UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


Fridrikh Ermler’s Balzac in Russia: an eccentric chapter of Soviet film history

20 February 2023, 6:00 pm–8:00 pm

A collage of photos relating to 'Balzac in Russia'

A SSEES Russian Cinema Research Group seminar with Peter Bagrov (George Eastman Museum)

This event is free.

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Masaryk Room
UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies
16 Taviton street

Balzac in Russia (1940) was an anomaly in Soviet cinema of the Stalinist era. Fridrikh Ermler, one of the most politicised filmmakers in the USSR, had just completed his dark and controversial epic The Great Citizen, when, all of a sudden, he indulged in this project – a historical comedy which was to be shot in colour, with music by Dmitry Shostakovich.

The fact that Honoré de Balzac married a Polish countess in Berdychiv, a Ukrainian town with a predominantly Jewish population, was eccentric enough. An anecdote about one of Balzac’s earlier visits to Odesa, when the great French writer was confused for a French hairdresser, became widely known and added to the whimsicality of the plot.

And yet, while the subject called for a comedy, it would be a rather dark one. The screenplay, influenced by Yuri Tynianov’s historical prose, portrayed Russian high society sarcastically, with seductive women shown as secret police agents, and the visit of a well-known foreign author anticipated as an ideological victory of a police state over European values. Whether intentional or not, the analogies between the 1830s and the 1930s were evident, and the project was doomed.

Filming had to be stopped. Fortunately, the footage was later edited into an experimental film titled Autumn, an incomplete colour print of which has been recently rediscovered. Along with the existing screenplay and photo tests, this allows us to reconstruct this fascinating oddity – yet another proof of the unpredictability of Soviet cinema.


Peter Bagrov
Peter Bagrov is a film historian and archivist. Since 2005 he has been teaching film courses at various universities, curating retrospectives and giving talks on film history and preservation. In 2005-2013 he was a Research Associate at the Russian Institute of Art History. In 2013-2017 he was the Senior Curator at Gosfilmofond of Russia and served as the artistic director of the archival film festival “Belye Stolby”. Since August 2019, he has been the Senior Curator at the Moving Image Department of the George Eastman Museum and the Director of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and the Nitrate Picture Show film festival. His main areas of research interest are Russian and Soviet film history of the 1900s through 1960s and filmography. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).