Razumnyi Kinematograf

Non-fiction Film and the Production of Knowledge in the Russian Empire

Anastasia Kostina
This article explores non-fiction film in the Russian Empire, in particular the phenomenon called “razumnyi kinematograf”, sometimes translated as ‘rational cinema’, a trend that emphasised and popularised the educational aspect of cinema. Emerging at the start of Russian film production, razumnyi kinematograf manifested itself in a variety of forms and initiatives. These included screenings of non-fiction films accompanied with live lectures, the creation of films on narrow scientific topics by experts in the field, special screenings at schools, and even the construction of exhibition venues specifically for showing non-fiction films. Unfortunately, because the majority of razumnyi kinematograf films are irretrievably lost, thus the cinema press remains the best, if not the only, source to explore the subject at length. Through analysis of a collection of cinema periodicals published in the Russian Empire between 1907 and 1914, this article provides an overview of the major categories of non-fiction films produced in the country before the Revolution and looks at a variety of razumnyi kinematograf initiatives in Moscow and beyond. It reveals how, during a brief but quite vibrant period, the makers of non-fiction films tried to compete with fiction films for the attention of audiences.
Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, Samuil Lur’e, Aleksandr Drankov, Russian Empire, razumnyi kinematograf, early cinema, documentary films, non-fiction, Sine-fono, Vestnik kinematografii, cinema press, trade journals, educational cinema.


The division of films into fiction and non-fiction categories has existed since the emergence of the medium itself. While the Lumière brothers’ first films were primarily “actualities” – short one-shot productions capturing daily life, such as La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon / Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (Louis Lumière, 1895, France) or Le Repas de bébé / Baby’s Dinner (Louis Lumière, 1895, France) – they also released L'Arroseur arrosé / The Sprinkler Sprinkled (Louis Lumière, 1895, France), built around a comic plot and considered to be one of the earliest examples of comedy film. By the early 1900s, the two approaches to filmmaking – fiction and non-fiction – had established themselves. The latter, which mostly included actualities, travelogues, and curiosities, laid the foundations for the documentary film mode. The former – including, for example, the small staged productions of Georges Méliès – paved the way for the future remarkable developments in fiction film. While the two approaches arguably held equal positions in cinema’s earliest days, it was not long before fiction film took the upper hand with audiences and, consequently, with film scholars. This is especially true in cinema’s early years. While early non-fiction film practices have not been completely ignored by scholars, this area of cinema studies has been marginalised for a long time. Now, however, the situation is beginning to change: the 2000s and 2010s saw the publication of several exciting volumes exploring different aspects of early non-theatrical film history in the United States and Europe. Jennifer Lynn Peterson’s Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Non-Fiction Film (2013) paid due attention to the tremendous popularity of travelogue films during the early twentieth century by examining the aesthetic and commercial history of travel films exhibited in the United States between 1907 and 1915. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (2011), compiled by Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Streible, explored the history of educational film in the U.S. from its inception and onwards. Another collection, Films That Work: Industrial Film and the Productivity of Media (2009), edited by Vinzenz Hediger and Patrick Vonderau, offered a history of industrial films in the U.S. and Europe.

Considering the history of non-fiction film in the Russian Empire, the unequal distribution of scholarly attention is even more dramatic. Recent decades have seen revived academic interest in the early cinema of pre-revolutionary Russia, but the focus usually falls on industry studies and fiction film practices, as well as on the works of the era’s notable directors, such as Evgenii Bauer, Iakov Protazanov, and others. And yet, in its earliest days Russian cinema produced a large body of non-fiction works, which in fact far surpassed fiction production in numbers.1 According to Denise J. Youngblood (1999: 8), “only 85 of the Russian movies made from 1908 to 1912 were acted films (one third of the total); the rest were newsreels or otherwise based on factual material.” However, while acknowledging the large number of non-fiction films made during the early period of moviemaking in Russia, Youngblood focuses primarily on fiction film, production and distribution practices, and audience studies. Thus, while non-fiction films are not completely ignored by Western scholars, they are rarely the main object of study. The notable exceptions are Natascha Drubek’s recent article on film censorship in the Russian Empire, “The Birth of Cinema in the Russian Empire and Film Censorship” (2017) and Oksana Chefranova’s “The Tsar and The Kinematograf: Film as History and The Chronicle of the Russian Monarchy” (2012), both focusing on newsreels depicting the last Russian tsar Nicholas II.

Meanwhile early non-fiction films had flourished since the inception of the commercial cinema production in the Russian Empire in 1907.2 According to Dokumental'nye fil'my dorevoliutsionnoi Rossii: 1907-1916 / Documentary Films of Pre-revolutionary Russia: 1907-1916, compiled by Venʹiamin Vishnevskii (1996), during this period over 2700 non-fiction films were made and released in the Russian Empire.3 Vishnevskii’s use of the word ‘documentary’ is, of course, anachronistic in this context because documentary (dokumental’noe kino), did not fully emerge as a film mode until much later, in the mid-1920s (Nichols 2016: 13-34). However, this anachronism serves to emphasise the fact that the beginnings of non-fiction film in the Russian Empire have been under-explored. This article seeks to open a scholarly conversation about the vast under-theorised, terrain that is pre-revolutionary non-fiction film. Building on a large body of encyclopaedic information concerning pre-revolutionary non-fiction cinema (collected by Soviet film historians Grigorii Boltianskii and Venʹiamin Vishnevskii), later works of Soviet/Russian film historians like Galina Prozhiko (2004) and Lev Roshal’ (2002), but predominantly on original research in early film magazines, this article provides a taxonomy of the early non-fiction genres and focuses more closely on the particular phenomenon known to contemporaneous audiences as razumnyi kinematograf.

Combining cinema and education, razumnyi kinematograf was not a concerted movement instigated by a particular figure or institution. Rather, it was an umbrella term describing non-fiction film practices that sought to enlighten the viewer, thereby providing an alternative to the cinema of entertainment. Shedding light on this previously neglected yet important aspect of cinema in the Russian Empire, this article explores a variety of early initiatives associated with razumnyi kinematograf, investigates the driving forces behind it, and traces the phenomenon through the early stages of its development when many believed that the cinema of knowledge could compete with the cinema of entertainment.

Defining Razumnyi Kinematograf

As early as 1908, the first and one of the most important Russian cinema journals – Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoriashchikh mashin i fotografii / Cine-Phono: Journal of Cinematography, Talking Machines, and Photography, hereafter Sine-fono – stated:

Мы уже не раз указывали на страницах нашего журнала двойственную роль синематографа: синематограф, как место отдохновения, и синематограф, как средство чему-нибудь поучиться. На вторую отвечают картины путешествий, научные и др.

More than once in the pages of our journal, we have pointed out the double role of the cinema: cinema as a place to relax, and cinema as a means to learn something. The second role is fulfilled by travelogues, scientific pictures, and others (S.L. 1908: 1).4

The emphasis on cinema as a means of learning was not, of course, unique to the Russian Empire. In both the United States and Europe, critics often put fiction and non-fiction in opposition, praising the latter as the more respectable and thus able to redeem the vices of the former.5 Over the course of cinema history, these ‘virtuous’ films were recognised under a number of different names, some narrow and concrete like the educational, instructional, or pedagogical film; others broad and vague like non-theatrical or nonfiction. None of these terms pertained to a particular time or place; rather, they could be universally applied to any kind of didactic motion picture. The emergence of a special term – razumnyi kinematograf – to signify a particular aspect of cinema, and the wide acceptance of this term by both film industry professionals and audiences provides a natural starting point for my discussion of the phenomenon.

While the exact origins of the term razumnyi kinematograf are unclear, its recurring use in the pages of the early cinema press without elaboration on what it meant suggests that the phrase was seen as self-explanatory. Providing a satisfactory translation into English of razumnyi kinematograf is, however, problematic. While kinematograf can obviously be translated as cinema, there is not one translation of the adjective razumnyi that adequately captures all the nuances of the Russian word. Previous translations of the term include ‘judicious cinematography’ and ‘rational cinema’.6 Although technically correct, both variants put an emphasis on reasonable thinking. Another important aspect of the meaning – smart, intelligent, thinking – is sidelined in these translations.

