KinoKultura: Issue 74 (2021)

Soviet ideologemes in Kazakh comedies

By Gulnara Abikeeva

Soviet cinema has been an instrument of ideology, especially in the 1950s. Many Soviet ideologemes were tested in Kazakh cinema at the time: “National in form, Socialist in content,” was a key slogan of the era, but also the assertions that the Russian is the older brother of the Kazakh, and that Kazakhstan forges the friendship between nations. That is why there were no opportunities for the appearance of a proper national cinema. The studio Kazakhfilm studio produced historical-revolutionary films, dramas and several comedies. Only in the 1960s, with the onset of the Thaw, a truly national cinema began to emerge in Kazakhstan. After a short take-off in the era of the Thaw, there followed the Stagnation that also hit Kazakh cinema in the 1970s.

A new flourishing of national cinema began with the Kazakh New Wave, which became a kind of announcement of the end of the Soviet era. In this article, I suggest to look only at the comedies of Soviet Kazakh cinema in order to see how Soviet ideologemes were visualized in films, because the most of them were of an ideological order.

djigitkaThe main Soviet Kazakh comedies were produced in the 1950s and 1960s, and they were very popular among people. Such films as The Girl-Dzhigit (Devushka-dzhigit, 1955), (dzhigit, or jigit, is a word of Turkic origin which is used in the Caucasus and Central Asia to describe a skillful and brave rider, or a brave person in general; it very important that in this film the dzhigit is female), Our Dear Doctor (Nash milyi doktor, 1957), The Song Calls (Pesnia zovet, 1961), The Angel in the Skull-Cap (Angel v tiubeteike, 1968) realized the main ideologeme of the Soviet style: “national in form, socialist in content.” Such films were active conductors of the policy of Russification, creating the illusion of prosperity and a happy life for ordinary Soviet people.

Comedies in Soviet cinema did not appear by chance. Back in the 1930s, the ideological task of cinema had been set: “Fiction films must actually become a medium of Communist enlightenment and agitation, an instrument of the Party in educating and organizing the masses around the basic tasks of the period of socialist construction.” Moreover, the films were required to create “a form that is intelligible to the millions,” as Rimgaila Salys quotes from the Resolution of the Party Conference on Cinema of March 1928 in her book Laughing Matters. The resolution also underlined the necessity “to pay special attention to the creation of Soviet comedy” (cited in Salys 2009, 21; for the full text of the resolution, see Taylor and Christie 1994).
Therefore, in the Kazakh cinema of the 1950s, in spite of the so-called “period of film-anemia” (malokartin’e), musical comedies were shot every other year. At first glance it is an easy, entertaining genre, but behind each of these comedies there was a Soviet ideologeme that promoted certain Soviet values. Moreover, each Kazakhstani comedy had its own Russian model, which was close to the topic:

Kazakh film

Russian film/s

Main themes

The Girl Dzhigit (1955) by Pavel Bogoliubov

They Met in Moscow (Svinarka i pastukh, 1941) by Ivan Pyriev;
Kuban Cossacks (Kubanskie kazaki, 1949) by Pyriev

Friendship of different nations of the USSR and hard, collective work of farmers

Our Dear Doctor (1957) by Shaken Aimanov

Carnival Night (Karnaval’naia noch’, 1956) by El’dar Riazanov

Organization of a Soviet holiday, the fight against bureaucracy

The Song Calls (1961) by Aimanov

Volga-Volga (1938) by Grigorii Aleksandrov

Development of amateur art groups

Angel in the Skull-Cup (1968) by Aimanov

The Diamond Arm (Brilliantovaia ruka, 1968) by Leonid Gaidai

Showing modern city life

The 1955 film The Girl-Dzhigit by Pavel Bogoliubov clearly grew out of the “collective farm films” by Ivan Pyriev, such as They Met in Moscow (1941) and Kuban Cossacks (1949). Of course, there is no All-Union Agricultural Exhibition and no meeting of a Russian girl from the North and a hot Daghestani lad from the South, as was the case in They Met in Moscow, but the context remains intact: the friendship of nations—remember the famous song from the film “I will never forget a friend if I made friends with him in Moscow.” The All-Union Exhibition is presented in Pyriev’s film as a meeting place, first, for people of all nationalities, and second, for the hard collective farm workers. In The Girl-Dzhigit we also see a multi-national Kazakh village, where the main character, a young Kazakh woman called Galiya, was adopted by a Slavic-Ukrainian family, Taras and Mariana. This is a very strange fact by itself.

