Provincialising Moscow:

Reviewing Cinema History from Sakha (Yakutia)

Caroline Damiens
Following the regional boom in film production aimed at a local audience in the 2000s, Sakha Indigenous cinema (particularly since the mid-late 2010s) has been internationally acclaimed as an aesthetic success. Yet cinema culture in Sakha did not start in the post-Soviet years. This article intends to demonstrate the importance of contemporary scholarly work by historians of cinema culture in Sakha (Yakutia) and argues that it contributes to the ‘provincialising’ of Moscow-centric film production. This geo-historiographical decentring, all the more necessary since it comes from Sakha local cinema historians themselves, constitutes a way to the decolonisation of Soviet cinema history, in line with the larger ‘decolonial turn’ that has recently engaged scholars in Slavic studies. Furthermore, by shifting the vantage point to that of those directly involved in the film distribution and exhibition, this article seeks to interrogate the role of these essential cinema workers (such as projectionists, distribution staff, etc.) within the Soviet film industry, who are, more often than not considered a mere piece of machinery and ignored in the scholarly accounts of Sakha cinema and, more generally, of global cinema history. These workers were active and vital agents of cinema circulation and dissemination, and they must be taken into account in order to write a decentred and pluricultural history of Soviet screen culture. Because these local histories are rooted locally in a supposedly peripheral region of the Russian/Soviet empire, by analysing this under-researched aspect of Sakha film history, we can therefore shed light on the only places where the activities of the colonised – and more broadly of the subalterns and minorities – can be found in the history of Soviet and world cinema. In the absence of ‘national’ film production during the major part of the first century of cinema history, subaltern peoples only had access to subaltern positions in the hierarchy of film professions.
Sakha (Yakutia), decolonisation, decentring film history, film historiography, cinema network, distribution, cinefication, projectionists.


Writing Cinema History Without a National Cinema: Comparing Decentred, Post-colonial Screen Culture Histories

Shifting Scale: Local Cinema Histories in Sakha (Yakutia)

The ‘Collective’ and the ‘Cinema Network’: Local Human Relays in the Technical Network

Conclusion: Far from Moscow – Locating the Subalterns in the Cinema Network




Suggested Citation


Sakha (Yakutia), an autonomous republic in Far Eastern Siberia, a subject of the Russian Federation, has recently become the cradle of a new regional film production that is attracting increasing international interest.1 Thanks to the dynamism of this production, this Siberian republic is one of the few places where new cinema theatres open, bucking a worldwide trend of cinema closures in the digital era of streaming platforms: in 2019, seven venues opened in different regions of the republic (Anonymous 2019). Nationwide, in 2020, the Sakha (Yakutia) republic ranks first in terms of cinema capacity exceeding twice the Russian average (15% as opposed to 33%) (Anonymous 2020).

When I made my first academic field trip to Yakutsk more than ten years ago, as a doctoral student in film studies, I was attracted by the nascent, blooming film industry. However, once I started to work on the field, I found something quite different from what I had expected. Quite unoriginally, I was searching for films and directors (that I managed to find and interview, coming back home with a massive DVD and data stock), but the members of the local Goskinokhranilishche – then State Film Fund of the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, present-day Zharaev National Centre for the Audiovisual Heritage of the Peoples of the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic – that I visited also drew my attention to other stories, other objects and other biographies. They told me the history of travelling projectionists, of distribution employees and of a local history of cinema deeply rooted in the territory, changing both the scale and the focus of my research.