This article sees the latter – ‘intelligent’ – characteristic as primary for our understanding of the term and the goals of this type of cinema. Razumnyi kinematograf above all things championed non-fiction cinema as an ‘enlightening’ practice, as a means of extending one’s scope of knowledge and transforming the viewer into a thinking subject. At the centre of razumnyi kinematograf was the idea of the production of knowledge, not in the strictly didactic or instructional form but in a broader sense as expanding one’s horizons and boosting one’s intellectual capabilities. In a society with a rigid class system where knowledge (scientific form of knowledge in particular) was a privilege of a few, razumnyi kinematograf offered an alternative route of knowledge production, distribution and acquisition. Through an array of means including the production of non-fiction films about culture and science, demonstrations of these films in regular theatres and special venues, lectures illustrated with cinema, film screenings for educational purposes etc. razumnyi kinematograf often intellectually engaged with demographics otherwise not well positioned to receive this type of knowledge. At the same time some of the initiatives targeted more specialised and sophisticated audiences, like technical societies and travel clubs, integrating cinema into the existing infrastructures of knowledge production and circulation.

Whether we put at the centre the rational or the intellectual aspect of the translation, what is important is that by adopting this special term, the supporters of razumnyi kinematograf demarcated non-fiction film from the cinema of light entertainment. By emphasising the educational aspect of cinema and putting the cinema of knowledge in opposition to the cinema of entertainment they hoped to raise the prestige of the new medium. Nevertheless razumnyi kinematograf should not be equated with educational film (although educational film undoubtedly belonged to it), rather it should be seen as a broader category of films which was determined by the practices of viewership and exhibition as much as by the films themselves.

Early Film Journalism

Anyone attempting to research pre-revolutionary cinema will inevitably run into problems accessing early films. World War I and the Revolutions of 1917 wreaked havoc on the Russian economy. When the Bolsheviks came to power, they deemed pre-revolutionary productions to be bourgeois and thus not worth preserving. And although Grigorii Boltianskii began to collect historically important pre-revolutionary footage as early as 1918, active preservation efforts did not begin until the mid-1920s, by which time hundreds of early films had been irretrievably lost. If we compare Vishnevskii’s catalogue of pre-revolutionary fiction productions with the current catalogue of the existing pre-revolutionary films of the Russian State Film Archive (Gosfil’mofond), the survival rate comes to roughly fifteen percent. Making a similar calculation for non-fiction productions would be much more difficult because of how they have been preserved and catalogued, but the survival rate is unlikely to be much higher.

Like many previous studies of early Russian film, this article therefore utilises cinema periodicals as a major source of information. Film trade journals were published in abundance in Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian Empire, and they have proven to be an invaluable and rich resource for those studying the beginnings of cinema. Such periodicals published lists of new film releases, often with a brief description of the plot, known as librettos (libretki), news about the cinema industry and culture, articles about cinema technology, reports on accidents and curiosities, letters from readers, advertisements, and more. The catalogue of pre-revolutionary non-fiction films compiled by Veni'iamin Vishnevskii (1996) in the 1940s was built on the film programmes published in newspapers and magazines.

In 1907, Samuil Lur’e, a pioneer of film journalism, launched the first Moscow cinema journal Sine-fono.7 The first issue announced that it would publish cinema theatre programmes, lists of new releases, technical and popular articles on cinematography, cinema news from Moscow and across the Russian Empire, letters from readers, and other information relevant to cinema. The launch of Sine-fono underscored the growing popularity of cinema in the old Russian capital, as well as the rapid development of domestic film production. The introduction to the first issue of Sine-fono proudly noted the rise of film culture in the country and emphasised the enlightening function of cinema:

В то время, как за границей давно уже существует обширная синематографическая литература и масса журналов и газет по данному вопросу, у нас в России чувствовался недостаток в специальном органе, который обслуживал бы эту, достигшую высшего развития, отрасль промышленности, так важной для народного образования и развития.

While a cinema press, including journals and newspapers, has existed for a long time abroad, here in Russia we have lacked a specific medium to serve this already highly developed industry which is so important for public education and development (Redaktsiia 1907: 1).

It is evident from this editorial note, written by Lur’e himself, that he was an advocate for the educational and enlightening functions of cinema. Naturally, in his own journal, published from 1907 to 1918, Lur’e eagerly covered all major trends for using films for educational purposes. Sine-fono became the first – but not the only – film publication advocating for razumnyi kinematograf published in Moscow. The next few years saw the launch of a number of periodicals dedicated to cinema, including Kine-zhurnal, Kinemo, and Vestnik kinematografii, which regularly reported on developments in the non-fiction domain and praised razumnyi kinematograf initiatives.

Early Non-Fiction Genres and Sub-Genres

While the first film shooting experiments by domestic amateur photographers occurred almost simultaneously with the arrival of this technological novelty in the country, it was not until the emergence of the national distribution system that films produced by local entrepreneurs domestically found their way to the screen (Ginzburg 1963: 25-27). The year 1908 was crucial for cinema in the Russian Empire. By that time, Moscow had firmly established itself as the cinema capital of the Russian Empire, with Saint Petersburg, Kyiv, and Odesa providing other major cinema centres (Youngblood 1999: 6). In early 1908, Moscow’s cinema industry was active and promising. While the dominance of the French represented by Pathé Frères and Gaumont persisted, domestic cinema entrepreneurs were already taking their first steps. Chief among them were the adventurous film entrepreneur Aleksandr Drankov and the avid cinema enthusiast Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, the founder of the Khanzhonkov Production Company (Torgovyi dom Khanzhonkova), which became Russia’s major film production studio and a major distribution company (Ginzburg 1963: 26-27). In October 1908 Sine-Fono reported that while in 1906-1907 cinema in Russia flourished, it was the season of 1907-1908 that saw improvements in the quality of domestic productions (Anonymus 1908: 1).

By the end of 1908, almost 200 fiction and non-fiction films had been made and released in the Russian Empire by foreign and Russian (rossiiskii) film studios (Vishnevskii 1996: 19-40). The overwhelming majority of them were still non-fiction. A brief look at Vishnevskii’s catalogue and the cinema programmes published in Sine-fono reveals that the majority of these films were so-called khroniki (as Vishnevskii labelled them) or event based films — all kinds of actualities from a military parade and the arrival of a foreign prime minister to a car race. The themes and subjects explored in the khronika were so diverse that this term can hardly be viewed as a genre. Khronika, which, as Maksim Pozdorovkin points out, can be translated as chronicles, annals, or records, became synonymous with motion pictures which contain historical and informational content (Pozdorovkin 2012: 1).

The first and most popular genre of non-fiction film that emerged in Russia was travel films, also known as travelogues or ‘scenics’ (in Russian called vidovye kartiny). Scenics constituted a considerable part of all non-fiction produced in pre-Revolutionary Russia. They were cheap and relatively easy to make, and at the same time enjoyed great success with audiences. The rapid proliferation of the genre (between 1907 and 1908 the number of travel films made in the Russian Empire increased from 7 to 77) and was a significant part of overall non-fiction production (over one third of non-fiction films made in 1908 are described as scenics by Vishnevskii 1996: 19-40), testify to the audience’s appetite for this type of film and their desire to see their country on screen (Prozhiko 2004: 67-68). Shortly after Pathé Frères released their series Zhivopisnaia Rossiia / Picturesque Russia (director unknown, Russian Empire) in 1908, the Khanzhonkov company launched its own series of scenics with V gorakh Kavkaza / In the Mountains of the Caucasus (director unknown,1908, Russian Empire) (Vishnevskii 1996: 20). Altogether, the year 1908 saw the release of 22 films with titles starting with the word ‘views’: Vidy Sankt-Peterburga / Views of St. Petersburg (director unknown, Russian Empire), Vidy Kieva: Gorod i okrestnosti / Views of Kyiv: City and Suburbs; Vidy Nizhnego Novgoroda / Views of Nizhny Novgorod (director unknown, Russian Empire), etc (Vishnevskii 1996: 21, 23). Film repertoires published by cinema magazines reveal that it was rare for exhibitors in Moscow to not include at least one scenic in their weekly film programme.

