Aleksandr Dovjienko

Ilya Repin, Tugboats of the Volga, 1894. (St Petersburg State Russian Museum)


The trajectory of a Ukrainian filmmaker in the USSR

The war in Ukraine in its deadly and bloody course can be seen as a historic burial operation – which begins, in the distant past, with lines of force that disperse and regroup. Fertile plains, geographic space interspersed between the Russian giant and different European powers, Ukraine has always been perceived as a strategic objective of empires and migratory ethnic groups.

The tsars for centuries promoted burial on the basis of serfdom and violence: the Bolsheviks updated the impulse with the ideological overlay of the emancipation of the proletariat. In the midst of the crossfire, a Ukrainian national identity emerged, by leaps and bounds – a worn-out but useful concept that indicates an individual's social condition and that synthesizes a set of patriotic feelings, which make him feel identified and identified. of being an integral part of one or more nations and their cultures.

The current offensive commanded by Vladimir Putin is the XNUMXst century update of this historic movement. The expressed desire to annihilate Ukraine, to eradicate its existence, is not a mere rhetorical exercise or diatribe: it is a buried desire that once again comes to the surface. Embedded in this discourse that flirts with Nazi overtones – the perception of insecurity and living space, the protection of Russian citizens as justifications for invasion and the breach of international law – are centuries of death and looting, mourning and melancholy.

Cinema – and, in particular, the vigorous Soviet cinema – emerges as the privileged instrument for exposing this becoming, captured in the abrupt revolutionary transition. Aleksandr Dovjienko, one of the stars of that firmament – ​​along with Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Viértov – was born in Ukraine, the son of peasants, and became a nerve center in the expression of the jumps and shocks of the troubled Moscow-Kiev relationship. Between 1928 and 1930 he completed three fundamental works of the cinematographic canon, the trilogy The Treasure Mountain, Arsenal e Terra.

accelerated time

In a 1939 autobiographical text, written in an apologetic tone as part of his application for readmission to the Communist Party, Aleksandr Dovjienko wrote: “

In the early 1920's I joined the Borotbist party (Ukrainian communist party). This action, wrong and unnecessary as it was, took place in the following manner. I really wanted to join the Communist Party of Bolsheviks of Ukraine, but I considered myself unworthy to cross its threshold and so I joined the Borotbists, as if I were entering the preparatory class in a gymnasium, which the Borotbist party, of course, never was. The very thought of such a comparison seems preposterous now. In a few weeks, the Borotbist party joined the Party of Bolsheviks, and in that way I became a member of the party.”

These were troubled times, to say the least. In March 1917, following the February Revolution in Russia, Kiev declared its autonomy and elected the Rada, Central Council of Ukraine, dominated by socialist, left-wing parties. In October, the Council denounced the Bolshevik seizure of power and proclaimed the Ukrainian People's Republic, with territory encompassing approximately eight Russian imperial provinces.

Shortly after, the Russians invaded the country and massacred thousands of people in the capital – and the commander sent Lenin a short and thick telegram: “Order has been restored in Kiev”. Then, however, the Ukrainians signed a peace agreement with Germany and Austria-Hungary, whose troops moved into Ukraine in the spring of 1918 and expelled the Bolsheviks, including from Donbass. They ended up leaving at the end of the year, with the war nearing its end, after overthrowing the Council and installing an authoritarian puppet regime. Meanwhile, in Kharkov – the scene of bloody battle in the current war – the Bolsheviks established their own Ukrainian People's Republic, a fiction created to provide a degree of legitimacy for the occupation.

The picture, finally, was confused: Soviets and local allies – the Bolshevik Ukrainian People's Republic – rebel movement of the Whites, Poland, foreign armies, Ukrainian nationalists and anarchists were constantly fighting each other and against everyone else. Kiev changed hands five times in less than a year – cities and regions were cut off from each other by numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world were cut off almost completely.

The anarchists, led by Nestor Makhno, refused to submit to the Bolshevik government and acted as a kind of counterpoint to Ukrainian nationalism, imperialisms and Bolshevism. Faced with this chaos, and obviously involved in the post-revolutionary Civil War, Lenin realized with his usual accuracy that concessions to the Ukrainian state, including in the domains of language and culture, were necessary to maintain control of the country. So strong were Ukrainian aspirations to independence, he reasoned, that they required a degree of autonomy and equal status with Russia within the Soviet Union. In 1922, the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic became a founding member of the Soviet Union.

