Heroes and Villains in Soviet Films, 1923-1950

The ethnic nationality and socio-economic class ascribed to villains in Soviet films have in general coincided with those of real enemies under attack by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. In addition, screen villains have usually been depicted as motivated by social goals in the realm of political power. Soviet film heroes, on the other hand, as a rule shared the ethnic nationality and socio-economic class of Communist Party members and their allies. They were portrayed as strong, active and capable of resistance to the villains. As Communist control over Soviet film content stiffened with the passage of time, the Party periodically required changes in the characterizations of film heroes and villains to keep pace with new developments in the domestic and foreign policies of the Bolshevik regime. Quantitative content analysis of Soviet films provides evidence that these demands have guided film-makers in the U.S.S.R. for many years.

For purposes of content analysis a sample of heroes and a sample of villains in Soviet films have been classified as to their ethnic nationality, socio-economic class, motivation, age, and sex. Motivation was divided into goals, in terms of a personal-social dichotomy, and into areas such as politics, economics, romantic love, family, and culture. Classification was based on total judgments which considered all clues pertaining to heroes and villains. The units chosen for analysis were complete full-length feature films produced between 1923 and 1950.

Practically all Soviet films discussed in available English-language publications were included in the two samples, provided that an adequate description of their content was obtainable. The titles of over 400 Soviet films were found by perusal of books, magazines and newspapers in the English language, but information about the villains depicted was available for only 130 films, and about heroes for only 240. The representativeness of these samples cannot be determined. It is estimated, however, that they are based on about 10 and 20 per cent, respectively, of all feature films produced in the Soviet Union during the period 1923-1950.

Most categories of socio-economic class for villains and heroes are common to both lists.

The term used to identify a category usually represents a cluster of related occupations and social classes. The category "specialists on violence" includes both legal specialists, such as police, armed forces, frontier guards, detectives, and armed secret agents, and illegal specialists, such as bandits, gangsters, kidnapers, assassins, guerrilla fighters, saboteurs, and arsonists. Fliers are classified here only when identified as members of the armed forces; otherwise they are placed in the category of "aviators."

The category "politicians and administrators" also includes unarmed agents occupied in political espionage or agitation. The term "capitalists and members of the petite bourgeoisie" is broadly interpreted as comprising bankers, factory owners, landowners, storekeepers, and persons engaged in commerce on a private basis. The designation "workers and employees" is given to construction crews, miners, railway and transport workers, municipal employees (except militia and political administrators), secretaries, clerks, and so on. The classification "peasants" includes the so-called kulaks, as well as herdsmen, fishermen and operators of agricultural machinery. The category "artists" is used for painters, actors, singers, and motion-picture directors, and "unemployed and criminals" for juvenile delinquents, prostitutes, gamblers, and so on.

Goals are defined so as to focus on the people affected. The term "personal goal" is applied to motives which aim to affect the character portrayed or a small group of people well known to him. The category "social goals" is reserved for motives intending to affect large social groups, such as the population of a particular nation, "the workers of the world" or all mankind. All motives are rated as personal or social, depending on which goal received greater emphasis in a given film.

Areas of motivation used in this analysis are: "politics," including motives pertaining to power, diplomacy, nationalism, war, communism, and so on; "economics," motives concerned with commerce, production, construction, technology, profiteering, graft, piracy, and so forth; "culture," those connected with education, science, the arts, communication, and recreation; "romantic love," those involved in flirtation, love, courtship, and sexual relations; and "family," motives pertaining to married life, children and domestic activity. The residual category "other areas" includes motives of religion, social prestige, health, and so on.

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