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Guide to the Herman Axelbank Motion Picture Film Collection1896-1977
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Access Points
  • Background
  • Scope of the Collection
  • How to Use the Guide

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Herman Axelbank motion picture film collection,
    Date (inclusive): 1896-1977
    Collection Number: 79073
    Creator: Axelbank, Herman, 1900-1979
    Collection Size: 271 motion picture film reels, 1 oversize box. (27 linear feet)
    Repository: Hoover Institution Archives
    Stanford, California 94305-6010
    Abstract: Depicts major events in the twentieth-century Russian history, including the Russian Revolution and World Wars I and II, the tsarist family and court, communist political and military leaders, and scenes of economic, social, and cultural activities in the Soviet Union.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    Closed in part. Reels 1-30, 32-36, 40-42, 47, 62, 90, 93, 97, 99, and 118-123 are open for research. All others are eligible to be opened after copies are made.
    The Hoover Institution Archives only allows access to copies of audiovisual items. To listen to sound recordings or to view videos or films during your visit, please contact the Archives at least two working days before your arrival. We will then advise you of the accessibility of the material you wish to see or hear. Please note that not all audiovisual material is immediately accessible.

    Publication Rights

    For copyright status, please contact the Hoover Institution Archives.

    Preferred Citation

    [Footage identification], Herman Axelbank motion picture film collection, [Reel number], Hoover Institution Archives.


    The Hoover Institution acquired the Herman Axelbank motion picture film collection in 1979 from the family of the late Herman Axelbank. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Alexander Kulakoff, who is a general partner of the Harrington-Kulakoff Development Company, Palo Alto, California, donated funds to describe, index, and produce preservation and use copies of the first 28 reels of the collection. Without his financial assistance, the Herman Axelbank collection could not now be made available for research by the scholarly community. I am pleased to acknowledge his generous support and interest.

    Milorad M. Drachkovitch

    Director of Archives and Senior Fellow

    January 1983

    Access Points

    World War, 1914-1918.
    World War, 1914-1918--Pictorial works.
    World War, 1914-1918--Russia.
    World War, 1939-1945.
    World War, 1939-1945--Pictorial works.
    World War, 1939-1945--Soviet Union.
    Soviet Union.
    Soviet Union--History--Pictorial works.
    Soviet Union--History--Revolution, 1917-1921--Pictorial works.
    Soviet Union--Pictorial works.
    Video tapes.


