Stephen Kotkin

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Stalin at the Movies


Long fo­cused on the im­pact of live theater, Stalin did not im­me­di­ately grasp the full power of film. But the pro­ducer Boris Shumy­atsky per­sisted, and goaded the Party to is­sue a di­rec­tive to film all ma­jor events in the USSR, design hand­held cam­eras to be put into wide pro­duc­tion, and have re­gional of­fi­cials treat news­reels the way they treated the press. Stalin be­gan to re­view the news­reels at Krem­lin cinema ses­sions. But it had re­ally been his pre­view­ing of the 1934 film Cha­payev that trans­formed him—a per­son ac­cus­tomed to work­ing with writ­ten texts— from some­one who oc­ca­sion­ally viewed films for di­ver­sion to their ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer, over­see­ing ev­ery­thing from the back­grounds of scenes to the di­a­logue and score. The dic­ta­tor played a de­ci­sive part in sup­port­ing not just sub­jects of po­lit­i­cal im­port but also farce. In that re­gard, an enor­mous break­through was wrought by a young as­sis­tant to the vir­tu­oso Sergei Eisen­stein, af­ter the lat­ter’s scan­dalous fail­ure to fin­ish a film in Mex­ico. Shumy­atsky had sug­gested that Eisen­stein next make a Soviet com­edy, but the direc­tor showed lit­tle in­ter­est. His as­sis­tant, Grig­ory Alexan­drov, us­ing every Hol­ly­wood trick he had learned in their trav­els to Los An­ge­les, then cowrote and di­rected Jolly Fel­lows, which be­came a smash hit. Stalin’s in­ner cir­cle had di­vided over the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of com­edy. When Shumy­atsky was set to pre­miere Jolly Fel­lows in the Krem­lin, Kli­ment Voroshilov, who had seen it, stated, “It’s an in­ter­est­ing, jolly, thor­oughly mu­si­cal film fea­tur­ing Utyosov and his jazz.” Lazar Kaganovich ob­jected that the mu­si­cian Leonid Utyosov had no voice; An­drei Zh­danov com­plained that Utyosov was a mas­ter only of crim­i­nal un­der­world songs. “You’ll see,” Voroshilov coun­tered, “he’s a very gifted ac­tor, an ex­tra­or­di­nary hu­morist, and sings de­light­fully in the film.” He was right. “Bril­liantly con­ceived,” Stalin said to Voroshilov af­ter view­ing one scene with a jazz orches­tra re­hearsal that de­volves into a hi­lar­i­ous fight, and an­other with col­lec­tive farm live­stock run amok.

The film al­lows you to re­lax in an in­ter­est­ing, en­ter­tain­ing fash­ion. We ex­pe­ri­enced the ex­act feel­ing one has af­ter a day off. It’s the first time I have ex­pe­ri­enced such a feel­ing from view­ing our films, among which have been very good ones.

Af­ter watch­ing an­other film, Stalin re­turned to dis­cus­sion of Jolly Fel­lows, laud­ing the bold act­ing of the fe­male lead, Lyubov Orlova, and male lead, Utyosov, as well as the ex­cel­lent jazz. “He talked about the songs,” Shumy­atsky wrote. “Turn­ing to com­rade Voroshilov, he pointed out that the march would go to the masses, and be­gan to re­call the melody and ask about the words.” A new genre, the Soviet mu­si­cal com­edy, was born. Shumy­atsky’s de­ter­mi­na­tion had paid off. He had wit­nessed a live per­for­mance of Utyosov’s band—whose mu­si­cians sang, danced, and acted—and had sug­gested they team up with the direc­tor Alexan­drov. Utyosov, for his part, had in­sisted on mu­sic by Isaac Du­nayevsky, a grad­u­ate of the Kharkov Con­ser­va­tory who had made a name for him­self at the Moscow Satire Theater and more re­cently the Len­ingrad Mu­sic Hall. Vasily Lebe­de­vKu­mach, the son of a Moscow cob­bler and him­self a writer at the satir­i­cal pe­ri­od­i­cal Crocodile, com­posed the lyrics. When ide­o­logues at­tacked the re­sult­ing work, Shumy­atsky gal­va­nized Stalin’s sup­port. Jolly Fel­lows had gone into fi­nal edit­ing, fol­low­ing the dic­ta­tor’s sug­ges­tions, but its open­ing was de­layed by Sergei Kirov’s as­sas­si­na­tion. It pre­miered pub­licly on De­cem­ber 25, at Moscow’s Shock Worker cinema, where Orlova, Utyosov, and Alexan­drov were in the au­di­ence. A ban­quet fol­lowed at the Metropole. Gen­eral re­lease took place in Jan­uary 1935, and soon an as­ton­ish­ing six thou­sand copies of the film were in cir­cu­la­tion through­out the coun­try.

