Esfir Shub and the Film Factory-Archive: Soviet documentary from 1925-1928

From the pre-Revolutionary period in Russia through January 1936, Soviet film studios were known as “film factories” (kinofabriki). Leftist theorists and filmmakers such as Viktor Shklovsky, Dziga Vertov, and Esfir Shub were three among a number of people who exploited the symbolic potential of the term. [1]  By making films in “factories,” cultural producers became workers like any others, eliminating the elitism often associated with artistic production. But during the mid-to-late 1920s, as part of the re-organisation of Soviet cinema, debates over non-fiction film form and method demonstrated a shifting conception of the “factory” within the term. Instead of a productive space offering flexibility and resources for (not only) newsreel and documentary filmmakers, the “film factory” became a potential spiritual and production centre for filmmaking and for the nation: it became a national factory-archive. While retaining its productive capacity, the method of making films in this new space was to be shaped by the logics of the archive. This logic infused into the material artefacts in its collection a determination to diminish the present by looking to the future through the prism of the past.

Although this utopian space of Soviet film production was never fully realized, the discourse surrounding it and the methodological changes proposed impacted Soviet cinema history significantly. This essay concentrates on those debates over the proper form and method for making non-fiction film that took place during the period from 1925-28. I examine the arguments for what I describe as a multi-purpose factory-archive [2]  for film production and storage. I also examine those State political and economic policies prior to this period that defined the critical positions at stake in these debates. I argue that both transitions from Vertovian to Shubian documentary and the historical trajectory of American scientific management theory in the post-Revolution USSR are part of a larger transition from fragmentation, inspiration, and subjectivity, to consolidation, organisation, and centralisation. These changes in emphasis coincide with a re-articulation of the relationship between citizen, nation, and state. More specifically, the revolutionary dream of transforming subjectivities through avant-garde film and through the adoption of Taylorist methods of industrial production, as well as State hopes for a culturally-unified Soviet nation, gave way to practices that emphasize objective knowledge of the historical world, celebrate organisation, efficiency, and objectivity, and effect a mobile, multicultural, multinational, albeit Soviet civic, identity. The utopianism of the early 1920s did not disappear. Rather, my contention is that the utopian elements attached to non-fiction practice, industrial policy, and nation-building policy get re-imagined and resituated within pragmatic contexts.

Interrogating these debates reveals a great deal about three areas of interest to Slavists and cinema and media scholars. First, in calling for a factory-archive for film production and storage – a site intertwining State and film production goals – the artists and critics whose discourse I examine help us to understand the relationship between non-fiction film and State policy in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s. Second, I demonstrate how the logic of the archive subtending these positions functions as a step in the transition to Socialist Realism. I challenge the standard cold-war version of history in which a period of modernist, truly revolutionary art of the 1920s (formalist avant-garde) was seen as having been replaced by conservative, backward, realist art imposed from above in the 1930s. [3]  Third, these debates contain fundamental arguments about the ontology of and epistemological engagement with the non-fiction film image. This early theorizing on the nature and aesthetics of non-fiction film adds to our knowledge of documentary origins. [4]

The first part of my analysis focuses on the debates themselves and their relationship to broader changes occurring in the social, political, cultural, and industrial spheres of contemporary Soviet life. In the second part, after delineating the fundamental principles of American scientific management theory and its adoption in the Soviet Union, I discuss the ways in which the aesthetics emerging from and method of working in a Taylorist factory resonated with appeals for a new Shubian-inspired factory-archive space. In the third section, I show how the archive aspect of the factory-archive pairing functions to support a re-thinking of the State’s nation-building policy – the communications aspect of which relies on research that contributes to a changed conception of the text-audience relationship. In the final section, I analyse the implications of these changes, differentiating Soviet archival dreams from those of the West. Because writing on documentary always requires attention to the way in which the work performs, represents, and articulates history, I conclude the fourth section by offering reasons why the new documentary as a mode of historiographical discourse resonated with Soviet audiences.

From subjective inspiration to objective organisation

The years immediately following the Bolshevik Revolution were marked by confusion, contention, and chaos on the political and cultural front and severe shortages on the economic front. The Soviet Union was simultaneously engaged in war with Poland, responding to German and Allied intervention, and surviving a brutal civil war. By the mid 1920s, this extended period of war, isolation and famine had come to an end. Longing for economic and political stability and order was emerging. By the end of the decade, heroes of many novels, plays and films reflected this change. Artists and the Party alike moved towards celebrating control over spontaneity, objectivity over subjectivity, and organisation over inspiration.

By the mid 1920s the Soviet cinema industry had entered a period marked by increased centralisation and consolidation. In 1924 Sovkino, a stock company financed by government agencies, replaced Goskino, which was largely funded and managed by private citizens. The cinema industry, like the Soviet economy overall, spent the early part of the decade accumulating capital and the latter part focusing on production. By the tenth anniversary of the Revolution, industrial production had increased to the point where the number of Soviet-produced films almost equalled imported products. Throughout much of the decade Soviet films (many of which were shorts) were screened alongside more popular imports, with the aim of counteracting the ideological damage the foreign films were thought to cause. By 1927-28, however, the film industry and Soviet state were poised to see the Soviet product take centre-stage across the Union. [5]

The role of individual subjectivity was a point of interrogation for art during the first ten years following the Bolshevik Revolution. Artists sought to seize the world from the past, with its binds to mysticism, spirituality, and the natural itself, and replace it with an art focused on building and synthesizing both materials and previously autonomous artistic forms. Constructivists such as Vladimir Tatlin and Alexander Rodchenko insisted that the artist be a technician and use the tools and materials of contemporary production. The artist was obligated to work to benefit the proletariat and build harmony into life by transforming “work into art and art into work.” However, these artists were soon accused of prioritising purely artistic design over the “demands of production and the direct formation of reality.” [6] As Boris Groys writes, “the evolution of the avant-garde from Malevich to Constructivism and, later, to Lef [the Left Front for the Arts – an influential avant-garde journal] proceeds by way of increasingly radical demands for the rejection of traditional artistic individualism and the adoption of new tasks.” [7]  The artist was obliged to relinquish his position as an observer of life and become part of a collective imagining a better future.

In terms of documentary film, these latter concerns, in combination with the release of Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty in 1927, prompted what Mikhail Yampolsky refers to as a break from the Dziga Vertov-dominated phase to one in which Shub’s historical compilation method serves as the model. [8] Lef critics such as Viktor Shklovsky and Osip Brik saw Vertov’s fast-moving, “metrical” montage editing of short takes and artistic cinematography of “life-caught unawares” as distorting material reality and as incomprehensible to the masses. By contrast, Shub’s reliance on found archived footage and her use of long takes were seen as restoring authenticity to the film document and connected with the masses. Aligned with these changes was a heated call by filmmakers and cultural critics for a centralized multi-purpose factory-archive for film production and storage.

Like most theoretical arguments calling for change in documentary cinema, Lef at this time contended that Vertovian newsreels had moved away from reality. The proposed solution to the problem was to purge the text of authorial subjectivity, realizable by means of a two-step process of filmmaking centring on the film archives. The first step was to send a number of people, many of whom were not trained camera operators, out into the country to collect visual material, which would then be gathered and catalogued in the archives. The second step required the editing of what Yampolsky refers to as the “second-hand” material in the factory-archive by a director-editor, the author of the film. [9]  These calls for a new documentary were not limited to process or method. Following Shub’s lead, films were to be composed largely of long takes, which allowed for contemplation and examination of the material. The critics claimed that this method and form would help film become less a product of an individual’s vision, literally and figuratively, and thus less likely a distortion of the filmed material reality. Furthermore, using many people to film raw material was thought to make the images more relevant to a variety of viewers. Finally, the long take was thought to restore authenticity to the document by imbuing particular images with more authority.

