Time travelling with the Ukrainian Institute: back to 1929 Kyiv in Kaufman's 'In Spring'

Text and photos by Anna Morgan, Ukrainian Institute in London

On 7 June 2017, for just one hour the Ukrainian Institute in London took us back in time and showed how Kyiv looked like in spring of 1929. Nature waking up after winter, melting snow, carriages stuck in mud, Easter celebrations alongside the new Soviet May holidays, football matches, planting and construction sites, kids playing on the streets, a mix of modern and traditional Ukrainian clothes on young and old…

An eye-opener on the incredible and unknown history of Ukraine’s booming film industry of the 1920s and its close links to Europe and America. Marina Pesenti, Director, Ukrainian Institute in London

Mikhail Kaufman’s film ‘In Spring’ is a true gem, yet to be discovered by the world critics. This screening was the first in the UK, showing the renewed digitalized version produced by the Dovzhenko Centre, Ukraine’s largest cinemateque that has been working a lot recently on recovering early Ukrainian films stuck for years in its archives. The new music score added to renewed version of the film adds significantly to its character, giving it a contemporary dynamic feel.

The actual man behind the movie camera

Mikhail Kaufman is one of the three Kaufman brothers. Most known out of them, Denis (or David) Kaufman worked under pseudonym of Dziga Vertov. His film ‘Man with a movie camera’ was recently screened at the British Film Institute Southbank London. It has been voted as the greatest documentary ever made in a 2014 BFI poll of 300 critics and movie experts. Mikhail was the actual ‘man behind the movie camera’ filming for his brother Denis who was directing the now world famous film. Vertov was clearly fascinated with the industrialization, development of machinery and production. Mikhail Kaufman, who once decided to make films on his own, revealed a more human perspective.

‘The most striking feature of “In Spring” is the human perspective, focus on people, and their daily life. There’s so much more nature and humanity in Mikhail’s film, unlike in those by Vertov. Ian Christie, professor of film and media history, Birkbeck College

Mikhail is clearly interested in the processes. In ‘In Spring’ he’s focusing on construction sites, food production lines, streets cleaning and roads repairing. One of the episodes shows construction of brick roads, some of which exist till now. Those familiar with Kyiv, would also recognize some buildings, the views over the Dnipro river and Andriivsky descent. The film shows the crowds watching football game by Dynamo Kyiv team that had just been established for a few years then (in 1927); children playing ‘gorodki’, the now forgotten street game popular in the past century.

The most striking feature of In Spring is the human perspective, focus on people, and their daily life. Theres so much more nature and humanity in Mikhails film, unlike in those by Vertov. Ian Christie, professor of film and media history, Birkbeck College

Some scenes are still familiar to contemporary Kyivites, such as tons of melting snow in spring that create huge dirty puddles, with pedestrians and carriages trudging through them.

Another fascinating part of the film concentrates on crowds celebrating spring holidays. An incredible contrast between those celebrating Easter with religious services, Easter breads (pasky) and homemade alcohol, and the others marching with newly established Labour Day demonstrations, showcases a clash of two cultures, both still vivid and massive at the time. The following years have brought with them, as we know, a clampdown on religion and religious holidays in Ukraine as well as in other Soviet states.


Early Soviet period of cultural freedom

When cultural freedom in Moscow started to deteriorate, Kyiv was still a centre of relative cultural freedom. Kaufman brothers were invited to work with VUFKU – an all-Ukrainian film administration created in 1922. Although it only survived for 8 years, it earned the fame of the richest cultural institution in Ukraine back then. VUFKU entered foreign markets in Europe and the US, producing films that were successfully screening abroad, for the first time in Ukraine’s cinema history. Ukrainian film directors were traveling to Europe (while it was still possible) and saw themselves as part of the European cultural processes.

VUFKU is still a hugely underresearched phenomenon of independent filmmaking in early Soviet Union. Stanislav Menzelevskyi, a Programme Director from Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre

This amazing cultural boom had a sad fate. After 1929 all political and cultural freedom ended with Stalin’s centralisation and sovietisation of culture. He announced that Ukrainian culture wouldn’t be tolerated, as there was a place for Soviet culture only. The Soviet project was ‘successful’ and the West has bought into it. Even now, the prevailing homogenized view of Soviet culture is seen as Russian culture, not only in cinema, but in arts, literature and other cultural spheres.


VUFKU is still a hugely underresearched phenomenon of independent filmmaking in early Soviet Union. Stanislav Menzelevskyi, a Programme Director from Oleksandr Dovzhenko National CentreRecreating Ukraine’s cultural heritage

Trying to recreate the cultural heritage of Ukraine isn’t an easy task. But is there an appetite to rewrite history? Is there enough will to unpick and challenge the common perception, to look from a slightly different perspective on the period that despite political restrictions has produced some remarkable world class cultural artefacts?

The talk that followed the screening focused on these and other questions of rediscovery of the past century’s Ukrainian culture. Two invited experts – Ian Christie, Professor of Film and Media History, Birkbeck College and Stanislav Menzelevskyi, Programme Director from Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, seemed to agree that filmmakers like Kaufman and Dovzhenko deserve much more attention and should be researched as part of the European and world avant-garde, and its unique period called ‘poetic documentary’.  The video recording of the talk will be available shortly at the website of the Ukrainian Institute in London.

There are too many books about Eisenstein. More needs to be told about figures like Dovzhenko and Mikhail Kaufman. Ian Christie, professor of film and media history, Birkbeck College

What’s next?

Ukrainian Institute in London is planning to continue its partnership with the Dovzhenko Centre and screen more Ukrainian films from the past century. Follow announcements at the Ukrainian Institute’s website

Text reposted from Ukrainian Events in London website