Visions of a New Land: Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War / Edition 1

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Drawing on an enormous range of little-known cultural texts, including documentary and feature films, adolescent travel journals, school primers, maps, and city plans, Emma Widdis offers a unique cultural history of the early Soviet period. She explains how the machinery of the Soviet cultural system was put to work on a single propaganda campaign: to create a context for citizenship and to unite the individual and the collective within a shared conception of time and space. Demonstrating that film (Lenin's most valued art) offered both visions of the utopia and models of how to live in it, Widdis reveals how the next Soviet map was projected onto the great shared screen of the popular imagination.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300092912
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/11/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.68 (h) x 0.75 (d)

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Visions of a New Land

Soviet Film from the Revolution to the Second World War
By Emma Widdis

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09291-2

Chapter One



(Fa-a-a-ster ... / FasterFaster / Hey, provinces / Raise your anchors! / Astrakhan, follow Tula / one makhina [large, bulky thing] after another / Standing immobile /Even in Adam's day / have now moved / and are shoving / others, rattling / their cities) -Vladimir Maiakovskii

In the years between 1917 and 1930, the Soviet territory was a space under new management-and new ownership. The nationalization of land and property, in effect from 1917, entailed a conceptual transformation of the imagined national map: the capitalist space became a state-controlled space. The first Dekret o zemle (land decree) was passed on 26 October 1917, symbolically transferring the ownership of all land, earth, and water from private to state hands. And these "state hands" were equated, significantly, with the hands of the people. Thus the territory became, symbolically at least, a whole-and a whole that "belonged" to the masses.

As such, the territory-its structures and its development-could be centrally planned. The first state committee for construction was formed by decree in1918. Its tasks were defined as "the planning of towns and settlements and the construction of infrastructure at a general-state level [emphasis added]." Lenin's famous plan for the electrification of "all Russia," presented to the Eighth Congress of Soviets in 1920, was the first national plan, and it was quickly followed by the creation of Gosplan (the State Planning Commission) in 1921. Gosplan presented its first annual economic plan in August 1925, and by 1926 its remit had been expanded to include preparatory work on a general plan for future national development: the beginnings of unified planning. With the announcement of the First Five-Year Plan in 1928, central planning became the key axis upon which the development of Soviet economy and society turned. Full-scale industrialization began, as Stalin announced the urgent need for the Soviet Union to catch up with and overtake (dognat' i peregnat') the industrial nations of the capitalist West. Mass collectivization was initiated in the autumn of 1929.

In political terms, the years between 1921 and 1927 were dominated by the New Economic Policy (NEP), which sought to revive an economy decimated by civil war through a temporary concession to private enterprise. The NEP years are often seen to lie outside the trajectory of "revolution" and to constitute a brief interruption of the revolutionary impetus, resumed in 1928 by the First Five-Year Plan. In terms of the imaginary geography of the Soviet space, however, there is significant continuity between the mid-1920s and the years of the First Plan (1928-32). In particular, these years saw the progressive unification of the territory and the development of the ideal of national planning: the transformation of space into territory was central to the consolidation of power and crucial to the creation of a new kind of identity-Sovietness.

The Soviet obsession with planning is frequently evoked to demonstrate the desire of the centre to extend control across the society as a whole and to impose large-scale solutions on a vast territory. The very term plan has become synonymous with Soviet monumental ambition, corresponding to historical accounts that emphasize centralized control. Certainly, the parallel projects of electrification, industrialization, and collectivization between 1920 and 1932 represented an unprecedented attempt to transform the Soviet space in its entirety: a reconceptualization of the national map. An examination of the visual and verbal terms through which these projects were described, however, reveals a more complex picture of their aims and ambitions. In particular, it reveals a rhetorical emphasis on the creation of new connections between centre and periphery and the expressed intention to construct an alternative spatial organization: a socialist space.

Visions of this socialist space were structured by the ideological imperative to abolish the hierarchical division of space-to overcome the separation of town and countryside, urban and rural spaces, through (in Engels's words) "the unification of town and village in a single whole." This was not merely a project of unification, however; it was also, rhetorically at least, one of equalization. Throughout the 1920s and into the First Plan, the economic cooperation of peasant and worker-consistently expressed as the joining (smychka) of village and town-was a powerful ideological catchphrase that had wider implications than its economic definition initially allows. Smychka was slogan as well as policy, metaphor as much as reality: villager and worker were to be united as Soviet citizens; centre and periphery were to be reconfigured as equal spaces in a nonhierarchical society. The success of this dual project of unification and equalization depended, of course, on routes and means of communication and on the otkrytie (opening up) of isolated areas of the vast prostor. It relied on the development of infrastructure. According to propaganda, the development of energy distribution, transport, and communication networks would bring about a "victory over distance," creating new patterns of connection. The vast prostor would be re-created as a single network of interconnected spaces. Within this model of interconnection, key questions about the structure of Soviet identity were raised. How, in practical terms, was the equalized space to be organized? How would local and national identities intersect?


