In January, Andrei Alekseyev received a letter from religious activists warning that movie theaters like his “could burn” if they showed a forthcoming film about a romantic liaison of Russian Tsar Nicholas II, who has been canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church.
The letter, signed by a group calling itself Christian State-Holy Rus, claimed to have members across Russia prepared to sacrifice their lives for its “true Orthodox Christian path” and said that showing the film, titled Matilda, could lead to bloodshed and “civil war.”
The controversy over the film, which tells of a romance between the unmarried crown prince and ballet dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya, mounted in the ensuing months, thanks in part to denunciations of the project by a controversial federal lawmaker.
But the warnings of violence in the letter, which other Russian cinema owners also received, now appear ominously prescient.
Over the past two weeks, unidentified assailants tossed Molotov cocktails into the St. Petersburg studio of Matilda director Aleksei Uchitel and set fire to two cars near his lawyer’s Moscow office, leaving behind leaflets reading, "To Burn for Matilda."
Authorities also said that a man who opposed the film, set for nationwide screenings on October 26, set fire to a car at the entrance of a cinema in the city of Yekaterinburg on September 4, and that the small blaze spread to the theater’s entrance.
Russia’s largest cinema chain on September 12 announced it would not show Matilda, citing safety concerns for audiences.
Alekseyev, founder of the Kinoklub Neft movie theater in the city of Yaroslavl, said the Christian State letter “set off a wave of apprehension around Matilda” among cinema owners.
“Then these so-called activists moved from words to actions,” he told RFE/RL.
The violence has thrust the previously obscure Christian State into the national limelight. Here are five things you need to know about the group, which denies any links to the incidents.
What Is 'Christian State-Holy Rus'?
Precisely when the group appeared remains unclear, though its purported leader, Aleksandr Kalinin, told RFE/RL in a September 14 telephone interview that it was formed in 2010. Kalinin, 33, claims the group has around 350 “active members” in 240 cities in almost every Russian region. Its first apparent mention in the media was in January following the letters to movie theaters.
Kalinin, who lives in the city of Lipetsk, has been publishing religious-themed YouTube videos since 2012. In the earliest video posted on his YouTube channel, he tells of a religious transformation he had after what he says was a near-death experience:
Another senior member of the group is an activist known as Miron Kravchenko, who, curiously, was the reported founder of a group in Ukraine opposed to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kalinin was quoted by one independent newspaper as saying in February that Kravchenko had wanted to fight on “both sides” of the conflict between Kyiv and Moscow over Russia’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea territory and alleged backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
What's Its Beef With Matilda?
Like other conservative opponents of Matilda, Christian State considers the film an insult to the Russian Orthodox Church and Nicholas, whose affair with Kshesinskaya was well-documented but is denied by the activists. The romance ended in 1884, when Nicholas married the German princess who became Empress Alexandra.
WATCH: A trailer (in Russian) for Matilda
“It’s not just a film. It’s the beginning of a broad program to destroy the spiritual basis of our country,” Kalinin told RFE/RL.
What Have Russian Officials Said?
Critics of Putin have accused him of helping to foster a sense of impunity among militant religious and nationalist activists, including with a 2013 law backed by conservatives that bans gay “propaganda” from being disseminated to children. Rights groups call the law discriminatory.
In the Matilda standoff, however, the Kremlin has publicly criticized Christian State by name, accusing it of attacks against Uchitel, the film’s director.
“We specially consulted with the Justice Ministry. There is no such registered organization,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in February, adding that the director was being targeted by “anonymous extremists.”
Two Russian lawmakers have asked the Interior Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) to look into possible extremist activities by the group, Uchitel’s lawyer was quoted by Interfax as saying on September 13.
What Does The Russian Orthodox Church Say?
The church distanced itself from the group in February after the Christian State letter was sent to Russian movie theaters, with a church spokesman saying the group has no right to speak for the church and does not represent the Russian Orthodox community.
Reactions to the film “should not go beyond the confines of the law or be accompanied by any threats or extremist behavior,” Russian Church Synod spokesman Vakhtang Kipshidze said.
Asked about the group’s ties to the church, Kalinin told RFE/RL that his group has good relations with Orthodox clergy throughout Russia. He claimed that Christian State works with “dozens” of “rather serious organizations” that he declined to name.
Kalinin told RFE/RL and other news outlets on September 14 that he believes a wave of anonymous bomb threats across Russia that have triggered mass evacuations in recent days are linked to anti-Matilda activists.
The group claimed that it had received an anonymous e-mail on September 10, shortly before the threats began, warning of an “information attack on cinemas and Russian infrastructure” as part of an Orthodox campaign against the film. No information corroborating that claim has emerged.
As with the recent violent attacks linked to Matilda, Kalinin denied his group was involved in the bomb threats. Explosives have not been found in any of the incidents.
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, a respected Russian extremism researcher, said that he had never heard of Christian State until the Matilda dustup and that “real violence is a very rare thing among Orthodox fundamentalists and ultraconservatives.”
Verkhovsky, head of the Moscow-based Sova Center, added that “militant Orthodox activists were driven previously mostly by nationalist sentiments rather than religious ones.”
“Acts of religiously motivated violence have happened, but we could not talk about stable violent groups of that kind -- as opposed to nationalist groups,” he told RFE/RL. “Maybe now things are changing.”