This local history had actually been documented and published on for several years by local historians and archivists – often themselves former cinema exhibition workers. How does examining Sakha cinema from a Sakha viewpoint change our understanding of film history? By looking at the literature published in the (post-)Soviet Sakha (Yakutia) Republic and taking it as an object of study, this paper seeks to explore issues of screen culture in the rural Indigenous peripheries as opposed to central, imperial, urban Moscow and St Petersburg which remain too often the main, if not the only, focal points of cinema histories in Russia and the Soviet Union.2 Such a geo-historiographical decentring, all the more necessary since it comes from the Sakha local cinema historians themselves, can constitute a way to contribute to the decolonisation of Soviet cinema history, thus fitting into the larger ‘decolonial turn’ underway in Slavic studies, which has greatly accelerated since the break-up of the war in Ukraine in February 2022.3 Consequently, in addition to reviewing aspects of the local history of Sakha cinema, this essay also draws comparisons with recent (and not so recent) scholarship dealing with other, more ‘canonical’ post-colonial cases in other regions of the world. Furthermore, by shifting the viewpoint to that of the distribution and exhibition agents, it seeks to interrogate the role of these essential cinema workers within the Soviet film industry. Locally hired and trained, they were active and vital agents of cinema circulation and dissemination, and they must be taken into account in order to write a decentred and pluricultural4 history of Soviet screen culture. Ultimately, by emphasising its importance, this essay argues that scholarly work by historians of cinema culture in Sakha (Yakutia) more generally contributes to “provincialise” (Chakrabarty 2000) Moscow-based and production-driven film culture.

Writing Cinema History Without a National Cinema: Comparing Decentred, Post-colonial Screen Culture Histories

In the context of Soviet cinema, which claimed being ‘multinational,’ Sakha (Yakutia) did not benefit from a ‘national’ (or ‘regional’) cinema production, unlike other Soviet peoples who were allotted an SSR (Soviet Socialist Republic) and a film studio to go with it (such as Kirgizfil’m, Uzbekfil’m, Belarusfil’m, etc.). The ethno-territorial division of the USSR was the product of an ethnic hierarchy based on a Marxist scale of historical development and characterised by a shifting and complex hierarchy: ranging from Soviet republics that were deemed the most ‘advanced’ to ‘national raion (district)’ deemed the most ‘backward’ according to Soviet terminology (with a whole intermediate range of territories and levels of sovereignty) (Hirsch 2005, Blum and Filippova 2006). Sakha stand midway among the peoples of Siberia: considered too ‘backward’ to benefit from an SSR, they were however, among the Indigenous peoples of Siberia, seen as too ‘advanced’ (in terms of historical development) and too numerous to fall into the category of minority peoples. They therefore had an autonomous republic within the RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) and, as a consequence, until the recent post-Soviet era, Sakha (Yakutia) didn’t have the means to develop a ‘national’ film production.

However crucial the new Indigenous Sakha film production is, it must be stressed that the Sakha film industry was not born in a cinematic vacuum. This raises the question: where and when does the history of cinema begin for regions and peoples long devoid of their own film productions, such as Indigenous peoples? If, historically, the so-called ‘Natives’ were for a long time the object of an ethnographic or exotic gaze, the various Indigenous peoples of the planet eventually regained control of the camera to create a cinema made by and for their people. But what makes a cinema Indigenous is rarely interrogated. The problem is not new. The French historian Georges Sadoul, in his history of world cinema published in the 1960s, wrote about the African case, then engaged in political decolonisation, in the following terms:

Sixty-five years after the invention of cinema, not a single truly African feature film had yet been produced in 1960. By this we mean a feature film written, performed, photographed, directed, edited, etc. entirely by Black people and speaking an African language. (Sadoul 1966: 499)

This quote is highly revealing; it indicates what was expected then from an Indigenous cinema, holding only individuals of the ‘correct’ nationality at every position in the film production. This national or ethnic ‘purity’ is rarely envisaged in the case of Western cinema—one has only to think about the many films of the Hollywood classic era made with immigrant actors or technicians and yet regarded as solely US products. While the quote tends to disqualify films made with Africans and non-Africans, it also fails to take into account the various ways in which Africans were involved in the industry before it was possible to make a “truly African feature film”. What possibilities and opportunities did colonised individuals have to participate in the film industry in a regime based on ethnic discrimination? The question, although central to a decolonised history of screen studies, is too often discarded by the search for a purely Indigenous cinema, which too often is supposed to start after political decolonisation took place and when Indigenous directors make films (Damiens forthcoming). On the contrary, moving beyond the auteurist tradition can make room for Indigenous and other marginalised groups in cinema history by shifting the focus to the other side of the screen to look at audiences and the myriad intermediaries who worked in film dissemination.

