In the 1920s, Russia began an unprecedented era created by Soviet visionaries who succeeded in overcoming the antiquated tsarist regime in favour of a utopian communist society. The ideologies that led this revolution pushed for a utilitarian society rather than the superfluous methods of the former archaic system. The Russian Empire, the largest state in the world, however, confronted revolutionaries with the challenge of spreading their ideologies throughout the vast land. In response, revolutionary leaders utilized art to propagate their ideologies. The relatively new art form of film served as a perfect medium for this plan. Early Soviet filmmakers produced an abundance of films eager to experiment with the art form sanctioned by the Soviet State. Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Mat (Mother, 1926) was one of these films. The film is loosely based on Maxim Gorky’s novel, and, while the mother symbolizes the ideology of the revolution and the prospects of an untried utopian state, she also possesses the traditional patriarchal ideologies of the crumbled regime, which creates a unique commentary on the state of Soviet society, filled with chaos and revolutionary dreams.
Producing an entirely new society was a daunting task for Soviet planners who wanted to construct a system inspired by the philosophies of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. With the end of World War I, the Soviet State found itself immediately thrust into a civil war in which the new government often bloodily suppressed any opposition. Even though chaos existed through out the land, Soviet leaders actively embarked on creating their new utopia, attempting to eliminate societal hierarchy and eradicate the division between rural and urban populations. (1) In accordance with this mission, the disintegration of inequalities between ethnicities, religions and genders would also occur.
The Marxist emphasis on equality catered well to the Russian Empire’s diverse population, and the Soviet planners, anxious to implement utopian ideologies, strove to divest women of their oppression. Many believed that the traditional home would wither away in favour of communal state institutions, which would allow women to enter the workforce, gain economic independence and access to public society. (2) During tsarist times, Russian women lived in a dichotomy; they created and maintained the home, which constituted the centre of Russian life, but also lived as second-class citizens subordinate to men. Soviet leaders utilized the central role women traditionally held and promoted the new State as mother to its citizens. (3) However, they also pushed to emphasize the strength of the woman divested of such constraints, disassociating the new Soviet woman from her traditional role. Their method in which to accomplish this often led to a melding of gender attributes, leaning heavily towards masculinity and displaying women as less feminine in their appearances. Thus, the Soviet leaders worked to create a unique reconfiguration of the role and perception of women.
This restructuring and the need to disassociate the current state with traditional schemes extended to popular culture and art. (4) Public performances allowed ideologies to spread quickly among large portions of the predominantly rural and illiterate population. A viable apparatus for this practice was the motion-picture camera. During pre-revolutionary times, urban populations readily embraced the new technology. The wealth of response to it and its ability to transcend social classes and education levels served as adequate evidence for Soviet planners to predict its success in more rural areas. (5) Even Vladimir Lenin comprehended the power of this relatively new technology: “Of all the arts, for us the cinema is the most important.” (6) Lev Trotsky took this notion further:
We are able, and indeed obliged, to give the satisfaction of this [revolutionary] desire a higher artistic quality, at the same time making amusement a weapon of collective education, freed from the guardianship of the pedagogue and the tiresome habit of moralizing. The most important weapon in this respect, a weapon excelling any other, is at present the cinema. (7)
Unlike market economies in which film industries produced their product for monetary profit, the Soviet government produced films to educate the population. Initially, Soviet documentaries and newsreels were actively produced, but eventually the industry brought fictional films to the forefront in order to propagate the State’s vision and prolong the attention of their audiences. One of the most effective films of this era was Pudovkin’s Mother.
The story occurs in early 20th century Russia as tensions mount between the law and revolutionaries. The title character (Vera Baranovskaya) is made the unwitting tool in the arrest of her revolutionary son, Pavel (Nikolai Batalov), and becomes a part of the workers’ movement that aids his escape. During the film’s initial release in 1926, it received unanimous accolades because of its dramatic narrative and positive revolutionary message. (8) The film became one of the first true Soviet films that exemplified the Soviet ideology and the basic formula for Socialist Realism, which soon became the only tolerated art movement for the next thirty years. (9)
The film actively promotes the revolutionary movement and its association with workers and the common person, and climaxes its sentiment in the final scene. When the demonstration becomes violent, the flag, symbolizing their cause, is dropped by its slain holder. The title character takes up the flag and stands motionless against the soldiers as tears roll down her steadfast face in a moment of supposed realization regarding the cause. The camera shoots her profile in a close-up; then, within the frame, the fluttering flag obscures her face, symbolically displaying the unification of mother and revolution. She walks towards the advancing soldiers, who trample her to death. A montage of industrial buildings follows, symbolic of the workers and the revolution itself. The last shot frames the Kremlin with a flag on its mast; a close-up shot reveals it to be the tattered flag that the mother held during the final moments of her life. Through the use of the Soviet montage, juxtaposing abstractly joined images, the mother represents the common person within the revolution, which possesses the power to strongly move her, transcending gender and age.
