Video sheds light on Russia's secret history: Archive film is giving military documentaries a new appeal. Christopher Bellamy reports

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The Independent Online
A DOCUMENTARY on the First World War has reached number four in W H Smith's video sales chart, becoming the first historical military documentary to make the top 20. The two-part video set had slipped back to number 11 yesterday but is out- selling many big-budget movies.

Edinburgh-based Lamancha Productions, which has made dozens of military history programmes, said its sales had increased 500 per cent in the past year. The secret was making the programmes intelligent, accurate and academically solid. Lamancha has found that people want original archive film, intelligently presented.

David McWhinnie, producer for Lamancha Productions, said: 'There is nothing more exciting on the face of the planet than finding a piece of film of a great historical event that hasn't been seen by anybody for 70 years.'

The potential market is huge. Mr McWhinnie estimates that 1.5 to 2 million people in the UK are interested in military history and might buy the videos. 'There's a whole sub-culture out there. People who are interested in military history who won't admit it.'

The Great War was released a month ago. The next video which Lamancha is about to release is even more remarkable, though it may have more success in Russia than in the UK. Russia: the Missing Years, the definitive history of the Russian Civil War, is also in two parts, running for over 100 minutes. An hour of that is original archive film of exceptional clarity seen by very few people since the conflict ended in 1922.

Russia: the Missing Years has been sold by Lamancha to the Russians along with 10 other videos and will soon be seen on television there.

The video was produced by John Dovkas, of Eastern Light Productions, California, in co-operation with Close-up, a Russian video firm, and Lamancha. 'The credit has to go to the Russians for assembling the material,' Mr McWhinnie said. 'We edited it, put the sound track together and did the graphics.'

Five researchers worked for nine months in ten Russian film and photograph archives, to which they had unprecedented access, to find the material. Mr McWhinnie said: 'The Americans are trying to make something they can sell. The Russians are trying to make some sense of their history.'

The result is remarkable. The video not only shows the Red armies supporting the Bolshevik revolution of November 1917. There is also long-unseen film of the Whites, counter-revolutionary forces which set up governments in Ukraine, southern Russia and the Far East. And there is even rediscovered film of Nestor Makhno's 'Greens', a third force of 'anarchists' which roamed in the vast forests

of Ukraine and fought the Reds, Whites, Ukrainian nationalists, and the invading Germans.

The video includes rediscovered film of the Whites' withdrawal from the Crimea in 1920, including the last major White commander, Baron Peter Wrangel, climbing into a cutter heading for the waiting British and allied warships.

There is film of the Japanese in the Far East, and their atrocities. There is film of central Asia, then only recently conquered by Russia and still exotically middle eastern. There are images of the latest machinery of industrial war - British tanks - heading for the White General Anton Denikin's forces in southern Russia in 1919.

There is also extraordinary footage of warships of the Red Volga flotilla firing from the mile-wide river in support of the Red forces which captured the city of Kazan from the Whites in September 1918.

Mr McWhinnie said video and graphics were particularly suited to military subjects. 'The video companies are not behind the broadcasting companies. They are ahead of them. Just because it's on video doesn't mean it's intellectually inferior.'

The Great War, pounds 14.99, from retailers; Russia: The Missing Years, pounds 19.99, (released shortly).