This is an excerpt from the 1952 memoirs of the Odessa Film Studio’s legendary first director Mikhail Kapchinsky. The excerpt provides a remarkable historical window on the events that took place in Odessa immediately after the conclusion of the civil war and the implantation of the Bolshevik agenda. This is the first time that any part of Kapchinsky’s memoirs have appeared in English. The physical copy of the memoirs exists in only one manuscript form; it is the first object in Odessa Film Studio Museum’s collection. We thank the Odessa Film Studio for their kindness in allowing us to publish this selection.
Before October 1916, there were about eighty cinemas spread all over Odessa. Large ones, medium ones, small ones. Some were located in former storefronts, with the sidewalks as their lobbies. By 1921, only six movie theaters were left. Projectors were cramped in tiny booths. The reels were played manually. The image, projected onto makeshift screens, moved either too fast (to the delight of schoolboys, the main demographic of the audience – eliciting hoots, hollers, ad stomping) or crawled at a snail’s pace. The wallpaper in the auditoriums was peeling, the ceilings cracked. The floors were covered in a shin-deep layer of sunflower seed shells and other debris. The filaments of small coal lamps barely glowed pink.
Darkness. Filth. Stale air. Dreariness.
Two of the theaters had no seats – the viewers watched the films standing up. Tickets were sold, but in an unrecognizable form. Simple bits of paper with a stamp on it – a stamp no one knew the meaning or provenance of.
Could it really go on like this?
A small squad of like-minded individuals had already gathered in the Odessa Photo and Cinema Committee wanting to discuss this problem – the future Prombank director Saul Levin, film rental specialist Vladimir Ivanovich Karpovski, and Isidor Mikhaylovich Rosenblit.
Mr. Rosenblit deserves an aside of his own, seeing as he was one of the head figures in the Regional Command.
I don’t recall how it stood in the rest of Ukraine, but in Odessa, in 1921 a short campaign entitled “Peaceful revolt” was taking place. The entire party organization of the city took part in the campaign. Members of the bourgeoisie, which were unfortunately (for them) plentiful in the city of Odessa, had their large apartments, precious items, and much of their property confiscated. On the orders of the Government Committee, I headed the commission on reviewing the complaints and petitions connected to the confiscations.
Once, an elderly gentleman in a worn-out two-piece suit came into my office – this gentleman’s last name happened to be Rosenblit. The following is a conversation that took place between him and myself. I do not want the reader to judge me for including it, or to believe that I am including it for some sort of comedic relief. This is simply not the case. The times back then were grim, and there was very little room for levity. Perhaps there will be some critics who will find it to be “excessively Odessan”, that is vulgarly leaning on tropes of Odessan humor. To which I would answer – it is not “excessively” so, it is indeed very accurate. In some essence this conversation captured the realistic air of the times. The words exchanged paint a portrait of a distinct person, a native Odessa who played an important role in the Regional Command.
Without further ado, this is the exchange that took place between us:
“Good day and good health to you!”
“I am listening”
“Should I tell it all at once?”
“Well, between us, I don’t really need anything.”
“Well, you can be on your way then. God be with you.”
“Well, I won’t be able to do that, because as you all say today: God doesn’t exist. At all.”
“What a character,” I thought to myself.
“Where do you work?” I asked him.
“Where could I possibly work, not being a member of a professional union? No one will hire me. I’m not part of the working class, per se. Who would hire me? Would anyone? What do you, yourself think? I am a former capitalist…note that I say former.” he answered.
“Excuse me, but there are many people waiting to be seen…” I told him impatiently.
“They can wait. What do they have to rush for? I am here to make you a compelling offer.”
The strange visitor made himself more comfortable in his chair and continued:
“Young man, you all, the kinds that became the bosses now – you are always running around rushing. Stop a little, rest, otherwise your heart might suffer for it – god forbid.”
Something about this visitor compelled me – I am not sure what it was. And this despite his confession of being a “former capitalism”, something which would make him very unpopular in any circle in those days.