In light of the ongoing decolonialising turn in the Russian-Soviet space, before exploring the (essential) issue of Indigenous cinema in Sakha (Yakutia), we need to examine the introduction of cinema to the region prior to the development of Indigenous film production, and the relationship colonised peoples had with the media. This necessitates moving away from the film content to explore issues of screen culture – i.e. cinema circulation and consumption. Such an approach can contribute to a decolonisation of cinema history by re-envisioning the contribution of Indigenous peoples – here, the Sakha – and to reframing the history of the Soviet screen. If we look at histories that have been written in other colonial contexts, we find early examples that more or less explicitly adopt this approach. This is particularly the case in post-colonial, decolonial, and/or anticolonial contexts where militant and independence-minded tendencies led very early to a revision of film history. Take, for example, Caméras sous le soleil. Le cinéma en Afrique du Nord by Claude Veillot and Maurice-Robert Bataille, published in Algiers in 1956, in the midst of the Algerian War of Independence. While actively criticising the colonialist cinematographic “imaginary” of the films they examine, Veillot and Bataille reveal the history of films shot in North Africa by crews from Metropolitan France and elsewhere. Adopting an even more comprehensive approach, Omar Khlifi’s Histoire du cinéma en Tunisie, published in Tunis in 1970, utilises an original approach for its time, exploring the development of cinema as a form of leisure activity.5 Significantly, both books open with an illustration of a shadow play in North Africa from 1842 (Veillot and Bataille 1956: 1; Khlifi 1970: 20), placing the birth of cinema in Maghreb much further back than the first ‘national’ films, and even before the colonial cinema era. By privileging another point of view, the local, the colonised one, as opposed to the imperial, colonial point of view, these two authors look at other objects i.e., other than feature films made by ‘national’ authors to re-appropriate or re-signify them on their own terms.

The absence of film production and the decentring of the perspective led to the development of an innovative approach to film history (even if it was not perceived as such by the Western academic ‘centre’ at the time), which could actually be viewed as precursors of what is known today as New Cinema History. This recent academic trend has shifted the classic film studies’ focus away from analysis of film texts and toward studying films as they were socially situated and interpreted by real audiences who attended actual screenings. The aim is to “understand the cinematic experience as a broader sociocultural phenomenon” (Biltereyst, Maltby and Meers 2019: 3) and to comprehend all aspects associated with the broad concept of ‘cinema-going’.

Examining historical screen culture in colonial situations, some recent works from the New Cinema History or similar methodological approaches, have significantly moved the birth of national cinemas back in time, in a manner very much like the anticolonial Algerian and Tunisian studies mentioned above. In her work on early cinema in colonial Indonesia, Dafna Ruppin (2016) has uncovered the practice used by most local exhibitors of including films they had shot themselves locally, nearly from the moment of arrival of the technology in the Dutch East Indies, therefore showing that they did not rely only on imports from Western film industries. She acknowledges that this was a “surprising discovery” (Ruppin 2016: 320) of the research. Such a ‘surprise’ can be interpreted as a collateral effect of the idea, so well expressed by Sadoul, that national cinemas from ex-colonised peoples can only be born when independence is gained. Tom Rice (2019), who has worked on the Colonial Film Unit production – the British organisation that produced and distributed films specifically for the colonised audiences of the British Empire – has come to the conclusion that film production from the colonial period should be taken into consideration in order to reframe post-colonial African national cinemas. He argues that film historians need to grasp a larger picture: “Whether appropriating colonial structures or directly rejecting them, these national cinemas did not begin at independence, but are product of this late colonial period” (Rice 2019: 9).

