Imaging the West from Behind the Iron Curtain: The Semiotics of the West in Stalinist and Thaw Film

Alexander Prokhorov, University of Pittsburgh

My paper analyzes the construction of the West as a system of signs in Stalinist and Thaw era film, relying for its methodological point of departure on the dualistic model of Russian culture theorized by Lotman and Uspenskij's works on pre-nineteenth-century Russian culture. This model of culture's self-representation, I believe, is appropriate for the discussion of not only medieval, but also twentieth-century Russian culture, especially of the Soviet era. Stalinist culture made the opposition of "us" vs. "them" an indispensable part of its texts (Clark, Dobrenko). Accordingly, the West became the part of that opposition, which pitted the Soviet "us" against the capitalist "them."

Semiotic patterns of Soviet films that made the West their primary focus reveal that in Stalinist film, the Western "them" were either enemies or potential converts into "us." Nazis were exemplary Western villains. The rest of the non-communist West consisted of either overt or closet Nazis. To illustrate my point, I use clips from The Fall of Berlin (Chiaureli 1949) and other Stalin-era films that define Western civilization as a set of variations on Nazi ideology.

My presentation examines three types of film about the West that became extremely popular in Stalinist Russia: the war film, the spy thriller, and the conversion story (of a Westerner to Soviet faith/ideology). The first two types are inhabited by white German or Anglo-Saxon male villains, who cannot be converted, and end up losing either the military confrontation with Stalin (or his surrogate) or the intellectual confrontation with a Russian super-spy. The clips illustrating my points come from The Fall of Berlin and The Scout's Exploit (Barnet 1947). The Conversion stories are dominated by gender-marked, ethnic or racial Others, who share the defining characteristic of being susceptible to conversion, thereby becoming one of "us." Clips from Aleksandrov's Circus (1936) support my argument.

The relative cultural relaxation of the Thaw era temporarily blurred the border between "us" and "them" both in the production circumstances of the films and in their formal characteristics. Many Soviet directors made co-productions with French, Italian, Yugoslav and other European filmmakers. White males, especially French, started appearing as good Westerners in Soviet films. Confrontation stories yielded to narratives of peaceful coexistence, usually presented as deeroticized male bonding. The Soviet-French co-production Normandy-Neman (Drevil 1955) supports my points about the role of the West in early post-Stalinist culture.

The onset of the era of Stagnation was signaled by films reiterating Stalinist images of the West. All three types of films popular under Stalin resurfaced in the Soviet culture of the 1960s-early 1970s. The most remarkable return to Stalinism was Mikhail Romm's Ordinary Fascism (1965), a documentary about the rise and fall of fascist regimes in Western Europe, ending with nasty close-ups of US marines. The film attempts not only to revive Stalinist manicheanism, but also to appropriate Thaw devices intending to authenticate film as a medium: documentary footage, black-and-white film, director's voice-over (legitimating the message of the film by the sound of an intellectual's voice). The presentation concludes with a brief commentary on the place of the West as cultural sign in late Soviet and post-Soviet culture.