Nikolai Cherkasov as Alexander Nevsky in the Eisenstein film.

1 The Listener was a BBC publication which, together with articles of topical interest, readers’ letters and its own critics’ reviews of plays, films, musical performances etc., published the text of talks broadcast by the BBC. Churchill’s speech, entitled The Fourth Climacteric (the other three turning-points, according to Churchill, were the fall of France, the success of the Battle of Britain and the passing of the Lease-and-Lend enactment in the USA Congress), appeared in the 26 June 1941 issue; the speech was also issued as a gramophone record (HMV ALP 1556).

2 Orwell, George, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, The Complete Works of George Orwell Vol. 9, ed. Peter Davidson, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1984), 5.

3 Williams, W. E., 28 August 1941, The Listener.

4 Olivier, Laurence, Confessions of an actor: Laurence Olivier, (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982), 162.

Alexander NevskyA play for Radio  and a Prokofiev UK première


At first light on Sunday 22 June 1941, the shortest night of the year, on a front of over a thousand miles, “Operation Barbarossa” – the invasion of the Soviet Union by German forces of some two and a half million men – began. The consequences of this event, together with the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbour later the same year, would ultimately decide the outcome of the Second World War, but all that was in the future. At this juncture of the war there were two developments that Churchill and his War Cabinet in London desired above all else: the USA’s entry into the war on the side of the Allies and for pressure to be taken off Britain by Hitler’s opening a second front. The invasion of the Soviet Union gave Churchill his second wish, but now his immediate problem was how to make the Soviet Union, Britain’s new ally, acceptable to the British public. How could the Soviet Union – the self-proclaimed opponent of the Western capitalist world, hotbed of revolution, disseminator of Communism, invader of Finland and signatory of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 – be made to lose its dubious image in the eyes of the British public? How Eisenstein’s film Alexander Nevsky, in the improbable form of a BBC radio play, and Prokofiev’s music became one part of the campaign to win over the minds and sympathies of the British public at one of the most critical moments of the Second World War, is the subject of this article.
   Significantly, Churchill, for some twenty-five years “the arch-enemy of communism”, set the tone of a new approach to the Soviet Union with a speech broadcast the very evening of the Soviet invasion. Informed of what had happened when he awoke at eight that Sunday morning (there were strict instructions that he was only to be woken in the event of an invasion of England), Churchill immediately declared that he would broadcast to the nation at nine that night. There was no time to consult the Cabinet and while listening to his advisers at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s official country residence, Churchill worked all day at his speech, which was only completed twenty minutes before the broadcast, thus, perhaps deliberately, not allowing his Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden, time to vet it. He portrayed the Russians as “guarding their homes where mothers and wives pray – ah yes, for there are times when all pray – for the safety of their loved ones, the return of the breadwinner, of their champion, or their protector. […] I see advancing on upon all this in hideous onslaught the Nazi war machine, with its […] agents fresh from the cowing and tying down of a dozen countries.” He also cast an eye in the direction of that other potential ally, and concluded: “The Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and peoples in every quarter of the globe”. The speech was printed in full in The Listener.
   The dissemination of information (and misinformation) is a vital part of modern warfare, particularly in the sustaining of civilian and military morale, and from 3 September 1939 when war was declared, the UK media – film, press and radio – had been subject to strict control. The BBC’s output was largely the responsibility of the Ministry of Information, housed in the recently completed University of London’s Senate House in Malet Street, next to the British Museum. The exterior of this building served as inspiration and model for George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth in 1984 – “The Ministry of Truth – Minitrue in Newspeak – was startlingly different from any other object in sight. It was an enormous pyramidical structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred metres into the sky.”