The revolutionary movement specifically drew on the masses of the young and optimistic, and the poor and laboured, in opposition to the small group who opposed it: the bourgeois, the law and the older, misguided generation. Within the film, the most overt comparison between the bourgeois and the poor occurs in the courtroom scene through the comparison of women. The bourgeois women, dressed in well-tailored clothes, display the decadence of their economic class. This contrasts sharply to the mother’s downtrodden appearance. The sequence of shots begins with an intertitle of “posmotrite – mat” (“look at the mother”). The camera shoots one of the bourgeois women in a close-up, which gives her a more intimate appearance, and just before the cut she looks back into the diegetic space. The next shot shows the mother sitting on a bench looking miserable in a medium-shot, which gives the uneasy feeling that the mother is on display, a spectacle to be ridiculed. The camera returns to the bourgeois woman bearing a repulsed look, who then looks ahead, presumably at the judges. A medium-shot of the lead judge, looking sombre and threatening, confirms this. The intertitle of “predsedatel ochen mil” (“the chairman is such a dear”) ends the sequence. The bourgeois woman’s interpretation of such a menacing man and her reaction to the mother displays the misinterpretation of society and justice by the wealthier class.
The misinterpretation of society also causes conflict between the older generation and the revolutionary generation. The father and his peers portray the older generation of poor degenerates who clash with the revolutionaries. They have little desire for change. Similar to the bourgeois, their interests lie in such things as alcohol and socializing, and in their ignorance they are blind to justice and virtue. In the first scene, the father returns home and attempts to steal a clock to buy alcohol. The mother begs him not to and only Pavel prevents his father from beating her in anger. This not only displays the ignorance of the people who oppose the revolution, but it also exposes the treatment of women in an antiquated society that oppresses them. The father’s group follows authority blindly, similar to the dogs shown in judges’ chambers. Like the dogs, these men allow themselves to be directed and work within a system for simple rewards, which enforces oppression of not only women, but also those who are too ignorant to see beyond their situations.
The two montages in the film further the contrast between the antiquated and contemporary. (10) At the beginning of the trial, the film uses the technique to display the imposing courthouse and a few other buildings built during tsarist times. These buildings, devoid of life, look cold and sterile. Contrastingly, the shots at the end of the film display the vibrant industrial factories and buildings built during the 20th century. These two sequences make the contrast between the dead tsarist society and young Soviet society, and the virtue of the latter.
Mother was produced with the intention of propagating the revolution and its goodness to the common people. On many levels, this is why the film is based on Maxim Gorky’s Mat, a novel that promotes the participation of the common person fighting for a just society and better future. However, on a more basic level, it is the story of a mother fighting for her son. The narrative utilizes aspects of both traditional and Soviet ideologies to strengthen its commentary on the revolution and its importance on the most basic aspects of life. This is done to address not only revolutionary audiences, but peasant audiences as well. (11)
Throughout the narrative, the theme of a mother’s courageous love for her son is displayed. This exemplifies traditional Russian culture, which promotes the central role of the mother. A popular proverb proclaimed, “There is no other friend like your mother.” (12) Her role as a mother garners respect and honour, and through this respect her ability to represent the revolution is perfectly acceptable within the boundaries of tradition and the Soviet vision of the female, which needed to use traditional views to connect with the people. Russians, men and women alike, could accept, on some level, the film’s protagonist. Many western film theorists, such as Laura Mulvey, state that men can only identify with the active figure, and thus almost certainly with the male figure within a film. (13) Therefore, an active female figure would be met with difficulties for the spectator. However, for more eastern cultures this is not necessarily true. As stated earlier, the centre of Russian life, especially for the peasant population, was the home. This was especially important to the Soviet government, since the majority of the population consisted of peasants. Russian men possessed much more power and respect within society, especially in public spheres; however, the home dictated everything for the Russian peasant. (14) The woman and her deeply embedded place within the home and role of mother had a special place for Russians and Pudovkin exploited this feeling within his film.
