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Russian Filmmakers Protest Attempts To 'Censor' Film About Young Tsar

Former Crimean prosecutor-general and current State Duma deputy Natalya Poklonskaya poses near a painting depicting Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II, at her office in Simferopol last year. She says an upcoming biopic of the ill-fated monarch, who is now an Orthodox saint, will upset the "religious feelings" of the faithful.

An independent group of Russian filmmakers is protesting what it says are efforts by a State Duma deputy from Russia-annexed Crimea to "censor" a controversial film centered on a love affair between the future Tsar Nicholas II and a young ballerina.

Kino Soyuz (Union of Filmmakers) on February 7 published an open letter protesting Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya's calls for investigations of the unreleased film, Matilda, by director Aleksei Uchitel.

The protest letter, signed by more than 40 Russian directors, also charges that nationalists belonging to a group called "Orthodox State -- Holy Russia" have been threatening "arson attacks and violent acts against theaters that would dare to show the film."

Poklonskaya was the Kremlin-appointed prosecutor-general in Crimea from the time Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory in March 2014 until she was elected to Russia's State Duma in September.

She now wants Moscow prosecutors to declare that Uchitel's film violates provisions in Russia's Criminal Code against insulting "the religious feelings of believers."

She says the film portrays Tsar Nicholas II -- a canonized Russian Orthodox saint -- as a sinner.

'Drunkards And Fornicators'

Poklonskaya also charges that Uchitel wrongly portrays Russia as a country full of "drunkards, gallows, and fornicators."

Although Matilda is not scheduled to have its first screening until October 2017, it became mired in controversy after a promotional trailer was released in 2016.

The film tells the story of a three-year affair between Crown Prince Nicholas and a teenage ballet dancer named Matilda Kshesinskaya that ended in 1894. After the affair, Nicholas married the German princess who became Empress Aleksandra.

Tsar Nicholas II with his family in 1914, three years before they fell foul of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Tsar Nicholas II with his family in 1914, three years before they fell foul of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Nicholas II was executed together with his entire family after the 1917 Bolshevik coup. They were canonized as Russian Orthodox saints in 2000.

A Russian Orthodox Christian and monarchist organization called Tsar's Cross denounced the film project as pornographic and unpatriotic -- leading Poklonskaya in November to demand a criminal investigation.

But the Prosecutor-General's Office in Moscow announced in January that it was unable to uncover any evidence suggesting the film might offend religious beliefs.

That ruling led more than 20,000 Russian Orthodox activists to petition Russia's Culture Ministry and demand that the film be banned.

Bolstered by that petition, Poklonskaya announced on January 30 that she had officially requested that the investigation be reopened.

'Influential Forces'

The Russian Orthodox Church and Culture Ministry have not taken any public position on the controversy surrounding the film.

On February 7, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin's administration "does not want to take sides" in the dispute.

Peskov said debate about whether the film is offensive should take place after it has been publicly screened.

The protest letter by Kino Soyuz says independent Russian filmmakers "know very well what censorship is" because of "decades" during the Soviet era that "ruined the destinies and fates of artists and impeded the development of the arts."

The letter concludes that Russian culture should "not be pressured by new forms of censorship, no matter what influential forces initiate it."

With additional reporting by Interfax, TASS, and RIA