“It can be very useful to hear another person out. Even if you consider him stupid. Listening can yield results. I want to make a proposition to you, and, if God forbid you should not like it then that’s fine. But give me a chance to present it.”
“Have you heard of Mr. Popov’s tobacco factory?” he asked me.
“The one that produces ‘Salve’ cigarettes?”
“Yes, that same one! ‘Salve’ brand cigarettes, famous all over the world. Do you know who was the owner of the majority of the shares? Me. Have you perhaps heard of the Doly perfume factory as well?”
“I have not.”
“How is that possible? Their soap…what a fine soap!” his eyes twinkled.
The strange man kissed his gathered fingers, conveying his high opinion of the Doly soap with a gesture.
“And the Ashkenazy Bank, have you heard of it?”
“Well, all these companies are me. My name is Isidor Mikhaylovich Rosenblit. Will you try to remember it, please? Show me a man in Odessa, or even in Nikolayev, who does not know who Isidor Mikhaylovich is…there is no such man. You will not find him!”
Rosenblit shifted his weight in his chair yet again, getting comfortable. It was beginning to seem that he was planning on staying here a long time.
“In all honesty, between you and me, in absolute honesty – I cannot say I adore this Soviet government of yours…but I must do business. If I cannot do business anymore, I might as well reserve a grave at the Second City Jewish Cemetery…tell me, do you know anything about finance? Don’t answer that. I know that you don’t. I am a non-party member finance specialist. I will tell you honestly, I always lived and worked by this motto – let others talk while you stay quiet. What did I have to talk about? A financer is able to produce money out of thin air. I stay quiet – if someone needs something from me, let them talk and I will listen. I have to admit that when the Soviets came and took even the shirt on my back away from me, that’s when I suddenly became a talkative man. Even my Leia said then – you, Isidor, have become an unbearable chatterbox; watch out so that the Cheka doesn’t come for you. Why would they come for me? – I said. What am I, a counter-revolutionary? No, I am not a counter-revolutionary. Anyone can confirm. Let them ask anyone who knows me.”
“Mr. Rosenblit, can we speed this along perhaps”
“I suppose I can sum it up. I see you are looking at my suit…I bought it at the street market. Your comrades took everything I own. They left my shares, though. They said ‘you can just throw these in the dumpster’. And they were right…no one will take these, even for free. What else is there to say? The war is over, thank God…we’ve gotten rid of the pogrom inciters, Petlyura and Denikin’s men…that’s all very well, but if you think that you can continue to live and prosper without us finance workers, you are very wrong. This is me, Isidor Mikhaylovich, saying this to you. The Soviet government will need banks, accountants…there is no way around it. Mark my words. The economy will revive, buying, selling; it’s no joke in such a huge nation. And your Lenin…well, he is a smart man.”
“I’m still not understanding; how can I be of use to you?” I reiterated.
“Young man, comrade, I believe you misunderstood me. It is not you that can be of use to me, but the other way around. Tell me, are you in charge of the cinemas?”
“Let’s say I am.”
“I know a few things about movies. We lent money to rental offices, even Khanjonkov visited us, and we know about your cinemas. They’re in bad shape, aren’t they? Bringing losses instead of profits. Am I correct? From what I know, the situation is dire. I’ve come to you with a wonderful idea. Don’t hold it against me, an old man, but see – if you have half a brain, you will listen to me.”
I did listen to the idea. Despite my expectations, it was delivered in a short, businesslike, efficient and persuasive manner. I listened to everything Isidor Mikhaylovich Rosenblit – this man, who according to himself was known throughout Odessa and even in Nikolayev – had to say. I listened to him, and I must say, his idea intrigued me.
“Could you return in a week?”
“Why not? It would be my pleasure. Of course I could!”
I was beset by strong emotions, completely and for a long time. Rosenblit’s idea would not let me rest. It held my mind in a vice, burned, boiled, gnawed at me.
