On the edge of the dialectic:
Women's space in
Soviet film narrative

by Judith Mayne

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 26-29
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Before I could answer Lenin continued:

"The record of your sins, Clara, is even worse. I have been told that at the evenings arranged for reading and discussion with working women, sex and marriage problems come first … The first state of proletarian dictatorship is battling with the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world … But active Communist women are busy discussing sex problems and the forms of marriage — 'past, present and future.'"[1]

"The great fire of the world uprising of the proletariat called woman from her baking tins into the arena of the barricades…"[2]

It is not always clear whether feminist critiques of socialist societies are "within" or "against" the revolution. [3] As feminists, we may have succeeded in understanding that monolithic notions of the Revolution frequently celebrate the authority of primary over secondary contradictions: of economy first and the family second, of class struggle first and sexual politics second, and so on. And we may understand as well that revolutionary change rarely allows sex and class, for example, to be neatly and hierarchically classified into rigidly separate spheres. Yet such understanding does not dismiss the very real ambiguity that is potential in feminist analysis of women's roles in socialist change or, in the case of film criticism, of the film images of those roles. Surely the apprehension is understandable on the part of women engaged in socialist feminist research. If feminist analysis of Soviet revolutionary films, for instance, allows us to discover that OCTOBER and EARTH are as thoroughly sexist as the works of literary misogynists like Norman Mailer, then we seem to be celebrating just another distorted vision of revolutionary process — one that occurs outside of history.

In examining the representation of women in Soviet narrative film of the 1920s, my purpose is neither triumphantly to declare Eisenstein, Pudovkin, et al. as feminists; nor is it to enumerate the injustices done by those filmmakers to women. All Soviet films of the 1920s are explorations of different facets of revolutionary consciousness. I want to examine whether, in Soviet cinema, there are "female" and "male" versions of political consciousness.

As explorations of revolutionary consciousness, many Soviet films of the 1920s act as agents of memory. Sergei Eisenstein's 1924 film STRIKE ends with an extreme close-up of a human eye, with a title advising proletarians to "remember" — in this case, to remember the struggles of the workers' movement and the brutal nature of capitalist repression. Pudovkin's THE MOTHER (1927) also remembers the past, the specific period of 1905, and celebrates the process by which the unpoliticized become engaged in revolutionary struggle. FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE, a 1929 film by Friedrich Ermler, is constructed around the very process of memory. The central character of the film is an amnesia victim who regains his memory only after the Revolution, thus seeing socialism through completely innocent eyes.

As forms of memory, these narratives work against the grain of the bourgeois history, in which workers and peasants are virtually invisible. The past is apprehended as an active, dynamic part of the revolutionary present. The image of memory might be stretched a bit to represent, as well, the process by which a socialist-feminist film criticism examines and refocuses both the past and its representation on the screen.


Sergei Eisenstein's STRIKE is not a film "about women." But it is precisely that absence, let's say, that makes STRIKE an interesting starting point for our purposes. A similar absence is reflected in the statement attributed to nineteenth-century French socialist-feminist Flora Tristan, that women must march alongside of the people. And so it is tempting, at first, to describe STRIKE as a film about workers, not about women.

STRIKE shows the declaration of a strike and its eventual dissolution by management. The "strike" of the film is a condensation of many strikes and of many political observations concerning the development of revolutionary consciousness. Women appear in Eisenstein's film marching in rallies and demonstrations, though not as workers. Most frequently, women appear as obstacles to the success of the strike. Thus, in its presentation of working-class history, the film elides women's actual involvement in labor and political activity. The strikes and factory agitation evoked in the film concern the sphere of male activity. The questions to ask, then, are whether there is a parallel sphere of women's activity; and whether the signifier "woman" identifies women as a class (so to speak). There is no such articulation of "male" as a category of representation. Men are either capitalists, workers, or "go-betweens" — spies on the one hand, foremen and bureaucrats on the other. Or put another way, the male identity of these categories of social relations is assumed. This male common denominator is not completely monolithic, however. Of particular interest in STRIKE is the role given the intermediary figures, the "go-betweens": the foreman and the office worker who spy on the workers' activities and report back to their boss; and in particular, the actual spies hired by management to break the strike.

