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Legacy Issue: Comedy On Siege Of Leningrad Attracts The Spotlight

A scene from the film Holiday (Prazdnik) (Yan Tsapnik, Elena Babenko, Anfisa Chernykh, and Pavel Tabakov (left to right)
A scene from the film Holiday (Prazdnik) (Yan Tsapnik, Elena Babenko, Anfisa Chernykh, and Pavel Tabakov (left to right)

Following his critically acclaimed 2016 movie, Collector, Aleksei Krasovsky is preparing to release a new film. Wrapping up a crowdfunding campaign for the project on September 22, the Russian director thanked those who had donated in a video address. "I'm sure we'll bring this film to a conclusion," he said, "and everything will be fine."

But Holiday, a comedy set during the Siege of Leningrad in 1941, touches on a topic considered sacred by many in Russia -- the Soviet Union's World War II legacy. The 900-day blockade of the city by advancing Nazi forces claimed over 1 million lives, and is seen as a lasting example of Soviet sacrifice and heroism in the victory over fascism.

As Krasovsky completes postproduction, his film is encountering the hazards of dealing with history in Russia -- especially when it conflicts with the generally accepted narrative. After attracting harsh criticism from government officials, Holiday risks being banned from cinemas before it's even complete.

Sergei Boyarsky, a deputy in the State Duma, called the very notion of a comedy about the 900-day siege by Nazi forces "blasphemy and a disgrace," and promised on Twitter to do everything in his power to stop the film's release.

The Military-Historical Society, a quasi-governmental body tasked with promoting a positive version of Russia's history, has also chimed in. In a lengthy video tirade, Mikhail Myagkov, the head of the society's education council, said the film is part of an "information war" allegedly being waged against Russia and compared it with Nazi propaganda. Neither Krasovsky nor Myagkov responded to several requests for comment.

Set in Leningrad in 1941, Holiday tells the story of a wealthy family living in the besieged city. On New Year’s Eve, the family prepares a feast lavish for the conditions of the time, when hunger and misery prevailed on the streets outside.

When two uninvited, starving guests arrive, comedy ensues. There's a chicken no one's able to prepare, clumsy attempts to hide the extent of the family’s wealth, and subtle social commentary on the privilege of some amid the penury of the masses.

Krasovsky based the film in part on the diaries of Nikolai Ribkovsky, a government official in Leningrad who, according to a description on the film's crowdfunding site, documented extravagant consumption habits as the rest of the city suffered. In an interview with independent news site Meduza, Krasovsky denied that his film mocks the experience of siege survivors and said he aimed to highlight the audacity of those Leningrad residents whose status afforded them favorable conditions.

"I wanted to talk about how this segregation developed between the rich -- often the unjustly and undeservedly rich -- and everyone else. When did it begin?" Krasovsky said. "Those people didn’t feel it and continued to live lavishly, as if nothing was happening."

Film director Aleksei Krasovsky
Film director Aleksei Krasovsky

More than seven decades on, the city, since renamed St. Petersburg, commemorates the lifting of the siege in January 1944. The story of how its residents overcame adversity is key to the local identity and is part of a narrative on World War II zealously defended against alleged attempts at distortion.

"I can accept that there were some funny moments, but showing a New Year's Eve feast is wrong," a woman who claimed to have survived the siege told Current Time TV on October 16.

The Russian government has frequently taken issue with what it sees as historical revisionism, particularly when it comes to the Soviet Union's role in World War II, in which the U.S.S.R. lost an estimated 27 million lives. In January, as Poland launched a campaign to remove Red Army monuments across the country, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “Russophobia in the form of a national idea is being propagated consciously, deliberately, and on a large scale."

Krasovsky spent 3.5 million rubles ($53,000) on the film, he told Meduza, and some of the crew worked for free. Before launching his fundraising campaign, the team approached major film studios with the screenplay, but none were willing to take it on.

Recent scandals involving historical films in Russia made producers think twice, he said.

This January, the Culture Ministry banned the slapstick British comedy Death Of Stalin from Russian cinemas, describing the film as extremist, mendacious, and insulting to the Russian nation. The decision provoked international ridicule and heated debates in Russia over freedom of expression, driven in part by the ministry’s clumsy attempts to justify its prohibition. When one Moscow movie theater decided to show the film anyway, attracting a sizeable audience, it was subjected to a police inspection and forced to cease all screenings.

In 2016, a costume drama about an affair between the future Tsar Nicholas II and his Polish lover led to a monthslong controversy that culminated in arson attacks on movie theaters, threats against director Aleksei Uchitel, and widespread calls for a ban. Uchitel, like Krasovsky, insisted his film was based on archival evidence and not intended to provoke Russia’s conservatives. When the film, Matilda, finally premiered in October 2017 the event was accompanied by a heavy police presence.

The current backlash against Holiday also coincides with effusive official praise for Sobibor, a movie funded by the Culture Ministry that tells the story of a Red Army officer who led a prisoner uprising at a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. By a twist of fate, Sobibor director Konstantin Khabensky was the lead actor in Krasovsky's Collector. The two now unwittingly find themselves as representative of opposing sides in a standoff over artistic treatment of the past.

In his comments to Meduza, Krasovsky suggested that the threat that his film might shed light on the lifestyles of today’s elite may be angering the government more than any commentary about one of the most tragic episodes of Russia’s past.

Citing three war comedies that became classics of Soviet cinema, Krasovsky suggests there’s more to the backlash than a simple desire to defend Russia’s history.

"I think the story of privilege and special treatment -- that shameful page in our history -- obviously annoys those people who take advantage of such benefits to this day," he told the news site.

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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.