Following the tradition established earlier by foreign (mostly French) productions, domestic travel pictures predominantly consisted of long shots, with the camera either held static or slowly panning to give the audience enough time to explore the view in detail. The emphasis on the visual pleasure of such films was thus revealed. The descriptions of travel films often capitalised on the picturesque aspects of the views they showed. This was especially true with films about nature and natural phenomena such as rivers, lakes, and mountains. When advertising his film about the Caucasus, for example, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov wrote in his magazine Vestnik kinematografii:

Местоположение Кисловодска — поразительно красиво. Расположен он в котловине гор, окаймленных быстро текущими речками. В нашей картине сосредоточены все наиболее красивые места Кисловодска и его окрестностей.

The location of Kislovodsk is exceptionally beautiful. It is located in the mountains bordered by fast rivers. Our picture includes all the most beautiful spots in Kislovodsk and its surroundings (Anonymous 1912a: 33).

The majority of advertisements for scenics were similar to the one above: they highlighted the beauty of nature as the main attraction of the film and words such as “beautiful,” “gorgeous,” and “picturesque” featured prominently in their descriptions.

If scenics were essentially meant to bring aesthetic pleasure and to transport audiences to new exotic places, the question is: why did so many early Russian travelogues focus on locations that were likely already well known to their audiences? While travel films often provided views of distant places – for example, Vidy Baku / Views of Baku (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire), Vidy Kavkaza / Views of the Caucasus (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire), Vidy Kharbina / Views of Harbin (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire) – more familiar places, within close reach, were also featured in abundance: Vidy goroda Iaroslavlia / Views of the City of Iaroslavl’ (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire), Vidy Volgi / Views of the Volga (Director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire), Vidy Moskvy i moskovskii kreml’ / Views of Moscow and the Moscow Kremlin (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire). According to film historian Galina Prozhiko, at these early stages of non-fiction film production, the most important function of scenics was to create a complete portrayal of the world for the viewer, “from disconnected fragments, like a captivating mosaic, came together one’s own history of impressions which created a personal experience of cognition (poznaniia)” (Prozhiko 2004: 68). Thus, shown domestically, scenics and actualities produced in the Russian Empire deepened people’s knowledge of their own country and contributed to their understanding of the boundaries of the Empire and to the construction of national identity. The need and the demand for such films was once again reiterated by Sine-fono in October 1909 in the article “Russkie lenty na ekrane sinematografa” / “Russian Films on the Cinema Screen.” The author urged that there should be more productions on Russian topics,yet pointed out that it should be domestic (rather than foreign) studios that took up this task. “Russian everyday reality (byt) and national spirit (natsional’nyi dukh), Slavic nature, are obscure for foreigners,” the piece read, expressing hope that Russian film producers would make more films about Russia (“Русский национальный быт и дух, натура славянина — почти совершенно непонятны для иностранца.” Konenko 1909: 5-6).

Some theatres also made an effort to put an educational spin on and provided their audiences with printed materials containing information related to the views shown. Librettos, detailed descriptions of a film’s narrative, common in early Russian cinema for both fiction and non-fiction productions, were published in the cinema press and, sometimes, handed out at the theatres.8 However, although the libretki for fiction films served to attract the audience and help them navigate the narrative, in case of non-fiction films such handouts introduced an educational component, often containing geographical, ethnographical, and geological descriptions. Therefore librettos contextualised the moving image and fulfilled the explanatory function later assumed by a voice-over narration. This was a step away from what Bill Nichols calls “the cruder forms” of non-fiction towards what we now perceive as ‘documentary’ (Nichols 2016: 14). Combined with librettos, non-fiction films informed the viewer, thus performing an educational function and producing additional knowledge.

One can argue that travelogues supplemented with librettos moved into the realm of geographic and ethnographic film, thus overlapping with another prominent genre of early non-fiction — scientific film (nauchnaia fil’ma). In these early days of cinema when non-fiction genres were still very much in flux, it was not uncommon for travel and scientific films to overlap. For example, Vidy Kavkaza. Nravy i obychai tuzemtsev / Views of the Caucasus. Customs and Rituals of the Natives (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire), while clearly marked by its title as a scenic, was at the same time an early example of a domestic ethnographic film (Vishnevskii 1996: 21). Often it was the marketing of the picture and the screening venue that determined a film’s educational value and placed it within a certain category. Thus a travelogue shown as a part of a special programme and accompanied by a lecture could easily be perceived as a ‘scientific’ film.

As early as October 1908, Sine-fono reported that “some scientists and pedagogical societies are working on the scientific implementation of cinema” (Anonymous 1908b: 5). Yet unlike scenics, scientific pictures did not instantly emerge as a powerful force at the start of film production in the Russian Empire. In November 1908, Sine-fono announced that Novyi teatr [New Theatre] in Moscow was to screen cinema programmes that would be comprised of scientific pictures (Anonymous 1908c: 5). However, three years later Vestnik kinematografii expressed frustration that “the question of scientific films is still in the position of a stillborn” but expressed the hope that the situation was changing for the better:

Последний год особенно ярко показал, что кинематограф, как иллюстратор научных положений и открытий, займет первое место не только на экранах частных демонстраторов, но может также смело взять на себя роль пособника в стенах всех учебных заведений — включительно до университета.

The last year demonstrated especially vividly that cinema as an illustrator of scientific theses and discoveries would take first place not only on the screens of private cinemas but also at educational institutions including universities (Anonymous 1910: 6).

In accordance with their name, scientific films often addressed questions of biology, medicine, physics, and so on. Some were made for professional viewers but many targeted the general public. At the start of the century, people were hungry for anything new; as Youngblood (1999: 16) puts it, “the novelties of the day, especially technological marvels like aeroplanes, cars, zeppelins and dirigibles, hot air balloons and the telephone, attracted people’s attention and pocketbooks”. Scientific films often satisfied those cravings, demonstrating the latest development in technology and science.

Since the inception of cinematic technology, the camera has been recognised as a scientific tool. One of the earliest cinema cameras equipped with a projector and constructed in 1893 by domestic inventors in Odesa, Yosyp Tymchenko and Mikhail (Mosei) Freidenberg, presented at a scientific exhibition in Moscow (Drubek, Hennig, and Sandomirskaja 2015). Yet it took some time for cinema entrepreneurs to put so-called scientific films on the commercial track, and many such early films were initially produced for professional circles. In 1909, the journal Kinemo reported that the German surgeon K. Reicher had come up with the idea of using cinema for brain research:

Большой интерес вызвала на последнем Дрезденском съезде немецких врачей и естествоиспытателей демонстрация посредством кинематографа непрерывных серий срезов мозга. Идея эта принадлежит известному венскому врачу, доктору К.Рейхеру […] Подобный метод кинематографической проекции серии срезов может иметь большое значение при изучении внутреннего строения сложных органов.

The demonstration of a series of images of the human brain captured by a cinema camera sparked a great deal of interest at the latest medical conference in Dresden. The idea was originated by Doctor K. Reicher […] This method of cinema projection has great potential for research into the internal structure of complex organs (S.P. 1909: 11).

Just two years later, Vestnik kinematografii reported on a similar case of using cinema for medical purposes in Russia. According to the magazine, the famous Moscow surgeon P. P. Modlinskii had been filming his most interesting surgical operations. For this purpose, Modlinskii even hired his own cameraman. However, the report did not contain any information about whether or not the surgeon intended to show his films publicly. “We are curious to know how Modlinskii is going to use his treasure,” the magazine concluded (Anonymous 1910c: 8) Eventually the collection was bought by Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, who took great interest in the educational functions of cinema and scientific pictures in particular (Skovorodnikova 2003). His studio later released a film based on Modlinskii’s footage, titled Operatsii doktora Modlinskogo / The Surgeries of Doctor Modlinskii (director unknown, 1911, Russian Empire), intended for general audiences. However, the incident which accompanied the screening in Samara reveals that viewers were attracted by the film’s sensational qualities, not by its scientific insights. Apparently, the film (which promised graphic imagery of finger amputation and a mastectomy) failed to meet the expectations of the audience and they demanded a refund (Youngblood 1999: 35).

