Mariia Koskina, State University of New York in Binghamton "A Boy Meets a Girl, and They Build a Dam: Transformation of Siberia in Late-Soviet Industrial Cinema"

Helsinki University Humanities Programme, Helsinki Environmental Humanities Forum, February 9, 2021 (Tuesday), at 14.00- 15.30 (Helsinki time) via ZOOM

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Katerina Clark succinctly described a master plot of the Soviet post-war novel as “boy meets girl and gets a tractor.” The Khrushchev era brought dramatic changes in strategies for economic development and in how Soviet geography was imagined. Soviet media adapted its subject matter accordingly. At the time, audiovisual media production and consumption was on the increase. The distribution of TV sets per household across the nation climbed from 8% in 1960 to 51% in 1970. My talk explores the themes of industrialization and human-environment relations, as presented in some of the popular TV clips and feature films made in Siberia’s Divnogorsk, which was perhaps the smallest town in the USSR and yet became a Hollywood-like location for Soviet cinematography in the 1960s. As gender was salient in these creations, I identify their framework as “a Boy Meets a Girl, and They Build a Dam.”

Khrushchev’s economy aimed to rediscover and exploit to their fullest the seemingly inexhaustible natural resources of Siberia. Films about Siberia had been made before this “rediscovery;” however, almost none of them before the late 1950s – early 1960s was shot on the ground. In this period, the region was reimagined altogether, so that a place once known as site of exile (with or without sentence) came to be seen as the land of opportunities. New large hydroelectric dams symbolized Soviet modernization in Siberia. The tangible nature and landscape of Divnogorsk – the house of the Krasnoyarsk Dam (built in 1956-1972) – became a backdrop for historical events and fictional stories worthy of the screen, in which the most powerful dam at the time invariably played one of the leading roles.

Siberia literally stepped into Soviet homes with this media’s vivid, yet guided, visual representation. Despite the overwhelming character of Soviet rhetoric about nature’s conquest, something widely recognized in the scholarship, these films showed more nuanced human-nature relations. In some of these stories, nature drove the plot and synchronized with characters’ life cycles. In others, characters incarnated nature, while natural objects were personified. As my talk explains, this overlay of fictional narratives with lived natural spaces influenced the work of film crews. Overall, the state came to support audiovisual messages about environmentalism and its connection to industrialization, as environmental conscience further evolved. The 1960s films, which offer glimpses of social outcasts resenting industrial development, gave way to a 1970s picture about a Party Secretary ready to risk her life for conservation.


Mariia Koskina is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the State University of New York at Binghamton and a 2020-2021 fellow at the Stanford US – Russia Forum (Climate and Environment working group). Her doctoral research investigates Soviet environmental policies and popular attitudes toward nature practices in Siberia’s Yenisei basin from the 1950s through the 1970s. She is a 2015-2017 Fulbright program alumna and recipient of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies 2019 Dissertation Research Grant. She spent two summers interning at the United Nations’ Department of Public Information in New York as a Multimedia Archivist and at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C. as a Russian Language Specialist working on the International Cold War History Project. 

Mariia Koskina's Professional Website