Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 38, October 2003

 

 

George O. Liber

 

Re-examining Dovzhenko's Political Environment:

A Response to Riley

 

 

John Riley

'A (Ukrainian) Life in Soviet Film: Liber's _Alexander Dovzhenko_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 31, September 2003

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n31riley

 

I am grateful to John Riley for his serious assessment of my biography of Alexander Dovzhenko (1894-1956). In response, I would like to elaborate on the impact of the revolutionary period, Ukrainianization, and socialist realism on the filmmaker's life and art.

 

 

Revolution, 1917-1919

 

When the revolution broke out in March 1917, Dovzhenko -- a peasant-turned-teacher -- could openly express his views, participate in mass meetings and demonstrations, and celebrate his Ukrainian identity without fear of political reprisal for the first time in his life. He joined the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (the UPSR), the largest and most pro-peasant political party in the Ukrainian provinces.

 

For him, as for many others, the course of the Ukrainian Revolution brought great disappointment. Ukrainian intellectuals with socialist sympathies in the cities sought to create an independent Ukrainian National Republic, but they could not permanently bind the peasantry to their cause, nor could they resist Bolshevik intervention. Joining Symon Petliura's nationalist army, Dovzhenko fled Kiev in February 1919 and spent nearly eight months in ever-shifting encampments fleeing the Bolsheviks.

 

Falling into the hands of the secret police (the Cheka) in September 1919, the trauma of imprisonment caused the young man to re-evaluate his revolutionary enthusiasms. In his cell, Dovzhenko had much time to think. He could reflect on his world turned upside down. The Ukrainian Revolution had collapsed. Ukrainian peasants, his own flesh and blood, had betrayed his hopes and aspirations to create an independent Ukraine.

 

He may well have concluded that his efforts to establish an independent Ukrainian state were absurd and brought him nothing but deprivation, suffering and brushes with death. At perhaps his darkest and most depressing moment, the Borotbists -- the left-wing of the UPSR which had allied themselves with the Bolsheviks -- gained his release and offered him an opportunity to redeem himself. With the help of his new patrons, he became a member of the Communist Party of Ukraine.

 

Dovzhenko's political journey between 1917 and 1920 lacked a coherent logic, but this inconsistency emerged from the chaos unleashed by revolution, invasion, and civil war. He took calculated risks and made every effort to eke sense out of his confusing surroundings. When his circumstances changed, he did what many did during this turbulent period -- he switched sides. He survived as best he could in an incredibly violent, volatile, and difficult period.

 

His political choices between 1917 and 1919 left a sword of Damocles hanging over his head for the rest of his life. Although the Stalinist national security state began to emerge only a decade later, Soviet security organs had already flagged Dovzhenko. His nationalist allegiances and his arrest became powerful incentives to conform publicly, especially during the purges of the 1930s. His experiences as a Cheka prisoner in 1919 may have permanently wounded him emotionally, if not physically.

 

 

Ukrainianization

 

The Bolsheviks, overwhelmingly urban, proletarian, and Russian, attained power in a predominantly agricultural, multi-national state by winning the support of the Russian and Russified working class in the non-Russian areas. But even in victory, Bolshevik success over the long term remained precarious unless the ruling party legitimated its power monopoly with the peasants and the non-Russian nationalities, who constituted nearly half the population of the newly formed Soviet state. Only a 'Great Compromise' with these groups (as Lenin argued forcibly) could pave the way towards a stable Soviet government.

 

The 'Great Compromise' consisted of the New Economic Policy directed towards the wary peasants, enacted in March 1921, and a set of policies oriented towards the non-Russians. The establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on 30 December 1922 and the decisions at the Twelfth Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in April 1923 approved three inter-related policies towards the non-Russians.

 

The first policy emphasized the national-territorial principle: the Communist Party and the Soviet government recognized each large national group's territorial base by creating the separate Ukrainian, Belorussian, Transcaucasian republics and many autonomous regions in the Russian republic within the federal structure of the Soviet Union. The second policy advocated the creation of separate Communist Parties within these non-Russian republics. Although these parties stood completely subordinate to the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) (later to the All-Union Communist Party), their development reaffirmed symbolically, if not in reality, the national-territorial principle.

