Who would Joseph Stalin be when not busy being a dictator? Most certainly a filmmaker! That’s because Stalin was a complete movie buff in his spare time.
Lenin once famously said: “For us, cinema is the most important of all the arts”. Stalin took it way further: he was completely obsessed with cinema, executing tight and active control of the whole Soviet film industry from start to finish. No Soviet movie could be released without his consent.
Stalin’s Home Parties
There was a cinema hall in every Stalin’s home. He invited members of his inner circle to dine and watch films together. These were tense meetings where Molotov, Zhdanov, Beria, Voroshilov, Kaganovich and others drank wine, dined, discussed state matters and made some of the most important decisions.
The most important cinema hall was of course in the Great Kremlin Palace. This 130 m² hall, a former winter garden, was rebuilt into cinema in the 1930s and dismantled again during Perestroika. There were 20 armchairs covered with green leatherette with small tables to serve Georgian wines, mineral water, and snacks. The hall had hi-tech lighting system as well as the best equipment and a crew of top cinema mechanics.
Politburo meeting sessions were held every Thursday. Stalin would then suggest a movie after the long and exhausting meeting. Stalin would go first, fix himself a drink of wine with mineral water and go sit in the first row. His place was in the middle and he almost always said the same words: “What will Comrade Bolshakov show us today?”
Ivan Grigorievich Bolshakov was the minister of cinema in the Soviet Union. He was the guy who personally picked films for Stalin. And what a dangerous job it was! Bolshakov had to read Stalin’s mind. When his master was in good mood, Bolshakov would take the risk and show a new Soviet movie.
Sometimes Stalin would say jokingly:
“If this is no good, we’ll sign his death sentence”
-Joseph Stalin about the author of the new Soviet movie
Stalin was very interested in all aspects of movie production. “Where have we seen that actor before?” Bolshakov always had to have the answers and he also had to be ready to interpret every film that he had brought. The Politburo members Beria and Zhdanov would sometimes laugh at his too descriptive translations. When Stalin was in bad mood, a foreign film or an old classic would be the right choice by Bolshakov.
The humble cinema minister was lucky to survive Stalin’s purges and remained at his post for an unprecedented 15 years! So uncommon was his long career that people began calling it the “Bolshakov phenomenon”. The previous head of Soviet cinema, Boris Shumyatsky had been accused of sabotaging the film industry and shot by firing squad in 1938.
Stalin as the Supreme Filmmaker
Every movie had to be approved by Stalin. He was truly obsessed with cinematography. Stalin tended to think of himself as some multitalented screenwriter, director, and producer – all in one person. He would intervene heavily into the production process, controlling everything. He suggested ideas, ordered re-shoots and cuts. “You don’t have to listen to me. This is just a suggestion from an ordinary viewer. Take it or leave”, he said.
So big was the fear of Stalin that no-one dared not to follow his suggestions. Even Sergei Eisenstein listened prudently to how Stalin lectured him on how to direct movies.
The following true story from Simon Sebag Montefiore‘s book “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” says a lot about Stalin’s power.
Bolshakov once authorized a movie for national release without asking Stalin, who was on holiday. At the next showing, Stalin asked him: “On whose authority did you release the movie?”
Bolshakov froze: “I consulted and decided.” “You consulted and decided, you decided and consulted,” intoned Stalin. “You decided.” He then left the room in a doomladen silence. Eventually, his head popped round the door: “You decided right.”
Here is another story:
Stalin and other members of his inner circle were watching a movie that Bolshakov had brought. Suddenly, without saying a word, Stalin stood up and left the room. There was big confusion and comrades, who had always aligned with their leader’s opinion, began blaming Bolshakov. “What utter crap have you brought us here, Comrade Bolshakov!” shouted Molotov. And continued: “The movie must be banned and all of those responsible, must be punished!” All others agreed. Suddenly the door opened and Stalin entered with his coat on as if nothing had happened. “Why did you stop the movie? Great film! Let’s continue!” Everyone was pale. “The film strip broke off”, mumbled Molotov and the cinema show continued.
All stills from the Russian documentary “Иван Большаков. Киномеханик Сталина” (“Ivan Bolshakov, Stalin’s Cinematographer”) (2008)