Culture of Ukraine, Ukraine

Translated by: Christine Chraibi

During a news briefing, Vlada Lytovchenko, Chairperson of the International Fund for Cultural Cooperation announced that UNESCO has drawn up a list of five films that will be screened at a festival of world masterpieces for its 70th anniversary. Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s film Zemlya (Earth) will be among them.

Zemlya is the last film of Dovzhenko’s epic trilogy – Zvenyhora-Arsenal-Zemlya – shot in the summer and autumn of 1929. At the International Referendum in Brussels in 1958, distinguished critics ranked Dovzhenko’s film among the twelve best films in the history of world cinema.

In 2012, the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre in Kyiv began to restore Zemlya from the original 1930 version. Musical accompaniment to the restored film was entrusted to Dakhabrakha, a famous Ukrainian ethno-chaos group.

An original poster of Dovzhenko's Zemlya

An original poster of Dovzhenko’s Zemlya

Zemlya (Earth)

Dovzhenko’s poetic style brings to life the collective experience of Ukrainian peasants, examining natural cycles through his epic montage. He explores life, death, violence, sex, and other issues as they relate to collective farms.

Portraying an idealistic vision of Communism filmed just before the advent of Stalinism and liquidation of the kulak class, Zemlya was viewed negatively by many Soviets because of its exploration of death and other dark issues that come with revolution.  The kulaks represented a category of relatively affluent farmers in the later Russian Empire and the early Soviet Union.

The plot of the film centers on the murder of a peasant leader by a Ukrainian landowner, who opposes Moscow’s plan to collectivize agriculture in the region. The simple peasants support collectivization, and the landowner becomes enraged when the farmers manage to obtain a tractor. The enmity between the two factions was indeed reflective of current events in Ukraine at the time—though peasants were not very eager to turn their farms into communal enterprises.


Oleksandr Dovzhenko

Oleksandr Dovzhenko: a short biography

Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko (1894–1956) made several Soviet cinema classics in the 1920s and 1930s, but his heroic epics of peasants triumphing over a harsh, forbidding landscape never quite fully fit the political ideologies of the Stalinist era. Cultural historians rank Dovzhenko with the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin, two other great Soviet Russian directors that were his contemporaries, but his work was largely forgotten in the years following his death.

Dovzhenko was born on September 12, 1894, in Sosnytsia, a town in northern Ukraine in Chernihiv oblast. His father was an illiterate farmer descended from the Kozaks, the large tribes of warrior–horsemen that dominated Ukrainian history.

As a young man, Dovzhenko studied in the city of Hlukhiv to become a teacher, and from 1914 to 1919 taught school. He grew disinterested with his career choice, and took up the study of economics in Kyiv just as the Bolshevik revolution gained momentum. He served a year in the Red Army during the Russian civil war and then joined the Borotbisti, a Ukrainian peasant party that supported an independent Ukraine during this brief period of sovereignty (UNR). When that party was dissolved, Dovzhenko joined the Ukrainian Communist Party.

The party affiliation helped him land a job with the Ukrainian Commissariat of Foreign Affairs, and he became the chargé d’affaires at the Ukrainian Embassy in Warsaw in 1921. He was later posted to the Ukrainian Embassy in Berlin and took up the study of painting with the German Expressionist Erich Heckel. Returning home, he settled in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and found work as a political cartoonist and illustrator. He also fell in with a circle of leftist writers and artists. Around 1925, he co–founded VAPLITE, an acronym for the self–styled “Free Academy of Proletarian Literature,” which promoted new literary trends with a decidedly Ukrainian focus. He then embarked upon another career change, this one his last: he joined the Odesa Film Studios in Ukraine’s south to learn the art of filmmaking. By then the films coming out of Soviet Russia—particularly Eisenstein’s sweeping 1925 epic, Battleship Potemkin—had been hailed by international audiences for their technical and artistic achievements.

By 1928 Dovzhenko was working at the Kyiv Film Studios and turned to Ukrainian culture and history for his subject matter. His first work of true artistic merit was Zvenyhora. This avant–garde film shows peasant life in Ukraine and the shift toward industrialization, but it draws heavily upon Ukrainian folklore and manages a sweeping overview of a millennium of Ukrainian history. His classic epic poem Zemlya was denounced as a piece of Ukrainian nationalist propaganda, and Dovzhenko was removed from his lecture post at the Kyiv Film Institute. Dovzhenko’s work was closely supervised by government officials, and often the completed scenes had to be sent to Moscow for vetting. Depending on Stalin’s mood and the political situation at a particular moment, Dovzhenko was forced to remake whole sequences, sometimes even five or six times.

When Stalin died in 1953, much of the repressive political atmosphere dissipated for a time and Dovzhenko was able to resume his filmmaking career. He died in Moscow on November 26, 1956, just before he was set to begin filming a trilogy about a Ukrainian village during the years of collectivization and World War II.



Translated by: Christine Chraibi

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