In addition to unsettling the chronology of cinema histories in colonial situations, the growing body of scholarly work studying film culture in regions traditionally considered ‘peripheral’ has broadened our understanding of the epistemological issues at stake.6 Working on historical cinema culture in Tanzania, Laura Fair (2018) looked at local, national, and transnational cinematic experiences of individual and communal filmgoers and insisted that the consumption of foreign films was never experienced as acculturation, but rather as the re-appropriation of stories. Such considerations echo the work of geographers, which stress that the space in which people live and work, consume and spend their leisure time corresponds but little to the centre-periphery dynamics imposed by the ‘centre’ (Dumont 2017): each lived space should rather be seen as a centre of its own. Looking at cinema history from the local vantage point makes it possible to (re)discover the multiple local relays in the national and transnational circulations of films (Askari 2022), thus emphasising the role of local agents and infrastructures.

Such an approach is reminiscent of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s classic contribution to postcolonial studies, Provincializing Europe (2000). The book is a critique of the inability of European philosophical thought to adequately account for the historical trajectories of non-European societies. Geographically, it proposes to make Europe just another province of the world, and not a ‘centre’, whereas it reveals the historical difference implied by European historicism, whereby non-Western societies, always perceived as “not yet” civilised and lagging behind, are in fact consigned in the “imaginary waiting room of history” (Chakrabarty 2000: 8). The project of provincialising Europe refers to the writing of a history that does not fit into pre-established categories of Western historicism, without rejecting European thought but rather by renewing it from its margins. It therefore implies not simply reproducing ‘canonical’ explanations and analyses of Western historicism when writing non-Western historical narratives. Building upon this epistemological endeavour in film studies, I argue that we can similarly ‘provincialise Moscow’ in order to decolonise Soviet and post-Soviet screen history. To do so, I suggest looking at local cinema histories written by Sakha historians.

Shifting Scale: Local Cinema Histories in Sakha (Yakutia)

In Sakha, local historians study cinema culture from a local vantage point. Starting from the Soviet era and accelerating since the demise of the USSR, a number of books on this re-localised history have been written and distributed locally (Savvinov 1964, 1977; Kletskin 1973; Varlamova 2009; Zharaev 2011, 2015; Sivtsev 2012; Tatyeva and Filimonova 2018; Lobanova 2021). Such a change of scale is important and has an impact on research results: it “represents an epistemological leap that requires us, first of all, to see, on a small scale, things that we wouldn’t see on a large scale” (Amy de la Bretèque 2007: 8). The historiographical gesture of local historians coming from the periphery of the Russian-Soviet empire makes us look at other objects, which were mainly neglected by studies of history viewed from the ‘centre’ on a more ‘global’ scale.

To illustrate my argument, I will briefly review local cinema literature in Sakha, concentrating on two general histories written at two different times (the Soviet and the post-Soviet eras) in order to point out what makes them unique and highlight their potential in the decolonising endeavour of ‘global’ (i.e. Western or Russian) histories of cinema. This literature can be broadly divided into two trends: one that examines films on Sakha, and the other that explores screen culture in Sakha. Symptomatically, the two first local works, which appeared in the 1960s, illustrate these two tendencies. Annotirovannyi katalog fil’mov o Iakutii [Annotated Catalogue of Films about Yakutia], edited in 1964 by the Department of Film Distribution and Exhibition (Upravelnie kinofikatsii) of the Yakutia Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (IaASSR), was compiled by Nikandr Savvinov, the first professional Sakha cameraman, who worked as a local film correspondent for the Irkutsk newsreel studio from 1962 to 1985 (Zharaev 2011: 120).7 Looking at film distribution in the early years of Soviet power, Istoriia kinofikatsii Sovetskoi Iakutii. 1917-1932 [History of Soviet Yakutia’s Cinefication, 1917-1932] is an academic dissertation written by I. G. Romanov in 1966.8

These early works tackle two issues that are crucial for Indigenous peoples lacking a proper film production: the issue of one’s self-image on screen – here embodied in the effort to gather all the cinematographic representations of Sakha (Yakutia) – and the valorisation of local actors in the larger history of cinema – materialised in the focus on ‘cinefication’. For my purposes here, I will concentrate on this second aspect. Part of the new Bolshevik vocabulary, ‘cinefication’ (kinofikatsiia) initially referred to early Soviet efforts to expand cinema from urban areas to the countryside. Later on, the term came to designate various activities related to expanding cinema distribution and exhibition. It finally passed into administrative use with the opening of Cinefication Departments (Upravlenie kinofikatsii) throughout the country. According to the online Ushakov Dictionary of the Russian Language (2012), the substantive “kinofikatsiia” and the verb “kinofitsirovat’” [to cinefy], mean: “(1) To set up a network of cinemas in a known area, district (for example: to cinefy a village); (2) To set up cinema screenings wherever possible (for example, to cinefy schools, to cinefy lunch breaks)”. The concept is, therefore, closely linked to the means of cinema diffusion in its most concrete terms.

