International Colloquium Soviet War Propaganda on the Movie Screen, 1939–1946 / La propagande de guerre
 soviétique à

International Colloquium Soviet War Propaganda on the Movie Screen, 1939–1946 / La propagande de guerre
 soviétique à

Cinémathèque de Toulouse
, 12‐13 March
, 2015

Irina Tcherneva
Roman Karmen; Il’ia Kopalin; Fridrikh Ermler; Mark Donskoi; USSR; Nazi Germany; Eastern Poland; China; Mongolia; Great Britain; ghetto Theresienstadt; propaganda; Second World War; the Great Patriotic War; Soviet film; film industry of wartime; occupation; mobilisation; film genre; film distribution; censorship.
The cover of the colloquium’s programme.

Combining a variety of approaches, with the study of contrasting film genres, and drawing together historians of Soviet film from around the world, the conference Soviet War Propaganda on the Movie Screen, 1939–1946 marked a significant contribution to revising the canonical understanding of Soviet film propaganda as politics of mobilisation. The conference, which took place as part of the Cinémathèque de Toulouse’s Zoom arrière festival (March 6-14, 2015), was organised by the CINESOV research program (Le cinéma en Union soviétique et la guerre, 1939-1949) directed by Valérie Pozner and Alexandre Sumpf, the Institute Framespa of the Toulouse-le-Mirail University as well as the Toulouse Cinémathèque and its then director Natacha Laurent.

The colloquium highlighted the specific nature of wartime propaganda, which tends to focus all the media at its disposal towards a single goal. The participants drew on a number of studies of the mobilisation of cinema by the anti-Nazi coalition as well as the propaganda produced by the Axis powers. A significant thread in the conference was a rethinking of Soviet propagandisation of the territories annexed by the Red Army in 1939-40. This picture was further nuanced by attempts to understand the Soviets’ communication with their domestic audience alongside their need to address foreign audiences. A further productive perspective tackled the success of propaganda, and a number of papers addressed concrete factors such as distribution (e.g. the number of prints circulated); how screenings were organised; the various intended audiences; audience figures; the political assessment of films, and the difference between public and critical reception. The three sections of the conference focused on: the development of stylistic devices and organisational tools by Soviet filmmakers and administrators before the war; mutual influences between propaganda campaigns in the USSR and abroad from the point of view of film production, distribution, and audience reception; and, finally, the transformation of aesthetic tools, themes and genres in Soviet cinema during this period. Russian, French, German, British and American researchers analysed mobilisation by means of cinema during the Second World War as well as in the framework of postwar expectations.1

The first section, “Laboratory of Front Images Before ‘the Great Patriotic War’ (1941-1945)”, contributed to the development of a more subtle chronology of film propaganda in 1938 and after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Vanessa Voisin, Alexandre Sumpf and Victor Barbat covered the work of Soviet cinematographers in 1938 in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War; in 1939 after the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland, and the Soviet military campaign in Mongolia of the same year. Thus, in 1938, while working on a documentary devoted to the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), the Soviet documentarist Roman Karmen drew on his experience as cameraman during the Spanish Civil War. Alexandre Sumpf analysed the full-length documentary on the Battle of Khalkhin Gol which saw the Red Army face the Japanese on the border with Manchukuo (Khalkhin Gol, Il’ia Kopalin, 1940, USSR), noting the resurgence of colonial discourse typical of the 1930s and reviewed in a new political context.

Still from Khalkhin Gol (Il’ia Kopalin, 1940, USSR). Courtesy of the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive (RGAKFD).

The success and/or failure of film propaganda was a central theme of the colloquium. Before 1941, Soviet film material shot in Eastern Poland, in China (Roman Karmen's film crew), and Mongolia was intended to improve the Red Army’s international image. Vanessa Voisin listed numerous Soviet filmmakers sent to document “the liberation of Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia” (that is, the annexation of the Polish Kresy) in 1939. Among the filmmakers appointed from Moscow, were Iakov Bliokh, Mikhail Romm, Aleksandr Medvedkin, Iakov Posel’skii, Mikhail Kaufman and Mark Troianovskii. Two other film crews came from the Minsk studio (Iossif Veinerovich, Vladimir Tsitron) and the Kiev studio (led by Aleksandr Dovzhenko). Besides, Moscow offered the Red Army the services of two other film crews: Ivan Beliakov, Boris Burt and Abram Khavchin were assigned to film in “Western Ukraine” (Tarnopol’, Lwów) and Aleksandr Brantman and Andrei Sologubov were delegated to “Western Belorussia” (Białystok). However, though these crews shot a great deal of footage, the film administration in Moscow sharply criticised it for the lack of coordination between filmmakers and the armed forces and the absence of important military operations on screen. Neither the better known documentary Osvobozhdenie / Liberation (Aleksandr Dovzhenko, 1940, USSR) distributed one year later nor the short film Sovetskii L’vov / Soviet Lvov (Iakov Avdeenko, 1940, USSR) made much use of the 1939 footage, rather focusing on the benefits of Soviet annexation in the following year. Yet, those first productions gave invaluable lessons for organising filming during the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).

