Historical Film Shakes Russia to its Spiritual Core
26 September, 2017

It has only been seen by a few hundred people, but the film Matilda is already one of the most discussed motion pictures in Russia. The reason? Some Orthodox Christian believers claim its portrayal of Russian Czar Nicholas II, who was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000, is blasphemous.

The film tells the story of the Czar’s love affair with Polish ballerina Matilda Kschessinska and is scheduled for release at the end of October. But that is increasingly under question. Orthodox radicals are now threatening to burn down cinemas that go forward with the screening. Some have already carried out acts of terror to express their distaste for the film.

And movie theaters are taking notice. Cinema Park and Formula Kino, two of Russia’s largest cinema chains, have announced they will not be showing Matilda.

Hromadske breaks down how religious extremists could force their will upon Russian state and society.

What happened?

Nicholas II’s affair with Matilda Kschessinska is a well-documented historical fact. So it’s hardly surprising someone would want to make a film about it. Acclaimed Russian director Aleksei Uchitel did just that on a $31 million budget. Renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev served as the film’s musical director. And Russia’s government event partially financed the film, contributing $10.7 million to its budget. Despite state support and star-power, critics say it will be extremely difficult for the film to break even now that huge cinema chains are staying away.

Who’s offended and why?

Orthodox activists are outraged by the way the film portrays Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia. In 2000, the Russian Orthodox Church canonized Nicholas II and his family, who were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The Church regards Nicholas as a “passion bearer.”

The film depicts Nicholas II failing to break off his affair with the ballerina even after he marries Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine, the future Empress Alexandra Feodorovna.

A screenshot from "Matilda."

Among Matilda’s most fervent opponents is Natalia Poklonskaya, the former Prosecutor General of Crimea and currently a Russian Duma deputy. She is joined by a mysterious, radical Orthodox movement called “Christian State – Holy Russia” — a name that Mikhail Fishman, an anchor at the independent Russian TV channel “TV Dozdh,” believes is “a clear reference to Islamic State.”

How are the radicals protesting?

The radicals came up with the slogan, “Burn for Matilda”, and it appears these aren’t empty words. On January 31, the “Christian State” sent out letters to the cinema managers demanding they not screen the film:

“If you air the film Matilda, cinemas will burn, and people might suffer too. Consider this an official note that any banner, poster, leaflet with information about the film’s distribution will be viewed as an attempt to degrade the saints of the Orthodox Church and provoke a ‘Russian Maidan.’”

Natalia Poklonskaya (C) carrying the icon of Russian Czar Nicholas II. Photo credit: Poklonslaya's social media page

It didn’t take long for the anti-Matilda crusaders to move from threats to action. On August 31, Uchitel’s studio was attacked with Molotov cocktails. Shortly thereafter, on September 4, a car loaded with gas canister slammed into the entrance of the Kosmos cinema in the city of Yekaterinburg. The driver then exited the car, threw a burning match on it, and ran away. Although there was no information indicating that Kosmos was planning to screen Matilda, many — including the city’s mayor — believed the attack was a response to the film.

Barely a week later, on September 11, the radicals also burnt the car of Uchitel’s lawyer, Konstantin Dobrynin. And, in recent weeks, Russia has experienced a wave of bomb threats at schools, universities, and shopping malls that may be connected to opposition to Matilda.

Why “Matilda”?

Last year, a film based on the Primary Chronicle — one of the earliest histories of the ancient Kyivan Rus — came out in Russia. Called Viking, the film depicts Prince Volodymyr (or Vladimir in Russian) raping the Princess Rogneda. Although Volodymyr is also recognized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church, Viking’s premiere went ahead without any complaints.

In the case of Matilda, Nicholas’s importance in Russian consciousness played a significant role, says Sergei Chapnin, editor-in-chief of Dary, an almanac of contemporary Christian culture.

A screenshot from "Matilda."

“One way or another, today we are discussing and trying to understand the 1917 catastrophe of the Russian Empire. For the large Russian Orthodox community, the figure of Nicholas II is extremely mythologized — he embodies the lost empire, the sacred character of the victim,” he says. “Therefore, any attempt to place [Nicholas II] in historical context is likely to end up scrutinized, criticized and protested against. For Orthodox people, history does not play the same role as the mythology created in the last 10-15 years.”

