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Cinema of the Soviet Union


Cinema of the Soviet Union

The cinema of the Soviet Union, not to be confused with "Ukrainian SSR, and, to a lesser degree, Lithuanian SSR, Byelorussian SSR and Moldavian SSR. At the same time, the nation's film industry, which was fully nationalized throughout most of the country's history, was guided by philosophies and laws propounded by the monopoly Soviet Communist Party which introduced a new view on the cinema, socialist realism, which was different from the one before or after the existence of the Soviet Union.

Historical outline

The new state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, officially came into existence on December 30, 1922. From the outset, this new republic held that film would be the most ideal propaganda tool for the Soviet Union because of its widespread popularity among the established citizenry of the new land; Vladimir Lenin, in fact, declared it the most important medium for educating the masses in the ways, means and successes of Communism, a position which was later echoed by Joseph Stalin. Meanwhile, between World War I and the Russian Revolution, the film industry, and the infrastructure needed to support it (e.g., electrical power) had deteriorated to the point of unworkability. The majority of cinemas had been in the corridor between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and most were out of commission. Additionally, many of the performers, producers, directors and other artists of pre-Soviet Russia, had fled the country or were moving ahead of the Red Army forces as they pushed further and further south into what remained of the Russian Empire. Furthermore, the new government did not have the funds to spare for an extensive reworking of the system of filmmaking. Thus, they initially opted for project approval and censorship guidelines while leaving what remained of the industry in private hands. As this amounted mostly to cinema houses, the first Soviet films consisted of recycled films of the Russian Empire and its imports, to the extent that these were not determined to be offensive to the new Soviet ideology. Ironically, the first new film released in Soviet Russia did not exactly fit this mold: this was Father Sergius, a religious film completed during the last weeks of the Russian Empire but not yet exhibited. It appeared on Soviet screens in 1918.

Beyond this, the government was principally able to fund only short, educational films, the most notorious of which were the agitki - propaganda films intended to "agitate", or energize and enthuse, the masses to participate fully in approved Soviet activities, and deal effectively with those who remained in opposition to the new order. These short (often one small reel) films were often simple visual aids and accompaniments to live lectures and speeches, and were carried from city to city, town to town, village to village (along with the lecturers) to educate the entire countryside, even reaching areas where film had not been previously seen.

Newsreels, as documentaries, were the other major form of earliest Soviet cinema. Dziga Vertov's newsreel series Kino-Pravda, the best known of these, lasted from 1922 to 1925 and had a propagandistic bent; Vertov used the series to promote socialist realism but also to experiment with cinema.

Still, in 1921, there was not one functioning cinema in Moscow until late in the year. Its rapid success, utilizing old Russian and imported feature films, jumpstarted the industry significantly, especially insofar as the government did not heavily or directly regulate what was shown, and by 1923 an additional 89 cinemas had opened. Despite extremely high taxation of ticket sales and film rentals, there was an incentive for individuals to begin making feature film product again - there were places to show the films - albeit they now had to conform their subject matter to a Soviet world view. In this context, the directors and writers who had remained in support of the objectives of Communism assumed quick dominance in the industry, as they were the ones who could most reliably and convincingly turn out films that would satisfy government censors.
Screenshot from Grigori Chukhrai's Ballad of a Soldier (1959).
New talent joined the experienced remainder, and an artistic community assembled with the goal of defining "Soviet film" as something distinct and better from the output of "decadent capitalism". The leaders of this community viewed it essential to this goal to be free to experiment with the entire nature of film, a position which would result in several well-known creative efforts but would also result in an unforeseen counter-reaction by the increasingly solidifying administrators of the government-controlled society.

Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin was released to wide acclaim in 1925; the film was heavily fictionalized and also propagandistic, giving the party line about the virtues of the proletariat. The party leaders soon found it difficult to control directors' expression, partly because definitive understanding of a film's meaning was elusive.

One of the most popular films released in the 1930s was Circus. Immediately after the end of the Second World War, color movies such as The Stone Flower (1946), Ballad of Siberia (1947), and The Kuban Kossacks (1949) were released. Other notable films from the 1940s include Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Soviet Cinema produced Ballad of a Soldier, which won the 1961 BAFTA Award for Best Film, and The Cranes Are Flying.