    Herman Axelbank (1900-1979) devoted his energies for over fifty years to compiling a motion picture film chronicle of the last years of Imperial Russia, the Russian revolutions, and the new government which emerged from the upheaval. He was born in the village of Novo-Konstantinov, in the Russian Empire, on May 30, 1900; his family moved to New York in 1909. Fascinated with film-making from childhood, Axelbank got a job, in 1916, as an office boy for Samuel Goldfish (later Goldwyn) at Goldwyn Pictures on Forty-second Street. The news of the February Revolution in Russia captured the young Axelbank's imagination. "Wish I could take moving pictures over there; we don't have any of our own [American Revolution] in 1775," he remembered remarking to a co-worker.
    At about that time Axelbank met a cameraman whose assignments took him to Eastern Europe. Axelbank commissioned him to film Lenin and Trotsky, pawning his possessions and borrowing from friends in order to pay the cameraman's advance. In 1922 the cameraman returned with film of such events as the Kronstadt Mutiny of March 1921 and the Trial of the Socialist Revolutionaries of 1922. With such a beginning, Axelbank's film archive was already noteworthy; in the 1920's the Pathe, International, and Fox news services, and even the Soviet government, purchased film from him.
    Axelbank soon acquired film taken on the German, Austrian, and Turkish fronts during World War I, film of the Tsar and his family, and of scenes from pre-revolutionary Russia, including provincial towns as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg. In most instances the names of the cameramen and other circumstances surrounding the filming have not been preserved. Surviving bills of sale from the 1920's show that Jawitz Pictures Corporation sold Axelbank film footage of the Provisional Government (cameramen: Darovsky, Himmel, Rizhok, Borisof, Slonim, and Dzhakel), Petrograd and Moscow during the Russian Revolution (cameraman: Thompson), and the Lenin funeral; Noxall Film Company sold him footage on Tsarist Russia, Denikin, and Kolchak (cameramen: Risemann, Kubelik, and Hoffman); and Robitschek, Ehrlich and Company sold him footage of the city of Moscow. Other records were destroyed in a 1959 fire at the facility where Axelbank stored his flammable nitrate film. Many other acquisitions of the 1930's through the 1950's were accomplished by means of verbal agreements.
    In 1918 Axelbank attended a lecture by John Reed and later did some filming for the Friends of Soviet Russia, but he never became deeply involved in politics. His primary interest remained his historical film project.
    In 1921 Axelbank assisted the Friends of Soviet Russia in making the film "Russia Through the Shadows," which was shown to raise funds for Soviet famine relief. In 1922 he made the three-reel documentary "With the Movie Camera Through the Bolshevik Revolution" using the footage he had already collected. Meanwhile, he continued collecting more film from cameramen and emigres, sometimes making trips to Europe and concluding the deals at some risk to himself. In 1924 he made "The Truth About Russia." He regarded these feature films as the means to raise money for his collecting efforts and as the groundwork for his film "Tsar to Lenin."
    In December 1928 Axelbank contacted Max Eastman, who had published "Lenin's Testament" in the West, and asked for his assistance in the editing and narration of "Tsar to Lenin." The project took about one year. (One of the narrators whose voice appears in the early reels of the Herman Axelbank Film Collection is Eastman.) During this period Eastman went to Prinkipo Island to film Trotsky and his family in exile there. "Tsar to Lenin" premiered at the Filmarte Theater in New York on March 6, 1937. Its presentation of the role of Trotsky and the Old Bolsheviks in the Revolution aroused the ire of American Communists loyal to Stalin's line. They picketed the theaters in which the film was shown.
    Through the years Axelbank attributed events such as his being followed, thefts of film, and the 1959 fire in the facility where his film was stored to continuing Soviet displeasure with his film collecting efforts. Ironically, in the 1960's and early 1970's representatives of the Soviet Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Marxism-Leninism showed interest in buying the early reels of Axelbank's film collection. In all probability they were interested in filling in gaps in their own film records of Trotsky and other revolutionaries whom Stalin had eliminated from the Soviet film archives as well as from life.

    Scope of the Collection

    The Herman Axelbank Film Collection consists of 266 reels containing over 250,000 feet of film, primarily newsreel and documentary footage. The editing of the film and its chronological arrangement are the work of Axelbank. As attested by the desire of the Soviet representatives to purchase the first forty-four reels of the collection, the footage on these reels, taken during the period from about 1901 to 1937, is extremely rare; some portions are unique. Included are the Tsar, his family, and associates in moments of relaxation as well as at official ceremonies; the Russian revolutions of 1917; the Civil War, with especially good coverage of Siberia and the Far East; and revolutionary and governmental leaders of the Tsarist, Provisional Government, and Soviet periods. There is also extensive coverage of World War II. Ceremonial events, such as May Day and October Revolution anniversaries and funerals of prominent figures, including Tolstoy and Lenin, are well represented. Coverage extends into the 1970's. Some Soviet feature films, such as "Kombrig Ivanov," made in 1923, are also included. According to Dr. Raymond Fielding, a leading film expert, the Axelbank Collection is "undoubtedly the largest and most valuable film collection devoted to the subject of revolutionary and pre-revolutionary Russia in the Western hemisphere, and probably in the Western world."

    How to Use the Guide

    The original film held by the Hoover Institution Archives is on 35 mm positive stock; Axelbank had the earlier reels converted from nitrate to acetate-base (safety) stock.
    To facilitate description of the contents of the film, each reel is divided into segments, and the segments into feet.
    The type of film is described according to the following alphabetic code.
    1. Actuality: incorporating two classes of "real life" film
      1. "Live" film of an event either totally unplanned or at least planned primarily for purposes other than film-making
      2. Factual material - demonstrations of equipment, interviews, speeches, comment - specially filmed for inclusion in instructional films, news reports, etc.
    2. Dramatisation: film retaining an essentially documentary approach to its subject without meeting either of the "Actuality" definitions
    3. Fiction
    4. Illustrative material: maps, graphs, diagrams, reproductions of photographs and illustrations from books
    (Adapted from Imperial War Museum. Department of Information Retrieval. Film Cataloguing Handbook, by Roger B. N. Smither with David J. Penn. London, 1976)
    The film is black and white unless the word "color" appears at the bottom of the segment description in the Guide.