Cinema as a Weapon of Revolution

In 1923 Leon Trotsky wrote an article for Pravda in which he explored the relationship of the church to the revolution, espoused the virtues of Cinema as a tool for re educating the masses, and went about describing how cinema could be used as a weapon by the Bolsheviks to destroy alcoholism and religion within the budding USSR. Unsaid in Trotsky’s article, but equally important is the reason that the Bolsheviks were such ruthless, cunning and productive propagandists, the need for political capital to keep the revolution alive and ensure they retained their hard won strongly motivated the hard push for propaganda films, and the modernization and streamlining of the Communist propaganda machine.

In his article, Trotsky details the ways in which the peasant classes had been indoctrinated by the church, and also describes briefly the issue with alcoholism in Russia in the early 20th century, throughout the course of his writing, Trotsky lays out in detail the reasons that cinema can supplant religion and drinking in Russian culture. The first, and arguably most important reason that cinema was a vital method of distributing propaganda was that it could reach the illiterate, in 1920, only 2 out of five Russian adults could read (Kenez Pg 30) and this meant that leaflets, newspapers and magazines could not reach the target audience, they had succeeded in indoctrinating the liberal intellectuals, but a different method would be required to reach the masses. Cinema provided the perfect vehicle, it was interesting, straightforward, an advanced new technology that generated vast interest in all, young, old, rich and poor. In his article, Trotsky details how similar it is to the church, in that it stimulates the sense, brings people together, and provides theatrical entertainment, the key difference being that the cinema provides a multitude of different stories, while the church played out the same story, over and over again. Because of its newness, and because of its variation, Trotsky argues that the cinema can replace the church in the lives of the masses, and at the same time be used to control and direct them through propaganda. In the long term, history did not bear out Trotsky’s prediction, it would seem that he underestimated how entrenched in rural culture religion was, and despite initial short term success, in the end Eastern Orthodoxy made a comeback as soon as the communist propaganda machine collapsed with the rest of the USSR.

The reason that Trotsky and the Bolsheviks pushed cinema so hard as a mode of propaganda is primarily the need for political capital so that they could continue to reshape Russia, the position of the communists in 1923 was precarious, they had defeated the White/Green/Black armies arrayed against them, but they still stood at the precipice of political catastrophe. In order to retain power, they needed everyone on board with the new program as fast as possible, and leaflets and magazines which wouldn’t reach 3/5th’s of the population simply would not cut it. In keeping with the Bolshevik theme of cleaving to urban workers and new technology, the cinema was utilized as an antithesis for the backwardness and superstition of religion, with party leaders believing that the factors i described above would bring them the political might to rebuild Russia in to a communist utopia. In the short term, this was successful, and Russia rapidly underwent a cultural revolution, resulting in the USSR as we know it.

In conclusion, the cinema was a vital part of Bolshevik propaganda, and its effective usage is in a large way responsible for the creation and sustainment of the USSR,  however, in the long run it was not quite enough, and the failure of communism to bridge the gap between urban intellectuals and the rural masses eventually brought it down.