I tried everything I could to exorcise Rosenblit the tempter from my mind. It’s a ridiculous idea, I told myself. It’s futile. I’ll get off easy if I’m only laughed at…it could be worse, if it gets to the wrong ears I will never live it down – maybe not even live at all. Try to transport yourself to 1921. Try to understand the atmosphere of the time. Then you will have a clearer image of my predicament.
Rent out our cinemas? We can’t, so what way out is there? Today, six cinemas are on their last breath. Tomorrow, one by one, they will begin dying out.
Of course they wouldn’t allow it, but in the interests of the cinema…the situation truly is dire, after all. I don’t see another solution. Why can’t we at least try it? For six months, maybe even a year? If it doesn’t succeed, we’ll reverse everything. What could go wrong with that?
In dealing with him, Isidor Mikhaylovich Rosenblit turned out to be a decent, honest, and capable man; a skilled finance expert who gave a great deal of his time, talent, and strength to the committee despite being well into his sixties. I worked with him for several years, up until his death.
Now, back to our problem. We’ve already discussed the six Odessa cinemas and their sorry conditions. Where were we to go from there?
We gathered our small collective and thought and thought and thought. We brought up various options, some were instantly and harshly dismissed. Finally, Rosenblit’s suggestion came up for discussion.
The plan consisted of renting the cinemas to their former owners or other private entity on certain conditions and with certain restrictions for a period of one year. They would restore them, provide furniture, and hopefully make them functional and profitable again.
“Are we Bolsheviks or not?” fumed Saul Levin. “Are we going to sell our ideas now? To fatten that capitalist scum, the bourgeois bastards? No! I do not agree!”
“You’re right, Saul. We’re not some kind of petty merchants.”
“If I may say so, comrade Levin” Rosenblit interjected politely and quietly, “I personally have no intentions of buying or selling your ideas, because I do not even understand them. I know one thing – in the Café Fanconi, or the stock market on the corner of Pushkinskaya Street – ideas are not a viable product. They have no value. You might as well give them away for free. Ideas aren’t aspirin or currency. Your six cinemas right now are nothing. They’re not cinemas…they’re laughable, crippled and squalid places. People laugh at them, but Kruglyakov and Shoshnikov (the former owners), despite being a part of the bourgeoisie are smart people who do what they do well. People like us, comrade Saul Levin, stand to learn a lot from them. Am I correct or not? We are giving them walls riddled with holes, filthy floors, rancid squalor – and we will be getting money in return for this. You can disseminate your ideas in your movies, comrade Saul Levin.”
“The walls in the cinema are ideas too! You, comrade Rosenblit, need to familiarize yourself with the party’s ideology,” Levin answered disdainfully.
“Saul, you just said a very stupid thing.”
“I sure hope we don’t get kicked in the teeth for this.”
“We’ll survive. You and I have sturdy teeth.”
Vladimir Ivanovich Karpovsky, worried as always, twirled his long mustache:
“Let’s stop burying our heads in the ground like ostriches. We don’t have the people, the means, the equipment, not even the money for even small-scale renovations. What are our cinemas? They’re pigsties, basically. It’s embarrassing to walk into them.”
We spoke a lot. We fought. We argued. Finally, it was decided that Levin and I should consult with the Regional Committee.
With my voice shaking (because of the implications of our suggestion), I reported to the Regional Committee Secretary the nature of the situation and the details of our argument. Levin conveyed his protests in a way that was perhaps somewhat calmer and more logical than it was at our previous meeting.
“What’s wrong with people more experienced than us working in the cinemas for a while”, I was speaking in a tone perhaps raised too high, “and us receiving six fully renovated movie theaters and all the added experience in return? What’s the risk? Perhaps there is a small one, but risk is a necessity. Cinemas all over Europe bring enormous profits to their owners, and ours simply leech from the government – and they require a lot…how much longer can this go on?”
“Well, you are making some sense. Prepare the material, make a report to the Bureau, we will listen and discuss it then,” responded Comrade Secretary Khatayevich (the future secretary of the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Bolshevik Party).
