The Klassiki Companion: the cinema of the Soviet Thaw

The Klassiki Companion is our beginners’ guide to the key filmmakers, movements, and concepts in the cinema of Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. In this edition, we introduce the cinema of the Soviet Thaw: the post-war, post-Stalinist era of cultural freedom that briefly transformed cinema across the USSR.

Walking the Streets of Moscow (dir. Georgii Daneliya, 1964)

When Nikita Khrushchev took to the floor at the twentieth Party Congress in 1956, he had a lot to get through. Khrushchev’s infamous “Secret Speech”, in which he inveighed against the abuses of the Stalinist era and its “cult of personality”, fired the starting pistol on de-Stalinisation across much of the eastern bloc. Over four hours, Khrushchev delved into the history of the purges and Stalin’s personal paranoia. But he also found time for some homespun film criticism, lambasting the propagandistic panegyrics that had come to define Soviet cinema in the preceding years. “Stalin knew the country and agriculture only from films,” he said. “Many films pictured collective farm life such that tables groaned from the weight of turkeys and geese. Evidently, Stalin thought that it was actually so.” It might seem incongruous that Khrushchev would make time for cinema during such a momentous oration. But his comments spoke to the central role that film had played in creating and upholding the Stalinist mythos, as well as the central role that it would have in the social, cultural, and political liberalisation drive that became known in the USSR as “the Thaw”, in reference to a 1954 novel by the countercultural author Ilya Erenburg.

In the late 1950s, as social housing was built en masse and a new minimum wage introduced, culture was opening up. Critical writers were published, international artists exhibited and distributed, and cultural exchange encouraged. But it was in film, more than any other medium, that the Thaw created lasting change. Production and consumption exploded: by the mid-1960s, the USSR’s average annual output was 150 films, and in the 1960s, Russia had one of the highest theatre attendance rates per capita in the world. The revival of Soviet film had parallels in the post-war industries of France, Italy, and Poland – and the French New Wave, Italian Neo-Realism, and Polish Film School all influenced a fresh generation of Soviet film students with newfound access to foreign material. Filmmakers began to replace bureaucrats within the major studios, which also instituted new practical courses to educate the next generation of artistic talent. The directing workshops run by Mikhail Romm at VGIK film school and later Mosfilm – which nurtured the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky, Larisa Shepitko, and Gleb Panfilov – have since been cited as ground zero for the Soviet auteurism of the sixties and seventies. The Thaw changed the terms for Soviet filmmaking long after the wave of liberalisation had broken and been replaced by the “Stagnation” of the long Brezhnev years

Spring on Zarechnaya Street (dir. Marlen Khutsiev, 1956)

Back to normality

The Thaw revivified old subject matter and brought new topics to the screen: comedies (Eldar Ryzanov’s Carnival Night) and proto-science fiction films (Chebotaryov and Kazansky’s Amphibian Man); films exploring the lives of the young (Marlen Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty); films about the hustle and bustle of urban centres (Georgii Daneliya’s Walking the Streets of Moscow). Perhaps the biggest thematic shift, though, was the broader reorientation of Soviet film around ordinary people. Where Stalinist film had been populated by superheroic Stakhanovites and subscribed to the metaphor of society as a transnational Family (with Uncle Joe as the pater familias), Thaw film made room for private life and small-F family drama.

The keyword in critical circles was “sincerity” – shorthand for a kind of revolutionary romanticism in reaction to Stalinism’s “varnishing of reality”. “It is the task of the masters of Soviet cinema to depict life and people’s emotional being in all their fullness, depth and contradictory complexity,” wrote critic Olga Shmarova in 1953. “The sphere of private life must not be forgotten.” In a famous article defending Marlen Khutsiev’s 1958 feature Two Fyodors against conservative critics, Viktor Nekrasov wrote of the film: “It has the most important thing: the truth of human relationships. I forgive it, because it is a film about people – a film with errors but without the most terrible thing, lies.”

The keyword in critical circles was “sincerity” – shorthand for a kind of revolutionary romanticism in reaction to Stalinism’s “varnishing of reality”

Khutsiev was a common reference point in the late 1950s. Along with Iosif Kheifitz’s The Big Family (1955), it was the Georgian-born auteur’s 1956 romantic drama Spring on Zarechnaya Street that crystallised many of the nascent trends of Thaw filmmaking. Set in a provincial Ukrainian town undergoing a post-war construction boom, the film centres on the charming, odd couple romance between a literature teacher and a happy-go-lucky factory worker (Nina Ivanova and Nikolai Rybnikov), refreshingly free of cliché and full of feeling. In the words of film scholar Sasha Prokhorov, “Khutsiev himself conceived of his films as reflecting the values of the period: the equal importance of the individual and the communal point of view, self-reflexivity of the new generation, and [a] return to the ideals of the revolution.”

The Cranes Are Flying (dir. Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)

Shadows of the war

This insistence on sincerity and interest in ordinary protagonists also informed Thaw film’s treatment of the war and its lingering aftermath. Stalinist film had made little room for the brutal trauma inflicted by the war on ordinary citizens; now, that trauma demanded recognition. The Soviet Union lost between 10 and 14 per cent of its entire population during the conflict: 27 million dead, around 35 per cent of all Soviet men between the ages of 20 and 50 killed in the space of four years.

