Tsirk – 1936 USSR Film – Reaction Essay

 

The film “Tsirk” was produced in the USSR in 1936. The film contains a large amount of propaganda that is presented in the format of a comedy. The film deals primarily with issues of race and nationalism and how citizenship is defined. The producers were implicitly comparing the way that minorities are treated in the USSR to how they are treated in the United States and Europe. The main character, Marion Dixon, has a relationship with an unnamed black man which results in a child. In the United States, this is treated as a major scandal and Marion is chased by a mob. In the beginning of the film, Marion’s manager is identified as German. He also has a negative view of Marion’s previous relationship and uses the existence of her child to control her. These views are sharply contrasted with the Soviet ideal, which is inclusive and does not discriminate based on race.

While the film may not accurately depict the status of minorities in the USSR, it provides the viewer with an opportunity to understand early Soviet views on race relations in two ways. First, the film presents the Soviet view of being inclusive as both positive and better than views on race held by Europeans, represented by the German manager, and Americans, represented by the mob in the opening sequence and Marion’s feelings of shame and fear in respect to her child. Race was not something that should be used to differentiate or exclude people from society. Second, the film provides the viewer with a glimpse of how the Soviets attempted to shape their national narrative, to create a cohesive whole from a mix of racial and ethnic groups that fell under the sovereignty of the USSR.

During the French revolution, French nationality was defined as being contingent upon being ethnically French. Putting aside the ambiguity and arbitrariness of how the standard for “Frenchness” was defined, the state was built on the foundation of the nation. Italy, England and Germany are also similarly built on the idea of a cultural, racial or ethnic group that compose a nation banding together to form a state. The USSR, on the other hand, was composed of many different ethnic and racial groups. This is similar to how the United States was formed, but the difference was in how minorities were (theoretically) treated. At the time, being American meant being white. Racial boundaries outside of the USSR in general were firm, represented by the German manager’s declaration near the end of the film that Marion’s sexual relationship with a “Negro” was a “racial crime”.

Soviet ideology, represented by the closing sequence in the Circus, is racially and ethnically inclusive. The Soviet Union is represented as being composed of many racial and ethnic groups, without racial boundaries or divisions. Each person is considered based on merit, rather than simply skin color. Whether or not this view of racial inclusiveness had any substance beyond this and similar films is questionable, but it was the image that the Soviets wanted to present to the world and to their own public. “Tsirk” represents the Soviet attempt to bring nations of people together in a common cause.

Also interested was the focus on technology and advancement. The acts in the circus revolved around cannons, space flight and reaching for the stars. This was perhaps symbolic of industrialism and was meant to inspire people to conform to Soviet industrialization policies. This ties in with the idea of all racial groups working together in the Soviet Union, because of the ways that local economies were reoriented to encourage industrial growth in the Russian Metropole. Of course, that also contradicts the ideal presented by the film, since these economic policies negatively impacted local non-Russian economies and would later lead to famine and impoverishment.

Whether or not “Tsirk” was an attempt to accurately reflect Soviet ideas or purely propaganda, it reveals quite a bit about the nature of race relations in the world at the time. It shows that ideas of citizenship and belonging were still very much tied to ideas of belonging to the same race or ethnic group. The Soviets understood this and, in this state sponsored film, were simultaneously criticizing other state’s treatment of their ethnic minorities while constructing a standard of belonging for Soviet citizens that contradicted prevailing norms.

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