 

The korenizatsiia (indigenization or nativization) program represented the third policy. This program advocated the equality of the non-Russian languages and cultures vis-a-vis the Russian language and culture. Most importantly, korenizatsiia sought to enhance the position of the non-Russians by promoting them into leading positions in the party, the government, and the trade unions. In short, this policy sought to legitimate an urban based revolution in a predominantly agricultural, multi-national state by encouraging the development of distinct national cultures.

 

Korenizatsiia sought to overcome the structural problems experienced by the non-Russians in early Soviet society: the high illiteracy rates, economic underdevelopment, cultural backwardness, and the tense relationship between the Russified cities and the non-Russian countryside. Korenizatsiia would be the political, and industrialization the socio-economic response of the Soviet government to the nationalities problem. These responses were intertwined.

 

In the long run, the Bolsheviks expected that industrialization would successfully integrate the ethnically diverse peoples of the Soviet Union into the socialist order. Already in 1921 Stalin had predicted that with industrialization the cities in the non-Russian regions would attract the nationalities from the surrounding countryside. But the Communist Party and the Soviet government could not wait until this natural nativization would equalize the urban-rural ethnic imbalance. Measures such as korenizatsiia had to be implemented immediately in order to defuse, if not reverse, the non-Russian hostility towards the alien cities. In order to neutralize non-Russian nationalism, the Soviet party introduced measures which would outwardly placate the aroused national feelings of the non-Russians, but limit their true political content, as expressed in the slogan, 'national in form, socialist in content'.

 

The Soviet government and the Communist Party promoted the development of the non-Russian languages and cultures in the 1920s and early 1930s. Employing the native languages in the non-Russian regions would be a modernizing society's most effective means of communicating to its large, multilingual population. In addition to pragmatic considerations, native-language use had a political purpose: to neutralize the hostility, if not to win over the non-Russian peasants and elites by condemning the social and political Russification of the tsarist past. This policy also provided a public demonstration of respect for the languages and cultures of the recently oppressed and nationally-aroused non-Russians.

 

Following these considerations, the Soviet government and Communist Party expanded the base of its modernization effort by investing heavily in massive anti-illiteracy campaigns, teaching the non-Russians to read and write in their own languages. The government subsidized the standardization and modernization of the non-Russian languages. It also expanded primary, secondary, and higher education with instruction in the indigenous languages. The number and circulation of native-language newspapers, journals, and books expanded greatly, and in some republics more appeared in the non-Russian languages than the number of periodicals published in Russian or imported from the Russian republic. By emphasizing language and literacy, the Soviet government in effect created and expanded the number of native-language consumers within each non-Russian region. By establishing a heretofore non-existent cultural infrastructure, the Soviet government and Communist Party created an independent cultural and intellectual universe for these new language-consumers.

 

By emphasizing the non-Russian languages and cultures, the Soviet government forged the non-Russian identities and raised the prestige of the previously underdeveloped non-Russian languages and cultures to the point where these languages and cultures were juridically equal to Russian. By employing, standardizing, and modernizing previously low-status languages, by creating a cultural infrastructure, and by creating a monopoly for its consumers, cultural entrepreneurs -- to use Crawford Young's phrase -- raised the prestige of the non-Russian languages. Korenizatsiia encouraged the non-Russians to identify modernization with their non-Russian cultures and values.

 

By raising the prestige of the non-Russian languages and cultures, korenizatsiia clearly defined not only the cultural, but the political boundaries as well. Responding to the non-Russian aspirations of national self-determination, the All-Union Communist Party (VKP(b)) sought to increase the number of non-Russians in the rank and file and in the leadership of the party. In pursuing this course of action, the VKP(b) was successful. By 1933, the local nationals constituted over one-half of the Communist Parties of Uzbekistan, Tadzhikistan, Kirghizia, Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, the Chuvash ASSR, the Komi Autonomous Oblast, and the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast. The largest numerical increases during the 1920s were made by the Belorussians and the Ukrainians. With the rise of non-Russians within the party, the Russian percentage of the membership radically declined. By 1 July 1931, Russians constituted only 52 percent of the VKP(b), a drop from 72 percent in 1922.

 

The rise in the number of non-Russians in the regional communist parties did not represent a passing of power to the non-Russians. The party was not a democratic organization and did not follow majority rule. Moreover, in the course of the 1920s the party became an increasingly centralized organization. Even though the number of non-Russian cadres increased, constituting the majority of the most important regional parties, they were symbols of power. In reality, power lay in Moscow and in the Russian or Russified cadres in the non-Russian republics. The central party never intended the native elites to represent their nations.

