Cinema was introduced into Russia through the initiative of Europeans. One sign of foreign influence on Russian cinema is the number of cognates in Russia's film lexicon. One finds German (e.g., the Russian word for cinema, kino , derives from the German Kino ) as well as many French traces in the language (e.g, the Russian montazh derives from montage ). The Lumière organization first ventured into the region in 1896, with successful public showings of programs in St. Petersburg and Moscow. The company also dispatched the camera operator Francis Doublier to Russia to film local scenes. Other foreign companies, including Pathé and Gaumont, followed suit over the next few years, shooting actuality films, short documentaries on everyday life, that took advantage of local color and helped cultivate a possible film market in Russia.
Russian cities proved receptive to European film imports, and by the turn of the century film viewing emerged as a leisure activity available to the urban working and middle classes. Numerous "electro-theaters" ( elektroteatry ) appeared in Russia's major cities, showing continuous cycles of four or more shorts in thirty- to sixty-minute programs. These modest, storefront establishments gave way after 1980 larger, more ornate cinemas with announced seating times and expanded programs. By 1913 there were over 1,400 permanent movie theaters in the Russian Empire; the leading markets were St. Petersburg, with 134 commercial cinemas, and Moscow, with 67.
Russian filmmaking began as something of an off-shoot of this European film presence. The first generation of Russian film entrepreneurs often had connections to foreign companies. Alexander Drankov began filmmaking in Russia after acquiring movie equipment from England in 1907 and using his status as a photographer for the London Times to help fund his fledgling movie business. He made the first Russian story film in 1908, a version of Stenka Razin , the well-known Russian tale of a Cossack hero. The crude, eight-minute film consists of simple excerpts from familiar parts of the tale, but it proved to be a great popular success. Drankov continued his film career through the pre-revolutionary era, shooting mostly low-budget entertainment and actuality films.
A leading Drankov competitor was Alexander Khanzhonkov, who began his career in Pathé's Russian office before starting his own film distribution service in 1909. He soon moved into film production, and his company grew into a powerful force in the still developing Russian film market. Khanzhonkov produced some seventy films in the five years leading up to World War I and pushed the industry toward more elaborate feature-length productions. He was joined in 1911 in "up-market" activity by the producer Joseph Yermoliev (1889–1962), who was able to capitalize his new Moscow studio for one million rubles. These and several smaller Russian companies set production patterns for Russian cinema through the 1910s. Domestic productivity increased steadily through the prewar period, from ten Russian-made story films in 1908 to 129 in 1913. Nevertheless, imports still dominated the market; when Russia entered World War I, only about 10 percent of films in Russian distribution were homemade.
The major producers like Khanzhankov and Yermoliev cultivated a taste for sumptuous melodramas and literary adaptations that found favor with the urban middle class through the 1910s. These elegant dramas borrowed something of a theatrical aesthetic, with elaborate sets, striking lighting effects, and very little editing. From this situation two major artists emerged, Yevgeni Bauer (1865–1917) and Yakov Protazanov (1881–1945). Bauer's feature Nemye svideteli ( Silent Witnesses ), produced for Khanzhokov in 1914, illustrates the best of this melodramatic tradition, with a visually rich mise-en-scène that sustains the emotional force of the drama. Protazanov is best remembered for his literary adaptations, including his elaborate rendering of Leo Tolstoy's Otets Sergei ( Father Sergius , 1917) for the Yermoliev studio.
The world war cut the Russian Empire off from foreign trade and abruptly ended the importation of new European movies. Domestic studios increased production levels to meet demand, but they were eating into a fixed capital base. The nation lacked factories to produce new film equipment or raw film stock, having relied for years on importation for such materials. Supplies ran out after 1916, leading to an industry crisis that continued into the early Soviet era.