According to Vladimir Putin, “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks' policy and can be called 'Vladimir Lenin's Ukraine'. He was its creator and architect.” It is a powerful synthesis, a rewriting of history equivalent to the Stalinist versions that reconfigured the past to order the present. In the midst of this melting pot, Aleksandr Dovjienko left Kiev in February 1919 and spent eight months on the run from the Bolsheviks: he was arrested by the Cheka, the secret police, in September. He achieved liberation through the left wing of the borotbists, who had sided with Moscow, and achieved reconciliation.

His political trajectory between 1917 and 1920 is apparently not coherent: but it is what can be expected from the chaos unleashed by the revolution, invasion and war. When circumstances changed, he did what most people did – he switched sides. He survived as best he could in this volatile world: his political choices and anguish in this short and intense interval were decisive for his formation – and also for the aesthetic construction of his films, the relationship with Stalin’s autocratic power and the suffering and deprivation he endured at the end of life.

the treasure mountain

Completed in 1928, Treasure Mountain – Zvenigora, original title – is the fourth film by Aleksandr Dovjienko, but the first artistically undertaken by the director. Extremely ambitious, it aims for nothing less than an age-old synthesis, a bit like Intolerance by Griffith (successfully exhibited in the nascent USSR). Structured in three temporal sections that intersect and collide, Zvenigora it proposes to build parallels of different historical times, without logical signs of cause and effect, disorienting the spectator, on the edge of perplexity. In the present day of diegetic time, the Soviet-Ukrainian revolution of the early 1087th century, a peasant grandfather and his two grandsons are looking for the lost treasure of Zvenígora: the first mention of the treasure dates back to the year XNUMX.

One of the grandsons is seduced by the promise of easy fortune and emigrates to Europe in order to raise funds for the search for the treasure: the other refuses to collaborate and joins the progressive forces of the Bolsheviks. the alternate narrative flashbacks in the time of Roksana, a Ukrainian woman captured by the Crimean Tatars and sold to a Turkish sultan in the XNUMXth century.

Popular and mythologized historical legend, Roksana betrays her husband and frees the captured Cossacks – reproducing the saga of oppressed versus colonial invaders. The genealogy of the Soviet revolution travels through the mythical past, in two chronologically asymmetric stages, and in the end the victory of revolutionary reason is reassured: the nationalist grandson commits suicide, the grandfather is rescued by the militant grandson and boards a train towards the future.

Produced at the Ukrainian studio VUFKU, in Zvenígora folklore becomes political discourse, disjunctively interspersing the October Revolution, real and mythologized events in Ukrainian history, folkloric narratives and Slavic pagan tradition. Aleksandr Dovjienko doubled down: the period still allowed for formal experiments in the field of the arts, as long as they were guided by revolutionary eloquence.

the treasure mountain is an elliptical work, or eclectic, as the author himself said – and was received by an enthusiastic Eisenstein as a “profound national and poetic invention”, an opinion that was not consensual in Russian criticism, starting with the Pravda. In Ukraine, except for those who slammed the linear and easy narratives, it was hailed as the first truly Ukrainian film.

For Gilles Deleuze, Aleksandr Dovjienko (and Zvenigora, in particular) was a filmmaker obsessed with the “tragic relationship between the parts, the whole and the whole. His mastery was to immerse the whole and the parts in a whole that gave them a depth and an extension disproportionate to their own limits. In this incommensurability of time, Soviet ideology could be subtly subverted and the remote past, surprisingly, reinstalled”.


Despite the ambiguous reception, the Party commissioned Aleksandr Dovjienko to make his next film, about the Kiev Arsenal uprising – which took place on January 29, 1918 during the Ukrainian elections for the Constituent Assembly, in which the Bolsheviks were in the minority. His task was to “unmask Ukrainian chauvinist and reactionary nationalism and be the bard of the working class”. What would be a cinematic celebration, however, fragmented into distinct waves of violence, revealing the inconsistencies not only of the imperial forces – Germans – but also of the others involved in the conflict, Ukrainians and Bolsheviks.

