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The jockey and the horse: Joseph Stalin and the biopic genre in Soviet cinema

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What was Stalin to Soviet cinema? Was he the supreme decision-maker or only a particularly influential observer? This article addresses Stalin’s role in the development and proliferation of the historical-biography film in Soviet cinema. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that holds that the biopic was one of Stalin’s brainchildren, this work suggests that Stalin’s role was less direct. Broader policy objectives, such as state legitimacy and national unity, and internal film-industry initiatives were as least as instrumental in the genre’s genesis as signals from Stalin. The biopic developed in Soviet cinema not unlike genres do in other cinemas, through the process of replicating successful models. The genre’s relative dominance over drama and comedy and the resultant reduction in Soviet film genre diversity were the unintended consequences of the Soviet film industry’s tendency, in a highly censored and uncertain environment, to overcapitalize on previous film successes.

Keywords: Stalinism; agency; biopic; censorship; genre; risk-aversion

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1386/srsc.5.1.29_1

Affiliations: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Publication date: April 13, 2011

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  • Studies in Russian & Soviet Cinema focuses on pre-revolutionary, Soviet and post- Soviet film, its aesthetic development, and its position between ideology and industry. SRSC invites contributions that constitute original research. The journal seeks to promote research from established scholars as well as to encourage researchers new to the field.
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