To watch Dziga Vertov’s The History of the Civil War a hundred years after it was made is to be struck by just how much the century has transformed the representation of armed conflict and wrangling over territory. We are struck by Russia’s insurmountable vastness, which could still only be glimpsed in snatches. We sense the fragmentation and accompanying chaos of efforts to assert ideological dominance and homogeneity over impossible distances. It is to recognise anew, in other words, how unmediated the world was, in a pre-internet era, before an illusion of intimate accessibility and knowability virtually shrunk the globe. A work of impassioned and unapologetic propaganda, it shows the struggle of the Bolsheviks to quash the efforts of White Guard counter-revolutionaries, or «agents of Capital» as they are referred to in inter-titles, in violent pockets of fighting far across the former Empire’s expanses during the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 overthrow of the monarchy.
Lost no more
It was long believed that this silent film had been lost. Still, it was reconstructed from material in the Russian State Archive in a two-year restoration project by Russian film historian Nikolai Izvolov and screened at IDFA, accompanied by a live score composed and performed by American duo the Anvil Orchestra. Izvolov was also behind the restoration of Vertov’s The Anniversary of the Revolution (1918), a propaganda film made to mark the first anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which screened at the Dutch festival several years ago.
For The History of the Civil War, Vertov edited together footage from the years after the ousting of the ruling Romanovs, as factions vied for power and counter-revolutionaries loosely allied into the White Guard attempted to prevent the consolidation of Bolshevik rule. Widespread, intentional damage to infrastructure is documented — the strategic bridges and railway stations blown up, the oil reserves set on fire, and the munitions depots destroyed to prevent arms from falling into enemy hands. At Novorossiysk, the second-largest grain elevator in the world smoulders in ruin on the Black Sea, burned down by retreating forces. The cumulative effect of these segments of devastation is the sense of a Russian Empire in disintegration and disarray at the hands of an obsolete class who would rather indulge their greed to destroy resources than relinquish ownership. By contrast, the Red Army is glorified as willing to sacrifice themselves («Glory to those who died at their revolutionary posts!» reads one fervently partisan inter-title) to get the nation on track for the sake of the masses («Factories are reopened immediately in areas occupied by the Red forces» another inter-title proclaims).
The essence of reality
Actual battle and gore are markedly absent, reminding us that the illusion of all-seeing accessibility that comes with the image saturation of the social-media age is a very recent phenomenon — as is a certain desensitisation. There was, of course, little in the way of citizen journalism or independent, rogue information-gathering to challenge the narratives of war disseminated by the powerful, or exposure to direct carnage to shock civilians with visions of war’s brutality and inhumanity. The closest we come to the representation of death is documentation of corpses being cleared by orderlies after street fighting, as fallen fighters are interred in mass graves. The camera-eye skirts the frontline’s edges and maps the traces of war’s project. We’re hit viscerally by the gruelling, mud-trudging physicality of militarism and revolutionary uprising and read the emotion on the faces of countless troops and captives before sophisticated weaponry heightened technological spectacle and complicated the rules of direct engagement. We also see revolutionary tribunals, set up to pass judgments on loyalty or betrayal to the interests of the revolution, as if justice can be trusted to be never far from hand.
Actual battle and gore are markedly absent, reminding us that the illusion of all-seeing accessibility that comes with the image saturation of the social-media age is a very recent phenomenon — as is a certain desensitisation.
Certainly, Vertov had no pretense of neutrality. The Bolsheviks enlisted him as a key figure in their propaganda push. The Communist Party sent agit-trains to bolster the morale of their troops on the shifting frontlines and to spread their ideology to the peripheries of the former Empire’s territory, endeavouring to win loyalty and stir up revolutionary fervour in a largely illiterate populace and cut off from news of the political convulsions gripping the land. Vertov made films, as well as supervised cinema shows, on his journeys during the Civil War.
As a pioneer — perhaps one of the world’s greatest, and certainly one of the most influential — of the documentary form, Vertov prioritised formal experimentation over the construction of narrative to try to capture the essence of reality. He is best known for his later Man With A Movie Camera (1929), which offers an exuberant, future-facing vision of Moscow and the machinery of modern life. But in his work on the Revolution and Civil War, we can already detect a nascent excitement at the possibilities of cinema for collapsing distances and boundaries and enabling us to see and draw parallels between happenings in disparate locations; to actively participate in making meaning of the tumultuous transformations and innovations of a new era of history.