October 20, 2005

Yuna Han

Mr. Alexander Ganse

European History


An Inside Perspective:

Cinematic Representation of the Soviet Society during the Thaw


I.                Objective of the Paper

The purpose of the paper is to examine the social atmosphere of the Soviet Union at a certain period through cinema productions designed for domestic audience.

The Soviet Union takes a unique place in history as perhaps one of the most misunderstood political entities. Instead of being understood as a human society with its complexities and contradictions, the USSR is better known for the political ideal it represented. The public perception of the Soviet Union, therefore, is often tainted with political propaganda from the Cold War era, both from outside and within. Whether it is in a negative or positive light, this view of the Soviet Union renders an image of a monolithic and zealous society.

However, examination of certain tumultuous periods reveals a more complex picture. Soviet citizens¡¯ support for the State was at times nuanced and ambivalent. During periods when censorship on the mass media was relaxed, various degrees of criticisms from within the society were voiced through official channels.

The period beginning from Stalin¡¯s death in 1953 to the termination of the reform era widely associated with Khrushchev in 1968 is one example of such temporary relaxation. Commonly known as the ¡®Thaw¡¯, unstable cultural politics of the party stimulated an unprecedented extent of artistic freedom. However, the freedom was not absolute as in the second ¡®thaw¡¯ under Gorbachev; it was rather a result of ad hoc cultural policies and unofficial compromises between artists and the Party. Also, while the social atmosphere of the time expected drastic reforms of the political system, citizens were still largely loyal to the State¡¯s political ideology. Thus, artistic creations produced during the ¡®Thaw¡¯ predominantly displays subtle mix of criticisms of past political practices and support of communism. Furthermore, instead of outwardly attacking the political process, many works reflected the more liberal atmosphere by dealing subject matters once considered insignificant or improper.

       Soviet cinema flourished under Khrushchev¡¯s cultural Thaw. The communist party early on had realized the propagandistic potential of movies and had encouraged its development. As a result the Soviet citizens could boast a rich cinematic legacy, such as the works of Sergei Eisenstein. However, stringent party censorship during the height of Stalin¡¯s power stunted the artistic growth of Soviet cinema. Directors during the late ¡®50s and ¡®60s quickly seized the more liberal atmosphere of the time to produce lasting works which received acclaim from both inside and abroad: such as The Cranes are Flying and Two Comrades were Serving.

             By examining the two works mentioned above, the paper hopes to portray the complex mix of support for communism, criticism of political realities and expectations for reform felt by Soviet citizens during the tumultuous times following the death of Stalin.


II.               Historical Background

The last years of Stalin marked the nadir of intellectual and cultural life in the USSR. Following the war, the personal paranoia of Stalin intensified and the Party apparatus was virtually paralyzed by frequent purges. The social atmosphere had departed far from the early revolutionary zeal. Though the effective Party control of society prevented influential or frequent outbursts of dissatisfaction, cynicism regarding ideology prevailed especially among the younger generation. Communist ideology was often used to further one¡¯s career. Soviet society was seeped in such ¡®double think¡¯, fear, fanaticism and naïve loyalty.

Events following Stalin¡¯s death shattered the stagnant society. In a closed session held after the Party Congress, Khrushchev delivered his ¡®Secret Speech¡¯ criticizing Stalin¡¯s ¡®cult of personality¡¯ and gave a detailed account of Stalin¡¯s crime against loyal Party officials. Khrushchev¡¯s speech was the single most powerful factor that liberated the social ambiance from its previous consternation. While many older communists who had harbored an uncritical loyalty for Stalin became quickly disillusioned, members of the younger generation interpreted the attack on Stalin as a sign of impending social liberalization, raising their expectations for significant reform.

Certain reforms were implemented by Khrushchev as part of his efforts to disassociate himself from Stalin¡¯s terror. The de-Stalinization program was, however, carefully limited to specific aspects of the Soviet society and Stalin¡¯s politics. While the near deification of Stalin and his frequent purges of loyal, experienced party members were mercilessly derailed, Stalin¡¯s forced industrialization programs and the horrors of collectivization were accepted as positive contributions towards building Socialism. In short, Khrushchev¡¯s reforms were not an indication that the society was experiencing an ideological turnover, as in the case of Gorbachov¡¯s Perestroika, but a systematic attempt to create a Party image independent of the politics of Stalin.

