Critics fear the Russian Orthodox Church is encroaching on public life after a Russian film about Tsar Nikolai II is threatened with a ban due to insulting "religious sentiment among believers."
Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya was a beauty - and a real temptress. The prima ballerina from the world-renowned Mariinski Theater in St. Petersburg danced her way not only into the heart of theater audiences but also into the heart of Russian Tsar Nikolai II.
A love affair ensued, which Russia is now, more than 100 years later, set to learn about. At least that was the plan of Russian filmamker Alexei Uchitel, whose dream could now be struck down by Russia's religious public and the Kremlin-loyal representative of the Duma, Natalia Poklonskaya, who has twice engaged state prosecutors to stop the film's release.
Charge 1: insulting the monarchy
Poklonskaya and the Russian Orthodox organization "The Christian State - Holy Russia" are incensed that the film contains erotic scenes featuring the character of Nikolai II. They have not, however, seen the film themselves as it is first set for theater release in October.
Nikolai II, the last Russian tsar, who was murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918, has been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the logic of the complaints against th film, a saint may not have relations with anyone besides his wife, even more marriage - and especially not with a dancer. It is an insult to the monarchy to suggest as much. To add insult to injury, the tsar is played by a German actor, Lars Eidinger.
Charge 2: offending religious sentiment
Poklonskaya's first attempt at a ban was unsuccessful with state prosecutors. The judiciary found no reason for the ban after viewing the trailer to the movie. Now the Duma representative, who happens to have been the chief state prosecutor in the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula until just recently, is trying again with the accusation of "offending religious sentiment," which is an indictable charge.
The group "The Christian State - Holy Russia" has threatened to burn down cinemas that show "Matilda" and have spoken of tumult.
"Every film poster and advertisement with information about 'Matilda' will be seen as an attempt at diminishing the holiness of the Russian Orthodox Church and as a provocation to incite a 'Russian Maidan.'" The latter is a reference to the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine, named after the square in Kyiv where protests began in 2014.
The writers of the letter quoted above boasted that they have written to over 100 cinema directors, a move they said they made in order to fight "lawlessness" and "madness."
Russia's ministry of culture supported 'Matilda'
Uchitel, the director of "Matilda," sees ominous moral extremists at play behind the scenes. His spokesperson, Andre Shishkanov says he would like to use the law to go up against the organization and hopes to gain the support of the state in doing so. In an interview with DW, he says he is assured that Poklonskaya as well as a large spectrum of the Russian public would themselves be "persuaded by the highly artistic quality of the film, which by the way, received funding from the Russian ministry of culture."
The Kremlin has meanwhile criticized threats against Uchitel and his film, although Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said that such plots are totally unacceptable.
In an open letter, over 50 renowned Russian film directors have hit back against the creeping censorship in Russia, something which had destroyed artists' existences for decades during the Soviet Union and delayed artistic development: "We want to live in a global, democratic country, where censorship is not only forbidden on paper but also in reality."
'The truly religious wouldn't watch this film'
One of the signatories of the open letter is the Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky, director of the prize-winning documentary about North Korea, "Under the Sun." Speaking to DW, he criticized the church for using the opportunity to impose their beliefs on people. "I can remember times when people were chased out of the university because they went to church. I'm afraid that soon we will be chased out for not going to church."
Mansky blames the Russian Orthodox Church for not distancing themselves from the self-proclaimed "protectors of the faith" that are campaigning against "Matilda." He sees in the trailer to the film a clear warning to those who are too firm in their beliefs. "The truly religious wouldn't watch this film. This isn't a historical textbook, but a film story and a purely commercialized product which is set outside of the church and which now should be forbidden outside of the church? The next step would be to have the church tell me what I can do within my own four walls. And then in my head."
Church asks the sentiments of believers be respected
The press spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church, Wachtag Kipshidze, has tried to diffuse the discussion. "First we have to wait for the film to be released before we can judge it," he told DW. "Of course, one must respect the artistic liberties of the director. At the same time, one likewise has to consider the emotions of people who feel harmed by it."
The spokesperson did not want to speak directly on the subject of Poklonskaya's initiative to forbid "Matilda." "The church does not comment on the individual actions of government representatives and does not get involved in political arguments." But as a general rule, it would have been "better, if the director reached out to believers and gained greater understanding."
No sign of understanding
That has thus far not been the case - quite the opposite. Battle lines have been drawn, fronts hardened. Poklonskaya will not let up. Director Aleksei Uchitel wants to hold those who wrote the threatening letters responsible. For him, the action is a reminder of the "real banditry that took place in the chaotic 1990s."
His colleagues in the film industry are now starting a counter-protest campaign. They see the way the church is acting as a "moral censor" in this case as a further attack on social life in Russia. A life in which entire theater productions disappear from the program, as Wagner's "Tannhäuser" did recently in the Opera at Novosibirsk. Or in which an entire exhibition must close early, as did one by the avant-garde painter Vadim Sidur. One in which even the Hermitage in St. Petersburg cannot be spared from cries of people claiming to be "insulted" and "enraged" when modern works by Jan Fabre are hung alongside the old works.