A lot of the time, when choosing what to write about for Year Of The Month, I deliberately choose something I’ve seen many times and have a personal connection to. Once in a while, though, I throw caution to the winds and choose something I’ve never seen. In this case, caution went out the window, down the hill and off a cliff as I chose something I’d literally never even heard of: Three Songs About Lenin (Три песни о Ленине).
Produced and released in 1934 for the tenth anniversary of the death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, this is a Soviet propaganda piece by silent filmmaker Dziga Vertov, who five years earlier had made the masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera. Not only is it a paean to Lenin, but it’s also a celebration of the Soviet Union, showing all the benefits the new regime had brought to the Russian (and Georgian, Ukranian, etc, etc) people ; naturally, some things are left…unsaid. The movie, less than an hour long, is three short films,composed of a mix of archival footage and new work. Briefly, those films are, in order (please note all my descriptions are of what the film claims, not what the reality might have been):
In part 1, we see the liberation of women in Uzbekistan from Muslim law. They shed chadors and burqas, go to school, learn about the joys of their new Soviet leaders, and contribute to society.
In part 2, we see the last days and the mourning of Lenin, cutting from the Gorki estate where he died to his funeral in Moscow and the parade of grief over their late leader. It also contains the only audio, from a speech where he urges the country to stand strong.
Part 3 is a celebration of the current state of the USSR, with collective farms and fields juxtaposed with the might of their growing industrialized military. Factories, giant guns, and troops marching all come together to show the growing might of the collective people of the Soviet Union. And finally, toward the end, we see Stalin waving to the crowd, the benevolent leader in all his strength.
Sadly, what we have to watch now is not the movie that existed in 1934. It was reedited in 1970 to remove most of the Stalin footage, which was apparently much more extensive in the original. That may account for some of the weird jumps in the footage. But leaving that aside, this is an interesting watch for me; what you have here wouldn’t be out of place at all in your standard “America and YOU” propaganda film of the 1950s about how the country is going places, and make sure to learn that math, kids, because Sputnik is overhead and we need to beat the Russkies. It’s such a cliché, of course, to note that the whole silly Cold War was between two countries far more similar than either wanted to admit, but you can’t help feeling that looking at this footage.
3 Songs About Lenin is a fascinating historical document. Naturally, I don’t trust half of it, but it’s always interesting to see how a government or its people want themselves to be perceived, and when you look at it that way, 3 Songs is definitely a success.