Late in 1926 Shub received a commission from Sovkino to make a historical film for the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Assembled and released in 1927, Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is commonly thought of as the first compilation documentary ever produced. The film was the first of three compilation films she made during 1927-28 (The great way, 1927 and Lev Tolstoy and the Russia of Nicholas II, 1928 were the others) that introduced this new sub-genre of documentary. Shub researched the film at the Museum of the Revolution in Leningrad, where for two months she pored over 60,000 meters of film. Her major difficulties were locating and organizing existing film material. Much of the footage had been taken out of the country, sold to foreign producers, or destroyed by terrible archive conditions. She persuaded the government to buy two thousand feet of negative about the February Revolution (including famous shots of Lenin) from the United States. Eventually, however, she had to shoot one thousand of the total six thousand feet of the film. The film was an unequivocal success, drawing critical praise and substantial box office earnings. [10]

While Vertov wanted to continue to shoot film and sought to use the archive for flexibility in editing and in aiding overall production efficiency, Shub’s almost total reliance on archival material prompted calls for a new process of documentary filmmaking. Many lessons flowed from Shub’s success. As Yampolsky writes, “the experience of Shub showed that from then on the best films had to be made out of the raw material of the film archives.” [11]  But in order for filmmakers to work in the archives, someone had to provide significant amounts of raw material. Sergei Tretyakov proposed sending numerous trained and untrained camerapersons into the cities and countryside. He claimed that such an array of people could supply the archive with sufficient material and that the film documents would not be too subjective. He writes, “the masses of photo-enthusiasts, of reporters and thousands of workers’ correspondents… – these are the potential fact-makers…. They will be more valuable for a real socialisation of art than any highly qualified master from the world of art or literature.” [12]  Tretyakov and others assumed that since these fact-makers (facts are not found, they have to be processed) had little aesthetic experience, they could produce objective documents. Even if a little subjectivity seeped into some of the facts, the implication was that such an assortment and multitude of collectors would cleanse the document, restoring its authenticity and facticity while making the document more likely to connect with a variety of viewers. They saw this process as increasing the authority of the document and enabling greater communicability. Furthermore, this fact-collecting process was vital, since films could not continue to be produced without more material. Yampolsky insightfully points out the implications:

The most striking point in these declarations was the emphasis that work on present-day films should practically stop and that cinema should begin to work for the future so that ‘in the course of time’ they could acquire more masterpieces in the spirit of Shub. The document not only became alienated from the director, it became a document from the past. The reflection of contemporary reality became impossible. [13]

Yampolsky’s remarks are revealing. First, the practice of making films out of “documents from the past” for an imagined future follows the logic of the archive – a space housing objects from the past with an eye to the future. Second, the discussion indicates that these critics and artists were theorizing about divisions between newsreel and documentary. Lef critics such as Mayakovsky, Shklovsky, and Tretyakov were concerned with feature-length films constructed from previously-gathered material – films capable of making an argument about the historical world for an imagined future audience. That is precisely why the term “newsreel” seems inapplicable and why I want to assert that they are in fact theorizing about documentary. Lef critics were not aiming to destroy the newsreel which, in fact, flourished in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Rather, by requiring temporal gaps for producing and viewing these films, Lef critics instantiate what Philip Rosen has recently described as documentary’s unique connections to historiography. Rosen argues that both practices rely on documents to convey something about the real and both make meaning through narrative or sequential strategies. [14]   Lef critics wrestled with the tension between the authenticity of the document and meaning-making strategies relying on temporal gaps and narrativisation.

Viktor Shklovsky likewise demonstrated that this debate contains some of the most significant early theorizing on the nature of documentary. The following criticism of Vertov’s method and aesthetics encapsulated many of the fundamental tenets of this changed attitude towards non-fiction film:

A montage of everyday life? Life caught unawares… I think that newsreel material is in Vertov’s treatment deprived of its soul – its documentary quality. The whole sense of newsreel lies in the date, time, and place… Vertov cuts … up newsreels in order to use bits in his own films. These directors are turning our film libraries into piles of broken film… It needs a plot… [15]

Shklovsky accused Vertov of destroying the essence of the document itself (literally and figuratively) by cutting up newsreel images. As a result, Vertov not only ruined his own work, he permanently damaged the archives for others by reducing material available to them. It is evident that Shklovsky valued the film library or archive, with its potential to house authentic, unspoiled visual facts, more than Vertov’s finished product. Moreover, when entering the library or archive to construct a film, the filmmaker must have a “plot” worked out – a plan for using these documents without destroying them.

Additionally, Shklovsky expressed support for important changes not just in documentary process but in form. He was angered by Vertov’s use of short “bits” of newsreel material, claiming that by removing the temporal and extra-textual context, Vertov distorted the documents. Shklovsky called for lengthening the take, and this is in fact considered one of the main formal achievements of Shub. Lev Kuleshov, often referred to as the “father of Soviet cinema,” claimed that the advantage of long takes was that they could be “examined properly.” [16]  Shub herself described as the goal of her montage that “emphasis on the fact is an emphasis not only to show the fact, but to enable it to be examined and, having examined it, to be kept in mind.” [17] Shklovsky insisted that the viewer look askance at raw material and that engagement with documentary required alienation. Vertov, on the other hand, aimed to free the cinema from the constraints of space and time and, in so doing, teach people to see anew. He believed in the importance of dates, but he claimed that it need not be enunciated to the audience “in the form of an information supplement.” [18]  The audience should trust that he has not distorted these facts by taking them out of context. Vertov and Shklovsky, like all good Formalists, both saw the goal of documentary and all art to “make reality strange.” For Vertov, the “de-familiarisation” was a result of the visceral experience the viewer has while watching. At this moment, however, Lef critics imagined contemplation as serving a de-familiarizing, progressive function. The long takes in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty demystify and demythologise through an examining, alienating, contemplating process that functions to de-familiarize previous understandings of history. This conception of the text/audience interaction is illuminating in that it contradicts some of the progressive aesthetic thinking of the time. The process is a drastic reformulation of many of the fundamentals of Soviet film theory up to this point – asserting that meaning and the resulting alienation can be determined beyond an image’s relation to other images. Moreover, it challenges the position most Constructivists held about contemplation being essentially bourgeois and reactionary. For Lef critics, in this particular context, alienation requires contemplation.

The disparity in the length of the Vertovian and Shubian take parallels their differing spatial aesthetics. Whereas in Vertov’s films the viewer feels part of the action, in Shub’s the viewer is more removed from the events. There are a few reasons for this. First, the audience has a fundamentally different interaction with images from another period collected and edited into a film than with a work of non-fiction recently photographed and edited. Vertov highlights detailed changes in the cityscape, emphasizing the contemporaneity of his space. Shub’s images of tsarist Russia and 1917 St. Petersburg, however, underscore the gap between the viewer and the city space by marking temporal and spatial difference. Second, Vertov’s camera shots are much tighter and closer to the action than Shub’s. Watching Vertov’s films, the viewer does not obtain the same distanced mastery as when viewing Shub’s. The artists’ formal contrast is partly a function of their filmmaking methods; while Shub enters the archive with a plan, Vertov considers his improvisational filming strategy an essential and vital principle.

Like Shklovsky, who argued that a “film needs a plot,” Osip Brik saw Shub’s method as superior and he critiqued Vertov’s The Eleventh Year for its lack of direction:

Vertov flippantly denies the need for a script in a non-played film. That is a great mistake.

A non-played film needs a script far more than a played film does. A script does not necessarily mean a simple plot-like account of events. A script is the justification for the raw material that is filmed and non-played material requires this justification to an even greater degree than does played material. To think that newsreel shots stuck together without any internal thematic connection can make a film is worse than flippant.

Vertov tries to replace the script by intertitles. He tries to give meaning to the shots through words but this tendency produces nothing like that at all.

