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.

Not Colonial but Not Much Better: Backwardness and the Quest for Civilization

While colonial empires strove to emphasize the difference between the “ruler” and the “ruled”, modern mobilizational states sought to homogenize the entire population. Modern mobilizational states, such as that of the Soviet Union and to the Kemalist regime, dealt directly with their citizens through destroying traditions and “micro-managing” society. Both the Soviet regime and the Kemalist regime emerged in the disorganization following WWI and both pursued “shock modernization” programs which involved radical and intense intervention in society and culture, including the spread of literacy, secularization, and the integration of women into public life. In the Soviet Union, local nationalist groups were allowed, such as the Jadids, as long as they fit into the structure of the soviet regime. In regards to the “emancipation” of women, both the Jadids and the Bolsheviks attacked the paranji-chachvon (a long robe and veil that completely covered Muslim womens’ bodies) as a health hazard and a means of oppression, and encouraged women to abandon and burn the garments. This campaign against traditional Muslim garb is comparable to the Kemalist regime in that the veil was considered a sign of backwardness and similarly linked to health hazards. The Kemalist regime and the Soviet Union stood at odds to traditional ideas of colonialism in that both regimes attempted to wholly transform Muslim gender norms and the social order, as opposed to simply condemning the norms in order to legitimize their imperial order. In the Soviet Union in particular, there were considerable efforts to deploy state power in order to remake society, an effort towards transformation that was not synonymous with colonial powers. The victims of the cultural revolution were not one group of peoples or a specific ethnic group but the traditional ways of life in general. Although the the Soviet and Kemalist states professed a civilizing mission similar to that of colonial empires, their power was utilized not to exclude people but to force them to participate. Such a goal of integration conflicted with that of colonial empires. However, the seemingly less harmful and often well-intentioned effort to homogenize society did not make the Soviet or Kemalist states any less brutal, aggressive, or invasive than colonial empires. For example, the Kemalist regime brought all education under state supervision and into a secular agenda, banning religious teachings in attempt to coincide the individual’s thinking with national ideals. Such actions, even though the focus is on integration as opposed to segregation, forced people to abruptly abandon cherished traditions and ideals, inevitably encouraging resistance and outrage. While colonial empires employed intermediaries to transform their colonies, modern mobilizational states cut away intermediaries to directly focus state power on transforming the whole of their society, forcing change upon all individuals, not just the “colonized”, and therefore surpassing the ruthlessness of a colonial empire.