The narrative displacements of time and space, more calibrated in relation to his previous work, operate in a rigorously constructed structure, full of allusions and elaborate images: the result is a visually potent texture, of high poetic voltage, but without the glories of the Revolution, on the contrary, introducing an ambiguous moral within the revolutionary project. War and its consequences sacrifice innocents, mothers and children, peasants and proletarians – and liquidate social progress. There is no spectacularization of war, there is a constant flow of war, which affects everything and everyone, from the German soldier who laughs after being gassed to the protagonist Timosh, a worker-soldier who shouts: “I am Ukrainian!” to lock himself in the Kiev arsenal and fight for the advance of the Red Army.

The question of national identity is at the heart of Arsenal: the trajectory of the demobilized soldier merges into the Duma, musical-literary folk genre that emerged in the XNUMXth century in Ukraine, vector of lamentations and sadness, sung by nomadic and blind Cossacks. Right at the beginning, an intertitle announces:

“Oh, there was a mother with three children
there was a war
Motherfuckers don't exist anymore

The lament is updated with contemporary poetic treatment, and the oral tradition of the Duma dissolves into Marxist-inspired aesthetic modernism. Also in the visual composition, Aleksandr Dovjienko uses a treatment that secularizes the iconography of the Byzantine Orthodox Church: Ukrainian critics identify in these language strategies a harmony with the European vanguards and traditional popular forms. The Kiev Armoury Uprising is not the center of the film: it is marginalized and appropriated for other purposes. What matters is the aesthetic construction of scenes and situations, not the narrative arc of revolutionary praise.

The film was understood and accepted by the public and the Party, but not by the writing community, or, we can assume, by the top Ukrainian leadership, lamented the director in his 1939 autobiography: in his country's press, ruthless critics, some old friends , accused him of desecrating the Ukrainian nation and treating nationalists as non-entities and adventurers. A delegation of intellectuals took the trouble to travel to Moscow to ask for the film to be banned – and was not reprimanded by the Party leadership, which hurt the director. Aleksandr Dovjienko was proud of the work he created, while also experiencing bitterness: “I realized that Soviet society was not as splendid as we would like”.


Reconciling the pastoral past of his country's cultural contours with the demands of the Soviet revolutionary present full of urgent demands – this task was undertaken by Aleksandr Dovjienko in the third film of his trilogy. An effort that necessarily started from a problematic juncture, the very origin of the director. Its premise achieved a unique feat: absorbing the liberating energy of the 1917 Revolution, it was thought of as an example of communist propaganda and the centrality of class struggle in social representation; at the same time, underground, it was perceived as a pamphlet of Ukrainian pantheistic spirituality, with dangerously nationalist overtones.

In 1930, Ukraine was hit hard by the collectivization of agriculture, at the same time that Terra was being finalized. The violence against kulaks it was such that a spontaneous revolt took place in Ukrainian territory, forcing the government to briefly suspend the harshest repression measures, which, ironically, allowed the film to be shown. The proposal was daring: to reinstall the conflict of collectivization between generational layers of kulaks, articulating with the poetic procedures developed in previous works. Today there are at least six different versions of the film, the result of the mutilations suffered during its tumultuous reception.

Aleksandr Dovjienko's dialectic was peculiar: in the images in which the characters look at the audience, with the aim of involving them in their struggle and underlining the unity of the family and social class, the source of inspiration was the Orthodox icons, sacred figures painted on wood with a background without perspective – except that, in place of the sacred figure, a potentially revolutionary face appears. The religious aura was adapted to the prevailing materialism in the Party's aesthetic-ideological vision. And not just in close-up portraits of the heroes, villains and victims of the historical process, but also in objects and nature.

Surrounded by a halo produced by a subtle out-of-focus, the images in the foreground – faces, flowers, mechanical objects – acquire a “corporeal meaning” that awakens a sense of touch in the viewer. A combination, certainly, that provokes a strong estrangement effect – cinema-poetry, which is based on the urgency of the historical moment of the socialist revolution to produce an awareness of historical transition and overcoming, while sustaining a fruitful and original subjectivity.

