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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

History in Motion: Film Archives Offer a Look

Russian history-in-the-making is an endless series of crucial, fleeting moments, each one crashing onto the scene and sinking into oblivion so quickly that there's no stopping for breath before moving on to the next coup, scandal or economic overhaul.


But for those who want to pause for a brief review of the past century, there is a haven for history, 12 kilometers from Moscow in the small town of Krasnogorsk. At the Russian State Archive of Film and Photographic Documents, images of everything from the gleaming smile of first-man-in-space Yuri Gagarin to the sweeping gestures of mad monk Rasputin are available for personal viewing upon request.


Over 28,000 non-feature films, 10,360 photo albums and 645,000 photo negatives are stored at the archives, where the oldest photographs date back as far as 1855, depicting scenes from the Crimean War. Also available are old newsreels on nitrate film -- explosive and obsolete, but visually superior -- provided with special care for the archive's fire brigade. There is a two-year-old video library as well. The archive, established at Lefortovo Palace in 1928, ten years after Bolshevik decrees on film industry nationalization, moved to Krasnogorsk in 1953. Free to choose any visual material from any institution during the Brezhnev years, it slowly built up an enormous, stunning collection of recorded history. Additions have slowed of late, with potential donors raising the price tag on their photographs and films and the archive, which relies on state funding, unable to foot the bill.


"We can't afford to purchase some of the more unique documents, in spite of the fact that they are nothing but state property of historical value and therefore should be available for state archives free of charge," said archive director Lyudmila Zapryagayeva.


Between salaries for the archive's 157 employees and upkeep on photo labs and restoration facilities, virtually none of the funding on hand goes towards the purchase of new materials, Zapryagayeva said.


"It's turned us into true business people with capitalist acumen. We have to pay taxes just like any other commercial enterprise, after all, even though we're a state organization."


With the help of publishing houses, the archive has focused its attentions on moneymaking for the past two years, coming out with albums, posters and postcard sets of visually arresting photographs of the Romanov family and World War II battles. The main source of income, though, are the visitors -- anyone from graduate students to foreign television moguls -- taking advantage of the archive's treasure trove of information.


Having made a selection from a catalogue -- soon to be computerized, according to Zapryagayeva -- customers can watch the reels of their choice in quiet screening halls, order scripts and filmographies, and request 35-mm prints for personal use. Although visitors must sign an agreement promising not to use the archive material for commercial purposes, they are free to screen what they've bought in any country they choose.


Some of the most popular catalogue boxes at the Krasnogorsk Archive are marked with names like Molotov, Beria and Kaganovich. "They were in greatest demand right after 1985, when people needed to see the 'visual truth' of what had really happened to the nation," said Viktor Batalin, the head of the reference department. "Now with the Russia-on-the-rise mentality, there's a revived interest in the glory of the past, silent newsreels from the end of the century. That's been one of the most complicated tasks for our archive experts, figuring out what all of the 1,000 films in this collection actually are."


These films comprise the work of professional and amateur cameramen traveling Russian and looking for a quick profit from films of "thrilling" scenes -- fires, floods, train crashes -- as well as exotic local rituals, military parades and inspection of the troops by Nicholas II, and the private life of the royal family. Russian entrepreneurs like Alexander Drankov, famous for his sensationalist reporting, and Alexander Khanzhonkov, who was the first to make Russian scientific films, worked together with French and British colleagues, capturing lofty and everyday moments of the country's history. Some of the archive's rarest footage, a chronicle of the beginning of World War I shot by the Skobelev Committee, an ad-hoc group of pre-revolutionary filmmakers, is now being used by Ostankino television crews in preparation for broadcasts dedicated to the 80th anniversary of August 1914.


Also available are films by pro-revolution filmmakers of the 1920s, like Esther Shub, who in films like 1928's "The Russia of Nicholas II and Leo Tolstoy" used striking montage effects to bring old newsreel footage to life for propagandistic purposes, providing an imaginative and officially sanctioned view of what it was like to live in tsarist times. Such films, while fascinating in their own right, are the bane of a thorough archivist, according to Batalin. "She and her colleagues literally raped the whole pre-revolutionary newsreel stock with their experiments," he said. "For the time being, all we've got is this artistic mess."


The archive's stocks remained relatively untouched in the censorious '30s, and even swelled, with numerous film reports on Valery Chkalov's legendary flights across the North Pole and the rescue of Arctic explorers from the Chelyuskin ice-breaker, trapped in the ice. But the Soviet touch remained: faces of repressed political leaders, gulag victims and "subversive" episodes were cut and erased from photographs and newsreels, recasting modern history in whatever was the particular mold of the moment. "Unfortunately, these unique photographs were mutilated," said Batalin. "But the cut-outs from films were placed in a special depositary and were restored later. We're lucky that communists were so careful about archives."


Artists and filmmakers from around the world have made their way to Krasnogorsk, and material from the archive has made its impact in a number of Russian films. Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko has borrowed striking scenes "The Great Farewell," an official documentary depicting the day of Socialist Bloc mourning following Stalin's death, for his nostalgic retro-drama "Stalin's Funerals." The prolific documentary filmmaker Alexei Khanyutin is currently working on his "Mausoleum" project using archive documents. And none of the epic documentary series on Russia, like "The Icon and the Axe," "Stalin" and "The Unknown War" would have been possible without Krasnogorsk's visual treasures.


"It's a real pleasure to work here," said Regine Kulm, who is looking for material for her independent project on photographer Tina Modott, a Comintern member who worked in Moscow after being expelled from Mexico for revolutionary activity. "But they're charging a lot." Kulm is paying $800 per minute of film -- a considerable difference between the 3,000 rubles per meter that Russian filmmakers typically pay the archives.


"We have to go through these hard times in order to care for our unique recorded history," said Zapryagaeva. "To collect, to preserve and to make it available for everyone. That's what make us tick."