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Russian Film Archives Go Online

A vast and secret history – once forbidden to all but accredited state agents – is now a click away.


Lights, camera, revolution

This is a small technological achievement, when compared to its breathtaking historical magnitude.

Russia’s Central Film and Stills Archive has put its archives on-line.

Of the more than 30,000 catalogue items, many are mundane – simple newsreels of workers in the fields.

Quite a few have been viewed countless times around the world, like the official film of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin lying in state (1924), or Sergei Eisenstein’s classic work for cinema “Alexander Nevsky,” scored by Sergei Prokofiev (1938).

But others are gems, rarely if ever viewed by curious eyes.

Until recently, the archive was only accessible to licensed state filmmakers. They needed special viewing passes, and even then they could be refused.

Even now, the films themselves are not freely viewable on-line. But the catalogue is, and through it viewers will be able to order copies, privately, or for use in commercial programming.

The on-line catalogue is the newly-launched result of co-operation between the Russian government and a U.S. new media company, Abamedia.


There is no way to describe, simply, what this means for historians and film buffs. But to grasp it in part, consider just one archive item, selected somewhat randomly in an archive search.

"Document number 11553" takes us to the Volga river in 1921.

Four years after the Bolshevik revolution, peasant Russians living near the Volga were starving to death. So the Soviet government, unable to contain the suffering, called in the Red Cross, which dispatched hospital trains criss-crossing the region.

This was an odd moment for Lenin and his comrade leaders, what with desperate subjects of their atheist regime relying on hand-outs from an organisation under the Christian cross.

But the Kremlin hatched an aid plan of its own. It ordered police to plunder Orthodox churches across the land, desecrating religious objects of little market value while collecting precious metals and icons. With cash from sales, the government funded food programmes and, as was already its habit, itself.

Many Russians watched in horror as soldiers ransacked places of worship, cherished centres of village life, in the name of utopian progress. Along with the starvation, it was the kind of outrage that sparked peasant revolts across the countryside that year.

But the government was so proud that it sent a filmmaker to record the progress. His name, or perhaps her name, is long forgotten now.

But document number 11553 still exists, a silent but revealing film.

In it, the filmmaker observes one F. Nansen, a Red Cross aid worker, as well as a Mr. Dybenko, a Soviet official leading a trip down river at the time. There is also a visit with an “expert commission” of "jewellers", apparently sent to appraise confiscated Church treasures, and there is footage of the plundering itself.

For 80 years, the plundering of Orthodox churches has been remembered by many Russians as a heinous state crime. But for much of that time, it was also viewed by the Kremlin as the very essence of revolutionary humanistic progress.

Lest public opinion stray from the official line, the state controlled much of the footage of the 1921 action. A few pictures slipped out and into the public consciousness – soldiers piling out of a chapel door, piling crosses and icons and bits of broken altar in the yard outside. But there wasn’t much to see.

Now, at least, there is this one film, to supplement the public record. Undoubtely, there are others, too, to be found in deeper searches.

Unrecorded history

Yet there are still dark corners of the Soviet Union’s secret history that the film archive may have difficulty illuminating.

Countless millions died, without a trace, or were physically and psychologically ruined as prisoners in the Soviet Union's brutal prison system, the Gulag.

A keyword search for “Gulag” in the English-language catalogue’s 5,000 listings yields nothing.

A keyword search of the Russian-language catalogue’s 25,000 listings yields just four – two of which were filmed in 1989 and 1990, once Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” regime came to power.

It never will be possible to know, fully, the scale of the loss.

Those who orchestrated the terror knew better than to record their bloodiest crimes.

WWW links

  • Date 11.12.2001
  • Author Eric Jansson
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1TJb
  • Date 11.12.2001
  • Author Eric Jansson
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/1TJb