Therefore, Khrushchev¡¯s reforms were highly selective and often seen as contradictory. Regarding artistic activities, such as film making, Khrushchev resorted to a case-by-case basis of censorship in his effort to find voices critical enough to contribute to de-Stalinization, but at the same time curb artists from ¡®saying too much of what they wanted to say.¡¯ Despite such confusion, Khrushchev¡¯s emphasis on Socialist legality contributed to ¡®normalizing¡¯ socialism.


III.      Movie Analysis

In late 1968, Khrushchev was ousted by a more conservative faction among the Party cadres. During the last years of Khrushchev¡¯s thaw, many conservative Party officials felt that the centralized reforms initially intended as a de-Stalinization effort were going out of hand, and the society was becoming liberal beyond expectation. The fears of the conservatives were not unfounded; indeed, by 1968, the Soviet society had traveled a long distance culturally from the Stalinist era.

Both films were selected based on its release date. The two movies were released in the very last year of Khrushchev¡¯s reform era, and thus it can be assumed that both were able to take full advantage of the cultural Thaw.

A.  The Cranes are Flying

Mikhail Kalatozov¡¯s The Cranes are Flying was released in 1968, the very last year of Khrushchev¡¯s short lived perestroika. Kalatozov dealt with a common topic in Soviet cinema, World War II or the Great Patriotic War, but portrayed it in a very personal scale; through the perspective of a pair of young lovers.

             Veronica and Boris are lovers just before the outbreak of the Great Patriotic War. Their innocent world is torn apart as the war breaks out and Boris volunteers to the front. Veronica moves in with Boris¡¯s family after her own parents are killed during an air raid. Mark, Boris¡¯s scheming cousin, takes advantage of Veronica and eventually marries her, as Boris fails to reach his family from the front. While Boris faces the bloodiness of war, the home front is mobilized for the war effort, and his family is deported to Siberia as part of it. Boris¡¯s father and sister, both doctors, run a military hospital and Veronica helps out as a nurse. Even though she has given birth to Mark¡¯s child, Veronica waits for Boris¡¯s letter. Yet Boris is killed during a reconnaissance mission. Boris¡¯s comrade arrives in Siberia to inform the family, but Veronica is able to accept the truth only after the war is over, when she cannot find her beloved among the victorious troops marching home.

             Cranes is a prime example of how directors reacted to the disregard for personal emotions during the last years of Stalin. In the previous era, artistic production was closely censored to reflect ¡®socialist realism¡¯. Works that did not deal with the Social ideal were often denied widespread circulation. For instance, the works of prized Soviet poet Anna Ahkmatova were not published during Stalin¡¯s time, for it dealt with ¡®trivial human emotions¡¯ such as love. However, during the Thaw, works once considered too trivial or maudlin were often reconsidered for publication. Anna Ahkmatova¡¯s poems were eventually published and circulated.

             Thus, unlike works from the Stalinist era, Kalatozov¡¯s primary concern is to portray the war on the most personal scale as possible. Veronica and Boris¡¯s love story has the universality that reaches audience from any culture. Yet the movie does not attempt to glorify or sacrifice their relationship for the sake of a greater ideological goal. The following conversation indirectly expresses the intention of the director:

             Factory girls: On behalf of the committee [¡¦]

                  Father: Yes, yes, all good. But tell me what you really think.

Girls: Oh, that was just what the committee wanted us to say, but we are so proud of you, and we will miss you very much at the factory! 

Boris: Thank you.

             The representatives of the factory are young women resembling the prototypes of Soviet workers as portrayed by Socialist realism. However, the women go beyond their assigned roles by expressing their personal views of Boris.

