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Artikelnummer 475

THE ROAD TO LIFE (1931) *with switchable English subtitles*

Hailed as the first "talkie" to come out of the Soviet Union, Putyovka v Zhizn, became an instant hit in the USSR and soon after received equally high praise abroad in the USA and other western countries.  It is a brutally realistic portrayal of the situation at the end of the Civil War in the USSR, when homeless children wandered the cities and countryside like abandoned, starving wolves, who terrorized their neighbors with banditry and violence.  In the film, an order goes out in December 1923 to round up the homeless children and eliminate the unsightly plague from the sight of "sensitive" residents.  But at a containment center, where the children are interviewed to determine what should be done with them, a kindly, but savvy, member of the "Children's Welfare Department" comes to the conclusion that reformatories and orphanages are not the answer.  These children must be turned into creative, employed citizens ... the power of work and the feeling of accomplishment will turn them into new Soviet citizens, worthy of admiration and respect.

As obvious as this simplistic and naive propaganda is, it successfully appeals to the emotions of the viewer, who wants to believe that reformation through love and hard work is possible and the ultimate answer.  But for those familiar with Soviet history, the film comes off as perverse:  the "Children's Department" was established by Felix Dzerzhinsky -- to whom this film is dedicated at its conclusion -- and he was the man who founded the CHEKA .. which was the forerunner of the OGPU ... which then became the GPU ... which was then renamed the KGB.  The abandoned monastery, to which the children are brought to run their own factory, is not a myth:  such camps did exist; but in reality, most of them meant horrible living conditions with high mortality rates due to hunger and disease.  In most cases, the Children's Department of the OGPU did much less to reform than to simply remove ... and keep such inmates permanently removed.  Many of them died on dubious construction projects, where rations were cut if they could not produce their quota.  And at the time this film was made, Stalin had just carried out the execution of millions of Ukrainians by planned starvation in a famine designed to break their resistance to collectivization.

It is an ironic footnote, that one of the stars of the film --- the actor who played the head of the children's gang (Mustafa Dude), and who later went on to become a successful actor and poet; three of whose books were published in his native Mari language ---  was arrested a mere six years after the film's completion and sentenced to a work camp for ten years for "counterrevolutionary activity".  This, taking place during the height of the Great Purges in 1937.  In July 1943, at the turn of the tide in the battle against German fascism at Kursk, he died of unknown causes in one of the camps ... at the age of 34.

The film is doubtless very entertaining and, at a time when most western films dealt with trivial and silly subjects, openly shows the ills of society at its worst ... and in a country, where traditionally the authorities went to great pains to conceal imperfections and weaknesses.  It is a very sad, brutal and uncompromising look at life in the early USSR ... but its optimism and spirit of compassion and caring -- even when used for propaganda purposes -- makes the film bearable and gives hope in the goodness of mankind.