It’s easy to forget that Dziga Vertov started his career, well before the other founders of Soviet cinema, as a chronicler of the Civil War precipitated by the Bolshevik coup of October 1917. The films that have kept his reputation alive, and indeed raised it above most others of his generation, belong mainly to the turn of the subsequent decade, 1928 to 1931, when Vertov had been forced out of Moscow and sought refuge in Ukraine. There, the VUFKU organization supported what are now his most-admired films, the highly experimental Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and his first sound film Enthusiasm (1931). Those attracted by the lively formalism of these pivotal works, once derided by the influential founding theorist of documentary John Grierson, have often been ignorant of what came before and unimpressed by the reportage-based work that was the bedrock of Vertov’s achievement in the early 1920s.
Now, thanks to the dogged ingenuity of historian Nikolai Izvolov, who recently reconstructed Vertov’s 1918 Anniversary of the Revolution, we have a second major work from this period, 1921’s The History of the Civil War (Istoriya Grazhdanskoi Voiny). Once again we can experience the barnstorming charisma of Trotsky—although to a somewhat lesser degree—before it was retroactively censored in the Stalin era. Other historic figures, familiar at least by name, appear as well, notably Mikhail Kalinin, who went on to become the USSR’s largely titular head of state until 1946. Back in 1920, Kalinin commanded the agit-train October Revolution, on which Vertov supervised film work, gained first-hand experience of how audiences responded to his films by showing his Anniversary of the Revolution (what he called “studying the new viewer”), and shot new material. For those who have only heard about this legendary propaganda initiative, as seen in Chris Marker’s And the Train Rolls On and the installation at the British Film Institute’s Museum of the Moving Image, History of the Civil War provides a glimpse of several of the trains, one painted in bold abstract livery, recalling the brief period when avant-garde art and Bolshevik propaganda worked in harmony.
For the most part, however, this is a record of now-forgotten local campaigns and battles that marked the merciless consolidation of Soviet power, and as such it makes uncomfortable (even unconscionable for some) viewing today, as we watch post-Soviet Russia brutally trying to subjugate Ukraine on our television screens. The “Vertov we know now”—as evoked by John MacKay in volume one of his magisterial 2018 biography Dziga Vertov: Life and Work—may be hard to discern for most viewers. This is a Vertov triumphantly recording endless columns of marching soldiers, Red Cavalry detachments, captured artillery, railhead troop inspections.
Most disturbing today, perhaps, are sections that cover the crushing of dissent. One of these is the trial of the Cossack leader Filipp Mironov, who had distinguished himself in many campaigns against the White army of Anton Deniken before he claimed leadership of the Southern Front. He was arrested on behalf of the Revolutionary Military Council and his trial led to a death-sentence, which was only commuted at the last minute by Trotsky on the basis of his past service to the revolution. Vertov’s film shows apparently reconstructed scenes of the trial and a smiling pardoned Mironov, but does not refer to his renewed military career and another arrest in 1921, followed by his death in mysterious circumstances, probably on the orders of Trotsky. This is of course a complex history, the details of which long remained hidden and disputed; but to watch Vertov’s observational account is to be reminded of how ruthlessly Soviet history has been simplified from the outset.
Another substantial part of the film deals with the suppression of the Kronstadt mutiny, staged in the spring of 1921 by sailors, soldiers, and civilians in the port city near St. Petersburg. This was no counterrevolutionary White movement, like those led by Pyotr Wrangel (known as the Black Baron), Denikin, and others, but an uprising by ardent supporters of the revolution who felt they had been betrayed by Bolshevik authoritarianism. The rebels’ fifteen demands included newly elected councils (or “soviets”), admission of a wider range of left-wing representation, and less governmental bureaucracy. Needless to say, none of these aspirations are reflected in Vertov’s triumphalist account of the “crushing” of what is now usually described as a rebellion rather than a mutiny. Here we might reflect with some irony on his film’s earlier mention of the anniversary of the Paris Commune’s suppression in 1871, already a hallowed, and conveniently distant date, in the Soviet calendar.
The “Vertov we know now” is predominantly a lyrical mourner of Lenin’s legacy, the energetic celebrant of a USSR under construction, and the creator of a new poetics of nonfiction. He also comes down to us as something of a martyr, an increasingly isolated figure in Soviet cinema, battling to defend his vision of a self-sufficient nonfiction cinema against increased demands for engaging fiction. With both Anniversary of a Revolution and The History of the Civil War, Izvolov has done the valuable service of returning to us the earnest young propagandist we hardly knew. This is the Vertov who witnessed episodes of the Civil War as they unfolded, and who felt he had learned what worked for unsophisticated audiences by watching their reactions to his chronicle films along the agit-train routes. The Vertov of the stirring manifestos and the sweeping condemnation of his contemporaries, including Kuleshov and Eisenstein, still lies just over the horizon—although these experiences and, later, editing his Kino-Pravda series are what shaped him.
Our reaction to this resurrection will inevitably be complex. There is none of the self-referential play that endeared later Vertov to modernist and even postmodern avant-gardists. This is “chronicle,” which Vertov scholars have long insisted cannot be equated with newsreel. MacKay suggests it should be considered “historicized or narrativized nonfiction,” a cautious formulation that avoids engaging with how our interpretations of the events shown may differ from those offered by the filmmaker. The value of History of the Civil War is to return us to a moment in the frequently brutal consolidation of Soviet power, when a “victorious end of the Civil War” could be declared; when future victims of Stalin such as Caucasus commanders Sergei Kirov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze could be seen smiling on screen as part of that victory; and when the victims of the Kronstadt massacre could be regarded as “a danger greater than Deniken and Wrangel,” to use Lenin’s words.
Viewers of Soviet-era film have long had to put aside the rhetoric and values often proclaimed so stridently, making allowances for the pressures on filmmakers to follow “the general line,” as Eisenstein’s ill-fated late 1920s film was originally titled before it became The Old and the New. Yet the challenge has never been more acute than watching this celebration of a century-old victory amid daily reports of a modern Russian state invading a sovereign Ukraine. Arguably, it makes the “Vertov we know now” more complete, countering a more sentimental image, fostered by lyrical scenes of an Odessa summer in Man with a Movie Camera and heroic Donbas workers in Enthusiasm. Whether we approve or not, these barely remembered Civil War campaigns are the experiences that forged Vertov, and we can only be grateful to Nikolai Izvolov and his producers for their painstaking reconstruction. As archaeologists have long known, the evidence of the past is rarely comforting.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Anvil Orchestra