I’m reading an excellent history of Soviet culture in (primarily) the 1920s, Katerina Clark’s Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, and I just got to this discussion of a feature of mid-’20s Soviet life hitherto unknown to me:

The masses were not going to the very cultural institutions which, in theory, the Revolution had freed them to enjoy. The highbrow theater was perilously underattended and, as surveys at the time established, people weren’t even going to the workers’ theaters or reading proletarian literature (Cement‘s popularity, anomalous in those days, was undoubtedly a factor in its official endorsement). The bogeyman of intellectuals, proletarian culture, really represented a small fraction of cultural production at this point, and an even smaller percentage of cultural consumption. Everyone was watching American films.

Nineteen twenty-five was not only the year of Cement and Potemkin, but also the year when such films by Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood, The Thief of Baghdad, and other Hollywood versions of the exotic adventure movie absolutely dominated the Soviet screen. The overwhelming majority of the new films shown at this time were from the United States, outnumbering even Soviet productions four to one. Fairbanks and his actress wife Mary Pickford — the king and queen of the Western public — were the heartthrobs of the Russian populace, and when they visited Moscow in 1926 they were virtually mauled by frenzied mobs of fans.
Such Western films represented to many of those in authority the filthiest of that muck in the “Augean stable” which an enlightened Soviet government had to clean out. Reviewers of Fairbanks’ films were generally quick to point out the misguided representation of class relations in his historical romances. Yet Soviet movie houses continued to show Western films….
Such ambiguous actions on the part of the state in regard to the “Augean stable” are patent in perusing any issue of the journal the Life of Art from 1925. Frequently, on the front cover of a given issue would be a photo of Fairbanks, Buster Keaton, or some other Hollywood star, usually from his or her latest movie. Then, immediately inside the cover, the editorial would rail against this kind of art, and call for cleaning up the cinemas and producing healthy, proletarian art. The ensuing pages would more or less continue the theme, but the supplement at the end frequently carried movie chitchat about the latest exploits of the exotic Hollywood stars, and possibly of emigre figures such as Anna Pavlova and Chaliapin as well. Clearly, the journal had to sell, and material about the Hollywood stars would ensure that they did just that.

Life of Art (Zhizn’ iskusstva) was the leading Leningrad cultural and theatrical journal, in this incarnation running from 1923 to 1929.


  1. Do any of American film buffs here know of the 1924 Russian film ‘The Incredible Adventures of Mister West in the Land of the Bolsheviks’? It’s a mixture of a Western and Russian civil war heroics.
    It is to that period that Lenin’s famous phrase refers: ‘Of all the arts, for us the most important is cinema’ (“Из всех искусств для нас важнейшим является кино”). It was popularised by Lunacharsky, the narkom/minister for education, also responsible for culture, and put on placards in foyers of Soviet cinemas.
    This is also a testimony of Russia’s openness of the period. Mind you, in 1925 we are in the middle of the NEP, Russians in Berlin, more important than Paris as a hub of Russian emigration at the time, and also in Riga and Vilno could more or less freely travel to Russia and out. Soviet borders were shut only towards the end of the 20s. Katayev recalls how he put a copy of his brother’s story on a plane to Berlin and in a few days was able to pay him the author’s fee. Ellochka the Maneater in the ‘Twelve Chairs’ is in fierce fashion competition with an heiress of the Vanderbilt family – through Russian magazines.
    There is a high side to American influence here too. Eisenstein was inspired by the works of DW Griffith, Intolerance (screened in Russia in 1919), and The Birth of a Nation which he saw in 1920, in particular by his cutting (montage) technique. Later, in the thirties he wrote an essay ‘Dickens, Griffith and Us’. Lev Kuleshov, who made ‘Mister West’ was also a fan of Griffith.
    We look at that time through the eyes, tinted perhaps by the cold war, but in fact there was a general positive attitude to America then. Stalin’s slogan ‘let’s connect American entrepreunership (delovitost’) with Russian scale (razmakh)’ is also from the late 20-s.

  2. OT, but …
    I remember enjoying Danny Kaye in The Inspector General immensely, but I’d never bothered to discover that the film was based on Gogol.
    What brought on this realisation is BBC Radio 3’s performance of it tonight. (Available to ‘Listen Again’ for a week.)

  3. Thanks!

  4. Yes, a few summers ago, HFA did famous directors double-billed in alphabetical order and Kuleshov was on with Keaton (Seven Chances).

  5. Here it is: 16 July 2001.
    (AJP Beat 66: in case you didn’t already know, these films are shown in the Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center.)

  6. Best I can find is on Google Video; much shortened and poorly digitized, but giving a sense of it, I imagine.

  7. I didn’t know. Another reason to live in Boston besides those Indian restaurants I’ve been reading about.

  8. Thanks very much for that, MMcM! An amazing view of 1924 Moscow, and some delightful slapstick to boot. (Porfiry Podobed, who plays Mr. West, is a dead ringer for Harold Lloyd.) The snippets show his sidekick “Jeddy” (the cowboy) chasing down a street urchin who stole West’s briefcase (taking a drozhky driver prisoner along the way), then crossing a street on a tightrope and winding up in an American mission office; West being hornswoggled by some Moscow conmen who take him around town and tell him the Bolsheviks have destroyed the Bolshoi Theater and the University, then set him up with the “countess” played by Alexandra Khokhlova (quite the vamp); and West being given a real tour of the city by a leather-jacketed Bolshevik, culminating in a Red Square military parade (using newsreel footage), after which West goes to the radio station to send his wife Madge a message telling her to burn the New York newspapers and hang a portrait of Lenin in his office. Whee!