Twenty-two movie theaters were rented out for the duration of one year. Yes, twenty-two. You might wonder, where did the twenty-two come from, if before it was mentioned that we only had six more or less functioning theaters.
Well, what happened was something truly unexpected. As soon as word spread about the planned rentals, we were overwhelmed by queries from former owners. Vacant buildings in various parts of the city resurfaced as potential movie theaters.
The conditions of the rental were the following:
Complete renovation and the removal of any defects by our engineer. The renter will provide all necessary furniture and equipment. After the expiration of the rental period, the theaters and all the property contained in them will be transferred to the Regional Photo and Film Committee, entirely and without compensation, as per the original agreement. Tickets will be typographically pressed and numbered, verified by the Regional Financial Department, and sold at counters under our approval and control. The Committee receives 25% of the gross profit. We are under no obligation to cover any of the costs related to staff or any other necessity.
Some might consider it superfluous to discuss the restoration of cinemas in three Ukrainian regions within a memoir entitled “By the Black Sea”. After all, the main aim of our recollections is to describe the construction and launch of the Odessa Film Studio – the forerunner of all Ukrainian cinematography.
However, I consider this issue to be one of utmost importance – without a widespread and functional chain of cinemas and the profits stemming from it, all talk about cinematography would be empty blather. We are telling about these movie theaters as an extremely important factor – if not, in fact the decisive one.
The agreement with the renters was notarized by the legal sector of the Odessa Regional Executive Committee.
Theaters in other regional centers, such as Nikolayev, Vinnitsa, Kherson, Kamenetsk – Podolsk, Proskurov, Berdichev, and Elizavetgrad were rented out according to the same set of conditions. In smaller cities, the agreement was somewhat different.
However, when the Regional Command was dealing with movie theaters, no one could even dare dream about the construction of a film studio. We were trying to make our theaters profitable for the government.
The renters renovated and furnished the theaters, and each one was approved by a separate act. The foyers and auditoriums were equipped with chairs and all the necessary equipment. Where it all came from, I have no idea. Perhaps the former owners had stashed it away at the right time.
The streets once again sparkled with colorful movie posters and announcements in that inimitable Odessa style.
In one theater on Moldovanka, we saw a huge and colorful billboard. A severed head and the splayed out dead body of a woman were drawn on it. The title announced, “Doomed Love, or, the Horrors of the Jewish Progroms”. The film showing was a Swedish drama starring the well-known actress Asta Nilssen and the equally famous Morrison.
Did the viewers complain? Not at all. They got used to it.
We were politically naive at the time, or perhaps just due to youth, I was amazed at how we were able to fool these experienced entrepreneurs – they were from the Odessa industry after all!
The cornerstone of our financial success and our lucky charm that Rosenblit said to me once:
“You’re still dressed in this military garb and had a Mauser on your hip just recently, but you know nothing about commerce. Nothing at all, believe me. It wasn’t us that fooled them – quite the opposite.
But times are such that we can’t do without them, and so it is.”
To indicate the utmost necessity to us of Kruglyakov and his ilk, Rosenblit made a slicing motion across his throat with his finger.
Many things were restored – cleanliness, order, new screens, bright lights, curtains, a musical duet of violin and piano in every single theater, and even live performances by musicians in some of the theaters preceding the feature screening (Khudozhestvinniy, Express, Ampir, Utochkin). Ilya Nabatov, Vladimir Koralli, Mikhail Raskatov among others graced the stages of these restored cinemas. The renter Shoshnikov even managed to stage live sound accompaniment in his theater, recreating the sounds of the events on the screen as they happened.
Well, what next? The main thing was missing. Where would we get the films? What we had was obsolete. There was nothing to show. Films are worn out beyond recognition, some are missing titles, scenes are missing, static obscures the images….it is sometimes impossible to understand which movie you are watching.
The renters managed to restore some of the old films. They added introductory frames and subtitles in between the scenes.
But all this is just a drop in the sea.