From the beginning, the development of infrastructure carried both practical and symbolic weight-providing a physical structure for development and, at the same time, a structure for the new imaginary map of the prostor. Nowhere was this conflation of the practical and symbolic more clearly expressed than in the monumental Plan elektrifikatsii (Plan for Electrification) announced in 1920. The GOELRO (State Commission for Electrification) plan, which grew out of a proposal by Gleb Krzhizhanovskii (former Imperial civil servant), was an important turning point in the ideological remapping of the Soviet Union and represented the first unified, single plan for the reconstruction of the economy. It was a response to both ideological and pragmatic imperatives. The problem of transporting fuel and resources across the vast prostor had long represented the principal obstacle to rapid industrialization, and discussion of how to create communications networks that would rationalize the developing Russian industry had been frequent in Tsarist Russia of the nineteenth century. Between 1906 and 1917, criticisms of the transportation system of the empire, and plans for improving the Dnepr waterway and developing electrical power, were common. After the revolution, the Bolsheviks sought immediate solutions to the same practical problems.

Electrification offered more than this, however. Certainly, it would facilitate industrialization on an enormous scale; but it would also-and just as importantly-transform everyday life in every corner of the Soviet territory, providing a network that would integrate centre and periphery. Developed in conjunction with radiofikatsiia (radiofication), which sought to provide radio transmission across the territory, electrification was envisaged as part of a communicative infrastructure that would extend across the prostor, uniting disparate spaces. In both symbolic and practical terms, it would provide a new structure for the mapping of the Soviet territory-what Krzhizhanovskii called an "electrical skeleton" of power lines.

The structure of this skeleton-of the electrical network-raised fundamental questions about the organization of the national space. As such, it provides a glimpse of the broader dilemma characterizing attitudes to the spatial organization of the Soviet Union during this period. In particular, debate in 1920 focused on the opposition between radial spatial organization (in which central power stations, with Moscow as nodal point, would distribute power across the territory) and more decentred, gridlike models for the power net. The final plan, presented in 1921, divided the Russian Republic into eight economic regions, effectively marking the beginning of regional planning. It initiated a "a revolutionary shift in the geographical distribution of production." Much emphasis was placed on axes that traversed the territory, linking constituent parts and creating new "centres" that would, the plan proclaimed, "be linked to one another by electrical lines." This did not mean, of course, a rejection of the central position of the capital: in fact, the main map of electrification showed a traditional radial structure that retained Moscow at its centre. It was also marked, however, by power lines running between smaller cities such as Tula, Riazan', Nizhnii Novgorod, and Tambov, independently of the capital. This corresponded with the stated intentions of the plan: smaller towns were to assume the role of local centres. Electrification thus dispersed the traditional radial structure of centre and periphery. As such, it maintained the dual models of radial (centripetal) and decentred (centrifugal) spatial organization-caught, one might suggest, between the ideal of decentralization and the pragmatic value and necessity of the centre (Figure 1).

This opposition between the grid and more radial patterns for the organization of the electrical network ran through the debate on electrification, just as it underpinned broader debates about the organization of the territory and relations between centre and periphery in the new Soviet geography. The actual organization of the electrical grid, however, was almost secondary to its metaphorical weight. As a symbol, the grid was broadly understood-and promoted-as a radical equalizer that made the periphery equal to the centre. Symbolically, there was no single centre in electrification. The provision of power across the nation would abolish the practical necessity for a centre, permitting industry and settlement at any point on the national map or network. Within the new network all areas-large industrial centres and small villages alike-would be symbolically equal: "even the smallest electric power stations would become local centres."