The common characteristic of the footage discussed during the first session was the downplaying of violence connected with both the change of political regime in Eastern Poland and the armed conflict in Mongolia. In the movie Liniia Mannergeima / The Mannerheim Line (Vasilii Beliaev, Valerii Solovtsov, 1940, Soviet Union) about the Soviet-Finnish War, the enemy does not appear on the screen at all. Due to the specificity of the Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland and to the late arrival of film crews, the footage shot there could only show the Polish prisoners of war. The Moscow film administration deemed it a professional failure, but that failure can be analysed as a problem in structuring a political message as such. Indeed, beyond the military dimension, these films avoid showing the social violence of expropriations and political arrests.

The second section, “Propaganda – Anti-Propaganda: Crossed Visions”, fulfilled the conference’s aim of placing Soviet propaganda in the context of propagandist efforts deployed by the anti-Nazi coalition as well as by Nazi Germany. Jeremy Hicks and Natascha Drubek, speaking on the production of propaganda films, showed a dialogue between the USSR and Great Britain on the one hand, and a mirroring of the propagandist approaches of the USSR and Nazi Germany on the other. Drubek argued that the Red Army’s filming of the liberated Majdanek concentration camp in July 1944 provided Soviet propagandists with a potentially powerful weapon: the first moving images of Nazi extermination facilities. Based on the chronology and the comparison of cinematic motifs Drubek contended that the filming in Majdanek influenced the Nazi Theresienstadt ghetto film project resumed in mid August 1944. Hicks demonstrated the political issues that encouraged the British Ministry of Information to ask the Soviet Embassy in London to provide and shoot some new films for British audiences. The government tried to bypass the communist movement in Britain which was mounting its own propaganda in favour of the USSR through film screenings.

Even if the footage and documentaries about Eastern Poland, China and Mongolia analysed in the first panel proved to be ephemeral and soon irrelevant in the specific political situation of 1939-1940, they were still revealing as far the systemic difficulties of the Soviet Union in releasing these films were concerned. During the second section the success and failure of distribution were discussed. The choice of the film format, the aspect raised by Hicks, was developed by Fabrice Montebello who talked about the distribution of Soviet films in France after the liberation in October 1944. Despite poor commercial distribution, Soviet war films were the third most viewed ones in France. Parallel to the commercial network, Soviet films were screened by the French Communist Party and by the L'Association France-URSS.

Giving another perspective, Iryna Matsyshina argued that the films screened by the Romanian occupation authorities in Odessa initially were not enthusiastically received, not least because they were shown in foreign languages (German, Italian, Romanian) without subtitles. Matsyshina also claimed that the films sent from Bucharest were mostly light entertainment, with the political message limited to the accompanying German newsreels. After all, linking entertainment and ideology in furtherance of a political project is characteristic of the Nazi propaganda strategy. When Odessans were reluctant to attend screenings, the occupiers organised free cinema viewing that in fact turned into compulsory cinema-going for those fearing to lose their jobs.

Inquiring into the reasons of success and failure of film propaganda, Olga Gershenson compared the novel, stage and film versions of Kh’vel Lebn! / I Will Live! (1941-42), in relation to their target audiences. Gershenson defined Kh’vel Lebn!, written by David Bergelson who worked for the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, as part of the Soviet-Jewish propaganda campaign and proposed the term of “accented propaganda”, that is intended for a particular audience and leading to a double interpretation of the war, Jewish and Soviet. This film project was aborted and the script transformed into a stage-play because of the change in the political situation in the USSR: by 1943 the international Jewish community ceased to be a priority for the Soviet political authorities.

The specific nature of film propaganda during the war, the technical capacities as well as the transformation of themes, protagonists, aesthetic and genre references were discussed in the third section, “Aesthetic and Narrative Transformations in the Soviet Cinema During the Second World War”. Eric Aunoble explored the way Second World War narratives were framed by pre-existing templates. He demonstrated how the narrative model of the establishment of the Soviet Ukraine in 1921 was used during the Second World War for the film Alexandr Parkhomenko (Leonid Lukov, 1942, USSR) as part of the nascent reinvigoration of the Soviet patriotic project.

Lilia Nemtchenko studied the output of the Sverdlovsk Newsreel Studio between 1941 and 1945 and offered a perspective on the postwar period. She showed that the documentaries and newsreels produced by this regional studio illustrated the blurred lines between the front and the home front, and, ultimately, between work mobilisation during wartime and peacetime labour.

Oksana Bulgakowa addressed the place of voice in wartime propaganda, neglected in previous studies. She interpreted the impact of the commentators’ voices in the context of Soviet voice-landscape and the fact that it still depended on equipment in use since the 1930s. Contributing to the comparative discussion of propaganda, Bulgakowa reflected on the similarities and the differences between the Soviet, German and the American politics of the voice.

