A critical commentary on the film ‚Turksib‘ | The Soviet-Russian View on Central Asia in the Period of the First Five-Year Plan

On the importance of the Soviet film ‚Turksib‘

The strong positive attention that the film „Turksib“ by Soviet documentary filmmaker Viktor Turin attracted in Europe and the USA is best understood against the background of the period of the great depression in the capitalist countries. For many western left-wing intellectuals and democrats, who were not aware of the extent of the crimes of the system under Stalin, the first five-year plan was indeed a positive alternative. Not least through the propagandistic inclusion of films, the Soviet leadership managed to create a huge historical narrative even in the capitalist West. The realisation of the monumental project and the film associated with it also had a correspondingly great influence on young filmmakers from the 1930s in Western Europe.

The early Soviet state stood firmly by a teleological and evolutionary narrative of history. […]  Subsequently, as the 1920s evolved, the Communist Party increased its demand for cultural products that served ‘progress’ by representing it visually.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 186

Lenin had called tsarist Russia a ‚prison of the peoples‘. Accordingly, the Soviet power did not want to be perceived as an imperial colonial power. And of course, there were also apparent differences, above all the Soviets did not reproduce racist stereotypes to the same extent by essentially attributing the backwardness of peoples to them. But the implementation of the socialist utopia was inevitably connected with a devaluation of existing ways of life.

The construction of mass utopia was the dream of the twentieth century. It was the driving ideological force of industrial modernization in both its capitalist and socialist forms. The dream was itself an immense material power that transformed the natural world, investing industrially produced objects and built environments with collective, political desire.

Susan Buck-Morss, 2004, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, p. 1

The Soviet project of proletarian internationalism was inevitably linked to a devaluation of all regional cultures. The ‚Turksib‘ was not built in one cultureless space, but in many culturally different spaces. And these were supposed to be changed, not least by the construction of the ‚Turksib‘, and transformed in the sense of the Soviet system.

On the Orientalisation of the Soviet South

The film ‚Turksib‘ begins with negative labelling of the space: ‚Turkestan in Central Asia – a land of burning heat. Immediately afterwards, the first positive effects of the central power are presented using the example of cotton cultivation, which was already introduced in an industrialized form during the time of Tsarist Russia.

The historical backwardness of the ‚East‘ (as well as the indigenous peoples of the north’) was regarded as an empirical fact. In the triumphant teleological master-narrative of the ideology of modernization […], ‘to catch up’ with the advanced nations was the primary, indeed urgent, task for those who were ‘left behind’ by history.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 197

The objectives of the film, which Turin develops in the further course of the film, are therefore clear from the very beginning: the people, space and the practices carried out in it are deficient, modernisation comes from outside, from the Russian heartland. Metaphorically, the railway stands for this modernisation – development is a race against time, a war against time, which manifests itself in people, things and buildings in traditional space.

For the Orientals of the empire, however, the October Revolution did not translate into a genuine rupture with the past, and this other potential of the Revolution remained largely unrealized, a victim to the culture of the progressive left, to which Soviet Marxists belonged. One very important political implication of the linear narrative of Marxist historicism was a devotion to a hierarchy of cultural formations. […] In practice and conception, the Soviet approaches to the peripheries of the new state came to resemble those of the late imperial era. It should be noted here that at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century, deeply influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, the Russian political and cultural elite had justified the empire’s expansionist enterprise on the Asian frontiers as a philanthropic civilizing mission motivated by a desire to push back the frontiers of poverty, disease, tyranny, and, of course, lawlessness. Likewise, in the Soviet progressive historical teleology, non-European peoples still lived in an earlier phase of the evolutionary march of human history—a liability that had to be remedied at all costs.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 188

Without the railway line, old Turkestan would be a desolate and barren country. Turin makes this clear throughout his film. The railway and, at one point in the movie, an aeroplane launch an attack on this old, underdeveloped world. The conquerors of the ancient world are scientists in uniformed clothing, who use Western Russian technology to bring civilisation into, the film suggests, barbaric lands. The traditional architecture lies in ruins and the people, the film implies, are waiting to be woken from their sleep. Just as the traditional world is in a state of stagnation from a Soviet perspective, so too are people’s bodies stagnating and in some form of illness and lack of performance and motivation.

