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Two Months Before Its Release, Campaign Against Nicholas II Film Swings Into High Gear

  • Robert Coalson

A still from the upcoming film Matilda, which looks at the Tsar Nicholas II's youthful affair with a ballerina.

Russia's Culture Ministry is considering a request from the strongman head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, asking that a soon-to-be-released film highlighting episodes from the youth of Tsar Nicholas II be banned in the North Caucasus region.

Kadyrov's letter, which was published in Komsomolskaya Pravda, describes the film as "a premeditated insult to the feelings of [religious] believers that "insults the sacred ... [and] the history of the peoples of Russia."

"In order to live with honor, we must remember our history and take pride in and revere those who fought for us," Kadyrov wrote. "We, the heirs of conquerors, must not only honor the memory of the defenders of the Motherland, but also raise the young generation in the spirit of respect for their history. I ask you to exclude the Chechen Republic from the distribution area of the film Matilda."

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov (file photo)

The deputy head of the nearby Daghestan region, Anatoly Karibov, filed a nearly identical appeal with the Culture Ministry on August 9.

Although Chechnya and Daghestan are overwhelmingly Muslim, the officials apparently fear the sensibilities of locals will be wounded by the film Matilda, which tells the story of a romance between Nicholas and dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya when he was an unmarried crown prince.

The affair ended in 1894 when Nicholas married the German princess who became Empress Aleksandra. Kshesinskaya later married the tsar's cousin, Grand Duke Aleksandr Vladimirovich. She died in 1971.

State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya is one of the harshest opponents of the film. (file photo)
State Duma Deputy Natalia Poklonskaya is one of the harshest opponents of the film. (file photo)

Conservatives deny the well-documented affair took place at all, arguing that it would have been impossible for a prince to fall in love with a Pole who was "utterly homely," according to an analysis commissioned by State Duma deputy and former head prosecutor of the annexed Ukrainian region of Crimea Natalya Pokolonskaya.

The film is set for release in October, but has already attracted protests from monarchists and conservative Russian Orthodox activists who say it besmirches the memory of Nicholas, who was canonized as an Orthodox saint together with his family in 2000.

Few people have seen the complete film, but trailers featuring passionate love scenes between the young prince and the half-Polish teenager Kshesinskaya have outraged conservatives, led by Poklonskaya.

WATCH: A Russian Trailer For Matilda

Poklonskaya told Komsomolskaya Pravda that "the heads of other regions" have prepared requests similar to Kadyrov's.

"Ramzan Kadyrov, coming out in favor of banning the film, has spoken on behalf of all the people who came out for the prayer protest on August 1," Poklonskaya said, referring to a demonstration against the film organized by Orthodox activists.

In response to Kadyrov's criticism, film director Aleksei Uchitel told Interfax that the Chechen leader should not be misled by criticism from those who have not seen the film. Uchitel said he is ready to show the picture, which he said is not yet finished, to Kadyrov "at any time."

In February, the Mufti's Office of Daghestan issued a statement saying that it supported efforts to ban the film. That initiative prompted Uchitel's lawyer, Konstantin Dobrynin, to accuse Poklonskaya of trying "to play the Muslim card in her campaign against the film."

Earlier this month, Uchitel sent his own appeal to the Prosecutor-General's Office asking for the authorities to look into "anonymous, falsified, and patently false claims, as well as 'orchestrated' appeals" targeting the film. Uchitel noted that an expert analysis of the trailer by linguists and other experts found no indication of anything insulting to Orthodox believers or any other group.

Also on August 9, the fringe Communists of Russia party announced that it was prepared to organize the underground distribution of the film, which party leader Sergei Malinkovich said "tells the truth about the unpleasant affairs of the last Russian monarch."

The party's statement decries the campaign against Matilda and says "such examples of censorship and unabashed pressure on an artist cannot be found in the history of Soviet or any other cinema."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian and North Caucasus services
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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