The Soviet version of Russian history had two goals: to legitimise the rise and rule of the current government, and to instil its values into future generations. Strike, the first film directed by Sergei Eisenstein, undoubtedly does both. The film, set before the revolution, tells the story of a group of factory workers as they rise up against their abusive management. It begins with a quote by Lenin – “The strength of the working class is organisation” – and ends with a violent strike cross cut with the slaughter of animals. From the first frame to the last, the message is clear.
It is fitting that Joseph Stalin regarded Tsar Ivan IV as his role model, given that the two men men are renowned as two of Russia’s cruelest and most feared leaders. Directed by Eisenstein and commissioned by Stalin himself, Ivan the Terrible takes a stab at telling Ivan’s story in a way that flatters the Stalin regime. The plot portrays the boyars, the highest of bourgeois aristocracy, as internal enemies seeking to undermine the singular strength of Ivan’s leadership, a less-than-subtle parallel for the one-party Soviet state of the 1940’s.
Like a dozen other Soviet films, The Battleship Potemkin depicts the horrors of the tsarist regime and a subsequent popular revolt. It dramatises the true story of a 1905 mutiny by the crew on a Russian battleship, but its most famous and enduring scene, the massacre on the Odessa steps, was entirely invented. However, unlike many of its comrades, this movie was internationally celebrated for its technical excellence, and was ranked as the 11th best film of all time in a 2017 BFI critics poll. Through the film’s five acts, Eisenstein demonstrates that propaganda and art are not mutually exclusive, and that the confines of oppression can sometimes breed incredible creativity.
A retelling of Russia’s 1917 Revolution, this film creates a fascinatingly skewed representation of the Soviet Union’s rise. While the series of major events in the film is historically accurate, the depictions of Soviet leaders and opposition give the film’s biases away, as key facets of character and decisions are highlighted and hidden. When watching the film, pay special attention to the portrayals of Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
Panfilov’s 28 Men demonstrates how Russian manipulation of history did not end with the Soviet Union. Released in 2016, this film is based on a famous but disputed incident in World War II wherein a small group of Russian soldiers purportedly warded off a wave of Nazi tanks and soldiers, all dying in the process. The events were heavily embellished by Soviet propagandists and later debunked, but the film based on them was partially funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture and is widely advertised as an accurate depiction of historical events. Times change, but the Russian regime continues to use cinema to its benefit.
Through a range of in-depth reporting, interviews and illustrations, the summer 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores how the consequences of the 1917 Russian Revolution still affect freedoms today, in Russia and around the world.
With: Andrei Arkhangelsky, BG Muhn, Nina Khrushcheva