Fragment from the film The Girl-Dzhigit (16:10–16:50)

djigitkaOn the collective farm there are two chiefs: Doshchan, the chairman of the collective farm, and Taras, the director of the horse farm. In Soviet times, there was such an order: if the boss is Kazakh, then the deputy must be Russian. The same is applicable in other areas: the director of the shop (selmag) is the Kazakh Angarbai, his assistant Vasilek is Russian. In general, there are the same number of Russian characters as there are Kazakhs, because Kazakhstan, like the entire Soviet Union, was positioned as an international country, a territory of the “friendship of nations.”

The similarity between The Girl-Dzhigit and They Met in Moscow lies in the plot. As the historian of Soviet cinema Neia Zorkaia wrote about Pyriev’s collective farm films: “The plot was competition, a triangle, where the girl-heroine was challenged by two boyfriends: one was beautiful, perfection itself, the other was funny, stupid, but persistent. The heroine was a rich bride, but not a kulak heiress and not a landlord’s daughter, but an advanced collective farmer woman” (Zorkaia 2005, 247).

In both films, we have love triangles: Glasha, Musaib and Kuzma in They Met in Moscow, Galiya, Aidar and Angarbai in The Girl-Dzhigit. Kuzma gets Glasha by making an incorrect translation of a letter from Musaib, where he indicates that he married the Georgian woman Tamara after returning from Moscow, after which Glasha agrees to marry Kuzma. Angarbai deceives Galiya’s parents that he saved her by pulling her out of a mountain river, after which the question of their wedding is decided. The similarity is obvious. Moreover, even the lyrics of songs are similar. Before the wedding, Kuzma sings a song with the words: “Oh, goodbye friends, my dears, / Soon I will be a married man!”. Angarbai also sings a song that became popular after the film: “Tomorrow is a holiday! Tomorrow – toi! / I am no longer single!”

Fragment from the film They Met in Moscow (1:15:30–1:16:10)
Fragment from the film The Girl-Dzhigit (1:18:05–1:18:38)

Despite the fact that the film The Girl-Dzhigit was made 14 years later, there is still the same theme of collective farm work: sheep shearing, disinfection, plan fulfillment, etc. The style of the film is raw, like a woodcut. All characters are energetically charged in a special way: they easily move, dance, and sing. They are young and happy, like in a fairy tale. The same type of storytelling is characteristic of the film They Met in Moscow, which resembles a fairy tale and creates the illusion of prosperity and a happy life for ordinary Soviet people.

djigitkaThe Girl-Dzhigit is the first Kazakhstani picture shot in color. Colors are applied brightly, localized and often contrasting. They create a feeling of emotional uplift, the mood of the holiday. Production designer Pavel Zal’tsman created an ideal world in the film, where cheerful and carefree people—Kazakhs, Russians, Ukrainians—exist organically. This is a kind of visualization of the fabulous “distant kingdom” in the understanding of people who have survived collectivization, repression, and war, and even now live a “not very rich,” but happy and satisfied life.

In line with the fairy-tale expectations, Angarbai’s wonderful mobile shop appears. This is a small bus with a trailer, on which Angarbai travels. The miracle of this shop is that it has everything! If in the film Kuban Cossacks the entire episode of the fair was necessary to show Soviet abundance, then in the Kazakh film such abundance is demonstrated with the help of a wonderful car-shop.

Fragment of the fair from the film Kuban Cossacks (21:20–22:00)
Fragment of the sales in the shop from the film The Girl-Dzhigit (22:00–23:02)

But the main ideological trump card is the heroine Galiya herself: it is no coincidence that the film is called The Girl-Dzhigit. She lives not in a Kazakh family, but with adoptive Slavic parents, which shows that she is different, freer, and independent, that she has character and is not strictly connected with national traditions. According to the plot, when the races are arranged, she challenges Aidar to catch up with her on horseback. But he has a bad horse, therefore, according to custom, for the fact that he did not catch up with her, she hits him with a whip.

Galiya is so liberated that she arouses less sympathy than rejection of the viewer. The most important thing is the scene when she hits Aidar with the whip, which is a public humiliation, further intensified by the humiliation by aitys (musical competition), which is completely contrary to national traditions. It is like a film not about reality, and the scene of the love declaration is resolved absolutely in Russian style.

Fragment of Aidar’s love declaration to Galiya in the film The Girl-Dzhigit (53:30–54:32)

Here it is not important for the director to convey feelings, relationships, national outlook; instead, once again, the Soviet ideologeme works. In Soviet times, one of the tasks of the Bolsheviks in Central Asia and Kazakhstan was “the emancipation of the women of the East.” It is indeed curious that all the women in the film are of the same type: Mariana, the wife of the director of the horse farm, teaches her husband Taras how to live; the wife of the collective farm chairman Doshchan blames her husband for not helping his son with the horse; etc.

