Dziga Vertov’s “Soviet Toys” (1924)

Posted on February 6, 2011
Filed Under animation

Dziga Vertov’s little-known propaganda cartoon, the first Soviet animated film, seems crude—but it’s more sophisticated than it looks, and was loaded with meaning for viewers in the tumultuous Soviet Union of 1924. “Soviet Toys” depicts a worker partnering with a peasant to defeat the machinations of a capitalist “NEPman,” a caricature of the entrepreneurs who blossomed under Lenin’s short-lived New Economic Policy.

Vertov savagely caricaturizes the NEPman as a fat, self-indulgent capitalist exploiter of the people who consumes everything, produces nothing and cynically supports the officially-despised Russian Orthodox Church. A worker measures the NEPman’s wealth with a large pair of scissors and attempts to extract taxes from him, but gleans only a handful of coins, which quickly return to the NEPman’s pocket. Frustrated, the worker combines with a peasant, creating a mighty two-headed creature that smashes open the NEPman and drives his excess profits into the People’s Bank. The slimmed-down NEPman is then placed under the guard of the Red Army. Vertov’s grisly ending depicts the soldiers forming themselves into a New Year’s holiday tree, and then hanging the NEPman and the priests—by the neck—as ornaments on the tree (called “toys” in Russia).

Vertov, a founder of Soviet cinema and the director of Man With A Movie Camera, is remembered as a giant of documentary film. His less-familiar forays into animation were part of his propaganda work on behalf of the revolutionary Bolshevik regime, which in the 1920s was still trying to establish its control over the sprawling new USSR after a comprehensive defeat by the Germans in the First World War and a brutal civil war. “Soviet Toys” is intended to assure discontented Soviet citizens that the revolutionary regime recognized the problems created by the NEP and was acting to solve them. The prominent scissors wielded by the worker are a reference to the sharp divergence between agricultural prices and the prices of manufactured goods, a disruptive unintended consequence of the NEP that Trotsky dubbed the “Scissors Crisis.” The squabbling priests represent the schism in Russian Orthodoxy. The bizarre union of peasant and worker is an illustration of the Bolsheviks’ never-realized revolutionary Russian utopia, which no doubt seemed a more attainable goal in 1924 then it would 10 years later, when Stalin was murdering independent farmers by the tens of thousands.

“Soviet Toys” has the rushed, thrown-together feel of a piece assembled in great haste, and the crude stereotypes typical of class-war propaganda. The simple line-drawing animation, quite similar to the early work of American pioneers like J. Stuart Blackton and Windsor McCay, is periodically interrupted by iris-in caricatures of the principal characters that are said to be references to the work of Soviet artist Viktor Deni, whose posters and comics addressed the same topics. (An example of Deni’s work is at left.)

Interestingly, “Soviet Toys” includes two sequences promoting Goskino, the the State Committee for Cinematography, which regulated film production and distribution in the Soviet Union and produced Vertov’s cartoon. In the first, a character  with camera-lens eyes and a propeller mouth–representing Goskino and the power of socialist cinema–helps shrink the bloated NEPman. The second sequence, which closes “Soviet Toys,” is an outright advertisement for the power of cinema-based advertising (and includes Goskino’s address and phone number!). Such a business solicitation was only possible under the liberal rules of the NEP, which makes “Soviet Toys” an excellent example of the Bolsheviks’ muddled economic philosophies in the early 1920s. The confusion didn’t last long: Lenin died not long after the release of “Soviet Toys,” and n 1928 Stalin, by then in complete control of the country, dropped the NEP in favor of his first Five Year Plan.

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