 

During the 1920s this changed. The native party leadership in some of the republics stopped playing their assigned roles as symbols and began to represent and to defend regional interests. To paraphrase Andrew Janos, the All-Union Communist Party used nationalist symbols 'to drum up support for a politically isolated leadership' in the non-Russian republics. But in acting out their roles as the defenders of the non-Russian cultural and historical heritages some groups within the regional parties 'became absorbed by it'.

 

The establishment of the Ukrainian SSR created a republic with physical boundaries. In 1923 the Soviet Ukrainian government recognized two official languages in the Ukrainian SSR -- Ukrainian and Russian -- which enjoyed equal administrative status. The Ukrainian-language print revolution generated psychological boundaries. Ukrainianization (as korenizatsiia was called in Ukraine), mass education, literacy campaigns, linguistic standardization, and orthographic changes helped millions of people to perceive themselves as Ukrainians (not just peasants), and to imagine their oneness. Inasmuch, as Benedict Anderson put it, as the members of 'even the smallest [nation] will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion', [1] the spread of Ukrainian literacy and the Ukrainian-language print revolution helped these readers form an abstract idea of themselves as members of a single Ukrainian nation containing 23 million men and women. Due to the numerical superiority of the Ukrainians (who constituted 80 percent of the population in 1926) and as a result of the official promotion of that language, the Ukrainian language had the opportunity of becoming the most important language in the republic.

 

Although the All-Union Communist Party encouraged trends promoting a united Ukrainian SSR, a separate Ukrainian communist party, and Ukrainianization, the leadership of the party naively believed that its recognition of Ukrainian distinctiveness would not lead to separatism. But at the end of the 1920s, at the same time that the Soviet party's primary interests became closely identified with maintaining its political monopoly and with creating a modern industrial base, some very visible members of the Ukrainian party stressed a different priority: the need to emphasize the legitimacy of the Soviet order in Ukraine by means of Ukrainianizing both culture and the power relationship. They never espoused the end of communism or Soviet rule. At most, they desired full equality with the Russian republic and 'home rule'. But in the ever-centralizing Stalinist environment, their views represented centrifugal tendencies.

 

After 1930 the new centralist course, set by Stalin, called for a transfiguration of Ukrainianization. In order to create common denominators in a multi-national state, language differences (especially in a republic with the largest non-Russian working class) had to be de-emphasized. In view of the center's need to coordinate the all-Union economy, language differences should not become a divisive issue. Inasmuch as Ukraine occupied a strategic location and constituted one of the major agricultural and industrial centers of the Soviet Union, and inasmuch as Ukrainian (like Belorussian and Russian) belonged to the East Slavic group of languages, policies promoting linguistic differentiation jeopardized the Stalinist command economy. Because Ukrainian, after its language reforms in the late 1920s, increased its divergence from Russian, many in the center considered these language reforms (which included a Ukrainianized scientific terminology) to be nationalistic and counter-revolutionary. Instead of promoting many languages, the center believed that the Soviet industrial revolution should have one common language.

 

The party's second major war with the countryside in a decade also endangered korenizatsiia's existence. Since it represented the urban party's need to establish peace between the Russian and Russified cities, on the one hand, and the non-Russian countryside, on the other hand, collectivization upset this complex political equation. Once the Soviet state initiated the struggle against the peasants, 'policies to placate the countryside became irrelevant'. [2] Since the party felt itself strong enough eleven years after the revolution to storm the countryside, destroy its class enemies, and collectivize the peasants, there was no need to compromise with the rural areas.

 

Collectivization and the famine, moreover, broke the tie between the peasants who had migrated into the cities and those who had remained in the countryside. Those migrants who found employment in the urban areas now had no reason to maintain contact with their old, ravaged world. Over time they cut their bonds with their former villages and became more urban in outlook. Once the authorities de-emphasized Ukrainianization in the 1930s, it became easier for the migrants to succumb to the processes favoring Russification.