The task here is obvious: to create the image of a strong, liberated woman of the Soviet East. Many films with strong female characters in the title role appeared in Kazakh cinema of that time: Raikhan (1940), Daughter of the Steppes (1954), The Girl-Dzhigit (1955), Botagoz (1957), and others who are running away from their husbands, making careers and supporting the Revolution.

What ideological ideas are presented in the film The Girl-Dzhigit? (1) the USSR as a country of the friendship of different nations; as a country of hard and successful labor on collective farms; (2) Kazakhstan as a place with half Kazakhs and half Russians; (3) people not only work hard, but they also rest and have fun together; (4) Kazakhstan as a country of abundance—despite the fact that collective farmers live far from cities, mobile shops came to remote places where people could buy absolutely everything; (5) there is no direct interethnic marriage, as in They Met in Moscow, but Galiya is an adopted daughter, which is like an interethnic union; (6) women in Kazakhstan are liberated and choose their own husbands; (7) people in the USSR live happily and in prosperity.

Despite its ideological construction, the film was in demand by audiences and watched by 28 million viewers, gaining 13th place among the most popular films in the USSR in 1955. This can only be explained by the fact that the Kazakh audience, who grew up on the Soviet comedies of Aleksandrov and Pyriev, could not expect anything else.

dear doktorShaken Aimanov’s Our Dear Doctor, released in 1957, is a film-concert that captures the myth of the completion of the formation of “Soviet socialist culture” in Kazakhstan. It also supports the ideologeme about Russia as a big brother in celebrating the anniversary of Dr Lavrov and all the “younger brothers,” Kazakhs who run around with the desire to arrange his anniversary as best as possible and make it more fun.

In the beginning I have already said that there is a parallel with the Russian film Carnival Night, which was made a year early, where a holiday is also being prepared: the New Year’s party; and there is also a bureaucrat who interferes with a group of young people who organize this holiday.

Fragment from the film Carnival Night, the song “Five Minutes”
Fragment from the film Our Dear Doctor (24:20–25:10)

As Rimgaila Salys wrote (2009, 7), the flourishing of Soviet musical comedies was accompanied by the popularity of their songs. Many of these songs were written by the composer Isaac Dunaevskii for Grigorii Aleksandrov’s films Jolly Fellows (Veselye rebiata), Circus (Tsirk), and Volga-Volga. The songs went public and became popular on their own. “The song helps us build and live,” “My native country is wide,” and “The March of Enthusiasts” fulfilled the task of Soviet nation-building and made us believe in a “bright future”. Songs from the film Our Dear Doctor were also very popular in Kazakhstan, especially the songs performed by Ermek Serkebaev, such as “The sky is blue above me.”

dear doktorIn Our Dear Doctor, the socialist “bright future” is presented as a magnificent “present”: with resorts, elegantly dressed men and women, cars, and so on. In the 1950s, Nikita Khrushchev proclaimed the complete achievement of socialism and the onset of a period of the full-scale construction of communist society. Therefore, cinema—as an ideological tool—had to reflect the “victories of socialism,” although in fact, according to the recollections of our parents, life in the Kazakh SSR was not easy in the 1950s. Even Alma-Ata, as the capital of the Kazakh Soviet republic, was 70 per cent built up of one-storey wooden, adobe, frame-reed houses without toilets but outside facilities, water columns on streets and stove heating. There were, of course, apartments, but as a rule they were communal, that is, for several families. Only in the city center of Alma-Ata were multi-storey houses of the Stalinist type built for the Party elite.

The aesthetics of the film Our Dear Doctor certainly belongs to the “grand style,” since reality is shown only from the best side. The film lacks even a hint at the difficulties of everyday life. People are cheerful and responsive, the streets are wide, the buildings are beautiful, the actors are talented. One of the main locations of the film is the sanatorium that looks like a “branch of paradise”: a well-groomed area with alleys lined by tall trees, an outdoor pool, and a sports ground. The main character, Bibigul, works as a physical therapy instructor here.

Alma-Ata is represented by buildings that also belong to the “grand style.” This is the building of the Academy of Sciences and residential buildings of Communist Avenue, the Government House. The building of the Opera House is given special attention in the film: it appears as a real temple of art. The pompous and magnificent Alma-Ata architecture of the “grand Stalinist style” is designed to demonstrate the almost absolute power of Soviet authority in this territory, remote from all civilizational centers. It was this architecture that created and still creates a special atmosphere for the city center, and makes it fabulously beautiful in the film.