That these figures are on the side of the capitalist order is unquestionable. As intermediaries, they themselves are powerless to affect immediate action or to wield immediate control. Yet within the boundaries of the film they have another kind of power, and that is the power to watch, to observe: the power of image-making. This form of power is strikingly illustrated in the latter part of the film, for instance, when one of the spies surreptitiously aims a hidden camera at a worker as he removes a management poster from a glass case. We follow the development of an image: from the moment it is captured, to the negative filmstrip, to the emergence of the photograph which allows the arrest of the striker in question. At the other extreme of this displaced power, this indirect power, is the brute force used by the bosses through mounted police, once to break up a strike meeting and again to completely destroy the workers' movement at the end of the film.

Throughout the film, the perspective of these intermediary figures is central. Very little of the film actually occurs within the walls of the factory. The early scenes focus not on preparations for the strike per se, but on the intrusion of these makeshift spies on the workers' secret meetings. And it is the figure of spying which provides the most basic thread of narrative continuity throughout the film. STRIKE assumes and retains a narrative framework that is familiar to socialist culture: the contradiction between boss and workers, the eruption of the strike, and its subsequent destruction by the superior brute force of the capitalists. This skeletal structure is presented, however, through obtuse angles, through indirect lines of vision.

All of this may appear to take us away from the representation of women in the film. Women in STRIKE are neither capitalists nor workers; nor are they intermediaries or emissaries in the same way as the bosses' allies. Like the intermediaries, however, women always appear in an oblique context in the film. Yet this oblique perspective is not one which can immediately be identified as "woman." Women appear in the film almost uniquely in the context of the couple, a context which in its turn suggests two different registers. There is domestic space, which is seen only in the context of the proletarian home. And there is another form of "private" space, that of sexuality and seduction — evoked only in connection with the bourgeoisie. What I am suggesting is that if the presence of women in Eisenstein's film evokes the sense of obstacle, of complication of the strike, it is not so much because women are identified as a class, as a sign of immanently depoliticized space. Rather, "woman" signifies the private space which works against the success of the strike.

The pivotal narrative point of STRIKE occurs when images of the striking workers at home with their wives and children appear in juxtaposition with images of the grotesquely stereotypical capitalist eating alone in a restaurant. A sharp contrast is clear between the communal meal of the workers and the solitary isolation of the boss in an expensive restaurant. The direct alternation of images of boss and worker marks the first time in the film that a relation is established between the two opposing camps without the presence of the intermediaries. Various substitutions in the alternating image tracks of worker and factory owner occur until the stunning climax of the "shareholders' meeting."

Four fat capitalists quickly ignore the strikers' demands and move on to more urgent business: a demonstration of an elaborate juicer that one of them has acquired. This meeting alternates with a meeting of strikers in the woods, and the demonstration of the juicer coincides with an attack by mounted police. This section of the film closes with a return to domestic space. But now, discord reigns: a wife blames her husband for the lack of food; a husband takes family possessions to sell, against his wife's, will; and a wife angrily leaves her home with clothing to sell. The home, initially presented as an alternative space to that of the factory, is invaded by the same power relations operative at the workplace. With the evocation of domesticity, the relation of power shifts. Up to this point in the film, the workers' strength was dominant. Now, however, the balance of power tips in favor of the boss.

It is significant that this reversal should occur at precisely the moment when domestic space is presented on the screen. Beneath the central tension of the film between boss and worker, there is another tension, between private and public life. The boss's power is measured by its capacity to extend beyond the realm of the factory. The final slaughter of the film includes an invasion of the workers' tenements where homes are trampled through and children slain. Thus, the horrific proportions of the conclusion lie partially in the violation of the distinction between private and public space.