Meaning cannot be applied to the film shot externally: it is contained within the shot itself…

It is curious that Shub’s film The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty, which is composed of old film sequences, produces a much more coherent impression because its thematic and montage plan has been carefully devised. [19]

This quote from Brik reveals some of the fascinating tensions that underscore the new attitude towards documentary. Brik claimed that non-fiction film [20] needed an original organizing principle to justify filming these particular subjects. At the same time, meaning was not determined by the connection between shots, but was primarily contained in individual shots. By highlighting the primacy of individual shots over the connections between shots, Brik aimed to reduce the subjectivity of the filmmaker by de-emphasizing editing. Yet, he recognized the importance of editing in his desire for coherence. He sought a balance – films needed to be broadly conceived and well-organized to allow ease of communication, but that conception need not intrude on the authority of the individual shots. Brik’s position was symptomatic of changing Party orthodoxy at the time. In 1927, Stalin personally began to oversee the central press and supported Glavlit’s list of forbidden topics and acceptable ways of reporting them. [21] By 1928, he had consolidated power, quashed significant dissent, and instituted forced collectivisation, which he claimed would result in “socialism in one country.” Consciously or unconsciously, calls for the implementation of the Shubian method and aesthetic became part of a broader focus on organisation and consolidation resulting from considerable foresight and planning.

Brik’s and Shklovsky’s focus on thematic coherence resulting from narrativisation (or simple sequenciation) and Brik’s contention that meaning resides within the shot indicated the unique position in which state-sponsored documentary film often finds itself: both an objective and subjective discourse; a discourse incorporating the voice of a filmmaker and the voice of the state; and, since it is often considered propagandistic material, both a relatively open and closed semiotic space. But what does emerge in these calls is a move towards reducing the polysemic potential of the non-fiction film image. Underlying Brik’s quote is an assumption that the world is such a vast place and at this point in the Soviet Union possibly so unmanageable, that it requires an organisational focus prior to the filming. This pre-processing and structuring of the material allows the image to emerge in all its truthfulness. Neither Brik nor the contemporary Soviet Union was unique in attempting to manage the potential excesses of the everyday image; we see this throughout documentary history, especially in state-sponsored products, whether intended for broad distribution or a state archive. [22] What distinguishes the Soviet avant-garde project from other contemporary documentary movements was the effort to systematically theorize such a process. Moreover, their views aligned with broader calls for efficiency, organisation, mastery, and consolidation in a variety of practices in the Soviet Union at that time. Industrial theory and practice functions as a privileged site for such an explication and it is in that direction that we will now turn.

American scientific management theory and the Shubian documentary

Frederick W. Taylor began his experiments to increase the efficiency of machine shop production in the 1880s. By the time of the Russian Revolution, Taylorism had become a series or synthesis of tools, methods, and organisational arrangements to increase efficiency and speed. Taylor claimed that his system employed rigid scientific principles to break down the general functioning of a shop into its component parts. Those parts or stages were then analysed to eliminate inefficiency and waste of both materials and labour power. The two fundamental principles that governed the system were identification and equivalence. The first pinpointed the shop-floor tasks, breaking them down into their constituent parts and reconfiguring them for maximal efficiency. This concept also applied to machines and tools, which had to be redesigned and standardized. The second principle claimed that all labour is interchangeable, destroying the hierarchy of the shop. Instead of the traditional foreman having authority on the shop-floor, management, by enlisting trained engineers in the redesign, could exercise control over the whole production process.

While increasing the efficiency of the shop had obvious financial benefits, a utopian social impulse subtended Taylorism’s utilitarianism. Taylorism sought to eliminate the conflict between workers and management by establishing scientifically “what constitutes a fair day’s work” through various timing procedures. It also included a number of bookkeeping techniques, methods for organizing storerooms, and linked wages to output for both the labour and managerial sides. Most importantly, Taylorism (herein I am including the bonus plans devised by Gantt, the organisation of machine speeds by Barth, and the time and motion studies conducted by the Gilbreths) first introduced a management-oriented industrial ideology that could bring harmony to a relation traditionally rife with conflict. Greater productivity, he claimed, made both sides happy as the focus moved from concerns over the division of the surplus toward a joint effort to increase the surplus. His reliance on science promised increased profits. It also eliminated the need for divisive unions and increased the virtue and thrift of the working classes. It was nothing short of a “mental revolution,” Taylor contended. [23]

Whereas Judith Merkle describes the absorption of Taylorist principles by the Bolsheviks as “one of the most curious episodes in the history of Taylorism,” closer inspection of Marx’s ideas on labour reveals common ground. [24]  Until the late 1850s Marx understood labour as a mechanism capable of liberating the individual from alienation once it was divorced from private property. However, the Marx of Capital came to regard labour as a constraint on freedom. What drove history was “labour power” and what society needed was the elimination of as much labour time as possible. When people were emancipated from (rather than through) labour they could focus their energies in other productive ways. Instead of a “paradigm of work,” Marx adopted a “paradigm of production.” [25]

Taylorism’s time-saving claims thus had obvious resonances in the Soviet Union, where increasing productivity and the eventual abolition of private property were supposed to aid a massively underdeveloped nation realize its aims. Productivity itself, or what Rabinbach refers to as the “ideology of ‘productivism’ – the balancing of expanded output with social reform” – became adaptable to “liberal, socialist, authoritarian, and even communist and fascist solutions.” [26]  The negative aspects of Taylorism, many socialists and communists argued, were attributable to capitalists’ greed. Once the State assumed the managerial position – a State that was in essence a “dictatorship of the proletariat” – the problems of worker exploitation were abolished. A quote from Charles Maier’s essay “Between Taylorism and Technocracy” indicates why Taylorism was readily adaptable to different ideologies:

What the Americanist vision seemed to promise through its brash teachings of productivity, expertise, and optimalisation was an escape from having to accept class confrontation and social division. Albeit for different reasons, all the enthusiasts of scientific management and technical overhaul were seeking to deny the necessary existence of the pre-war model of ideological conflict and to validate a new image of class relationships. [27]

Taylorism’s reputed ability to eliminate both economic and social backwardness by means of a provable scientific method and its dream of a society enchanted by technological progress resonated both with artists and politicians in post-Revolutionary Soviet Union.

There is evidence in his notebooks that Lenin was swayed by many of the arguments offered by Taylorism in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. Not until 1918, however, was his support for some of these policies made public. After initially critiquing capitalist exploitation of workers, Lenin found in Taylorism potential answers to some of the Bolshevik State’s most pressing challenges. Lenin argued that “the Taylor system…is a combination of the subtle brutality of bourgeois exploitation and a number of its greatest scientific achievements… The Soviet Republic must at all costs adopt all that is valuable in the achievements of science and technology in this field.” [28]  His hope was not only that capitalist science could be mobilized in the service of a socialist regime, but that in the process, it would transform the Soviet work ethic. The trade unions vehemently opposed the adoption of Taylorist principles, claiming that doing so would sacrifice all the gains of the Revolution. Lenin responded that the use of capitalist management techniques was not capitalistic, especially when workers’ commissars oversaw the managers. [29] Lenin sought to have it both ways. He saw Taylorism as a practical solution to many contemporary problems. At the same time, he claimed there was nothing inherent in Taylorism that made it incompatible with socialism. Taylorism was a temporary solution to the problem of the transition to socialism and, like the New Economic Policy, a partial capitulation to capitalism. But, it was not necessarily a strategy which, if successfully mobilized, had to be abandoned once socialism was achieved.

During the period that Lenin publicly changed his attitudes towards scientific management theories, Alexei Gastev became the pivotal figure in the relationship between Taylorism and Soviet policy. He attained this status not simply on account of his influence on industrial policy. His interest in Taylorism was both social and cultural as he himself was both an industrial and artistic figure. He thus serves as an axial figure for this essay, one who literally embodies the connection between, and utopian imaginings for, Soviet industry and culture.