The incident did not, however, discourage Khanzhonkov from producing scientific-educational films oriented towards general audiences. In fact, in Russia he became one of the key figures popularising this type of cinema. An ardent believer in the progress and virtues of non-fiction film, he established a production unit exclusively dedicated to scientific pictures seeking to present complex topics in an accessible way thus predating the Soviet documentary genre of nauchpop (deriving its name from two Russian words: nauchnyi scientific, and populiarnyi popular), this non-fiction film sub-genre served one major purpose — to popularise science by making it more accessible and easily comprehensible for general public. One of Khanzhonkov’s employees, Nikolai Baklin, described his work on the first Russian film about electricity this way:

A. A. Khanzhonkov wanted to make scientific films for schools and houses of the Sobriety Society. For this reason, in the first film we decided to combine a straightforward plot with educational content. V. K. Arkad’ev suggested the topic of the “electrical telegraph” and wrote the plan for the future film. The story went like this: a man sends a telegram. The telegraphist sends it down the line and the viewer sees an illustration of the physical process of transmitting a telegram. Then there is a staged ending – a telegraphist receives the telegram, writes it down, and gives it to a delivery man who takes it to the addressee (Baklin 2003).

The mention of schools and the Sobriety Society is important. In pre-revolutionary Russia, scientific pictures were shown both in regular theatres and at special venues. Naturally, they were often included in the programmes screened at educational institutions, as well as museums. Sometimes these films were accompanied by handouts which boosted their capability to produce knowledge. For example, Sine-fono mentions that the film Operatsii professora Duaena / The Surgeries of Professor Doyen (director unknown, 1909, Russian Empire) came with a brochure featuring the description of the film (Anonymous 1909). Just like in case with librettos by adding print medium exhibitors bolstered their educational value of films shown. In other cases, scientific films were used to illustrate lectures. In October 1909 Sine-fono reported on one such venture: engineer P. A. Kobozev, another enthusiast of razumnyi kinematograf, presented two lectures “Zavoevanie Severnogo poliusa” / “The Conquest of the North Pole” by D. P. Sevast’ianov and his own lecture “Vulkany i vulkanicheskie iavleniia vo vselennoi” / “Volcanos and Volcanic Phenomena in the Universe”, both illustrated with cinema pictures (Anonymous 1909a: 28).

Another large category of non-fiction films produced in the Russian Empire comprised historical or event-based films. These often included official events such as parades, funerals, the arrivals of high ranking officials, and so on. The so-called ‘Tsar Chronicle’ (Tsarskaia khronika) featuring Emperor Nicholas II was a recurring feature in this category. Introduced to cinema at the time of his coronation in May 1896 (famously the first event in the Russian Empire to be captured on camera), Nicholas II had in-house cameramen who regularly documented him and his family members both at official duties and in more private settings. At the dawn of Russian cinema production, films featuring Nicholas II and his family were widely used in commercial cinema (Chefranova 2012: 63). However, it was only his official appearances that were screened for the public, in films such as Gosudar’ Imperator so svitoi v Petergofe / The Emperor with his Retinue in Petergof (director unknown, 1907, Russian Empire) or Prebyvanie Gosudaria Imperatora v Anglii / The Emperor’s Stay in England (director unknown, 1909, Russian Empire) (Vishnevskii 1996: 15; 56). More personal matters captured on film were kept private in his family archive until the Bolsheviks came to power and took hold of the footage which later was used in Esfir Shub’s famous found footage compilation propagating the Bolshevik version of history (Shub 1959: 91).

Both domestic and foreign film producers soon realised that domestic topics enjoyed great popularity with audiences. When in 1908 Pathé Frères released its Donskie kazaki / Don Cossacks (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire) the picture instantly became a great hit and within two weeks sold 219 copies (Deriabin 2004: 61). As Vishnevskii’s catalogue shows, from the start of domestic film production, such films – short actualities shot in the Russian Empire – were plentiful, from films about bear hunting in Nizhnii Novgorod to the fish trade in Astrakhan’ (which was shot for the Pathé Frères series Zhivopisnaia Rossiia / Picturesque Russia). Just like travelogues, such films were mostly long shots of considerable duration. However, occasional close ups did occur, directing the viewer’s attention through montage. In Zavod rybolovetskikh konservov v Astrakhani / An Astrakhan’ Fish Factory (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire), for example, after a series of long shots of the factory and its premises, the cameraman first cuts to a closer shot of two women scaling the fish, then to a close up of their hands doing the job.

After the success of Pathé Frères it was not long before Russian cinema entrepreneurs turned to Russian topics. Several months after the French company premiered their series, Aleksandr Drankov released his Byvshie liudi / Former People (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire). The film was re-edited from his own earlier production Moskovskii Khitrov rynok / Moscow’s Khitrov Market (director unknown, 1908, Russian Empire) (Vishnevskii 1996: 20). It was not Drankov’s first non-fiction film shot domestically, but the way it was advertised was radically different from the majority of actualities produced in the country at that time. Byvshie liudi presented scenes from Khitrov Market (Khitrovka), a Moscow district notorious for its slums, populated by the poor and disadvantaged, as well as criminals and former-prisoners of all kinds. The advertisement emphasised that the picture was Drankov’s “own production” and was followed by a special feature, written by Drankov himself, and dedicated to the film which read:

Длинный ряд, “бывших людей”, этих героев Горького, проходит перед глазами зрителей и целый сколок другой жизни, иного уклада ее встает перед нами во всей своей неприкрашенной живой действительности…

Дети, безработная молодежь, старое заядлое босячество, молодые женщины и старухи — все они проходят здесь со своим отпечатком “дна”.

A long line of “former people”, these Gor’kii heroes, appears before the viewers’ eyes and a fragment of another life, another life-style, is shown in its unadorned reality…

Children, unemployed youth, old beggars, young women, old women – all of them pass by, bearing the imprint of their hard life (Drankov 1908: 10).

This description immediately brings to mind Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives, a collection of photographs documenting slum life in New York in the 1880s. Riis published his photographs of the everyday life of the disadvantaged in order to expose it to the middle and upper classes. Drankov did the same for domestic audiences, as he was the first filmmaker in the Russian Empire to turn to marginalised subjects. The marketing of the film put a lot of emphasis on its sensational aspects, “characteristic moments and scenes” of the “unadorned” life of “the others” (Drankov 1908: 10). Even if Drankov was pursuing box office success rather than trying to make impact on the community, Byvshie liudi certainly had educational and instructional implications as well and can be seen as a precursor to social documentary.

In his introduction to Byvshie liudi, Drankov stated that his objective was to “fill the giant gap in cinema theatre of the Russian Empire repertoires” by providing films about “Russian life (russkaia zhizn’), notable events, exceptional people, the best plays, and our everyday Russian life” (Drankov 1908: 10). Drankov’s business rival, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, closely followed in his footsteps. Soon after Drankov released Byvshie liudi Sine-fono published an article titled “V atel’ie u Khanzhonkova” / “In the Atelier of Khanzhonkov”, in which the cinema pioneer promised to “systematically release pictures demonstrating the inner life of the Russian man (russkogo cheloveka), as well as the geography and ethnography of the Russian Empire (Rossii)” (M.A. 1908: 6). Lured by the profits, some theatre owners made the effort to represent life in the Russian Empire in a more localised manner. According to the Soviet film historian Semen Ginzburg (1963: 37), in order to attract audiences and beat their competitors, theatre owners turned to local subjects and events which were often filmed by their own projectionists. Despite the popularity of such films with audiences, these local ventures were often quite costly and economically impractical, thus the practice did not endure (Ginzburg, 1963: 37).

