Russia: Threats, arson and bans in lead up to movie premiere

18 October 2017
“Matilda” has stirred controversy in Russia, leading to arson attacks, threats against those involved in the film and cinemas refusing to screen the film.
Photo: One of the burned vehicles in front the film director’s lawyer’s office/Konstantin Dobrynin Facebook


Upcoming Russian film “Matilda”, which tells the story of a romance between Nicholas II, before he became tsar, and a ballerina, has stirred controversy in Russia, leading to arson attacks, threats against those involved in the film and cinemas refusing to screen the film, which is set to open on 26 October 2017. Religious and conservative groups see the film as an insult to the tsar and his family, who became saints in 2000 when the Russian Orthodox Church canonised them, and have called for it to be banned.

Criticism began as early as February 2017 when Russian MP Natalia Poklonskaya, a leader in the campaign against the film, told the BBC: “You can’t touch saints. You can’t show them having sex because that offends the feelings of believers. This is not censorship, this is about the violation of people’s rights. Artistic freedom is not limitless, it cannot impede on the rights of others.”

At an 11 October news conference in Moscow, the film’s director Aleksei Uchitel said the two leads of the film – Polish actress Michalina Olszanska and German actor Lars Eidinger – would not attend the St. Petersburg and Moscow premieres on 23 and 24 October, respectively, out of fear for their safety, adding that Eidinger has received threats. He also said two other non-Russian actors – Luise Wolfram and Thomas Ostermeier – did not want to attend as well out of the same fear, according to Reuters.

Arson attacks
Uchitel himself has also received threats. On 31 August, unknown persons threw Molotov cocktails into the director’s studio in St. Petersburg, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He also said that he received verbal threats from members of Christian State-Holy Rus, a radical Orthodox Christian group.

Four members of the Orthodox group have been taken into custody, including group leader Alexander Kalinin who is being held until 22 November on suspicion of threatening cinemas if they screened the film, reported The Irish Times. Nearly a thousand threatening letters were sent to cinema owners across Russia, reported Russian news agency TASS.

The three other members have been charged for an arson attack that took place on 11 September outside the office of Konstantin Dobrynin, the director’s lawyer, who posted photos of the burned cars on his Facebook that showed scattered slips of paper at the scene that read “Burn for Matilda”, reported The Moscow Times.

On 4 September, an arson attack was carried out at the front entrance of the Cosmos movie theatre in Yekaterinburg in what some believe is linked to the criticism over the film, reported Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Police have a man in custody on suspicion of carrying out the attack.

Bans and banners
While Russia’s largest cinema chain, Cinema Park Formula Kino, had previously stated it would not screen the film out of fear for the audience’s security, its head, Roman Linin, said in a statement they would show the film now as they feel assured of their audience’s safety based on the work law enforcement has done, reported Reuters on 13 October.

Though the Ministry of Culture gave the film a screening certificate on 10 August, it did state that individual regions had the authority to ban the film, reported The Guardian. Authorities in Chechnya and Dagestan have said they would ban the film.

At the Russian Supercup football final match in Moscow on 14 July, fans brandished large banners on both sides of the stadium that said, “For Faith, the Tsar and the Fatherland! Uchitel does not touch the Russian tsar!”, reported Le Temps. MP Poklonskaya thanked the football supporters for their banners and hoped the campaign against the film would grow.

In May, investigators began a tax audit of Uchitel’s film company at the request of Poklonskaya, reported Crime Russia.

The romance between the tsar and ballerina has been well-documented, but many of the film’s detractors deny the relationship ever existed. This year marks the centenary of when the tsar fell to Lenin’s Bolsheviks in 1917.

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