Moscow Raid on Movie Theater Closes ‘The Death of Stalin’
Posted January 27, 2018 6:32 p.m. EST
MOSCOW — A Moscow movie theater that bucked an official ban on showing “The Death of Stalin,” a British black comedy about the Soviet dictator’s death, has halted screenings after a police raid Friday.
In a Facebook post, Pioner Cinema wrote that the 2017 film, by director Armando Iannucci, which had been playing to sold-out crowds, had been pulled as of Saturday “due to circumstances beyond our control” and directed further queries to Russia’s Ministry of Culture, which had quashed it. The post was accompanied by an image of graffiti reading “Free Speech Conditions Apply” by a well-known street artist.
Alexander Mamut, a billionaire known for cutting-edge cultural projects, owns the art house cinema as well as two major Russian movie theater chains, leading to speculation that “The Death of Stalin” standoff indicates conflict among Russia’s elites.
Ola Cichowlas, an AFP journalist, tweeted photographs of the raid. As of Saturday, it was not clear which law enforcement agency was behind it. An official of the Moscow branch of the Investigative Committee, Russia’s equivalent of the FBI, told the Tass news agency that it had nothing to do with the raid.
Vladimir Medinsky, Russia’s culture minister, took to Twitter to oppose the film. Around the time of the Friday raid he posted angry comments by the daughter of Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the storied Soviet World War II commander who is depicted in the film as a member of Stalin’s bumbling entourage jockeying for power after his death.
“This is a revolting film and a mockery of our history, our heroes, in particular of my father,” Maria Zhukova told the Russian Military Historical Society, an organization that promotes Medinsky’s ideological causes. “The way in which all Soviet people are depicted is quite simply offensive. First of all for the descendants of those depicted in it and likewise for war veterans.”
Pioner Cinema is near Victory Park, Moscow’s main World War II monument.
The culture ministry revoked the distribution license for “The Death of Stalin” on Tuesday and two days later, just as Pioner started screenings, issued a statement saying that violators could face fines or shutdowns of up to 90 days. It also noted that cultural figures who had written a letter to Medinsky calling for the film’s ban had found that it “contains information that can be evaluated as extremist, directed toward abasing the dignity of Russian (Soviet) people.”
“Extremism” has been used in Russia in recent years as a blanket charge applied both against those who are considered terrorists and those who have crossed ideological lines.
Several people who purportedly signed the letter have denied doing so in recent days, but one actual signer, Yelena Drapeko, an actress turned outspoken parliamentarian, upped the ante Wednesday, calling for the formation of a “council on morality” to serve as a cultural watchdog. Her words stoked fears about creeping Stalinism and censorship in Russia.
Perhaps the quirkiest claim against the film came from Stalin’s great-grandson, Jacob Jugashvili, who wrote on Facebook that the creators of “The Death of Stalin” are unlikely to “make a comedy called ‘The Death of Kim Il Sung,'” because North Korea, unlike Russia, is a strong country that will not stand for it.
“'The Death of Stalin’ appeared only because WE allowed them to do this,” wrote Jugashvili.
On Saturday, Pioner Cinema was silent as a tomb, showing Michael Haneke’s dismal “Happy End.” “Paddington 2,” which faced its own travails recently when its release was pushed back by the Culture Ministry to make way for “Going Vertical,” a patriotic basketball film, was also on the day’s schedule.