It was yet another Georgian import into the Moscow studio system, Mikhail Kalatozov, who created the most vivid war cinema of the Thaw with his 1957 melodrama The Cranes are Flying, one of the most influential titles in Soviet film history. This was the first of three features that Kalatozov, who had been working since the 1930s, made during the Thaw with cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, followed by Letter Never Sent (1959) and I Am Cuba (1964). Urusevsky’s swooping, liberated camera and the electrifying performance of lead Tatiana Samoilova won Cranes the Palme d’Or – the only time a Soviet film did so. Samoilova plays Veronika, who loses both her parents and her beloved Boris in the war and is forced to enter into an uneasy surrogate domesticity with the dead man’s family. Cranes was one of the first Thaw films that foregrounded narratives of female suffering (Grigorii Chukhrai’s The Forty-first, 1956; Larisa Shepitko’s Wings, 1966). Veronika’s Tolstoyan arc was a radical departure from the secular national saints of earlier war films. Indeed, there are no heroes here: as Masha Shpolberg writes of the doomed lovers at the heart of the film, “there is nothing exceptional about either of them – nothing, that is, except their shared sensitivity, spontaneity, and sincerity.”

Chukhrai wrote of his film Ballad of a Soldier: “I was incensed that even good films featured scenes of soldiers going into battle and dying ‘beautifully’… In the war I saw a lot of death and I know that death is never beautiful. It is amoral to delight in it”

Two years later, Grigorii Chukhrai expanded on Kalatazov’s reimagination of wartime tragedy with Ballad of a Soldier. The film concerns a 19-year-old soldier, Alyosha Skvortsov, who receives a few days leave from the front and decides to return to his small home village to help his mother fix her roof. He is repeatedly delayed and waylaid by his encounters with, and efforts to help, people on the way, including the young girl Shura, with whom he develops a chaste, innocent romance. Although the film’s presentation of a Russian soldier as a beloved “liberator” may sit uneasily today, this is no celebration of martial aggression. Indeed, Chukhrai envisaged Ballad as an attack on the very notion of “heroism”, writing in his 2001 memoir My Cinema: “the film had lived within me since the war in the sense of bright pity; I felt that the film was my duty to the memory of those who’d gone to battle and not returned… I was incensed that even good films featured scenes of soldiers going into battle and dying ‘beautifully’ before the viewers’ eyes… In the war I saw a lot of death and I know that death is never beautiful. It is amoral to delight in it.” Audiences and critics reacted strongly to this vision of modest service. In the words of scholar Josephine Woll, “The wounds cruelly if brilliantly exposed by Cranes were healed, two years later, by Ballad.” When the film was shown at Cannes alongside the arthouse fare of Fellini, Antonioni, and Buñuel, Le Monde noted that “from time to time it’s nice to see normal and healthy people on screen.”

I Am Twenty (dir. Marlen Khutsiev, 1965)

Return of the chill

The Thaw was always an ambiguous and attenuated phenomenon. Liberalisation at home was accompanied by Soviet intervention abroad: the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising; the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961; the Cuban Missile Crisis. When exactly the Thaw ended is an open question, but few would argue that by the time Soviet tanks put down the Prague Spring in 1968, the forces of reaction had their hands back on the levers of cultural and social policy. In truth, the artistic advances of the period had been met with resistance from the start. Khrushchev, who was deposed as General Secretary in 1964, was a staunch conservative when it came to aesthetic matters. An exhibition of young artists at Moscow’s Manege in 1962 so incensed him that he convened a meeting of select cultural grandees at the Kremlin the following year in order to lambast them for their perceived moral failings.

Special ire was reserved at this meeting for Khutsiev, arguably the progenitor of the cinematic Thaw – specifically his 1962 feature Ilich’s Gate. This freewheeling portrait of Muscovite youth thus represented both the pinnacle of the Thaw and its incipient decline. The film follows three young men navigating the demands of love and labour in the fluid world of post-Stalinist Moscow. Khutsiev brought in a then-22-year-old screenwriting graduate from VGIK, Gennadii Shpalnikov, in order to make the vernacular, overlapping dialogue “authentically” youthful; the handheld camerawork from Margarita Pilikhina incorporates documentary footage. Following Khrushchev’s outburst, Khutsiev recut the film as I Am Twenty (1965), later reassembling a third version incorporating aspects of both previous cuts (this is the version available on Klassiki). His next film, July Rain (1967), leaned even further into the growing sense of generational tension. In contrast to the “sincere” recreations of the war found in Kalatozov and Chukhrai, July Rain deconstructs the ideal of commemoration.

Khutsiev’s I Am Twenty, a freewheeling portrait of Muscovite youth, represented both the pinnacle of the Thaw and its incipient decline

This greater cynicism about the war and the potential for personal and social recovery had been captured a few years earlier in the debut feature of an auteur who would go on to define Soviet arthouse film throughout the Brezhnev era. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) has none of the hard-won optimism of Cranes or Ballad. The story of an orphaned child who runs dangerous reconnaissance missions for the Red Army, Ivan’s Childhood presents us with an apocalyptic vision of the world up in arms. Ivan is driven by pain and hatred; in a symbolic sense, he is dead before the film even begins. Tarkovsky later wrote that “the boy immediately struck me as a character that had been destroyed, shifted off its axis by the war.” For Sasha Prokhorov, Ivan’s Childhood “spotlights not art as redemption, but the art of despair.”

From around 1966, censorship of the film industry ratcheted up a notch. Films that could be read as critical of the Soviet state were banned with increasingly regularity – Andrei Konchalovsky’s 1967 collective farm drama Asya’s Happiness, for instance – but so too were largely apolitical titles that strayed too far into stylistic “formalism”. The first two features from the great Kira Muratova, Brief Encounters (1967) and The Long Farewell (1971) are among the most famous victims of this renewed aesthetic conservatism. Tarkovsky’s follow up to Ivan’s Childhood, Andrei Rublev (1966), was recut and denied a broad domestic release. A late-sixties movement in Ukrainian cinema towards the poetic expression of national identity led to fresh crackdowns in the republic. The next era of Soviet film had begun.

Explore our collection of titles from the 1960s here.