Gastev was one of the most popular “worker-poets” at the time of the Revolution. [30]  During stints in prison and Siberian exile for revolutionary activity, Gastev wrote poems about a new industrial Russia, incorporating aural symbols such as the factory whistle, steel lathe, and blast furnace. Gastev was a skilled labourer and organizer who claimed he turned to poetry only because other revolutionary opportunities were unavailable to him. In 1920, Gastev became head of the Central Labour Institute (CLI) and imbued the organisation with his romanticism and ideological beliefs. More than anything he was concerned with the transformation of Russian culture and believed that Taylorism could create a “type” of proletariat characterized by a specific psychology. He envisioned Taylorism as a form of social engineering that would transform every aspect of the proletariat’s existence: “even his intimate life, including his aesthetic, intellectual and sexual values.” [31] Echoing Taylor’s own contentions that his theories created a “mental revolution,” Gastev dreamed of a world in which workers were de-individualized, like cogs in a machine, de-naturalized, “trusting only the instrument, the apparatus, the machine.” [32]

Supporting Lenin’s desire to “infect” the masses with an intense passion for labour, Gastev was the leading proponent of Taylorism at the Second All-Union Conference on Scientific Management in 1924. Gastev’s support for a Soviet society charged with a new, modern work ethic, his justification of present sacrifice for future leisure, and his desire to shift emphasis from the “consumer to the producer,” and “the individual to the work collective” formed the guidelines of Soviet policy in the years of rapid industrialisation. [33]

The desire to synthesize work and art pervaded much of the critical thinking following the Revolution. In terms of critical work on documentary film, the film factory-archive became a space where Taylorist principles could be applied to non-fiction film production. By removing the subjective input of the worker, the film and industrial product alike became more objective and authentic. Most importantly, in doing so, these became efficient, productive spaces – spaces that could be relied upon in the future and, on account of their continuity, could shape a past.

In exploring the relationship between Taylorism and calls for a new documentary method and form, my intention is not to imply a simple, direct, or one-way link. Instead, I want to emphasize the pervasiveness of scientific management ideas and point to the way their popularity gets mobilized for specific ends in this particular context. But I do believe that this site of analysis is a privileged one in that the resonances are intense and the implications for understanding documentary origins substantial. To that end, I will explain how agitation for a transformation in documentary method and form connects to Taylorist principles and demonstrate how both discourses rely on a changed relationship to material reality. I conclude this section by identifying the implications of these calls and connecting them to broader currents in contemporary Soviet society.

The first parallel to note regarding working under this new documentary practice and working in a Taylorist factory is one’s relation to other labourers. In terms of scientific management theories dividing up the tasks of documentary production is akin to identifying the shop-floor tasks, breaking them down into their constituent parts, and reconfiguring them for maximum efficiency. Shub, in this circumstance, was celebrated because she was part of a collective, a cog in the film factory wheel, rather than an elite artist responding to inspiration.

Second, both this method of documentary filmmaking and working in a Taylorist factory transformed the individual’s relationship to material. Rather than entering the world of the everyday at the beginning of the process, the filmmaker begins working in the archives with material others have shot. The image document is thus “identified with reality in such a way that it is understood as material seen by others” [34]  and as already chemically processed. Archived footage thus became a substitute for life as the archived footage is what the director-editor-author must organize semantically into a film statement. Workers in a Taylorist factory similarly lack engagement with “raw” material. Unlike workers in cottage industries, who are more likely to be working with material at multiple stages of development, factory workers’ limited tasks begin with material that was also already processed.

The eliding of the organic, raw, “unseen” material hints at the changed role of the artist in the transition to Socialist Realism. Immediately following the Revolution avant-garde artists amassed substantial political power and saw as their primary objective transforming the fundamental base perceptions of its audience. Vertov aimed to transform viewers’ base perceptions through a cinema challenging laws of space and time. During the height of Socialist Realism, however, the artist became the “engineer of human souls,” now concerned with transforming the psychology, the “superstructural” aspect of the audience. [35] This altered task was deeply connected to the relationship the artist had to the material. At the height of Socialist Realism, the artist became a reflector of the “new reality,” the future, a world already imagined by Stalin. [36] Stalin became God, the one who worked with the base, the organic, the unseen and unprocessed material. Only he could “see” in the present. Thus, in these debates about the archives was the seed of a concept that reached its germination in Socialist Realism. Lef critics’ calls for restoring the authenticity of the document by removing the subjectivity of the artist required the artist to keep everyday material organic reality at a distance. As a consequence, the Lef position contributed to the diminishing authority of the artist in relation to the politician.

The third point of comparison between these two practices concerns their utopian aspirations. The way in which the aesthetics and method of documentary production worked to purge the text of authorial subjectivity paralleled scientific management theory’s effort to transform the subjectivity of the worker. The utopian element in this documentary film practice was a positivist assumption about filmic indexicality – a belief (or at least a move towards the belief, for the Soviet critics and artists) that film’s uniqueness rests in its ability to capture reality unproblematically. For Taylorism, the utopian element concerned the system’s reputed ability to transform the intimate, sexual, intellectual, and aesthetic lives of the workers. In both cases, worker control over the base was relinquished and authority is transplanted to the material itself. Gastev described workers as becoming increasingly mechanized and standardized, like machines, and claims that a “machine, in the literal sense of the word, will manage living people.” [37] Two issues are significant here: first, the simultaneous desire to control things (at the meta-level) and the desire to cede control to things (at the micro level), whether they be men as things, machines, or processed images, leads to visions of social utopia; second, the implication that there is a loss of, or revolution in, authority. In both of these accounts, that loss is only apparent. As Gastev’s critics detected and Taylorism forthrightly claimed, a new set of engineers became the ultimate authority in these places. While machines may be claimed to manage, the engineers and artist-engineers still actively oversaw production and exercised authority. I do not mean to imply that Lef critics are so naïve that they thought purging subjectivity in the documentary was entirely possible – the shift is certainly a matter of degree. But what is interesting is the role the material plays in this process. Technology and technological process became an intermediary, an apparent manager capable of supporting utopian claims as the divide between the hoped for achievements of Taylorism and new aesthetic concepts meet realities incapable of sustaining those dreams.

The logic of the Lef position resulted in calls for documentaries to resemble visual catalogues as the search for objectivity resulted in the elimination of narrative. Both Adrian Piotrovsky and Brik came to support the organisation of film material by “thematic montage” – the arrangement of images according to one basic theme thought to emerge from the material itself. For example, a film may consist entirely of thematically-linked landscape images. Piotrovsky’s reason for this change supports my argument about the relationship between this aesthetic discourse and broader movements within Soviet society. While non-fiction film, he wrote, emerged in “a country overflowing with a gigantic number of new facts, new vital events and phenomena,” leading to a “tyranny of documentalism,” that trend had to be replaced by a “thematisation of facts.” [38]

We thus see a clear tendency emerge following the Tenth Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in which the semiotic excesses of the facts had to be limited and consolidated into more clearly conveyed and understood themes. The logics underlying calls for a new documentary and Soviet adoption of American scientific management theories relied on “paradoxes of authenticity,” whereby objects become more authentic as they receive more external structuring. Achieving authenticity in each area required the subordination of authority to the material itself. By decreasing the subjectivity of the workers, the object itself gained authority. In both practices increasing efficiency, which I have demonstrated is connected to reducing subjectivity, required a process of naming or cataloguing – one which must reduce both how many authentic objects there can be and determine what in fact that object actually is. The underlying logic is typological or classifiable as analyzing images focuses on a comparison and juxtaposition of analogous types. The hope was not a naturalist aesthetic but, in the spirit of the avant-garde, a desire to peer underneath the surface of the everyday object.

Esfir Shub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty became a lynchpin upon which a new form and method for documentary filmmaking could be based. But more than that the film was part of a larger project designed to tame excess, to promote efficiency, and to achieve mastery through consolidation and detailed planning. The mastery that Shub’s distanced perspective provided was seen as a necessary correction to the chaos and spontaneity of Vertov – a reassertion of control over the theoretical and personal excesses of Vertov himself and the disorder associated with (and promoted by?) Vertovian space and time. This transition does not lead to utter regression nor leave Shub vulnerable to critiques of naïve realism or naturalism. Instead, her long take functions to de-familiarize differently. It is perhaps one of the first instances in a long line (perhaps one of the threads of documentary) of attempts to manage what Paula Amad refers to as the “counter-archive” nature of the filmic image – the unmanageable aspect of the everyday.

