It’s a commonplace of film history that under Stalin (a name much in American news these days) the USSR forged a mass propaganda cinema. In order for Lenin’s “most important art” to transform society, cinema fell under central control. Between 1930 and 1953 a tightly coordinated bureaucracy shaped every script and shot and line of dialogue, while Stalin frowned from above. The 150 million Soviet citizens were exposed to scores of films pushing the party line.
True? Not quite.
Who says? Maria Belodubrovskaya, to whom I happen to be married. David again:
Maria (“Masha”) Belodubrovskaya’s Not According to Plan: Filmmaking under Stalin draws upon vast archival material to argue that filmmaking, far from being an iron machine reliably pumping out propaganda, was decentralized, poorly organized, weakly managed, driven by confusing commands and clashing agendas. Censorship was largely left up to the industry, not Party bureaucrats, and directors and screenwriters enjoyed remarkable flexibility.
Filmmaking under Stalin, in other words, never worked as planned. Directors tried and failed to make films that wouldn’t be banned. Party officials tried and failed to build a mass culture industry. By the end of Stalin’s reign, the Soviet film industry was releasing fewer than a dozen films a year—a far cry from the Soviet Hollywood that was envisioned in the mid-1930s. Underlying this failure was an institutional environment that generated perverse incentives for all concerned. But the institutions didn’t come from nowhere. They were themselves products of Communist ideology—an ideology that proved largely incapable of producing useful propaganda, at least in this medium.1
Not According to Plan is a landmark in the study of film history and what Masha calls the “institutional study of ideology,” if I do say so myself—but I don’t need to, as others are saying it. Intrigued? Listen to Masha discuss the book on 1869, the Cornell University Press podcast.
- Scholars of communism will recognize an affinity to János Kornai’s characterization of the socialist system, in which the ideology of the governing party gives rise to particular institutions, which in turn dictate incentives. Notably, this is not the prevailing model in political science, where the equilibrium analysis of institutions has a strongly functionalist feel (e.g., institutions exist because they solve a commitment problem).