies started. Cinema focused on comedies, fairy tales, and adaptations of classical novels. Directors, like Leonid Gaidai, Eldar Ryazanov, Georgiy Danelia, and others, were responsible for developing a comedy genre in that period. This genre was probably the most popular during that time. That’s why propaganda stopped playing a major role in cinema, as more and more filmmakers were producing innovative films that were distinctly different from those ones in the past. Even though there still wasn’t opposition at all, with time some movies appeared that were really close to this category. For example, one of the greatest Russian directors, Andrei Tarkovsky, made such movies as “Andrei Rublev”, “Solaris”, “Mirror”, and “Stalker”, that could challenge Soviet authority. These pictures are still characterized as great pieces of art, but in Soviet times this was something really new and odd, as it didn’t fit into traditional cinema of that time. So, some signs of opposition were noticeable in other movies too, but it was usually banned by censorship.
1985 - 1997
But everything changed when Mikhail Gorbachev came in 1985, starting perestroika. A lot of things became different, and cinema was one of them. Finally, direct opposition started to appear in big amounts, because more and more directors wanted to show something that they weren’t allowed to in the past. Movies, like “Assa”, “Cold summer of 1953”, “Repentance”, “Promised heaven” were among this opposition. They all were showing the truth about Soviet authority, even though they were made in different genres. “Assa” was a crime film about Soviet mafia; “Cold Summer of 1953” was about released political and criminal prisoners fighting with each other; “Repentance” is a surrealistic story about people who are affected by the sins of their ancestors; “Promised heaven” was about homeless people, who are trying to survive in Russia, facing authority that persecutes them. People were extremely affected by these films, because they have never seen something like this before. The young generation of that time could be characterized by these words from Viktor Tsoi’s song from “Assa” – “We are waiting for changes”. People were really waiting for their country to change. And while it was changing, cinema was changing too. When Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, cinema production stopped making any noticeable movies. While there was a mess in the country itself, there was a mess in cinema too. But, in 1992 two opposition movies were released - “The Chekist” and “Cannibal”. These films were never shown in theaters, as they had a too strong message for that time. The first one, “The Chekist” was about the massive genocide of Christians, aristocrats, and intellectuals at the beginning of the Bolshevik revolution. And “Cannibal” also tells a real story about the rebellion of political prisoners in one of the Soviet Gulags (labor camp/prison). It is still a big question how these movies were even made during that time, as this real history, shown there, was still some kind of taboo.
1997 - present
In 1997, a new era of Russian cinema began with a movie “Brother” by Aleksei Balabanov. This film was not like any other in the past. Everything was new about it. It is an action crime film about a young man Danila Bagrov, who comes back from his military service and asks for help his older brother. His brother puts Danila to work as a killer. “Brother” became a phenomenon, not only because it was high quality action film, but also because it could be called propaganda and opposition movie at the same time. The truth is that everyone saw and still sees it differently. Some people think Danila is a hero, who loves his brother and protects him. Others say he is a crazy person, who just kills everyone on his path. And both these opinions are true in some kind. Anyway, this was a new beginning for Russian cinema. Since then gangster films became very popular. But there were some other movies that can be called opposition. For example, Dmitriy Astrakhan directed such movies as “You Are My Only Love” and “Everything Will Be Fine!”. These films are romantic ones, and their actual idea was that – even living in Russia, where there are so many problems and social injustices, there is only one force that can save people – love.
Other than that, there were many interesting movies that influenced people, and when Putin came in 2000 there were some new changes conducted. As Lenin understood one day that Communist ideas had to spread through cinema, Putin also realized that people needed an idea that could lead them. And, for him, this idea became patriotism. That’s why a lot of historical movies and TV shows were produced during Putin’s office. Putin wanted to raise people’s attention to their great ancestors. So, he started a new sort of propaganda that is still alive today. These movies are usually either about WWII times, or about ancient times, when monarchs were in power. For example, two recent movies “Stalingrad” of 2013 and “Viking” of 2016. “Stalingrad” is just a usual example of propagandistic war movie. It's about Russian soldiers protecting the woman that survived in Stalingrad. So, this movie is supposed to call for patriotism, but it has a very poor quality, so it doesn’t work as it has to. And “Viking” is about ancient prince Vladimir the Great, who christianized the Kievan Rus (current Russia). This movie was also produced to raise some kind of patriotism in people, but, in reality a lot of Russian journalists and YouTube bloggers just criticized this film and gave it very negative reviews and low scores. One other example is a film “Crimea” of 2017. It is about the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. It is also an enormous propaganda, where Ukrainian people are shown as cruel and bad, and Russians as valiant and good. This movie also was of a poor quality, and people didn’t like it at all. So, this cinema propaganda works for the government, works for Putin, but it does not for people, as it always fails in one way or another.
On the other hand, opposition movies are the ones that interest people the most nowadays. In reality they don’t have a success at the box office, as they are not advertised very good, but among people these movies are very popular, as they have a very good quality, and some of them can really be called the great pieces of art. Probably there are two most popular directors of opposition today - Yuri Bykov and Andrey Zvyagintsev. What’s interesting is that they both call Andrei Tarkovsky their teacher, as they were really inspired by his works. But if Tarkovsky didn’t make direct opposition, those two do. Yuri Bykov’s most famous movie is “The Fool” of 2014. This is a very dramatic picture about a young man, who found a crack in the building – he says that it will fall soon, and people have to be evacuated, but no one believes him. That’s why he is going to the local mayor to ask her for help. But she has problems with that, as there are no empty flats, where she can put these people if they are evacuated. This movie shows how corrupt the Russian system is, it shows that authority doesn’t really care about the lives of people, and that usual people don’t want to change anything in their lives. This is a very depressive film of a high quality that shows Russian reality in its very dark colors. One of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s most famous films is “Leviathan” of 2014 too. This is a story about a man, whose ancestral home is chosen to be demolished, as the church is going to be built on its place. So, the main character starts to fight for his home against the local minister. But it’s hard to do anything, as all forces are on this minister’s side – he is an authority, so “it means he is right”. The movie is also very sad, but it is a very strong opposition that shows how little a usual person can do in modern Russia. So, both of these movies have already been called as one of the best Russian movies and one of those that show the truth about Russia nowadays.
Propaganda lives, opposition survives
As we see, throughout the history of Soviet and post-Soviet (Russian) cinema there always was a great amount of propaganda. But, almost always there were even little signs of opposition too, because people can’t hide their real opinions all the time. And today we also see that propaganda lives, but more and more people are starting to produce opposition movies that challenge current authority. And while there are such filmmakers, while there is an intention to show the truth, even in the darkest tones, there is also a hope that people can change, affected by these movies.
© 2019 Egor Demin
Bunty Thoidingjam from New Delhi on October 01, 2020:
I always wanted to know more about Russian films since we don't get access to much Russian films here. Thanks a lot! Your articles are gems.
Man on July 08, 2019:
Well written. Will you write some more on Russian movies?
Visitor on July 08, 2019:
I've seen some of Bykov's movies - they're really depressive
Someone on July 06, 2019:
Guy on July 05, 2019:
I like it. Russian cinema was always something odd for me, now I see that it's much more interesting than I supposed
Friend on July 05, 2019:
I've never read articles about this topic with so many details. Thank you!