Towards ‘Respectable’ Cinema

The first calls for ‘respectable’ cinema, that is, for cinema that would educate and enlighten the viewer, emerged in the Russian Empire almost simultaneously with domestic film production itself. The major premise of the discussion unfolding around the subject in the trade press was presenting non-fiction films as better and more virtuous for the public. The letter from the editor in the third issue of Sine-fono published in November 1908 declared that many of the magazine’s correspondents believed that it was time to leave the cinema of entertainment – such as comedy and drama – behind, and to fully switch to “scenic and scientific moving pictures” (Anonymous 1908d: 1). The remark was made in response to a letter from a reader published in the previous issue of the journal. In his remarks to Sine-fono, the reader stated that “cinema is already past that stage when it was just simple entertainment” and called on contemporary cinema to dedicate more time to the “didactic element” (S.M. Nikol’skii 1908: 7). The same issue published an article by the “expert Scherbakov” in which he compared cinema to the works of Mikhail Artsybashev, asserting that “cinema and Artsybashev equally corrupt” young minds. Artsybashev was a writer and literary critic whose first novel Sanin, published in 1907, sparked controversy due to its unconventional treatment of moral norms, with some critics accusing the novel of pornography. Putting cinema and Artsybashev’s work side by side, the ‘expert’ clearly intended to mark the former as low and vulgar. At the same time, the article noted that “the expert heard something about films of a historical, geographical and even patriotic nature” (Styrnyi 1908: 13). These films, the author declared, deserved to be shown to young audiences.

The idea that non-fiction productions, especially those of educational value, could redeem the medium and make it more respectable in the eyes of the public was not unique to Russia. Around the same time, 1907-1909, the United States witnessed many efforts “to uplift the cultural status of cinema” through “the representation of cinema as fulfilling an educative cultural function” (Grieveson 2004: 87). The publicity campaign to present cinema as a public good unfolded on the pages of the trade press and manifested itself in a variety of educational screenings throughout the country. Similar in many ways, American and Russian campaigns for respectable cinema nonetheless had one substantial difference — the former pursued a very clear strategic goal. Fueled by the church and various health societies, a crusade against cinema as morally corrupt and dangerous unfolded in the United States at full speed, resulting in harsh regulations and bans on the industry. By emphasising the instructional and educational functions of cinema, American film entrepreneurs sought to fight toughening censorship regulations which led to financial losses, such as Sunday closures, huge licensing fees and so on.

In the Russian Empire, censorship in the film industry was not centralised and was carried out locally by police. In Moscow, for example, district police officer (most often the assistant of the chief police officer in charge of the area) watched films at the theatre before the premiere of the programme (Anonymous 1908e: 3). In November 1908, the Moscow Chief City Administrator (Moskovskii gradonachal’nik) signed “The Rules of Censorship Screenings for Cinema Pictures” (Pravila osmotra v tsenzurnom otnoshenii sinematograficheskikh lent) which later became standard for the entire country (Iangirov 2011: 89). According to the rules, both films and film programs were subjected to censorship but as Iangirov points out, the censors were primarily preoccupied with the narrative of the films rather than their visual characteristics (Iangirov 2011: 90). The press debate about the virtues and vices of cinema was mild, confined to discussing such questions as whether a cinema theatre could be built next to a school or to reporting scandalous incidents like the death of a theatre pianist during the programme (Anonymous 1910: 7). The campaign for non-fiction cinema as respectable cinema was largely sustained by enthusiasts who believed in the educational capability of film and wanted to explore new possibilities of the medium, and film entrepreneurs who aspired to broaden the audience for their films.

“Velikii zavet” / “The Great Testament”. Vestnik kinematografii 1910 (1): 3.

A major seal of approval for non-fiction film came from the writer Lev Tolstoi, who was first filmed in 1908 by Aleksandr Drankov at his Iasnaia Poliana estate. Films featuring the famous Russian writer soon became hits. From that moment, until his death in November 1910, cinema periodicals regularly reported on Tolstoi’s interactions with filmmakers and cited his ideas about cinema. One of Tolstoi’s statements about non-fiction film was widely publicised by cinema magazines. Praising realistic tendencies in cinema, the writer said, “It is necessary for cinema to capture reality in its most diverse forms. Life, at the same time, has to be represented the way it is; we should not pursue fictitious stories” (Anonymous 1910b: 1). The journals picked up and circulated this quotation to provide cinema with additional authority and respectability. The first issue of Vestnik kinematografii allocated an entire page to the quotation, which featured the text and a large picture of Lev Tolstoi writing at a table (Figure 1). The magazine republished this page in subsequent issues.

The view of non-fiction film as a better and more respectable form of cinema was shared by the writer’s wife and collaborator, Sof’ia Tolstaia. During Tolstoi’s meeting with the filmmakers she addressed Drankov, asking him “to influence cinema theatre owners so they would not demonstrate films featuring Lev Tolstoi alongside films about murders or comedies, but with ethnographic and scientific films” (R.Sl. 1910: 6-8). She also expressed an interest in cinema’s capacity to capture and preserve Russian customs. According to the report, Tolstaia told filmmakers about traditional Russian costumes that still could be found in the Tula Region and pointed out that they should be filmed for posterity. By publishing Tolstoi and his wife’s comments, the cinema press painted non-fiction films as more respectable, while presenting fiction films as light and trivial.

Still one of the most popular ways to put a respectable face on cinema was to combine it with education. In the years between 1908 and 1913, the cinema press regularly reported on such practices. In 1908, Sine-fono wrote about an early example of combining film and lecture:

Дирекцией кинотеатра “Континенталь” предполагается систематическая демонстрация картин научного содержания; при чем демонстрирование будет сопровождаться пояснениями лектора. С.И. Зиминым, вошедшим в соглашение с местным отделом технического общества, уже намечен ряд лекций, которые он предполагает иллюстрировать кинематографическими картинами в Новом театре.

The administration of the Continental movie theatre is planning to organise regular demonstrations of scientific movie pictures; the demonstration will be accompanied by comments from a lecturer. S. I. Zimin, who has already signed an agreement with the local division of the technical society, plans a series of lectures that he would like to illustrate with cinema in the New Theatre (Anonymous 1908f: 5).

The magazine called the undertaking a novelty and continued covering Zimin’s project in several subsequent issues.9 The new venture was named Tekhnicheskaia kinegrafiia / Technical Cinegraphy and offered regular screenings of non-fiction films about different technical aspects of production. The main objective of the project, according to Sine-fono, was to demonstrate to the public how “modern material culture is manufactured, as well as [to show] working conditions in different countries.” (Anonymous 1908g: 6-7) The magazine continued to cover the venture in its following issues, publishing a lengthy article titled “Technical Cinegraphy," praising Zimin’s initiative. The article announced that the project sought to involve highly professional lecturers:

Общество обратилось с воззванием к профессорам и студентам Императорского Технического Училища, выражая надежду, что они придут на помощь Обществу в деле выработки программы Технической кинеграфии, организации объяснений при показывании технических кинеграмм.

The society addressed professors and students from the Emperor’s Technical College, expressing the hope that they will help to compile the programme of Technical Cinegraphy and to organise lectures. (Anonymous 1908g: 6-7)

According to Lur’e (2003), it was Zimin’s project which laid the foundation for the idea of enlightening and educational cinema in the Russian Empire, and led to a whole range of similar projects opening in other cities. Sine-fono continued to report on some of them, including an initiative in Odesa, where a local branch of the Emperor’s Technical Society also decided to organise its own Technical Cinegraphy. Writing about the beginnings of educational cinema in the Russian Empire, Lur’e described the screenings of the Odesa project in detail:

Each screening takes two hours and consists of two parts. The first demonstrates films of geographical and historical character. Before the screening there is usually a 30-40 minute lecture accompanied by relevant slides. The second part of the programme has a similar structure and shows films about natural science and history. In between the two parts viewers have a rest, enjoying comedy films which also close the programme (Lur’e 2003).