Early in the film, after the photograph has incriminated him, a striking worker is arrested in the street. The boss and a woman companion witness the arrest. Of the two, she reacts more violently, screaming to "kill" the worker. Here the couple exists not in domestic space but in a more overtly defined sexual space. The woman wears the clothing and the facial expressions of stereotypical seductiveness. The young worker's arrest disturbs the enclosed space of the carriage in which she and the boss are seated. At the same time, the spectacle of the beating provides a thinly disguised sense of sexual gratification.

Thus, each moment of the progressive dissolution of the strike is marked by the appearance of a couple. When the same worker signs a confession marking his and, by extension, the workers' downfall, another couple appears. This is a pair of midgets who dance the tango on a round dinner table while the worker and a police officer sit in the foreground. All four characters face the camera. The dance provides an almost comic background to the worker's confession. More important, a homologous relation exists between the two "couples" — Mole and Peurole, police officer and worker. [4]

The four spies succeed in short-circuiting the strike, first by the use of a camera and finally by hiring their own intermediaries. These are the lumpenproles, or "riff-raff" as they are referred to in the film, whose infiltration of the workers' march instigates the final massacre of the film. One of these "unscrupulous men" is a woman whose presence is similar to the seductive femininity evoked by the boss's companion. Here, however, that seduction is a parody of itself. The "riff-raff" live in barrels dug into the ground. Their underground dwellings are represented in ways similar to the other two forms of private space we have seen in the film. A man is seen rocking a baby in a barrel, recalling the domestic scene where a man and woman bathe their child. A midget assists the leader of these people, reminding the viewer of the tango-dancing couple. When the infiltrators set fire to a liquor store at the moment the strikers walk by, attention is focused on the woman. She climbs up a tree and screams "DES-TROY," attempting to incite the workers to riot. Here we have a direct parallel with the woman who so enthusiastically screamed for the death of a worker from inside the boss's carriage.

The image of the "riff-raff," in terms of the space they occupy and the actions they perform, regroups all the ways in which private space — domestic or sexual — have been briefly glimpsed in the film and reduce them to grotesque parody. That they live underground is entirely appropriate, as a figure for the way in which images of private life appear in Eisenstein's film.

The personal is evenly split into two opposing camps: the domestic space of the workers and the sexually charged space of the bourgeoisie and its allies. Domestic space is literally invaded in the course of the film and thus obliterated. Sexual space becomes more and more a parody of itself until it too is obliterated in the figure of the female "riff-raff," who is the first to die in the liquor store fire. Women in STRIKE consistently represent a displaced view of the central activity of the strike. Their function is structurally similar, in narrative terms, to that of the spies. But whereas the spies represent an access to power through disguise, through image-making, through concealed vision, women represent the very opposite: they are, whether proletarian or bourgeois, the vehicles through which strength dissipates.


Where domestic space functions only briefly, and only to be obliterated in STRIKE, it is a central focal point in Pudovkin's film THE MOTHER. A much less complex film on all levels than STRIKE, THE MOTHER also represents an oblique perspective on political consciousness: the perspective of those outside of production — i.e., outside of factory production — and outside of political life in general.

Loosely based on Maxim Gorki's novel of the same name, THE MOTHER proposes a dialectical view of motherhood. An elderly woman is suddenly exposed to revolutionary consciousness when her hard-drinking husband and her revolutionary son confront each other in a struggle that results in her husband's death. The son is arrested for his political activities and the mother unwittingly betrays him, naively believing that telling the authorities the truth will set him free. At his trial, the mother suddenly reacts to both the injustice done her son and the many years of her own suffering. He is sent to jail, and the mother begins working with the revolutionaries. An escape plan for her son initially succeeds, but both mother and son are killed at the moment they are reunited.

Absolute devotion to her son motivates the mother to cooperate naively and unthinkingly with the police. Yet simultaneously, this devotion allows the mother to transcend the narrow proportions within which her love for her son is initially presented. On the one hand, motherhood is a suffocating, self-enclosed relation; and on the other, motherhood transcends its own limited realm to connect with other forms of social experience. In Pudovkin's film, the mother moves from the one kind of mother-relation to the other.

