The cinema of the Soviet Union, not to be confused with "Russian Cinema" despite Russian language films being predominant in both genres, includes several film contributions of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union reflecting elements of their pre-Soviet culture, language and history, although sometimes censored by the Central Government. Most notable for their republican cinema were Russian SSR, Armenian SSR, Georgian SSR, Ukrainian SSR, and, to a lesser degree, Lithuanian SSR, Byelorussian SSR and Moldavian SSR. At the same time, the nation's film industry, which was fully nationalized throughout most of the country's history, was guided by philosophies and laws propounded by the monopoly Soviet Communist Party which introduced a new view on the cinema, socialist realism, which was different from the one before or after the existence of the Soviet Union.
The new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, officially came into existence on December 30, 1922. From the outset, it was held that film would be the most ideal propaganda tool for the Soviet Union because of its mass popularity among the established citizenry of the new land; V. I. Lenin, in fact, declared it the most important medium for educating the masses in the ways, means and successes of Communism, a position which was later echoed by Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, between World War I and the Russian Revolution, most of the film industry, and the general infrastructure needed to support it (e.g. electrical power), was in a shambles. The majority of cinemas had been in the corridor between Moscow and St. Petersburg in Russia, and most were out of commission. Additionally, many of the performers, producers, directors and other artists of pre-Soviet Russia, had fled the country or were moving ahead of the Red Army forces as they pushed further and further south into the remainder of the Russian Empire. Furthermore, the new government did not have the funds to spare for an extensive reworking of the system of filmmaking. Thus, they initially opted for project approval and censorship guidelines while leaving what of the industry remained in private hands. As this amounted mostly to cinema houses, the first Soviet films consisted of recycled films of the Russian Empire and its imports, to the extent that these were not determined to be offensive to the new Soviet ideology. Ironically, the first new film released in Soviet Russia did not exactly fit this mold: this was Otets Sergii (Father Sergius), a religious film completed during the last weeks of the Russian Empire but not yet exhibited. It appeared on Soviet screens in 1918.
Beyond this, the government was principally able to fund only short, educational films, the most notorious of which were the agitki - propaganda films intended to "agitate", or energize and enthuze, the masses to participate fully in approved Soviet activities, and deal effectively with those who remained in opposition to the new order. These short (often one small reel) films were often as not visual aids and accompaniments to live lectures and speeches, and were carried from city to city, town to town, village to village (along with the lecturers) to indoctrinate the entire countryside, even reaching areas where film had not been previously seen.
Newsreels, as documentaries, were the other major form of earliest Soviet cinema. Dziga Vertov's newsreel series Kino-Pravda, the best known of these, lasted from 1922 to 1925 and had a propagandistic bent; Vertov used the series to promote Socialist realism but also to experiment with cinema.
Still, in 1921 , there was not one functioning cinema in Moscow until late in the year. Its rapid success, utilizing old Russian and imported feature films, jumpstarted the industry significantly, especially insofar as the government did not heavily or directly regulate what was shown, and by 1923 an additional 89 cinemas had opened. Despite extremely high taxation of ticket sales and film rentals, there was an incentive for individuals to begin making feature film product again - there were places to show the films - albeit they now had to conform their subject matter to a Soviet world view. In this context, the directors and writers who had remained in support of the objectives of Communism assumed quick dominance in the industry, as they were the ones who could most reliably and convincingly turn out films that would satisfy government censors. New talent joined the experienced remainder, and an artistic community assembled with the goal of defining "Soviet film" as something distinct and better from the output of "decadent capitalism". The leaders of this community viewed it essential to this goal to be free to experiment with the entire nature of film, a position which would result in several well-known creative efforts but would also result in an unforeseen counter-reaction by the increasingly solidifying administrators of the government-controlled society.
Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was released to wide acclaim in 1925; the film was heavily fictionalized and also propagandistic, preaching the party line about the virtues of the proletariat. The party leaders soon found it difficult to control directors' expression, partly because definitive understanding of a film's meaning was elusive.
One of the most popular films released in the 1930s was Circus. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, color movies such as The Stone Flower (1946), Ballad of Siberia (1947), and The Kuban Cossacks (1949) were released. Other notable films from the 1940s include Aleksandr Nevsky and Ivan Grozny.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Soviet Cinema again flowered, beginning with films such as Ballada o Soldate (Ballad of a Soldier), which won the 1961 BAFTA Award for Best Film, and The Cranes Are Flying.
The 1980s saw a diversification of subject matter. Touchy issues could now be discussed openly. The results were films like Pokayanie (Repentance), which dealt with Stalinist repressions in Georgia, and the allegorical science fiction movie Kin-dza-dza!, which satirized the Soviet life in general.
Oddities created by censorship include:
With the start of the Cold War, writers, still considered the primary auteurs, were all the more reluctant to take up script writing, and the early 50s saw only a handful of feature films completed during any year. The death of Stalin was a merciful relief to many, and all the more so was the official trashing of his public image as a benign and competent leader by Nikita Khruschev two years later. This latter event gave filmmakers the margin of comfort they needed to move away from the narrow formula stories of socialist realism, expand its boundaries, and begin work on a wider range of entertaining and artistic Soviet films.
The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of many excellent films, many of which moulded Soviet and post-Soviet culture. They include:
Soviet directors were more concerned with artistic success than with economical success (They were paid by the academy, and so money was not a critical issue). This contributed to the creation of a large number of more philosophical films. In keeping with Russian character, tragi-comedies were very popular. Soviet films tend to be rather culture-specific and are difficult for many foreigners to understand without having been exposed to the culture first.
Animation was a respected genre, with many directors experimenting with technique. Tale of Tales (1979) by Yuriy Norshteyn was twice given the title of "Best Animated Film of All Eras and Nations" by animation professionals from around the world, in 1984 and 2002.
These decades were prominent in the production of the Ostern or Red Western.
In the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet cinema (1979), on April 25, a decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR established a commemorative "Day of the Soviet cinema". It was then celebrated in the USSR each year on August 27, the day on which V. I. Lenin signed a decree to nationalise the country's cinematic and photographic industries.