While Technical Cinegraphy was undoubtedly one of the earliest and the most large-scale attempts to use cinema for educational purposes in the Russian Empire, there were numerous other initiatives. There was, for example, a Nizhnii Novgorod project launched in 1912 and subsidised by the local government. The organisers used state money to purchase a number of used non-fiction films and demonstrated them accompanied by lectures. The topic of the first screening was “Progulka po Italii” / “A Stroll around Italy”, with a lecturer providing information about Italian geography and other useful information about the country. Subsequent topics included “Zaraznye bolezni” / “Contagious Diseases,” “Iaponia” / “Japan,” “Zhizn’ pchel” / “The Life of Bees,” and “Zhizn’ morskikh zhivotnykh” / “The Life of Sea Creatures'' (Lur’e 2003). A similar venture in Kharkiv provided audiences with librettos for non-fiction screenings containing encyclopaedic information about the subjects shown in films (Anonymous 1908h).

The most important figure in the production of razumnyi kinematograf was Khanzhonkov who, as mentioned earlier, was a passionate advocate for the enlightening functions of cinema. In 1911, Khanzhonkov established a scientific division in his studio which was responsible for the production of scientific, scenic, and ethnographic films (Skovorodnikova 2003).10 The initial list of film topics included Russian geography, agriculture, factory industries, zoology, botany, physics, chemistry, and medicine (Figure 2). To pursue this initiative, Khanzhonkov ordered special equipment from abroad, along with a microscope and a camera for time-lapse photography. He invited professors from Moscow University to be consultants for the production of scientific films. The studio also acquired scientific films made elsewhere, for example the aforementioned film experiments of the surgeon P.P. Modlinskii (Skovorodnikova 2003).


Ad for the Khanzhonkov production company. Vestnik kinematografii 3 (1913).

Another of Khanzhonkov’s large-scale project to popularise non-fiction film was his own cinema theatre. In 1913, the Khanzhonkov company opened a luxury venue in Moscow. According to Kinoteatr i zhizn’ (Cinema Theatre and Life), the theatre, “built in the Italian renaissance style,” was “undoubtedly one of the best in Moscow in terms of architecture”. (Anonymous 1913: 6) The screening hall had three levels and could seat 800 people. It was also equipped with the biggest screen in Moscow, which stood six metres tall by nine metres wide. Despite the lavish grandeur, educational initiatives also found their place at the luxurious facility. The journal reported that, in addition to regular screenings, the theatre would be conducting lectures about different aspects of cinema, as well as holding screenings of scientific and educational films accompanied by lectures (Anonymous 1913: 6).

Khanzhonkov, however, was not the only one who aspired to establish educational cinemas. The issue of Kinoteatr i zhizn’ that reported the opening of Khanzhonkov’s theatre also published a long article titled “Obrazovatel’nyi kinematograf” / “Educational Cinema”, announcing numerous similar ventures across the country. In Moscow, the article reported, “in financial and artistic circles the idea has surfaced of creating a cinema theatre exclusively for showing scientific films seating a thousand people.” (Anonymous 1913a: 6). Among those supporting the initiative were famous opera singer Fedor Shaliapin, the artist Konstantin Korovin, and the writers Maksim Gor’kii and Leonid Andreev. In Nizhnii Novgorod, similar efforts were made at state level. The local district council was considering organising cinema lectures for the general public and invited other local authorities to join forces with them:

Управа разослала всем земствам опросный лист, в котором просит сообщить: 1) предпринималось ли данным земством что-либо в области просветительного кинематографа; 2) согласно ли земство на учреждение центрального, общего для всех земств, склада кинематографических картин и 3) если данное земство предполагает ввести кинематографические чтения для народа, то не приступило ли оно к выработке каталога чтений, и если приступило, то управа просит прислать означенный каталог в новгородскую губернскую управу.

The council sent out a questionnaire to other councils asking the following questions: 1) has this particular council made any efforts in the field of enlightening cinema; 2) does the council agree to establish a central storage of film prints for all councils; 3) if this council is planning to organise cinema lectures for the public, has it begun to compile a catalogue, and if yes, could it share the catalogue with the Nizhnii Novgorod district council? (Anonymous 1913a: 6)

Similar initiatives were reported in Ufa – where the local council proposed a scientific cinema theatre for students of local schools – and in Iaroslavl’, where the authorities decided to equip schools with affordable cinema projectors.

The debate that unfolded around the role of cinema and children’s upbringing was also quite vigorous. Early discussions were mostly concerned with the dangerous influence that frivolous films could wield over young minds and called for better programming or for banning children from cinemas. Later the conversation shifted to the idea of employing cinema for educational purposes. For example, in December 1908 Sine-fono expressed concerns about cinema programmes, calling for special programming for children but at the same time wondering whether such programmes could actually be achieved. The author of the article, M. Katin, wrote: “But can we organise them [cinema programmes for children]? Of course we can. We just need to stop pursuing sensational subjects and care more about the content.” (Katin 1908: 5) He further suggested that cinema programmes for children should include fairytales, films about zoology and geography, and so on.

One of the most elaborate discussions of the subject of cinema and children came from Khanzhonkov’s Vestnik kinematografii. In 1911, the periodical published a lengthy article titled “Kinematograf i vospitanie detei” / “Cinema and the Upbringing of Children" which, due to its length, was divided into three consecutive issues (Zh.R. 1911: 11-13). The article began with a standard, but nonetheless persistent, argument that children immediately mimic in their real life what they see on the screen, and thus programmes for children should be compiled with care. The last part of the article provided a detailed description of a possible cinema programme that would not be harmful for children but would promote their education and proper behaviour. The suggested programme included a series of films about bread baking, where youths would see “scientific progress, old windmills, the contemporary flour trade, primitive agricultural tools, and superior modern machines” (Zh.R. 1912: 10-11). At the same time, the hypothetical programme tried to address questions of morality, relying on the instructive powers of cinema. It suggested a story about a boy who was so spoiled by his parents that he failed to adapt to life and experienced a series of mishaps due to his poor social skills and moral judgement: “Scenes about morality served with a bit of comedy or drama, or patriotic and historical scenes… or films providing useful information in a beautiful form” would do children a lot of good, the article concluded (Zh.R. 1912: 10-11).

The peak of the discussion about special cinema for children and youth was reached in the Russian Empire in 1912 and 1913. In these years, numerous articles, reports, and letters published in film magazines addressed the possible uses of cinema for educational purposes. An article titled “Razumnyi kinematograf” / “Intelligent Cinema” published in Kinoteatr i zhizn’ reported that in Belgorod and Kharkiv, the pedagogical council of local schools had decided to organise cinema theatres for their students (Anonymous 1913b: 8). Nasha nedelia, published by the French production company Gaumont, announced that the Sevastopol Society for the Assistance of Education and Protection of Children proposed to organise special screenings for children at a local cinema (Anonymous 1912b: 23). In Elizavetograd, a special committee was presented with a proposal to oversee the repertoire of cinema programmes for children. It was suggested that those theatres willing to organise programmes for children and youths needed first to run them by the committee for approval. Programmes not approved by the body would be banned from having children attend.


Emerging in a variety of genres and subgenres, including scientific, historical, ethnographic, and travelogue films, early non-fiction cinema in the Russian Empire prevailed over fiction from the beginning. This quantitative head start was prompted by the low cost, short production cycle and the hunger of domestic audiences for local subjects. Many saw the purpose of non-fiction films as educating and expanding public knowledge, rather than entertainment or satisfying one’s curiosity. The accumulation of different types of non-fiction under the concept of razumnyi kinematograf, the term emphasising the educational capacity of cinema over entertainment, was an essential part of the trend to redeem the medium in the eyes of the public. The dichotomy of fiction as ‘corrupt’ and non-fiction as ‘virtuous’ was not unique to Russia as similar campaigns emerged in both the United States and Europe during the late 1900s and early 1910s. Yet there were some important differences distinguishing razumnyi kinematograf from analogous trends in the West. One was the strong support coming from the pages of the cinema press, Samuil Lur’e’s Sine-fono in particular. Another was the emergence of scientific-educational film as a powerful force supported through the efforts of the leading film producer in the country, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov. Lastly, razumnyi kinematograf intended to target all demographics, from schoolchildren to adult viewers, from professional societies to the general public.

