As part of the University of Illinois’s “1917: Ten Days That Shook the World / 2017: en Days that Shake the Campus” program series, a group of dedicated students and film buffs gathered in the Armory on September 29 to watch Esfir Shub’s pioneering 1927 Soviet documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh). Commissioned and produced for the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Shub’s film tells the story of the final years of the Russian Empire, the First World War, and the revolutionary events of 1917. Our screening was introduced by Marina Filipovic, a PhD candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures whose dissertation includes a chapter discussing Shub and her work. Marina’s introduction highlighted the pathbreaking nature of Shub and her documentary.
Born in 1894, Shub started out in literature and theatre, where she worked with both famed director Sergei Eisenstein and Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, before becoming a film editor in 1922. In 1926, she was commissioned to produce a film about the revolution. Other directors, including Eisenstein, were at the time making avant-garde films that were difficult for ordinary viewers to comprehend, whereas Shub’s work was more realistic and intelligible for wider audiences, with less of a distinct artistic authorial voice.
Shub decided to look through archival film footage to make her film on the Revolution. There were numerous problems with this approach, including a lack of material, extensive damage to much of the film she wanted to consult, and the need to purchase additional material to supplement what existed in Soviet archives. Shub invested a massive amount of time and research into her film, reviewing 60,000 feet of film despite including only one tenth of that in her final product, including a significant amount that she filmed herself.
Nevertheless, as one of the first women in the Soviet film industry it was extremely difficult for her to gain the recognition her work deserved. She was denied royalties from the success of The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty and it took an intervention by Mayakovsky himself just for her to be credited as its director. Despite her struggles at the time, we now recognize this film as one of the best early examples of a documentary composed by compiling archival film clips with some framing narration, in this case with intertitles providing context for each scene. The pioneering nature of her work helps explain its dramatic success at the time, beloved in the Soviet Union for its wide appeal and its pro-Bolshevik narrative of the Revolution.
The film divides into three acts: a depiction of pre-revolutionary life, Russia’s experiences in the First World War, and the 1917 Revolution. Shub’s vignettes of Imperial Russia focus on the empire’s deep inequalities, pointing out its political domination by the upper classes. She rapidly cross-cuts between images of the gentry enjoying tea and being waited on by servants, compared to peasants working in the fields; or wealthy nobles on a pleasure cruise dancing until they perspire, compared to the lower classes perspiring from arduous agricultural and industrial work. For a ten-year celebration of how the revolution overthrew an unjust and corrupt regime, Shub’s work would have been an ideal fit with the Bolshevik narrative of 1917.
She then portrays the horrors of war, from graphic shots of dead soldiers to images of hardship on the home front. Once again, she stresses the sacrifices made by ordinary Russians while the generals and aristocrats work at luxurious desks or laugh and converse far from the front. Finally, she moves to the revolutionary year of 1917, where she highlights the role of the masses of workers and soldiers in the fall of the old regime. Condemning politicians of all stripes in Russia’s Provisional Government as well as the moderate socialist leaders of the Petrograd Soviet, Shub’s film sets the stage for the Bolshevik seizure of power despite ending before October. As Marina mentioned in the Q&A session, her film builds up “the inevitability of the Bolshevik Revolution.” Shub’s film serves as a sort of Soviet-approved short course in the revolution, as revealing of attitudes towards the old regime and 1917 in the Soviet 1920s as it is about the revolution itself.
In our Q&A, we discussed the difficulty of distinguishing Shub’s filmed material from the archival footage, given that it is blended in with no distinctions. In addition, Marina pointed out how Shub’s editing style highlighted the difference between the slow, deliberate time before 1914 and faster-paced shots of soldiers, peasants, workers’ marches, and so on in the war and revolution, emphasizing the speed and vitality of popular action. Perhaps most importantly, we discussed how Shub first established the idea of film as memory-keeping, its own kind of archive. In composing a documentary by compiling archival film (rather than primarily filming new material on a subject), she helped invent the modern documentary genre. Even today, it is easy to recognize the value of her work to modern audiences unaccustomed to seeing the Russian Empire and its revolutionary years in motion. The positive responses from our audience in the Armory demonstrated that Shub’s work remains striking a century after the events she documented.
Felix Cowan is a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His research interests include poverty, inequality, and newspapers in Imperial Russian cities during the revolutionary era.