In the Russian film, Circus, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov, a clear message is carried throughout the entire content of the film. One can automatically catch on to the film’s pro-Soviet message, which includes a positive portrayal of the country. This is first is shown when Marion finds refuge in the Soviet Union from the United States because she is the mother of an African American baby. The film tells the audience that the Soviet Union does not discriminate against any race and embraces everyone with open arms, portraying themselves in a positive manner and informing the nation on their improvement as a collective group. This specific message is also shown in the very end of the film, the closing scene includes the circus’ audience singing a lullaby to the baby and shunning the circus manager for his racist comments and actions towards the baby. The baby is passed around through the audience as everyone sings and lulls the baby to sleep (denoting their collective unity). At the very end of the film, Marion understands that her new home (the Soviet Union) is the right place for her and her baby and understands that the Soviet Union is the only place she can be happy and ends the movie with a song dedicated to her motherland.

This specific piece shows the change in the arts of the time, this film was made at the time where the arts were used for the purpose of the state. It is a prime example of where the Soviet Union is portrayed in a positive and welcoming way where the outside world could see its improvement and impeccable state.c

“To Catch Up and Overtake”

Watching Aleksandrov’s “Circus” it’s certainly hard to not notice the main message of the film, propaganda of national equality and tolerance among the soviet people. However, the plot itself is based on another interesting idea.

“To catch up and overtake [capitalists/America/etc]” is the slogan used for a really long time to explain the motivation of soviet people to work hard to reach the level of the Western countries and to be better then they are in everything. How the country without industry and proper level of economic and social development could be able to do it? The first idea, widely spread among “developing” countries during, probably, the last two centuries, is to try to copy the practice which are considered to be successful from Europe and, later on, from America. And here we can see a great illustrations to this slogan.

First of all, the whole story starts in the Moscow Circus, where the guest performer comes with a successful, popular in the entire world show “The flight to the Moon”. Watching it, the Circus’ director decides to, literally, copy it. He changes decorations, call it a different name, but the outline of the performance is absolutely the same. And the idea is that he’s taking the work and ideas of this Western artists, but has no longer to pay a huge compensation to these guest performers, because soviet people can do it themselves (and, probably, not care that much about the monetary stimuli).

Besides, one of the main characters, Marion Dickson is in many ways copied from German Marlene  Dietrich. It is seen not only in the appearance of Lyobov Orlova, but also in her dance while performing “The flight to the Moon”, which to a certain extent resembles Marlene’s scenes from “The Blue Angel”. Looking more broad at Aleksandrov and Orlova’s filmography, we can find some other analogies. So, in some way this film, as well as “Jolly Fellows”, is a try to build a “local”, soviet star of the level comparable to Dietrich’s in the world.

And it’s very surprising how both anti-western campaign and showing the “capitalistic” output which the country would be happy to copy are combined here so that it doesn’t create a dissonance in the mind of soviet people who are watching it. Does’t it resemble Orwell’s “doublethink” to the certain extent?

Discrimination in the West

Throughout Western history, racism has always been a problem.  The movie Circus took this into account, and criticizes the West for being discriminating and racist against black people, namely against the black baby that the woman in the circus belongs to.  It’s undeniable that there was such discrimination in the West, especially against black people (in the US) and against other minorities such as Jews throughout Europe.  However, that’s not to say that the USSR wasn’t any better.  Even though the USSR certainly may have stamped out discrimination legally, that’s not to say that the Russian people themselves weren’t racist, and didn’t discriminate against people of other ethnicities.  Rather than by ethnicity, the USSR categorized people according to what country they were from.  In a country with 180 languages, it’s hard to imagine that there wasn’t any discrimination.

A second thing that comes to mind is that at the end of the movie, the woman who stayed in the USSR was happy in the arms of the Soviet people.  However, in a country with a horrible totalitarian government and a ruined economy in which people starved to death, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could possible be happy.  Were this movie real life, that woman would soon be miserable and regret her decision.

