MOSCOW -- Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents battle fifth columnists and CIA "sleeper" cells bent on sowing chaos and torpedoing a gas deal with China. Americans seeking a "colored revolution" try to frame Russia for the assassination of an anticorruption campaigner resembling opposition activist Aleksei Navalny. And Russian diplomats perish in an Islamist militant attack on Moscow's embassy in Libya.
Russian viewers got all that and more when state TV debuted its new spy drama Sleepers (Spyashi) earlier this month, boasting storylines oozing with conspiracy and U.S. spooks providing the perfect foil to Russia's guardians of law, sovereignty, and national defense.
And yet, the plot thickens.
After the made-for-TV thriller raised howls of indignation from liberals accusing its acclaimed 36-year-old director of grandstanding for the Kremlin, Sleepers filmmaker Yury Bykov publicly apologized and vowed to abandon cinema altogether.
Bykov confessed on the Russian-language social network VKontakte to "betraying" fans by "defending the regime." He said he had wrongly come to be seen as a kind of moral compass because of his earlier films and described himself as "weak" and beset by "cowardice."
Sleepers was met after its October 9 premier with a flurry of commentary online. Conservative defenders attributed the fuss to the usual "hysteria of liberals."
The first episode began with a disclaimer that its characters are fictional, but its plotlines and depictions appear to align cozily with Kremlin aims and policy.
In one sequence, an American spy chief with slow, droopy eyes and a long face chews on a steak as he orders sleeper cells to be "woken up." One of the sleepers, a Foreign Ministry department chief, is recruited because his daughter studies at Cambridge in the United Kingdom -- suggesting that officials and other elites should school their children in Russia, not the West.
The information that sleeper agent provides leads to Islamist militants storming the Russian Embassy in Libya, butchering diplomats and civilians. It is a scene that appears to echo Russian government accusations that radical Islamist militants it is fighting in the Middle East owe some of their success to Western support.
Sleepers was funded in part by the Russian Culture Ministry and produced by Fyodor Bondarchuk, an award-winning filmmaker and member of the ruling United Russia party's top council. The script was written by Sergei Minayev, a pro-Kremlin writer and journalist.
Director Bykov is best-known for his films The Major (Mayor) and The Fool (Durak), each of which offers dark and biting social commentary on corruption and decay in modern Russia.
No doubt due to that reputation, Bykov came under close scrutiny on social networks and in reviews of Sleepers, and took considerable flak for what some regarded as cheap propaganda.
"A television gift for the president's birthday" was how Pavel Lobkov of the independent Dozhd TV described it.
A review in the independent Novaya Gazeta newspaper called it "more than cinema. It's a declaration of a new style," arguing that it takes Kremlin propaganda from smear documentaries about the opposition into the realm of fiction.
'My Last Picture'
As the premier of Sleepers drew barbs, Bykov deleted his Facebook account and took to VKontakte to apologize to fans and announce he was leaving cinema.
"Hundreds of honest people have suffered from the regime and the authorities' tyranny that I tried to defend in this series. The desire, based on patriotism, to make a contribution against an Orange Revolution in the country is a laudable goal -- but wholly archaic," he wrote in a reference to the 2004-05 unrest in neighboring Ukraine that Moscow regarded as Western-orchestrated. "People should protest and demand justice, otherwise there will be no change, and I have betrayed the whole progressive generation that wanted to change something in this country."
Bykov said he would complete his film The Factory, due to be aired next year, but told his fans it will be his "last picture."
Minayev and Yury Dud, a popular video blogger, leapt to Bykov's defense, albeit with radically different positions.
Minayev claimed the online heckling by liberals of Bykov is far more reprehensible than state TV propaganda. He compared such criticism to a state-TV documentary that smeared the opposition called Anatomy Of A Protest and an infamous, fabricated story of a Russian child crucified by Ukraine radicals during the conflict between pro-Kyiv forces and separatists in east Ukraine. "The crucified boy, Anatomy Of A Protest, political talk shows on the federal channels -- they are inept kids in comparison with you."
Meanwhile, Dud slammed Sleepers as "shameful propaganda" in an Instagram post but called Bykov one of the "most talented Russian directors." He offered Bykov his support and said he was confident the director would in the future make good films.
'Paranoid And Irrational'
There were suggestions that the film captured a certain zeitgeist in Russia "for all the defects of the script."
Valery Solovei, a professor at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) said the series "precisely reflects the structure of modern Russia's mass consciousness."
Solovei said polls show the security services are among the most trusted institutions in Russia. Second, he said via Facebook, "our mass consciousness is paranoid and irrational, inclined to believe in conspiracies and simultaneously to suspect malevolent intent."
Yury Saprykin, a journalist and columnist for the New Times magazine, in a commentary on October 16 argued that "if directors want to leave the industry because of arguments about cinema, then something is probably wrong with these arguments."
He cited a broader trend in which films elicit venomous attacks among different segments of the population. The screening in cinemas this year of the film Matilda, which dramatizes Tsar Nicholas II's romance with a ballerina, was thrown into doubt when radical Orthodox critics set cars on fire and issued other threats to demand it not be aired.
Russia's most successful films internationally have frequently been given mixed receptions at home, where filmmakers who support the Kremlin thrive and are given publicity, but those who offer subversive views of modern Russia are often marginalized.
State funding for films is controlled by the Culture Ministry, which is headed by Vladimir Medinsky, who touts a "patriotic" vision of domestic cinema and has derided filmmakers like Andrei Zvyagintsev for their bleak portrayals of life in Russia.
Medinsky in 2015 criticized Zvyagintsev's Oscar-nominated film Leviathan -- which had received state support -- for misrepresenting Russians and Russian life, saying the government should not support films that "openly spit on the government."