 

The center undoubtedly considered the assertiveness of the Ukrainian party and society to be closely linked to the nonfulfillment of the industrial and agricultural quotas. Political reliability and loyalty were two separate but interconnected questions. Unreliability, according to Stalin and his entourage, was a short step from disloyalty and treason, which led to 'sabotage' and 'wrecking'. Ukraine's location on the borders of the capitalist world and its proximity to the Western Ukrainian territories occupied by Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania heightened these apprehensions. To insure the Soviet Union's international security and fulfillment of its economic goals, the All-Union Communist Party needed to supervise the situation closely, and maintain order by centralizing its authority and by crushing those who allegedly weakened the USSR's political and economic position. Defenders of local interests, whether 'bourgeois nationalists' or Old Bolsheviks, became 'class enemies' and had to be destroyed. Stalin's Russocentrism reinforced these notions.

 

In the wake of Stalinist hypercentralization, Soviet support for multi-national diversity plummeted. The party now stressed the Russian people and language as the most modern, as the first among equals. The non-Russian identities, supported for nearly a decade by the Soviet state, became secondary in importance.

 

Stalin's insistence on Russian culture as the only key to modernization promoted stratification and ultimately Russification. In the 1920s, non-Russians could perceive themselves as modern and non-Russian; by the end of the 1930s, the Soviet mass media identified modernization solely with Russia and with those who spoke Russian. Since the 1930s, this redefinition of korenizatsiia produced an ambivalent sense of identity (even an inferiority complex) among the non-Russians.

 

 

Socialist Realism

In order to put an end to factional strife 'on the artistic and cultural front' and to subordinate all cultural activity to the party leadership in Moscow, the Central Committee on 23 April 1932 issued a decree, which disbanded all independent artistic groups. In their place, the party established highly centralized 'creative unions' of writers, artists, composers, architects, and filmmakers, which would present their members' works through the prism of 'socialist realism'. First coined on 17 May 1932 by Ivan Gronsky, the head of the organizational committee of the newly-founded Soviet Writers' Union, socialist realism remained a vague concept even after the union's first congress in late August 1934. At this meeting, the writers and the Communist Party hierarchy enshrined the model for all artists, who thereafter would create the 'truthful, historically concrete representation of reality in its revolutionary development'. [3]

 

How artists would incorporate this 'modal schizophrenia' into their works without a specific set of rules remained a mystery even after the first congress. Although the leadership of the writers' union and the party issued pronouncements that socialist realist literature should be optimistic, accessible to the masses, and party-minded, most novels from the mid-1930s conformed to a single master plot, which represented a synthesis of the plots of several 'exemplary' novels (primarily Maxim Gorky's _Mother_ and Fedor Gladkov's _Cement_). According to Katerina Clark, the master plot defines socialist realism. [4]

 

In the evolution of the master plot, which integrated Soviet politics and communist ideology, on the one hand, and Russian literary traditions, on the other, the hero of the novel acquires or strengthens his communist consciousness by overcoming a serious socio-political-economic challenge. The main protagonist usually arrives at a new place and realizes that the state-given plan is not being fulfilled properly. Instead of accepting this status quo, the migrant becomes a socialist crusader and makes plans for correcting the problem. Inevitably, the local authorities rebuke him, asserting that the hero's solutions are utopian. The protagonist then mobilizes 'the people', after addressing them at a mass meeting, and inspires them to follow his plan. Despite the prosaic, heroic, and personal problems he encounters on his journey to fulfill the plan, he succeeds in overcoming all obstacles and gains a full-blown communist consciousness. This positive hero resembles a fairy-tale hero as well as the model hero presented by Joseph Campbell's _The Hero with a Thousand Faces_.

 

By observing and interpreting reality only in the framework of its long march toward Communism, the creative intelligentsia became 'engineers of human souls' [5] and servants of the Soviet state. Artists, composers, architects, writers, and filmmakers sought to raise the political consciousness of their audiences. Conforming to the spirit of socialist realism, they portrayed current and historical events in a revisionist spirit calculated to lend support to the present Soviet regime. They provided their audiences with an ideal depiction of today's reality and of the world of tomorrow, as 'it is bound to become, when it bows to the logic of Marxism'. [6] In addition, these 'engineers' strove to portray the seeds of this bright future in the present, which ordinary men and women, enmeshed in their daily routines, could not see. Socialist realism's juxtaposition of 'what is' and 'what ought to be' represented 'an impossible aesthetic'. [7]

 

The artist endeavored to introduce the communist ideal into the consciousness of Soviet citizens, and convince them of the value of that ideal, whatever the reality, by molding and transforming his audience's consciousness. Long before socialist realism emerged as the primary literary model in the 1930s, many Soviet literary groups in the 1920s accepted the idea that 'the subconscious dominates human consciousness and can be logically and technically manipulated to construct a new world and a new individual'. [8] Socialist realism built on their ideas and predispositions.