By contrast, Vertov’s work actually echoes Taylorism in its mathematical breakdowns and temporal rationalisations. The problem seems to be that one is never far enough outside the space of the factory or the space of the image in this work. Underlying criticisms of Vertov’s aesthetic in relation to Shub is an assumption that one cannot be an engineer viewing a Vertov film. Furthermore, the filmmaker himself or herself is supposed to be a worker like any other, and Shub’s methodology is in fact celebrated for allowing her to function as a cog in a film factory wheel. But her aesthetic demonstrates that she is in fact an engineer, retaining and granting authority. The irony is that Vertov himself functions too much as a worker. He inhabits the space of the shop and the world of the everyday too intimately for this moment in Soviet history. The distinction is crucial for understanding why, I contend, these positions anticipated and contained many of the fundamental tenets of Socialist Realism. In her discussion of the changed role of the artist in Soviet society during the 1930s, Katerina Clark notes that the term “engineer of human souls,” used to describe the role of the writer in 1934 (attributed to Stalin) was a drastic change from “the prevailing position during the First Five-Year Plan when in an atmosphere of militant democratism the writer was expected to identify with the proletariat producer rather than with the engineer.” [39]  It is precisely in identifying with the subjectivity of the engineer, while incorporating a methodology seemingly in line with the worker, that Shub is granted authority. But maintaining this position relied on a changed understanding of the text-audience relationship. Thus, I will now consider the re-thinking of this interaction and its connection to building the Soviet nation.

Cinema archives and the Soviet citizen

The period during which these debates occur, the years surrounding the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, was one of heightened re-view and re-assessment, both within films and about the role of cinema in uniting the Soviet nation. Vertov produced an extended Kinopravda dedicated to the one year anniversary of Lenin’s death, while Shub, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and others worked on films commemorating the anniversary. The government made another attempt at centralizing film operations and Stalin reassessed state policies regarding the nation and nationalism. The New Economic Policy, in which capitalism was partially restored in the hopes of increasing production to 1913 levels, remained in operation. In terms of national unity, the Bolsheviks did not enjoy the solid support of the peasants, especially in the peripheral regions. While peasant uprisings aided the Bolshevik Revolution and expressed their dreams for a transformed world, their hopes and identities clashed with an urban, Russian intelligentsia who sought to speak for them. Furthermore, Stalin’s urbanisation and collectivisation policies, initialised in the late 1920s, highlighted and exacerbated the divisions between their respective utopian longings. For the urban intelligentsia, the goal was an organized, efficient, modern state, the achievement of which required physical and psychological control over a “backward” rural population. For the peasant, the new society was one of democracy, truth, honesty, justice, freedom of religion, and freedom from excessive governmental intervention. The contrast in hopes for the future was driven partially by a peasant world view which saw the urban, godless, privileged, and powerful as completely “other” to their rural, pious, hard-working, powerless selves. [40]  The difficulty confronting the Bolsheviks was how to win the acceptance of an urban revolution in primarily agricultural regions. Doing so required diminishing the intense resentment peasants had for urban populations. Responding to that the bitterness, the Bolsheviks warily introduced a new moderate nationalities policy. The hope was that in moderating previous autocratic controls over the peripheral regions, the Bolsheviks would be more likely to accomplish their urbanisation, relocation, and communalisation goals. The need to build a civic citizenry took precedence over a totalising nation-building policy.

The central idea of an archive itself and the specific factory-archive called for by Lef critics informed the way in which cinema was asked to aid in the citizen-building process. While often regarded as a search for origins, the archive also looks to the future with knowledge that its contents will be analysed in depth. Looking back on the Revolution and the years immediately following, the Bolsheviks wanted to educate the people of the Soviet Union about this recent history. The film archive became a site of pedagogy and unification as the State hoped to bring people together by means of this shared history and future. Because of geographical vastness and the backwardness of the transportation infrastructure, citizens could not be expected to visit the centralised archive. Non-fiction film could provide a mobilized archive of the nation – a travelling history and envisioned future capable of aiding Soviet edification and unification. But the critics did not imagine this archive as “uncovering” the truth of recent Soviet history. The film archive was a project that required construction. Emphasizing this aspect destroyed the naturalness often connected with contemporary Western positivist notions of an archive. That is not to say that conceptions of the film archive were not utopian. Rather, like the utopian aspect of Taylorist policies in the Soviet Union by the late 1920s, the utopianism of the archive always contained important pragmatic elements.

At the end of 1924 Sovkino, the newly established centralized government film agency, was directed to educate the peasants and draw closer connections between the urban and rural areas through film. [41] By virtue of the fact that most of the population was illiterate, cinema was seen to be a uniquely comprehensible form of communication. It was thought to act directly on the imagination and feelings of the spectator, without requiring conscious speculation. The concept of the film as hypodermic needle was consistent with Vertov’s (and Eisenstein’s) ideas on film, though according to them, the degree of effectiveness was determined by the form, with montage editing most efficient.

However, scientific studies in 1925 on the preferences and perceptions of the peasant audience found that peasants liked amusing films and seeing representations of life both in the villages and in the cities. They did not enjoy films with long intertitles, which they could not read, nor did they care for artistic experimentation in the form of quick cutting and unusual juxtapositions in montage. [42]

Sovkino’s attempt at “cinefication” in the next few years was judged a failure. Although the equipment problems and lack of trained staff were deemed partially responsible, some questioned the effectiveness of the forms of the films shown. One contemporary journalist characterizes the situation as follows:

The perception of montage raises a very serious question: the rural audience cannot grasp alternating parallel montage. Thus the movement is perceived but the essence of the action is lost; often rapid movement provokes laughter. Films for the countryside require re-editing and adaptation to the perception of the peasant [43]

Since doubt had been cast on montage cinema’s ability to act directly on the spectator, who most frequently chose not to see ideologically correct films, an organisation called the O.D.S.K. (Society of Friends of the Soviet Cinema) was established in 1925 to “bridge the gap between film producers, directors, and audiences.” [44]  O.D.S.K. determined that the peasant audience required closer contact. The organisation trained and educated common people to “introduce films, explain the titles, and lead any ensuing discussion” [45]  of the films. The goal was to involve the masses and operate locally because, as one critic writes, “we cannot have a situation in which the cinema organisation merely shows the film and the audience, our Soviet audience, merely watches.” [46]

This desire to connect with and educate the peasants complemented Stalin’s own position on unifying the nation. Consistent with the Marxist position on nationalism, Stalin asserted, “the peasant question is the basis, the quintessence of the national question.” [47] His stance, however, differed markedly from bourgeois concepts in Western Europe. Lenin and Stalin both saw nationalism as fundamentally a bourgeois-led and thus a regressive movement. But both leaders recognized the power of nationalism. They self-consciously attempted to create an anti-imperial state, or, as Terry Martin describes it, the first “affirmative action empire.” [48]  Ronald Grigor Suny writes, “they supported the creation and development of non-Russian territories, elites, languages, and cultural institutions,” while becoming highly critical of Russian national institutions and culture. They believed this strategy would weaken nationalism and allow them to build a “centralized, highly interventionist, multiethnic socialist state.” [49]  But, as I noted above, building such a state was not the ultimate goal; it was a compromise intending to assure the success of a policy of urbanisation, relocation, and communalisation. At any rate, the success of this policy relied on the hope that distinctive national identities could co-exist with, yet simultaneously be superceded by (Stalin emphasized this aspect more than Lenin), a Soviet civic identity. Thus, both calls for a new documentary film and State policy towards nationalism negotiate earlier utopian dreams. The first recognised that radical documentary form does not communicate to and thus cannot transform rural audiences in hoped-for ways. The second relinquished the utopia of a culturally and ideologically united Soviet nation-state. The film factory-archive thus became a site of displacement for those utopian longings.