The film presents the central image of a mother and her fundamental role within the Russian home. The beginning of the narrative presents Pavel and his father existing both in and outside the home while the mother exists only within the home. This solidifies the connection between the mother and the home. It is only Pavel’s trial, and on a more subtextual level the revolution, that brings her outside the home into public life and to enlightenment. Through the use of a woman as the central figure, the film could draw female spectators to relate to the mother and show that women also had a role within the revolution. For male spectators, the woman as a mother allowed them to accept her as a symbol and advance the propagation that the revolution touched everyone, including the most oppressed.
The film furthers the connection between the mother and the revolution through generalities. Throughout the film, the only name or categorization the mother possesses is mother. In Gorky’s novel, the mother has a name, Pelageya Nilvona Vlasova, but within the film the mother has no proper name. This eliminates individuality and places the mother among the masses, standing out only for her commitment to and belief of the revolution. She is the foundation for the new Soviet women, which Soviet planners believed would emerge from “the masses of downtrodden women” (15). The only name present within the film is Pavel’s, who serves as a leader of the movement, rather than a part of the masses. This displays the female’s role in the revolution, not only as a symbol of the common people, both men and women, and their role in the revolution, but also as a mere body to increase the size of the movement rather than lead them. This weakens the female figure and the notion of equality, but it inversely enforces the validity of the female as a true symbol of the revolution and of the silent anonymous masses.
The æsthetic presentation of the mother strengthens her ability to represent the revolution. The mother’s unfeminine appearance allows her to be less gender-specific and more androgynous in her role as the symbolic representation of the revolution. She is no longer a woman, but a symbol. If the mother possessed a more overt femininity, it would be difficult for her to symbolize anything that transcended gender. Her femininity would create a barrier to her feasibility and could possibly prevent spectators from associating issues and ideas with her and, thus, the importance and seriousness of the revolution. The mother’s androgynous appearance affords her the luxury of becoming a symbol, emblematic of the entire revolution. The film utilizes her androgyny and her role as a mother to strengthen the cause. At the conclusion of the narrative, she is the revolution through her androgyny, and, through her role of mother, the revolution is the caretaker and nurturer of the country.
However, this does not fully explain the role of the female within the film. Of course, the film speaks to the power of the mother and her effectiveness as a symbol for the revolution, but it also tells of the female’s role within the revolution that supposedly touts equalization between the genders. The true central figure within the film is not the mother, but Pavel. He moves the plotline along and causes his mother’s involvement within the revolution. Initially, she does not want anything to do with the movement. When soldiers come to their home, she urges Pavel to stop his activities, return the guns underneath their floorboards and tell the truth. He refuses and remains true to the cause. The mother, however, gives the soldiers the guns, indifferent to the movement and only concerned with the freedom of her son. Later, she joins the movement with the sole intention of freeing her son from prison, willing to do anything for him, and even becoming his public self; when the authorities imprison Pavel his mother takes up his work. The scene in which she hides the political leaflets under the floorboards, the exact place where the guns were hidden, mirrors the scene in which Pavel hid the guns. This mirror of actions reinforces the mother’s inability to act on her own and the need for her son to guide her. Throughout the film, the narrative portrays the mother as ignorant of the world around her and only concerned with the well-being of her son. While this is a noble cause, it is unclear, even at the end of the narrative, if she fathoms the importance of the demonstration or her son’s convictions. Her final scene could simply be interpreted as the mother simply grieving for the death of her son.
The only other female who takes an active part within the movement, and on whom the film lingers, goes unnamed. Her role within the film occurs only in the first part of the narrative; Pavel receives the guns from her. However, once again it is not because of the communist cause that she takes part in the revolutionary movement, but her affection for Pavel. The film consistently displays her devotion to the man rather than to the cause. When the movement’s leaders conspire to demonstrate, she is not a part of the group, but lingers in the background. Women are not intellectuals, nor are they convicted by a political cause. They are present in the political sphere because of men and their devotion to them, rather than individual beliefs. Within society at the time, attempts were made to liberate women, but male Party members did little to support such a notion. The push towards liberation exacerbated the efforts in convincing peasants to disregard their solid patriarchal traditions for something that seemed feeble in comparison. Mother reflects this mentality, which weakens the ideology of the strong Soviet woman and leans heavily on the traditional role of servant and caretaker of the Russian man. Therefore, the film does not fully bring the ideal Soviet woman to the screen, but attempts to empower the mother as a symbol for the revolution, which truly cares for its people.
