About a dozen conservative Russian Orthodox protesters have prayed outside St. Petersburg's famed Mariinsky Theater to protest the showing of a film depicting an affair between a teenaged ballerina and the future Tsar Nicholas II.
The October 23 protest marked the gala premiere of the film Matilda, which has sparked controversy in recent months, with conservative Orthodox groups claiming it insults Nicholas, who was made an Orthodox saint in 2000. Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya has played a prominent role in the protests against Matilda.
Three counterprotesters were reportedly detained after they unfurled a banner reading, "We'll protect you from Orthodox terrorism." Anatoly Artyukh, head of the National Council nongovernmental organization and an aide to conservative Duma Deputy Vitaly Milonov, was also detained after he ripped the sign from the protesters' hands.
The St. Petersburg protest was organized by a group calling itself the Tsar's Cross. The protest was not approved in advance by municipal authorities as required by Russian law.
The film is set for its national release on October 26.
There was a strong police presence, as well as a crowd of journalists, as the demonstrators held signs with slogans such as "Matilda is a challenge to the Russian world."
Earlier the group Christian State-Holy Rus had warned of violence if the film was shown.
On August 31, unknown assailants threw Molotov cocktails into the St. Petersburg building that houses the production studio of Matilda director Aleksei Uchitel. On September 4, a man tried to ram his car into a cinema in Yekaterinburg and then threw an incendiary device. On September 11, two cars were set alight outside the Moscow office of Uchitel's lawyer.
The head of Christian State, Aleksander Kalinin, was detained on September 23 and placed in detention for one month as investigators probe the violence.
Also in September, the Prosecutor-General's Office, responding to a request from Poklonskaya, ruled that the film was not insulting to any religious beliefs.
"No grounds for the interference of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office were found during its consideration of Russian State Duma Deputy Natalya Poklonskaya's request regarding possible legal infringements in the production of the...film," the office's statement said.
Although Matilda's critics accuse Uchitel of being unpatriotic, the director has noted that the government has been in his corner in this dispute. Not only has the film been approved for distribution, it was about one-third funded by grants and loans distributed through the state's Cinema Foundation (Fond Kino).
Nikita Mikhalkov, the Oscar-winning director and staunch supporter of President Vladimir Putin who heads the Russian Cinematographers Union, twice signed off on grants for Matilda.
Uchitel has insisted that he regards Nicholas "no less respectfully and lovingly" than Poklonskaya does. The affair depicted in the film, he said, was a case of genuine love.
"The film is about a person -- and I think this is particularly interesting in the case of a saint," he told RFE/RL in an interview in September.
"It is about showing the viewer or the nation that it is not an icon or a statue, but a person who suffered, was tormented, who thought and made a choice, a choice in favor of our country. It was either [ruling] or freedom, love, and real feelings."