 

These socialist realist artists relied to a great extent on the celebration of the positive hero, a paragon of Bolshevik virtue, as a role model for readers and viewers. The hero's life should 'show the forward movement of history in an allegorical representation of one stage in history's dialectical progress'. [9] The positive hero, as the Russian critic Andrei Siniavsky defined him:

 

'[He] is not simply a good man. He is a hero illuminated by the light of the most ideal of all ideals . . . He firmly knows what is right and what is wrong; he says plainly 'yes' or 'no' and does not confuse black with white. For him there are no inner doubts and hesitations, no unanswerable questions, and no impenetrable secrets. Faced with the most complex of tasks, he easily finds the solution -- by taking the shortest and most direct route to the Purpose.' [10]

 

Although the statutes of the Writers' Union reassured its members that socialist realism, with its emphasis on the positive hero, guaranteed 'excellent opportunities for the display of creative initiative and choice among its various forms, styles, and genres', they did not provide a clear set of rules instructing artists how to produce such works. Already in the late 1920s the party launched a campaign against 'formalism' and the avant-garde, which narrowed the choices for the creative masters. Although the party demanded clarity, an emphasis on the socialist present and the communist future, and adherence to the party line, these criteria constituted a vague, not a specific checklist. Employing them would not necessarily attract the masses, especially not in the field of filmmaking, which demanded a skillful coordination of sight, sound, and message.

 

To present the Communist Party's ideological messages to a mass audience weaned on imported comedies and action-adventure films, Soviet directors had to create films with simple plots and characterizations. Hollywood-style films with a communist point of view attracted the average peasant and worker, who sought entertainment, not art on a grand scale. The leading Soviet directors, however communist in their points of view, sought to explore the boundaries of art frame by frame. By the early 1930s, Stalin's party would no longer tolerate avant-garde or experimental films. Although such films had won Soviet cinematography international acclaim, very few peasants or workers could understand them. The Stalinist party leadership, moreover, hated avant-garde art as well escapist entertainment. They wanted to educate the masses politically, to communicate the 'message that there was only one way to look at the world, their way, and that every deviation from their point of view was necessarily hostile'. [11] Films had to be comprehensible, even by the half-educated, and politically correct.

 

Soviet socialist realist filmmaking slowly evolved over the course of the 1930s as the party and filmmakers revised, re-interpreted, and renegotiated the implementation of this ideology on film. Directors felt reticent at first, but they soon learned from their mistakes and successes. Easily understandable films with party-approved political messages then emerged on the screens. These films dealt with contemporary themes: the socialist construction in the city and in the countryside, the struggle with class enemies, and the legacy of the past in the people's consciousness. But _Chapaev_ (1934), directed by Sergei Vasiliev and Georgi Vasiliev (who were not related), became the most popular and most influential socialist realist film ever made in the Soviet Union, selling over 50 million tickets.

 

_Chapaev_ proved that directors could create a popular film conforming to the principles of socialist realism. Competently made and easy to understand, this exciting action film, depicted the relationship between V. I. Chapaev, an uneducated peasant Soviet partisan commander, and D. A. Furmanov, his political commissar, during the civil war. An uneducated peasant who fights courageously, the hero possesses good political instincts and understands that the Bolshevik party represents the future. But without the guidance of Furmanov, Chapaev would have met with defeat. Under the commissar's supervision, Chapaev's class consciousness grows, and he wins on the battlefield. Although he dies a heroic death in battle at the end of the film, his Red division triumphs.

 

Audiences could readily identify with the film's characters. Although a drama, _Chapaev_ included many humorous touches. Most importantly, this film -- 'popular in form' -- featured a plot 'socialist in content'. In a subtle manner, it promoted three Bolshevik myths concerning the Revolution and Civil War. The guiding role of the Bolsheviks in the struggle against all counter-revolutionaries constituted the most important post-revolutionary invention. Although successful on his own, Chapaev would not have achieved his greatest victories without the commissar, the party's representative. In dealing with the relationship between workers and peasants in the partisan commander's ranks, the film celebrates another fiction, the 'worker-peasant alliance', or more accurately, the hegemony of the workers over the peasants, who by all Marxist accounts displayed a less developed class consciousness than that of the workers. The film, moreover, concludes with an allusion to the fantasy of the 'radiant communist future'. After Chapaev dies a heroic death in a struggle with the Whites, his troops avenge his death by vanquishing their enemies. The hero might die, but the Bolshevik cause marches on.

