MUST SEE: Cossacks of the Kuban

The case for why you should spend this Sunday or Monday evening watching a Soviet Musical.

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On the 12th and 13th of January 2020 Oxford’s Ultimate Picture Palace will show the classic Soviet musical Cossacks of the Kuban (1949) as part of Kino Klassika Foundation’s Melodia! season in partnership with the British Film Institute. Previously rarely screened, the film was shown at the BFI Southbank in October 2019 with great success, as part of Kino Klassika’s long-standing endeavour to programme Russian, Soviet and Caucasian films in the UK. Perhaps, it is worth pondering  why a post-war musical, glorifying the myth of Soviet prosperity, is evermore relevant to Russia’s cultural politics today. 

On New Year’s Eve in 1995 Russian Public Television (ORT), now Channel One, aired a faux-retro musical set on a Soviet kolkhoz (that is, a collective farm) titled Old Songs About Important Things. Not only is this piece of popular entertainment remembered with fondness, but it was shown again on Channel One only a few days ago, on the 3rd of January 2020. The film is composed of musical numbers, in which modern Russian pop stars sing Soviet hits. These songs have been so deeply embedded into collective memory that one may easily mistake them for traditional folk music. The film indicates neither the historical period nor the location of the story, but it quickly becomes apparent that Old Songs is a nostalgic and kitsch take on Ivan Pyryev’s Cossacks of the Kuban, which is itself an epitome of Soviet mythology. What does contemporary Russian mainstream entertainment have to do with a Stalinist-era propaganda musical?

The term ‘propaganda,’ with regards to the arts, is often defined as a symbolically direct cultural practice of mass persuasion: “a weapon of state for the purposes of political indoctrination and social control” (James Chapman, 2000). Cossacks, however, is an example of a more subtle strategy of persuasion via entertainment. Pyryev’s musical is a rigidly orchestrated representation of rivalry between two collective farms, The Red Partisan and Lenin’s Covenant. Following the Romeo and Juliet template, Cossacks portrays forbidden love between Dasha and Nikolai, a worker and a technician from competing farms. Recognised for its meticulously choreographed scenes of harvesting to the rhythm of Isaak Dunayevsky’s renowned score, it masterfully admixes an imitation of musical folklore with the representation of the extensive industrialisation of rural Russia. 

Built on a simple plot, this classic of Stalinist-era cinema produces a myth of Soviet prosperity, showing off the agrarian wealth of the southern region of Russia. Approximately fifteen years prior to the release of Cossacks the region suffered from a severe famine, and in 1949, when the film was being made, Kuban, alongside the rest of the country, was still recovering from the devastations of the Second World War. Pyryev’s mythology does not merely gloss over the post-war struggles, but omits them completely in this boastful rite of singing, dancing and, of course, harvesting, so as to fabricate a new history. In another attempt to rewrite history, Nikita Khruschev banned the film completely in 1956 in the process of de-Stalinisation, while his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, allowed a heavily edited version of it to be shown in 1968. Today’s viewer has never seen the pre-1968 cut of the film. However, it seems that Cossacks does more than forge history. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s criticism of capitalist culture industry, ironically, provides a strikingly accurate description of at least some of the strategies of the Soviet post-war mainstream entertainment — those of “mass deception” and “fettering [of] consciousness” (Adorno, 1975).

Surely, Cossacks is an important case study for those interested in cultural politics of totalitarian states. Besides its relevance to niche research, it may, arguably, help one to understand the cultural trends in modern-day Russia. It is precisely this strategy of mythologising entertainment that has been adopted by Russia’s mainstream cinema and television so as to maintain the status quo in which the country finds itself today. As Moscow-based correspondent for The New Yorker, Joshua Yaffa, notes that the CEO of widely popular Channel One, Konstantin Ernst, has been directing most of his energies towards entertainment programming. “The news is momentary and ephemeral,” Yaffa quotes Ernst. “But the artistic realm, this is something deeper. It can stay in people’s minds forever.” Pyryev’s musical did indeed stay in the minds of generations of viewers. For today’s viewer, the film revealed the difference between hard propaganda and, to put it in Adorno and Horkheimer’s terms, the “fettering of consciousness” via highly entertaining fabricated myths. 

An artefact of glorification regarding the mythical ‘Soviet way of life’, Cossacks may be they key to understanding modern Russia’s mainstream culture, from the 2014 Sochi Olympics pompous opening ceremony to the lighthearted late-night talk show hosted by a local counterpart to Jimmy Fallon, Ivan Urgant. Carefully glossing over the harsh political reality of today’s stagnant Russia, its modern mainstream culture has been re-writing history and forging political well-being by means of entertainment. Attending a screening of Cossacks of the Kuban seems like a good way to start understanding this strategy, with the luxury of critical distance. 


* Tickets for the screening of Cossacks of the Kuban can be booked at The Ultimate Picture Palace website.