Height is considered to be one of the best films of the 1950s (it also became the foundation of the bard movement).

In the 1980s there was a diversification of subject matter. Touchy issues could now be discussed openly. The results were films like science fiction movie Kin-dza-dza!.


After the death of Stalin, Soviet filmmakers were given a free hand to film what they believed audiences wanted to see in their film's characters and stories. However, the industry remained a part of the government and any material that was found politically offensive or undesirable, was either removed, edited, reshot, or shelved. In rare cases the filmmakers managed to convince the government of the innocence of their work and the film was released. The definition of "socialist realism" was liberalized to allow development of more human characters, but communism still had to remain uncriticized in its fundamentals. Additionally, the degree of relative artistic liberality was changed from administration to administration.

Oddities created by censorship include:

  • The first chapter of the epic film Liberation (Освобождение) was filmed 20 years after the subsequent three parts. The film's director, Yuri Ozerov, had refused to minimize the errors of the Soviet High Command during the first year of the war, and instead waited for a time when he could film this portion accurately.
  • Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Part II was completed in 1945 but was not released until 1958; 5 years after Stalin's death.
  • Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky was censored before the German invasion of the Soviet Union due to its depiction of a strong Russian leader defying an invading army of German Teutonic Knights. After the invasion, the film was released for propaganda purposes to considerable critical acclaim.

Revolution and Civil War

The first Soviet Russian state film organization, the Film Subdepartment of the People's Commissariat of Education, was established in 1917. The work of the nationalized motion-picture studios was administered by the All-Russian Photography and Motion Picture Department, which was recognized in 1923 into Goskino, which in 1926 became Sovkino. The world's first state-filmmaking school, the First State School of Cinematography, was established in Moscow in 1919.

During the Russian Civil War, agitation trains and ships visited soldiers, workers, and peasants. Lectures, reports, and political meetings were accompanied by newsreels about events at the various fronts.


In the 1920s, the documentary film group headed by Vertov blazed the trail from the conventional newsreel to the "image centered publicistic film", which became the basis of the Soviet film documentary. Typical of the 1920s were the topical news serial Kino-Pravda and the film Forward, Soviet! by Vertov, whose experiments and achievements in documentary films influenced the development of Russian and world cinematography. Other important films of the 1920s were Shub's historical-revolutionary films such as The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty. The film Hydropeat by Yu. Zheliabuzhsky marked the beginning of popular science films. Feature-length agitation films in 1918-21 were important in the development of the film industry. Innovation in Russian filmmaking was expressed particularly in the work of Eisenstein. The Battleship Potemkin was noteworthy for its innovative montage and metaphorical quality of its film language. It won world acclaim. Eisenstein developed concepts of the revolutionary epic in the film October. Also noteworthy was Pudovkin's adaptation of Gorky's Mother to the screen in 1926. Pudovkin developed themes of revolutionary history in the film The End of St. Petersburg (1927). Other noteworthy silent films were films dealing with contemporary life such as Barnet's The House on Trubnaya. The films of Protazanov were devoted to the revolutionary struggle and the shaping of a new way of life, such as Don Diego and Pelageia (1928). Ukrainian director Dovzhenko was noteworthy for the historical-revolutionary epic Zvenigora, the Arsenal and the poetic film Earth.[1]


In the early 1930s, Russian filmmakers applied Vladimir Lenin such as Mikhail Romm's Lenin in October and Lenin in 1918. The life of Russian society and everyday people were depicted in films such as Courageous Seven and City of Youth by Sergei Gerasimov. The comedies of Grigori Aleksandrov such as Circus, Volga-Volga, and The Shining Path as well as The Rich Bride by Ivan Pyryev and By the Bluest of Seas by Boris Barnet focus on the psychology of the common person, enthusiasm for work and intolerance for remnants of the past. Many films focused on national heroes, including Alexander Nevsky by Sergei Eisenstein, Minin and Pozharsky by Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Bogdan Khmelnitsky by Igor Savchenko. There were adaptations of literary classics, particularly Mark Donskoy's trilogy of films about Maxim Gorky: The Childhood of Maxim Gorky, My Apprenticeship, and My Universities.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s the Stalinist wing of the Communist Party consolidated its authority and set about transforming the Soviet Union on both the economic and cultural fronts. The economy moved from the market-based New Economic Policy (NEP) to a system of central planning. The new leadership declared a "cultural revolution" in which the party would exercise control over cultural affairs, including artistic expression. Cinema existed at the intersection of art and economics; so it was destined to be thoroughly reorganized in this episode of economic and cultural transformation.

