Opium on screen: a portrait of religion in Soviet and Russian cinema, part I (1918-1937)

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The following article is a first instalment of the series of articles on representations of religion in Soviet and Russian cinema, prepared by theologian Kristina Gildejeva.

Soviet arts are generally associated with atheism and materialism. However, Russian culture, which does not have so much in common with the Soviet one, was always religious. Before communists seized the power, the church played a tremendous role within the state. Apart from that symbiosis between the religious and the folk was very common. Legends, popular beliefs, superstitions and traditions, combining both the Christian and the pagan, cannot be attributed to manifestations of materialism.  It would be very naive to believe that all sacral motives were repressed in the Russian conscious with the coming of the Revolution.

Ранний пропагандистский плакат (~1917-1922).

Early anti-religious propaganda poster (~1917-1922). Ones are walking towards the Star of Bethlehem, others – towards the Red Star of communism.

However, it is needless to mention that positive representations of religiosity were quite rare in Soviet films. We will begin our overview with early atheist propaganda in film, that by the way affected not only Christianity. There is no point in immersing ourselves in circles of bureaucracy and describing numerous film commissions, department and boards, however it is worth mentioning that one of those was headed by Lenin’s spouse Nadezhda Krupskaya herself. Somewhere amongst the jungle of the early Soviet system socialistic cinema was originating.

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Father Sergius – the first and the last virtuous monk of Soviet cinema. Still from Father Sergius  (1918).

In 1918 Yakov Protazanov adapts Father Sergius from Tolstoy’s novel. The plot is based around an ascetic monk attempting to forsake the vanities of the world and stop being tied to the chariots of vices. Father Sergius is a virtuous protagonist and the film does not exhibit any anti-religious overtones, which reflects the confused state of the post-Revolution period. Only in 1928 an article showing the regime’s attitude towards the film appeared in the magazine “Kino”:

To screen “Father Sergius” is to excite interest towards the church and religion. Instead of offering a solid anti-religious film for Tolstoy days, Sovkino has dug up old junk, demonstrating it with pompous advertising solely to raise money. We feel ashamed for Sovkino. For an hour and a half one has to witness “deep” emotions of Mozzhukhin, whose acting is too alike to the one of a provincial actor. The squalor of mise-en-scene makes the film absolutely good-for-nothing” (“Kino”, 1928 , № 40, 5).

In order to “correct” the image of an orthodox priest Narkompross makes The Tale of the Priest Pankrat (1918, N. Preobrazhenskiy, A. Arkatov) – the first Soviet anti-religious film.  As the priest Pankart tricks the parish into believing in miraculous icons and thus increases his income, the film kills two birds with one stone: shows the dishonesty of priests and dispels a myth about divine miracles.

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Book cover of the original novel “The Tale of the Priest Pankrat” by Demyan Bedniy. Moscow, 1918.

Similar tendency can be seen in Wonderworker (1922, A. Panteleyev). The icon is proclaimed to be miraculous and starts attracting a lot of believers. The clergy has to admit the miracle took place, and it is later confirmed with a decree issued by Nikolai I. Here the Soviets also “drop a curtsey” to the monarchy. Nadezhda Krupskaya testified that Lenin really enjoyed this film.

The film Protection of a Peasant (1924, Y. Poselskiy) starts a long list of “village” films of the 1920s – early 1930s. What unites these narratives is that clergy always tends to side with kulaks. Propagandists of that time skillfully create associative links between clergy and kulaks, “proving” the corruption and disutility of religion. In the pre-war Soviet cinema, a priest is a person who betrays, sells out, informs, it is a corrupt and greedy character. However, not only personal qualities of clergy people are highlighted in the pre-war Soviet films, but also the more general harm that the church and religiosity can cause to the building of socialism. A religious person acquires a status of a class  enemy.

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Propaganda poster, 1931. “Clergy – support for kulaks. With kolkhozes (collective farms) we will destroy kulaks”.

The God of War (1929, Y. Dzigan) demonstrates religion’s hostile attitude towards socialism: the heads of Christian churches, as well as of Islam and Judaism, encourage the just-started First World War. In one dramatic sequence the main heroine, having realised that the God of believers is the God of war, tears off her baptismal cross.

If to take a look at some of the titles from “Annotated catalogue of Soviet films“, one can easily see a big picture:

Starets Vasili Gryaznov (1924, C. Syabinskiy) – “the exposure of the church’s shady undertakings in the first years of Soviet power”.

The Cross and the Mauser (1925, V. Gardin) – “the exposure of retrograde views of catholic clergy in a small town of Western Russia”.

The Slave’s Wings (1926, Y. Tarich) – “about tragic destiny of a talented person who fell victim to religious fanaticism”.

Behind a Monastery Wall (1928, P. Chardynin) – “about fake sainthood and virtuousness of the clergy of old Russia”.

Judas (1929, Y. Ivanov-Barkov) – “the exposure of counter-revolutionary views of clergy during the Civil War”.

Постер к фильму Крест и Маузер (1925).

Poster for The Cross and The Mauser (1925).

Simple but highly illustrative is the plot of In the Jungle of Everyday Life (1924, A. Razumniy, the film is lost): “Years of the NEP. In the family of worker Gusev a baby is born. The mother wants to baptise the baby, but the father is categorically against it. The mother insists and one day takes the baby to church. During the baptism the baby catches a cold and soon dies. Only now does Gusev’s wife realises the malignancy of this ritual” (“Christian film glossary”). Now even the most callous viewer understands that the сhurch, apart from being a supporter of the old order and kulaks, and a gathering of corrupt people, is also a place in which a simple care about the loved ones is absent. After that kind of morality tale a Soviet person would think twice before baptising a newly born.

Highly interesting is a parallel between religion and drug use. For example, the documentary film Opium (1929, V. Zhemchuzhniy) is telling about damaging effects of alcohol, drugs and religious superstitions – all three are equally shown as bad habits.

“Religion is opium for the masses” – the film applies this metaphor visually, “taking the viewer from poppy fields to the factories where opium balls are made, and then to opium dens where it is smoked. From there, it jumps to temples and minarets; religious rituals observed by Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baptists, and pagan shamans are shown . . . This is followed by shots showing fortune-tellers and their clients. Meanwhile, the police break up a protest demonstration, and send workers to jail” (Swann Auction Galleries annotation).

Постер к фильму Опиум (1929).

Poster for Opium (1929).

These motives are also common in feature films – for instance Moonshine Miracle (1925, V. Feinberg) shows the exposure of “moonshine” makers, among whom there were (of course) priests.

Concluding this short insight into atheistic motives of the pre-war Soviet cinema I want to mention Sergei Eisenstein, who used to deny religion with a genuinely fanatical pathos. In 1935 the first version of his Bezhin Meadow came out (the second came out in 1937, although both were destroyed. Now only some trims exist, from which in 1968 a photo-film was made).

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Bezhin Meadow contained sequences like an attempt of a kulak and a religiously fanatical woman to kill their son with a Bible…

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…and destruction of a church and mockery of church utensils, conversion of the church into club.

This film terminates the tendency of “village” films with their mockery of priests. On the next stage the critique of Christianity will be exercised already in historical contexts.

To be continued…

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