In the introduction to Part I of the essay, three lines of argumentation and aims of the film were highlighted, which in themselves are difficult to unite: On the one hand, the typical characteristics of the Svan culture should be portrayed in order to show what can be regarded as exceptional and valuable about it. On the other hand, it is to be shown how the Svans can merge with the different nationalities of the Soviet Union in a collective Soviet world culture. 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".
See Part I of the commentary: The old Svaneti as a part of the 'Oriental Other'
See Part II of the commentary: The Komsomol members hear the call of the Svans and liberate Svaneti by building a road

Part III: Why the film fell in disgrace under Stalin – Proposal for an interpretation

Salt for Svaneti‘ failed at the responsible cultural authority, which meant that Kalatozov couldn’t make films for several years. The circumstances are hardly reconstructable; it is said that this was followed by complaints from the Council of Elders of Ushguli. In the film, negative cultural practices were attributed to the Svans for propaganda reasons. They felt that many of the uncivilized practices depicted were not typical of Svaneti. Accordingly, the inhabitants of Ushgulis felt dishonoured (cf. Emile de Brigard 2003, 24).

Regardless of the exact circumstances, the incident shows a fundamental problem of Soviet nationality policy under Stalin. In the year the film was completed, Stalin gave his famous speech at the 16th Congress of the Communist Party in June 1930, in which he demanded that future culture should be a common world culture. This should be ’national in form and socialist in content‘. National cultures had to be given the opportunity to develop and flourish. They should bring their potentials to the surface and thus create the conditions for merging into a common culture (cf. Giorgi Maisuradze & Franziska Thun-Hohenstein 2015, p. 28).

„Soviet Policy did systematically promote the distinctive national identity and national self-consciousness of its non-Russian populations. It did this not only through the formations of national territories staffed with national elites using their own national languages, but also through the aggressive promotion of symbolic markers of national identity: national folklore, museums, dress, food, costumes, opera, poets, progressive historical events, and classic literary works.“

Terry Martin, 2001, The Affirmative Action Empire, p. 13.

The concept of identity used by Martin (2001) can first be criticized in principle for implying that something like closed nationalities exists. However, Martin also argues that national identity in the sense of ethnicity is something that is constructed. The Soviet power, however, had every reason to fear that the national consciousness of individual ethnic groups might become a nationalism that would be turned against Moscow. The process of ‚making nations‘ should, therefore, be controlled. For this reason, the search for national identity should be directed against certain traces of tradition. Backwardness became a synonym for counterrevolution.

Lenin had called tsarist Russia a ‚prison of the peoples‘. Accordingly, the Soviet power did not want to be perceived as an imperial colonial power. And of course, there were also apparent differences, above all the Soviets did not reproduce racist stereotypes to the same extent by essentially attributing the backwardness of peoples to them. But the implementation of the socialist utopia was inevitably connected with a devaluation of existing ways of life.

The hope of overcoming the disabilities and pains that illness can inflict on the human body, gave these simulated healthy bodies of the Soviet dream-world (in which cinema played a significant role) a utopian impetus. Defeat of disease, among the other brutal effects of nature on the corporeal body (such as hunger, cold and death), was yet another promise of modernity with its drive for scientific and technological advancement. But this utopian impulse, too, became incorporated into the Soviet ‘phantasmagoria of production’; in other words, by discursively linking disease to the body that resides in ‘pre-modernity’—the body of the peasant and the Oriental—this utopian potential became a legitimizing force to control and regulate. As a result, in its articulation of the East, the dominant discourse in post-revolutionary Russia came increasingly to resemble that of the late Imperial era. Those who lived on the Oriental periphery of the new Soviet state, whose cultures and ways of life were deemed as ‘vestiges of the past,’ came under immense pressure to ‘speed up’ in order to become contemporaneous with their age. Therefore, the unhealthy bodies and veiled women of ‘the East’ came to represent (signify) the very antithesis of modernity, first in the cosmological narrative of Soviet historiography, and later in the simulated world of the Soviet cinema, particularly since the late 1920s.

Farbod Honarpisheh, 2005, The Oriental ‘Other’ in Soviet Cinema, 1929–34, p. 188
Summary: In 'Salt for Svaneti' the line between criticism of historical backwardness and racism is crossed. The traditional life of the Svans is already consistently connected with disease patterns in Tretyakov's other writings on Svaneti. An old Svan in dirty clothes offers alcohol for consumption; the traditional dwellings lead to chronic conjunctivitis among the Svans, the blood revenge is rampant like a disease and the Svan's religion produces many harmful habits - many more examples can be found here. To maintain the image of Stalin as the Father of Nations, at least a minimum of respect for the specific cultures was necessary. This minimum level of appreciation was not recognizable at least for the inhabitants of Svaneti after they had seen the film. Therefore, to uphold the Soviet utopia of acceptance of the nations, an intervention of the cultural authorities and a negative evaluation of the film was inevitable.
See Part I of the commentary: The old Svaneti as a part of the 'Oriental Other'
See Part II of the commentary: The Komsomol members hear the call of the Svans and liberate Svaneti by building a road

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.