Circus as a metaphor for Soviet Collectiveness

The film “Circus” portrays a white American actress Marion Dixon attempting to integrate into Soviet culture while struggling to conceal the existence of her black child. After fleeing from the racial West (specifically America), Marion moves to Moscow to join the circus with her manager, who blackmails her and threatens to expose her secret. However, Marion’s career in the circus provides her with a sense of community and belonging. When her manager attempts to humiliate her, he exposes her baby to the entire audience and is shocked when the audience warmly embrace the baby and proclaim that they do not discriminate against children. Marion is then welcomes warmly into Soviet life and the film concludes with her marching in a Soviet parade. In this film, the circus is the setting of Marion’s transition from an oppressive former life to a liberated new existence.

When Marion debuts at the circus, she performs alone. However, once she joins the circus, she develops a group of friends, a companionship and romance with ideal Soviet man Martinov and establishes herself not as an outsider with a secret, but as a part of a greater, benevolent collective. The circus represents a platform for which groups of individuals perform for their audience. When Martinov and Reya (and later Marion) perform, they do not perform as solo artists but always with a group. The tricks of the circus are so spectacular because they involve precision and multiple people (as was the case in the first scene when dogs were jumping over horses) – everything was timed, rehearsed and orchestrated, which made is all the more outstanding. By becoming part of the circus, Marion is able to appreciate and identify with the collective and is transitions into Soviet life.

Tsirk (1936), Soviets Avoid “Backwardness”

The film Tsirk (1936), though a skillfully crafted story, was without a doubt a propaganda vehicle for the Soviet Union.  The main character Mary appears to be an escapee of an apparently backwards society where she was chased out by an angry mob for having an interracial child. In order to escape from the mob, she jumped on a train where she met what appeared to be a circus actor who took her under his wing. They perform while traveling though the main focus is the Soviet Union.  While in the Soviet Union, specifically Moscow, Mary developed feelings for a young Soviet army man and refused to leave Moscow with the original man who saved her.  Mary’s “savior” tried to blackmail her into leaving by threatening to expose the child she had given birth too. Enlisting the help of a fellow circus actress, the woman chosen to replace Mary once she left, she avoids leaving Moscow on the train with her original “savior” and stays to perform the Soviet attempt at reaching the stratosphere.  Unfortunately her “savior” comes back to the circus and reveals to the massive crowd in attendance her interracial child. Rather than shun Mary, the crowd accepts her for who she is and mocks her “savior” for being racist.

Many instances of propaganda appeared throughout the film, however the strongest two that I saw were the industrial progress of the Soviets and surpassed backwardness. The culmination of the film arrived with the closing act, deemed the Soviet attempt at the stratosphere, which showcased the industrial capabilities of the Soviet Union. Using soviet technology and planning, they succeeded in reaching the stratosphere.  Besides the industrial strength of the Soviet Union, their progressive nature also appeared after Mary’s past was revealed. The soviets showed acceptance for Mary and her child and denounced the racist mindset of Mary’s “savior”.  This criticism of racism showed the Soviet’s great “forwardness”. However, we also know that there was a sizable anti-semitic movement in the country. The acceptance of other races, cultures, and ethnicities does not seem applicable to the Soviet Union at this time.

“Circus” and the Portrayal of Racism in the West

“Circus” is an exciting, dramatic movie from the 1930s. The main character, an American named Marion Dixon, escapes from America (specifically the South) during the era of Jim Crow laws, as she gave birth to a black child. Working in a circus in the Soviet Union, she conceals the knowledge of her child from almost everyone. In one of the final scenes of the movie, her manager (a German), storms into the ring with her child, attempting to disgrace her. His plan backfires, though, as the Soviet people welcome the baby with open arms, declaring that they love all children, no matter what their skin color.