Andrei Shcherbenok proposed measuring the effectiveness of a propaganda message via an analysis of the film Zoia (Leo Arnshtam, 1944, Soviet Union) on Zoia Kosmodem’ianskaia, a Komsomol member of the resistance murdered by the Nazis. Shcherbenok saw the organisation of the film's visual space as an inheritence of the Soviet cinematic avant-garde, and suggested that this reinforced the effectiveness of the political message. However, this analysis excluded any reflection on the politicisation of the aesthetic procedure by audiences, Arnshtam's colleagues or the film administration. In her talk on the representation of women in Soviet war feature cinema, Denise Youngblood pointed out an exaggerated brutality, the capacity to torture and kill besides a traditional feminine representation of Soviet women. However, according to Youngblood, this change does not appear to be related to any intentionally established Soviet propaganda policy concerning women.

The problem of genre was approached by Valérie Pozner who explored the appearance of “Fighting Film Albums” (boevye kinosborniki) in June 1941, the recycling of the “film-song” genre (fil’m-pesnia) developed internationally since the First World War, and the emergence of the new “mobilisation film” genre (mobilizatsionnyi fil’m). The latter fulfilled a twofold objective: to encourage people to enlist in the army, and to mobilise them for work on the home front. Pozner observed a constant use of folklore in Soviet films made in Central Asia, with the aim of using this Orientalism to connect more effectively with local audiences.

The accompanying retrospective of Soviet films complemented the conference effectively, and the introductions by historians of Soviet cinema placed the films in the context of their production and in relation to what contemporary audiences knew about the international conflict. The programme covered a wide range of films that varied in both genre and purpose: mobilisation, information, and entertainment. Seven feature and eleven non-fiction films were shown, all of which had been completed between 1939 and 1944 under difficult conditions, as Soviet studios and professionals had been evacuated to Central Asia. Alongside films as famous as Ivan Groznyi / Ivan the Terrible (Sergei Eisenstein, 1944, USSR), there were shown lesser known movies such as Raduga / The Rainbow (Mark Donskoi, 1944, USSR) and Ona zashchishchaet Rodinu / She Defends the Motherland (Fridrikh Ermler, 1943, USSR; distributed in the USA as No Greater Love), as well as other films widely screened during the war in the Soviet Union and abroad. The retrospective confirmed that even “small film forms” had undergone a stylistic renewal of Soviet cinema during the war and a return to a more expressive film style.

Still from Raduga / The Rainbow (Mark Donskoi, 1944, USSR). Courtesy of Gosfil’mofond.
Still from Ona zashchishchaet Rodinu / She Defends the Motherland (Fridrikh Ermler, 1943, USSR). Courtesy of Gosfil’mofond.

Studying Soviet film production and distribution, and the available techniques and working methods of Soviet filmmakers, the colloquium gathered new knowledge on Soviet war film-propaganda. It showed the necessity of further analysis of how Soviet filmmakers and the administration approached making films for different target audiences. A valuable contribution in this context is provided by the exhibition Filmer la guerre. Les Soviétiques face à la Shoah (1941-1946) created by the team CINESOV for Memorial de la Shoah in Paris (January 9 - September 27, 2015).2 Together with the accompanying catalogue, this revealed a certain divergence in messages about the Holocaust between the image (still and moving) and the printed word. In general, films shown to Soviet audiences gave information about the extermination of the Jewish population without revealing the nature of Holocaust while, on the other hand, films intended for international distribution were more explicit about the fate of the Jews.The international colloquium, in its turn, complemented the Paris exhibition by developing many of its central themes, such as censorship; cinema in occupied territories; circulation of film propaganda between the USSR, the other Allied Forces and the Axis powers; the development of film techniques, and the role of western organisation models in the development of Soviet cinema in the economic and political context of war.

Irina Tcherneva

Centre d’études des mondes russe, caucasien et centre-européen (CERCEC), École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)


Arnshtam, Leo. 1944. Zoia. Soiuzdetfil’m.

Avdeenko, Iakov. 1940. Sovetskii L’vov / Soviet Lvov. Ukrainskaia studiia kinokhroniki.

Beliaev, Vasilii / Solovtsov, Valery. 1940. Liniia Mannergeima / The Mannerheim Line. Tsentral’naia studiia kinokhroniki.

Donskoi, Mark 1944. Raduga / The Rainbow. Kievskaia kinostudiia.

Dovzhenko, Aleksandr. 1940. Osvobozhdenie / Liberation. Kievskaia kinostudiia.

Eizenshtein,Sergei. 1945. Ivan Groznyi / Ivan the Terrible. Mosfil’m.

Ermler, Fridrikh. 1943. Ona zashchishchaet Rodinu / She Defends the Motherland. Tsentral’naia Ob’’edinennaia kinostudiia.

Kopalin, Il’ia. 1940. Khalkhin Gol. Tsentral’naia studiia kinokhroniki.

Lukov, Leonid 1942. Alexandr Parkhomenko. Kievskaia kinostudiia.

Suggested Citation

Tcherneva, Irina. 2016. Review: “International Colloquium Soviet War Propaganda on the Movie Screen, 1939–1946 / La 
 1939­-1946”. Ghetto Films and their Afterlife (ed. by Natascha Drubek). Special Double Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 2-3. DOI:


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