But writer Alexander Arkhangelsky does not share Chapnin’s view. In his opinion, there is a major social demand for aggression on religious grounds in Russian society today. For that reason, any controversy could spark an outbreak.

“If you bet on radical violence or fundamentalism as such, you can be sure that an opportunity for it will arise sooner or later,” he says. “And this opportunity will be acted upon. In this case, it was Matilda, a quite mediocre film in my opinion.”

"Christian State" activists. Photo credit: social media

Arkhangelsky is convinced that the Russian government silently allowed violence against cultural figures in the past (like the cases of the destruction of the artist Sidur’s exhibition at the Manege in Moscow and the banning of the opera “Tannhäuser”), and cruelly punished those who offended the faith of others (like the persecutions against the  performance art collective Pussy Riot), so now it's reaping the benefits.

So will the film be released? 

Russian government stayed out of this conflict between Poklonskaya and Uchitel until recently, when the Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky spoke out in support of the film on September 12. “I’ve suppressed [my opinion] for a long time, but my cup of patience is overflowing,” he said.

Poklonskaya’s colleagues in the Duma also condemned the deputy.  

The leader of “Christian State” Aleksandr Kalinin was shortly detained for his involvement in the arson attack on lawyer Konstantin Dobrynin’s car on September 20.

So it looks like the film’s premiere might go ahead. “Despite the fact that many chains have refused to show 'Matilda,' the scandal surrounding the film is seen as an advertising campaign in big cities, which will make people go and see the movie,” Sergei Chapnin thinks.

But Aleksandr Arkhangelsky argues that history could repeat itself: “The situation with “Matilda” specifically could die down, but the growing sense of uncontrollable aggression will be very hard to get rid of. The demand for aggression has formed. The demand for an internal war —  I don’t mean military action right now  a war of everyone with everyone, everyone against everyone has also been formed. But what the government will do about it, how it will decide to extinguish this aggression, I, unfortunately, don’t know.”

There are also fears that the Matilda scandal — which clearly has some high-placed supporters — could signal the start of a crackdown on the Russian arts and cultural scene. According to journalist Fishman, the cinema chains’ refusal to screen the film is a “precedent which didn't go unnoticed” in cultural circles that constantly struggle with the “climate of censorship and pressure” that exists in the country.

Hromadske spoke to Mikhail Fishman, anchor at the independent Russian television channel TV Dozhd and former editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times, to find out more about how the Russian public is reacting to the Matilda scandal and whether the religious extremists objecting to the film pose any real threats to society.

Has there ever been anything like this in recent Russian history? And who are the ringleaders in this pushback against “Matilda”?

That's a very good question and this is a very weird story from the very start. It started as some kind of — I'd say — grassroots activity of one of the Russian lawmakers, Poklonskaya, and it was basically viewed as her sort of private obsession, mostly with the figure of the Czar himself at the beginning. So it was perceived as an empty, tabloid-like subject, nothing really to talk about, much ado about nothing and we didn't pay much attention [to it] — at least I didn't. But it started growing bigger and bigger since it started triggering real terror attacks. Someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the director's office, then there was a truck that rammed into a movie theater in Yekaterinburg, then there was a couple of cars burned down in Moscow — if I am correct. And then, as you already mentioned, big movie chains actually refused to screen the film. This is when it obviously moved to some other stage, it's one of the most political social things going around here in Russia now. The latest developments are as well that some of these Orthodox believers — as you mentioned — these activists, who call themselves — if I am correct — "Christian State", which for me is a clear reference to Islamic State, of course. they are somehow believed to be connected, some of them were even detained, charged with these attacks with burning the cars at least. Then their leader, either he is under detention, or he disappeared already, no one knows really what's going on with them right now, that's what we are trying to figure out right now, where they are. So this is the state of affairs at this very moment.

You mentioned Natalia Poklonskaya, of course, a very famous person in Ukraine, the Duma deputy from annexed Crimea, but one of the interesting things here is that she appeared at least to have some other high-profile supporters, including Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, who is believed to be the Russian president Putin's personal confessor and also an influential religious figure in Russia. How much backing do you think Poklonskaya has?