If "woman" in this film signifies the unpoliticized, then motherhood is a figure for the way in which revolutionary consciousness transforms the privatized, fragmented relation — one in which the mother unwittingly betrays her son because she has no conscious relation to social forces beyond her grasp — into a relation of organic unity. Here, motherhood works as a support for participation in collective action rather than against such political consciousness. In THE MOTHER, then, the separation between private and public space is central to both the dynamics of the narrative and of revolutionary consciousness.

Thus we might begin by analyzing the nature of domestic space in the film within which the mother, in our first perception of her, is firmly entrenched. Though the first image of the mother shows her performing household labor, the image also conveys relative calm. This calm is disturbed, first by the arrival of the drunken husband and, a second time, after the husband's death, by the police officers who question Pavel the son. These two forms of patriarchal authority — the family and the state — intrude upon the mother's space in essentially the same way: by force. Pavel also intrudes upon this space, although in a qualitatively different way. Early in the film, Pavel agrees to hide some ammunition in the house, which he conceals under floorboards as the mother dimly watches through her sleep. This is an ambiguous intrusion, one that the mother herself will later imitate when she begins working with the revolutionaries.

The pivotal point of the film is the trial of Pavel. The scenes preceding and following the trial scene are marked by a tension between indoor and outdoor spaces. In the latter half of the film, Pavel is in prison while militancy grows outside of the prison walls. In a structurally parallel fashion, the mother's confinement to domestic space in the first half of the film cuts her off from the social whole. As Pavel's revolutionary activities are the catalyst for the mother's departure from the confines of domestic space, so too will the mother be a major agent in Pavel's escape attempt.

Within this rhyming structure of the film, domestic space is not "redefined" in relation to the public sphere. Rather, domestic space is obliterated. Only once does the interior space of the home appear after Pavel's trial. This is when the mother hides tracts — rather than guns — under the floorboards. Even here, the presence of the home functions primarily to recapture the original image of the concealed guns, draining that image of its significance as a threat to the mother. This obliteration of domestic space would seem to suggest that the development of political consciousness is a unilateral move outwards, in broader and broader social terms. Domestic space becomes perhaps insignificant per se: perhaps completely synonymous with social space. In either case, domestic space has no function once political consciousness develops.

However, the relation between mother and son — the only family relation permitted an authentic existence in the film — is redefined and intensified. Only after that relation can transcend the privatized space of the home does it flourish. Within the home, the son defends his mother unsuccessfully against the tyrant father; but in the social sphere, he attacks an entire system. One must ask what it matters that this parent-child relation is mother and son, rather than mother-daughter, or father-son, or father-daughter: what is particular, in other words, to the mother-son relation?

Mothers nurture; and the nurturing of a son exemplifies the relation between private and public space in a way no other familial relation does. For in patriarchal society, mothers are vehicles for their sons' transition from familial to social identity. Such an articulation echoes the way in which Alexandra Kollontai gave special consideration to motherhood:

"… the woman's responsibilities towards the social collective, society, will always be somewhat different to men's. The woman is not only an independent worker and citizen — at the same time she is a MOTHER, a bearer of the future."[5]

If motherhood is women's access to revolutionary consciousness in Pudovkin's film, it is also suggested that revolutionary bonds are as "natural" as the link between mother and son. Political consciousness itself becomes a "natural" process whereby, in the most famous scene of the film, the growing consciousness of masses of people is equatable to the breaking up of ice floes with the advent of spring. And so, the uprising of the people is as natural as the four seasons and as natural as a mother's love for her son.

A visual nature motif is developed in the film primarily through images of water, first introduced as background elements. Gradually in the course of the film, these images become more accentuated and form visual metaphors. When the revolutionaries are first presented in the film, they meet in the forest. Their meeting is introduced by what appear to be simple establishing shots of a brook and trees. The major function of "nature" here is to define an alternative space to the enclosed, claustrophobic space of the home and the bar seen in previous scenes.

