Prologue Magazine

American Film Propaganda in Revolutionary Russia, Part 2

Fall 1998, Vol. 30, No. 3

By James D. Startt

© 1998 by James D. Startt

Sisson arrived in Russia anxious to expose the Russians to properly selected American films. Meanwhile, Creel collected and sent him two shipments totaling a half million feet of film, but the shipments never arrived.(20) Due to the civil war that had erupted in Finland, they never moved beyond Sweden. Fortunately, the CPI's Guy Croswell Smith, who had arrived in Russia several months earlier bringing with him some film at the request of the State Department, contacted Sisson. Smith came carrying a few reels of motion pictures, mainly one film entitled Uncle Sam Immigrant and another called The Presidential Procession in Washington. These would have to suffice. Uncle Sam Immigrant was retitled All for Peace, and a large Petrograd theater was hired and bedecked with American flags. A gala opening evening complete with a large orchestra playing "The Star Spangled Banner" was arranged for the American ambassador, his staff, members of our military mission, and others. The films were shown for a fortnight and then were sent traveling.(21) Beyond this CPI personnel showed a few other films that they somehow managed to secure, but no concerted film effort could be made.

Circumstances never allowed the use of film propaganda to develop beyond this meager start at this stage in the CPI's Russian campaign. In March the Russians signed a separate treaty with Germany at Brest-Litovsk and exited from the war as the Germans occupied the Ukraine. Fearing for their safety, the CPI's Washington office ordered Bullard and his staff out of Russia in May. They left just as the major hostilities of civil war between the Bolsheviks and anti-Bolshevik forces got under way. Creel, however, wanted the CPI's Russian operations to continue and ordered it to resume its efforts almost five thousand miles to the east at Vladivostok in Siberia.

Bullard had already begun to prepare for the bureau's shift to Siberia in April by dispatching two of his able assistants, Malcolm Davis and William Adams Brown, Jr., across the Trans-Siberian Railway to Omsk and other cities farther east. When the situation grew dangerous in these Siberian cities, he ordered them to Harbin in Manchuria. These two resourceful men exceeded the broader purpose of their journey, to survey the conditions in Siberia as a potential for publicity work there, and actually initiated that work. Before departing for Harbin, they began circulating materials by the tens of thousands in Omsk, Irkutsk, Chita, and a few other communities along the Trans-Siberian line.(22) So even before Bullard arrived in Siberia, it is clear that the CPI had every intention of continuing its Russian work there.

Before going to Siberia, Bullard returned to the United States, conferred with CPI headquarters, and recruited additional personnel.(23) Increasingly, he contemplated the value of film propaganda. When he sailed for Japan en route to Siberia in August, he had two men with him, H. Y. Barnes and George Bothwell, to head his designated Motion Picture Section, and a shipment of over a quarter of a million feet of film was assembled to follow.(24) Crossing the Pacific he reflected, "The most interesting work [while in the United States] was learning something about the Motion Picture Industry. They [motion pictures] are a very important means of propaganda everywhere, but especially so in a land of illiterates like Russia."(25)

CPI activities in Manchuria and Eastern Siberia were already under way. In the summer of 1918 Wilbur H. Hart had been sent to China to survey the field for film distribution, and he pushed on into eastern Siberia to make a preliminary appraisal of how to make the most effective use of motion pictures there.(26) Malcolm Davis and William Adams Brown had worked their way to Harbin, Manchuria, by July. They found a consignment of films awaiting them there and immediately began to show them in Harbin's theaters and then at several other communities along the Chinese Eastern Railroad as far as the Russian border.(27) Much more film and equipment was needed for a major effort to be made, and Bullard arrived early in September ready to make that effort a central feature of the propaganda campaign in Siberia.

Whether conducted by means of the print or film medium, that campaign had to struggle against severe difficulties. No semblance of order had existed in eastern Siberia since the fall of the Provisional Government ten months earlier. At one time or another in 1918, nineteen different groups claimed legitimate authority in Eastern Siberia. The area was a nest of rumors and alive with Bolshevik, German, and Japanese propaganda. Bolshevik agitators were busy across the land, and the arrival of Russian refugees fleeing the Reds in the west heightened unrest. The food shortage was serious; famine, possible. A Czech force estimated at fifty thousand to seventy thousand men fighting its way across the Trans-Siberian Railway further complicated matters. Then, shortly before Bullard arrived, ten thousand American troops landed at Vladivostok as part of the Allied interventionist forces.(28) Those in charge of publicity would have to explain the presence of American troops there as part of whatever else they did.(29) Communications and transportation throughout Siberia were precarious, and there was a great competition for those facilities that functioned at all. Supplies, working space, and the Russian personnel upon whom the CPI personnel depended were scarce. In addition to these circumstances, they knew that they would have to confront the fact of Siberian weather in the months ahead, something that could affect and disrupt their production and distribution of materials.