This is a crucial question – to what extent is she supported and by whom? For all we know and all we understand, it's not Vladimir Putin himself. It looks like he is not personally involved in this matter, at least he wasn't. He already commented on this issue when the whole thing started, he basically said that we are living in a free country and we favor any kind of discussion — well, it was before all these terror attacks, of course. So he looked as though he was very much indifferent about what was going on. But, yes, we know that there is a very — let's say — alt conservative circles in the church, who basically, as it looks, share Poklonskaya's views on Nicholas II and the subject itself, but there are more, because there is also, for example, she was supported by Vyacheslav Volodin, who is the speaker of the Russian parliament. 

This is the most interesting question. We know, for example — well, we at least assume — that Vladimir Putin at least did not pay much attention and didn't really care about the whole thing, he gave his comments a few weeks ago — no earlier than that, whatever — before the whole thing grew. And his position was that we are a free country and we favor any kind of discussion so be it. But yes, it is clear that there are some alt-conservative circles in the church who share Poklonskaya's views on this subject and on the figure of the Czar. But they are not alone, these church officials. We also know that the speaker of the Russian Parliament Vyacheslav Volodin also supported Poklonskaya already after these movie chains announced that they were not going to run the film. So there are definitely some factions inside the system, inside the machine of Russian power who, if they didn't start the whole thing — which we don't know — they obviously embraced it at some point.

When we talk about manifestations of opposition to the film "Matilda", one of the things that have happened recently, and appears to be connected, is a series of bomb scares at schools, universities, shopping malls —  what exactly do we know about this? Do we know who is involved in it?

We don't know much. We know that this is a strange story about this organization which calls itself "Christian State — Sacred Russia", something like that, and it's not even completely clear if it really exists and is more than just some kind of PR thing. I think this is what is under scrutiny, under investigation from Russian independent journalists right now. They've tried to find out what this organization really is, if it exists at all. A few people were detained and charged with the terror attacks and they claim that they would threaten public spaces — if I am correct — but again, no one knows yet where it will go from there.

In a story like this, it's easy to focus only on the most extreme individuals, but there are other people who have responded certainly not like "Christian State" or like Natalia Poklonskaya. Besides Vladimir Putin, how has the Russian government responded? And how is the public responding?

Again, when the whole thing started growing, and the turning point was this movie theater chain refusing to show the film, then, the Ministry of Culture stood up and actually said that it's a shame that it's going all the wrong way, that something has to be done. So the position of the Russian state in the face of the Minister of Culture Medinsky was quite outspoken and was quite clear. So now a screening was even organized — if I am correct — yesterday of the film in St. Petersburg for movie theater managers and this kind of crowd, probably to persuade them that they have nothing to fear. Some security measures were taken, of course, and it looked like the state was not involved, and the state is now trying to sort of to respond to all these attacks. So if we look at the state position, at this very moment, they support "Matilda" and this is there poise. And the public, well it's always a good question: what does the Russian public actually think about anything, because it's very hard to find out, we never know because Russian television never really reflects public opinion. But, of course, I would assume that the Russian audience, on the whole, is now pretty much interested to see the film basically, and that's the primary emotion.

You know people on the Moscow arts and cultural scene, what are they saying about this? Are they afraid of any kind of crackdown on the arts scene, on culture in Russia?

They certainly are. But I think that Serebrennikov case has much more to do with it than "Matilda's" story. Although, this refusal of movie theaters to show "Matilda" was also precedent which didn't go unnoticed, of course. And it's very important to see how things will develop because now the situation has changed. Now, the state showed that it's backing the film and the director, and the screenings will start in October. As I understand there was one just today in Novosibirsk and if these movie theatre chains still won't show it, this will be a very important thing which could trigger some other complications for the arts industry of course and for the whole atmosphere, climate of censorship and pressure. This is for sure.

I'd like to ask you one final question. So Poklonskaya would like to see the film banned basically, do you think that she and her supporters will ultimately manage to get the film banned or even de facto not shown?

It doesn't look like that at the moment because of what I just said; it looks like the state finally decided which side it's on. So, for now, we are expecting the film to be released. If the local officials in the city of Novosibirsk decide to screen this movie the same day Navalny runs an opposition rally in town to draw attention away from him, to some other subject, that means that they are not afraid to screen it at least. That means that probably at least across Russian officialdom it's more or less clear that this movie will and is to be shown.