Outbreak of violence over movie stuns Russian observers


For the first time in Russia, zealots of Christian piety resort to acts of terror

by Andrei Melnikov

Nezavisimaia Gazeta—Religii, 6 September 2017


When the secretive organization "Christian State—Sacred Rus" early in the year threatened to blow up movie theaters where Aleksei Uchitel's film "Matilda" will be shown, many considered these warnings to be the vacuous bragging of marginal figures. Meanwhile, threats continued to arrive even later. The latest of them is dated August. And now it really has blazed up.


Early in the morning of 4 September, a man behind the wheel of a UAZ van rammed the entrance to the "Kosmos" movie theater in Ekaterinburg. The vehicle was filled with gas canisters and the driver, jumping from the cab, threw a bottle with a flammable mixture into the foyer of the theater. He was counting on the fact that the fire that started would engulf the vehicle and cause the gas in the canisters to explode. However the flame was rather quickly doused and the intentions of the miscreant were not realized.


The criminal was questioned. He explained that his name was Denis Murashov and he had arrived in Ekaterinburg the day before and had spent all the preceding day in the church on the Blood, dedicated to the memory of Nicholas II, and then "drove to the cinema." The goal was the movie theater and Ekaterinburg was the city where the most striking events occurring in the course of the year of the campaign against "Matilda" unfolded. All of this permitted one quickly to suppose that the attack was inspired by the hysteria flaring up among opponents of the film that, in their opinion, dishonors the memory of the tsar whom the Russian Orthodox Church has glorified as a new martyr and saint. reported, citing acquaintances of the attacker, that he was hostile to Uchitel's film. News media investigated Murashov's social network accounts and discovered evidence of his interest in issues of political Orthodoxy. An analysis of the content permitted one to suppose that the man is close to marginalized trends of native Orthodoxy which practices the cult of dubious saints and professes extreme intolerance with respect to heterodoxy.


A week earlier, the St. Petersburg studio of the director of the film, which had become controversial even before its reaching the screen, was bombed with bottles with flammable mixture. The fire in the studio did not so much do material damage as turn the discussion about a film about a love affair of the Russian emperor and a ballerina from the area of verbal provocation into the sphere of illegal violence.


Many regarded the incidents in Ekaterinburg and St. Petersburg to be the result of a campaign that was conducted against Uchitel's film by State Duma deputy and former prosecutor of Crimea Natalia Poklonskaia. This process was marked by a number of stages, each of which unveiled yet more absurd pages in the story of the development of native political culture. Here there were both appeals to the prosecutor's office and prayer vigils by Orthodox activists, that went so far as for Poklonskaia to discuss, with pictures in her hands, the creative path of the porn actor who plays the role of Nicholas II. The tone of the discussion, descending all the way to vaudeville operatic notes, suddenly turned to acts of political terror.


In this struggle, Poklonskaia is supported by a number of famous figures, among whom is the priest and former functionary of the Moscow patriarchate Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin. He devoted a bunch of statements and remarks to the topic of the struggle with "Matilda", particularly on 4 September, that is, after the incident in the "Kosmos" movie theater, when Chaplin made a note on a social network in which he supported Poklonskaia's searches in the region of pornography. "Mr. Aidinger (the actor playing the role of the tsar—NGR) in his account is playing with all his might with satanic symbols and tries to belittle Christian symbols," the priest writes. "Do not tell me, after this, that the selection of this actor for the role of Tsar Nicholas was accidental. I am really convinced that 'Matilda' is occultic, mystical, and satanic manipulation of Russia. Symbolic regicide. Even if not all of the makers of the film fully recognized this."


However, official church representatives hastened to condemn Murashov's action. In the evening of 4 September, the Ekaterinburg diocese of the RPTs issued a special statement that was posted on the diocese's website. "We consider the attack and attempt to set fire to the 'Kosmos' movie theater to be an unprecedented socially dangerous act deserving of unconditional condemnation and the punishment of the guilty parties, no matter what motives guided them," the report says. However in this text the condemnation of the misdeed received less space than complaints that the opinion of believing people is not taken into consideration and that there is no dialogue regarding "Matilda." "We express our fear that in the year of the 100th anniversary of the tragic demise of the tsarist family, the exhibit of artistic works that divide the citizens of Russia cannot be a means for building peace and mutual respect," the diocese also declares. Thus the diocese seems to shift the responsibility for what has happened to those who defend the director's right to free creativity.


Aleksei Uchitel himself accused Natalia Poklonskaia of supporting terrorists. "We see before our eyes how a kind of new religious terrorist organization is being formed. Which has nothing to do with either Russian traditions or true Orthodoxy. They are interested only in destabilizing society, violence, and war. We know the names of those who stand behind them," news media quoted a press release of the director. He said that behind them stands Poklonskaia, who "does not hide that she supports these organizations and provides them cover." Just which organizations he is specifically talking about is not clarified.


Meanwhile Orthodox public figures from the movement "Forty Forties," who participated in the all-Russian "prayer vigil against 'Matilda'" on 1 August, suggested to the director its defense after the first attack on Uchitel's studio in St. Petersburg. "The incident at Mr. Uchitel's studio is a provocation, intended to denigrate believers who are reasonably protesting against his film 'Matilda.' For us, the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' is inviolable," the leader of the movement, Andrei Kormukhin, declared. He suggested that an attack on the director was being prepared. Uchitel rejected the protection of "Forties." "Why do they want to protect me, and from whom, from myself, is that it?" RIA Novosti quoted the author of "Matilda." Meanwhile another "vigil" against the film was scheduled by Orthodox activists for 17 September. We recall that the film itself has still not been seen by anybody and the premiere will occur only in October.


This struggle with a film that nobody has seen and feelings that have been offended by a mirage of alleged sacrilege give to the situation a somewhat absurd and at the same time sinister character. One gets that feeling that the issue is not the specific film but a demonstrative, psychological (so far!) execution of the so-called creative class (one can use the good old word "intelligentsia"). The business of the theater director Kirill Serebrennikov also fits into this context. Although forces near the church are not formally engaged in discussions regarding the avant-garde director, but in the discussions few refer to the essence of corruption charges against Serebrennikov, the conversation occurs in a context of the opposition of the Gogol Center with the conservative aesthetic of official art. Opponents note the "immorality" and "cosmopolitanism" of the director, and supporters note the liberal fraternity and rejection of "spiritual bonds."


Thus, the ominous attention of the most obscurantist forces in the religious community is turned to the representatives of modern culture and, more widely, the intelligentsia. In its turn, the intelligentsia is disarmed by its piety before the religious agenda, considering the obscurantist manifestations as intrigues of the political "regime" and not the natural substance of religious practice. On one hand, the permissiveness of the zealots of the "bond", and on the other hand, the splendid illusions of the liberal fronde transform political ecclesiasticism into an ideological weapon against the creative class.


This process permits making real what until recently was mere fantasy: an Orthodox Taliban or Orthodox ISIL (Islamic State). Perhaps the 4th of September 2017 will become in our memory the day when native zealots of Christian piety took recourse to methods of serious, and not just operetta, terror. (tr. by PDS, posted 6 September 2017)

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