Our Dear Doctor is constructed as a series of musical numbers, which Bibigul seems to collect. Even in her appearance and her costumes she is reminiscent of Liudmila Gurchenko from Carnival Night. Shaken Aimanov, who perfectly knew the theatrical and musical life of Alma-Ata, made it possible to organize the script in such a way that it would give an opportunity to present all popular Kazakhstani actors, singers and dancers: twelve numbers are performed.

However, all the songs are in Russian, with Russian melodies, written by the composer Aleksandr Zatsepin. Of the twelve musical performances, only one song is in the Kazakh language. This also reflects the tendency towards Russification in Kazakh culture. In the episode “Lullaby,” an animation fragment is included in the enacted scenes. At that time, Kazakhstani animation itself did not exist yet (the first Kazakh cartoon would appear in 1967, ten years after the release of Our Dear Doctor). It is an example of a funny understanding of the national concept: a fairy tale about a dragonfly, dressed in national Kazakh costume. It concerns the question of form and content.

dear doktorAs for the plot itself, the entire action is organized around the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the good doctor Lavrov, whose role was played by 34-year-old actor Iurii Pomerantsev. The appearance of the doctor and his character reminds us of the fabulous kind doctor Aibolit from Kornei Chukovskii. Why did the image of the main character, the Russian doctor Lavrov (as they said at the time of the “elder brother”) not irritate the Kazakh audience? Because the conflict in the film is divided between the bad Russian, the director of the sanatorium Filkin, and the good Russian, the head physician Lavrov. The national issue was initially removed; then Dr Lavrov became an intellectual, a good doctor, a polite mentor. Filkin, on the contrary, is rude and uneducated; he is the former director of a horse farm, a kind of Byvalov (from Carnival Night): a bad leader, who at the end of the film is removed from his post. It seems that the Kazakh audience associated Lavrov with those Russian intellectuals who were exiled to Kazakhstan before and after the war, and who were evacuated there during the war.

The film casually mentions that the doctor has been working in a sanatorium for 17 years. A biography can be guessed behind this phrase. This period falls on the beginning of the war. It is suggested that during the war, Dr Lavrov put the wounded soldiers, who arrived at the sanatorium following hospital treatment, back on their feet. In the post-war years he helped restore the health of “peace workers.” His authority and popularity are well deserved.

Scientists and highly qualified specialists, who were often in Kazakhstan against their will, worked mainly as teachers and, of course, as respected doctors. All of them left a grateful memory of themselves among the Kazakh people. Therefore, the Soviet ideologeme of the Russian as an instructing mentor, an “elder brother”, did not work for the local viewer in relation to Our Dear Doctor.

The film has a spectacular conclusion: not only famous artists, but also policemen and firefighters came to congratulate the doctor; cars drive up to the front of the sanatorium, people in uniform are marching, employees scurry around. Shaken Aimanov himself says to the camera that we are artists, and people are responsive.

Fragment from the film Our Dear Doctor (1:18:34–1:19:40)

The film went down in the history of Kazakh and Soviet cinema not only as a brilliantly passing the examination test for the “Sovietness” of Kazakh culture, but also as a memory of outstanding people, actors, directors and artists.

In the end, an important factor in the success of comedies was the great love of the Soviet people for cinema. As Natalia Lebina notes: “The illusory world that existed in most Soviet films was far from reality, but this did not irritate the viewer, especially the young. The cinema continued to seem like a miracle from which no one demanded the truth. In a symbolic form, the attitude of Soviet people to cinema was recorded by a saying that had developed back in the 1930s, ‘like in a movie’, which expressed the implausibility of a favorable situation” (Lebina 2015, 295–296). All this fully applies to Kazakh comedies. The mythologization of reality became the essence of the art of Socialist Realism.


Works Cited

Lebina, Natalia. 2015. Sovetskaia povsednevnost’: normy i anomalii. Ot voennogo kommunizma k bol’shomu stiliu. Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie.

Salys, Rimgaila. 2009. The Musical Comedy Films of Grigorii Aleksandrov: Laughing Matters. Bristol: intellect books

Taylor, Richard and Ian Christie (eds). 1994. “Party Cinema Conference Resolution: The Results of Cinema Construction in the USSR and the Tasks of Soviet Cinema” [1929], in The Film Factory, 208-215. London: Routledge.

Zorkaia, Neia. 2005. Istoriia sovetskogo kino. St Petersburg: Aleteiia.

Gulnara Abikeeva © 2021

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Updated: 2021