Litvinov, Alexander Abramovich (1898-1977)*

Alexander Litvinov as he appears in the final credit sequence of ‘Forest People’ (1928)

Alexander Litvinov started his film career in Baku, Azerbaijan, making a number of films about working people, both at work and at leisure, as well as detective and adventure films. He first became attracted to the Russian Far East in 1927, shortly after he joined the USSR state production company, Sovkino, when he read a short article about the Udege people in a Moscow journal.

The following year, he received the funding to go to region where the Udege live, in the forests north of Vladivostok, and here he made two films, Forest People and Through the Ussuri Area. Both these films were based on the writings and advice of Vladimir Arsenyev (1872-1930), a former military officer, topographer and self-trained  ethnographer who lived in Vladivostok.

These films brought Litvinov international success and he was favourably compared to Robert Flaherty, whose works were extremely popular in the USSR at that time. They also enabled him to get funding for three further expeditions to the Russian Far East, the first to the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1929-30, and the second to Chukotka in 1932-33.

During these later trips, he also made films of ethnographic interest among the local indigenous populations. However,  these did not have the authenticity of his Udege films since not only did he sometimes use professional actors who were not from the local region, but also, in conformity with a more general pattern in kulturfilms made in the USSR at the time, these films dwelt less on traditional forms of life and increasingly on the benefits that these indigenous groups were supposedly deriving from being integrated into the Soviet Union, even when this was in flagrant contradiction with reality.

In 1934, Litvinov returned again to Kamchatka where he made two entirely fictional films, with professional actors in the lead roles. In both films, the hero (male in one case, female in the other) represents the bringing to bear of the technologically and culturally innovative values of the Soviet Union on the taming of nature and the transformation of  social backwardness in the Far East.

It was possibly because these films were so clearly ‘on-message’, coupled with the fact that he spent so much of his time in the Far East in the 1930s, that Litvinov managed to escape the Stalinist purges that claimed several of his colleagues during that period. He later joined the West-Siberia studio and based first in Novosibirsk and later in Yekaterinburg, he contributed to the formation of strong regional documentary film-making centres.

Text : Sarkisova 2017: 84-95, 108-111, 208.

© 2018 Paul Henley