The pub­lic­ity cam­paign, un­prece­dented for the Soviet Union, bor­rowed Amer­i­can tech­niques, with post­cards of scenes from the film and phono­graphic records of the songs. Shumy­atsky even had sheet mu­sic of the score pub­lished with an at­trac­tive cover, and there were tie-in cook­ies from the bak­ing trust and cig­a­rettes from the tobacco trust. The film’s stars fea­tured in ra­dio ap­pear­ances. Many cul­tural fig­ures col­lab­o­rated with the Soviet party-state pre­cisely for its where­withal to de­liver mass au­di­ences. To be sure, whereas lis­ten­ers in Britain or Ger­many could tune in to sev­eral sta­tions, in­clud­ing some that orig­i­nated from abroad, the Sovi­ets in­vested in ca­ble (wire) ra­dio, which was in­ex­pen­sive and durable, en­abling mass pro­duc­tion, and im­posed far stricter state con­trol over con­tent, since the wires de­liv­ered just the two of­fi­cial sta­tions. Only the priv­i­leged few had hard-to-pro­cure wire­less re­ceivers with tuners. Wire ra­dios were in­stalled in out­door public spa­ces, fac­to­ries, meet­ing halls, clubs, and dor­mi­to­ries. The Soviet Union had 2.5 mil­lion ra­dio re­cep­tion points al­ready by 1934. Ra­dio Moscow and Ra­dio Com­intern were broad­cast­ing ap­prox­i­mately eigh­teen hours per day, cre­at­ing an am­bi­ent Soviet­ness. “Bor­ing ag­i­ta­tion is coun­ter­ag­i­ta­tion,” one Soviet film critic ar­gued. Sur­veys of ra­dio lis­ten­ers’ let­ters showed that they wanted fewer sym­phonies and more hu­mor, in­for­ma­tion about the out­side world, ad­vice on chil­drea­r­ing, med­i­cal is­sues, and other daily life con­cerns, and en­ter­tain­ment, such as folk mu­sic, Gypsy ro­mances, jazz, op­erettas (not op­eras), and songs from the lat­est films. While Ger­many had Mar­lene Di­et­rich and Amer­ica Greta Garbo, the Sovi­ets had Orlova, pro­moted in the press, books, and fan post­cards. (She and Alexan­drov would be­gin a love af­fair and later marry.) The songs proved to be eas­ily and widely mem­o­rized. From streets to shop floors, al­most the en­tire USSR was singing “Such a Lot of Nice Girls” (or the tango ver­sion, “Heart,” re­leased by Py­otr Leshchenko) and the march “A Happy Song Light­ens Your Heart.” Even in pro­foundly anti-Soviet Poland Jolly Fel­lows would find pop­u­lar­ity. The comic mas­ter Char­lie Chap­lin would praise the film as bet­ter pro­pa­ganda for the Soviet cause than ex­e­cu­tions.

