A loss of control and the politics of memory

ZOiS Spotlight 28/2017 by Regina Elsner (25 October 2017)

Film still from 'Mathilde'. © Kinostar Filmverleih GmbH

On 26 October, the most talked about film of the year will be released in Russian cinemas. Matilda depicts a passionate romance between the heir to the Russian throne, Nikolai Aleksandrovich Romanov, and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya. The relationship ends with the marriage of the future tsar, who was made a saint in the year 2000. The film is based on historical facts but does not restrict itself to the accuracy of documentaries. For over a year, the film’s premiere caused controversial public debate. Even for Russia, where art and culture have been regular triggers for protests from conservative circles in recent years, the furore around Matilda is notable.

The film’s trailer alone led to numerous protests. Natalya Poklonskaya, a member of the Russian parliament, or Duma, asked the state authorities several times to investigate the film and its finances. Several self-proclaimed orthodox groups organised demonstrations. The previously unknown organisation “Christian State—Holy Rus” threatened cinema employees in Russia and announced that any publicity or preview of the trailer and film would be seen as ‘an attempt to degrade the saints of the Orthodox Church and to provoke a “Russian Maidan”’, a reference to the Euromaidan antigovernment protests in Ukraine of 2013–14. A petition to ban the film has collected almost 25,000 signatures since October 2016, and a wider church-backed collection of signatures has gathered 100,000.

A culture of aggravation and denunciation

Russia’s leading politicians spoke out in support of the film and called for moderation from its critics. In August 2017, the culture ministry finally allowed the film to be released. That led to a new wave of protests: demonstrations; attacks on the film studio of director Aleksey Uchitel, on cars outside his lawyer’s apartment, and on a cinema in Yekaterinburg; an announcement by the Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia that the film would not be shown in those regions; and threatening letters to the film’s foreign leading actors. Some cinema operators declared that they would not screen the film as they could not ensure the audience’s safety.

On 20 September, the leader of the organisation Christian State, Aleksander Kalinin, was arrested. As the number of threats had significantly decreased, cinema operators put the film back on their listings. Where presales had already started, tickets sold out very quickly. Shortly before the premiere, the public hysteria about a film nobody had seen seemed to have subsided. However, all of the film’s foreign actors said they would boycott the premiere, fearing assault after receiving personal threats. The heated rhetoric around Matilda illustrates how in recent years, and with political and church support, a culture of harassment and denunciation has arisen, with violent excesses that are now hard to rein in.

This type of protest is not new. Every year, cinemas in Russia are threatened or shut down, while cinema goers are attacked and intimidated, for example at the annual LGBTQI film festival Bok-o-Bok. Such assaults have not led to any sort of outcry, either nationally or internationally, nor have they had any legal consequences for the attackers: the hateful tirades are in line with the state’s homophobic policies. Now, however, religious resentment is turning against a state-backed film. Recently tightened legislation aimed at protecting religious feelings from extremism has anchored the view in society’s consciousness that any means are justified to defend the Russian people and fatherland from allegedly destructive forces. The state formally condemns acts of violence but at the same time fosters a sense of impunity for those who say they merely want to ensure Russia’s protection.

Yet violently defending orthodox values goes against the teachings of the Russian Orthodox Church and poses considerable problems for church leaders. Up to now, radical, fundamentalist orthodoxy has been a marginal phenomenon in the church, and pro-monarchy groups do not represent the mainstream either. The church leadership has distanced itself several times from the recent violent protests but described the film itself as blasphemous and demanded that the concerns of the population be taken seriously. After two decades of targeted support for traditionalist and imperialist views, however, the church leadership now lacks the tools to put clear water between itself and radical forces.

A church powerless to distance itself

One reason for this is the reverence of saints. According to the church’s official position, the veneration of saints is by no means connected with a taboo of their worldly life., especially in the case of saints who are worshipped not for their pious lives but because of their violent deaths as martyrs. Tsar Nicholas II and his family belong to the latter group. Yet the superstitious popular piety of recent years has been so strongly supported by the church authorities that it has become impossible to offer a convincing rebuttal of the inflated holy status attributed to the last tsar.

At the same time, the controversy around Matilda demonstrates the church’s complicated relationship to the historical events of the twentieth century. A repeated criticism of the film is that such a profane production is not an appropriate way to mark this year’s centenary of the Russian Revolution and the death of the tsar’s family. But the church’s demand that instead of protesting against the film people should be spreading the tsar’s ‘true story’ breaks down because there is no narrative that goes beyond inflating the tsar’s holiness and demonising treason and weakness of the faith of the intelligentsia. The church itself has not set out any consistent concept of how to mark the centenary, and what is missing more than anything today is a critical reassessment of the revolution and its consequences. Indeed, a critical consideration of the emperor, an acknowledgement of societal plurality, and a self-critical view of the church’s position at the start of the twentieth century could necessitate a re-evaluation of the state of society, politics, and the church in Russia today—a delicate task in every respect.

The fact that Matilda caused such widespread public debate even before its premiere shows that the church’s avoidance of the needed historical reappraisal of the twentieth century has not gone unnoticed. The violent escalation of protest in the name of orthodoxy appeals to the media and plays into the hands of those in both church and state who try to shirk uncomfortable questions about the revolution and the present.


Regina Elsner is a research associate at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.