In Mikhail Kalatozov's 'Salt for Svaneti', it is already apparent in the subtitles of the opening scenes that the culture of the Svans is isolated from civilization because of the harshness of geographical nature. This sets the line of propagandistic interpretation. In Ushguli, there are traces of a lack of culture that are related to unnecessary suffering for the people. In the following, the film wants to achieve his most important goal: It shall 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 II: The Komsomol members hear the cry for help from the Svans and liberate Svaneti by building a road.

In this view of the living conditions, the film reaches its climax in a series of terrible events: The men sent to bring salt to Ushguli die in the snow. A lavish funeral shows the greater importance of the dead over the living. A displaced young woman gives birth to her child alone, after which dogs lick up the blood of the birth. The young mother has no milk for the newborn. All this happens because there is no salt in Uschguli and that no road leads there.

The cry for help of the Svans is heard by the Komsomol members, who are already building a road to Svaneti to finally also free Ushguli. In the following, quickly edited shots of male bodies and heavy physical labor dominate the cinematic presentation. As Honarpisheh (2005, p. 198) explains, the idealized form of collective labor during the First Five Years Plan was known as “shock work” (ударныи труд), the persons were called “shock workers” (ударники). These highly productive workers compensated the deficit of mechanization from which Soviet industry suffered.

“Their image was superhuman, rather than machinelike and nonhuman. They produced the shock of modernity rather than parrying its effects. At the same time, they bore the brunt of the attack on their own bodies, as shock work entailed physical sacrifice and exhaustion for the sake of the collective goal.”

Susan Buck-Morss, 2004, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, p. 111

At the end of the film, it is the following announced: In the third year of the Five-Year-Plan of the 107 kilometres of road that Svaneti needs, 50 kilometres were completed. In fast cuts follow film sequences of explosions, muscle-bound bodies and machines. The whole process of Sovietization of Svaneti appears to be a race against time. The Svanes play a significant role in this. The film announces that they are ready for it by the thousands. This is how they carry out the incorporation into the masses of the Soviet peoples.

The subtitles say ‘For communists—for the Svans—there are no obstacles.’

“The whole of the USSR, in the words of Comrade Stalin, needs ten years to runthe course of development that took Western Europe fifty to a hundred years, then the small peoples of the north, in order to catch up with the advanced nations of the USSR, must, during the same ten years, cover the road of development that took the Russian people one thousand years to cover.”

Anatoli Skachko, 1930, the head of the Minorities Section of the Commissariat of Nationalities, cited after Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 197

The people had to be transformed into a homogeneous mass in order to win the race against time which was proclaimed by the Soviet regime. In Kalatozov’s film, it is the experienced workers who are now joined by thousands of Svans. The Komsomol members already know how to accelerate development by using masses of people and machines. At the end of the film, there is the steamroller, which like the train in Viktor Alexandrovitsh Turin’s film ‚Turksib‘, makes its way through the mountains, prepared by the masses of people.

Summary: The second part of the film enhances the negative and stereotypical portrayal of the other of the Swan ethnic group. At the end of the film, the Svans are integrated into the community of Soviet nationalities. Still, the audience is left with the memory of uncivilized behaviour in a world foreign to them. The solution to the Svan's crucial problems must, therefore, be provided from outside (cf. Terry Martin 2001). The Svans themselves are not capable of changing their society. Only the Soviet power, which can mobilize large masses of workers, can free Svaneti from his misery. 
See Part I of the commentary: The old Svaneti as a part of the 'Oriental Other'he 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


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

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