             Furthermore, Kalatozov sets his work apart from previous war movies by voicing an unmistakably pacifistic opinion. The sheer number of human losses had instilled the Khrushchev era society with a strong opposition towards military conflict, as shown in the short lived détente prior to the Hungarian uprising. As the name itself signifies, WWII or the Great Patriotic War was commemorated as a grand victory of Socialism. Although Kalatozov does not specifically state his opposition to war, in Cranes he illustrates poignantly the brutality of the war. Through Cranes, the audience is able to sense that the war had greatly troubled the Soviet society psychologically.

             The theme of subtle and pacifism and the psychological terror faced by both those at the front and the home front is chiefly represented through Boris¡¯s eyes. Kalatozov does not glorify the battle field; though not as brutal as in modern realist films, the battle field Boris experiences is muddy, bloody and weary. The first scene of the battle front the audience encounters is not a courageous battle, but a scene of a battle¡¯s aftermath in which the wounded are being carried out unceremoniously. Boris and his comrades have noticeably discarded their naïve patriotism.

             Volodoya: It¡¯s stupid to get surrounded like this!

This statement by a foot solider, Volodoya, and the fight between him and Boris, which ensues shortly after Volodoya¡¯s outburst, belies the frustration faced by the soldiers. Low discipline is surfaced by a fight over ¡®but a girl¡¯, and the captain¡¯s half hearted attempt to chastise the quarreling comrades. The visibly weary captain claims that he ¡®must keep discipline¡¯, but the scene is given a comical twist by the outburst of sarcastic laughter from the soldiers: ¡°You hear that? Discipline!¡± The image of heroic soldiers is replaced with the more humane portrait of fatigued young men yearning for home.

             Pacifism in Cranes reaches its vertex in the death scene of Boris. This scene is a cinematic spectacle, with Kalatozov clearly paying tribute to Eisenstein¡¯s techniques. Boris is killed during a reconnaissance mission he was sent on with Volodoya as a punishment for their skirmish over ¡®a girl¡¯. Although Boris¡¯s kind nature is made prominent by his attempts to save Volodoya, the death scene does not portray a martyr. The camera follows Boris¡¯s eyes as it whizzes around in circles, and then it takes a long-take, showing Boris¡¯s small corpse amidst a great clearing at the end of a wood. In total, the cinematography of the scene heightens the sense of irrelevance and unfairness of life and death, rather than glorifying Boris¡¯s deeds. The vastness open silence that surrounds Boris whispers ¡®Veronica¡¯s lover was killed¡¯, not ¡®a Soviet hero had died.¡¯

             The irony of Boris¡¯s death is strengthened by the overlapping scenes of the home front. As Veronica anxiously listens to the death toll and simultaneously waits for a letter from Boris, Boris¡¯s father comforts her by remarking that ¡®no news is good news¡¯. However, as this is said, Boris is slowly sinking into the mud. Such juxtaposition strikes an unmistakably similar tone with the pacifist classic, All Quiet on the Western Front.

             Khrushchev¡¯s reform was, as mentioned before, carefully targeted and centrally controlled. While de-Stalinization was pursued extensively, Khrushchev was specific in protecting certain brutalities of Stalin¡¯s politics that helped stabilize the power of the Communist party and further Socialism. Yet, once the Pandora¡¯s Box is open, it is difficult to limit its influence. Regardless of the Party¡¯s intentions, foreign contact during the war, brutalities faced during battle both at home and at the front, the trickle of prisoners released from the gulags, and both the real and expected liberalization following Stalin¡¯s death made it inevitable for social criticism to surface. The impact of such social ¡®thaw¡¯ is felt in Kalatozov¡¯s portrayal of the home front in Cranes.

             As Boris encounters adversities as a soldier, Veronica and the rest of the family is also faced with hostile conditions. Veronica and Boris¡¯s family is deported to Siberia, as part of the war effort. Virtually the entire city is seen to be forcefully migrated to remote locations as part of the war effort. Cranes does not fail to depict the personal difficulties an average Soviet citizen had to endure due to the extensive mobilization of the home front. With scarce housing at the settlement in Siberia, families are forced to share rooms with strangers. The hospital Boris¡¯s father and sister runs is crowded and lacks amenities; scarcity of resources forces Boris¡¯s father, a dedicated doctor, to turn down a truckload of wounded soldiers.

