Stalin, cinema and censorship

Dutch writer Frank Westerman will be speaking to Index on Censorship’s John Kampfner at the Free Word Centre tonight (book here).

Readers may have heard Westerman on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (listen here), describing how he discovered the first known film of Turkmen people — Kara Bogaz — a Soviet propaganda film from the 1930s, showing how communism brought prosperity and civilisation to the nomadic people.

The film was never actually shown. Why? At the time, Stalin would demand that he be the first person to see all films made in the USSR. The film’s creator, Konstantin Paustovsky (who had adopted the film from his 1932 book), made the mistake of allowing the French communist critic Henri Barbusse see the film. Barbusse subsequently praised Kara Bogaz in the pages of Izvestia, saying it portrayed a “great many authentically socialist moments” (incidentally, Barbusse died just three days after the publication of the review in August 1935).

Paustovsky and his filmmaking comrades, clearly terrified of the consequences of crossing Stalin, decided to stifle their film, through the odd tactic of stringing out the editing process indefinitely, thereby rendering the film unavailable for release.

Such a small, petty reason for stifling such a significant historical work. But as is often pointed out, tyrannies rule not through consistency, but through capriciousness. The subjugated must never know whether they’re on the right side or not from one day to the next.