Stalin au­tho­rized an all-Union Cre­ative Con­fer­ence of Work­ers in Soviet Cinema (Jan­uary 8–13, 1935), al­beit with­out for­ma­tion of a for­mal union such as the writers had. Eisen­stein was awarded the task of de­liv­er­ing the key­note. “When I heard Eisen­stein’s re­port, I was afraid that he knows so much, and his head is so clear that, it is ob­vi­ous, he’ll never make an­other film,” the direc­tor Olek­sandr Dovzhenko said in his fol­low-up speech. “If I knew as much as he does, I would lit­er­ally die. (Laugh­ter, ap­plause.)” Pravda pub­lished a con­grat­u­la­tory note from Stalin to Shumy­atsky: “Greet­ings and best wishes to the work­ers of Soviet cinema on the day of its glo­ri­ous fif­teenth an­niver­sary.”

Soviet power ex­pects from you new suc­cesses—new films that, like Cha­payev, pro­claim the great­ness of the his­toric cause of the strug­gle for power of the work­ers and peas­ants of the Soviet Union, mo­bi­lize for the at­tain­ment of new tasks, and re­mind us of both the achieve­ments and dif­fi­cul­ties of so­cial­ist con­struc­tion.

That same day, Stalin at­tended the cer­e­mony at the Bol­shoi where, for the first time, state awards were handed out to film work­ers. He had edited the pro­posed awards list: Or­ders of Lenin were given to the Len­ingrad Film Stu­dio, Shumy­atsky, Pavel Tager (who had helped in­tro­duce sound to Soviet films), and nu­mer­ous di­rec­tors. Eisen­stein had been pro­posed for the lesser Or­der of the Red Ban­ner, which Stalin crossed out, sub­sti­tut­ing some­thing lesser still: “hon­ored artist.” Af­ter this hu­mil­i­a­tion, Eisen­stein had to of­fer the clos­ing re­marks. “No one here has had to lis­ten to so many com­pli­ments about high­brow wis­dom as I,” he stated. “The crux—and this you know—is that I have not been en­gaged in film pro­duc­tion for sev­eral years, and I con­sider the [awards] de­ci­sion a sig­nal from the party and govern­ment that I must en­ter pro­duc­tion.” The gath­er­ing con­cluded with a per­for­mance of the third act of Swan Lake.

Shumy­atsky did not speak at the cer­e­mony or at the con­fer­ence, but Pravda pub­lished an ex­cerpt from his forth­com­ing book, Cinema for the Mil­lions. “The vic­to­ri­ous class wants to laugh with joy,” he wrote. “That is its right, and Soviet cinema must pro­vide its au­di­ences with this joy­ful Soviet laugh­ter.” He ad­mit­ted, how­ever, that “we have no com­mon view on such fun­da­men­tal and de­ci­sive prob­lems of our art as the in­ter­re­la­tion­ship be­tween form and con­tent, as plot, as the pace and rhythm of a film, the role of the script, the tech­niques of cinema.” In fact, all he and other film peo­ple had to go on was Stalin’s ut­ter­ances or their own in­tu­ition about what might please him.


Se­cret po­lice, in their smartest dress uni­forms, lined the walls of the cav­ernous main hall and all the en­trances of the Grand Krem­lin Palace for the 1939 New Year’s ban­quet. Soviet of­fi­cials did not bring their wives un­less the lat­ter, too, held of­fi­cial po­si­tions, such as Vy­ach­eslav Molo­tov’s wife Polina Zhem­chuzhina (fish­ing in­dus­try com­mis­sar). But much of the beau monde was in­ter­mar­ried: the ac­tor Ivan Moskvin at­tended with his wife, Alla Tarasova, a star of the same theater; the film­maker Grig­ory Alexan­drov with his wife, the singer-star­let Lyubov Orlova; the dancer Igor Moiseyev with his com­mon-law wife, the Bol­shoi prima bal­le­rina Nina Pod­goret­skaya. But Stalin him­self could come off as the movie star: the mis­chievous grin, the lifted head, the pauses, nods, glances. Dur­ing the toasts, when he called out Soviet tri­umphs and heroes, peo­ple clinked glasses, tapped knives and forks, and shouted his name. By the time the USSR State Jazz Band en­tered the an­te­room of the An­dreyev Hall, it was af­ter 2:00 AM. A Chek­ist, as the po­lice liked to be called, sum­moned

them to the stage fol­low­ing the Alexan­drov Red Army Ensem­ble—240 singers and dancers—and Igor Moiseyev’s State Folk Dance Ensem­ble.