Two of the most important historical accounts published locally emphasise distribution and exhibition: Kino v zhizni Iakutian [Cinema in the lives of Yakutians] by Anatolii Kletskin (1973) and Zametki iz istorii kinematografii Iakutii: k 100-letiu so dniia pervogo pokaza kino v Iakutii [Notes from the History of Yakutia’s Cinema: Towards the 100th Anniversary of the First Screening in Yakutia] by Ivan Zharaev (2011). Although composed in different eras, both volumes share many similarities. First, they are both the work of local cinema distribution and exhibition agents turned historians for the occasion. Anatolii Kletskin was the head of the IaASSR film distribution office from 1972 to 1982 (Ministerstvo 2002). As for Ivan Zharaev, he was head of the IaASSR Cinefication Department from 1963 to 1992 and, after the demise of the USSR, was involved in the creation of the National Centre of Audiovisual Heritage – now named after him – in 1996 and the foundation of the Cinema Museum in Yakutsk in 2001.

Written during the Soviet era, Kletskin’s book intends to mark the advent of Soviet power as a significant rupture, whereas Zharaev emphasises the continuities in the first century of cinema in Sakha (Yakutia) throughout the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russian Federation. Despite these key differences, the two books share the same general point of view: that of insiders of cinefication, fully aware of their role in the larger Soviet film industry. Consequently, both volumes shed light on exhibition (pokaz), distribution (prokat) and the cinema network (kinoset’). Kletskin devotes seven chapters out of nine – plus one introduction on the history of images in Sakha (Yakutia) before cinema – on film diffusion, while Zharaev allots four chapters out of seven to cinefication. The history of film production is limited to one chapter in Zharaev’s book (quite a long one since the volume was published in 2011, when Sakha film production had already been around for two decades) and two chapters in Kletskin’s. In the absence of a proper film production industry, Kletskin wrote on films shot in Sakha (Yakutia) both by outsiders and insiders, overlapping concerns about the self-image in cinema, and, more originally, on amateur cinema produced in the republic. But their main focus remains on exhibition and distribution.

Both works are based on a variety of sources: the press (both general and specialist, such as the Soviet professional journal Kinomekhanik), grey literature,9 archives from the local cinefication department, and economic figures from the film industry. Kletskin also relies on several interviews he conducted at the time: with a former cinemagoer from the ‘heroic’ era of the late 1920s, a former cinema manager, and several former film projectionists. Zharaev, for his part, leaves some space in his text to other authors for some short sections, such as Eduard Tirskii, former head technician of the IaASSR film repair workshop from 1958 to 1968, thereafter chairman of the Cinema Council of the Yakutia Regional Council of Trade Unions (IaOSPS) until 1987.

As the first published historical account of cinema in Sakha (Yakutia), Kletskin sets the tone. Concentrating on cinema dissemination, he gives a description of the ‘repertory planning’ (repertuarnoe planirovanie) organisation – the Soviet notion for distribution –, and offers an insight into the workings of the system. Local repertory commissions (repertuarnye komissii), made up of members of Party, social and Soviet organisations, decided which film to release, when, where, and how it would be best to show. Such commissions existed in several districts (raiony) in the Sakha (Yakutia) republic (Kletskin 1971: 50). Anticipating the methods and approaches of the New Cinema History, Kletskin is interested in material questions such as the circulation of film reels and ticket prices (Kletskin 1973: 27).10

