The Mother of Soviet Documentary: Esfir Shub in Compilation Film and Beyond, 1927-1937

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Slavic Languages and Literatures

First Advisor

MacKay, John


This dissertation explores the life and filmmaking career of the Soviet Union’s first – and arguably most important – female documentarian, Esfir Shub. The focus is on the first ten years of Shub’s directorial track, 1927-1937, during which she tirelessly pushed the boundaries of the documentary mode. Combining visual analysis and in-depth archival research with feminist historiography, the dissertation offers a critical reassessment of Shub’s directorial career and investigates the relationship between politics, aesthetics, and gender during documentary cinema’s nascent phase. The chapters of this dissertation are organized chronologically and are centered on the production context, form, and structure of Shub’s films. Chapter One explores the beginnings of Shub’s career as a filmmaker, during which she released her famous compilation trilogy. Drawing on a large collection of primary documents, it investigates the production and reception of these films, demonstrating how Shub legitimized found footage compilation as a directorial practice and the struggle she faced transitioning from the role of editor to that of director.Chapter Two examines the most experimental period of Shub’s career, when she released Today (1930) and K.Sh.E - Komsomol Leader of Electrification (1932). The two films signaled Shub’s departure from the slow, seamless editing style of her early works. The chapter argues that together the films mark a crucial period in Shub's career, one which was characterized by vigorous exploration of the documentary genre, primarily through experimentation with aesthetic and narrative coherence. By combining close analyses of Today and K.Sh.E. with archival research into their production and critical reception, the chapter offers a pathbreaking reassessment of Shub’s creative evolution. Chapter Three focuses on Shub’s unmade and unfinished projects of the mid-1930s: the unrealized documentary Women (1933), the lost short film Moscow Builds Metro (1934), and the unfinished documentary New Turkey Strides (1934), which Shub shot in Turkey. The chapter sheds light on the most obscure period of Shub’s career, exploring how her artistic vision dramatically evolved over this brief stretch of time. It argues that while this innovation never manifested itself on the screen, it was significant in offering an alternative developmental path for documentary film. In doing so, this chapter challenges the historiographical commonplace, according to which the Soviet avant-garde phase was naturally replaced by socialist realism.

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