“We walked into the dimly lit, de­serted An­dreyev Hall, which is used by the Supreme Soviet for its meet­ings,” re­called Juri Je­la­gin, a vi­o­lin­ist. “The hall was lined with rows of arm­chairs like a theater au­di­to­rium, or per­haps more like a univer­sity au­di­to­rium, be­cause each chair was equipped with a small writ­ing desk and a ra­dio head­set.” They reached a door, be­hind which was a stage. “The bright lights blinded us. We were in the or­nate, white [St. Ge­orge’s] Hall of the Krem­lin . . . . The large ta­bles were crowded with peo­ple, and a reg­u­lar feast was in progress.” In front of the stage, at a dis­tance from the other ta­bles, was the Pre­sid­ium ta­ble, the seats fac­ing the hall, backs to the per­form­ers.

When the jazz mu­si­cians ap­peared on the stage, Stalin and his en­tourage turned and ap­plauded. “Stalin was wear­ing a khaki tu­nic with­out any rib­bons or dec­o­ra­tions. He smiled at us and nod­ded en­cour­age­ment. In front of him stood a half-empty glass of brandy.” The jazzmen, with their fe­male vo­cal­ist, Nina Don­skaya, per­formed “Jewish Rhap­sody,” by Svy­atoslav Knu­she­vit­sky, per­haps Moscow’s top cel­list. (He was mar­ried to Natalya Spiller, the Bol­shoi so­prano much ad­mired by Stalin.) For what­ever rea­son, ac­cord­ing to Je­la­gin, Stalin paid no at­ten­tion to Don­skaya. “He turned away and be­gan to eat.”

The mass mur­derer was able to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, within his con­ven­tional tastes, a sub­lime per­for­mance from a merely good one. He loved opera, and se­lec­tions were in­vari­ably in­cluded from the pre­rev­o­lu­tion­ary reper­toire (Rim­sky-Kor­sakov, Glinka, Mus­sorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky) and the bet­ter-known West­ern clas­sics (Carmen, Faust, and Aida). But his great­est pas­sion was for Rus­sian, Ukrainian, and Ge­or­gian folk songs. Af­ter the jazz band had con­cluded its six ap­proved num­bers—among them Tchaikovsky’s “Sen­ti­men­tal Waltz” and Stalin’s sen­ti­men­tal fa­vorite, “Su­liko”—the Pre­sid­ium ta­ble, ac­cord­ing to Je­la­gin, “ap­plauded long and vig­or­ously.”

Only now, af­ter ex­it­ing and stor­ing their in­stru­ments, were the mu­si­cians in­vited to dine—in a sep­a­rate hall for per­form­ers, one floor be­low, at ta­bles loaded with “caviar, hams, sal­ads, fish, fresh veg­eta­bles [in win­ter], de­canters of vodka, red and white wine, and fine Ar­me­nian brandy. There were about four hun­dred of us, but the ta­bles could seat at least a thou­sand.” Here, the Chek­ist servers wore their po­lice uni­forms. The mu­si­cians were ad­dressed by the lat­est chair­man of the com­mit­tee on artis­tic af­fairs, Alexei Nazarov, who toasted Stalin as well as some of the most fa­mous per­form­ers, such as the singer Ivan Ko­zlovsky.

