The Nazi ideologues despised other ‘races’ as inferior creatures. The ideologues of the Soviet Union turned their hatred inwards and despised the ‘classes’ that made up their country, including the very proletarians they exalted. Like Plato they believed that the workers could not be trusted with the truth, could not be relied upon to form the ‘right’ judgements on the basis of shared information; so the plan was to bring them to an appropriate form of consciousness by the manipulation of stirring art. Hence watchers of Alexander Dovzhenko’s 1930 silent film about collectivisation of agriculture in the Ukraine must accustom themselves to being treated like dimwits. You can see who the hero is because he is strong and tall and handsome: his confident bearing and zealous gaze tell you that you should side with him. Inspirational words are declaimed boldly by the good guys; the bad guys skulk and cringe. Don’t expect irony or subtlety: that would be un-Soviet.
Shouldn’t we make more imaginative effort to do what the makers of Zemlya (Earth) wanted its viewers to do, to identify with the heroic struggle of the workers? I don’t think the subsequent history of the Soviet Union attests to the value of that identification. Never mind the robbing and killing of those who were decreed to be on the wrong side of the struggle. Most of the several million Ukrainians who died in the famine that followed two years after this film was made were poor peasants.
Since we’re dealing with a propaganda film here, let’s assess it as a political ploy. Was it judicious to try to arouse the poor peasants’ resentment against the less poor peasants (the kulaks)? No: resentment and hostility between social groups was a factor in the failure of the Soviet project. Of course it was absurd to blame the kulaks for the plight of the poorer peasants. Soviet leader Zinoviev admitted: ‘We are fond of describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a kulak.’ But Soviet ideology demanded a ‘class enemy’, and the kulaks were the only candidates conveniently to hand. The release of Zemlya coincided neatly with Stalin’s 1930 decree that ‘the resistance of this [kulak] class must be smashed in open battle and it must be deprived of the productive sources of its existence and development’.
Was the appeal to collective interest above individual interest judicious? No: even the unarguably poor had their goods confiscated in the name of the collective, and the prospect of striding gladly into the future alongside their comrades was not sufficient compensation (many of them preferred to destroy their property and animals rather than hand them over). Individuals may be willing to make sacrifices for the sake of their families, but to induce them to do so for the sake of a collective, mostly composed of strangers, would require a stronger motivating message and far greater skills of dramatic persuasion than displayed in this film.
But wait - isn’t it supposed to be OK to like this film? Don’t its admirers say that it was subversive of Soviet policy? Isn’t Alexander Dovzhenko a Ukrainian cultural hero?
Certainly the reception of Zemlya in both Russia and Ukraine was violently mixed: but the cultural climate of the time was so mistrustful that it was almost impossible to make any artistic move without being criticised from one quarter or another as being insufficiently revolutionary-minded. The strongly Ukrainian character of the film may have made Russian viewers uncomfortable, and the Party faithful apparently did not like the fact that it showed the dark side of life rather than being relentlessly positive. We know that the Soviet censor edited the film before release. But the nature of his cuts (nudity, urination, prenatal labour) suggests that his discomfort was rooted in prudery rather than ideology.
Dovzhenko’s best hope for moral exoneration might be to embrace the subsequent criticisms of the most extreme Stalinist zealots: that his film was not as anti-kulak as it might have been. But that cannot alter the fact that the kulaks are the villains of his film - the enemies of its heroes.
What we have is a sincere paean to collective agriculture, released shortly after the launch of Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation and confiscation, and used as propaganda for that policy, which involved killing and deporting large numbers of Ukrainians and deliberately depriving most of the remaining population of their means of subsistence. Which was Dovzhenko - a conscious agent of Stalinism? Or a ‘useful idiot’? Either way, his film contributed to the ruin of his beloved Ukraine.
I have scarcely mentioned the aesthetic qualities of the film: there are certainly some memorable images that stay in the mind and are strongly evocative of their time and place. I admire the simplicity and dignity of many of the shots and scenes. But Zemlya is hard to take seriously as a dramatic work because of its blinkered worldview and lack of interest in the ambiguity and mutability of human experience and interaction. I do not think it can have been purely on grounds of aesthetics that this was voted one of the 10 best films of all time in 1958. These critics were presumably motivated by thoughts about the historical significance of the film. But it is precisely its historical significance as a work of destructive propaganda that makes it a distasteful watch.