From heroic propagandist tales of space exploration to post-apocalyptic dystopias of the Chernobyl era, the history of Soviet sci-fi from the 1920s to the 1980s mirrors the rise and fall of the USSR.
Western histories of Soviet and Russian cinema have typically focused either on significant movements – the early revolutionary cinema of the 1920s – or recognised auteurs such as Eisenstein, Tarkovsky and Sokurov. While this has led to the formation of a very useful canon of Russian ‘greats’, it has also meant that our understanding of Russian and Soviet cinema remains limited, with the bulk of a mammoth national production largely obscured from view.
Beyond the established canon, the Soviet era threw up a thriving and diverse genre cinema taking in comedies, musicals, historical epics, sci-fi, war films and even ‘Red westerns’. Once difficult to see, the hidden history of this lesser-known, more populist cinema is now being revealed. DVD editions are available to import, obscure oddities are illicitly streamed on YouTube, and Mosfilm (Russia’s largest and oldest studio) has made much of its library available to view online, free of charge and mostly subtitled. Now, on the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s momentous first space flight, BFI Southbank has programmed a season that probes the unexplored byways of Soviet science fiction.
Although not a prolific genre by Hollywood standards, pre-perestroika Russian sci-fi offers a fascinating body of films – a fantastic voyage from early constructivist epics to post-apocalyptic dystopias, taking in prophetic moon explorations, space-race propaganda, atomic war allegories and existential art cinema. An ideologically charged genre, Soviet sci-fi can be read as charting the rise and fall of communism behind the iron curtain, with the wide-eyed optimism of space fantasies made in the early years giving way to damning post-Chernobyl nuclear nightmares as the Soviet bloc crumbled from within.
Toward the end of the list, there are a few items that do not fit into the time period or geographical area of this genre. I included them anyway.Read less