Ko­zlovsky, the vir­tu­oso soloist at the Bol­shoi, would re­ceive the Or­der of Lenin in 1939. (The next year, Stalin would make him a USSR Peo­ple’s Artist.) He pos­sessed a trans­par­ent, even voice, with a beau­ti­ful and gen­tle tim­bre in the up­per reg­is­ter; it was not par­tic­u­larly pow­er­ful yet filled the largest spa­ces. He hailed from a Ukrainian vil­lage and had a brother who had em­i­grated at the end of the civil war and wound up in the United States, which alone would have been enough to doom the tenor. Zeal­ous Chek­ists went to Ko­zlovsky’s na­tive vil­lage to dig up dirt, but when Poskry­oby­shev handed Stalin thick files of com­pro­mis­ing ma­te­rial, the despot was said to have ob­served, “Fine, we’ll im­prison com­rade Ko­zlovsky—and who’ll sing, you?” Whether the story is apoc­ryphal or not, the despot was said to keep track of the sched­ule for the Bol­shoi and to ter­mi­nate meet­ings in the Lit­tle Corner to catch an aria sung by Ko­zlovsky, Maxim Mikhailov (a bass) or Mark Reizen (also a bass), the lyri­cal tenor Sergei Leme­shev, the lyri­cal so­pra­nos Spiller and Ye­lena Krug­likova, or the mezzo-so­prano Vera Davy­dova. At the New Year’s gala, Ko­zlovsky, who ac­quired the rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing an un­bear­able per­son, sang “La donna è mo­bile,” from Rigo­letto, at Stalin’s re­quest. Two days later, Stalin in­formed USSR Procu­ra­tor Gen­eral An­drei Vyshin­sky that he wanted a public trial of those ar­rested in the NKVD. “The en­e­mies of the peo­ple who pen­e­trated the or­gans of the NKVD,” the com­mis­sion on the se­cret po­lice in­ter­nally re­ported to Stalin—as if the se­cret po­lice ram­page had some­how oc­curred with­out his di­rec­tives—

con­sciously dis­torted the puni­tive pol­icy of Soviet power, con­duct­ing a mass of base­less ar­rests of peo­ple guilty of noth­ing, and at the same time pro­tect­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of en­e­mies of the peo­ple . . . . They urged that pris­on­ers of­fer tes­ti­mony about their sup­posed es­pi­onage ac­tiv­ity for for­eign in­tel­li­gence, ex­plain­ing that such in­vented tes­ti­mony was nec­es­sary for the party and the govern­ment in or­der to dis­credit for­eign states.

The despot cir­cu­lated the re­port to the in­ner cir­cle: they needed to know how to in­ter­pret the ter­ror, as the re­sult of the in­fil­tra­tion of “spies in lit­er­ally every [NKVD] depart­ment.” But for what­ever rea­son, a public trial of the NKVD never took place. “I am very busy with work,” Stalin wrote on Jan­uary 6, 1939, to Alexan­der Afinogenov, a re­prieved writer, who had sent in a copy of his lat­est play to read. “I beg for­give­ness.” Lavren­tiy Be­ria, the chief of the NKVD, is­sued a se­cret di­rec­tive call­ing for NKVD branches to cease re­cruit­ing in­for­mants for surveil­lance of Party and fac­tory bosses, and to de­stroy, in their pres­ence, the files com­piled against them. Provin­cial Party bosses were even in­vited to scru­ti­nize the dossiers of all NKVD per­son­nel in their do­mains. But Stalin had some sec­ond thoughts. “The Cen­tral Com­mit­tee has learned,” he wrote in a tele­gram to all lo­cales on Jan­uary 10, 1939, “that the sec­re­taries of prov­inces and ter­ri­to­ries, check­ing on the work of the lo­cal NKVD, have charged them with us­ing phys­i­cal means of in­ter­ro­ga­tion against those ar­rested as if it were a crime.” He in­formed them that the “phys­i­cal meth­ods” had been ap­proved by “the Cen­tral Com­mit­tee” and agreed to by “the Com­mu­nist par­ties of all the re­publics” (whose lead­ers had al­most all been shot as for­eign agents and wreck­ers). “It is known that all bour­geois in­tel­li­gence ser­vices ap­ply phys­i­cal co­er­cion with re­gard to rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the so­cial­ist pro­le­tariat, and in the ugli­est forms,” he stressed. “One might ask why the so­cial­ist in­tel­li­gence ser­vice must be more hu­mane with re­gard to in­vet­er­ate agents of the bour­geoisie.”

Joseph Stalin

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