  9. thanks, folks (MMcM), I knew I could rely on you! What a pleasure to see old Moscow on film.

  10. Thanks for the synopsis, Language. Mab would be interested to see what a good job they did with the snow removal in 1924 (she was complaining about it recently).
    I thought I caught a continuity error: Mr West’s specs right at the beginning (0.15) look like le Corbusier glasses, whereas the ones throughout the film, and at the very end, don’t.
    I would have liked some Shostakovitch film music.
    Thanks for the film, M.

  11. I would have liked some Shostakovitch film music.
    Me too. Have you ever seen his opera The Nose (based on the Gogol story)? It’s tremendous fun, with amazing music, and the bastard was only 22 when he wrote it! Goddam prodigies, ruining it for the rest of us…

  12. No, I haven’t seen The Nose. I’ll look out for it.
    I’ve one month to go before I’m 57, the age that Beethoven died. I haven’t done much composing, but of course he had the advantage over me that he could play a musical instrument.

  13. Haydn composed until he was 70, so you’re cool.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Nobody cares about people creating anything in middle age. It is only if you are very young or very old that everybody marvels at your achievements. So the moral is: if you can’t manage to start young, wait until you can start old.

  15. “Crown’s First Symphony was the oldest First Symphony ever composed by man.” Or woman either.

  16. Prior to the Revolution, French film comedy was very popular in Russia. Max Linder did a very successful stage tour there, accompanied on the piano by Dmitri Tiomkin.
    There were a couple of Russian comedians who developed Russian characters: V. Avdeyev’s immense “Djadja Pud” and N. P. Nirov’s innocent peasant “Mitjukha”. According the film histories, production of comedies dropped off after the Revolution.
    I couldn’t find either of these comedians on YouTube, but there is quite a bit of Max Linder, including his famous mirror scene that was imitated by the Marx Brothers.
    I’ve read that “Grapes of Wrath” was shown in the USSR to illustrate the collapse of capitalism. However, people were more impressed that in the USA homeless itinerant farm workers owned cars.

  17. the Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center
    I suppose that’s my cue to link to my summer vacation photos of the center.

  18. bruessel says

    I’m a great fan of Max Linder. “Max et le quinquina” is an absolute classic.

  19. marie-lucie says

    people were more impressed that in the USA homeless itinerant farm workers owned cars.
    I read a memoir by a Frenchman born in a poor rural family. When he and his friends saw the movie, they thought it was a comedy: those supposedly poor farm workers had cars! At that time very few French people had cars, let alone poor rural people. Cars did not become a normal part of the average family lifestyle until the 1970s. So seeing dirt-poor farm workers with cars seemed as much of a fantasy as seeing them owning airplanes would be nowadays.

  20. From Yury Olesha’s reminiscences of growing up in Odessa:

    And then Max Linder. It’s hard for me to convey just how famous Max Linder was. Perfume, cigarettes, ties, women’s overshoes, cuts of clothing, hairdos, and styles of behavior were all named after him. “Max Linder!” you would hear on the street. “Max Linder!”

    He was a small, elegant, restless young man, good-looking with black eyes and a thin mustache, whom we always saw nattily dressed. Max Linder’s top hat. How much attention it attracted then.
    He was of such small stature that when I climbed up onto the fence that surrounded the cafe, I saw his top hat from above. Exactly right, he was extremely small, tiny in fact, a little dandy in a top hat and black cloak with a cape, good-looking with a mustache.
    We waited for him at the cafe, and then he arrived.
    “Max Linder! Max Linder!”

  21. They had airplanes too, m-l.

  22. marie-lucie says

    AJP, I know that picture! I don’t think the people in the airplane were the same type of person as in Grapes of Wrath.

  23. Well perhaps not that actual plane, but crop-dusters in general?

  24. I met a hillbilly crop duster once, around 1970 when I was picking apples. They spray poisons on the crops and themselves while flying about 30 feet off the ground, making 180 degree turns at the end of every row. I was standing by the guy’s cousin and said “How much do they pay that guy? Whatever it is, it wouldn’t be enough for me”. He said “As long as you don’t make any mistakes you won’t have any problems”, which isn’t really true and wouldn’t be very reassuring anyway.

  25. Bob Violence says

    Another somewhat pertinent film is Sergei Komarov’s A Kiss From Mary Pickford (1927), another lighthearted comedy (with Keatonesque slapstick) incorporating documentary footage of the Fairbanks-Pickford visit. It’s as much a parody of the then-prevalent taste for Hollywood films as a tribute. There’s no DVD release that I know of — maybe it’s out in Russia? — but it’s floating around on P2P.
    There was also a feature-length parody of the Fairbanks Thief of BaghdadThe Thief, But Not From Baghdad (1926) — which is unfortunately lost.

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