Without a doubt, the director intended for the film to be propagandistic. Though it’s certainly possible to laugh at the scene where the child is being passed about (for trying not to be racist, and failing by modern standards), more interesting is the critique on the Western world. The movie criticizes the backwardness of America and Europe. The man who attempts to disgrace the American dancer/circus performer (who escaped her own country due to persecution) is a foreigner, from the Western world. The characters who appear progressive throughout this movie are Soviet people. The foreigners, on the other hand, either come from a nation which is portrayed as not being progressive, or are bigoted themselves.
The hypocrisy in the scene, though, comes from a Soviet minority which is not included. Though the Soviet Union championed itself as a progressive country, anti-Semitic sentiment still existed throughout. Despite Jewish people living in the Soviet Union, they are noticeably absent from the scene. They appear to be one of the ethnicities or groups which cannot be brought into the fold, raising the question of how progressive the Soviet Union actually was.

Modernization or Neo-traditionalism?

Did the Soviet Union achieve their goal to modernize? According to Terry Martin, author of the article Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism, argues the Soviet Union went did not achieve modernization instead they went to Neotradiononalism. What exactly is needed to reach modernization? Ernest Gellner believes modernization results from industrialization and to have a successful pre-industrial state you must achieve nationalism. Gellner believes one of the reasons the Soviet Union did not become a modernized state was Stalin forced industrialization on to the Soviets to rapidly which destroys cultures necessary to build a new high culture which is needed as the basis for a national identity needed to industrialize. Gellner also states the Bolsheviks follow an interpretation of nationality was to move the Soviets nationalist thoughts to the Bolsheviks sociological concept. In order to do this the Bolsheviks worked to remove national identity from the new high culture, with the idea of socialism not nationalism. But according to Gellner to achieve modernization is nationalism is needed. I found it interesting that even though the Soviet Union was culturally and ethically labeled and divided they were still unified on the ideas of Stalinism. And it was the Soviet Union’s devotion Stalinism and belief in socialism over nationalism prevented them from achieving modernization; instead they became a Neo-traditionalism state.

Nationalism and the Soviet State

In Trey Martin’s article, “Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism”, he argues that the Soviet state most clearly mirrors a neo-traditional model, primarily evident in the Soviet approach to nationality, which was initiated through industrialization. According to Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationality, industrialization destroyed village folk culture by uprooting peasantry and placing them into an urban industrial environment. This led to the formation of a new high, or shared, culture to establish a base for national identity. The Bolsheviks viewed nationalism as a potentially harmful and powerful mobilizing ideology. So, soviet policy sought to remove national identity from this newly developing high culture so that socialism (NOT nationalism) would unify the Soviet state. To avoid the emergence of a greater nationalism, the Soviet state sponsored national republics, each with their own national culture, which would eventually result in one high culture. How did the state hope to achieve a universal acceptance of a high culture through the promotion of Soviet citizens’ national identities?

One detail of this plan that stood out to me was the requirement of all children to attend native-language schools, even if their parents did not speak said native language and wanted their children to attend Russian language schools. What did this instruction in native language hope to achieve? Was this all done in order to prevent defensive nationalism? While this practice of ethnic labeling essentialized national identities, how did it help to achieve Stalin’s “revolution from above”?

Martin ends his article by stating that the Soviet state’s nationality program asserted itself as a neo-traditional model. The soviet state blended the most characteristic forms of modernization, such as universal education and industrialization, while also retaining features of traditional, pre-modern societies, as seen in the view of nationality as primordial. The emergence of new folk-national cultures was not natural but was the result of state invention and intervention. Inherent to understanding the article and putting it into context is the awareness of Stalin’s definition of a nation, that it is “not racial or tribal, but a historically constituted community of people”. The Soviet nationalist policy certainly promoted the idea of nationalism as not being tied or related to one race, but was it successful in developing any national identity at all? Was the over-arching goal of the support of individual nationalities to prevent unification? What did these policies achieve?




Modernization or Bust, Right?

The goal for the Soviet Union was to modernize and move to from a pre-indurstial state through modernization to socialism. Was this goal achieved, did the Soviet Union modernize? Martin argues even though the Soviet Union was reaching for beyond modernization, that due to extreme Soviet statism it arrived at a different location; neo-traditionalism.