Before the image of water becomes a metaphor at the conclusion of the film for the awakening "spring" of the masses, the motif passes through several detours. When a man is beaten by the "Black Hundreds" — a mercenary group to which the husband belongs — water functions as counterpoint. Images of rapidly moving water are intercut with images of the man being beaten. Water appears in a similar way within the home: the mother stares fixedly at water slowly dripping while her dead husband lies in the house. In both of these instances, the water retains a primarily diegetic function.

In another famous scene of the film, water is one element in the metaphor of Pavel's job when he discovers through a note smuggled to him by his mother that an escape plan is in the works. Pavel's joyful facial expression is juxtaposed to images of a babbling brook and a babbling baby. This metaphor does not simply signify "joy": it is a reorganization of previously seen images of the physical universe and of human nature. Pavel's joy is compared to the mother-child relation, a relation seen as the point of contact between political consciousness and human relations. The final water metaphor returns, initally, to a diegetic context. Pavel, escaped from prison, attempts to dodge the police on the ice floes. Once he has rejoined the demonstrators, images of the breaking ice floes are introduced in counterpoint to the marchers. The movement of human beings is inscribed as part of a natural cycle. And it is, finally, Pavel who is given the most direct access to the images of nature. His joy is represented by a leap to another sphere of imagery, and his mother's joy is represented by the vision of him. The water imagery constitutes the work of metaphor in the film. Woman as mother constitutes another figure: she is the point of access between the human individual and the natural cycles within which his activity is inscribed.


The image of spying in STRIKE and the image of cyclical nature-bound activity in THE MOTHER are images of participation, of social relations. As such, these images are central in determining women's function as narrative figures. In Friedrich Ermler's 1929 film FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE, this image of participation is memory itself. The film concerns a man who lost his memory during the civil war and only regains it ten years after the revolution. At a train station, a woman's face perceived through a train car window initiates a series of brief images from his past: the woman is his former wife. The man returns to St. Petersburg with his restored identity, only to be completely baffled by the changes that have taken place. The man gradually adjusts to new living conditions and begins to work in a factory. Only at the conclusion of the film does he find his wife, whose briefly perceived face began the process by which his memory was restored. She is now married to a moronic cultural worker, and though she is tempted to leave him to return to her former husband, she does not.

The hero's loss of memory is presented most basically in the film as a split between the past and the present. Once his memory is restored, his individual past is out of time with the social changes that have taken place. Memory functions as the central narrative device of the film. A past is not simply restored to the hero, but rather the relation between past and present is qualitatively transformed. Memory becomes a kind of production in which the two terms of past and present can only be defined in a constant state of reciprocal change. The film constantly plays with the multiple associations of such a process. From the relation between past and present mediated by the production of memory, a number of similarly defined relations evolve: the traditional versus the experimental, the country versus the city, observation versus participation, the private versus the public. Thus when the hero returns to the city, freshly endowed with a memory of his past, he finds his former employer and wife living shabbily and miserably. The image of the man and wife hovers between the protagonist's perception of them as victims of inexplicable change and the stereotypical image of the self-righteous capitalists they evoke.

When the protagonist perceives his former wife at the train station, she gapes at him, shocked. She quickly turns away, and he watches her, puzzled. As the train leaves, he grabs a cigarette box thrown from her window and clings to it. When he returns home, images of the woman — some identical to those we see of her in the train, others from different contexts — appear in rapid succession. The man pieces these images together by symbolically and literally operating a sewing machine to create — the metaphor is essential — the fabric of his past. The images of his wife are replaced by images from the war. A small, highly abstracted story is represented in which the man meets an image of himself on the battlefield, and both soldiers (on opposite sides) refuse to fire.

