Russia's ban on 'The Death of Stalin' is unprecedented since fall of Soviet Union

That decision has raised fears about the return of censorship and the further rehabilitation of one of history’s tyrants

Oliver Carroll
Wednesday 24 January 2018 17:47 GMT
The Death of Stalin trailer

“The comedy The Death of Stalin has been banned,” wrote the writer Vladimir Voinovich on Facebook. “Because for those banning it, Stalin is still alive – and that is no comedy.”

On Tuesday, the Russian ministry of culture made a dramatic last-minute decision to withdraw the screening licence of Armando Iannucci’s dark satire. That decision – the first ever of its kind in post-Soviet Russia – has raised fears about the return of censorship and the further rehabilitation of one of history’s tyrants.

But there seems to be more to the story than first meets the eye. We may not fully understand the mechanism in which the ministry decided the film was not fit for cinemas, a few weeks after being issued with a licence. Reading between the lines of often muddled official positions, it appears many contexts were at play: business, politics, wounded pride and possibly even incompetence. The Ministry’s recent backtracking of a decision to postpone the film Paddington 2 – to prioritise a Russian film being released on the same day – may have played a crucial role.

At least some of the conservative reaction seemed to be as real as it was righteous.

Celebrated filmmaker Vladimir Bortko, a signatory to the letter announcing the ban, said the film was a “tremendous abomination”. The only reason it was produced was to denigrate the Communist Party, he said: “For some reason, they say it’s a comedy ... There is so much hatred in this film. It will not be shown.”

Another high-profile signatory to the letter was the Oscar-winning director Nikita Mikhalkov, who is a friend of the president. Mikhalkov claimed the film was “unprofessional” – from the acting through to the camera work. “It’s not a film so much as a speculative operation unworthy of discussion,” he said.

Pavel Pozhigailo, a member of ministry of culture’s advisory council described the film as “blasphemous”. “We don’t have to be a country of masochists,” he said. “This is insulting our national symbols. The trailer goes out using our national anthem and it shows our great war marshals as ... I don’t know how else to put it ... idiots.”

Nadezhda Usmanova, head of the Russian Military Historical Society’s department of information, said the film was “vile, repugnant and insulting”. Usmanova’s group is closely associated with the controversial culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, and organised the secret screenings that led to the ban.

Styling himself as a patriotic historian, the controversial Medinsky has written several books on “Western myths” about Russia. Much to the chagrin of liberals, he has built huge influence in the Russian arts during six years in power. Under his watch, his ministry has become known for activist interventions in culture, financing patriotic films and exhibitions.

In November, the minister initially ruled out banning the Iannucci satire. “We have freedom of speech here,” he said. Explaining his U-turn on Wednesday, Medinsky said the withdrawal of the film’s licence was not censorship per se, but an attempt to draw “moral boundaries”. It could not be right that the film was due to be released on the anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad, he argued.

But it is unlikely the ban was driven only by patriotic considerations and new solidarity with Stalin. According to the president of the St Petersburg Politics Foundation, Mikhail Vinogradov, much of this looked like a local initiative, driven by anger: “Medinsky’s ministry wanted to save some face following the Paddington 2 debacle, and wanted to show it was still in the game. Stalin was the cover.”

Producer Yevgeny Gindilis, a member of the Russian Oscar committee, offered a similar assessment. “Paddington 2 galvanised the ministry and other ultra-nationalist forces into a counter-reaction,” he says. “On the one hand, they decided to battle against a film they don’t like. But on another they are trying to broaden the sense of what is and isn’t allowed. This was the first example of open censorship, banned by the constitution.”

According to Gindilis, the actions of the ministry were not intended to have any practical effect. “It’s a classic case of the Streisand effect – everyone will now want to watch the film, in cinemas or elsewhere,” he says. “No, Medinsky’s intervention is symbolic and part of a strategy of legalising prohibition.”

Both films – Paddington 2 and The Death of Stalin – are promoted by the same company, VolgaFilm. Its representatives told The Independent it was taking a “principled position” by not commenting on either situation.

The presidential administration has claimed it remained arms-length from the decision-making process. Speaking to journalists, presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov said the decision was the “prerogative of the ministry of culture and its experts”. Of course, it is likely they played an entirely supportive consultative role.

But the reaction from Russia’s other seat of government – Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s government was disapproving. On Tuesday evening, an unnamed government source was quoted in the Vedomosti newspaper, saying that the ministry decision “had undermined all confidence in the sector”. The Prime Minister had already ordered an inquiry into the Paddington 2 debacle, the source said; the scope would be extended.

Film critic and journalist Anton Dolin told The Independent that it was not unusual for the government to be sending mixed messages. “All the time we sense the two towers of the Kremlin – competing forces, gnawing their way through each other,” he said. “The world of culture often sees a multi-headed monster, and this may well be happening here.”

The apparent slapping-down of the culture minister in the Russian press raised another possibility: that this may not be the last episode or U-turn in the story. Tickets have yet to be pulled from several Moscow cinemas.

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