a fault line of European civilization


By the mid-thirties there were already fifty seven large cinemas in Moscow and hundreds of other places where films could be shown. The party was very well aware of the propaganda potential of the medium, and generous provision was made for cinemas in the general plan for the city. Naturally, the medium was not untouched by the omnipotent party hand. Sergei Eisenstein was forced to withdraw his film Bezhin Meadow, a dramatisation of the tale of Pavlik Morozov, an apparently apocryphal fable of an odious child who shopped his own father to the authorities and was then murdered by his family. Eisenstein went on to redeem himself in Stalin’s eyes by producing Aleksandr Nevskii, a panegyric of Russian greatness, the following year. The Soviet film industry was very productive, and not all this production was propagandistic. In music, the USSR could show some outstanding talents, and these were the years when David Oistrakh and Emil Gilels, subsequently to achieve world fame, came to public notice. After a lively debate, Pravda declared authoritatively that there was a place for proletarian Soviet dzhaz. Its main exponent was Leonid Utesov, who rose through the cabaret scene to become one of the most popular Soviet musicians. A typically “Soviet” form of light music was provided by Isaak Dunaevskii, prominent as the writer of the score for Soviet musicals such as The Jolly Fellows. The most famous Soviet musician at the time was of course Shostakovich. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, had been denounced by Pravda in January 1936 as “chaos instead of music”. He spent 1937 working on his Fifth Symphony, which was premiered in Leningrad to great acclaim in November of that year.

more from Pádraig Murphy at the Dublin Review of Books here.