The hope of overcoming the disabilities and pains that illness can inflict on the human body, gave these simulated healthy bodies of the Soviet dream-world (in which cinema played a significant role) a utopian impetus. Defeat of disease, among the other brutal effects of nature on the corporeal body (such as hunger, cold and death), was yet another promise of modernity with its drive for scientific and technological advancement. But this utopian impulse, too, became incorporated into the Soviet ‘phantasmagoria of production’; in other words, by discursively linking disease to the body that resides in ‘pre-modernity’—the body of the peasant and the Oriental—this utopian potential became a legitimizing force to control and regulate. As a result, in its articulation of the East, the dominant discourse in post-revolutionary Russia came increasingly to resemble that of the late Imperial era. Those who lived on the Oriental periphery of the new Soviet state, whose cultures and ways of life were deemed as ‘vestiges of the past,’ came under immense pressure to ‘speed up’ in order to become contemporaneous with their age. Therefore, the unhealthy bodies and veiled women of ‘the East’ came to represent (signify) the very antithesis of modernity, first in the cosmological narrative of Soviet historiography, and later in the simulated world of the Soviet cinema, particularly since the late 1920s.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 188

The utopia of technical progress turns out to be a dystopia from the perspective of the colonized worlds

The mass culture propagated by Soviet power is structurally not much different from its counterpart, the Western capitalist project. People are not understood as individuals but as abstract, interchangeable subjects. While in Western mass culture, this is the consumer, in the Soviet project, it is the collectivised Soviet human being.

People and things, as well as spaces and times, are industrially transformed through the use of machines. In the film ‚Turksib‘, it is the railway that runs a path of mass culturalisation through Central Asia, connecting people and spaces with the people and spaces of Siberia.

In this regard, the words of S. M. Dimanshtein (in 1930), the influential official of the Commissariat of Nationalities, are exceptionally telling:

The advanced peoples are tearing along in the fast locomotive of history . . .  At the same time, the backward people have to ‘race like the wind’… in order to catch up.

Dimanshtein (1930), cited via Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, p. 197

And in the words of Anatoli Skachko (1930), the head of the Minorities Section of the Commissariat of Nationalities:

The whole of the USSR, in the words of Comrade Stalin, needs ten years to run the course of development that took Western Europe fifty to a hundred years, then the small peoples of the north, in order to catch up with the advanced nations of the USSR, must, during the same ten years, cover the road of development that took the Russian people one thousand years to cover.

Anatoli Skachko (1930), cited via Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, p. 197

In ‚Turksib‘ this ‚race against time‘ is visualised in the famous montage scenes at the end of the film. On the one hand, Turin shows the slow movement through space using the example of a group of nomads. On the other hand, he contrasts the ever faster and ultimately unstoppable movement of the steam locomotive through geographical space. The scenes change more and more quickly; the film cuts become ever harder. With the construction of the railway – this is the impression the film wants to create in the viewer – it succeeds in transforming the rough, almost hostile geographical space of Central Asia.

Looking back, from the ‘privileged’ position of a contemporary viewer from the East, I find these images as ultimately contradictory. A question that keeps coming back: What of the other consequences of the ‘arrival’ of machines for the peoples of the Soviet periphery? Of that, we see close to nothing. Concealed behind the unity of the cinema masses of Soviet films are the inequities, if not atrocities, to which those who were deemed ‘vestiges of the past’ were subjected. In 1921, it should be remembered, before the Soviet filmic airplanes came into being (and long before nearby Afghanistan would be subjected to successive waves of shock modernization), the city of Bukhara experienced aerial bombardments. The discrepancies between the real and the dreamworld of the simulated universe of the Soviet documentary filmmaking point to the phantasmagoric traits of this cinema. During and since the Five Year Plan, the social project to recreate the real, with all its heterogeneity, in the shape of the virtual reality of collective fantasies rendered a phantasmagoric quality to these dream images.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 200.

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Pictures: All pictures of film scenes are screenshots of publicly available versions of the film ‘Turksib’ by Viktor Turin.

References:

Emile de Brigard (2003): The History of Ethnographic Film. Paul Hockings (Ed.). Principles of Visual Anthropology (235-245). De Gruyter: Berlin, New York.

Susan Buck-Morss (2004): Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge.

Farbod Honarpisheh (2005) The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, Critical Middle Eastern Studies, 14:2, 185-201, DOI:10.1080/10669920500135561

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