Alas, although often similar in their goals and structure, these early attempts to use cinema for educational purposes never became a unified movement. Unlike its German counterpart — Kinoreformbewegung, or cinema reform movement (which emerged around the same time, in 1907, and by 1914 was institutionalised) (Lenk and Kessler 2020: 36), razumnyi kinematograf remained a trend rather than becoming an institution.

The closest the phenomenon came to institutionalisation was, perhaps, a monthly journal under the same title that was launched in Ekaterinburg in 1913 (Figure 3). The opening statement of the first issue announced:

Главная задача кинематографа — приспособление его для просветительных и учебных целей. И теперь в применении к научным исследованиям кинематограф дает очень много. Самое широкое и благородное поприще предстоит кинематографу в сфере обучения, в области средней и низкой школы.

The main objective of cinema is its use for enlightening and educational purposes. Now it [cinema] has already done a lot for scientific research. The broadest and the most noble role is waiting for cinema in the educational sphere, in elementary and middle school. (Anonymous 1913c: 3).

A special feature of the journal similarly entitled Razumnyi kinematograf reported numerous initiatives of educational cinema across the country. While in its early years razumnyi kinematograf came to represent a broader range of non-fiction film which might challenge fiction film, by 1913, when Razumnyi kinematograf was first published, the term was mostly associated with a particular set of educational film practices that occupied a narrow niche.

While efforts to popularise razumnyi kinematograf continued up until the Revolution, by the early 1910s it was becoming clear that respectable non-fiction film would never be a competitor to the cinema of popular entertainment. As Yuri Tsivian notes (1994: 165), in the 1910s cinema in the Russian Empire and elsewhere “entered its period of narrative integration”. The first domestically produced feature-length film, Oborona Sevastopolia / The Defence of Sevastopol’ (Vasilii Goncharov, 1911, Russian Empire) opened a new era, where narrative fiction film dominated over other modes. While razumnyi kinematograf initiatives continued to emerge regularly, the aspiration that the cinema of knowledge could surpass the cinema of entertainment never came to pass.

Anastasia Kostina
Yale University


I would like to express my gratitude to the editors of the Haunted Medium collection, especially to Oksana Chefranova and Denise Youngblood, for their help in finalising this article. I would also like to thank Anna Kovalova and Nikolai Izvolov for sharing their research with me.


1 In the context of the early cinema made in the Russian Empire, the word ‘Russian’ is used as a cumulative term rather than as a national identifier; as Natascha Drubek (2021) effectively shows, the beginnings of cinema in Russia were multicultural and multi-ethnic.

2 Before 1905, when Pathé Frères opened an office in Moscow and began regular filming, the production of non-fiction in Russia was episodic. In 1907, Aleksandr Khanzhonkov established his own cinema production studio in Moscow, but began with non-fiction works.

3 Veni’iamin Vishnevskii (December 21, 1898 - November 18, 1952) was a prominent Soviet film historian and bibliographer who started his career in film industry as a screenwriter in 1924 but switched to film research in 1930. His career of a film historian spanned a little over twenty years during which he created a number of important works including Feature Films of Pre-Revolutionary Russia (1945) and created two years later, but only published in 1994, Documentary Films of Pre-Revolutionary Russia. In these publications Vishnevskii was the first to offer systematised catalogues of early film made in the Russian Empire. Up until now both catalogues remain invaluable sources of information about early cinema in the Empire. The importance of Vishnevskii’s contribution and the relevance of his research was discussed at the conference “I Vishnevskiie chteniia” organised by Anna Kovalova and Petr Bagrov at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2019. For more on Vishnevskii see the introduction to Dokumental'nye fil'my dorevoliutsionnoi Rossii: 1907-1916 authored by Nikolai Izvolov. The volume also contains Vishnevskii’s brief autobiography.

4 Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

5 See “Reforming Cinema 1907-1909” in Grieveson.

6 The former is used in the introduction to the collection of the Russian Cinematographic Press, 1907-1918 put together by Brill database; the latter is employed by John MacKay in his book Dziga Vertov. Life and Work. Volume 1. Academic Studies Press, 2018.

7 For more on Samuil Lur’e and Sine-Fono see Kovalova (2018).

8 In 2018 the Russian Higher School of Economics launched a research project with a goal to create an electronic collection of all the narrative film librettos published before the Revolution.

9 In its first report about the venture, Sine-fono refers to S.I. Zimin as an entrepreneur and the owner of the New Theatre; subsequent issues mention the engineer N. P. Zimin in connection to technical kinegraphy.

10 Recent research by Michelle Leigh suggests that Antonina Khanzhonkova, the first wife of the studio owner, not only frequently worked together with Khanzhonkov on scenarios but participated in all other stages of film production and may have exercised more significant influence on running the studio including its scientific films division (Leigh 2015: 42-52).


Anastasia Kostina is a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies at Yale University, who earned her PhD from Yale in 2022. Her current book project focuses on the career of Soviet documentary pioneer Esfir' Shub from 1927 to 1937. Anastasia's broader academic interests include documentary history and theory, Soviet and post-Soviet documentary, transgressions between documentary and fiction, history of women’s cinema, environmental film. In recent years her writings on film have been published by Film Quarterly, Senses of Cinema and KinoKultura.


Anonymous. 1908. “Moskva, 1 oktiabria”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 1: 1.

Anonymous. 1908a. “Khronika”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 20: 3-4.

Anonymous. 1908b. “Khronika”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 2: 5.

Anonymous. 1908c. “Khronika”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 3: 5.

Anonymous. 1908d. “Moskva, 1 noiabria”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 3: 1.

Anonymous. 1908e. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 4: 3.

Anonymous. 1908f. “Khronika”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 4: 5.

Anonymous. 1908g. “Tekhnicheskaia kinegrafiia”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 6: 6-7.

Anonymous. 1909. “Operatsii professora Duaena”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 8.

Anonymous. 1909a. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 2: 28.

Anonymous. 1910. “O lentakh nauchnogo soderzhaniia”. Vestnik kinematografii 1: 6.

Anonymous. 1910a. “Stydno”. Vestnik kinematografii 1: 7.

Anonymous. 1910b. “Stydno”. Vestnik kinematografii 1: 1.

Anonymous. 1910c. “Khirurgicheskaia seriia”. Vestnik kinematografii 1: 8.

Anonymous. 1912a. “Kislovodsk”. Vestnik kinematografii 29: 33.

Anonymous. 1912b “Obschaia khronika”. Nasha nedelya 1: 23.

Anonymous. 1913. “Otkrytiie kinoteatra Khanzhonkova i K.”. Kinoteatr i zhizn’ 3: 6.

Anonymous. 1913a. “Obrazovatel’nyi kinematograf”. Kinoteatr i zhizn’ 3: 6-7.

Anonymous. 1913b. “Razumnyi kinematograf”. Kinoteatr i zhizn’ 1: 8.

Anonymous. 1913c. “Vmesto predislovia”. Razumnyi kinematograf. Nagliadnye posobiia 1: 1-3.

Baklin, Nikolai. 2003. “Vospominaniia o dorevoliutsionnom periode v kinematografii.” Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 64. DOI: http://www.kinozapiski.ru/ru/article/sendvalues/132/

Chefranova, Oksana. 2012. “The Tsar and The Kinematograf: Film as History and The Chronicle of the Russian Monarchy”. Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema. Ed. Marta Braun, Charlies Keil, Rob King, Paul Moore and Louis Pellerir. Herts, 63-70

Deriabin, Aleksandr. 2004. Letopis’ Rossiiskogo kino. Moskva.