The fertile portions of Soviet lands, as was the case in Ukraine, were a priority for policies linked to the collectivization of agriculture. The end result was dramatic: mass deportation of hundreds of thousands of kulaks to Siberia; hunger motivated by the abrupt drop in agricultural production due to interventionism; together with the executions of the rebellious farmers, these developments would have led to the death of some seven million people, four of them Ukrainians. Managing such a policy in a large and complex country was an arduous task.

At the top of the hierarchy, Stalin himself sent contradictory signals, as in the article he published in the Pravda, in March 1930, warning of the excesses committed throughout the process (the title is revealing in itself, “Vertigo do Sucesso”). For the leader, in February of that year, half of the rural properties of the entire Soviet Union had been collectivized, but the success came with a sordid side – an intoxication in the agents caused by the success of the implementation: “the press should denounce these anti-Leninist sentiments [ …] which only arose because some of our comrades became dizzy with success and for a moment lost clarity of reasoning and sobriety of vision”.

socialist realism

In the new times of authoritarian centralization promoted by Stalin, Aleksandr Dovjienko had no choice but to seek compromise solutions. The password for artistic production in this new era – socialist realism – was endorsed in 1934, at the First Congress of Soviet Writers, chaired by Andrei Zhdanov and Górki. In the opening speech, Zhdanov revealed the proper procedures for politically correct production. What can bourgeois authors write, he said, “what dreams, what a source of inspiration, if workers in capitalist countries are insecure about the future?” Characteristics of this decadent culture are "the orgies of mysticism and superstition, and the passion for pornography." Literature vainly tries to hide this decay, insisting "that nothing has happened and that all is well in the kingdom of Denmark".

According to Andrei Zhdanov, Comrade Stalin described Soviet writers "as engineers of the human soul". This means that the duty of artists was knowledge of life and the ability to truly depict it in works of art, “not in a scholastic way or simply as objective reality, but reality in its revolutionary development”. The duty of writers also implied the ideological remodeling and education of workers in the spirit of socialism. Such a method in belles letters and literary criticism is what we call socialist realism”.

For an author like Aleksandr Dovjienko, surviving in this environment, physically and intellectually, meant deriving his language towards a realistic treatment alien to his principles. Terra really Ivan, the feature film he made in 1932, were the target of harsh criticism: His first sound production, Ivan, was branded by the Party Education Commissar in Ukraine as fascist. The title character leaves the countryside to become a worker in the construction of a hydroelectric plant, where he dies in an accident. Its technical learning and political awareness unfold simultaneously against the backdrop of the five-year plan. Fearful, the filmmaker moved to Moscow and wrote a letter to Stalin requesting “advice”, that is, protection.

He was attended to and received at the Kremlin on April 14, 1934 for a long 70 minutes. The script he had just completed, “Aerogrado”, was the main theme. The director himself described the meeting: “The great Stalin received me that day, in the Kremlin as a kind teacher, and introduced me, excited and happy, to comrades Molotov, Voroshilov, Kirov: he heard my reading, gave his approval and wished me me success in my work. When I saw him, I felt that the world had changed for me. With his paternal solicitude, Comrade Stalin lifted from my shoulders the burden of many years when I felt creatively, and therefore politically, inferior, a feeling instilled in me by the environment in which I circulated.”

airgrade it is a fictitious city with a strategic airfield and of vital interest to Russia: it is an outpost in Eastern Siberia under threat of attack by the Japanese. Hunter Stepan Glushak, Bolshevik veteran of the civil war, fights with the help of his neighbors to defend his forest from Japanese infiltrators, coming from the Chinese Manchuria occupied shortly before. The group defeats the invaders and clears the way for the construction of the modern city of Airgrad. Stalin liked the project and suggested, with the filmmaker, what would be the best location for the hypothetical city, in front of the map on the wall of his private office.

Aleksandr Dovjienko was moved by the attention he received: in February 1935, he received the Order of Lenin, on the 15th anniversary of Soviet cinema, when he gave a warm speech about Stalin. He was, of course, aware of the arrests and purges that intensified in the 1930s, particularly those that took place in Ukraine. Friends and collaborators, such as Danylo Demutsky, his talented and beloved director of photography, were among the victims.

