Orthodox Christians in Russia have began a campaign of intimidation against a movie it regards as ‘blasphemous’ – and one radical Christian group even sent hundreds of letters to cinemas, warning they would “burn” if they dared screen Matilda.
The film, according to the BBC, is based on the love story of Russia’s last tsar and ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, before Nicholas married and took to the throne. They met after her graduation performance from the Imperial Ballet School. The dancer herself wrote that the mutual attraction was instant.
But Nicholas II was canonised in 2000 by the Orthodox Church, so campaigners say that exposure of his personal life is an insult.
Natalia Poklonskaya, above, a fervent young MP leading the campaign to block the autumn release of the film, huffed:
You can’t touch saints. You can’t show them having sex because that offends the feelings of believers.
Her office is decorated with portraits and icons of the last tsar. There’s now a pile of complaint letters too, which the MP says grows every day.
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.
A group calling itself “Christian State, Holy Russia” told the BBC that its letter against Matilda was not a threat to attack cinemas, though it certainly reads that way. But a spokesman claimed that “society” was angry at a film he said “spat in the face” of believers.
The film’s director, Alexei Uchitel, above, points out that his film received state funding, which involved what he called “expert checks” of the script. He denies that Matilda is in any way insulting.
Yes, Nicholas II and his family are saints, but it doesn’t mean we can’t describe their lives before they were tragically killed.
He says he has chosen this topic because he is deeply interested in Nicholas II as a historical figure and argues that the life of the last of the Romanovs must be open to exploration by the arts.
If you put a label on someone and say you can’t touch him, that’s just absurd.
He points out that neither Natalia Poklonskaya nor any of his other critics have actually seen the film they claim to be insulted by. Only a short trailer is publicly available on YouTube. The picture above is a screenshot.
I think this is a precedent which needs to be stopped. If not, the prosecutors will soon only be dealing with complaints from MPs who say people have been insulted in films, books and art. Of course I think that’s wrong. Categorically!
The row surrounding Matilda is just the latest instance of Orthodox believers’ pressure on the arts, a growing trend which senior cultural figures warn is returning Russia to the days of state ideology and restrictions.
Late last year, Orthodox activists got a performance of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar shut down in Omsk. Before that, a Wagner opera in Novosibirsk was banned as offensive and the director sacked.
In September, men in military-type uniform blocked the entrance to an exhibition by an American photographer they decreed pornographic. Inside, a protester on a moral crusade sprayed urine over the walls, shouting that culture should be “Russian”.
That and similar attacks prompted one of Moscow’s best-known theatre directors to warn that Russia was living in:
Very difficult, dangerous and frightening times.
Konstantin Raikin argued that such groups hide behind talk of patriotism, motherland and morals. In a passionate speech in Moscow, he suggested that their lenient treatment by the authorities suggested someone was itching to turn back the clock to the days of official control of the arts, and censorship.
Hat tip: AgentCormac