 

_Chapaev_ took its place as an exemplary socialist realist film not only because it presents two positive heroes, Furmanov (the Bolshevik) and Chapaev (the proto-Bolshevik), but because it successfully harnessed the past (even revolutionary turmoil) to the Stalinist present and to the communist future. Communism, it asserted, constituted the grand design of history. The leading role of the Bolsheviks in the revolution and civil war, in effect, legitimized the Stalinist political system.

 

 

Dovzhenko

 

Dovzhenko's _Ivan_, which appeared two years after _Earth_ and two before _Chapev_, did not present such a clear message. Although the main protagonist, a 'good man' at the beginning of the film, became a productive Soviet citizen, he never evolved into a positive hero. Although he became a conscious member of the working class at the film's conclusion, his political self-actualization did not develop clearly. In a period when politicians and intellectuals hotly debated socialist realism and its characteristics, Ivan's hesitant and self-doubting personality traits disqualified him as worthy of emulation.

 

Not surprisingly, Dovzhenko found it difficult to adopt the emerging, but poorly-defined, socialist realist model. Conforming to the new principles of filmmaking presented enormous problems for him, as well as for other Soviet directors, such as Grigory Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, and Sergei Eisenstein. Although critics brutalized Dovzhenko's film for failing to show a heroic and positive hero, _Ivan_ represented a stage not only in Dovzhenko's evolution towards socialist realism, but the evolution of the style in general.

From his beginnings as a filmmaker in the mid-1920s, he defined his mission as the creation of a Ukrainian national cinema equal to that of other cinemas. In order to achieve his goal, he wanted to produce high quality films reflecting Ukrainian dreams and to forge a common identity for his countrymen at a time when they could not discuss their national identity freely. By grounding his films in the Ukrainian historical memory and by conjuring images taken from folklore and superstition, he hoped not only to portray his compatriots, but also to speak on their behalf. The Ukrainianization policy nurtured his mission.

 

With _Zvenyhora_, _Arsenal_, and _Earth_, Dovzhenko reached the height of his creative powers. Despite the tensions between what he wanted to film and what the censors allowed him to show, these three films, especially _Earth_, constitute his masterpieces. Complex transitions, ambiguities, and doubt appear in each of these films. The filmmaker raised important questions about the relationship between the old and the new, between honored tradition and revolutionary innovation, between the countryside and the cities, between life and death, and between the people and their soil. Using his Ukrainian and peasant sources as a base, Dovzhenko attempted to connect the tradition-bound Ukrainian national identity to the modern, Soviet world. He became a cultural entrepreneur.

 

But political circumstances beyond his control checked his efforts to create a 'perfect' work of art. Although he may have agreed with many of the party's political positions and desperately fought to fit in, Dovzhenko's ambition to reflect Ukrainian dreams resisted political simplifications. In the newly-emerging Stalinist universe, filmmakers -- the most important of the 'engineers of human souls' -- had to conform to the party's political line, which often shifted mercurially.

 

Like his colleagues in the first generation of Soviet filmmakers who had begun their careers in the twenties -- Grigory Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov -- Dovzhenko experienced problems adjusting to Stalinist politics and to socialist realism. As innovators, these filmmakers wanted to explore creative avenues in their own ways and at their chosen speed. They resisted ideological strait-jackets and opposed filming Soviet life as a Potemkin village. Critics recognized them as 'innovators' with 'authentic and original voices'. When forced to conform to the contours of the new model, which despite its promises did not tolerate originality or experimentation, they experienced great psychological and political strains. Although they displayed a willingness to satisfy the new needs of the Stalinist state, they had a hard time changing their artistic approaches and compromising their standards.

 

Unlike his five colleagues, Dovzhenko could not readily conform to the Russocentric model of Soviet nationality politics introduced in the 1930s. Overturning the moderate policies of the 1920s, which had promoted a multi-cultural Soviet Union, this new model severely restricted his ability to present on the screen his Ukrainian visions, which fueled his creative drive.