Nevertheless, Bullard established the CPI base in Vladivostok and began the campaign in earnest. Soon the CPI was active not only in and around Vladivostok but also westward across Siberia to Irkutsk, Omsk, and then on to Ekaterinburg, thousands of miles away on the eastern slopes of the Ural Mountains. Working amid the dangerous political tides sweeping through Siberia and overcoming problems of scarce resources, poor and crowded rail lines, and hardly adequate working facilities, the CPI operation managed to produce and circulate a Daily Bulletin, a weekly publication called the Friendly Word, and various pamphlets and handbills. No less impressive was its film enterprise.

Vladivostok street scene Vladivostok became the center of CPI propaganda efforts after May 1918 with the closure of the Petrograd and Moscow offices. (NARA, 111-SC-75677)

It took additional determination and imagination to make film propaganda succeed. The existing motion picture houses were in poor condition or closed. Their equipment was in need of repair, and there was little hope of replacing it. Film exchanges had almost disappeared from the area. Space for a film laboratory and makeshift facilities needed for making Russian titles and captions was found only after weeks of searching and negotiations with local authorities. Running water and a sewage system were essential for the film laboratory to function, but they were almost unknown in Vladivostok. When the CPI staff managed to build a water and sewage system of their own, it remained at the mercy of city authorities who could turn off the water supply at will. Equipment for composing the Russian titles did not exist and had to be improvised. Chemicals and materials for the operation were imported from Japan and usually arrived damaged. Bullard employed about thirty local workers to help in the production, but "only one in the whole bunch ever saw a motion picture before." Much of the credit for overcoming these difficulties belongs to George Bothwell. Although Bullard observed he was "as temperamental as an opera singer," he had a genius for directing the technical elements of the film operation.(30)

The ability of the CPI personnel to make films a vital component of their propaganda campaign represents a remarkable achievement of technical improvision. No one else was successful in producing either motion pictures or film captions under such adverse circumstances. The British tried it in Archangel, and both the YMCA and the Red Cross attempted it in Vladivostok. All failed.(31) Once operating, however, the CPI produced about twenty-five hundred feet of film captions daily and managed to adapt various still and some motion pictures for local viewing. The converted films were shown in and around Vladivostok in various theaters and schools. Local assemblies (the zemstvos) and local economic institutions (co-operative societies) supported the effort and eased the problems of distribution. When the films were taken to towns and villages in the region, the CPI staff supplied projectors, generators, and speakers who were needed to read the film captions since many people in the audiences were illiterate.(32) In this manner, the film operation proceeded and grew. Plans were under way to expand it across Siberia when the entire campaign ended in March 1919.

The Films and Their Purpose

The purpose behind using motion pictures as vehicles of propaganda can be detected by considering the films shown. They included dramas, comedies, scenic films, war pictures, newsreels, and educational pictures.(33) Among the dramas were some of the popular silent films of the era, The Conquest of Canaan, The Deemster, The Isle of Regeneration, Thais, The Witching Hour, and The White Raven.(34) They were offered for their entertainment value and to attract audiences to the CPI's other film presentations. These old melodramas were known for their beautiful photography and their human, often romantic, appeal. Several depicted German sabotage efforts, typical of the genre of anti-German films that played upon American emotions during the war. The Eagle's Eye and Inside the Lines exemplified pictures of that type.(35) Numerous short and frivolous comedy films were shown, but only their titles are known. Among them, aside from Mutt and Jeff, can be found none of the popular war comedies then attracting large audiences in the United States.(36) The CPI used these brief, humorous pictures as they did dramas--to add balance to their programs and to heighten their entertainment value. The real grist of their programs was in the more serious war and educational films and in newsreels.

'The Eagle's Eye' film still The tenth episode of The Eagle's Eye portrayed agents' raid on German spy headquarters and the disruption of a plan to invade Canada. (NARA, 165-WW-463A-33)

The CPI used them to combat German propaganda that urged Russians to abandon a pointless war, encouraged more extreme revolution in that land, and belittled the American war effort. Bolshevik propaganda ran along similar lines and added the theme of American capitalists' designs in keeping Russia in the war.(37) Reassurance of American strength, its contribution to the war effort, and the democratic spirit promoted in the CPI films countered such German and Bolshevik propaganda. First among these films were the two CPI-produced feature-length pictures, Pershing's Crusaders and America's Answer. They demonstrated U.S. strength in many ways by depicting homefront cooperation, production line efficiency, military training, the enthusiastic reception of American troops arriving in large numbers in France, and the movement of these troops toward the front. The messages in these films were simple and repeated. No doubt was left about the U.S. commitment to the war, the efficiency of its contribution to the Allied cause, or about the worthiness of that cause. Throughout, they stressed the American democratic spirit, the massive strength of the nation's war effort, the basic goodness of American men and women, and as the captions made clear, their devotion to the cause of freedom.(38)

