Putin and Medvedev Go to Hollywood

Moscow's best political battles are being fought on the big screen.

[amazon B003OIQYKK full]THE RECENT Putin-Medvedev spat over Libya exposed deep rifts at the highest levels of Russia's political leadership and among the ruling elite. Yet, power struggles in Russia never disappear, they only become less visible—what Winston Churchill once called “bulldog fights under the rug.” These political struggles often play out in other arenas: journalism, literature, cinema and television.

Discerning the messages and political affiliations of their creators and political clients while watching Russian movies and TV programs is a worthy and fun substitute for Soviet-era Kremlinology. Unfortunately, U.S. policy makers and experts often are too busy keeping up with newsworthy events, and so fail to track Russia’s less in-your-face revelations. That’s unfortunate. Filmmakers from Leni Riefenstahl to Sergey Eisenstein (director of the 1925 classic film, Battleship Potemkin) have clearly played tremendous roles in reflecting—and even predicting—how the regimes they served would evolve.

SINCE 2004, most political struggles in Russia no longer occur in the Duma, which is firmly in the hands of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia majority. Instead, proxy wars race around TV screens and movie theaters.

A veritable ode to “stability”—an important message of Putin’s—was presented in a very well-done series Brezhnev. It made the bushy-eye-browed secretary-general human, highlighting his love of boar hunting, picnicking with friends, collecting jokes about himself, and, yes, frolicking with his nurse, played by Maria Shukshina. Suddenly, the bipolar Cold War world order, and the stagnation (zastoy) which, after his death, gave way to perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union, did not look so bad. The message: We may have another zastoy under Putin, but at least it provides stability and improving living standards.

And then there is the cult of security and spy services. As KGB graduates heavily populate Russia’s upper echelons, both in business and politics, it is easy to guess which client base shows like KGB in Tuxedo and Spetsgruppa (Three from the FSB) these TV series and movies serve. Both are image-boosting efforts lapped up by Russians just like their American counterparts enjoying La Femme Nikita, 24 and my personal favorite, Sleeper Cell.

But we mustn't forget the formative experience of the twentieth century: World War II, or as it is known in Russia, The Great Patriotic War. World War II is a more complicated issue. Truly a heroic event (the Soviet Union lost up to 25 million people), the war triggered countless acts of selflessness and self-sacrifice in a country devastated by Communist atrocities, agricultural collectivization and Stalinist purges. It united the population and forced a partial and tentative rehabilitation of the Orthodox Church as a means to call the Russian people to arms.

However, the war as it is used in Russian TV and cinema conveys messages of the hostile encirclement of Russia. It emphasizes threats from the West (not the east or the south) and at times applauds the alleged unity between the peoples of the Soviet Union and the Communist party. The war is also used to reinforce messages of faith, self-sacrifice, and inspired leadership. The implication: No one other than Vladimir Putin is capable of leading Russia in the current hard times of international turbulence. And no one articulates that message louder and clearer than the grand old man of the Russian cinema, Nikita Mikhalkov.

MIKHALKOV CASTS a giant shadow in Russian cinema. He was born in 1945, to a couple who were famous writers of children's poetry, Sergey Mikhalkov and Natalia Konchalovskaya. It certainly helped his career that his father wrote lyrics to three Soviet/Russian national anthems, from Stalin to Putin, penned movie scripts, and was always close to power.

Nevertheless, Nikita Mikhalkov’s talent is there for all to see in such films as Burnt by the Sun and Twelve. He has led the Russian cinema guild since 2007 and chaired the Moscow film festival. His movies and acting repeatedly won top prizes in Nice, Cannes, and other cinematic venues. And he is also a successful producer. His ThreeTees movie studio received ample funding for the sequel, Burnt by the Sun 2 and a TV series based on the film. The VTB state-owned bank provided $14.5 million; Vneshekonom, also a state-owned bank, kicked in $5.5 million; Gazprombank, $6.15 million; and the Ministry of Culture and the State Cinema Fund, another $3.35 million. The state TV channel VGTRK will have parted with close to $10 million for the TV-series rights. Altogether, the studio attracted close to $40 million in state funding.

Mikhalkov’s friendship with, and admiration of, Vladimir Putin, is there for all to see as well. He produced a Putin birthday show for national TV in 2007, and signed a petition for him to stay on for a third term—something the Russian Constitution prohibits.