There is a culture war in Russia and the Stalinists appear to be besting the Tsarists.
I am referring to, of course, the news last week that the Ministry of Culture revoked permission for theaters to show the satirical film The Death of Stalin days before its scheduled release.
The culture ministry pulled permission for the film – by Armando Iannucci of Veep and the Thick of It fame – after an advance screening of the film angered viewers from various official cultural bodies. There is a good English-language summary of events at Meduza, so I won’t spend more time discussing the facts.1 I have also not seen film since it won’t be released in the US until March 2018. The trailer does promise lots of Iannucci-style goodness, even if might play a bit loose with the historical record.
Recall the controversy over the film Matilda, which told the story of Nicholas II’s alleged affair with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya before he became Tsar. Orthodox activists harassed the filmmakers and badgered Medinsky to ban that film, which they alleged insulted the memory of the Tsar and attacked Orthodox believers. That film, unlike the Death of Stalin, was not banned.
Natalya Poklonskaya, a Duma member and fierce critic of Matilda, wasted no time pointing out the hypocrisy of banning a film perceived to mock Stalin, but not one portraying the last Tsar as a “fornicator“.
While there are probably few of us who can’t relate to the feelings of smug, self-righteous indignation that Poklonskaya is stoking, it does raise an interesting point. Why block a film about Stalin, but not a film about Nicholas?
Why Ban ‘The Death of Stalin’?
There are a few possible explanations, all of which are plausible to varying degrees.
First, the experience with the protests around Matilda had to have been on the minds of Culture Ministry officials when they debated what to do about the Death of Stalin. Second, Medinsky and other decision makers in the Culture Ministry might simply be more sensitive towards Soviet history than to Tsarist history and view the Death of Stalin as mocking leaders responsible for victory in WW2.
Third, there is no doubt that the film’s foreign origin played a role. Medinsky’s agency has made concerted efforts to promote the domestic film industry, both through subsidies to Russian films and favoring Russian films over foreign ones when release dates conflict.
Finally, it may be that the upcoming elections played a role. The argument is that authorities either feared a negative reaction by those favorable to Stalin’s rule or tried to play on a sense of victimhood at the hands of smug Western filmmakers.
It is possible that the bureaucrats are freelancing according to the rules set by the culture wars launched in Putin’s third term in office. Many decisions in authoritarian systems are made by subordinates in response to what they think higher-ups want them to do. Leaders set broad parameters and then the people below them fill in the blanks.
Culture Ministry officials leaned on the film’s Russian distributors to voluntarily delay the release, but when that failed, ministry lawyers (rather than an outside group) filed the complaint to Medinsky that resulted in the film’s permit being revoked. While we don’t know whether this occurred at Medinsky’s direction or as a move by ministry bureaucrats to curry favor with their boss, it does seem likely that Medinsky decided to ban the film with one eye on Putin’s reaction.
Launching a high-profile ban of a foreign film mocking Soviet leaders right before an election is an opportunity to remind the boss that you’re still willing to solider on in the culture wars. As of Saturday, it was still not clear who ordered the police raid on Moscow’s Pioneer theater, which played a few showings of the film. This lends credence to the interpretation that the push to ban the film came from the bottom up rather than as a part of a strategy coordinated by the Kremlin.
Regardless of who made the decision, stopping the film represents a resort to a now-worn tactic; try to manufacture enthusiasm by attacking foreigners for allegedly disrespecting Russia. The problem is that the film likely won’t move the needle much prior to the election. The film was not scheduled for wide release and few (if any) people would change their voting behavior in response to the film or its ban.
So, if Medinsky does think that attacking the Death of Stalin will win him some kudos with Putin by playing on voters’ anger at foreigners mocking Stalin, it seems to be a miscalculation. Instead, Russia continues to sleepwalk towards elections scheduled for March 18, 13 days after the 65th anniversary of Stalin’s death.