Ernest Gellner’s theory of nationality states that in reality nations are the inevitable by product of the social organization of industrial society. The industrialization of any society leads to the massive uprooting and movement of peasants to an industrial environment, where the previously commonly shared village culture no longer exists. In order for the new industrial society to function, the creation of a new common culture is required. To ensure the emergence of a new written and codified common culture the state creates a universal education system. Thus creating a combined culture and national identity. These events must occur to lead to the development of a nation-state. However, there are two ways to interpret these nationalizing steps: the sociological view of nations as modern constructs or the popular view of nations as primordial.

The sociological interpretation of nationality is that the development of the modern national culture and identity is born out of the destruction of the old primordial folk culture. The primordial interpretation of nationality is that the changes are perceived as an awakening of the essence of ancient village-based folk culture. The Soviet Union’s nationality policies reflected the sociological interpretation of nationality and sought to separate national identity from high culture. Socialism would be the basis of high culture and be the unifying identity of the whole state. National identity would be used as a way to avoid a defensive nationalist movement and to do that all forms of national identity would be promoted. But, in the state’s attempt to avoid a defensive nationalist movement against itself, it actively intervened to manage identity categorization. The state’s centralized power and control over social and economic affairs enabled it to systematically ethnically label everyone. This constant practice of labeling and separating individuals based on national identity inadvertently turned nationality into a primordial hereditary status. Soviet industrialization successfully destroyed pre-industrial folk culture but the nationality policies failed to lead to a common Soviet national identity. The consequence of the Soviet Union’s failure to follow Gellner’s model and couple high culture with national identity led to the belief in primordial nationality. This result was the opposite of what the Soviet Union wanted.

The Soviet Union’s extreme statism allowed for the implementation of their nationality policies to inadvertently get morphed into a primordial view of nationality. The Soviet Union did not follow the path of Gellner’s theory towards modernization because the presence of extreme statism inhibited it. Instead it fell into a alternative form of modernization, one that was a mix of tradition and modern. The neo-traditional society of the Soviet Union had market driven modernization along with a variety of practices that resemble traditional pre-modern societies.


The Soviet Union and Failed Modernization

In its efforts to achieve modernization, the Soviet Union again faced the problem of failed execution. What Stalin and Lenin imagined for their new nation did not occur in reality. In his chapter, “Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism,” Terry Martin discusses the Soviet government’s methods for creating nationalism within the Soviet Union among the various nationalities included in the newly formed Soviet Union. Using quotations from Stalin’s 1913 pamphlet and a 1938 article from the Bolshevik journal, Martin argues that the Party’s shift in its understanding of nationalism as a by-production of modernization to its emphasis on nationalism’s connection with primordial roots.[1] Through a comparison with the ideas of a modern theorist on nationalism, Ernest Gellner, and an analysis of the government’s practices, Martin draws conclusions regarding the outcome of the Soviet attempts at modernization through establishing multiple forms of nationalism throughout the country.

It must be noted that the Soviet government sought to emphasize and support nationalism in order to transcend nationalism. By allowing various ethnic groups within the Soviet Union to create national schools and maintain their national languages, the government believed they could indoctrinate the diverse groups into one nation as Soviet citizens.[2] However, similar to its collectivization process, the Soviet government’s intended implementation and outcome for modernization did not occur in reality. Martin concludes that the main reason for this stems from the government’s practice of determining that ethnicity was inherited and thus connected to a person’s nationality. Therefore, national identity must be primordial.

Throughout the chapter, Martin declares that the actual execution of using nationalism as a path towards modernization fails in the Soviet Union. Instead, the Soviet Union achieved neo-traditionalism, an alternative form of modernization. Neo-traditionalism possess the characteristics of pre-modern societies but consists of all the processes associated with modernization including industrialization, urbanization, secularization, and universal literacy and education.[3] Due to its failure of implementing its desired system of nationalism, the Soviet government did not fully obtain the form of modernization they were seeking. Instead they achieved a modified form, neo-traditionalism.

[1] Terry Martin, “Modernization or Neo-traditionalism? Ascribed Nationality and Soviet Primordialism.” In Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices edited by David L. Hoffman and Yanni Kotsonis. London: Macmillan Press, 2000: 162.

[2] Ibid., 167.

[3] Ibid., 175.