Soviet agitprop? No, Russian films

Associated Press

MOSCOW -- When Vladimir Putin visited the set of the latest movie by Oscar-winning filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, he sat in the director’s chair while actors playing Soviet soldiers marched toward the front.

Putin didn’t direct the action -- he left that to his host. But the prime minister’s presence at the $55-million “Burnt by the Sun 2,” the most expensive film in Russia’s post-Soviet history, was a potent symbol of his government’s expanding role in the country’s film industry.

Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin called cinema “the most important of all arts,” and film was regarded by the Communist leadership as one of its most powerful propaganda weapons. Legendary directors such as Sergei Eisenstein, who made “The Battleship Potemkin,” and Andrei Tarkovsky, whose brooding classics can still astonish, won acclaim even as they bent to the will of the totalitarian state.


Now the Russian government is trying to revive the Soviet film tradition, helping to produce movies and miniseries that push the Kremlin’s political views, vilify its critics and glorify the military and intelligence services.

Artistically, the results have been decidedly mixed.

Outside of the work of Mikhalkov, whose international fame dates back to the 1960s and who won a foreign-language film Oscar for 1994’s “Burnt by the Sun,” few government-sponsored films have won either critical acclaim or box-office success.

“History repeats itself with a farce, so this new propaganda seems ridiculous compared to textbook Soviet examples,” said Yuri Valkov, a historian of Russian culture.

Throughout the 1990s, the Russian film industry was mostly limited to imitations of Hollywood blockbusters and attempts to preserve the old artistic traditions.

In the new millennium, Russian filmmakers have found themselves in a business-oriented environment of investments and profits. But the government has taken a greater role in film projects and remains the country’s largest film producer. Putin recently proposed a merger of three Soviet-era film studios into a mammoth, state-owned concern.

Some in the film industry -- the largest in Europe alongside France -- welcome the influence of authorities over which movies get made and the political lessons they teach.


“Law enforcement agencies are part of our state, and the government has the right to propagate whatever it considers necessary,” said producer Leonid Vereshchagin of 3T, Mikhalkov’s own production company, which has released several highly patriotic films.

But critics say government influence has stifled most critical and creative artists. Russian documentary filmmakers, for example, could probably never produce documentaries directly critical of the government, said Vyacheslav Shmyrov, chief editor of Kinoprotsess magazine.

“A Michael Moore is impossible in Russia,” he said, referring to the American filmmaker whose documentary “Fahrenheit 9/11” was a scathing critique of the Bush administration.

This year’s most controversial Russian documentary, “The Destruction of the Empire: A Byzantine Lesson,” was written by an Orthodox monk who argued that Western ideas and institutions would ruin Russia as they did Byzantium centuries earlier.

Unlike in the Soviet era, there is no centrally directed state effort to use cinema for indoctrination. Instead, artists know that they can win state support for film projects that promote the views of those in power.

“There are attempts of artists, producers and film directors to profit from patriotic themes and get government funding for their projects,” said political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.

Films critical of the government or at odds with the Kremlin’s view of Russian history can face problems getting made, or gaining recognition after their release. The macabre 2007 film “Cargo 200,” with its Orwellian vision of Soviet society, provoked a scandal at last year’s Kinotavr film festival and was rated X for limited distribution.

The result is a film like this year’s “Alexander: The Battle on the Neva,” which celebrates a 13th century prince who repels a Swedish invasion of his city, puts down a riot of Western-leaning nobles and vows fealty to the Mongol empire.

The message could not be more clear: Russia needs a strong leader to defend it from a hostile West. The film was advertised as a prequel to Eisenstein’s 1938 epic, “Alexander Nevsky,” which was personally commissioned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin to stir anti-German sentiment on the eve of World War II.

Russian intelligence, police and military agencies have underwritten at least a dozen television series or films in recent years, spending tens of millions of dollars to polish their images.

Last year, the Fund to Support Patriotic Films -- a nonprofit backed by the FSB, the main successor agency to the KGB -- produced “The Apocalypse Code,” a $15-million James Bond knockoff.

In the film, a seductively dressed female FSB spy blasts bad guys, outwits her rivals and saves the world from nuclear annihilation. The film flopped with critics and filmgoers. “ ‘The Code’ is a raving of a drunken horse,” said critic Victor Matezen.

But failure didn’t discourage the film’s backers. Olesya Bykova, executive director of the fund, said it plans a feature film, television series and interactive online projects targeted at a younger audience.

State-financed films have featured Kremlin foes, thinly disguised as fictional characters, as the bad guys. A character apparently modeled on the billionaire Boris Berezovsky plots terrorist attacks in the 2004 film “Personal Number.” Berezovsky fled to London in 2001 after a falling out with Putin.

“The Apocalypse Code” and “Personal Number” were among the winners of the revived Soviet-era award for best works of art that “form a positive image of FSB officers.”