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The Cultural Battlefield

As the Bolsheviks came to power, they faced many of the same social, economic, and national challenges that ended up destroying the previous regime.  At the same time, they faced an even bigger challenge:  that of completing the transition from revolutionaries to rulers.

Obliterating the Past (1918) Obliterating the Past (1918)

 

Lenin and the Bolsheviks worked against this challenge in a variety of ways during their early years and the Civil War.  They made efforts to consolidate power throughout Russia’s vast lands.  They took advantage of the fact that their Red Army remained much more coherent than the fragmented coalition of groups that made up the White Army.  And most compelling, in my opinion, they fought hard on the battlefield of culture.

As Seventeen Moments mentions, with the onset of a new era of rulers, there was bound to be a new era of culture.  Culture in the years prior to the revolution was booming, but Lenin knew he had to destroy certain elements of it in order to eliminate all the remnants of the old regime (Freeze 303), as well as create new symbology.

While Lenin was obviously not a fan of Western politics, he was not completely opposed to their culture, and saw potential in it in regards to technology.  In particular, he realized the practicality of the cinema, calling it “the most important of all the arts for us” (Seventeen Moments).  He took note of how cinema could be understood by everyone – you don’t have to be literate or wealthy to watch a movie, and it’s usually appealing to watch.  This medium could easily reach peasants and help spread his new ideology, eventually helping to establish more legitimacy (and confidence) in his government.

Film poster for "Little Red Devils," a 1923 film Film poster for “Little Red Devils,” a 1923 film

 

In 1922, Lenin established that the People’s Commissariat for Education would “organize all film showings and systematize this business” (“Directives on the Film Business”).  Censorship by the Commissariat would ensure the correct proportion of entertainment films and propaganda films.  He even stated that more film showings should be organized in the peasant villages and in the East, because this is where their propaganda message would be most effective.  Directors like Dziga Vertov used documentary films to bring about consciousness and instil Soviet values in his viewers.  Sergei Eisenstein, another famous Russian director, uses some of these tactics later on in the 20s.

Lenin believed that culture had the power to unite everyone and taps into the idea that culture should be accessible to everyone – and he uses this to his full advantage to spread his ideology.  Without developing a new culture, he probably would not have been able to establish authority over the masses and make the transformation from revolutionary to Civil War victor to ruler.  Clearly culture, and specifically cinema, could be effectively used as an agent of social and political enlightenment for the new Soviet state.

 

Citations:

Geldern, “Death of the Old Culture.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2013.

Geldern, “Socialist Cinema.” Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. 2013.”Obliterating the Past” image from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History, originally from Through the Russian Revolution.

Lenin, Vladimir. “Directives on the Film Business.” 1922. Retrieved from Seventeen Moments in Soviet History.

“Little Red Devils” image from IMDB

16 Comments

  1. carlin

    I think discussing political ideologies, battles, and power are easy ways to discuss the Bolshevik regime, but culture was a new take. I appreciated how you recognized film as an art and tool. Not only were films able to cross all socioeconomic statuses, but the censorship under Lenin allowed certain topics to reach the masses. When discussing how the Bolsheviks transitioned from revolutionaries to rulers, all aspects must be considered, including how censorship developed culture.

  2. elundquist

    I think you make a good point that Lenin may not have been nearly as successful as he was without working to change the culture of Russia. If he kept the cultural status quo, I think fewer people would have worked with him, and the specific example of the cinema that you discussed was a way to engage the citizens of Russia in the new culture that Lenin wanted to create.

  3. This post does a great job of highlighting how important the “Cultural Front” was to the success of the Soviet project. Aside from being an key weapon in the struggle for hearts and minds, culture and cultural production shape and inform social identity. New Soviet men and women would definitely need new cultural forms!
    Love, love, love the poster for “Little Red Devils”! Your post makes a good case for why Lenin thought films was so important.

  4. Austin Wood

    Culture was such an important factor of the Bolsheviks success like you mentioned and I’m glad you covered a little bit about Cinema which is what my topic was on! Technology was just on the rise from what I could tell and I think it’s important to note how leaders of this time in the Soviet Union incorporated it into their cultural plan for the country.

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