PERVOROSSIYANE (1967): an eccentric take on early Soviet history “unshelved” only in 2009

Year 1967. On the wave of Khrushchev’s Thaw, a lot of filmmakers were eager to push the boundaries of the acceptable, and the 50th anniversary of the October Revolution seemed like an appropriate reason for drawing inspiration from the revolutionary avant-garde. That year, a lot of films seeking to commemorate the Revolution through experimenting with the film language were made and subsequently banned for being too experimental.

At first PERVOROSSIYANE, the screen adaptation of a poem by Olga Bergholz about the heroism of the first revolutionaries, didn’t arouse any suspicion. A renowned and respected filmmaker Alexander Ivanov, People’s Artist of the USSR, the director of IF A FRIEND WOULD CALL (Esli drug pozovet, 1963) and VIRGIN SOIL UPTURNED (Podniataia tselina, 1960), was entrusted with making this film. Evgeny Schiffers, a young Leningrader and a theatre director who was heavily scolded for formalism, was appointed an assistant to Ivanov. As a result, while 70-year-old Ivanov was writing his memoir on the set, Shiffers made one of the most unbelievable films in the history of Soviet cinema, hiding behind Ivanov’s trustworthy name.

A poetic legend about seven revolutionaries, who set out to build Communism in the faraway lands of Russia, is full of religious symbols and completely ditches the rules of realism. Instead the diegetic world of the film is governed by an extraordinary artistic artificiality, abstractness, symbolism and formalism. Each of seven parts is colour-coded: it seems that for some scenes, Shiffers was ordering his art department to actually paint whole fields and mountains with a brush.

The film was of course shelved. Usually the films banned in that period would see the light during the perestroika era (this happened with Gennadiy Poloka’s INTERVENTSIA (1968), Aleksandr Askoldov’s KOMISSAR (1967) and many others), but PERVOROSSIYANE was released only in 2009. When it was banned in 1967 most of the existing copies were destroyed, and the one remaining was a negative that due to technical issues became unfit for watching or copying. Only recently technology allowed to transfer the negative into digital format.

Mesmerising imagery and ambitious set design of the film lead us to refrain from more writing and instead choose 10 frames to convey the spirit of the film better than any words:

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