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Does Putin, Like Lenin, See Film As 'Most Important Of The Arts'?

Putin has stated that state-supported media should promote national values
Putin has stated that state-supported media should promote national values

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has announced that he will head a government panel on the film industry, leading many to worry about a return to communist-style state command over this crucial art form.

The new government advisory council is the result of an idea first floated at a conference on the future of cinema in St. Petersburg in October. Putin co-hosted that conference with director Nikita Mikhalkov, who heads the Russian Cinematographers Union.

Although many in the film community are pleased to have the government's attention, others -- like film critic Yury Bogomolov -- worry that it is ideologically driven, following the Soviet-era practice of harnessing the influential medium to boost patriotism and support for the state.

"Now it looks as if at the highest levels of government, cinema is once again becoming the most important art form, just as television is the most important means of communication,” Bogomolov said. “But television is just television, and cinema -- that is the engine for building myths, which the government sorely needs.”

“It seem that Prime Minister Putin has clearly recognized this – not without the help of Nikita Mikhalkov,” Bogomolov continued. “Just compare how Nazi Germany, in order to create its myths, placed its money on architecture, while the totalitarian Soviet Union was backing cinema. Now you can judge for yourself how much more successful the latter choice was."

Golden Age Of Cinema

Under the Soviet regime, cinema was entirely controlled by the state. Soviet leaders Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin viewed film as an ideal way of indoctrinating the undereducated Soviet masses. Lenin himself famously remarked, "Cinema, for us, is the most important of the arts." Directors who produced films that promoted the Soviet system or whitewashed its shortcomings were lauded and their works were widely distributed. Others either saw their films locked away unseen in vaults or were unable to make films at all.

Nonetheless, many remarkable and popular films appeared during the Soviet period, from those of Sergei Eisenstein in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, to postwar comedies like "The Kuban Cossacks" and "Volga, Volga," and war-themed classics like "Ballad Of A Soldier" and "The Cranes Are Flying." In the late Soviet period, audiences never seemed to tire of films like the serial "Seventeen Moments Of Spring" and the holiday classic "The Irony Of Fate." Many of these films remain staples of Russian television today.

During the hard economic times of the 1990s, the Russian film industry ground to a halt, unable to compete with a flood of foreign films freely available for the first time. Under Vladimir Putin, though, the sector made a remarkable comeback. With generous funding from state agencies -- including the military and the security agencies, all of which have budgets to support media projects that depict them positively -- Russian filmmaking has returned in a big way.

With some 250 films in production in 2007, more than 100 of them fully or partially funded by government agencies, Russia is now Europe's second-largest filmmaker after France. The Defense Ministry and the Orthodox Church have launched their own channels with considerable airtime to fill. Three Russian films were nominated for Academy Awards this year.

Russian Values

Putin has made no secret of his belief that state media, including film, and the schools should actively promote patriotism and national values. The new government advisory panel therefore has some industry observers concerned that the state's role will become increasingly ideological.

Producer Sergei Chliyants told RFE/RL that the council could take either of two directions. “I have said myself that we need the commitment of the senior leader or leaders in order to resolve some of the worst problems -- but these are problems outside the artistic sphere,” he said. “It will be bad if the Putin council begins to read scripts, or dictates what are the socially significant themes, or follows a path of vertical integration and forcing the consolidation of the industry under certain well-known structures.”

On the other hand, Chliyants said, “if this organization combats [intellectual] piracy, helps improve relations between cinema and television or between domestic filmmakers and foreign ones, helps get past some shortcomings in the policies of advancing and promoting our films abroad, then it is good. Because it is true that in our country you can only get something done with the support of the senior leaders."

The government decree on the formation of the advisory council offers few clues as to what direction it will take, saying only that it will "promote the activity of federal structures, cultural figures, and business in matters relating to the development of domestic filmmaking." It will "develop programs for state support for the production, distribution, and presentation of domestic films."

Putin's right-hand man in reviving Russian film over the last decade has been Nikita Mikhalkov, one of Russia's best-known directors and a former Unified Russia Duma deputy. His moody 1994 film "Burnt By The Sun" captured the grinding daily tension of the height of Stalin's purges and won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Mikhalkov has headed the Russian Cinematographers Union since 1997.

Mikhalkov is a strong supporter of Putin. Last year, he produced a glowing television biography of Putin to mark the then-president's 55th birthday, and he provoked controversy by issuing an open letter in the name of the union urging Putin to remain as president for a third term, despite a constitutional ban on his doing so.

This week in Moscow, the Cinematographers Union held a disputed congress that Mikhalkov denounced as illegitimate. The union membership is sharply divided over Mikhalkov's authoritarian style and concerned that his close relationship with Putin could result in less independence for filmmakers.

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.