             Father: I cannot take any more! There is no room in the hospital. [¡¦]

                  Fine, only 70, but none more.

Soldier: They turned us down again [¡¦] all the hospitals are full [¡¦] where will we go now?

             Kalatozov does not express blatant criticism of the Party¡¯s policies during the war. In fact, it is not made clear whether the director approves or disapproves of the measures taken as part of the war effort. However, Cranes exploits the liberal atmosphere and expectations of the audience of the time to emphasize that the individual Soviet citizen, as a human being with emotions and other frivolities, had to make great personal sacrifices to support the country.

             Finally, despite such subtle departures from Stalinist norms, The Cranes are Flying remains in the embrace of party-approved socialism. The muted criticisms made by Kalatozov never attacks socialism in itself; in fact, the entire movie is void of any conscious discussion on political ideology. Cranes was made to be a love story, and the movie remains loyal to its personal, romantic roots throughout.

The most remarkable reflection of the era¡¯s social atmosphere in Cranes is the widespread naïve loyalty to the State. Boris and his youthful comrades are shown to voluntarily sign up for the military, filled with unquestionable patriotism. Boris¡¯s pure intentions are not mocked by the director; Boris remains a fundamentally moral and decent character till his death, while Marc, who eschewed military service through questionable means, is condemned. This limitation is where Cranes divorces from the extreme pacifism such as in All Quiet on Western Front. As the society embraces the State and its ideology in their purest form, Cranes also shows appreciation for the unpretentious loyalty of the citizens.


B.  Two Comrades Were Serving

Two Comrades were Serving by Yevgeni Karelov was released in 1968 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the October Revolution. Unlike Cranes, production of Two Comrades was initiated by the request of the Party. Thus, Karelov is cautious in his depiction of Soviet society. Also, the setting of Two Comrades allowed Karelov to glorify various aspects of society without upsetting the expectations of the increasingly diversified audience.

The main plot of Two Comrades revolves around Andrei Nekarsov and his comrade-in-arms Ivan Karyakin. Nekarsov¡¯s skill as a photographer catches the attention of the officers in his regiment as they search for someone to carry out a dangerous reconnaissance mission to film the enemy ground at the Crimea. Nekarsov and Karyakin embark upon this perilous journey. Their plane crashes into the enemy territory, and they are eventually captured by the ignorant Makhnovists, then later a suspicious commissar of their own army and are miraculously saved by their commander minutes before being shot to death. Although the film Nekarsov produced reveals little, Nekarsov¡¯s phenomenal memory helps the Red Army to devise a surprise attack on the Crimean fortress. Thoughtful Nekarsov and brazen Karyakin become heroes in the battle. Meanwhile, Sasha Brusentov, an officer in the White Guard, is arrested for accidentally killing his comrade. Instead of imprisonment, Brusentov is sent off to the Crimean front. The bright, young officer anticipates the surprise attack by the Red Army, yet his stubborn superiors refuse to acknowledge his foresight. The Crimea is conquered by the Red Army, and the lives of Brusentov, Nekarsov and Karyakin cross as retreating Brusentov shoots Nekarsov out of whim. Nekarsov dies in Karyakin¡¯s arms, and Karyakin leaves the army cherishing the memory of his brave and thoughtful friend. Brusentov, lamenting the change of time, sets off to leave Russia with his lover, but commits suicide as his boat departs from harbor. 

             The two comrades, Nekarsov and Karyakin are shown as inseparable and both soldiers of equally noble hearts. However, they derive from vastly different backgrounds, and consequently show disparities in their personalities. The very difference between two friends reveals a nuanced support of Socialism prevalent in society of the time.

Nekarsov is a son of a priest, and grew up in a relatively privileged atmosphere. While many of the soldiers in the Red Army are illiterate, Nekarsov received schooling in photography; a technology not widely known to the peasant population. Even his looks are unusual for a Red soldier; as the commissar of a different regiment remarks, Nekarsov looks are close to that of a White Guard¡¯s. His educated background allows him to be better aware of the nature of people and the incidents that surround him. This forces Nekarsov to be outwardly a less enthusiastic Communist, and renders an image of a melancholy man that ¡®spits into every saucer pan¡¯.