To implement central planning in cinema, the new bureaucratic entity Soyuzkino was created in 1930. All the hitherto autonomous studios and distribution networks that had grown up under NEP's market would now be coordinated in their activities by this planning agency. Soyuzkino's authority also extended to the studios of the national republics such as VUFKU, which had enjoyed more independence during the 1920s. Soyuzkino consisted of an extended bureaucracy of economic planners and policy specialists who were charged to formulate annual production plans for the studios and then to monitor the distribution and exhibition of finished films.

With central planning came more centralized authority over creative decision making. Script development became a long, torturous process under this bureaucratic system, with various committees reviewing drafts and calling for cuts or revisions. In the 1930s censorship became more exacting with each passing year. Feature film projects would drag out for months or years and might be terminated at any point.

Alexander Dovzhenko drew from Ukrainian folk culture in such films as Zemlya (Earth, 1930) along the way because of the capricious decision of one or another censoring committee. Such redundant oversight slowed down production and inhibited creativity. Although central planning was supposed to increase the film industry's productivity, production levels declined steadily through the 1930s. The industry was releasing over one-hundred features annually at the end of the NEP period, but that figure fell to seventy by 1932 and to forty-five by 1934. It never again reached triple digits during the remainder of the Stalin era. Veteran directors experienced precipitous career declines under this system of bureaucratic control; whereas Eisenstein was able to make four features between 1924 and 1929, he completed only one film, Alexander Nevsky (1938) during the entire decade of the 1930s. His planned adaptation of the Ivan Turgenev story Bezhin lug (Bezhin Meadow, 1935–1937) was halted during production in 1937 and officially banned, one of many promising film projects that fell victim to an exacting censorship system.

Meanwhile, the USSR cut off its film contacts with the West. It stopped importing films after 1931 out of concern that foreign films exposed audiences to capitalist ideology. The industry also freed itself from dependency on foreign technologies. During its industrialization effort of the early 1930s, the USSR finally built an array of factories to supply the film industry with the nation's own technical resources.

To secure independence from the West, industry leaders mandated that the USSR develop its own sound technologies, rather than taking licenses on Western sound systems. Two Soviet scientists, Alexander Shorin in Leningrad (formerly St. Petersburg) and Pavel Tager in Moscow, conducted research through the late 1920s on complementary sound systems, which were ready for use by 1930. The implementation process, including the cost of refitting movie theaters, proved daunting, and the USSR did not complete the transition to sound until 1935. Nevertheless, several directors made innovative use of sound once the technology became available. In Entuziazm: Simfoniya Donbassa (Enthusiasm, 1931), his documentary on coal mining and heavy industry, Vertov based his soundtrack on an elegantly orchestrated array of industrial noises. In Dezertir (The Deserter, 1933) Pudovkin experimented with a form of "sound counterpoint" by exploiting tensions and ironic dissonances between sound elements and the image track. And in Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein collaborated with the composer Sergei Prokofiev on an "operatic" film style that elegantly coordinated the musical score and the image track.

As Soviet cinema made the transition to sound and central planning in the early 1930s, it was also put under a mandate to adopt a uniform film style, commonly identified as "socialist realism". In 1932 the party leadership ordered the literary community to abandon the avant-garde practices of the 1920s and to embrace socialist realism, a literary style that, in practice, was actually close to 19th-century realism. The other arts, including cinema, were subsequently instructed to develop the aesthetic equivalent. For cinema, this meant adopting a film style that would be legible to a broad audience, thus avoiding a possible split between the avant-garde and mainstream cinema that was evident in the late 1920s. The director of Soyuzkino and chief policy officer for the film industry, Boris Shumyatsky (1886–1938), who served from 1931 to 1938, was a harsh critic of the montage aesthetic. He championed a "cinema for the millions", which would use clear, linear narration. Although American movies were no longer being imported in the 1930s, the Hollywood model of continuity editing was readily available, and it had a successful track record with Soviet movie audiences. Soviet socialist realism was built on this style, which assured tidy storytelling. Various guidelines were then added to the doctrine: positive heroes to act as role models for viewers; lessons in good citizenship for spectators to embrace; and support for reigning policy decisions of the Communist Party.