In the following scene, the man leaves. Thus what we have seen of his past are a series of images of a woman and a brief narrative of his time in the war. Put another way, we see personal life and official history, both in highly disjointed fashion. Various objects incite these images: the cigarette package, a spool whose movement across the table evokes the image of a tank's movement, an iron cross pressing against the man's chest (the origins of which now become clear), and the sewing machine. As the man responds and adjusts to the new society that he finds in St. Petersburg, all of these elements reappear in different contexts. The comradeship abstractly expressed between the two soldiers in his memory is refined and expanded in the relations between the protagonist and his co-workers at the factory. The authority of the generals is mirrored in the former employer. The sewing machine, the central instrument in reactivating his past, is not unlike the machines which provide the basis for the man's reintegration into Soviet society. The iron cross that motivated some images is given away to a theatrical group, as a relic providing a no longer necessary contact with the past.

The cigarette box, which is the man's only tangible link to the fleeting image of his wife, reappears during the final scene of the film, in which he visits her and her present husband. This scene is similar in many ways to the earlier section of the film when the man's memory is restored (and some of the images from the previous scene reappear in the conclusion of the film). The present husband, the cultural worker, is pompous and oppressive. The protagonist is about to hit him in retaliation for striking the woman when images of two military officers from his past are juxtaposed to the image of the cultural worker. These images give the man pause. He looks around the apartment, which is presented in a series of images as fragmented as the original representation of his memory. These are images of self-contained objects: a pamphlet covered with soup, a still-life painting, a complete set of Lenin's works clearly never opened. And finally, there is an image of the woman. The reappearance of an image structure similar to the memory sequence suggests the resolution of past and present or, rather, an ability to see the past as both in the present and removed from it. For it is ultimately the couple and the space they occupy which suffer from a memory lapse. The relation of past to present is transferred, in the final scene of the film, from temporal to spatial dimensions.

The "memory scene" early in the film thus functions as a matrix of elements which are reactivated throughout the film, occurring in different contexts to evoke different configurations of the poles of memory. The image of the woman which motivates the scene forms the immediate narrative link between past and present: the man's departure, initially, is in search of his wife. Yet of all the elements of the original memory scene, the image of the wife reappears in the most static way. Briefly perceived at the train station, she is one of many images of the man's past. Perceived again by the man at the end of the film, she functions in much the same way. While all the other elements of the man's past — the military, authority, machinery — have been qualitatively redefined in a passage from past to present and from individual to social, the woman is as rigidly locked into the claustrophobic private space of her domestic life with the cultural worker as she was locked into the protagonist's past.

In many ways Ermler's film makes a profound, if unconscious, connection between the definition of woman within private space and woman as image. The wife is initially perceived in the film as an image, framed by the train window, and then as a series of multiple images sewn together like pieces of filmstrip through the movements of the sewing machine. Put another way, the woman is first and foremost unambiguously represented as an image. And she remains image because she never leaves the immediate space of private life.

Although Eisenstein was the principle spokesperson, in Soviet cinema, of the relation between the dialectical method of montage and the narrative tradition that preceded it, Ermler's film is one of the finest examples of the ways in which Soviet film narrative appropriated the fundamental structures of an essentially bourgeois art form to socialist ends. For FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE has a classical quest structure in which the central character binds up the opposing halves of individual and social existence — here, understood in their original phase as pure absence. But most important, FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE exemplifies the function of narrative as a mediation between private and public space. The hero of the film is a figure of totality in whom a past is produced and then given definition only in relation to the present. [6]

It is only through that process that a future tense becomes thinkable. The man leaves the apartment when his former wife sobs that this is "the end." He faces the camera to tell the audience that no, this is just the beginning, there is "still much left to be done." This is, on one level, a forced resolution of socialist triumphalism. But on another level, it is an inscription of the tension between the personal and the social as one which cannot be resolved within the film, within the realm of narrative. The entire film develops around the split between two terms. FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE can be seen ultimately, however, as a film that opens up these contradictions rather than assuming their imaginary resolution.


