Aleksandr Khanzhonkov (1877–1945) brought to the screen the first feature film in the history of Russian cinema, The Defense of Sevastopol, in 1911. Founder of the largest and most successful film studio in pre-revolutionary Russia, Khanzhonkov also built a chain of luxury movie theaters and launched two magazines to promote his directors and stars, mastering the vertical-integration model used more effectively by Hollywood studios in later decades.
Aleksandr Aleksejevich Khanzhonkov was born August 8, 1877, in Makiivka, a city in the Donetsk Oblast of Ukraine. His family was of Don Cossack ancestry, a distinct group with a 500-year-long history of military service to the Russian and Ukrainian states, and his father was a career officer in service to the Imperial Russian Army. Once he came of age, Khanzhonkov dutifully followed family tradition and entered the officers’ training academy at the Novocherkassk Military School in nearby Rostov Oblast.
Around 1897, Khanzhonkov graduated with the rank of cavalry cornet, a bygone designation equivalent to second lieutenant, and began serving in the First Don Cossack Regiment of the Imperial Russian Army. He was posted to St. Petersburg, the Russian capital, and married Antonina Nikolaevna Batorovskaia, whose family was from Rostov. In the space of a few years around the turn of the 20th century, the couple became parents to a son, Nikola, and daughter, Nina.
Khanzhonkov served in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05 and may have suffered an injury that permitted him the chance to take early retirement. Enamored of the new short films that were captivating audiences in St. Petersburg and Moscow, he invested his 4,000-ruble pension payout in a venture that sold film projection equipment from Europe to theater and exhibitors. He did not make the first Russian short film; that honor went instead to Aleksandr Drankov, a photography-studio owner from St. Petersburg, who finished and screened his film Stenka Razin in October of 1908. This ten-minute film included scenes based on the eponymous Russian folk song. Khanzhonkov followed quickly behind Drankov with Drama v tabore podmoskovnykh tsygan (“Drama in a Gypsy Camp near Moscow” ), which was screened in December of 1908.
The first film studios in Russia were outposts of two major French trailblazers, Pathé and Gaumont. Cultural critics, however, contended that Russian writers, directors, and actors were best suited to adapt and interpret Russian literary classics for the screen. Over the two-year period in 1909–10, Khanzhonkov acquired two smaller film companies, Globus and Kinerus, and began to aggressively recruit talent from a Moscow theater group, the Vvedensky People's House. One of his most significant early hires was Pyotr Chardynin, an established stage actor and director who became one of the first acclaimed filmmakers in the history of Russian cinema history. Vasilii Goncharov was another early pioneer of Russian cinematography who worked for Khanzhonkov, delivering a 1909 short film based on the Pushkin work Mazepa while Chardynin adapted Pushkin's more famous Queen of Spades story for 1910 release. Under Khanzhonkov, Chardynin helmed a screen version of Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls for Khanzhonkov's venture along with Fyodor Dostoevsky classic The Idiot, released respectively in 1909 and 1910.
Khanzhonkov knew the basics of filmmaking and editing in the silent era, but he assigned camera duties and scriptwriting to hirelings. Film historians believe that his wife, Antonina, played a sizable but largely undocumented role in the success of the films made by the studio he set up in 1911, A.A. Khanzhonkov & Company. “She especially brought her artistic influence to the process and worked with enthusiasm, developing scripts with directors and ensuring the correctness of the filming,” Khanzhonkov wrote in his 1937 memoir, as quoted in Doing Women's Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future. “She was indispensable, since I was buried under the commercial and organizational side of the business and had to frequently travel around Russia and abroad,” the director recalled.
Khanzhonkov's tour-de-force and the project that cemented his status in the history of Russian cinema history was Oborona Sevastopolya (The Defense of Sevastopol), the first full-length feature film made at a Russian studio. Co-directed by Khanzhonkov and Goncharov, it set out to resurrect the bloody and divisive Crimean War battle of 1854–55, which served as a turning point for foreign relations between imperial Russia, Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. Khanzhonkov's epic, with its 100-minute running time, was one of the longest movies ever made when it premiered before in at the Livadia Palace, Tsar Nicholas II's summer residence in Yalta.
Many of those who worked under Khanzhonkov in the pre-revolutionary period emerged as the top names in Russian cinema in the first decades of the 20th century. In addition to Chardynin and Goncharov, there was Yevgeni Bauer, who also came from the Vvedenskii troupe and had both acting and set design experience. Bauer pioneered the use of much larger interior camera shots and other techniques later adopted by other filmmakers. Two of his bestknown works for Khanzhonkov's studio were Nemye svideteli (“Silent Witnesses” ), a 1914 film, and The Dying Swan, a ballet-set tale of love and madness first screened in 1917. Khanzhonkov's hires also included animation pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz, the creator of stop-motion animation. Starewicz's landmark masterpiece, Mest’ kinematografičeskogo operatora (“Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman”), was produced for Khanzhonkov's company.