On the surface, the issues Mother propagates adhere to the Soviet ideology. The poor peasant mother is ignorant to the issues that reside outside her home. However, through the revolutionary movement, which strives to dissolve the present regime, the mother finds a sense of realization. This realization enables her to divest herself of her traditional values, embodied by the home, which is only seen once after her self-discovery, and actively pursue issues within the public sphere. Her convictions propel her throughout the rest of the narrative and display her courage and strength, propagating the new State. This is the new Soviet woman, who champions the revolution and is no longer ignorant of her oppression.
However, when analysed more closely, the film presents a dichotomy between traditional and new ideologies, which explains Soviet society more accurately. During the mid 1920s, when the film was produced, the Soviet State had just begun to take shape and a few years later it would alter further through the leadership of Josef Stalin. Society was still quite chaotic, and therefore it is not surprising that a 1926 film would reflect such chaos. The film uses the role of the mother to cater to traditional values, yet presents fundamental ideas regarding the revolution. The mother embodies the every person and the revolution as a whole, unique for a culture that traditionally regulated women to the home. Her convictions, however, are not necessarily for the Soviet State, but for the love of her son. The movement within the film resigns women to the background, inferring that they will never occupy the capacity of leaders, thus creating inequalities. The image of the mother oscillates throughout the film between new Soviet citizen and Russian mother. Therefore, it is not whether she propagates Soviet society or traditional society to its fullest extent, but rather that she portrays a society that is full of utopian dreams, but has yet to fully achieve them due to the strong constraints of patriarchal traditions.
- Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), pp. 22-7.
- Wendy Z. Goldman, Women, the State and Revolution: Soviet Family Policy and Social Life, 1917-1936 (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1993), pp. 2-3.
- Soviet planners viewed men and women as the proletariat, rather than specific genders. See Ronald Grigor Suny, The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the Successor States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 185. This can be seen in the propaganda of the day in which posters and statues often presented women as muscular and strong, the same size as their male counterparts.
- Artists took the utopian ideologies and used them to liberate themselves from traditional formulas. Many Soviet artists fully rejected structures and symbols of the old order to comment on the new world, while others did not disregard traditional symbols and structures, but used them in ways unique to the revolution. No matter which avenue these artists took, both methods presented original art that propagated the modern era.
- Suny, p. 205.
- Ibid, p. 205.
- Trotsky, p. 372.
- Many Soviet montage films, while adhering to new ideologies, were often shunned by the public. Eventually, these films were deemed to be too intellectual and, thus, decadent for the masses and condemned by the State. However, Mother was met with both critical and commercial success at the time of its release. See David Bordwell and Kristen Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc, 4th edition, 1993), p. 129.
- Unlike previous Soviet films, such as those produced by Sergei Eisenstien or Dziga Vertov, Pudovkin utilized the method of the Soviet montage, but did so to aid in the presentation of a dramatic narrative rather than using the technique to make a statement within itself.
- The term montage is different from that of Soviet montage. The Soviet montage refers to the editing technique that emphasizes the relationship between discontinuous shots. This brings the concept of relationships to the forefront. A montage refers to discontinuity editing in which discontinuous shots are joined, emphasizing image over concept. Within these two montage sequences the similarity in the structure of buildings is emphasized.
- The peasants were needed. Lenin believed they were “the most potent force in the USSR”. The majority of peasants, however, held strongly to their traditional beliefs and it was difficult for intellectuals to convince them otherwise. The magic of film was much more convincing to many of these people who had never previously experienced it. See Suny, pp. 177-8.
- Ibid, p. 11.
- Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen, 16.3, Autumn 1975, pp. 6-18.
- Barbara Evans Clements, Barbara Alpern Engel and Christine D. Worobec (Eds), Russia’s Women: Accommodation, Resistance, Transformation (Berkley: The University of California Press, 1991), p. 22.
- Barbara Evans Clements, “The Birth of the New Soviet Women”, in Gleason and Abbott, et al, Bolshevik Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), p. 223.