In these three films, the image of woman evokes private, personal space. Feminists look at the realm of the private as, on the one hand, the realm of social relations largely ignored in political analysis, Marxist or otherwise; and, on the other, the context within which women have been defined and define themselves in patriarchal-capitalist society. That the "personal is political" has by now become a truism of feminist theory. There is the realm of domesticity: the home, in an affective sense, the household, in an economic sense. There are the human relations not immediately determined by production. These are the general contours of the personal which demand analysis. Yet what Sheila Rowbotham wrote in 1973 still holds true:

"The manifestations of the specific manner in which the dominant relations and values of capitalist society penetrate all the supposedly 'personal' areas of human life are still largely unexplored." [7]

For in any discussion of "private life," the personal is too often confused with the purely individual — such is the dominant ideology of personal life. But there is something that rings false when all the manifestations of private life are collapsed into one tableau, itself a kind of miniature of the large-scale workings of capitalism. Such a view is not incorrect: but it is the nature of the view, its vantage point, that should be examined. For this is a view that straddles private and public space; it is a view from a comfortable distance. What of the view from within the space of private life, i.e., the view that looks at the nature of public space from the vantage point of women within the home? I am speaking of a kind of imaginary social participation, one which ultimately affects and determines all individuals, male and female, within capitalist society. But the understanding of imaginary social participation begins most strategically with the position of women. The very notion of "personal life" is ideological and resides on the false assumption that work and home, commodity relations and personal relations, can be kept separate. Demystification of that separation proceeds, on one level, by analysis of how the public sphere is mirrored in the private. And on another level, attention must be drawn to the ways in which the institutions of private life shape an image of the public sphere.

One such institution is the novel, which emerged in the eighteenth century as a dominant literary form at precisely the time that the margins of private and public life were sharply defined. The first major audience of the novel was bourgeois women, for whom novel reading was a leisure-time activity. The very act of reading becomes a kind of removed social participation, mirrored in the content of novels which nearly always recounted the passage from individual to social existence, the putting into place of the halves of private and public lives. The writing of novels, too, tapped forms of communication associated with women, like letter writing, and marked their increased entry into the realm of artistic production. [8]

I have mentioned the novel, and private and public life within capitalist society, all of which may seem to be very distant from Soviet cinema and revolutionary society. For Soviet film speaks collective history. And the very notion of private and public space is radically different in a revolutionary culture built upon the principle that organic totality is possible. In any case, the split between personal and public life is a specific feature of capitalist development, evolving from the division between the socialized labor of the factory and the private labor of women within the home. [9] Thus Eli Zaretsky concludes that the very notion of personal life had but minor significance in nineteenth-century Russia, and then only amongst the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. [10]

"The tradition of personal liberation had little meaning in a pre-industrial society in which the family was still the basic hub of production, and in which production and personal life were integrated. It was difficult for the Bolsheviks to see whether and in what form personal life could become a progressive political issue." [11]

But the importance of the private sphere in Soviet film narrative comes from its relation to the narrative tradition of Western Europe, to the novel. For it is the novel which, perhaps more than any other cultural form, has served to articulate a relation between private and public space.

Lenin's comment to Inessa Armand concerning her preparation of a pamphlet on free love is instructive in this regard.

"In your pamphlet you have juxtaposition not of class TYPES, but something in the nature of 'an individual case,' which is possible, of course. But is this a question of individual cases? The theme of a separate, individual case of dirty kisses in marriage and pure kisses in a short-lived love affair should be developed in a novel (for here the whole POINT would be in the INDIVIDUAL setting, in analyzing the CHARACTERS and psychology of GIVEN types). But in a pamphlet?" [12]

I wonder where, on the spectrum of concerns appropriate to novel versus pamphlet, Lenin place the cinema. Perhaps it would lie somewhere in between, for Soviet cinema did define itself early in its history as a unique hybrid of fiction and historical exposition. Film did not have quite the direct political function of pamphlets but were more immediately defined in terms of public space than other art forms, like the novel.

