One of Sergei Tretyakov's most famous works is the film "Salt for Svanetia" (1930), for which he wrote the screenplay together with director Mikhail Kalatozov. Today, 'Salt for Svanetia' is viewed by most people, if one reads the internet commentaries, to be a documentary film, a realistic depiction of the living conditions in Svaneti as late as the 20th century. However, it bears fictional traits and pursues a clear propagandistic message, which is hard to overlook. In fact, 'Salt for Svanetia' is more of a propaganda film that satisfied the Communist Party's desire for cultural products that would serve social progress by representing it visually.
In Svaneti an entirely new world was to be built: According to Tretyakov, the Svans did not live in a grown culture that was meaningful to itself. He thought that the geographical space forced them to lead a life like in the early Middle Ages. In Tretyakov's view, the Soviet system made the Swans into human beings in the first place, into Soviet people.
In the following, it should become clear how the film wants to achieve the objectives listed below:
On the one hand, the typical characteristics of the Svan culture should be portrayed in order to show what can be regarded as special and valuable about it (cf. Giorgi Maisuradze & Franziska Thun-Hohenstein 2005).
On the other hand, it is to be shown how the Svans can merge with the other nationalities of the Soviet Union in a collective Soviet world culture (cf. Terry Martin 2001).
Finally, it should become clear that the medium for realizing these processes is modernization. It overcomes the backwardness of small nations and creates a socialism which, according to Stalin's dictum, "should be national in form and socialist in content".

Part I: The old Svaneti as a part of the ‚Oriental Other‘

The early Soviet state stood firmly by a teleological and evolutionary narrative of history. […]  Subsequently, as the 1920s evolved, the Communist Party increased its demand for cultural products that served ‘progress’ byrepresenting it visually.“

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 186

The film ‚Salt for Svanetia‘ is preceded by a text intro, which prepares the spectator for the point of view from which he should see everything that follows. Sergei Tretyakov is designated right at the start as co-author of Mikhail Kalatozov’s film. The article by Tretyakov to which reference is made is the travelogue ‚Gorge People‘, published in Pravda in 1929, in which he developed the central motifs of „Salt for Svaneti“.

A quotation from Lenin prepares the audience to witness things that may seem strange to them. The reason for this is said to be that the Soviet Union was so large and diverse that it still contained backwards cultural forms. Their backwardness, however, would not be due to the respective cultures per se, but to the fact that patriarchal clan systems and structures of feudalism had oppressed the people for so long.

The text-intro to ‚Salt for Svaneti‘ frames the film in ideological terms.

Note: In the English subtitles the Russian "ощина" is incorrectly translated as "tribe"; the villages of the so-called "Free Svaneti" formed "village communities" in which several families lived who did not belong to an "extended family" or "clan".

The process of modernisation by the Soviet system is stated as a counter-movement. The party has already realised this modernisation in many areas. Here Tretyakov and Kalatozov argue geographically for the second time: in the plains, industrialisation has already taken place, while in the mountains manual labour is still required.

The construction of mass utopia was the dream of the twentieth century. It was the driving ideological force of industrial modernization in both its capitalist and socialist forms. The dream was itself an immense material power that transformed the natural world, investing industrially produced objects and built environments with collective, political desire.“

Susan Buck-Morss, 2004, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, p. 1

The film introduces the village community of Ushguli in pictures and text as an example of backwardness. The people suffer on the one hand because of the backward and unjust traditional structures. On the other hand, they suffer because of the geography of the natural environment that causes the arduous living conditions. The Svans are imprisoned in a mountain world from which they can hardly get out due to the deep gorges of Svaneti. For this reason, the film argues, men have to leave the village community again and again to the north over snow-covered passes to find work and to acquire the salt that is important for life.

The original way of life of the Svans is not inherently behind the times. The traditional life is adapted to the natural environment. It is religion and feudalism that oppress the highlanders.

The historical backwardness of the ‚East‘ (as well as the indigenous peoples of the north’) was regarded as an empirical fact. In the triumphant teleological master-narrative of the ideology of modernization […], ‘to catch up’ with the advanced nations was the primary, indeed urgent, task for those who were ‘left behind’ by history.”

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 197

Already in Tretyakov’s text ‚Gorge People‘ the narrative of the backwardness of many Svans dominates. Negative depictions, which are highly controversial, are the backwards-looking death cult and the woman being left alone with her child, who ultimately dies. The scenes that show how animals lick the urine of people to get salt are also ethically debatable. Finally, the patriarchal order of the Svan ethnic group is stereotypically negatively portrayed in these scenes (cf. Emile de Brigard 2003).

On the other hand, the film is especially famous for its ethnographic scenes. Mikhail Kalatozov successfully captures vivid impressions of the cultural life of the Svans, where he does not use actors.

For the Orientals of the empire, however, the October Revolution did not translate into a genuine rupture with the past, and this other potential of the Revolution remained largely unrealized, a victim to the culture of the progressive left, to which Soviet Marxists belonged. One very important political implication of the linear narrative of Marxist historicism was a devotion to a hierarchy of cultural formations. […] In practice and conception, the Soviet approaches to the peripheries of the new state came to resemble those of the late imperial era. It should be noted here that at least as early as the mid-nineteenth century, deeply influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, the Russian political and cultural elite had justified the empire’s expansionist enterprise on the Asian frontiers as a philanthropic civilizing mission motivated by a desire to push back the frontiers of poverty, disease, tyranny, and, of course, lawlessness. Likewise, in the Soviet progressive historical teleology, non-European peoples still lived in an earlier phase of the evolutionary march of human history—a liability that had to be remedied at all costs.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 188
Summary: The film 'Salt for Svaneti' by director Mikhail Kalatozov is mostly considered a documentary. However, due to the co-authorship of Sergei Tretyakov, it has substantial propagandistic aspects, which are oriented towards the goals of the first Five-Year-Plan in the Soviet Union. Svaneti was an important developing centre, where the Soviet power wanted to show how patriarchal and feudal social regimes could be overcome. Tretyakov explicitly broke with the romantic Caucasian image of the 19th century, as it was shaped in Russia by Mikhail Lermontov, Leo Tolstoy and other Russian writers and can still be found today (cf. Giorgi Maisuradze & Franziska Thun-Hohenstein 2005). Possibly, for this reason, the authors do not succeed in creating a fundamentally different view of Svaneti than the imperial view of the Russian Tsarist Empire.
See Part II of the commentary: The Komsomol members hear the call of the Svans and liberate Svaneti by building a road
See Part III of the commentary: Why the film fell in disgrace under Stalin - Proposal for an interpretation

Text: © Stefan Applis (2020)

Pictures: All pictures of film scenes are screenshots of publicly available versions of the film „Salt for Svaneti“ (1929) by director Mikhail Kalatozov


Emile de Brigard (2003): The History of Ethnigraphic Film. Paul Hockings (Ed.). Principles of Visual Anthropology (235-245). De Gruyter: Berlin, New York.

Susan Buck-Morss (2004): Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge.

Farbod Honarpisheh (2005) The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, Critical Middle Eastern Studies, 14:2, 185-201, DOI:10.1080/10669920500135561

Giorgi Maisuradze & Franziska Thun-Hohenstein (2015): Sonniges Georgien. Figuren des Nationalen im Sowjetimperium [engl. Sunny Georgia. Figures of the National in the Soviet Empire]. Berlin.

Terry Martin (2001): The Affirmative Action Empire. Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union 1923-39. London.