Drawing a lot from Kletskin’s book, Zharaev develops the range of professions described, with, for example, some precious pages dedicated to the history of subtitling and dubbing in the local language (Zharaev 2011: 187-196). His volume gives information on under-studied objects in cinema history, such as the republic’s film repair workshop (respublikanskaia kinoremontnaia masterskaia), the infrastructure designed to maintain technical equipment, and the way it used to function:

Film repair workshops were entrusted with repairing film equipment at the expense of local funds and resources, while the Russian Centre [of cinefication] provided and placed the USSR film industry’s order for domestic complex spare parts. (Zharaev 2011: 212)

Local film repair workshop technicians could work on non-film equipment, such as trucks and cars used for travelling exhibitions, that needed to be fixed or re-equipped. They could also prepare billboards for outdoor advertising and cinema facades, exhibition stands for cinema lobbies, etc. (Zharaev 2011: 217-218). These professions, often neglected by cinema historians, nevertheless constitute an important part of the “technical network” in Gilbert Simondon’s (1958) sense of the term: the organisation of all the machines, locations, technical procedures, and the circulation between these elements, without which the concrete cinematographic object could neither be produced, watched nor establish its place in culture.11

A female Sakha projectionist (Kinomekhanik-iakutka, L. Faiko, 1951-1954). Library of Congress.

The ‘Collective’ and the ‘Cinema Network’: Local Human Relays in the Technical Network

However, there is one profession on which both authors shed particular light: the projectionists (Fig. 1), and specifically, the travelling projectionists. They devote a significant part of their texts to these vital cinema agents who sometimes went on tour for a month or more, covering distances of up to 400 km (Kletskin 1973: 54). From 1925 onwards, when the cinefication of the country was announced by Soviet authorities, travelling cinemas (kinoperedvizhki) roamed across the country to organise screenings (Zharaev 2011: 23-31). The work of travelling projectionists was difficult, especially for the pioneers, given the absence of a developed cinema network: there was a shortage of technicians, spare parts, film and transportation means. In many places, there were no clubs: films were screened in “yurts”,12 in schools or churches, and sometimes in barns or stables. In cases where members of the audience were illiterate, the projectionist read the titles aloud (Zharaev 2011: 53). The main form of transport was the ox, which explains why tours could often last several months. Not everyone could cope with such a heavy workload, and many resigned (Kletskin 1973: 53; Zharaev 2011: 54-55). Both authors illustrate their historical accounts with real-life biographical cases. Kletskin (1973: 53) takes the example of an old projectionist named Andrei Fedorovich Serebrennikov who, in the 1930s, travelled from village to village across the taiga on horseback or oxen, covering hundreds of kilometres, meeting hundreds of first-time spectators. In consequence, the travelling projectionists, especially the cinema workers of the early days of cinefication, are the real heroes of these two narratives. As Kletskin emphatically writes:

The projectionists, who accompany the nomadic reindeer herders, travel hundreds of kilometres and even go as far as the Liakhovskii Islands [located North of Sakha (Yakutia) in the Arctic Ocean]. No obstacle, neither the absence of roads nor the harshness of the climate, could stop the advance of cinefication in the Far North. (Kletskin 1973: 31)

This prominent spotlight on projectionists is not limited to these two books. Projectionists are the focal point and the main protagonists of the Liudi za kadrom [People Out of Frame] collection, published from 1995 onwards, which aggregates short autobiographies of former local Sakha (Yakutia) cinema workers.13 The travelling projectionists were also the subjects of the short film, Kiine kelle! / Cinema Has Arrived! (Galina Okhlopkova, 2017), a docu-fiction produced and realised by the National Centre of Audiovisual Heritage of the Peoples of the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic in 2017 to popularise this history.14 It must be emphasised that the focus on this profession comes first and foremost from former cinefication workers turned historians and archivists. Such a heroisation can therefore be viewed as a way to give value to their own action. Kletskin wrote his essay just after taking over as head of the distribution office in Sakha (Yakutia) and used his text to make proposals for solving the problems faced by the cinefication sector (Kletskin 1973: 66-74), whereas Zharaev used his book to promote the Yakutsk Cinema Museum project, then under construction (Zharaev 2011: 255-273). But the critique, however reasonable, does not depreciate the historiographical gesture coming from Sakha (Yakutia) historians. Along with other “things that we would not see on a larger scale” (Amy de la Bretèque 2007: 8), not only are projectionists important: they even constitute vital links in the entire film technical and industrial network.