The messages conveyed by these two films were repeated and reinforced in a number of others. Remaking the Nation, a CPI-contracted picture filmed at Camp Sherman that portrayed army training, was frequently used in the CPI programs as were a number of Signal Corps films. The latter included The 1917 Recruit, Soldiers of the Sea, Torpedo Boat Destroyers, Submarines, The Spirit of 1917, Lumberjacks, Fire and Gas, Gold of the Sea, and Messengers of Mercy.(39) They all supported the themes of American strength and preparation. Beyond this, CPI personnel had a large store of newsreels to show, including the CPI's own Official War Review and various numbers of the Pathé Weekly and Universal's Animated Weekly. These newsreels offered no "bad" news, showed the American "unconquerable spirit," and convincingly portrayed the firm foundations of American strength at home, its mobilization, and its implementation on the battlefield in France.(40) As Bullard's associate Malcolm Davis explained: "The impression which we were trying to make was that America was with the Allies, and for them, heart and soul, and that she was throwing into every fight every bit of strength and resource that she could make effective, a fact which was making the ultimate triumph of the Allied arms sure. The motion pictures, consequently, counted at the right time as a corrective to any German propaganda of Allied defeat."(41) Indirectly, of course, as they portrayed American strength and Allied unity and suggested defeat of the Central Powers, so they conveyed the message of democracy triumphant. Such positive representations might strengthen the democratic cause in Russia.

This democratic message became more pronounced in the films presented as time and events proceeded. After Russia withdrew from the war, Bolshevik anti-Allied and anti-American propaganda spread the idea that the Allies and Americans were concerned about Russia only for self-interested, exploitative reasons. It claimed, for instance, that the United States wanted to annex the Kamchatka peninsula on Russia's far eastern coast and, along with Japan, receive economic privileges in Siberia.(42) The Bolsheviks also championed their own cause. Consequently, the content of the CPI's films increasingly encouraged an opposite perspective, one that countered such ideas and accented the worthiness of the democratic cause.

These "educational" films promoted a positive image of Americans and the American way of life. From the first, Bullard requested CPI materials that would convey "graphically to the Russian people a definite consciousness of America and the American people."(43) In this case and afterward, he fixed his attention on building the foundation for lasting and friendly Russian-American relations. "In contrast to some of our Allies," he wrote from Siberia, "our government is playing a long-term game. It has had faith--in spite of all present unpleasantness--in the eventual triumph of popular government in Russia." Anti-American charges still circulated in Siberia, and with the defeat of Germany they centered on the idea that Americans were "out after commerce and trade concessions." Bullard admitted that he felt there could be no "regeneration of Russia without the reestablishment of foreign trade relations," and this probably meant there would be an increase in American "trade and industry in Russia."(44) In his opinion, however, they were matters to be addressed by the consular corps and the War Trade Board.

He wanted to concentrate on portraying American achievement to Russians as a means of demonstrating the standard of life democracy made possible. Depicting democracy in this manner would counter rumors circulating about American greed, and it would help to establish compatible Russian-American relations. "It is up to us," he stressed, "to put across her [America's] democratic idealism, her passion for ever improving public education, her striving to improve the living and working conditions of her people."

Our improved industrial and agricultural processes, our giant machinery, etc., are without doubt an important part of our life. But in our job here I think we should emphasize our progress in municipal government factory legislation for the protection of our workers, our experience in improved political methods, . . . city planning, the use of schoolbuildings as "Community Centers," the growth of Public Libraries, etc., The Russians have heard a lot about the keen competition of our commerce, the dizzying efficiency of our industry, but next to nothing about the real democracy of our people, which [is] ever eagerly striving to make our life not only more prosperous but also more free and full and fine. It all boils down pretty well to my slogan that our job here is to raise the political standard of living of these people. . . . These poor devils don't know what to demand of their government. They don't know what a "good road" is and never dream of expecting the Government to furnish them. It never occurs to the peasant to think that he has a "right" to a good school in his village. . . . He pays his taxes sullenly, but does not realize that the revolution means that the money is still his and that he should receive an equal value.(45)

To convey the workings of democracy, the CPI personnel utilized a variety of films. Many of the newsreels produced during the war could be shown for this purpose, but the most valuable pictures that specifically addressed the desired themes were scenic and educational ones. Among those presented were films featuring American cities (e.g., Baltimore, New York, and Seattle) and American resorts, markets, urban parks, and natural scenery. Films such as Columbia River Highway, Water Dams in Idaho and Irrigation, and Water Power conveyed a sense of democratic achievement.(46) Educational films describing American agriculture and industry were especially important, and the CPI staff made maximum use of them, not only in their own programs but also in the free distribution of them to Zemstvo organizations, cooperative societies, and schools. Bullard urged CPI headquarters in Washington to send more films of this sort, ones that would stimulate Russian productivity and raise the standards of their life.

He was anxious, moreover, to make the impact of these films more effective. He wanted films with more close-ups. The Russian peasants, he said, "would get better results from an agricultural picture if it were much more elementary, giving each scene a longer time on the screen and giving frequent closeups of all implements used." He wanted agricultural pictures of the simplest kind and pictures specially made to demonstrate fundamental procedures and farm equipment. "A picture of a tractor pulling 40 plows," he said, "does not get across with an audience which has never seen a tractor." His film division made the most of the education films they had on hand, but he reported that the need existed for many more of them produced with the Russian peasant in mind. "There is a great demand for such films and there is little which I can see in motion picture propaganda which would be more profitable," he reported to Washington.(47)

American Film Propaganda in Revolutionary Russia, Part 1
American Film Propaganda in Revolutionary Russia, Part 3

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.