The archive often serves as the geographical and spiritual centre of the State. In Archive Fever, Jacques Derrida argues that the desire to find and possess origins has driven Western preoccupations with archives. [50] The Lef critics imagined an archive informed by and opposed to Western versions. Film as a medium uniquely suited for archiving – for capturing and storing history – fitted their utopian dreams and utilitarian needs.

The Western model of the archive at the beginning of the twentieth century maintained connections to past archives in its search for origins and in its power to grant authority. But archival practices responded to modern demands. One of those requirements was to link archives with scientific institutions and practices, taking advantage of the authority that came from that affiliation. Western archives at the time, such as Les Amis de la Biblioteque de la Ville de Paris or Albert Kahn’s Archive de la Planete, [51]  as depositories of historical documents, drew researching historians often closely tied to particular scientific institutions. Following the First World War, archiving became part of a positivist project aspiring to uncover the universal laws of the world. The hope was that uncovering these universal laws would lead to a more humanitarian future. In this way, the archive supported rational prediction. It housed recorded truth outside ideological influence and people could witness (and thus challenge) the evidence.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw an expansion of what counted as historical documents. Instead of the archive as the domain of History, documents of the everyday became viable sources. Film as a source of history was most closely connected with this impulse and it was celebrated as such because of its potential to endorse the positivist project. [52]  Film was argued to be essentially archival in nature because of its reputed ability to capture and store indexically, and thus objectively, a particular space in time. The imprint marked on the film strip through analogical processes transcended human shaping – a uniquely and universally communicative medium through which man knew the world. As a “visual Esperanto,” film was the most democratic medium and thus part of the utopian project to unite humanity. Since the film document was the component of the documentary most valued, film archives at this time were valued less as conservators of film culture or preservers of particular styles than as sites of catalogued and classified documents.

The film factory-archive imagined by Lef critics was certainly part of the Bolshevik utopian project, even if it emerged partly in response to recognition that some of the broader utopian hopes for film were unrealisable. The indexical mark on the film strip might ensure the authenticity and accuracy of the images, though it did not in itself designate them as true, organic, or natural. The film document required a “documentary quality” that depended partially on aesthetic and contextual considerations. In other words, the film image was understood to be capable of capturing a reality, one which must be contextualised, but this reality was not a guarantor of truth. Western notions of the archive dreamed that total coverage could produce, as Michel de Certeau describes, “a totalising taxonomy” [53]  of the world and the Soviets cherished this dream of total coverage albeit for different reasons. For the West, total coverage would reveal universal laws and the truths behind them. For the Soviets, total coverage would capture the variety and breadth of the new Union. However, for Lef critics, artists, and State representatives, the goal of the archive was less internationalist, less positivist, less neutral than it was for its Western counterparts. [54] The space was productive and constructive. Total coverage as a utopian dream was assumed to ensure successful communication and utter efficiency. Here we see the pragmatic aspects of this utopian dream. What is remarkable about Soviet “revolutionary dreams” for film was not their aura of utopianism, but how utopian aspirations attached themselves to a utilitarian framework. That is not to say that communication and technological innovation are not practices often imbued with utopian ideals. Rather, at this moment in Soviet history we see acknowledgement of some of the failures and/or limits of those dreams and a displacement of the driving forces. What surfaced was a new utopian practice centring on a film archive whereby total coverage allowed for control over the past. The utopia of total coverage became the utopia of modern disciplinary historiography. With unlimited documents of the past, the historian/filmmaker could enter the film archive and create or narrate the past. By controlling film documents, “indexical traces of the presence of a real past,” [55]  documentary filmmakers participated in the practice of controlling the meaning of pastness – a practice that became ever more vital in Stalin’s second decade in power.

To grasp the implications of this new documentary practice as historiography requires consideration of the distinctions between Russo/Soviet understandings of, representations of, and goals for the past, present and future in relation to those of the West. This analysis adds to our understanding of how the archive as a productive space serves as a constellationary site – one capable of housing unrealisable utopian dreams, of serving the political and methodological aims of politicians and artists, and, in the following discussion, of connecting to a deep-rooted Russian sense of binary time. Privileging the past and the future over the present is precisely the domain of historical representation in the Socialist
Realist aesthetic.

Russian time and the New Documentary Historiography

Irina Gutkin explicates the struggles over the Russian word byt in order to tease out how questions about everyday life pervade post-Revolution Soviet society. [56] Deriving from the verb “to be,” byt most closely resembles the English terms “everyday life” or “lifestyle” although there is not a word that corresponds precisely. Byt encompasses the materiality of household belongings as well as national customs and social mores. It retains a prominent place in the Russian language.

During the years of the New Economic Policy, writers in Lef attacked what they termed the “nepification” of byt. They claimed that the private enterprise encouraged by NEP fashioned an appetite for bourgeois materialism and lifestyle. In the early to mid-1920s, they argued for a drastic restructuring of both traditional byt and new “nepified” byt. Nikolai Chuzhak, for one, called for subsuming the life of the individual family into the world of the factory and the life of the factory collective. [57]  Artists designed new multi-functional clothing and furniture they hoped would reduce material needs. By the latter half of the twenties, the vociferous attack on byt as a domain of the bourgeois was modified into realist description of byt. Like the Socialist Realist aesthetic (and one could argue, the Shubian aesthetic), this realism was neither naturalistic nor naïvely realist. Instead, a hyper-realist or supra-realist aesthetic aimed to describe byt as it would be in the ideal revolutionary future. Description of everyday life was byt becoming, necessarily precluding description of the present. Gutkin contends that the Russians have always maintained a deep skepticism of the present, a profound “sense of the unstable foundations of social norms”; likewise, Lotman and Uspenski contended that, ecclesiastically and secularly, Russian culture is inherently binary, with the most stable opposition being between “the old and the new.” [58] What making documentary films in an archive leads to is a limiting of the temporal and spatial present, reducing the immediacy of the images. The filmmaker structures documents capturing a past for a future audience. Both critical description of byt and calls for a new documentary practice based in the film archives precluded interrogation of the present. Thus, the temporal limitations of making films in an archive aligned with deep-rooted Russian values about time, and serving as a link to the Socialist Realist aesthetic.

As the originator of the compilation documentary Shub helped usher in a new historiographic practice by combining an established research method (working with documents in an archive) with a new way of telling the historical story (through film images and intertitles). Because her film and the method in which it was constructed were lauded so immediately, it is important to question why this way of writing history proved attractive to leftist Soviet intellectuals at the time. Andrew Wachtel writes that during the nineteenth century the West saw a splintering of historical writing between trained historians and writers of fiction. Before the nineteenth century, discerning historical truth from historical evidence was presumed to be exclusively the domain of historians. Russia, on the other hand, maintained no such division. Wachtel writes:

As opposed to their western European and American counterparts, Russian writers never allowed themselves to be marginalized from the scene of history writing… They continued throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to produce works devoted to Russian history in both fictional and historical genres. The refusal on the part of Russian authors and readers to recognize any one discourse type as most appropriate for the writing of history led to a situation in which various genres, each possessing its own authoritative viewpoint, could, through their interaction, dialogize the presentation of historical material… For this approach to succeed … there must be a belief that historical truth is not the exclusive property of any one authoritative discourse. [59]

Not only were Russian audiences receptive to different modes of historiographical discourse, Wachtel argues, but also both Russian audiences and writers saw history emerging most truthfully when various tones, voices, modes, styles, and genres combine and speak to each other. Those dialogues could take place within one text or between texts. Each telling recognized its difference from the other and the epistemological implications of those variegations. That combination was seen as a strength and that dialogue was understood to convey most accurately the complex truth of Russian history.

