Joseph Stalin Was A Film Fanatic

“We think that a powerful and vigorous movement is impossible without differences—“true conformity” is possible only in the cemetery.” —Joseph Stalin

In A Nutshell

Without a doubt, Joseph Stalin was one of the most evil men of the 20th century, but like everybody else, the dictator had a hobby. Stalin was a cinephile and considered himself something of a movie expert. And not only did he love watching movies, he was also heavily involved in the Soviet film industry.

The Whole Bushel

Joseph Stalin was a megalomaniacal, narcissistic, paranoid mass murderer. He was also quite the film buff. When the self-proclaimed “Man of Steel” wasn’t conducting great purges or orchestrating genocidal famines, he could usually be found in one of his private theaters. After a hard day of crushing freedom across the USSR, the dictator would invite his lackeys over for movie marathons at the Great Kremlin Palace. The films were selected by Ivan Bolshakov, Stalin’s minister of cinema, and Bolshakov had to choose carefully. If Stalin was feeling jolly, Bolshakov would take a chance and play a new Soviet film. If the dictator was feeling down, irritated, or downright homicidal, Bolshakov fell back on old classics or foreign films, a privilege few Soviets ever enjoyed.

Unsurprisingly, Uncle Joe had a taste for bloodshed and particularly loved gangster flicks. One of his favorite American films was Each Dawn I Die starring James Cagney and George Raft. However, the old monster had a soft side, too, and his favorite Soviet picture was a musical comedy called Volga-Volga. (Interestingly, Stalin was a bit of a prude. He ordered a scene of French kissing to be cut from the film. In fact, he was so offended he outlawed all on-screen smooching for a while.) Stalin was also a big fan of Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, Charlie Chaplin pictures, Tarzan movies, and westerns starring Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Perhaps the Red Tsar liked to think of himself as a lone gunfighter, cleaning up Dodge and shooting bad guys.

However, Stalin was more than just a mere moviegoer. He considered himself Russia’s premiere film critic and a big-time producer to boot. He wrote song lyrics, dreamed up movie titles, and even gave “tips” to actors, screenwriters, and directors. Needless to say, they always took his advice. But most importantly, Stalin was the USSR’s ultimate censor. The dictator watched every single Soviet film and was an utterly ruthless judge. If a movie didn’t meet his approval, it ended up in the trash bin. Directors who failed to live up to his standards were lectured on how to properly make movies, and ministers of cinema who failed to pass muster were executed. In fact, Stalin was such a tough critic that in the years after World War II, studios were releasing a grand total of 10 films per year.

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To say Stalin was strict is an understatement. However, the man understood the importance of film. His predecessor, Vladimir Lenin, once said, “The cinema for us is the most important of arts.” It was a creed Stalin took to heart. He realized movies shape the way people think, and he wanted his citizens to think of him as an all-knowing, benevolent leader. In fact, he wanted them to consider him divine. That’s why Stalin personally interviewed every actor who portrayed him on screen. That’s why he wholeheartedly approved of films like The Vow which depicted him receiving a blessing from Lenin’s ghost as a sunbeam anointed his forehead. And that’s why he hated movies like Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible: Part 2 which portrayed the titular tsar as a crazy, paranoid murderer. Obviously, Stalin didn’t want his citizens associating rulers with ruthless killers.

Of course, no one was fooled by the government’s propaganda films . . . no one except Stalin himself. As the tyrant descended into madness, he began to take his cues from the movies he loved. After watching a drama about the life of Admiral Ushakov, he decided to totally revamp his navy. When he finished a film featuring happy, well-fed peasants, Stalin decided it was time for a new tax. After all, they could afford it, right? The great dictator was living in a fantasy world, and despite his onscreen heroism and wisdom, he was losing it. After all, this was the man who arrested his projectionist after the poor chap broke a film projector and spilled mercury everywhere. The charge? Attempting to poison Stalin. That story was never considered movie material.

Show Me The Proof

Telegraph: Why Stalin loved Tarzan and wanted John Wayne shot
Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism, by Roy Aleksandrovich Medvedev
The Rough Guide to Film, by Jessica Winter, Lloyd Hughes
Movies and Methods: Volume II, edited by Bill Nichols
Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R80329 / CC-BY-SA

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