According to informants from the NKVD, the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs which controlled security and the secret service, the director would have privately commented that where there is smoke there is fire, but the situation has become very complex, and the industrialization of the USSR would be now the most important political priority. airgrade it became a successful film, within the parameters of socialist realism, and politically rehabilitated Aleksandr Dovjienko. Stepan Shahaida, the actor who portrayed the hunter Glushak, however, was not so lucky: he was arrested and executed in 1938.

In search of the positive hero

Mykola Shchors was a Ukrainian communist who served as a commander in the Red Army during the Civil War: between 1918 and 1919 he fought against the newly established Ukrainian People's Republic. He was killed after the evacuation of Kiev in 1919, aged 24. Before 1935, few people knew who Mykola Shchors was, who played a minor role in the conflict. Stalin mentioned the name in his remarks on Soviet cinematography on the occasion of the 15th anniversary, and Shchors became overnight “one of the organizers and commanders of the first units of the Red Army in Ukraine… counter-revolution”.

In the rewriting of history, which mobilized historians and journalists, including filmmakers, Aleksandr Dovjienko was invited to write the script and produce the film, Shchors: the idea was to reproduce the success of chapaiev, directed by Serguei Vassíliev and Georgy Vassíliev (no relation), which narrated the final phase of the life of Vassili Ivánoviych Tchapaiev – non-commissioned commander of the Red Army, of humble peasant origin, celebrated for his charisma and heroic deeds in the war against the Whites . On November 21, 1934, the Pravda published for the first time an editorial devoted entirely to Soviet cinema, entitled “The Whole Country Is Watching chapaiev".

The commission fell heavily on the director's shoulders. The contradictions became sharper: as if the distorted version of what happened in Ukraine in those revolutionary years were not enough, the film's military consultant, Ivan Dubovy, who became a friend of Aleksandr Dovjienko, was arrested and executed in 1938, having previously confessed that he had killed Shchors to take his place as divisional commander. Everyone knew how such confessions were obtained in those dark years. Doubts piled up: how to represent Dubovy on the screen?

And Stalin, who began his triumphant rise in cinema with Lenin in October, performed by Mikhail Romm in 1937? The expectation was that all revolutionary commanders, in any film, should mention the Secretary-General's revolutionary leadership, whether it was true or simple dramatic license. There was no lack of reasons to deepen the filmmaker's disquiet. Between February 27, 1935, when the project was first presented to Aleksandr Dovjienko, until March 1939, when Shchors was released, the Soviet leader met the director several times, each time more demanding and less cordial. Encounters that could happen late at night – or not happen, after hours of waiting. In one of them, Beria allegedly accused Aleksandr Dovjienko of being an agent of a nationalist conspiracy.

Ivan Dubovy – who in the original script took over command after Shchors' death in battle – ended up excluded from the film, and Shchors ended his days in an undefined, ethereal circumstance, just like Tchapaiev. Stalin was also absent, and an alleged conversation between the film's hero and Lenin is barely mentioned. On the other hand, Shchors pontificates as a solidly determined protagonist, convinced of Leninist ideals. Like the film about Tchapaiev, who ultimately benefited from Shchors' heroic exaltation was none other than Stalin himself, at that point in the process of overcoming the internal purgatory impulses that shook the USSR and busy negotiating the non-aggression pact. with Hitler.

The film was successful with the public, and Aleksandr Dovjienko was granted permission to reside in the Ukrainian capital and take over the artistic direction of the Kiev studio. He was awarded the Stalin Prize, first class, in 1941 and elected to the Kiev City Council.

ukraine in flames

On June 22, 1941, Germany broke the pact and invaded the USSR. Stalin did not seem to believe that the Nazis would open a new front on such a scale. His initial reaction bordered on a nervous breakdown: he spent three days isolated in dacha and he only spoke on the radio on July 3, calling the nation to the Patriotic War against the invader. In the first phase of the war, when the Germans had the initiative, what historians refer to as spontaneous de-Stalinization took place, which encouraged relative support for non-Russian identities, including Ukrainian, as part of resistance to the invader.

The Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, in February 1943, reversed this situation – and policies regarding nationalities returned with redoubled force. Aleksandr Dovjienko, committed to producing documentaries that mobilized the war effort, was a victim of this change of course. In August 1943 one of his scripts, “Ukraine in Flames”, was submitted to the Central Committee – and the presentation contained: “Cinematic epic devoted to the suffering of Ukraine under Nazi oppression and the struggle of the Ukrainian people for the honor and freedom of the Soviet people ”.

The text described the daily tragedy of a kolkhoz family during the German occupation, as the local resistance fought the invader and the Red Army was unable to stop the German advance. At the end of November, the Central Committee decided to veto the production of the film.

In his diaries, Aleksandr Dovjienko tells that he learned from third parties of Stalin's displeasure with the script. A few months later, Nikita Khrushchev, then in charge of the Communist Party in Ukraine, was one of the signatories of a resolution condemning the director for serious political errors, excluding him from the committees he was part of, the newspaper Ukraine and the position of artistic director of the Kiev studio. Aleksandr Dovjienko was accused of “narrow and mediocre nationalism”, implying that only Ukrainians were fighting the Germans – and therefore stimulating patriotic feelings in Ukraine.

On January 30, 1944, Stalin summoned the director, Khrushchev, members of the Politburo and Ukrainian personalities for a lecture: the script contained ideas that “tried to revise Leninism, it was against our party, against Soviet power, against kolkhozians and against our nationality policies.” Aleksandr Dovjienko not only opposed the class struggle, he opposed the Party's policy of liquidating the kulaks as a class: he did not finally realize that the struggle against the Germans was also a class war, a conflict between oppressors and oppressed. There were still accusations of falsehoods about the Red Army and the Party leaders, described, according to Stalin, as “careerists, selfish and stupid people, isolated from society”.

The decision to veto “Ukraine in Flames” came shortly after the exhibition, in October 1943, with good reception in the press, of The battle for our Soviet Ukraine, scripted and artistically supervised by Aleksandr Dovjienko – based on newsreel material, including those of German origin, captured by the Soviets.

Despite the frustration, in 1945 the director signed on to direct the documentary Victory on the Right Bank of Ukraine, co-authored with Iúlia Solntseva and narrated by Aleksandr Dovjienko himself, also made with images captured by current affairs cameramen. The battle for our Soviet Ukraine was shown in the United States in 1944, with the title that would be the vetoed documentary, “Ukraine in Flames”. A newspaper critic New York Times noted that while the battle scenes bore a “harrowing resemblance” to the usual newsreel shots, “it is the faces of civilians, old and young, shot with sadness, defiance and courage, that make “Ukraine in Fire” a document vital".


Completely isolated, Aleksandr Dovjienko spent the remaining nine years of Stalin's life trying to rationalize his grotesque misfortune. In his diaries, he acknowledged errors in the script for “Ukraine in Fire”, but never once doubted his own honesty. Being troubled by the fate of his fellow Ukrainians did not make him a radical nationalist: taking pride in his Ukrainian identity was not antithetical to communist internationalism. Shaken once more, he wrote, in the privacy of his diaries: “No more suffering and regret for my sins against Stalin. I must get down to business and prove to him with my work that I am a Soviet artist … and not an odious talent with a “limited ideology”. I must pull myself together, [wrap] my heart, my will and my nerves in steel and… create a script and a film worthy of our great role in a great historical era.”

Aleksandr Dovjienko also directed a few films and dedicated himself to teaching cinema. Against his will, he continued to reside in Moscow – and barred from returning to Ukraine. He passed away in 1956.

*João Lanari Bo Professor of Cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasilia (UnB).


Adapting to the Stalinist Order: Alexander Dovzhenko's Psychological Journey, 1933–1953, George O. Liber, EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES, Vol. 53, No. 7, 2001

Journal of Ukrainia Studies, vol. 19, No. 1, 1994, Special Issue: The Cinema of Alexander Dovzhenko

Laurent, Natasha. L'Oeil du Kremlin: cinema and censorship in the USSR sous Staline, Privat, 2000.

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