Battleship Potemkin aside, the Soviet Union has not gone down in history as a great creator of culture. The Western perception is generally that the USSR couldn’t produce great movies because its cinema was part of the state-run media and therefore it could only produce propaganda. To determine whether this is true, we must address two separate questions. First, did the Soviet cinema only produce propaganda? And second, is propaganda inherently not artistic?
The answer is no on both counts. The second question is easy: There are countless works that are undeniably propaganda and also undeniably great art. Virgil’s Aeneid, for instance, was commissioned by an autocrat to legitimize his reign, yet it’s a masterpiece. And Potemkin itself contains the famous Odessa Steps sequence.
The more interesting question is whether the USSR produced any cinema that wasn’t propaganda. It’s true that, especially in the early Soviet Union, the state kept the cinema on a tight leash and often produced propaganda of the most heavy-handed, creatively bankrupt kind, like this clip from the 1924 science fiction film, Aelita, Queen of Mars.
But at the end of the day, states don’t create films. People do. There are always auteurs willing to subvert or work around the rules in order to create art. Hollywood, for instance, produced plenty of great films in the 40s and 50s, despite laboring under the onerous Hays Code.
Auteurs in the Soviet Union and its satellite states also had their own opinions–often going against the party line–and expressed them through film. Czech puppeteer Jiří Trnka created the short masterpiece Ruka (The Hand), an anti-statist work with the unusual distinction of being banned in both the USSR and America.
But there’s an even simpler reason why the Soviet Union could indeed produce great movies: Even in the most oppressive atmosphere, not every independently conceptualized, creative idea will fall outside the acceptable. Working within the rules doesn’t mean being defined by them. Thus there are films from the Soviet Union that are neither pro-Soviet propaganda nor controversial enough to run afoul of the censors, not because they are mealy-mouthed and meaningless but because they explore simple, universal ideas, ideas found in art across all cultures.
I leave you with a beautiful example: Yuriy Norshteyn‘s Hedgehog in the Fog.