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Moscow Fires Broadside Amid Ukrainian Campaign Against Russian War Film In U.S.

Ukraine asserts that the film T-34 is propaganda. Russia says Ukraine is interfering in U.S. affairs.
Ukraine asserts that the film T-34 is propaganda. Russia says Ukraine is interfering in U.S. affairs.

MOSCOW -- When Dmitry Smelansky saw a Facebook post promoting a screening of a new Russian war movie called T-34 at a local theater near Boston, where he lives, he was outraged.

The film is a tribute to the Soviet tank that helped defeat Nazi Germany in World War II and the latest in a series of Russian government-funded flicks lionizing the Soviet war effort. It’s swept the Russian box office and enjoyed nonstop coverage by state media.

Smelansky, a software engineer who emigrated from Belarus in 1999 and is an opponent of Putin’s government, fired off an e-mail to the owner of the cinema.

“As a longtime Boston resident and neighbor of your cinema,” Smelansky wrote in the e-mail shared with RFE/RL, “I would love the chance to dissuade you from allowing the screening of this film -- or at least to convince you to have an open public discussion of this film’s propagandistic purpose, not only to preserve the reputation of your theater but also the reputation of Boston as a cultural hub.”

The film, and the building controversy over its showing in the United States, is the latest front in the cultural battlefield over 20th-century history, and World War II in particular.

Under President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has sought to magnify the Soviet war victory, while also glossing over key aspects of Soviet history, such as Josef Stalin’s rule. After the 2014 street protests that forced Ukraine’s president to flee, Moscow has also sought to paint the leaders in Kyiv as being Nazi sympathizers.

Arts Against Aggression

In his e-mail to the cinema owner, Smelansky pasted links to a Daily Beast article that mocked the film as cheap Russian propaganda and two other articles that assert ties between Ukrainian-born tycoon Len Blavatnik and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as U.S. President Donald Trump. Blavatnik, a known financier of Hollywood films, provided some funding for the film.

Smelansky sent a similar e-mail to Regal Cinemas, a chain that operates more than 7,000 screens across the United States.

He then posted to the Facebook page of Arts Against Aggression, a loose activist group that Smelansky heads and which has picketed Boston-area concerts by Russian artists and cultural figures.

The cinema owner, David Bramante, did not immediately respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment, but Smelansky said Bramante called him and told him he’d think about pulling the movie. Smelansky also told RFE/RL that at least one screening was subsequently canceled, although this wasn’t confirmed by the cinema. He added that he has not seen the film in its entirety.

'Telephone Terrorism'

In Russia, state media quickly caught wind of the affair. The flagship news channel Rossia-24 reported on “movie halls with no spare seats” despite efforts of “Ukrainian radicals” to get the movie banned through “telephone terrorism.” ‪

On February 15, the news channel went directly after Smelansky, seeking to discredit him and his fellow activists. It featured a screenshot of Smelansky’s Facebook post, calling the Belarusian a “Ukrainian radical.” The report also included photos from his personal Facebook page.

“The cinema owner couldn’t take such pressure on the part of these questionable Ukrainian activists,” the presenter said. “He preferred not to screen the Russian film.”

On February 19, Ukraine’s embassy in Washington, D.C., joined the battle. The embassy denounced the film in a Facebook post and reached out to a number of cinemas across the United States with its own request that the film be banned.

“The film openly justifies and promotes Moscow’s hostile foreign and security policy [including Russian ongoing aggression against Ukraine] through exploiting the memory of World War II,” the embassy wrote, attaching a list of 14 U.S. cinemas that had allegedly scheduled the film.

In response, Russia’s embassy in the United States released a caustic note on its own Facebook page, asserting Ukraine was trying to intervene in U.S. internal affairs.

It also linked Ukraine’s current leadership to Stepan Bandera, the leader of Ukrainian nationalist resistance who is hailed by many Ukrainians as a freedom fighter.

In Russia, Bandera is widely seen as a traitor to the Soviet Union who collaborated with Nazi Germany. His anti-Soviet forces also fought against the Nazis at times during the war and are accused of carrying out murderous campaigns against Poles and Jews.

“Successors of Stepan Bandera…now try to impose their will on the U.S. -- one of the victors in WWII, a home country to thousands of Holocaust survivors and WWII veterans,” the Russian Embassy wrote.

Another Film In The Works

Meanwhile, the Russian state news agency TASS reported that 12 movie theaters in 10 U.S. cities were screening the film.

Aleksei Pervushin, the executive director of Kinoprokat, the company responsible for distributing the movie in North America, said the film has been shown in 20 U.S. cities. He said two cinemas in Boston and San Francisco have canceled screenings under pressure.

People wait in line to see T-34 at the Formula Kino movie theater in Moscow on January 5.
People wait in line to see T-34 at the Formula Kino movie theater in Moscow on January 5.

Figures on ticket sales are not yet available, he said, but he predicted “several thousand people” would see the film in the United States.

Kinoprokat is now preparing for the stateside release of Tobol, another patriotic Russian history film supported by the Culture Ministry.

Pervushin expects another standoff over the next film.

“We’re already wondering, will our opponents again see something they deem unworthy in this beautiful historical drama?” he said.

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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.