With “Death of Stalin” Ban, Culture Wars Return To Russia
29 January, 2018

The critics have hailed “The Death of Stalin” as a masterful comedy on a difficult subject: Soviet totalitarianism. But the Russian authorities aren’t laughing.

On January 23, Russia’s Culture Ministry revoked the film’s distribution license, preventing it from being shown in the country. When Moscow’s Pioner Cinema risked fines to screen the film on January 26, Russian police raided the art house theater.

The crackdown on “The Death of Stalin,” a British-French film by Scottish director Armando Iannucci, comes as Russia faces several other scandals highlighting “culture wars” inside the country.  

Earlier this month, cadets at the Ulyanovsk Institute of Civil Aviation found themselves in hot water after recording a music video featuring them dancing in their underwear and pilots hats to the song “Satisfaction” by Italian DJ Benny Benassi. Both Russia’s Air Transport Agency and the state media condemned the cadets’ dance. Some insinuated they were gay. It appeared they would face expulsion from the academy. But soon the Russian public came to their defense, with Russians across the country recording their own “Satisfaction” videos.

Then, on January 26, two Russian men who had married in Copenhagen announced that they managed to get their marriage registered in Moscow. The news was surprising in a country where same-sex marriage is illegal and the government has even criminalized “gay propaganda.”

However, the Russian authorities soon accused the couple of destroying their internal passports (where marriages are listed in Russia) and the men began to receive threats.

Against the background of these events, the fight over “The Death of Stalin” becomes yet another battle over Russia’s identity in the 21st century, suggests Matthew Bodner, a Moscow-based journalist who was present at Pioner Cinema during the police raid.

“Stalin’s actions during the Second World War have become maybe the critical focal point of Russia’s contemporary narrative about what the Russian state is, where it comes from, and where it’s going,” he told Hromadske.

Bodner recalled how a young man he met at the cinema told him that the politicians jockeying for power in “The Death of Stalin” reminded him of the machinations of power in modern Russia.

“It’s possible that when the Culture Ministry held its private viewing of this film last Monday, it hit too close to home,” Bodner says.

However, events like the “Satisfaction” flashmob are reminders that Russian society is not necessarily as conservative as the country’s leaders make it out to be, Bodner says. Many Russians are active online, travel abroad, and interact with people around the globe.

“We’ve been distracted by the official narrative for several years,” he says. “And every once in a while, you get these signs that Russian people are not buying it as much as we assume they are.”

/By Matthew Kupfer