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Screening Soviet Nationalities: Kulturfilms from the Far North to Central Asia

by: Oksana Sarkisova
published by: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd
pp: 304
ISBN: 9781784535735

Book's frontpage

Filmmakers in the early decades of the Soviet Union sought to create a cinematic map of the new state by portraying its land and peoples on screen. Such films created blueprints of the Soviet domain's scenic, cultural and ethnographic perimeters and brought together - in many ways disparate - nations under one umbrella. Categorised as kulturfilms, they served as experimental grounds for developing the cinematic formulae of a multiethnic, multinational Soviet identity. Screening Soviet Nationalities examines the non-fictional representations of Soviet borderlands from the Far North to the Northern Caucasus and Central Asia between 1925-1940. Beginning with Dziga Vertov and his vision of the Soviet space as a unified, multinational mosaic, Oksana Sarkisova rediscovers films by Vladimir Erofeev, Vladimir Shneiderov, Alexander Litvinov, Mikhail Slutskii, Amo Bek-Nazarov, Mikhail Kalatozov, Roman Karmen and other filmmakers who helped construct an image of Soviet ethnic diversity and left behind a lasting visual legacy.The book contributes to our understanding of changing ethnographic conventions of representation, looks at studies of diversity despite the homogenising ambitions of the Soviet project, and reexamines methods of blending reality and fiction as part of both ideological and educational agendas.

Using a wealth of unexplored archival evidence from the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive (RGAKFD) as well as the Gosfilmofond state film archive, Sarkisova examines constructions of exoticism, backwardness and Soviet-driven modernity through these remarkable and underexplored historical travelogues.


Table of contents

Introduction. Projects of a New Vision      
Constructing Soviet Nationalities         
Virtual Traveling: Maps, Itineraries, and Politics of Vision       
Local Sights, Global Visions: Russian and Soviet Travel Films
Across the Soviet Travelogues: The Roadmap           
1. They Must Be Represented: Kulturfilm and the National Niche in Soviet Cinema    
Cultural, Ethnographic, Documentary: The Elusive Film Classification
Think With Us, Think Like Us! Shaping the Audience through Film    
Vostokfilm: The Studio for the Soviet ‘Other’  
2. Absolute Kinography: Vertov’s Cine-Race across the Soviet Universe         
Advertising the Soviet Universe          
Rhetorical Battles over Modernity and Backwardness 
3. Arctic Travelogues: Conquering the Soviet North        
The Contact Zone: National Variety beyond the Arctic Circle  
Arctic Tales: From Contact Zone to Icy Desert
Tragedy into Triumph: The Rise of Affective Travelogues
4. Forest People, Wild and Tamed: Travelogues in the Far East 
The First Blueprints: Following Arsen’ev’s Trail          
Self-reflective Tale: Film-diary and Subjectivity           
Terra Incognita: Exploring the Frontier           
Land of the Gol’ds: Amo Bek-Nazarov’s Two Versions of Progress    
Babylon Re-enacted: the Nanai, the Chinese, and the Jews in Mikhail Slutskii’s Far East       
Birobidzhan: Civilizing the Wilderness
Playing the Native: Transformation of Expedition Films          
5. Diagnosing the Nations: Nationalizing Dirt and Disease on the Screen        
Syphilis against Socialism: Medical Expedition as a Bearer of Social Progress
Clearing the Vision: Eye diseases and Constructions of New National Bodies
Journeys of Health: Tourist Bodies in Motion 
6. Touring the Caucasus     
Dagestan: The Space of Diversity       
Chechnya As It Is: Native and Tourist Gazes  
The Heart of the Mountains: Svanetia Wild and Conquered   
7. Camels and Railways: Filming Central Asia      
Views from the Roof of the World: Mapping the Pamir Mountains and its Peoples     
The Iron Unity: Conquering Turkestan
Turksib as a media campaign  
Future of the Desert   
Imagined Community: Unveiling the Kino-Eye 
8. EPILOGUE. Day of a New World  

About the Author

Dr. Oksana Sarkisova is Research Fellow at the Vera & Donald Blinken Open Society Archives of the Central European University, and Director of the Verzio International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival (Budapest), Hungary


‘Sarkisova has written an altogether original book in which her expertise in Soviet documentary films and nationality policies is unparalleled. By placing her topic within the wider international and theoretical context she has succeeded in creating something very valuable.’
- Peter Kenez, University of California Santa Cruz, USA

‘This superb book compellingly makes the case for the importance of early documentary films in the Soviet cultural project. Sarkisova demonstrates how Soviet ethnographers struggled to navigate unstable political terrain in order to capture people and culture at the margins, as well as the state’s efforts to “sovietize” them. Thoroughly researched, engagingly written and including insightful analyses of myriad films, I urge anyone interested in Soviet cinema, Soviet cultural politics, and Soviet nationalities policy to read this book.’
- Denise Youngblood, University of Vermont, USA 


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