Such restrictive aesthetic policies, enforced by the rigorous censorship apparatus of Soyuzkino, resulted in a number of formulaic films. Apparently, they did succeed in sustaining a true "cinema of the masses". The 1930s witnessed some stellar examples of popular cinema. The single most successful film of the decade, in terms of both official praise and genuine affection from the mass audience, was Chapayev (1934), co-directed by Prokofiev (1900–1959) and Grigori Vasiliev. Based on the life of a martyred Red Army commander, the film was touted as a model of socialist realism, in that Chapayev and his followers battled heroically for the revolutionary cause. The film also humanized the title character, giving him personal foibles, an ironic sense of humour, and a rough peasant charm. These qualities endeared him to the viewing public: spectators reported seeing the film multiple times during its first run in 1934, and Chapayev was periodically re-released for subsequent generations of audiences.

A genre that emerged in the 1930s to consistent popular acclaim was the musical comedy, and a master of that form was Grigori Aleksandrov (1903–1984). He effected a creative partnership with his wife, the brilliant comic actress and chanteuse Lyubov Orlova (1902–1975), in a series of crowd-pleasing musicals. Their pastoral comedy Volga-Volga (1938) was surpassed only by Chapayev in terms of box-office success. The fantasy element of their films, with lively musical numbers reviving the montage aesthetic, sometimes stretched the boundaries of socialist realism, but the genre could also allude to contemporary affairs. In Aleksandrov's 1940 musical Svetlyi Put (The Shining Path), Orlova plays a humble servant girl who rises through the ranks of the Soviet industrial leadership after developing clever labour-saving work methods. Audiences could enjoy the film's comic turn on the Cinderella story while also learning about the value of efficiency in the workplace.[2]


Immediately after the end of the Second World War, color movies such as The Stone Flower (1946), Ballad of Siberia (1947), and Cossacks of the Kuban (1949) were released. Other notable films from the 1940s include the black and white films, Alexander Nevsky, Ivan the Terrible and the Encounter at the Elbe.

The Soviet film industry suffered during the period after World War II. On top of dealing with the severe physical and monetary losses of the war, Stalin’s regime tightened social control and censorship in order to manage the effects recent exposure to the West had on the people. The postwar period was marked by an end of almost all autonomy in the Soviet Union; the heavy control now exerted by the government ended filmmaking as an art form. The Catalogue of Soviet Films recorded remarkably low numbers of films being produced from 1945 to 1953, with as few as nine films produced in 1951 and a maximum of twenty-three produced in 1952. These numbers also include many works which cannot fairly be considered as films in a traditional sense, with a large percentage of them being filmed versions of staged performances, short films for children, and experimental stereoscopic films. In reality, no more than four or five films reached Soviet audiences by the early 1950s. Compared to the four hundred to five hundred films produced every year by Hollywood, the Soviet film industry was practically dead.

Even as the economy of the Soviet Union strengthened, film production continued to decrease. A resolution passed by the Council of Ministers in 1948 further crippled the film industry. The resolution criticized the work of the industry, saying that an emphasis placed on quantity over quality had ideologically weakened the films. Instead, the council insisted that every film produced must be a masterpiece for promoting communist ideas and the Soviet system. Often, Stalin had the ultimate decision on whether a newly produced film was appropriate for public viewing. In private screenings after meetings of the Politburo, the Minister of the Film Industry Igor Bol’shakov privately screened films for Stalin and top members of Soviet government. Filmmakers from the time say that Stalin usually determined the fate of the films in one sentence, and as a result, many of the few films produced would not be seen in theaters until many years later. The strict limitations on content and complex, centralized process for approval drove many screenwriters away, and studios had much difficulty producing any of the quality films mandated by the 1948 resolution.[3]