Karyakin is the antithesis of Nekarsov. A blunt peasant who proclaims to be the ¡®son of my parents¡¯, Karyakin lacks the sophistication and deliberation of Nekarsov. As prisoners, while Nekarsov skillfully manipulates the enemy¡¯s weaknesses, Karyakin creates even more animosity by ¡®talking too much¡¯. What he lacks in knowledge and discretion, Karyakin makes up for by his zeal and loyalty to the Red Army. Karyakin, like many of the more ignorant soldiers, believes that Socialism is the panacea for all social ills that had oppressed him; such as jealousy, spite and hunger. For him, the Red Army is absolute, and success among its ranks is his first priority. While Nekarsov values more fundamental, timeless values such as honesty, friendship and valor, Karyakin in the beginning is obsessed with recognition from his superiors.

The difference between Nekarsov and Karyakin illustrates the changing attitude towards Socialism. Karyakin¡¯s enthusiastic support for his superiors and boundless faith in Socialism as a cure for all difficulties in life seem to illustrate the ideal Soviet citizen in the previous era. Nekarsov¡¯s relatively realistic and cautious approach depicts the new-founded faith in a ¡®purer¡¯ form of Socialism under Khrushchev.

Karyakin: In ten years there will be no hungry people. Believe me, only those who've overeaten will be put on a diet. And since there will be no hungry people, there will be no spite, stealing and other ugly things. All the prisons we will close, of course. [¡¦]

Nekarsov : There will always be someone [to put in jail]

Karyakin: So you doubt it

Nekarsov : Yes. Sure we can give people food, but to fix their brains right, it will take ten, even more then twenty years.

Nekarsov, as seen in this dialogue, never doubts the efficacy of Socialism. However, his experience and education prevent him from expressing the unquestioned belief of Karyakin. Nekarsov is cognizant of the realistic challenges the society must face to make the Socialist ideal possible. This expresses the nuanced belief of the Soviet public in the years following the death of Stalin; the horrors of Stalinist politics and the personal sacrifices citizens had to make had jaded the ideological zeal of the earlier times, yet the society remained loyal to its Communist roots.

Also, the portrayal of the two characters allows the audience to surmise the values of the director. Although the title is Two Comrades were Serving, Karelov expressively basks Nekarsov in a more favorable light. Karyakin himself in the movie understands that Nekarsov is a superior character; as he is reporting the death of his friend, Karyakin remarks that the death was ¡®wrong¡¯ because he ¡®should have been the comrade hit by the bullet whizzing by, as in the song Two Comrades were Serving.¡¯ Thus, Karelov reflects the public support for the renovated social ambiance by Khrushchev¡¯s de-Stalinization reforms.

Furthermore, Karelov implicitly represents the widespread disgust of the political ¡®purges¡¯ during the Stalinist era through the character Karyakin. This is an inevitable content of the movie, for Karelov produced Two Comrades with the urgings of the Party—which had been actively pursuing reforms to distance itself from the past purges. Karyakin is shown to be a man of vehement Communist rhetoric. However, he is also shown to have no moral qualms against manipulating the rhetoric for his own benefit. When Nekarsov returns from his perilous journey, he earns the disappointment and suspicion of his superiors, due to his failure to produce a viable film of the Crimean fortress. Faced with the danger of being accused of counter-espionage, Karyakin turns against his friend and accuses Nekarsov of being a ¡®counter-revolutionary¡¯. Such reporting of ¡®counter-revolutionary¡¯ acts, even among the closest of personal relationships, was a standard procedure encouraged by the Party as a healthy code of conduct while Stalin was alive. Testimonies made by friends against friends, siblings against siblings and even children against parents were used as a basis for Stalin¡¯s mass purges and investigations of the KGB. Karyakin¡¯s actions, thus, would have been politically justified in the previous era. However, with the emphasis on personal emotions, ¡®standard Socialist legality¡¯ and practices during the ¡®Thaw¡¯, Karyakin is portrayed as a coward. Karyakin¡¯s accusations are made irrelevant by Nekarsov¡¯s phenomenal memory that produces an accurate map of the Crimea, and Nekarsov delivers a curt but memorable speech on Karyakin¡¯s betrayal.

