The Court of the Red Tsar

Every one of Stalin’s houses had its own private cinema, and in his last years, the cinema became not only his favourite entertainment but also a source of political inspiration. It was one of the venues from which he ruled the Soviet Empire: this was cinematocracy – rule by cinema.

Stalin loved movies, but he was much more than a movie-buff. The new Communist Party archives in Moscow, and the recently opened personal papers of Stalin, reveal that he fancied himself a super-movie-producer/director/screenwriter as well as supreme censor, suggesting titles, ideas and stories, working on scripts and song lyrics, lecturing directors, coaching actors, ordering re-shoots and cuts and, finally, passing the movies for showing.

So, while in Hitler’s Third Reich, even Goebbels, minister of culture and enlightenment, did not perform all these roles, in Soviet Russia, Stalin considered himself (in modern terms) Sam Goldwyn and Harvey Weinstein, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, Joe Eszterhas and Richard Curtis, rolled into one.

After late meetings in his office, Stalin would suggest a movie and then some dinner. Leading the way through Kremlin alleyways and courtyards, he took his seat in the front row of the Great Kremlin Palace cinema with Beria, Molotov and his cultural supremo, Andrei Zhdanov.

"What will Comrade Bolshakov show us today?" Stalin would ask. His terrified cinema minister, Ivan Bolshakov, had to gauge Stalin’s mood. If it was good, Bolshakov could risk a new Soviet movie.

Stalin took his role as supreme censor very seriously. Lenin had said "For us, cinema is the most important of all the arts," and Stalin agreed. From the early 1930s, he had supervised every aspect of the huge Soviet film industry, promoting not only Socialist Realism but also cheerful jazz comedies.

When he saw the first of these, Grigori Aleksandrov’s Jolly Fellows in 1934, he was so pleased he summoned the director: "I felt I’d had a month’s holiday!" Then he quipped: "Take it away from the director! He might spoil it!"

He commissioned three more jazz comedies including his favourite Volga Volga (1938). In his archives, I found that he had handwritten the rhyming lyrics for some of the songs: "A joyful song is easy for the heart/ It does ever bore you/ And all the villages great and small adore that tune/ While the big cities sing the song!"

Stalin took great interest in every director and movie: the archives show his suggestions for titles and his shortlists of screenwriters who were often summoned for briefings with the maestro. The archives are filled with line-by-line numbered comments on all sorts of movies such as Dovzhenko’s Aerograd (1935).

He took an even more detailed interest in films in which he appeared as a character: hence, for Aron’s Lenin in 1918 (1939), he supervised the scriptwriter Aleksei Kapler who later outraged him by becoming his daughter Svetlana’s first love. (Kapler was arrested.) As war with Nazi Germany grew closer, Stalin shot two of his movie commissars and commissioned films to promote his new nationalist-Bolshevik paradigm, calling on Sergei Eisenstein to direct Aleksander Nevsky (1938) about the Russian hero defeating Teutonic invaders.

The archives reveal how closely the Politburo followed this one director. After triumphs such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), Eisenstein had left for Hollywood and then returned. He was, Stalin told his deputy Kaganovich, "a Trotskyite if not worse" but also "very talented".

Kaganovich wanted to stop Eisenstein making films (as well as shoot him), because he "we can’t trust [him], he’ll waste millions and give us nothing because he’s against Socialism", but Molotov and Zhdanov saved him, and Stalin agreed.

Later in the war, Stalin gave Eisenstein his biggest blockbuster, Ivan the Terrible parts one (1945) and two (1958) – the story of the Tsar on whom Stalin based himself. He adored part one but part two, when Ivan launches his own insane Great Terror, was different. In 1947, Bolshakov showed him the finished part two; it appalled Stalin: "It’s not a movie, it’s a nightmare!"

Eisenstein appealed desperately to Stalin and was summoned to a masterclass. Ivan was Stalin’s alter ego. When Stalin attacked Eisenstein’s Ivan, he was defending himself: "Your Tsar is indecisive, he resembles Hamlet. Ivan was great, wise…"

Zhdanov, also present, chimed in: "Ivan the Terrible seems a hysteric in Eisenstein’s version." Then Stalin added tellingly: "Ivan kisses his wife for much too long."

Indeed, Stalin was very prim: once, when Bolshakov showed him a movie with a nude dancer in it, he asked: "Are you running a brothel, Bolshakov?" and stormed out.

In Volga Volga, Stalin was shocked by a passionate French kiss and had it excised so furiously that, for a while, all kissing was banned from all Soviet movies.

Back in the dictatorial movie seminar, Stalin talked to Eisenstein about his own Terror: "Ivan was very cruel. You can show he was cruel. But you must show why he needed to be cruel."

Also, Ivan’s beard was too long. Eisenstein promised to shorten the kiss and the beard – and to justify the cruelty.

