Censorship and Authorial Agency in Soviet Cinema of the 1960s-1970s

Elena Vassilieva, University of Southern California

Censorship in Soviet cinema has been amply discussed, in particular with reference to the cinema of Stalinism. The most prolific writer on the issue of censorship in post-war period, Valeriy Fomin has taken a view of non-specific oppression of the author by the soviet bureaucracy. For the purposes of this paper I define censorship as the larger process of approving a script and entering it into a thematic plan for production as well as discussion of edited footage, thus involving both the negative and the positive connotations of this collaborative process.

My doctoral thesis, now in its initial stage, sets out with a revisionist impetus of considering censorship as a cultural agency that, in some cases, volens nolens becomes a co-authoring agency. My aim is not to redeem censorship but to study cultural ideology of the period of stagnation. To do this, I suggest that censorship apparatus is a venue where the auteur, the state and the populace meet, thus creating a space of cultural negotiations, which are affected by factors that are at times systematic, at times random, but all of which display a cultural and historical specificity that has not yet been formulated within Soviet cinema studies.

Documents on soviet censorship in cinema (e.g. discussions held by editorial and artistic councils) reveal a paradigm of ideological concerns and allow making conclusions about how these concerns were to be translated into their visual corollaries. To achieve a rigorous analysis of these translations I apply classic principles of generative poetics to the study of ideology. For this purpose I selected a specific cinematic genre, that of biographical picture, a genre with strong typology and rigid schematics of plot development, e.g. birth, education, formative years, achievements, death. This database of possibilities inherent within the genre encounters a set of ideological expectations that can also be represented as a source database. Furthermore, the author/director brings in his/her own invariants, i.e. ways in which thematic units are rendered into the cinematic medium. Tracing the interaction of these source databases allows to discuss soviet ideology in dynamic terms, i.e. to show ideology at points of formation, as well as to discuss specific issues of agency.

For specific case studies I draw on my research at RGALI in the Goskino and Mosfilm archives. Documents discussing various versions of the same script as well as verbatim reports of artistic council meetings reveal a process, which deserves careful study. Not only did this process change depending on the institutional reforms within Soviet cinema, or the political climate in the country, but it also was affected by the success or failure of previous censorial tactics and strategies. My case studies include realized and unrealized scripts of the classical biopics, like the Lenin films, as well as the more “anomalous” cases, where the auteur’s database dominates over generic or ideological expectations, like Andrey Rublyov and Color of Pomegranate.