Russians have a lot of bread-and-butter issues to worry about these days. Economic growth is low, and incomes are stagnant. Sanctions have left the country in a state of international isolation. The Kremlin’s forces are mired in wars in Syria and Ukraine.
But why fret over things like that when you have a movie to be angry about?
Yes, that’s right. For months now, Russians have been abuzz about a film that hasn’t even arrived in theaters yet. It’s called “Matilda,” and it tells of a steamy liaison between the future Czar Nicholas II and his young girlfriend Matilda Kshesinskaya in the late 19th century. Kshesinskaya, a star performer in the Imperial Ballet, became involved with the future monarch when she was just 17. Surely filmgoers will line up to see that.
Yet the movie now finds itself at the center of a ferocious culture war. And even though the controversy is rooted in competing views on Russian history, the government’s response has some striking similarities with President Trump’s political gamesmanship. A film isn’t just a film when you can turn it into an emotional battle over tribal identity.
On one side of the “Matilda” brouhaha is the director, Alexei Uchitel, who says that he’s simply trying to tell a compelling story about Russia’s not-so-distant past. On the other is the Russian Orthodox Church and its loyalists, who say that the movie shows blasphemous disregard for the last czar.
The Church canonized the czar and his family, who were shot by the Bolsheviks, in 2000. Now religious conservatives say that no one has the right to show a saint indulging in hanky-panky with a young woman. Some supporters of “traditional values” have threatened to attack theaters where the film is supposed to be shown. They’ve already firebombed the office of Uchitel’s production company and torched two cars outside of the office of his lawyer. Natalia Poklonskaya, a Russian parliamentarian who has become the spokeswoman of the conservatives, claims that Lars Eidinger, the highly respected German stage actor who plays Nicholas, has a past as a “porn star.” (The film’s official release is set for Oct. 26.)
But there’s a bit more to this fight than meets the eye. That’s because somewhere in the middle is the Kremlin, which has been trying to stress the continuity between President Vladimir Putin and Russia’s imperial (and Soviet) past. Putin himself has studiously remained above the fray, expressing his respect for the film’s director as well as the critics. Even so, there are many signs that the powers that be aren’t entirely on board with a movie that shows a past czar in an unflattering light. The film’s opponents have been getting tons of airtime on state-controlled TV networks — a privilege that explicitly requires the Kremlin’s blessing.
This being Russia, the government could easily take Uchitel out of circulation if it were unhappy with his work. When stage and film director Kirill Serebrennikov got on authorities’ nerves by going after political and sexual taboos in his productions, he was thrown in jail on spurious embezzlement charges. But Uchitel has not got into trouble with the law and has felt free to go on spouting his own views — even to the foreign press.
Some of my Russian friends see a simple answer. The Kremlin, they say, is happy to have the dispute around. The country is facing its next national election in March, and Putin is preparing to officially announce his candidacy within the next few weeks. So he’d much rather have the airwaves filled with noisy discussions about 19th-century history and Russia’s religious identity than with reporting on its foreign wars or its sluggish economy.
Hannah Thoburn, a Russia analyst at the Hudson Institute in Washington, agrees: “I think a lot of the controversy inside Russia is largely manufactured.” The Kremlin, she says, definitely doesn’t like the film’s less-than-respectful treatment of a past autocrat, but there are still plenty of reasons to keep the film around (and under attack). “It distracts the public,” she says. “It gets the Russian Orthodox faithful more energized and on the side of the Kremlin. And it helps preserve the status of the czar and Putin in the run-up to an election.” The less attention paid to the country’s actual problems, the better.
It’s all eerily reminiscent of how the U.S. president approaches politics. Whenever Donald Trump faces concerted criticism for one of his mistakes, you can always count on him to stir up a fresh culture war. So you’re under fire for your administration’s lax response to the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico? Try assailing the National Football League for allowing players to kneel during the national anthem. The press reveals that your attorney general had several previously undisclosed meetings with Russian officials during the campaign? Accuse your Democratic predecessor, without any supporting evidence, of illegal wiretapping. Anything else going wrong? Pivot to a controversial ban on transgender service members in the military or announce an investigation into unsubstantiated voter fraud — topics carefully designed to whip up emotions and divert attention from genuine problems.
Is it just my imagination, or is the growing emphasis on tribalism and identity turning politics into an endless shell game of manipulated controversies? Putin certainly knows how to play it, and so does Trump. You can’t help but wonder: Who’s learning from whom?