As a unifying network, the power grid was to carry ideological as well as electrical energy. With electric light would come enlightenment (prosveshchenie; from svet [light], the term clearly expresses the association of light and knowledge): in Lenin's words, "the electrical education of the masses." "Lenin's little light bulbs," the lampochki Il'icha of popular rhetoric, would light the dark corners of the Soviet state (Figures 2 and 3). GOELRO was the primary weapon in the battle against the remnants (ostatki) of capitalism and economic backwardness in the countryside and the means of achieving the ideal of smychka. It would, Lenin proclaimed, "bring an end to the gulf between town and village, make it possible to raise the cultural level of the village, vanquish the remnants of backwardness, darkness, degradation, illness and poverty even in the most remote corners of the country."

"Electrical education," moreover, was no mere metaphor: Lenin demanded that copies of the Plan for Electrification itself be kept at power stations and in schools as an inspirational instruction book for citizens. The plan was to function as a symbolic and educational artefact, explicitly uniting centre and periphery, local and national spaces. As part of the propaganda and publicity programme accompanying electrification, the journalist I. I. Skvortsov-Stepanov was commissioned to write a book that would popularize electrification and educate the masses as to its practical and ideological significance. The book's second edition in 1922 included a preface by Lenin himself, in which he recommended that the text be distributed and read by all members of the new Soviet state and that regular public readings should take place. All of this conspired to present the fulfilment of the plan as a national task, integrational and collective. All citizens would participate, symbolically and directly, in the achievements of the state. In the plan itself, the balance between huge-scale construction (the enormous hydroelectric plants to be built on the Volkhov and Dnepr Rivers, for example) and smaller tasks (the electrification of individual villages) was carefully maintained: regional and national maps articulated this crucial balance.

The continual flux between macro and micro in descriptions of electrification was common to propaganda of the period and was mirrored at social and spatial levels. Lenin's famous pronouncement of 1920 that "Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country" (Figure 4) reveals the complex relationship between control and empowerment that underpinned GOELRO. On the one hand, electrification was represented as a vital means of extending Soviet power across the territory-a weapon in the project of state consolidation and homogenization; on the other hand, it was, rhetorically at least, a decentralizing project, which sought to enable, or empower, the regions (the "whole country") to play their own part in the creation of the new socialist world. Its implicit message was that every corner mattered: every corner deserved light. Referring to the plan, Lenin wrote, "this programme, every day, in every workshop, in every region, will be improved, developed, perfected and transformed." This emphasis on progress and process defined the historical put' of the 1920s; Lenin's view of the plan as a symbolic document was part of a broader intention to create a sense of Soviet history in the making, in which "everyone" was involved.

The representation of the Soviet present as an historic present moment was fundamental to the Bolshevik propaganda campaign through the 1920s and into the 1930s, and film, of course, had a key role to play. As early as 1920, Lenin underlined the need to film the electrification process and to distribute the films widely. Film was both agitation and education: its task was to spread the good news of electrification as an historic project and to educate the masses as to its practical significance in the here and now. Furthermore, films must encourage mass participation-as much symbolic as actual-in the process of transformation, showing how the grid had both national and local effect. Electricity was the primary enabler for the industrialization of the nation; at the same time, "Lenin's little light bulbs" would improve the lives of workers and peasants in all corners of the vast nation.

Two key images recurred in documentary films of electrification: the first showed the attachment of electrical cables to a village home (Figure 5); the second was a more intimate shot of a peasant family or individual inside the home, working by electric light. A section of Esfir Shub's famous documentary chronicle of the first decade of Soviet power, Velikii put' (The Great Way, 1927), carried the title "we are electrifying the Soviet village." The process was charted in a representative succession of images: from a panorama of the village (illuminated at night, as in many images of the period [Figure 6]), the camera moved successively closer, to street lamps, and then followed a cable running into an individual home and moved through a lighted window into the home itself. In the same way, Dziga Vertov's film of 1926, Shagai, Sovet! (Forward March, Soviet!) made explicit the multiple levels at which electrification was to function. It moved "from an oil lamp in the centre of the city" to "the electrification of the outskirts [okrain]" and thence "to the electrification of the village." The visual images of the film mapped this inclusive new network: wires and pylons appear first in a provincial town and then in a village, and finally the electrical life force enters an individual hut (Figure 7), illuminating (naturally) a portrait of the great leader, Lenin, father of electrification.


Excerpted from Visions of a New Land by Emma Widdis Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Note on Transliteration and Translation
Introduction: Projecting 1
Ch. 1 Connecting 19
Ch. 2 Feeling 59
Ch. 3 Decentring 76
Ch. 4 Exploring 97
Ch. 5 Travelling 120
Ch. 6 Conquest 142
Afterword: Mapped? 190
Notes 197
Glossary 221
Filmography 223
Bibliography 231
Index 251
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