Comparing this discussion of literature to Soviet arguments for documentary film as an historiographic practice, we see that film was able to fuse aspects of scholarly historical writing and a poetic or prosaic sensibility more closely associated with literature. Shubian documentary practice was seen as capable of combining and/or negotiating various authoritative discourses. Documentary film was akin to scholarly historical writing in that it utilized facts – in this case, authentic ones collected and stored in an archive – and it narrativised or sequentialised those facts into a readable plot. At the same time, Shubian long-take images used as evidence for an argument about the historical world function more polysemically than evidence in a written text, reminiscent of poetry and (some) fictional prose.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, moving images of the everyday, even if the subjects of those images were traditional ones of history (for example, the shots of the Tsar Nicholas awkwardly socializing with members of the Duma as the camera peers in – in The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty), were a subject of great interest because they were thought to exceed definition. Documentary filmmakers straddled the empirical divide – they could claim to provide unquestionable knowledge of the everyday, while remaining aware that their images and narratives resisted total codification. Filmmakers incorporating images of the everyday aimed to capture the experience of ideology in contrast to historical writing seeking to theorize it. The move towards a Shubian method and aesthetic was a move away from an even more intense focus on relating experience (Vertov) but not an attempt to mime, in film form, Western historical writing. The long take and even possibly the argument for documentary film as an acceptable historiographic practice became a negotiation – one which avant-garde critics, artists, and State representatives could embrace for its reputed ability to unproblematically capture reality and the polysemy of its history – thus, simultaneously adopting the authenticity and objectivity the indexical mark on the film strip seemed to ensure (the archival promise) while, at the same time, employing the “counter-archival” nature of the film image. Because of the difficulty of defining and marking long-take moving images of the everyday, the narratives that organize them become quite malleable, even while they are celebrated for their authenticity. This pliability became essential for the State as the need to rewrite history in an age of massive purges became ever greater. At the same time, that malleability was equally relevant to an avant-garde project in that it allowed for a wider variety of readings beyond the apparent broad ideological one – engaging people at different epistemological levels. The strength/flexibility of the Shubian method rested in the fact that its resistant elements emerged after the readability of its historical narrative. A negotiated version replaced the rampant indexicality of Vertov. The ideological and historical message in Shub’s films is easily legible. Peering beneath that surface only happens within the context of the ideological message.


One eminent Russian historian concluded that “the Russian Revolution took on its main spiritual, mental, and expressive forms from the collision and collusion of the major utopian traditions in Russian history: those of the people, those of the state, and those of the radical intelligentsia.” [60]  The “revolutionary dreams” of the State addressed film as a medium capable of overcoming great communicative divides while avant-garde filmmakers looked to film to transform the base perceptions of the cinema-going audience – teaching them to see and experience the world anew. The late teens and early twenties in the Soviet Union saw an explosion of industrial euphoria surrounding the adoption of American scientific management theories. The Taylorist method was thought capable of wiping out Russian industrial backwardness and imbuing the worker with a thirst for efficiency. But more than that, Taylorism was deeply utopian in that it inspired dreams of “remolding the human psyche and remodeling human society along the lines of the machine and workshop.” [61]  By the later twenties, the utopianism surrounding these practices had waned but remained present in altered form. With the political need to reach out to the peasant, film as a medium of cross-cultural communication took on a more prominent role. In terms of Soviet industrial goals, reflection around the tenth anniversary of the Revolution found a union with deep social and cultural divisions hampering progress. Hopes for rapidly catching up to and passing Western production levels quickly abated. Instead, achieving “socialism in one country” required a more mobile and urban citizenry. But utopian elements remained. Making films in an archive from film documents captured throughout the Union instilled dreams of total coverage and total efficiency. Rhetoric concerning industrialisation and modernisation goals remained ever hopeful even as the production figures fell short of the Five-Year plans. Perhaps industrialisation could be regarded as “the second phase of the revolution.” [62] If keeping the revolution alive required utopian elements, the rhetoric of the film factory-archive and the utopian rhetoric of industrialisation were deeply intertwined.

Commissioned by the State, Esfir Shub produced The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Revolution. Lef critics immediately celebrated her compilation documentary method and her chosen aesthetic as the wave of the future. This warm reception helps us comprehend the relationship between non-fiction film and State policy in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, the transition to Socialist Realism, and the origins of documentary practice. Lef critics argued that Shub’s method of making films in an archive with material already captured by others was more authentic, more objective, more legible than Dziga Vertov’s work, which was too intimate, too immediate, too spontaneous, too subjective. Shub provided a distanced perspective enabling both viewer and filmmaker greater visual and narrative mastery. In this way, Shub became part of a broader project of consolidation, centralisation, and assertion of control in the Soviet Union following the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Just as Taylorism sought to consolidate various aspects of Soviet life into an organized, mechanized, regulated, efficient whole, the Shubian method helped contain the semiotic excesses of the (filmed) everyday – consolidating combative aesthetic doctrines, managing the meaning of the Revolution, and reining in the personal and professional excesses of Vertov himself. Celebrating the Shubian method certainly pleased many government members but that is not to say it was an opportunistic act. Shub and others embraced the compilation documentary method and intentionally employed a more realist aesthetic. Their position was not imposed from above but became a way for State officials and members of the intelligentsia to merge goals: reaching out to the peasants, gaining authority for documentary practice, and engaging people at multiple levels while maintaining a legible and primary ideological argument. This space is one of the early instances in which the artistic avant-garde negotiated its positions while maintaining aspects of its core values. Although in the thirties it was perhaps more difficult as Socialist Realism became the only acceptable aesthetic, filmmakers in the Soviet Union continued to produce work legible at multiple levels – satisfying censors and offering those that look beneath the surface alternative visions.