 

Throughout his life, Dovzhenko sought to overcome the party's awareness of his past anti-Bolshevik commitments. During the 1930s he feared for his life and protected his political reputation. But he did not succeed. Ironically, his own films and screenplays damaged his reputation with the party. As an artist, he impeded his own efforts at party conformity. Almost every time he attempted to compromise his vision, it resurfaced unconsciously, perhaps even consciously, in the details of his work. He found it very difficult, if not impossible, to subordinate his vision and his creativity to the Stalinist slogans of the day. His vision, after all, propelled his creative drive. Without the possibility of expressing even a small aspect of his vision, he could not create. Much in the same way that artisans felt betrayed by the mass production of the Industrial Revolution, Dovzhenko experienced a difficult transition from Ukrainian cultural entrepreneur to Soviet cultural engineer.

 

As a result of his compromises, he experienced serious physical illness and grave psychological doubts. The films he produced after _Ivan_ express less ambiguity and creativity than those in his Ukrainian 'trilogy'. Dovzhenko accepted these artistic and political compromises as the price he had to pay, not only for the continuation of his career in cinema, but also for his own personal survival. Even this acceptance, however, contained a muted spark of rebellion. While his post-_Ivan_ films, especially _Aerograd_ (1935), _Shchors_ (1939), and _Michurin_ (1949), outwardly demonstrated his political loyalty, a subversive subtext softens their central, politically approved messages. His 'compromise' films fulfilled the party's requirements, bought him time, and encouraged the hope, however slight, of the possibility of more tolerant supervisors in the future. Inasmuch as he claimed to fear exclusion from artistic creation even more than death, he played for time. Dovzhenko compared the prohibition of capturing his visions, dreams, and illusions on celluloid or on paper to deprivation of vital air. Having his avenues of expression blocked and censored, this emotionally volatile artist alternated between the extremes of accommodation and resistance.

 

He felt traumatized by his isolation after Stalin condemned his screenplay _Ukraine in Flames_ in late 1943 and early 1944. Although he lost faith in the supreme party leader after January 1944, Dovzhenko sought to win back the political trust he had enjoyed. He desperately wanted to ingratiate himself with anyone (except Beria, head of the secret police) who could alleviate his solitude.

 

Most of all, he wanted to return to Ukraine, but Stalin and his senior colleagues insisted that he stay in the Soviet capital. Exile in Moscow limited his creativity, which Dovzhenko claimed his homeland best nurtured. The filmmaker imagined that Stalin's death would clear the way for him to return permanently to Ukraine. Until the end of his life, however, the Soviet authorities refused him permission to do so, and iving in Moscow, he could not directly influence Ukrainian cinematography. Soviet leaders rendered impotent the most assertive advocate for Ukrainian national filmmaking.

 

In assessing his problems, Dovzhenko must have often asked himself if he would not find it easier to participate in the much larger and more sophisticated Russo-Soviet culture, rather than try to raise an underdeveloped nation's cultural standards. To embrace this option, however, would have nullified the very source of his creative drive.

 

University of Alabama at Birmingham, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Benedict Anderson, _Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism_ (London: Verso, 1983), p. 6.

 

2. James E. Mace, 'Famine and Nationalism in Soviet Ukraine', _Problems of Communism_, vol. 33 no. 3, 1984, p. 43.

 

3. _Pervyi Vsesoiuznyi s'ezd sovetskikh pisatelei 1934: Stenograficheskii otchet_ (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1934; reprint: Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel, 1990), p. 712.

 

4. See Katerina Clark, _The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual_, 3rd ed. (Bloomington, Indiana and London: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 6.

 

5. 'Engineers of human souls' is a cliche, attributed to Stalin.

 

6. Abram Tertz (Andrei Siniavsky), _The Trial Begins and On Socialist Realism_ (New York: Vintage, 1960), p. 200.

 

7. See Regine Robin, _Socialist Realism: An Impossible Aesthetic_ (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992).

 

8. Boris Groys, _The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Aesthetic Dictatorship, and Beyond_ (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 19.

 

9. Clark, _The Soviet Novel_, p. 46.

 

10. Tertz (Siniavsky), _The Trial Begins_, pp. 172-173.

 

11. Peter Kenez, _Cinema and Soviet Society, 1917-1953_ (Cambridge, England and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 158.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

George O. Liber, 'Re-examining Dovzhenko's Political Environment: A Response to Riley', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 38, October 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n38liber>.

 

 

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Film-Philosophy (ISSN 1466-4615)

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Contact: editor@film-philosophy.com

 

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