MOSCOW -- Two days before a black comedy on Josef Stalin's demise was due to hit screens in Russia, the country's Culture Ministry has barred it -- arguing that the British film about the power struggle that followed the Soviet dictator's death in 1953 was extremist, mendacious, and insulting to the Russian nation.
The Death Of Stalin, directed by Scottish filmmaker Armando Iannucci, was all set to open at Russian theaters on January 25. But a last-minute decision by the Culture Ministry to revoke the film's distribution license means the film is barred from being shown, at least for now. The decision came after ministry officials earlier gave the film a bad review.
The film had been screened for the officials after a group of lawyers within the ministry called on Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to revoke the film's license in an impassioned letter seen by the TASS news agency.
"The Death Of Stalin film aims to incite hatred and enmity, to humiliate the Russian (and Soviet) people, to propagandize the inferiority of a person on the grounds of his social and national status, and these are signs of extremism," they wrote.
The letter took exception to the representation of historical figures in the film; in particular, that of the Soviet Union's most storied World War II officer, Marshall Georgy Zhukov. According to the letter's authors, the Soviet war hero is portrayed as a "militant clown."
"We are sure the film has been made to pervert, to distort the past of our country -- so that the life period of Soviet people in the 1950s elicits only horror and disgust," the letter continues.
Russia's most popular tabloid, Komsomolskaya Pravda, derided The Death Of Stalin as "a comedy that could have been filmed by Hitler" and possibly "the most sickening film about the Soviet Union in recent history."
The 2017 film, which was released in the United Kingdom in October and will reach U.S. audiences this year, touches on some issues that Moscow is particularly sensitive to. The feeling that the Soviet contribution to the Allied victory in World War II is not adequately recognized, for all the millions of lives lost, has become a key ideological mooring for the Kremlin.
WATCH: Iannucci has defended The Death Of Stalin, saying that it is both "funny" and "true." He made the comment days before Russia's Culture Ministry revoked the license for showing the movie in Russian cinemas. He spoke to Current Time TV at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah.
The movie is also at odds with the quiet rehabilitation of Stalin that has taken place under President Vladimir Putin. State media have played up Stalin's role in industrializing the country and winning the war, while playing down his part in Soviet purges, forced collectivization, and gulags. Polls show that Russian public opinion has become markedly more positive toward Stalin under Putin, although he is reviled across much of the former Soviet Union and the West.
Yury Polyakov, a writer and head of an advisory body for the Culture Ministry, told TASS on January 23 that Russian viewers should be protected, and the film should not be screened. He called the film an "insult to our civil and national feelings."
Polyakov said that no officials at the viewing supported the film. "Everyone said it's a really bad film from a professional point of view, absolutely mendacious. It is a template of an ideological struggle against our country," he said. "This was a unanimous opinion."
Aleksandr Khinshtein, an adviser to the director of the Russian National Guard, derided the film as "unusual trash to say the least."
Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the furor around the film during a phone conference with journalists, saying the Kremlin was unaware of the situation and adding that the question of barring the film was "absolutely the prerogative of the Culture Ministry."
Zhukov Portrayed As 'Jerk'
Prior to the suspension of the film's license, a member of the Culture Ministry's advisory body had called for simply postponing the film.
Pavel Pozhigaylo told the RBC news outlet that Marshal Zhukov is "portrayed as a jerk," and that the film "defiles our historical symbols -- the Soviet hymn, the order, and medal." He also took issue with what he described as "extreme violence."
He said that the film should not be shown ahead of the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis at the Battle of Stalingrad in February. He also said that cinema screenings of such a film would be inappropriate ahead of the country's presidential election in March.
The controversy around the film comes as President Putin is poised to cruise to victory, extending his 18-year rule by another 6 years. Putin is already the longest serving leader since Josef Stalin, who ruled the Soviet Union from the mid-1920s to 1953.