Drankov, Aleksandr. 1908. “M.G.”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 1: 10.

Drubek, Natascha, Anke Hennig and Irina Sandomirskaja. 2015. “Apparatus: Zur Einführung”. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 1. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2015.0001.11

Drubek, Natascha. 2021. The Book Lab: “Hidden Figures.” Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 13. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2021.00013.284

Drubek, Natascha. 2017. “The Birth of Cinema in the Russian Empire and Film Censorship”. Vestnik. VGIK 9 (4), 8-21.

Ginzburg, Semen. 1963. Kinematografiia dorevoliutsionnoi Rossii. Moskva.

Grieveson, Lee. 2004. Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America. London.

Iangirov, Rashit. 2011. “K istorii Russkoi “demi-literatury” 1900-1910-kh godov.” Drugoie kino: stat’i po istorii otechestvennogo kino pervoi treti XX veka. Moskva, 79-104.

Katin, M. 1908. “O detskikh utrakh”. “Khronika” Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 6: 5.

Konenko, Vladimir. 1909. “Russkiia lenty na ekrane sinematografof.” Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 2: 5-6.

Leigh, Michelle. 2015. “Reading between the Lines: History and the Studio Ownerʹs Wife.” Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, Ed. Christine Gledhill and Julia Knight. Chicago, 42–52.

Lenk, Sabine and Frank Kessler. 2019. “The Kinoreformbewegung in Germany: Creating an Infrastructure for Pedagogical Screenings”. The Institutionalization of Educational Cinema: North America and Europe in the 1910s and 1920s. Ed. Marina Dahlquist and Joel Frykholm. Bloomington, 36-54.

Likhachev, Boris.1927. Kino v Rossii 1896-1926: Materialy k istorii Russkogo kino, chast’ I 1896-1913. Leningrad.

Lur’e, Samuil. 2003. “Stranichka istorii. Kul’turno-prosvetitel’nyi i nauchnyi kinematograf”. Kinovedcheskie zapiski 64. http://www.kinozapiski.ru/ru/article/sendvalues/136/

M.A. 1908. “V atel’e Khanzhonkova”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 3: 6.

MacKay, John. 2018. Dziga Vertov: Life and Work (Volume 1: 1896–1921). Boston.

Nichols, Bill. 2016. “Documentary film and the Modernist Avant-Garde.” Speaking Truth with Film: Evidence, Ethics, Politics in Documentary. Oakland, 13-50.

Nikol’skii, S.M. 1908. “Pis’mo v redaktsiiu”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 2: 7.

Orgeron, Devin, Marsha Orgeron and Dan Streible. 2012. “A History of Learning with the Lights Off”. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States. Ed. Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, Dan Streible. Oxford, 15-66.

Pavlić, Goran. 2020. “Editorial”. Yugoslav Performance Art: On the Deferred Production of Knowledge (ed. by Goran Pavlić). Special Issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 11. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2020.00011.247.

Pierce, David. 2013. The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929. Council on Library and Information Resources and The Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/static/programs/national-film-preservation-board/documents/pub158.final_version_sept_2013.pdf

Prozhiko, Galina. 2004. Kontseptsiia real’nosti v ekrannom dokumente. Moskva.

Redaktsiia. 1907. “Ot redaktsii”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 1: 1.

Roshal’, Lev. 2002. Nachalo vsekh nachal. Moskva.

R.Sl. 1910. “Kinematograf v Iasnoi poliane”. Kinozhurnal1: 6-8.

S.L. 1908. “Moskva, 1 sentiabria”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 20: 1.

S.P. 1909. “Kinematografia mozga”. Kinemo 1: 11.

Skovorodnikova, Svetlana. 2003. “Nauchny Otdel Akcionernogo Obschestva ‘Khanzhonkov i Ko’”. Kinovedcheskie Zapiski 64. http://www.kinozapiski.ru/ru/article/sendvalues/131/

Styrnyi N.A. 1908. “Provintsial’nyie kartinki”. Sine-fono: Zhurnal sinematografii, govoryashchikh mashin i fotografii 2: 13.

Tsivian, Yuri. 1994. Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception. London.

Vishnevskii, Venʹiamin E. 1996. Dokumental'nye fil'my dorevoliutsionnoi Rossii: 1907-1916. Moskva.

Youngblood, Denise J. 1999. The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia: 1908-1918. Madison.

Zh. R. 1911. “Kinematograf i vospitanie detei”. Vestnik kinematografii 25: 11-13.

Zh. R. 1912b. “Kinematograf i vospitanie detei”. Vestnik kinematografii 26: 10-12.

Zh. R. 1912c. “Kinematograf i vospitanie detei”. Vestnik kinematografii 27: 10-11.


Anon. 1907. Gosudar’ Imperator so svitoi v Petergofe / The Emperor with his Retinue in Petergof. Kinoteatr “Zverinets”.

Anon. 1908. Byvshie liudi / Former People. A.O. Drankov.

Anon. 1908. Donskie kazaki / Don Cossacks. Pathé Frères.

Anon. 1908. Moskovskii Khitrov rynok / Moscow’s Khitrov Market. A.O. Drankov.

Anon. 1908. V gorakh Kavkaza / In the Mountains of the Caucasus. A. Khanzhonkov & Co.

Anon. 1908. Vidy Baku / Views of Baku.Kinoteatr “Vitagraf” A.Mianovskogo.

Anon. 1908. Vidy goroda Iaroslavlia / Views of the City of Iaroslavl’.A. Khanzhonkov & Co.

Anon. 1908. Vidy Kavkaza. Nravy i obychai tuzemtsev / Views of the Caucasus. Customs and Rituals of the Natives. Kontora A.V. Argastseva.

Anon. 1908 Vidy Kieva: Gorod i okrestnosti / Views of Kyiv: City and Suburbs. Kinoteatr R.Shtremera.

Anon. 1908. Vidy Kharbina / Views of Harbin. Kinoteatr “Grandillusion”. Kharbin.

Anon. 1908. Vidy Moskvy i moskovskii kreml’ / Views of Moscow and the Moscow Kremlin. A.O. Drankov.

Anon. 1908 Vidy Nizhnego Novgoroda / Views of Nizhny Novgorod. Pathé Frères.

Anon. 1908. Vidy Sankt-Peterburga / Views of St. Petersburg .Kinoteatr R.Shtremera.

Anon. 1908. Vidy Volgi / Views of the Volga.,Pathé Frères.

Anon. 1908. Zavod rybolovetskikh konservov v Astrakhani / An Astrakhan’ Fish Factory.Pathé Frères.

Anon. 1908. Zhivopisnaiia Rossiia / Picturesque Russia. Pathé Frères.

Anon. 1909. Operatsii professora Duaena / The Surgeries of Professor Doyen, Telegrafnoe slovo “Seriia”.

Anon. 1909. Prebyvanie Gosudaria Imperatora v Anglii / The Emperor’s Stay in England. Eklips.

Anon. 1911. Operatsii doktora Modlinskogo / The Surgeries of Doctor Modlinskii.A. Khanzhonkov & Co.

Anon. 1912. Kislovodsk A. Khanzhonkov & Co.

Goncharov, Vasilii. 1911. Oborona Sevastopolia / The Defence of Sevastopol’, A. Khanzhonkov & Co.

Lumière, Louis. 1885. L'Arroseur arrosé / The Sprinkler Sprinkled. Lumière Frères.

Lumière, Louis. 1895. La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon / WorkersLeaving the Lumière Factory. Lumière Frères.

Lumière, Louis. 1895. Le Repas de bébé / Baby’s Dinner.Lumière Frères.

Suggested Citation

Kostina, Anastasia. 2023. “Razumnyi Kinematograf: Non-fiction Film and the Production of Knowledge in the Russian Empire”. The Haunted Medium II: Moving Images in the Russian Empire (ed. by Rachel Morley, Natascha Drubek, Oksana Chefranova, and Denise J. Youngblood). Special issue of Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe 16. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.17892/app.2023.00016.292

URL: http://www.apparatusjournal.net/