[1] Taylor, Richard and Ian Christie, eds., The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), xix.
[2] The “factory-archive” was never articulated as such by filmmakers or critics, although Vertov and Shub each, at some point, employed the term “archive.” I use the term to discuss what I see as a significant change in method – an adoption of an even stricter Taylorist-factory method, but one undergirded by a new “logic” of the archive. Thus, these changes can be seen as both a continuation of, and a rupture with, earlier Soviet film practice.
[3] Ian Christie similarly argues against what he calls “the appearance of a decisive watershed between the free 20s and the ‘shackled’ 30s” in his “Introduction” to Taylor, Richard and Ian Christie, eds., The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) 3.
[4] I am definitely not using the term “aesthetics” as a substitute for “form.” The embrace of the Shubian “aesthetic,” on which I’ll be focusing, relies on a changed concept of the relationship between form and the subject-object interaction. While embracing a more realist aesthetic, these critics, some of whom are known as the founding fathers of Formalism and the Soviet avant-garde, maintain some of their earlier ideas about art and adapt others. They were very attentive to questions of spectatorship and not just internal form.
[5] The goal of this film program, which often included foreign features and both fiction and non-fiction shorts, was to accumulate capital by means of the popularity of foreign, largely American and German, films while limiting ideological damage. Much of the information in this paragraph is informed by Vance Kepley, “The origins of Soviet cinema: a study in industry development,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies, vol. 10, no. 1, (1985): 22-38. Kepley argues that given the poor state of the cinema industry following the Revolution, Lenin’s strategies of borrowing, importing, and reinvesting accumulated capital into Soviet film production worked out remarkably well and allowed for a rapid development of the Soviet film industry.
[6] Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art: 1863-1922 (London: Thames and Hudson Press, 1962), 243-248.
[7] Boris Groys, “The birth of Socialist Realism from the spirit of the Russian avant-garde,” iThe Culture of the Stalin Period, ed. Hans Gunther (London: MacMillan Press, 1990), 129.
[8] Mikhail Yampolsky, “Reality at second hand,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television, 11.2 (1991): 161. The description of this new process of filmmaking and some of the translated quotes are taken from Yampolsky’s extremely provocative essay.
[9]  By the term “second-hand” material, Yampolsky is emphasizing the fact that the filmmakers/editors encounter material that has already been seen by others. I will examine the implications of such a change when comparing the relationship workers have with material in a Taylorist system with the relationship filmmakers have with material in this new conception of documentary film practice.
[10] For more reading on Shub, I recommend in particular Vlada Petric’s, “Esfir Shub: film as historical discourse,” in Show Us Life: Towards a History and Aesthetics of the Committed Documentary, ed. Thomas Waugh (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984), 21-46 and Graham Roberts, Forward Soviet: History and Non-fiction Film in the USSR (London: I.B. Tauris, 1999). For Shub’s own writing see her autobiography Zhizn’ moia – kinematograf, Moskva, “Iskusstvo,” 1972 or translated excerpts from the book and other writings in Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds., The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents, 1896-1939 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).
[11] Yampolsky, 163.
[12] Sergei Tretyakov, “Prodolzhenie sleduet,” (“To be continued”), Novyi Lef, no. 12, (1928): 4. Quoted in Yampolsky, 163.
[13] Yampolsky, 164. Author’s emphasis.
[14] Philip Rosen, Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001). The key chapter on documentary is “Document and Documentary: On the Persistence of Historical Concepts.”
[15] Viktor Shklovsky, “Kuda shagaet Dziga Vertov?” (Where is Dziga Vertov striding?), Sovetskii ekran, 14 August, 1926. Quoted in Taylor and Christie, 152. I use the term “documentary” in the quote because that is the way Taylor translates it. While using the term certainly strengthens my contention that these critics and artists were in fact theorizing about what we now call “documentary,” my choice here is simply a reliance on the translated documents. While most documentary scholars attribute the first use of the term to John Grierson in early 1926 (see, for example, Jack Ellis, The Documentary Idea (Englewood Cliff, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989)), Richard Taylor insists that the words documentalnost, which that he translates as “documentary quality” and especially dokumental’nyi’, the adjectival form of documentary, were in use in The Soviet Union by the mid-1920s. Personal correspondence with Richard Taylor, 3/02. There is a discussion of these terms in Graham Roberts, ‘Forward Soviet! ‘ in which he takes issue with Taylor’s translation of the terminology.
[16] L.V. Kuleshov, Ekran segodnya (Screen Today), (1927): 117. Quoted in Yampolsky, 162.
[17] Esfir Shub, Zhizn’ moya – kinematograf (Cinematography – my life), (1972): 268. Quoted in Yampolsky, 163.
[18] Dziga Vertov, Kino-Eye, edited by Annette Michelson, translated by Kevin O’Brien, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 57.
[19] Osip Brik, “The Lef ring: comrades! A clash of views,” Novy Lef, no. 4 (1928): 27-36. Reprinted in Taylor and Christie, eds., 225-26. Emphasis added.
[20] The commonly-used terms “played” and “non-played” do not simply translate into fiction and non-fiction. For example, Shub argues that her films use real material but she organizes it in such a way that they can be considered “played.” In that way the division is more about imposing narrative or sequential structure than the “quality” of material. By 1928, when this issue of Novy Lef comes out, most of the writers seem rather tired of debating definitions of “played” and “non-played.” For more information see Taylor and Christie, eds., especially pages 225-232 and Ben Brewster, “From Novy-lef with an introduction,” Screen 12.4 (Winter 1971-72): 59-91.
[21] Jeffrey Brooks, Thank you, comrade Stalin!: Soviet Public Culture from Revolution to Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 4-5.
[22] For an insightful discussion of the relationship between the archive and the everyday image, see Paula Amad, Archiving the Everyday: A Topos in French Film History, 1895-1931 (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2002).
[23] Taylor lays out his ideas in Frederick W. Taylor, The Principles of Scientific Management (New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1967) (1st edition published in 1911). In the last two paragraphs, I have also relied on discussions of Taylor’s ideas in Judith A. Merkle, Management and Ideology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980) and Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) 238-241.
[24] Merkle, 103.
[25] Rabinbach, 272-3. He relies on Heller’s conception of two models of Marx. See Agnes Heller, “Paradigm of production: paradigm of work,” Dialectical Anthropology 6 (1981): 71-79.
[26] Rabinbach, 272.
[27] Charles S. Maier, “Between Taylorism and technocracy,” The Journal of Contemporary History 6, no. 2 (1970): 27-61.
[28] V.I. Lenin, Selected Works (London: Lawrence and Wishard, 1937, 332. Quoted in Merkle, 113.
[29] Merkle, 113-115.
[30] For the information on Gastev, I am calling on Kendall Bailes, “Alexei Gastev and the Soviet controversy over Taylorism, 1918-24,” Soviet Studies, vol. xxxix, no. 3, (1977): 373-94.
[31] Gastev, “O tendentsiyakh proletarskoi kul’tury,” 36. Quoted in Bailes, 378.
[32]  Gastev, 44. Quoted in Bailes, 378.
[33] Bailes, 393.
[34] Yampolsky, 163.
[35] Groys, 136.
[36] Groys, 135-6.
[37] Gastev, 43. Quoted in Bailes, 378. Author’s emphasis.
[38] Adrian Piotrovsky, “Thematic cinema,” Zhizn’ Isskustva, No. 36, 8 September, 1929, 6. Quoted in Yampolsky, 167.
[39] Katerina Clark, “Engineers of human souls in an age of industrialisation,” in William Rosenberg and Lewis Siegelbaum, edited, Social Dimensions of Soviet Industrialisation (Bloomington: Indian University Press, 1993), 263, n. 4.
[40] Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
[41] Richard Taylor, The Politics of Soviet cinema 1917-1929 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 87-88. A new word was invented to describe this process – kinofikatsiya or cinefication.
[42] Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet society, 1917-1953 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 90-91.
[43] “Kino v derevne” Novyi zritel’ , 21 June, 1927. Quoted in Taylor, 90, emphasis mine.
[44] Taylor, 99.
[45] Taylor, 101.
[46] Trainin, Kino-promyshlennost , 31. Quoted in Taylor, 99.
[47]Joseph Stalin, Works. vol VII , Moscow, 71-2. Quoted in Horace B. Davis, Toward a Marxist Theory of Nationalism  (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978), 76.
[48] Terry Martin, A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, eds Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 67-90.
[49] Ronald Grigor Suny, A State of Nations: Empire and Nation-Making in the Age of Lenin and Stalin, eds Ronald Grigor Suny and Terry Martin, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 23-66.
[50] Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, translated Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
[51] Amad, 84-5.
[52] My consideration of film as an archival practice is indebted to Amad’s discussion of Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planete, especially chapter 1, pages 29-107.
[53] Michel de Certeau, “ L’Espace de l’archive ou la perversion du temps,” Traverses 36 (January 1986): 5. Quoted in and translated by Amad, 79.
[54] By claiming that the Soviet project is “less neutral” than its Western counterpart, I do not mean to suggest a lack of faith in film’s ability to communicate the truth of the world. Many viewers and critics saw The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and Eisenstein’s October as communicating the truth of the Revolution. Maintained through most of these arguments about the new documentary form and method is an assumption that montage itself is needed to communicate truth. Films made from the archive needed to be nationalist propaganda. They needed to convey the truth of the origins of Soviet society (even if those origins were in fact quite recent). They were part of a scientific project in that they communicated and performed Marxist dialectics. The archive was not naturally forming, it needed construction. But it still communicated natural laws. What the purity of the film document seemingly assured was that the building blocks of the argument were indisputable facts.
[55] For an analysis of how elements of modern historiography encompass documentary film practice, see Rosen, chapter 6, “Document and documentary: on the persistence of historical concepts,” 225-264.
[56] Irina Gutkin, The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 81-106.
[57] Gutkin, 96.
[58] Gutkin, 81-2.
[59] Andrew Wachtel, An Obsession with History: Russian Writers Confront the Past (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 17.
[60] Stites, 3.
[61] Stites, 145.
[62] Clark, 249.

Created on: Tuesday, 14 December 2004 | Last Updated: 9-Dec-06

About the Author

Joshua Malitsky

About the Author

Joshua Malitsky

Joshua Malitsky is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at Northwestern University. His dissertation is a comparative analysis of post-revolutionary non-fiction film that involves three case studies: Post-1917 Revolution Soviet film, post -1957 Revolution Ghanaian film, and post-1959 Revolution Cuban Film.View all posts by Joshua Malitsky →