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Unique Pre-Soviet Film Collection Heads Home To Russia

A still from the film "Stenka Razin," which premiered in 1908
A still from the film "Stenka Razin," which premiered in 1908
Russian cinema lovers say it is nothing short of a miracle.

A vast collection of pre-Soviet films is about to be returned to Russia after an unlikely, century-long journey home.

The 350 silent films, all shot in Imperial Russia, were formally donated to the St. Petersburg-based Lenfilm studio by an American businessman earlier this month.

They are expected to be handed over to Lenfilm by the end of the year in a move that Russian film buffs hope will yield some rare cinematic gems.

"This is sensational, it brings back to life a whole slice of our cinematographic history," Naum Kleiman, a film historian and the director of Moscow's Cinema Museum, says. "This is a very important event -- 300 pre-revolutionary films, it's like discovering an entire continent."

Steven Krams, the president of the Florida-based cinema technology firm Magna-Tech Electronic, says the collection used to belong to a Russian emigrant named Samuel Kipnis.

Kipnis, a passionate film collector, fled Russia during the civil war that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and settled in Miami, where he occasionally screened the movies to small audiences of Russian emigrants at a local theater.

After his death in 1982, the films were transferred to the University of Florida's film library.

Krams says he came into possession of the films, shot on highly flammable pellicles, after the university was hit by a blaze.

"They had a fire, the films were deemed to be dangerous to be kept and they were going to be discarded," Krams says, "so I rescued them; it was back in the 1980s."

The films have since been in Krams' safekeeping, first at a warehouse in Miami and then in Atlanta.

It was a recent business trip to Russia that persuaded Krams to donate them to Lenfilm.

"I had been at a convention and took a tour of Lenfilm studios -- it just struck me this might be a nice place to find a home for them," Krams says. "I'm happy to be able to make some kind of contribution, I hope it's appreciated and I hope that it's something that proves to be useful somehow."

To say that Krams' gift is appreciated in Russia would be an understatement.

Between 70 and 80 percent of films produced in Imperial Russia have disappeared, either lost or destroyed by Soviet authorities as bourgeois art, and the collection is a potential treasure trove.

"Three hundred and fifty films form a huge collection for those times," says Andrei Sigle, who oversees Lenfilm's production arm. "Back then, film production was extremely limited, so it represents an important period in the history of our cinema."

The first silent films in Russia were shown in the late 19th century, usually at fairs, rented auditoriums, or drama theaters.

Russia's first cinema opened in St. Petersburg in 1896.

European and American films initially dominated the market, but Russian cinema quickly began to make great strides.

The first Russian narrative film, a 10-minute short titled "Stenka Rasin" (below) was shot in 1908.

Russia's first feature-length silent film was the 100-minute "Oborona Sevastopolya" ("The Defense of Sevastopol"), a historical drama about the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War that premiered in 1911 in Tsar Nicholas II's palace in Yalta.

The collection put together by Kipnis is likely to shed new light on the early days of Russian cinema, which laid the foundations for the celebrated Soviet and Russian movie industry.

"It is the source," Kleiman says. "We now regard early cinema not only as primitive but also as the foundation of everything that took place afterward. So this has huge significance."

Krams has never examined the films, fueling hopes the collection could yield works that are currently thought lost beyond return.

Those include films featuring cult actress Vera Kholodnaya. Although Kholodnaya is believed to have starred in at least 50 films during her short life, only a handful of them are known to have survived to this day.

Cinephiles are also hoping for lost works by pioneering film directors such as Aleksandr Khanzhonkov, who co-directed "Oborona Sevastopolya," as well as those of Aleksandr Drankov, Pyotr Chardynin, or Vasily Goncharov.

Lenfilm, however, will not be able to single-handedly restore and digitize the films donated by Krams.

Despite its prestigious reputation as Russia's second-largest film studio, it has been saddled with debts in recent years and is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Lenfilm says it has asked Gosfilmofond, Russia's state film archive, for help in making the century-old collection accessible to the public.

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