In his essay, Tsivian discussed the artistic links between Bauer, trends in Russian theater, and another chief rival of Khanzhonkov's, Thiemann & Reinhardt. Their 1913 hit The Keys to Happiness was an epic three-hour psychological drama by another talented newcomer, filmmaker Yakov Protazanov, that caused a minor sensation and struck a new tone for Russian cinema. “This film introduced a characteristic pause-pause-pause manner of acting (initially called ‘the braking school,’ later known simply as ‘Russian style’), originally conceived as a cinematic counterpart to Stanislavsky's method used on stage,” Tsivian wrote in The Oxford History of World Cinema. “This acting technique soon evolved into a specific melancholy mood that is particularly pervasive in Yevgeny Bauer's films shot for the Khanzhonkov Company.”
Khanzhonkov and the new rivals Pavel Thiemann and Friedrich Reinhardt engaged in one of the most epic showdowns in pre-revolutionary Russian cinema when their respective studios rushed to complete a screen adaptation of the Tolstoy masterpiece War and Peace. Both versions were released on the same day in February of 1915. During the grim years of World War I, Russians flocked to theaters as a form of escapism, and Khanzhonkov expanded his distribution channels across the formidably expansive Russian Empire. In 1916 alone his Pegas parent company released 93 films—some of them short fillers, not the more expensive features—and he began constructing a warm-weather outpost on the Crimean peninsula in the Black Sea.
In March of 1917, Russian Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate his hereditary throne whose 300-year milestone Khanzhonkov had celebrated just four years earlier in the lavish silent film The Accession of the Romanov Dynasty. A provisional government took power, but worsening economic conditions unleashed the force of the Bolshevik revolutionaries and their workers' and soldiers' committees seven months later. The Bolshevik takeover prompted a counterattack from anti-Communist factions and civil war erupted across Russia. The Crimean Peninsula fell under the control of the White Army, whose mission was to oust the Communists from power.
One of the last films Khanzhonkov's company made was a Bauer-directed gem, Korol Parizha (“The King of Paris”), released in late 1917, and the largest film studios under private ownership were nationalized in early 1920. Khanzhonkov was forced to abandon his company while he and Antonina sailed across the Black Sea to safety in Constantinople, Turkey. They eventually decamped to the spa town of Baden bei Wien in Austria, where Khanzhonkov attempted to set up another film-production studio. Antonina, however, refused to return when Khanzhonkov accepted an invitation to join the new Soviet film industry in 1922. He worked as a production consultant for Rusfilm and then for Goskino, a state-owned enterprise created from his former studio and that of Iosif Ermolev, another successful movie mogul of the pre-revolutionary era. While working for another state-run studio, Proletkino, Khanzhonkov and several others were indicted on corruption charges and bound over for trial in 1926. Khanzhonkov was never tried, due to lack of evidence, but some of the financially reckless acts of other Proletkino employees merited a report from later-discredited New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty in March of 1927.
The incident ended Khanzhonkov's entertainment-mogul career. He lived in penury until the Supreme Executive Committee of the U.S.S.R. approved a petition to grant him a state pension. He spent his remaining years in Yalta, the Black Sea resort, where he authored the 1937 memoir Pervye gody russkoi Kinematografii (“The First Years of the Russian Cinematograf” ). During World War II, when Yalta and the rest of the Crimea was occupied by Nazi German forces, Khanzhonkov was permitted to remain in part of his house. He died there on September 26, 1945. His original Moscow film studio was located on Zhitnaya Street; the Yalta property, which also became part of Goskino, was at 4 Sevastopolskaya Street. One of the opulent movie houses he built, the former Pegas Electric Kino at 3 Triumfalnaya Square in Moscow, is mentioned in Mikhail Bulgakov's acclaimed novel of life in 1920s Moscow, The Master and Margarita.
Antonina Khanzhonkov, the filmmaker's first wife, is believed to have died in Germany in 1922. Khanzhonkov's second wife, film editor Vera Dmitrievna Popova, sat for a 1965 interview catalogued in the Russian state archives and accessible at www.net-film.ru . Film scholar Michelle Leigh, whose essay on Antonina Khanzhonkov appears in Doing Women's Film History, refers to a book written by Khanzhonkov's granddaughter Nina Orlova and to a documentary film about the family's legacy, the title of which translates as Slave of Love.
Gledhill, Christine, and Julia Knight, editors, Doing Women's Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future, University of Illinois Press, 2015.
Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey, The Oxford History of World Cinema, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Youngblood, Denise J., The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908–1918, University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
New York Times, March 24, 1927.❑