Trophy Films

Movie theaters in the postwar period faced the problem of satisfying the growing appetites of Soviet audiences for films while dealing with the shortage of newly produced works from studios. In response, cinemas played the same films for months at a time, many of them the works of the late 1930s. Anything new drew millions of people to the box office, and many theaters screened foreign films to attract larger audiences. Most of these foreign films were “trophy films,” two thousand films brought into the country by the Red Army after the occupation of Germany and Eastern Europe in World War II.[4] In the top secret minutes for the CPSU Committee Meeting on August 31, 1948, the committee permitted the Minister of the Film Industry to release fifty of these films in the Soviet Union. Of these fifty, Bol’shakov was only allowed to release twenty-four for screening to the general public, mainly films made in Germany, Austria, Italy, and France. The other twenty-six films, consisting almost entirely of American films, were only allowed to be shown in private screenings. The minutes also include a separate list of permitted German musical films, which were mainly German and Italian film adaptations of famous operas.[5] Most of the “trophy films” were released in 1948-1949, but somewhat strangely, compiled lists of the released films include ones not previously mentioned in the official minutes of the Central Committee.[6]

The public release of these “trophy films” seems very contradictory in the context of the 1940s Soviet Union. The Soviet government allowed the exhibition of foreign films which contained far more subversive ideas than any a Soviet director would have ever attempted putting in a film at a time when Soviet artists found themselves unemployed because of censorship laws. Historians hypothesize many possible reasons why the Soviet government showed such seemingly inexplicable leniency toward the foreign films. It could be that the frivolity and glamour of the Western films served as a necessary distraction for the populace away from the problematic truths of Soviet life at the time. The government may have granted cinemas the right to show the films so they could stay in business after the domestic film industry had declined. A third hypothesis speculates that the government saw the films as an easy source of money to help rebuild the nation after the war.[7] The minutes of the CPSU Central Committee meeting seem to support the latter idea with instructions that the films are to bring in a net income of at least 750 million rubles to the State coffers over the course of a year from public and private screenings, and 250 million rubles of this were supposed to come from rentals to the trade union camera network.[8]

In addition to releasing the films, the committee also charged Bol’shakov and the Agitation and Propaganda Department of the CPSU Central Committee “with making the necessary editorial corrections to the films and with providing an introductory text and carefully edited subtitles for each film.”[9] In general, the captured Nazi films were considered apolitical enough to be shown to the general populace. Still the Propaganda and Agitation Section of the Central Committee ran into trouble with the censoring of two films slated for release. The censors found it impossible to remove the “Zionist” ideas from Jud Suss, an anti-Semitic, Nazi propaganda film, a fact which really speaks to the anti-Semitic nature of the top members of Soviet government. The censors also had trouble with a film adaptation of Of Mice and Men because of the representation of the poor as a detriment to society.

There is very little direct evidence of how Soviet audiences received the trophy films. Soviet magazines or newspapers never reviewed the films, there were no audience surveys, and no records exist of how many people viewed the films. In order to judge the reception and popularity of these foreign films, historians have mainly relied on anecdotal evidence. The German musical comedy The Woman of My Dreams has received mixed reviews according to this evidence. Kul’tura i Zhizn’ published a supposed survey compiled of readers’ letters to the editor in March, 1947 which criticize the film for being idealess, low brow, and even harmful. Bulat Okudzhava wrote a contradicting viewpoint in Druzhba narodov in 1986, saying that everyone in the city of Tbilisi was crazy about the film. According to him, everywhere he went people were talking about the film and whistling the songs. Of the two accounts, film historians generally consider Okudzhava’s more reliable than the one presented by Kul’tura i Zhizn’. Films such as His Butler’s Sister and Sun Valley Serenade, although not technically trophies as they had been purchased legally during the wartime Alliance with America, were highly popular with Soviet audiences. In Vecherniaia Moskva (October 4, 1946), M. Chistiakov reprimanded theaters and the Soviet film industry for the fact that over a six-month timespan, sixty of the films shown had been tasteless Western films rather than Soviet ones. Even in criticism of the films and the crusading efforts of the anti-cosmopolitan campaign against the trophy films, it is clear to see they had quite an impact on Soviet society.[10]


With the start of the Cold War, writers, still considered the primary auteurs, were all the more reluctant to take up script writing, and the early 1950s saw only a handful of feature films completed during any year. The death of Stalin was a relief to some people, and all the more so was the official trashing of his public image as a benign and competent leader by Nikita Khrushchev two years later. This latter event gave filmmakers the margin of comfort they needed to move away from the narrow formula stories of socialist realism, expand its boundaries, and begin work on a wider range of entertaining and artistic Soviet films.

