The last film tsar of all the Russias

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST 6,000 people will today gather in the Kremlin for the world premiere of a film that is not only the most expensive in Russian history, but which also sets out to work a miracle - to lift Russia out of its post-Soviet decline, bring back its emigres, and reconcile its divisions.

It will be a gala occasion, a rare taste of Hollywood in the middle of a long winter, made bleaker than ever by an unshakeable economic depression. Memories of August's crash - which destroyed the emerging middle class and wiped noughts from the bank balances of oligarchs - will be temporarily suspended, at least by the gilded few.

These are various. Those invited to view The Barber of Siberia include Alexei II, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church; Russia's ascendant Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov; the film director Steven Spielberg; and a long list of leading lights from politics, diplomacy, journalism and the arts. It was unclear last night if Boris Yeltsin will take up his invitation, but his wife, Naina, is expected.

The film cost $45m (pounds 28m), an unprecedented figure in the Russian movie industry. Most of it was raised in the West. It is the work of the actor- director Nikita Mikhalkov, who won an Oscar in 1995 for the classic Burnt by the Sun, but who won acclaim long before for movies including Slave of Love (1976) and Oblomov (1979). It stars Richard Harris and Julia Ormond, who are also expected at tonight's fur-wrapped parade of the great, the good, and not- so-good. The moustachioed Mikhalkov himself plays a cameo part, as Tsar Alexander III.

This is apt. These days, Mikhalkov, 53, is not only a giant of the Russian film industry and its chief international advocate. He is also a figure on the political landscape, tirelessly preaching what he brands as "enlightened conservatism" - beliefs which include a constitutional monarchy, politics by "evolution not revolution", Russian Orthodoxy, and the urgent need to restore Russia's self-respect.

He recently revealed that he would "think seriously" about running for the presidency. No matter that his remarks looked suspiciously like a pre-launch publicity stunt, the Russian press fell on them, eagerly factoring him into the endless national debate about Mr Yeltsin's successor.

But Mikhalkov is not waiting for any ballot. He has flirted with the electorate before, winning a parliamentary seat in 1995 under the list system as a member of the government party, Our Home is Russia. (He turned it down, despite having earlier insisted that he wanted to be an MP.) The movie itself is his vehicle, his outlet for intense patriotism - a trait shared with his father, who wrote the words to the Soviet national anthem.

"When Italy lost the war its movie-makers raised the country from ruins," Mikhalkov said this week. "People paid their last pennies to see films because they gave them hope and strength ... I want the people who emigrated from Russia to see my film. I want them to return to raise the country up with their hearts, their labours and their minds."

Spoken like a patriot, a man who - as a genealogical chart on his office wall reportedly reveals - can trace his lineage to Catherine the Great. No surprise, then, that he will toast his film in the post-screening banquet with the words "To the Fatherland" to the music of Glinka's "To the Glory of the Tsar".

But tonight's event has another dimension, valued by this struggling society. It will be brandished as further evidence that Russia's once- mighty film industry - after years in the doldrums - could be on the up. Recovery has been painfully slow. The first major modern cinema complex did not open in Moscow until 1996. The country's 2,000 other urban cinemas are all too often dingy, pungent and empty. In 1996, only 20 films were released in Russia, a dismal level only previously matched in the last repressive years of Stalin. Last year, that figure rose to 46. It is, at least, progress.

Whether Mikhalkov ultimately succeeds in his aim of currying up the battered Slavic sense of pride is uncertain. It may not be as easy as he thinks. He is likely to be criticised for making too many concessions to the Western punter - much of the dialogue is in English. The film, an epic 19th-century love story, is said to have a marked Hollywood texture.

The whiff of Hollywood has also infused the hype, which has reach an unprecedented level for a Russian film. The Paris fashion house, Hermes, has produced Barber of Siberia silk scarves. A Russian perfume firm, Novaya Zarya, has released two Barber scents. Phone cards are going on sale, with Barber logos. There is a website. And after dining on pancakes, caviar, pies, vodka and champagne, the premiere guests will be able to loosen their belts and cummerbunds and smoke Barber cigars. Beverly Hills would love it. But will Russia?