The czar, his lover and Russia's church collide

In Russia, a movie about the last czar and his love affair with a ballerina has provoked a violent reaction and left many in Russia's arts community worried about their creative freedom.

Russia's arts community fears creative crackdown

Matilda director Alexei Uchitel says he hopes 'everything will be fine' once his movie is released across Russia this month. (Pascal Dumont/CBC)

When Russian film director Alexei Uchitel pulls up a chair at the snack bar at a Moscow cinema to talk about his latest movie, there's not a security guard in sight, which is surprising given all that's happened to him and others associated with Matilda since Russians first learned details about the period drama this past summer.

Uchitel's Saint Petersburg film studio was the target of an arson attack. 

In Moscow, his lawyer's car was fire bombed with a Molotov cocktail.  

In Yekaterinburg, a man drove a truck into a cinema that was showing Matiilda, causing a major fire.

And just this week Matilda's lead actor, German Lars Eidinger, said he's so afraid for his life that he has dropped plans to attend the nationwide Russian premiere of the movie later this month.

"It was frightening to me personally, and it scared many people who wanted to watch the film, " Uchitel told CBC News of the violence that has preceded Matilda's official release.

"I didn't expect it. I couldn't have imagined this would have happened."

A poster for the period drama Matilda outside a Moscow theatre. The film tells the story a relationship Nicholas Romanov had with a Saint Petersburg ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, before he became Russia's last czar at the end of the 19th century. (Corinne Seminoff)

Racy scenes

What has happened is an intensely negative reaction from some members of Russia's Orthodox Church who object to the basic premise of the film – that before he became Russia's last czar, a young Nicholas Romanov had a relationship with a Saint Petersburg ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya.

The movie features some nudity and racy scenes, which have also attracted criticism.  

That Nicholas had a relationship with Kshesinskaya before his coronation in 1896 is acknowledged by historians. But Utichel admits he has taken some artistic licence with events.

When Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks following the revolution of 1917, history may have judged him to be a weak and ineffective leader, but in the decades since – and especially during the Putin years – his image has been substantially rehabilitated by the Russian church.

Saint-like status

Nicholas was bestowed near saint-like status for his service to Russia, and some of its most orthodox members now object to his portrayal – before he was married — as a lustful lover. It runs contrary to his carefully cultivated image as a devoted husband and father to his five children.

"In every country there are reactionaries," said Uchitel. "The role of the church has increased a lot, and it wants to actively intervene in [Russia's] social life.

"But I hope we will overcome this."

Reuters has quoted a Moscow court spokesperson as saying the man now in custody for the car fire bombings is the leader of a radical religious group called Christian State-Holy Rus.

To counter some of the negativity, Uchitel has taken his film on the road for special showings in cities such as Vladivostok, Novosibirsk and Sochi. There was also a screening for members of Russia's parliament in Moscow.

He says the reaction from the parliamentarians was overwhelmingly positive.

Kremlin cautious

The Kremlin's senior spokesman has condemned the violence associated with the lead-up to Matilda's release, although Vladimir Putin's government has been more tempered in its support for the movie.

The Putin administration sees the Russian church as a powerful political ally, and some political observers argue the backlash over the movie may also serve Putin's political purpose.

An early screening of the movie in Moscow for local media. While some critics have refused to see the film, those who have have given it positive reviews. (Corinne Seminoff)

"Could the government have stopped the process (opposition to the movie) at the beginning? Yes, it could, " argues Stanislav Kucher, a columnist with liberal-learning Kommersant FM radio in Moscow. 

"Did it want to? No, it didn't."

Kucher said with a presidential election coming in March and Putin likely aiming for another term, the underlying message of the protestors works in his favour.

They reinforce a nationalistic notion about what true Russian values are and that neither they nor the people in power who represent them should be attacked, said Kucher.

"The Russian czar, or emperor or first secretary of the Communist Party or president are sacred," he said.

"No matter who you want to touch, the czar, Lenin, Stalin or Putin, don't go there. There will be consequences."

Artists fearful

Moscow's cultural community fears the Matlida backlash may be part of a much larger, worrying trend. 

Theatre producer Kerill Serebrennikov remains under house arrest following his detention last month, ostensibly on charges of mis-using government funds, but few of his contemporaries believe that's the real reason.

Political commentator Stanislav Kucher, pictured in the studio at Kommersant FM radio in Moscow, says the government has done little to stop violent protests against the movie.

Instead, they argue, it's more likely he ran afoul of the church and the Putin administration for tackling controversial subjects such as homosexuality that deviate from traditional, conservative beliefs, in much the same way Utichel's movie has done.

"There are some forces which will try to pull our country into the dark side," Utichel said. "We will oppose it."

Russians will get to make up their own minds about Matilda when it gets a nationwide release Oct. 26. But for many chilled by the violence and controversy leading up to its release, the fear is the conservative ideology that so strongly dominates Russian politics might now be imposing itself on the arts world.

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.