Last fall, when Josephine Woll taught her annual class on Russian film at Howard University, she finally had access to a textbook covering films made during the years following Josef Stalin’s death, in 1953. Of course, she had to write the book herself.

“Even in Russia, this was an under-studied period,” says Woll, who published Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw last year. “When I started working on this book, there weren’t even any books in Russian on the topic.” This relative neglect stands in stark contrast to the attention paid to other periods in Russian cinema. The avant-garde Soviet films of the ’20s have always been admired internationally, and though Stalin-era films are generally not a distinguished lot, they have received scholarly attention because of the world’s continued fascination with the communist dictator.

To Woll, the films made between 1954 and the mid-’60s—the point at which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was ousted—provide an unusual window into Soviet history. Because of the high cost of making most films, directors were dependent on government subsidies—and thus beholden to the government’s insistence that movies address a mass audience. But what was special about the Khrushchev era was that movie directors had a bit more room to maneuver artistically. Though thaw-era films did not teach Soviet citizens much about Stalin’s gulag (to learn about that, citizens had to wait for samizdat books and the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, two decades later), they did show Russian characters who were complex and not simply good or evil, as they had tended to be under Stalin. “People [could] form their own judgments and not expect movies to tell them what to think,” Woll says. “People were presented as being far more fallible than ever before. It validated what people knew to be true, but which they had never seen on screen before.”

The dominance of movies in Soviet life in the ’50s and ’60s cannot be underestimated, Woll says. Every little town had a theater, and ticket prices were heavily subsidized by the government. Moreover, fewer forms of entertainment existed to distract the citizenry; television, for instance, had not yet come into its own. “Movies were shown in workers’ clubs, in factories, on collective farms,” Woll explains. “Movies were the most easily accessible medium except for newspapers—and they were more fun.”

Woll—who has taught at Howard since 1977 and who earned spending money during graduate school as a projectionist—spent five years writing the book. Every summer, she spent a month in Moscow; all told, she watched roughly 200 of the some 1,000 films made during the thaw. “They would bring in a shipment of films once a week from the government archive, which was 60 kilometers outside Moscow,” she says. “I’d sit and watch them as long as the projectionist was willing to stay.” — Louis Jacobson