We know that debates and discussions on personal life occurred in the Soviet Union and that Alexandra Kollontai was more than an isolated figure. Sheila Rowbotham tells us that in the years immediately following the Revolution,

"There has probably never been a time when great masses of people discussed openly questions which affected women so much." [13]

We know less about the extent to which the development of Soviet film art was potentially affected by discussions concerning sexuality, women's roles, and the family. Abram Room's 1927 film, BED AND SOFA, tells the story of a woman whose husband invites a male friend to share their one-room apartment (there is a severe housing shortage). When the husband has to leave town, the woman and friend begin sleeping together. Upon the husband's return, the three settle down into a kind of extended marriage, until the woman discovers she is pregnant. About to have an abortion, she changes her mind and leaves the two men, deciding to raise the child herself. This film could almost function as an illustration of Alexandra Kollontai's pamphlets. But at the time this film was made, a movement was already underfoot which sought to contain the discussions which earlier had flourished.[14]

Soviet narrative cinema occupies a particular juncture central to a socialist-feminist theory of cinema. There is one line leading from film narrative to the bourgeois narrative tradition, primarily that of the novel, that it taps and transforms. Another line leads from the visualization of space, personal and social, on the screen to the ways in which Soviet women and men perceived themselves in relation to the changing public sphere of socialism. And another leads from the representation of women as figures of private space, not directly to the lives of women in Soviet society but to the ways in which women in Soviet society imagined their activity and how they saw links between that activity and revolutionary consciousness.

In STRIKE, THE MOTHER, and FRAGMENT OF AN EMPIRE, the representation of women is the articulation of the relation — always problematic, always ambiguous — between the personal and the social. Some may see in this yet another example of woman as victim or the image of woman as nothing but the object of the male gaze. But I see affirmation of the strategic, central role of women in the experience and the critical examination of private and public space. That such an affirmation occurs completely at the unconscious level in these films is not a problem — it is precisely the point. For as Sylvia Bovenschen has said,

"… an element of female resistance, if only a passive one, has always contributed to artistic production." [15]


1. Clara Zetkin, "Lenin on the Woman Question," in The Emancipation of Women: From the Writings of V.I. Lenin (New York, 1934), p. 101.

2. Alexandra Kollantai, Women Workers Struggle for Their Rights, trans. Celia Britton (Bristol, England, 1971), p. 12. Originally published in 1918.

3. The formulation is borrowed from Fidel Castro's famous statement concerning the relation of artists and writers to the Cuban revolution:

"What are the rights of the writers and artists, revolutionary or non-revolutionary? Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing."

"Words to the Intellectuals," in Radical Perspectives in the Arts, ed. Lee Baxandall (Baltimore, 1972), p. 276.

4. One might also tend to understand this view of women and the couple — here as in other films by Eisenstein — as the expression of the filmmaker's own relationship to gay sexuality. However, assumptions about necessary links between misogyny and male gay sexuality are obviously somewhat suspect.

5. Kollontai, p. 16.

6. Such a definition of the social function of the novel is suggested, for instance, in Georg Lukacs, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge MA, 1971).

7. Women's Consciousness, Man's World (Baltimore, 1973), p. 55.

8. Leslie Fiedler writes that

"… the manufacture of novels is the first business in the modern world into which women were permitted to enter in large numbers, and in which, competing on an equal footing with males, they achieved financial success." See Love and Death in the American Novel (New York, 1966), p. 83.

Sylvia Bovenschen sees the relation between letter writing and the creation of novels as part of women's connection to the "pre-aesthetic":

"… it can be proven that women succeeded in entering the artistic realm when they gained access to it via the adjoining 'pre-aesthetic' realms. In the eighteenth century women were able to enter the realm of literature by means of letters (the epistolary novel), since this was an age in which letters and novels were gaining dignity and the dissolution of rigid formal rules allowed greater flexibility." See "Is There a Feminine Aesthetic?" New German Critique No. 10 (1977), p. 133.

9. Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, the Family and Personal Life (Santa Cruz, 1974). Originally published in Socialist Revolution (1973).

10. Ibid., p. 75.

11. Ibid., p. 77. One is tempted to ask, however, for whom production and personal life were integrated.

12. The Emancipation of Women, p. 40.

13. Women, Resistance, and Revolution (New York, 1974), pp. 149-50.

14. Ibid., pp. 158-59.

15. Bovenschen, p. 125.