Across the Sixth Part of the World: Soviet Travelogues of the 1920s
Regular production of travel films in Russia began in 1907 with Russian Pathé’s Travels through Russia (Puteshestviye po Rossii), the first in a series that continued through 1908-09 with a uniform title style, including Picturesque Russia (Zhivopisnaya Rossia), Picturesque Odessa (Zhivopisnaya Odessa), and Picturesque Tiflis (Zhivopisnii Tiflis). Other companies instantly followed suit, though they seem to have acknowledged Pathé’s prior claim to the word zhivopisnii (picturesque), and styled their films more simply Vidi (Views), such as Views of Yalta and the Black Sea (Vidi Yalti i Chernovo Morya), Views of Moscow (Vidi Moskva), et al. Films designed for “useful entertainment” explored geographically and culturally diverse parts of the country, showing the ethnic groups populating these spaces as loyal imperial subjects. Although the Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War, and the gradual nationalization of the film industry greatly affected the output of the sector, a revival of interest in travel films and the shaping of a new ideological framework coincided with the consolidation of Soviet power in the mid-1920s. The first Soviet feature-length expedition film, The Great Flight (Velikii perelyot, 1925, dir: Vladimir Shneiderov), an account of a Moscow-Beijing air journey, enjoyed wide popularity. The film’s aerial survey perspective set an example for film-makers by visualizing a centrifugal expansion of Soviet ideology.
By the mid-1920s, film-makers worked on creating a “kino-atlas” of the Soviet Union, attracting audiences to cinema halls with the promise of exotic scenery. A landmark in this respect was Dziga Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World (Shestaia chast mira, 1926; alternate title “A Kino-Eye Race Around the USSR”), thanks to the way it visually stitched together the borderlands of the new Soviet state, connected by a growing communications network. From the mid-1920s onwards, a large corpus of “kino-race” films showing the territories and nationalities of the Soviet Union was created and distributed through both commercial and non-profit networks across the country. Expeditions to various parts of the Soviet Union were filmed, teaching audiences about remote places that were meant to command their loyalties, as well as serving to configure a new set of visual formulae. In the 1920s and early 1930s, expedition kulturfilms featured in the production plans of every film studio in the Soviet Union, and were the subject of a vibrant debate on the role and principles of non-fiction.
The cinematic landscapes of the travelogue relied on a didactic fusion of vision and ideology in which the non-fiction status of the footage, combined with the scientific authority of ethnography, naturalized the image of reality as seen through an ethnographic lens. At the same time, film-makers in the Soviet Union actively used the concepts of imaginary geography, such as “the East” and “the Far North”, and perpetuated the civilizing mission discourses established in imperial Russia. Films on minorities visualized distinct ethnic groups, demonstrating their transformation into “socialist nations” via developmental stages, yet the conceptual classifications between these stages remained controversial. Circulating these images across the Soviet Union, travelogues instilled the Soviet world with distinctions, creating a new form of visual literacy.
Our selection of expedition films demonstrates a variety of visual styles and perspectives. It includes Alexander Litvinov’s expedition to the Udege people in the Far East (Lesniye Liudi/Forest People), which earned him the nickname of the “Russian Flaherty”; Vladimir Yerofeyev’s journey to remote areas of the mountainous Pamir region (Pamir. Krisha mira/Roof of the World); and a heroic account of the Soviet rescue effort to save Umberto Nobile’s expedition to the North Pole (Podvig vo L’dakh/Feat in the Ice). Three additional shorts further expand the geographical range and demonstrate a changing visual language from the 1920s into the 1930s; they include two films edited from the footage shot but not used for Vertov’s A Sixth Part of the World, Tungusi (The Tungus) and Bukhara, a scenic short about the picturesque Crimea (Kara-Dag), and the glorification of the work of miners on Spitsbergen, where the national frame is replaced by class references (Daleko na Sever/Far in the North).
The selection demonstrates that the Soviet film industry continuously engaged with imperial frames of reference and at the same time had a transformative impact on the representation of exoticism and ethnic “backwardness”. With the help of cinema, the abstract categories of nationality and motherland acquired visual embodiments: they could be imagined, and thus perceived as central categories for self-identification as well as the identification of “others”. Expedition kulturfilms gave a tangible form and shape to imaginative concepts of civilization and backwardness, and highlighted the entanglement of colonizing and modernizing attitudes in the Soviet context.
The films in this programme do not aim at an exhaustive overview of Soviet kulturfilms, but offer a survey of emerging visual conventions of filming Soviet diversity and unity. Vladimir Yerofeyev, Alexander Litvinov, Nikolai Lebedev, and cameramen Ivan Beliakov, Pavel Mershin, Yakov Tolchan, and others created lasting visual conventions of “the Soviet land,” facilitating audiences’ emotional relationship to, and symbolic appropriation of, the locales filmed. While the governance of the USSR was increasingly centralized and monolithic, its sprawling territories were continually portrayed as culturally heterogeneous.
This programme has been organized with the support and co-operation of the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive – Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi arkhiv kinofotodokumentov (RGAKFD) – in Krasnogorsk. I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to RGAKFD’s Director Natalia Kalantarova, Deputy Director Rimma Moiseeva, International Adviser Elena Kolikova, and all the archivists who helped in its realization.

Oksana Sarkisova

A.Litvinov (1928)
Dom/Sun 1 – 22:00 – Teatro Verdi

editor E. Svilova (1927)
Dom/Sun 1 – 22:00 – Teatro Verdi

Vladimir Yerofeev (1928)
Mar/Tue 3 – 9:00 – Teatro Verdi

editor E. Svilova (1927)
Mar/Tue 3 – 9:00 – Teatro Verdi

Mer/Wed 4 – 11:00 – Teatro Verdi

Sab/Sat 7 – 9:00 – Cinemazero

Sab/Sat 7 – 9:00 – Cinemazero

Visit Project
  • 16 March 2017