By Tony Williams.
Thanks to the work of Russian archivist and film historian Nikolai Izvolov, both films are now available so viewers can see key examples of early Vertov made well before his celebrated documentary work and that contain glimpses of its legendary Kino Eye brand of documentary filmmaking.”
It is now uncommon to see many films from the distant past celebrate their centenaries long after those pioneering years of the late nineteenth century. Many of these films lived on long after their initial premieres, whether theatrically or in different formats, and others re-awaiting discovery or restoration of lost footage. It is rare to gain access to a film that only had one private screening in June 1921 during the Third World Congress of the Comintern (the Communist International Organization in Moscow) before 600 delegates. It never received public distribution and it was thought to be lost even by its director in the late 1920s. That director was the celebrated Dziga Vertov (1896-1954), whose other lost epic historical film The Anniversary of the Revolution (1918) premiered at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival one hundred years after its initial appearance. Thanks to the work of Russian archivist and film historian Nikolai Izvolov, both films are now available so viewers can see key examples of early Vertov made well before his celebrated documentary work and that contain glimpses of its legendary Kino Eye brand of documentary filmmaking.
As contemporary studies of documentary now realize, the presentation of objective reality never lacks in interpretation and The History of the Civil War depicts the three-year struggle as well as those mistakenly misjudged at the time and well beyond. The film records the perspectives of those involved in the early Soviet struggles to protect the gains of the Revolution, to combat those outside forces such as Britain, Japan, and America, to overthrow the new system, and to engage in an early-twentieth-century form of “regime change” agreeable to those Western powers responsible for the carnage of World War One. The film opens with depictions of the damage and the loss of life caused by various movements behind the White Terror which destabilized the new Soviet government and which ended with an image of Trotsky mobilizing his forces and pledging to meet White Terror with the Red Terror of the Revolution.
As commander of the Red Army and a crucial leadership figure in the Russian Civil War, Trotsky appears in several scenes watching mobilized troops march by in parades (some of them Moslem) and awarding a victorious banner to those who successfully put down the Kronstadt Rebellion that represented the final threat to the Revolution. (1) The perspective is that of the Soviet Government victorious at the end and as we all know, history is written by the winners. We should not expect a cinema of debate covering all sides of the conflict in this production. Yet within this propaganda are images of everyday reality, the ordinary Soviet troops, refuges, burials of those who died in the conflict, well-known and not so well-known figures who played crucial roles in the events such as Trotsky, Kliment Voroshilov, Semyon Budyonyy, Ivar Smilga, Sergio Ordzhonikidze, Admiral Kolchak, Philip Mironov, K.A. Mekhanosin, and others.
Running some 94 minutes, the restored film is virtually complete except for some missing footage showing Stalin at Tsaritsyn where Lenin had assigned him in 1918. (2) Its form resembles an early version of “kino-glaz,” which utilizes the camera as an instrument like the human eye designed to explore actual events in real life. Assembled from material stored in the Archive of Literature and Art in Moscow and other sources, Izvolov manages to reconstruct as much as he can of this original documentary covering the chronological course of the 1918-1921 Russian Civil War. It includes the following chapters: “The White Terror,” “Suppression of Counter-Revolutionary Uprisings including those undertaken by former officers and anarchists,” the 11-12th April 1918 disarming of Moscow Anarchists (among whom include sailors and an affluent looking middle-class type), “The Damaged Yaoslavil After the July 6-21, 1918 Officers Insurrection,” “The Suppression of the Astrakan Uprising,” “Partisan Activity,” “Partisans on the Czechoslovak Front,” “The Struggle Against Kolchak,” “The Struggle Against Denikin,” “The Caucasus Front,” “The Vrangel Front,” and “Crushing the Kronstadt Mutiny.” It does not involve actual footage but duplicates an earlier shot of sailors and soldiers departing from a boat and ending with a triumph parade that emphasizes the key role of Trotsky in this historical period.
This documentary is an interesting re-discovery not only for its role as one of Vertov’s early works but also in depicting images of an historical past that echoed into a future period in many diverse ways.”
Izvolov has not only restored a “lost work” by a key figure in documentary history but he has also revealed a period as fraught with tensions as the one building up to the eventual October victory as documented by Eisenstein in October (1927). His emphasis is on the reality before the camera lens even if that reality involves participants accidentally moving into the lens of the camera or bystanders in a political speech viewing the cinematic apparatus with suspicion. They resemble those early shots of Lenin looking warily at the camera before his familiarity with the new technology that I saw in the Lenin Museum in Moscow during my 1980 visit. Vertov’s Kino-Eye is naturally a Soviet eye fully committed to the new regime but one capturing the present mood of the time he is filming. The added score by The Anvil Orchestra also used in the reconstructed Anniversary of the Revolution adds the necessary acoustic power and dimension needed for this film.