At a typical movie night with Stalin, when the showing was over, he would often ask: "Where have we seen that actor before?" He frequently asked actors who were playing him in films over for dinner: once he asked the best "Stalin", "How will you play Stalin?" "As the people see him," replied the clever actor. "The right answer," said Stalin, presenting him with a bottle of brandy.

After the showing, Stalin asked his favourite "fellow intellectual": "What will Comrade Zhdanov tell us?" Sometimes Stalin joked about the director, "If this one’s no good, we’ll sign his death sentence." Bolshakov rang the directors next day to tell them Stalin’s comments without attributing them to anyone.

Bolshakov once authorised a movie for national release without asking Stalin, who was on holiday. At the next showing, Stalin asked him: "On whose authority did you release the movie?"

Bolshakov froze: "I consulted and decided." "You consulted and decided, you decided and consulted," intoned Stalin. "You decided." He then left the room in a doomladen silence. Eventually, his head popped round the door: "You decided right."

Bolshakov was right to sweat: life and death was decided during the showings. When a projectionist broke his machine, spilling mercury, he was arrested and accused of trying to poison Stalin. If Stalin was in a bad mood, Bolshakov would show an old favourite or, even better, a foreign film.

The running gag was that Bolshakov was expected to interpret but he did not really speak English so he spent most of his days with an interpreter "learning" the films.

At court, Stalin’s magnates would honk with laughter at Bolshakov’s absurdly obvious translations: "He’s running. He’s stopped…" "What’s he doing now?" guffawed Beria. But Stalin never got a proper interpreter: he was a creature of habit and liked Bolshakov (who survived him to serve Khrushchev as deputy trade minister, before dying in 1980).

Stalin inherited Goebbels’s movie library after the war; he loved Chaplin and films such as In Old Chicago (1937) and It Happened One Night (1934). In the archives, I found a document requesting Tarzan the Ape Man (1932).

Westerns with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable were also favourites. Stalin the solitary, pitiless and Messianic egocentric seemed to associate himself with the lone cowboy riding shotgun into town to deal our brutal justice. Hence, he liked director John Ford’s work – and John Wayne.

Khrushchev recalled how Stalin would ideologically criticise cowboy movies – and then order more. But, in spite of his enjoyment of the films, one source claimed that Stalin once declared at the end of a showing that Wayne, a vociferous anti-Communist, was a threat to the cause and should be assassinated.

Whether Stalin was speaking drunkenly in the early hours, or whether he meant what he said, such was his power that, either way, the order was quite likely to be executed. Assassins were supposedly sent to LA but failed to kill Wayne before Stalin’s death. When Khrushchev met "Duke" in 1958, he told him "that was the decision of Stalin in his last mad years. I rescinded the order."

Stalin imposed politics on film but also film on reality: increasingly, he seemed to believe the movies and so base policy on them. Stalin revelled in films about thieves murdering their cohorts:

"What a fellow! Look how he did it!" Khrushchev found this "very depressing". He admired gangster movies, telling Churchill that Molotov should stay in Chicago "with the rest of the mobsters!"

During the war, he often used movies as a diplomatic device to get a point across: on his first visit to Moscow, Churchill was invited to watch German Rout Before Moscow (1942). However trivial they may seem to an outsider, the film showings were also as much a part of the imperial ritual at the court of the Red Tsar as the elaborate etiquette of the French nobles around the royal chamberpot at Versailles.

Stalin’s attitude to Zhdanov – his favourite leader, heir apparent and "fellow intellectual" – meant he always asked for his view of the films first. The person invited to sit next to Stalin was protected.

But it could also show Stalin’s view of foreign policy: late in the war, some American generals and politicians were his guests but when it came to the cinema, Stalin summoned his old Georgian pal, Kavtaradze, deputy foreign minister, to sit next to him.

"I can’t," said Kavtaradze. "Why not?" asked Stalin. "You’ve guests!" Stalin, now the conqueror of most of eastern Europe, sneered drunkenly: "Fuck them!"

When he saw a movie about Catherine the Great’s Admiral Ushakov, he suddenly decided to build a vast fleet, quoting from the movie. When he decided to tax the impoverished peasants and was told they were too poor to pay, he pointed to one of his own propaganda films that had no resemblance to reality. Another time, the sight of some missile in a propaganda movie inspired him to order a whole new line of weaponry.

After one of his screenings he would say, "Let’s watch another" or "Anyone for dinner?" Occasionally, he’d invite some of the actors or directors to join them. It was no coincidence that he watched a movie on February 28, the last night before his stroke.

None the less, all the time, this homicidal movie-buff insisted on pretending that he was merely giving "advice" to his filmmakers. "You’re a free man," he liked to say. "You don’t have to listen to me. This is just a suggestion from an ordinary viewer. Take it or leave it." Of course, they always took it.

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