The release is timed with the 70th anniversary of the PRC’s founding and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Soviet Union and the young fellow communist government. A news story based on the unique archive footage will be aired on Vesti Nedeli, a news programme, on Rossiya 1 on Sunday, on the eve of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Russia.
The Soviet Union and communist China established diplomatic relations on 2 October, 1949, just a day after the establishment of the People's Republic. The USSR became the first country to recognise the newly-declared nation.
History of the footage
According to Denisov, in 1949, the Soviet Union sent a group of 17 documentary cameramen to China. For several months, they filmed a documentary about the victory of the Chinese Communists over the Kuomintang government.
The footage was shot in colour, which was unprecedented at the time. Afterwards, some of the footage was used in the black-and-white documentary "The Chinese People's Victory" (1950).
Most of the colour film, Denisov says, was not used in the 1950 documentary and, following the 1954 death of Joseph Stalin, was sent to the national archives for storage.
"When we were making a documentary about the youth of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who had been sent to a village to undergo seven years of re-education during the Cultural Revolution, I worked in the Russian State Documentary Film and Photo Archive on footage filmed in China over the years. Back then, I learned that there were boxes containing colour footage, about 200 of them. When I discovered that no one had watched it in full for a long time, and that the positives had faded, I decided to study this material in greater detail," the film director said.
Soon, a great deal of material had been discovered that no one had ever viewed, according to Denisov.
Apart from shooting staged fighting scenes for their movie, a huge amount of other footage was recorded, including views of Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou; as well as newsreels from daily life, showing what people wore, what they ate, how street vendors and peasants lived, and what their homes were like.
"Certainly, it is absolutely fantastic footage because it features China from 70 years ago, which has disappeared, which does not exist anymore," Denisov stressed.
A large portion of the footage is fully dedicated to the proclamation of the People's Republic of China.
"In black and white, some episodes of the footage have become known [to the public], but, as it turned out, there are also episodes that were not aired before. One can see a lot of footage of [PRC founding father] Mao Zedong: how he talks with his colleagues and fellow party members, including informally. There is footage of his speech about the proclamation of the PRC," the film director said.
He noted that the unique footage also featured a city wall that used to surround Beijing. It was dismantled in the mid-1960s during ring road construction. Only three sections of the original city wall have survived to the present day.
In addition, the footage features the arrival of the Soviet Ambassador, Nikolai Roshchin, to Beijing. Next to him is legendary Soviet diplomat Sergei Tikhvinsky, who sent a secret telegram to Moscow on the republic’s proclamation, and received a dispatch on the recognition of the PRC and the establishment of diplomatic relations and handed it to the Chinese leadership on 2 October.
Documentary about China
Viewers will be able to watch the documentary, dubbed the 'The Second Birth of the Celestial Empire' and based on the 200 or so boxes of old colour newsreels, on Rossiya 24 and Rossiya 1. The documentary took some 18 months to make.
"In order to show more material, we made six mini-episodes. They will be aired on Rossiya 24 beginning from 16 September, then, on 29 September, a documentary summarising the most valuable coloured shots will be aired. The series is titled 'The Second Birth of the Celestial Empire', as the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China marks the beginning of the new epoch. Back then, the country became united again following hundreds of years of challenges, turning into a completely new state," the film director said.
According to Denisov, many shots included in the documentary were unknown to the public.
"This is, for sure, a sensational piece. I have not seen anything of its kind throughout my whole career in television. The shots are absolutely unique and of perfect quality. Moreover, they have been filmed by our great cameramen, many of whom went through the Great Patriotic War," Denisov stated.
The film director added that the documentary was a symbolic memorial to Soviet documentary cameramen, and a present to the viewers and the people of China, who will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
The director of the Russian State Archive of Documentary Films and Photographs, Natalia Kalantarova, noted that the original archive footage was not available to the public.
"Only experts were allowed. Those were the renowned directors, of course, whom the whole world knew. They used those materials. But since relations with China were once friendly and then they cooled down, this footage was never released. It was kept with a ‘limited access’ label on it," Kalantarova added.
Now, according to the state archive director, all of the Russian State Archive of Documentary Films and Photographs are open to the public.
The unique colour motion-picture newsreels used to assemble "The Second Birth of the Celestial Empire" will be of great interest, she added.
"I think that these materials will be in demand. Firstly, Alexei Denisov turned to it [footage], he picked it up, revived it. I think that after he makes it public, it will pave the way to it," Kalantarova said.
She also noted that as of yet, nobody has contacted the Russian State Archive of Documentary Films and Photographs regarding the possible transfer of some of the colour newsreels as a gift to China for its 70th anniversary and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
"You know, no. Such things have not been discussed with us. If the government decides to transfer the copies [to China], then the presidential administration or our management will let us know and ask to digitise certain materials for transmission to the Chinese side," the archive director detailed.