Many humorous touches anticipating later Vertov appear in the film. The 1915 shot of Admiral Kolchak shows him posturing like Napoleon on board his ship. Editing frames depict Trotsky and troops in a white circular frame anticipating the film’s later shot-reverse-shot images showing officers using telescopes and binoculars to review the landscape with accompanying shots using framing devices to represent the technology of these Kino eyes.
Yet, it also has a future perspective in view of what we know of the fate of many who appeared before Vertov’s lens. Trotsky’s fall from favor would lead to this film becoming “lost” because it depicts his central role in this period. Five years later, several shots of his double would be eliminated from Eisenstein’s October with the exception of a ranting speech wearily listened to by an obviously bored Stalin! Destabilization, error, and mistakes occurred in this early period in which the just were often victimized as they were in the 1930s under Stalin. In many ways, the history of the Civil War contains ominous forebodings in the light of what we later know of Soviet politics and gives it a dual perspective: present and future historical.
Kliment Voroshilov, like Kalinin seen in the film, would survive by supporting Stalin. Semyon Budyonny, jealous of the Don Cossack leader Philip Mironov, later acted accordingly. Innokenty Kozhenikov escaped the purges because of his early death, but Fedor Raskolnikov later died under mysterious circumstances following his letter to Stalin. Like other “Old Bolsheviks,” he was later posthumously rehabilitated. His wife Larisa Reisner died of typhoid in hospital. Ivan Smilgar later became a member of Trotsky’s ill-fated Left Opposition, was arrested after the assassination of Kirov, and posthumously rehabilitated after his execution. Konstantin Mekhonoshin, another of Mironov’s opponents became another victim of Stalin’s purges and became posthumously rehabilitated. Sergei Ordzhonikidze died under mysterious circumstances at home, and many have seen Stalin’s involvement here. Ordzhonikidze appears with Smilgar in the documentary saluting a parade. The well-known opportunistic Grigori Zinoviev also became a victim of Stalin’s purge of the Old Bolsheviks whom he saw as a threat to his status. Though Ukrainian anarchist revolutionary Nestor Makhno appears, it is clear that Vertov’s “Kino-eye” regards him as “not one of us”—as Mrs. Thatcher once said— and he went into exile to Paris in 1926 where he later died of T.B.
One of the most interesting segments of the film is the trial and capital punishment verdict. It is delivered against Don Cossack leader Philip Mironov and later annulled, due to his help in the early stages of the Revolution. It probably relates to the intercession of Lenin who also felt that zealous Bolsheviks, many of them having changed sides and showing no understanding of the varied Cossack culture, were acting arbitrarily and ruthlessly. They saw Miranov as a threat, due to his class background and cultural associations. Miranov expressed irritation against the ill-prepared Commissars forced on his units and engaged in a military expedition without their “informed consent.” This is the reason for his trial by commissars seen in the film. Miranov emerges as a dignified and independent figure who obviously is his own person and this would irritate over-zealous Bolsheviks of this time, many of whom earned Lenin’s justified condemnation. (3) Ironically, the Partisan Activity section features Red Army Commander Vasily Chapayev, who died in action fighting against White Guard forces, who later became the subject of a popular 1923 novel by Dmitri Furmanov, and who served as Commissar in Chapayev’s division, which became the basis of a popular 1934 Socialist Realist film of the same name. Unlike the situation existing between Mironov and the commissars imposed on him, Chapayev depicts the Commander and his Commissar in full agreement. Whether Chapayev would have later shared the same doubts as Mironov and ended up a victim of the purges is left open to debate. He died in battle. Unfortunately, Trotsky expressed suspicions against Mironov, revealing that even he could make mistakes in this turbulent period of Soviet history. In it, victories were achieved but by no means conclusive for what would later happen a decade later.
This documentary is an interesting re-discovery not only for its role as one of Vertov’s early works but also in depicting images of an historical past that echoed into a future period in many diverse ways.
1.The issue is still one of conflicting debate. However, for a perspective on why this suppression was necessary in the early years of the Revolution, see V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Kronstadt. Trans. Barbara Mutnik. New York: Monad Press, 1979.
2. According to Trotsky, Stalin’s presence there certainly gave no premature evidence of his future status as “The Great Leader” and Trotsky engineered Stalin’s recall with Lenin’s approval. See Leon Trotsky, Stalin. Edited by Alan Woods and Rob Sewell. Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2019, pp. 386-396.
3. For an interesting treatment of Mironov see Sergei Starikov and Roy Medvedev, Philip Mironov and the Russian Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and Contributing Editor to Film International.