On Finding Hidden Figures:

An Experiment in Open Peer Review

Denise J. Youngblood
This short essay is an open peer commentary for the first part of Natascha Drubek’s forthcoming monograph Hidden Figures: Rewriting the History of Cinema in the Empire of All the Russias, which appeared in this issue as pre-print at the end of 2021. It is intended to generate discussion about the issues raised by Drubek’s research in advance of the full publication of the book.
Evgenii Bauer; Aleksandr Drankov; Natascha Drubek; Iakov Protazanov; Aleksandr Shiriaev; Russian Empire; Pordenone Silent Film Festival; cinema history; historiography; canon; film.

In order to assess the importance of Natascha Drubek’s Hidden Figures, we need to go back to the beginnings of the “modern phase” of early Russian cinema studies. Before the 1989 Pordenone Silent Film Festival, this field was an academic backwater, an afterthought to the obsessive scholarly and critical interest in Soviet cinema’s Golden Age of the 1920s. In Russian, we relied on the works of Boris Likhachev, Nikolai Lebedev, and Semen Ginzburg, and in English, on a chapter in Jay Leyda’s classic history Kino (1960). And then came Pordenone’s revelations – a stunning sampling of extant films, accompanied by the catalogue Silent Witnesses: Russian Films, 1908-1919 (1989, edited by Paolo Cherchi-Usai, Lorenzo Codelli, Carlo Montanaro, David Robinson; compiled by Yuri Tsivian). This was followed in short order by Tsvian’s Istoricheskaia retseptsiia kino: Kinematograf v Rossii, 1896-1930 (1991) and an abridged English translation Early Cinema in Russia and Its Cultural Reception (1994), dazzling tributes to the interrelationship of Russia’s Silver Age culture and its nascent film industry. Indeed, Tsivian’s many excellent analyses of the aesthetics of early Russian cinema, emphasising Evgenii Bauer’s masterpieces, dominated the 1990s, exerting a significant impact in the 2000s, particularly on the work of Rachel Morley and Louise McReynolds. It was Bauer, Bauer, Bauer – and why not? Bauer’s intricate compositions yielded up seemingly endless possibilities for sophisticated stylistic and intertextual analysis, and “Bauer studies” became a vibrant subgenre, with numerous contributors (e.g., Otto Boele, Alyssa DeBlasio, Galya Diment, Natascha Drubek, Viktor Korotkii, Michele Leigh Torre, etc.) coming in just behind Tsivian, Morley, and McReynolds at the forefront of Bauer scholars.

As a sociocultural historian who had already explored Soviet popular cinema in the 1920s, I made the sole early effort to push back against the tidal wave of aesthetes in The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918 (1999), which observed the same phenomena – directors, studios, films – but through a different lens: as part of the urbanisation of Russian culture on the eve of revolution and especially as a reflection of class dynamics in the cities, particularly the rise of the “middling” classes, those educated but not wealthy urbanites who flocked to the movies for entertainment and edification. A decade later, other scholars began searching for “new” directors and genres, as Birgit Beumers did with Aleksandr Shiriaev’s “puppet” films, while scholars like Philip Cavendish emphasised the contributions of creative personnel such as camera operators. By the 2010s, a younger academic cohort emerged that delved deeply into aspects of Russian film culture that had previously been considered peripheral, like movie theatres and other exhibition venues, film journals, set design, and the role of women in the industry. In her many fascinating articles in both Russian and English, Anna Kovalova has proven particularly innovative and energetic in opening new avenues for research; it will be interesting to see the full emergence of scholars like Eleanor Rees and Oksana Chefranova, whose work is just beginning to appear.

In the more than two decades since the publication of The Magic Mirror, I have watched the further development of early Russian film studies with great interest, seeing it as a complex and multi-faceted jigsaw puzzle. Part of this puzzle (the Bauer corner) filled in fast, while the rest of the pieces are slowly fitting together to create a more complete picture, with the complication that some pieces are lost and will never be retrieved. But until I read this ‘sneak preview’ of Natascha Drubek’s Hidden Figures – and yes, I am finally getting to the subject of this review – my confidence that I understood the “big picture” (if not all the details) has never been shaken. Until now, most scholars (except Valérie Pozner, who has written on Jewish pioneers) have generally followed Ginzburg’s analytical and chronological framework, stripping it of its Soviet ideological cant, adding in different personnel, films, perspectives, methodologies, but without altering the ‘big picture.’ There have been the expected scholarly debates over this and that point of interpretation or emphasis, to be sure. For example, I steadfastly maintain that Iakov Protazanov was an important director as Bauer, although I accept that it’s a losing battle, given the legion of Bauer scholars arrayed against this stance. As another example of normal and necessary scholarly disputation, Kovalova has argued that the Russian film industry suffered during the Great War, while I contend the opposite – but we don’t disagree on the facts. Rather, we differ on how the same set of facts should be weighed and evaluated, a legitimate difference of perspective that in the end doesn’t upset the paradigm.

What Drubek offers in Hidden Figures, however, is a completely different order of magnitude that does upend the paradigm. These chapters have shattered my carefully constructed worldview. I found myself sputtering indignantly as I started reading…who are all these strange people from ‘everywhere,’ making genre-resistant moving pictures long before Aleksandr Drankov appeared on the scene, and what are they doing in ‘my’ Russian cinema? Drubek may not have swept all the pieces of the carefully fitted puzzle off the table, but even this short preview of her book enlarges and alters the landscape quite remarkably. Not only has Drubek expanded the field temporally by at least a decade, Hidden Figures compels every scholar who has worked or is working in this field to consider the “imperial trace” in early Russian cinema very seriously, to reexamine our assumptions about the metanarrative and who the key players were, and to reconsider the extent to which we ‘old specialists’ were seduced by a skillfully constructed nationalist narrative.

Hidden Figures will provoke readers who thought they understood the broad outlines of Russian cinema’s early development to reconsider their positions. Like all radical scholars, Drubek occasionally falls prey to a tendency to argue her points more forcefully than she needs, to privilege her narrative in an imagined hierarchy, and to question the motivations of scholars, especially Soviet scholars, who left this or that person or film fragment out of the story. An especially important issue is how “Russianness” should be defined; Drubek’s russkii/rossiiskii binary is not nuanced enough for me, and I’d like to see more thought put to how the following questions might be answered. What makes a Russian filmmaker a Russian filmmaker? Language? Ethnicity? Birthright? Religion? Is a German who lives and works in the Russian Empire for 20 years before moving on a “Russian” for those 20 years? A founder of Russian cinema? Such questions resonate far beyond academic borders, of course, and have particular significance for our own perilous times. Suffice it to say in closing that Hidden Figures is likely to inspire spirited intellectual debate, for all the right reasons.

Denise J. Youngblood


Denise J. Youngblood is Professor of History Emerita at the University of Vermont (USA). She has published extensively on the history of Russian and Soviet cinema, including seven books and numerous articles.

Suggested Citation

Youngblood, Denise J. 2021. The Book Lab: “On Finding Hidden Figures: An Experiment in Open Peer Review.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 13. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2021.00013.286

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/

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