More often than not, considered a minor part of exhibition machinery in the wider historiography of cinema, projectionists were for more than a century essential to the film apparatus, although often unseen and unacknowledged (Lu 2020: 142-164). Hidden away in the projection booth of fixed theatres, the work of projectionists is concealed from the spectatorial experience to the point of having been completely deleted in classical apparatus theory (Zhou 2016). As one booth projectionist interviewed by the UK Projection Project eloquently puts it: “A good projectionist is never seen, never heard; in other words, you don’t make mistakes” (Brundson 2019: 539).15 On the contrary, travelling projectionists, as integral parts of both the audience and the show, were highly visible, even embodying cinema for the populations they visited. In the Soviet Union, their role was celebrated in the propaganda, particularly in newsreels, where their self-sacrifice (real or imagined) in transporting cinema to the remotest parts of the country was highlighted.16 Such a visual discourse can be found in other socialist contexts, which adopted the Soviet model for the dissemination of cinema (Zhou 2016). The Soviet story of cinefication, therefore, largely presented the image of the projectionist as one of the Soviet heroic figures, concealing the actual difficulties of the profession, which were reflected in an important turnover of the workers (Astachkin and Pozner 2020).

In the local Sakha histories of cinema, this political exploitation of the work of projectionists in the peripheries by the Soviet narrative is re-signified: it is no longer a history of the technological modernity brought by the enlightening centre, but rather a history in which the contribution of local cinema workers is brought to the forefront. In Simondon’s notion of a ‘technical network’, a technical object can only be thought of as a segment of a larger reticular system. But we can extend this logic to the people who are indispensable to operating the technical object: without the projectionists to manipulate the film, projector and the whole technical apparatus, the Soviet film industry could not meet their audience. Something would be missing in the global network, which would then be inefficient. Kletskin (1973: 52), to underline both the projectionists’ crucial necessity to the global infrastructure and their numerically dominant function inside the network, calls them the “foot soldiers of the cinema front”. By positioning them at the centre of the more global system of film distribution, this re-localised history shifts the boundaries of historiographical analytical categories.

The books discussed here are by no means the only volumes published locally on cinema. Zharaev (2011) devotes his last chapter to a list of literature on cinema released by Sakha (Yakutia) publishers. Besides historical accounts, the list, which compiles film catalogues, published archival material, biographies, etc., both in the Russian and Sakha languages, contains 47 entries between 1964 and 2010. And this publishing endeavour, which has been ever-growing since the post-Soviet period, continues to this day with works examining new film production (Sivtsev 2012) or the issue of film heritage preservation (Lobanova 2021). Other local publications narrow the focus even further on more circumscribed regional territories within the Sakha (Yakutia) republic, examining the history of the cinema network in the Lenskii district (Tatyeva and Filimonova 2018) or the cinefication in the Khangalasskii district (Varlamova 2009).

All in all, reading the local cinema histories in Sakha reveals a whole world of little-studied professions and people who are actually indispensable pieces of the system: they are the unknown agents without whom films would not have reached spectators. The local Sakha cinema histories narrate the daily life and environment of a cinema network located far from Moscow and the major production centres. They describe the many operations involved in running the Soviet film industry as a whole, and they make room for the many people who rendered it possible. In both of the historical narratives discussed here, the technical network – the kinoset' – is embodied in local individuals and collectives who are given flesh and blood. Rather than seeing them as “personnel-embodied technology” (Lu 2020: 145), Sakha local histories re-credit the local workers as the human part of a wider technical cinema history. In his book, Zharaev highlights this dimension by devoting one whole chapter to local people working in the film industry entitled “People: the most precious resource in Yakutia’s cinema” (Zharaev 2011: 224-246). The book also contains many group photographs of several local cinema network collectives (kollektiv kinoseti), which show the faces of these human relays in the kinoset’ (Fig. 2).