Notable films include:


The 1960s and 1970s saw the creation of many films, many of which molded Soviet and post-Soviet culture. They include:

Soviet films tend to be rather culture-specific and are difficult for many foreigners to understand without having been exposed to the culture first. Various Soviet directors were more concerned with artistic success than with economical success (They were paid by the academy, and so money was not a critical issue). This contributed to the creation of a large number of more philosophical and poetical films. Most well-known examples of such films are those by directors Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergei Parajanov and Nikita Mikhalkov. In keeping with Russian character, tragi-comedies were very popular. These decades were also prominent in the production of the Eastern or Red Western.

Animation was a respected genre, with many directors experimenting with technique. Tale of Tales (1979) by Yuriy Norshteyn was twice given the title of "Best Animated Film of All Eras and Nations" by animation professionals from around the world, in 1984 and 2002.

In the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet cinema (1979), on April 25, a decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR established a commemorative "Day of the Soviet cinema". It was then celebrated in the USSR each year on August 27, the day on which Vladimir Lenin signed a decree to nationalise the country's cinematic and photographic industries.


The policies of perestroika and glasnost saw a loosening of the censorship of earlier eras.[11] A genre known as "chernukha" (from the Russian word for "gore"), including films such as Little Vera, portrayed the harsh realities of Soviet life.[12] Notable films of this period include:

  • The Pokrovsky Gate (1982) a made-for-television comedy starring Oleg Menshikov
  • Repentance a.k.a. The Confession (1984), a Georgian film about a fictional dictator which was banned until 1987.
  • Come and See (1985) a widely acclaimed World War II drama
  • Kin-dza-dza! (1986) allegorical science fiction
  • The Cold Summer of 1953 (1987) about criminals being released from the gulags after Stalin's death.
  • Little Vera (1988) notable as one of the first Soviet films with sexually explicit scenes

Soviet films

There are many movies which are well-remembered and looked upon fondly in the former Soviet republics; famous lines or jokes from these movies are often quoted and some have even become a part of the Russian language as sayings and idioms (which ones?) (list of examples needed!). Most of these classic Soviet movies were produced by Mosfilm and other state-owned film studios.



Science fiction



War films

Children's films



Notable filmmakers

Soviet studios

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ Peter Kenez, Cinema and Soviet Society: From the Revolution to the Death of Stalin (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd., 2001), 187-191.
  4. ^ Peter Kenez, Cinema, 191-192.
  5. ^ Richard Taylor, Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (New York: I.B.Tauris, 1998), 212-214.
  6. ^ M. Turovskaia et al. (eds), Kino totalitarnoi epokhi (1933-1945) (Moscow, 1989), 45-46, quoted in Taylor, Film Propaganda, 238.
  7. ^ Kenez, Cinema, 191-192.
  8. ^ Taylor, Film Propaganda, 213.
  9. ^ Quoted in Taylor, Film Propaganda, 212.
  10. ^ Kenez, Cinema, 192-193.
  11. ^ Butenko, I. A. & Razlogov, K. E., Recent Social Trends in Russia, 1960-1995, McGill-Queen's Press, 1997. ISBN 0-7735-1610-7
  12. ^ Idols and Icons (Part II) A Survey of Russian and Soviet CinemaHertenstein, Mike,

External links

  • Russian Film Database, University of Innsbruck, Austria (in German and Germanically-transliterated Cyrillic. Eisenstein, a German name to begin with, goes through the wringer and comes back out as "Ejzenstejn", e.g.)
  • Sixty seconds of Ballad of a Soldier turned into a Russian lesson.
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