‘Blasphemous and Insulting’: Tsar Nicolas Romance Film Triggers Russian Outrage

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 28, 2017: A screening of his drama film Matilda for members of the Russian State Duma at the GUM Cinema. Artyom Geodakyan/TASS (Photo by Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images)
Artyom Geodakyan\TASS via Getty Images

The new film Matilda from director Aleksey Uchitel would appear at first glance to be a typical glamorous period drama, covering an affair between the eponymous ballerina and Tsar Nicholas II, who was ultimately executed after the Bolshevik Revolution.

The project has encountered angry resistance from “nationalist extremists,” as the Hollywood Reporter puts it because Nicholas II was designated a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. Also, 2017 is the one-hundredth anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

“Although only trailers of the film have so far been released, theaters that plan to show the film have been attacked, and last month Molotov cocktails were lobbed through the windows of Uchitel’s St Petersburg office. No one was injured,” the Hollywood Reporter writes.

The firebomb attack was not explicitly connected to Matilda by its perpetrators at the time, but another director working in the same building said he could think of no other motivation for the attack. Uchitel is Jewish, which may be another contributing factor to the angry response.

Deutsche Welle reports that a minibus rammed into a Yekaterinburg cinema, set to screen the film, and set it ablaze on September 4. It was deemed necessary to protect Uchitel with heavily armed security forces when he visited Vladivostok on September 11. On the same night, his lawyer’s car was burned. One of the suspects turned out to be a “Holy Rus” religious extremist in possession of stickers reading, “To burn for Matilda.”

Holy Rus, which also refers to itself as “Christian State,” posted a statement denouncing the film as insulting to Russian history and warning that it could inspire a violent response. Group leaders insisted Holy Rus was not planning to carry out attacks itself, although group members were quite boastful to Deutsche Welle about threatening to burn down theaters that screen the movie.

The Russian Orthodox Church has made an effort to respond to the movie with a poster campaign stressing Nicholas II’s love for his wife, quoting the “words about love” that passed between them.

The Russian Interior Ministry is said by the Hollywood Reporter to be “braced to maintain order during the period Matilda is on release but has not specified whether extra police will be deployed at movie theaters.”

Some observers believe the backlash to the film is part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to inspire nationalist fervor and associate his authoritarian government with the Russian Orthodox Church. However, Reuters notes that at least one high-ranking official of Putin’s government, Deputy Culture Minister Vladimir Aristarkhov, has spoken highly of the film and accused its detractors of slander. Uchitel himself says the Culture Ministry has been supportive of his project, and the state Cinema Foundation provided about a third of the funding.

Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov of the Orthodox Church’s Patriarchal Council on Culture, on the other hand, told Reuters the movie contains “lies about our history, lies about the circumstances of the life of the royal family,” and is “unbelievably crass.”

Shevkunov added that his church was not pushing for a ban on the film. A dozen Russian Orthodox protesters prayed outside the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on Monday when the premiere was held. Radio Free Europe reports other protesters appeared carrying signs with slogans like: “Matilda is a challenge to the Russian world,” while a “strong police presence” kept the peace.

Matilda apparently has been banned in the Muslim-dominated areas of Russia, including Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. Chechen minister Jambulat Umarov told Reuters the movie would pointlessly “stir up hatred” and “stir up rage,” adding that historical films should strive for strict accuracy and “not lead the viewer into the boudoir.”

Cinema chain Centrefilm of Moscow has also announced it will not show the movie, which it labeled, “blasphemous and insulting.”

Leading the campaign against Matilda is Natalia Poklonskaya, formerly the Crimean public prosecutor and currently a member of the Russian parliament. She claims that a bust of Nicholas II in Crimea oozed myrrh on the 100th anniversary of his overthrow, a “miracle that neither scientists nor anybody can explain” that proves “our sovereigns are helping us” after having “died so that we can make Russia flourish and great.”

When Deutsche Welle asked how she could so vigorously oppose the film without having seen anything but a brief trailer with a “chaste bedroom scene,” she replied to the effect that “one need not eat a whole bucket of crap in order to know how bad it tastes.”

Poklonskaya spent the past year working to ban the film, filing complaints with the government that invoked Russia’s laws against delivering “insults to religious feeling” but was unable to block the release, as the Prosecutor-General’s Office ruled in September that Matilda did not insult religious beliefs.

Poklonskaya’s own panel of experts defied a sizable body of evidence to the contrary in declaring the story of Nicholas and Matilda’s affair a “myth,” partly on the grounds that the ballerina was too “repulsive” and “ugly” to have enchanted a tsar. Matilda Kshesinskaya, whose family was Polish, was deemed by the panel to “crooked teeth” and a face that “makes her look like a rat.”

“What does this film bring? Does it teach love for one’s homeland? Does it teach patriotism, our family values, fidelity?” Poklonskaya asked in a TV interview. “You cannot insult the feelings of others with these stories, particularly on the basis of religion, on the basis of faith.”

Uchitel insists he views Nicholas II “no less respectfully and lovingly” than his nemesis Poklonskaya, telling Radio Free Europe that he sees the affair depicted in his movie as a case of “genuine love.”

“The film is about a person, and I think this is particularly interesting in the case of a saint,” he said. “It is about showing the viewer or the nation that it is not an icon or a statue, but a person who suffered, was tormented, who thought and made a choice, a choice in favor of our country. It was either [ruling] or freedom, love, and real feelings.”

Matilda is based on the diary and letters of ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, who met the tsar when she was 17 and wrote that she began her affair with him when she was 19. The affair supposedly ended when Nicholas married the German princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, who became Tsarina Alexandra, although there are claims they remained intermittent lovers after the marriage, and even that Kshesinskaya bore Nicholas a daughter.

The tsar, tsarina, and their children were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918. Matilda Kshesinskaya was exiled and died in Paris in 1971 at the age of 99. Her diary was not published for public review until this year.