(2) Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Ministry of Information had regarded as a matter of vital importance, the Government’s attitude to the Soviet Union, and consequently how it should be presented to the British public. As elsewhere in the country and in the government, there were divided views – one member of the Ministry thought that the Soviet Union would be able to hold out for six weeks at the most, and Churchill’s own admitted hostility to Communism and fear of how communism might prevail if the Soviet Union triumphed in the war, made it imperative that a consistent approach should be adopted. It was decided that the British public should be given more information about the Soviet Union and its peoples – their ways of life, traditions, history and culture. In the inter-war years “Bolshevism” had terrified many – it was now time for the public’s re-education. The emphasis was to be on Russia’s pre-Revolutionary history and culture and the public’s attention was to be drawn away from less attractive aspects of the Soviet Union’s recent past.
   The principal contribution to official pro-Russian propaganda from the BBC was in the form of drama (Chekhov was a favourite), talks and “features” (a term first used in radio in 1924). Between June and December 1941 there were regular talks on a range of Russian topics, such as Russia’s Polar Empire, Peoples of the USSR, Moscow Alert, Soviet War Posters, Family life in Russia, Pushkin and Onegin and Journey in the Caucasus. By August one of The Listener’s critics could write: “The BBC is making up for lost time in illuminating our ignorance about Russia. […] What is arousing in this country such universal admiration for our redoubtable ally is the quality of the Russian people rather than the nature of their political ideas and institutions, and after long years of indifference and estrangement, we are discovering how little we know of a people whose valour and fortitude are setting a new standard of resistance to the Hun.”
   In 1940, the BBC had approached Belfast-born poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) to write for them, suggesting as subject matter “some aspect of Nazism and its influence or its victims”. MacNeice had been a familiar figure of the London literary scene in the 1930s. On return from the USA, where he had been teaching at Cornell University, he was interviewed by the BBC and, in January 1941, engaged to write scripts that would both contribute to national morale and also appeal to American sympathies. A member of the BBC Features and Drama department commented at the time: “We in this country have not yet been able to secure a first-class poet for such radio programmes”. They found one in MacNeice. Between February and December of his first year at the BBC, MacNeice produced a script a month. A major assignment for the BBC from the Ministry of Information, was for a programme that would convey to the Americans the government’s gratitude for the transfer of fifty American destroyers to the British navy as part of the Lend-Lease agreement, which had been signed in March. It was while MacNeice and his producer were on a nine-day North Atlantic patrol on the re-named HMS Chelsea, to acquire genuine atmosphere for their feature, that the captain picked up on his radio the momentous news that the Soviet Union had been invaded and, as a consequence, was now Britain’s ally.
   Thus, from then on, the “Russian” theme would be an important element in the BBC’s output: MacNeice’s first “Russian” feature was Dr Chekhov, broadcast on 6 September, and repeated later under the slightly mystifying title of Sunbeams in his hat. In the autumn of 1941 the Ministry of Information proposed that the BBC should present a large-scale feature that would celebrate the heroism of Russia’s people in the face of the foreign invader. The producer was to be Dallas Bower, an engineer by profession who had worked in British films and for the BBC, in the engineering section of the infant Television Service (1936-1939). An admirer of the film-director Sergei Eisenstein, he had used the BBC copy of Alexander Nevsky as a model for visual composition for television trainees, and he considered it would make an ideal subject for the BBC’s tribute. Today Bower is best remembered as a co-producer with Laurence Olivier of the classic 1944 film of Shakespeare’s Henry V, in which the Battle of Agincourt, culminating in the charge of the French cavalry, to the accompaniment of William Walton’s music, owes more than a little to the Battle on the Ice sequence in Alexander Nevsky. Olivier himself admitted that “the battle sequence […] was littered with petty larcenies from our Master of All, Eisenstein”.
   First viewed in Russia in December 1938, Eisenstein’s film had received its first London showing at a single matinée performance, arranged by the left-wing Film Society, at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, on 23 April 1939. The anonymous critic of The Times, saw it as “altogether without complications and as straightforward in its approach as a boy’s adventure story”. He accepted its intention to draw modern parallels: “It is, of course, part of the object of the film to compare these savage machines [the Teutonic knights] in the Fascists of today and to contrast them with the human and undisguised armies of Russia. The film has little dialogue – what there is is explained by a spoken English commentary – and is for the most part accompanied by extremely dramatic music, the work of Prokofiev.” As in the case of many war films, its aim was to depict the heroism of soldiers and civilians, to deepen hatred of the enemy by showing the atrocities committed by them, and in this case, to present a semi-mythical leader who, appearing at the crucial moment, will deliver his people from near-certain disaster.