Karyakin: Nekarsov is a non party man of alien origin. He spoke against the revolution and intentionally ruined the film! How are we going to take the offensive? You let the whole division down. My heart had always been against you. Why don't you say something, priest breed? [¡¦]

              Andrei, are you pissed? [¡¦] It was a mistake.

Nekarsov: A mistake? No, not a mistake. It is called betrayal.

             The parallel plot of the White Guard officer Brusentov also shares characteristics of the conscious effort of artists of the Thaw era to give the opposition an identifiable human face. Voices supporting the traditional enemies, of course, were suppressed through various censorship measures. However, the ¡®other¡¯, or enemies, of the Thaw culture quickly shed the vermin-like physical markings and bestial morality that were inseparable from the representation of the ¡®other¡¯ in the Stalinist culture. The opposition during the Thaw was given a personal story and human face. Brusentov can be seen as a exemplar figure of this movement.

             Brusentov is shown to have striking similarities with the protagonist, Nekarsov. Like his Red Army counterpart, Brusentov is a shrewd reader of his surroundings. He is a firm supporter of the cause he serves, yet he does not possess the naivety of his fellow soldiers who believe the Crimean bastion is invincible. Rather, he is the only officer who realizes the danger of a surprise attack from a less fortified area, and tries in vain to alarm his superiors of the alternative attack. Also, while Brusentov shows strong disapproval of the Communist ideology, he is aware that the decadence and lethargy of the White Guards can be easily shattered by the zeal and desperation of the Red Army. Thus, although the Soviet audience cannot support nor identify with the ideology the White Guards represent, they are able to sympathize with Brusentov as an individual. Brusentov is unmistakably part of the ¡®other¡¯, yet he can still be recognized as a heroic and acute soldier nonetheless.

Thus, as a film produced to celebrate a revolutionary history, Two Comrades were Serving succeeds in capturing the complex propaganda goals of the Party during the ¡®Thaw¡¯. The characters Nekarsov and Karyakin illustrates the dual objective of Khrushchev¡¯s reforms; criticizing both blind support of Socialism and the terror infused by Stalin¡¯s ¡®anomalous¡¯ politics, while still anchoring the society firmly to its revolutionary roots.


IV.      Conclusion

The two films, The Cranes are Flying and Two Comrades were Serving, were produced during the very last year of Khrushchev¡¯s reform, and thus immersed in the new atmosphere. Cranes represents the diversified voices of the society, drawing attention to the more personal aspect of life long neglected under Stalin, while simultaneously striving to paint a realistic portrait of the bleak war times. Two Comrades emphasizes the new-found support of Socialism of the general public—the appreciation of Socialism apart from the brutalities of Stalinist politics.  

Despite the common perception of a monolithic society, the Soviet Union experienced eras of change. The death of Stalin brought perhaps one of the most unexpected changes in social atmosphere. The Party¡¯s conscious effort to distance itself from the horrors of Stalinist politics resulted in various reforms that gave artists a greater spectrum of expression. However, the freedom was not absolute; it was in essence, a result of a centralized, propagandistic effort, not a genuine liberalization. Thus, the society reflected a highly complex and nuanced atmosphere. While the average Soviet citizen was able to access opinions critical of the former era, or non-existent during Stalin¡¯s time, the Soviet society remained anchored tightly to its Socialist foundations. The demand for reform was not an effort to abandon the ideology, but a conscious endeavor to return to a purer from of Socialist society.



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The Cranes are Flying. Dir. Mikhial Kalatozov. Perf. Vasily Merkuryev, Tatiana Samoilova et al.

Mosfilm, 1968.


Two Comrades were Serving. Dir. Yevgeny Karelov. Perf. Rolan Bykov. Alla Demidova et al.

Mosfilm, 1968.


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Pittsburgh University. June 28th, 2005. <http://www.rusfilm.pitt.edu/2003/program2.html>





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