We all love a good ol’ Soviet film! Who does not? But how well are you familiar with the cinema of the USSR? Eleanor Moore brought together 5 interesting facts which you might not have heard before.
1. Bollywood was big.
Foreign films consistently sold more tickets at theatres than their domestic counterparts, but in an attempt to steer the country away from the clutches of Hollywood, films from India were far more likely to be imported onto screens. Among the foreign films that sold more than 20 million tickets, 50 were Indian, the most popular of all being Bobby (1975) selling 62.6 million tickets. The love affair with Bollywood lasted more than four decades and provided the nation with unrivalled escapism. Despite the films being in Hindi, cinema-goers became fanatic admirers of Indian actors and Raj Kapoor became a legendary cult icon in the USSR.
2. Stalin was obsessed with film.
Lenin famously said that cinema was the most important form of art but it was his successor who liked to think of himself as the ultimate impresario of Soviet film. He watched films most nights and Ivan Bolshakov his trusted adviser would chose a film based on what kind of mood the leader was in. Only new material could be shown when he was in a very good mood and if he was grumpy (which Bolshakov could tell by his manner of walking), then he would put on an old classic such as Volga-Volga. He also had the task of interpreting every film, but as he didn’t understand any other languages he would have to practice memorising hundreds of scripts, often leading to an amusing outcome. Interestingly, Stalin had a penchant for Westerns and spy films but did not enjoy seeing characters kissing for too long on screen.
3. The Soviet Union had their own ‘Red Westerns’
Despite Joseph Stalin loving John Wayne on screen (but reportedly sending the KGB to kill him off screen), cowboy films were not seen to be ideologically suitable for the nation. When they were first produced Russian newspapers reported on how dynamic and forthright these horsemen were, but they wore very peculiar hats, spoke weirdly and did not ride their horses in the same way men in the Caucasus did. In a similar vein to the Italian ‘spaghetti westerns’, ‘borscht westerns’ were filmed far from the Wild West, in the steppes of the Soviet republics and substituted native Indians for Turkic tribesmen.
4. Hollywood stars were both loved and loathed .
It was reported that Trotsky said Americans had many admirable qualities such as athleticism and enthusiasm and Hollywood film stars could aid the propagation of such positive characteristics. When Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford visited the USSR on holiday in 1926 they were mobbed wherever they went, everyone wanted get a look at the glamorous couple. In all their interviews they spoke of their profound respect for the Soviet people and belief in artistic and cinematic cooperation between the United States and the USSR. However, Soviet media labelled them as ‘trash’ and their holiday provided the basis of a film released a year later which was a not so subtle mockery of American adulation.
5. Many stars of Soviet film were not in fact Russian.
The stars of the screen reflected the many nations which made up the Soviet Union and as a result, a diverse range of films were produced. Sergei Eisenstein, the father of Soviet cinema was born in Riga and spoke predominantly German when he was growing up. Sergei Parajanov said that he had three Motherlands as he was born in Georgia, worked in Ukraine and would die in Yerevan. Ali Khamraev, born in 1937 is a lesser known figure of Soviet Cinema but one of the most celebrated. Having directed over 20 feature films and 40 documentaries he is still working to this day, a master film maker of his native Uzbekistan, Central Asia and the Soviet Union.