From films about the current Putin era, to historical films based on the Stalinist and Tsarist eras, these are the films that can enhance your understanding of modern Russian politics.
A footage from "A Kiss Not For the Press". Photo: Kinopoisk
Even for the experienced Kremlin-watcher, Russian politics can be confusing terrain to navigate. With that in mind, Russia Direct has created a list of five movies that we hope shed a little light on the inner workings of the Russian political establishment. They are alternatively heroic, funny and beautiful, all of them perfect for repeated viewings during the holiday season.
1. A Kiss Not For the Press (2008)
There are many documentary films about Vladimir Putin, but there are practically no feature films. “A Kiss Not For the Press” (sometimes translated as simply “The Kiss”) by Russian filmmaker Olga Zhulina can be considered as the only example of such a film, which tells the story of a former stewardess, Tatiana, and her husband, who becomes the president of Russia.
The film offers a clear allusion to Putin and his wife Lyudmila. In addition, there are a multitude of recognizable details that hint at the film’s attempt at verisimilitude: Putin’s Leningrad origins, his marriage to a stewardess, his work in a society for Russian-German cooperation, and his work as an adviser to the governor.
This is how "The Kiss" was perceived by a majority of viewers – as "a film about Putin's wife." Though this is certainly not the case, it is a collective image. It is, in fact, about all wives of prominent politicians and businessmen.
Interestingly, the film’s shooting was financed by private investors, but the film was never widely released. Now that the world has become aware of the president's divorce from his wife, this love story appears especially relevant.
2. Election Day (2007)
This is a rare example of a successful political comedy. The film was created by the famous Moscow theater group "Kvartet I" and the Russian rock group "Neschastniy sluchai" based on the play of the same name.
Oleg Fomin’s film is a parody of the election campaigns in the Russian provinces. At an oligarch’s call, the staff of a radio station is engaged in the support of candidate in the gubernatorial elections. This is followed by a series of funny and ridiculous PR moves, but in the end, it turns out that their candidate was chosen in an area different to the one where the oligarch was directing them.
A footage from "The Election Day" movie. Photo: Kinopoisk.ru
The main action unfolds on the promotional boat that sails along the Volga. Unrestrained drunkenness prevails on board. Vodka and money flow like water. An atmosphere of total cynicism and corruption is literally spread throughout the film.
This cynicism taken to the point of absurdity generates a humorous effect. When compared to its Western counterparts, "Election Day" is the closest to the French film "99 francs,” which is a film based on the famous novel by Frederic Beigbeder and released in the same year of 2007.
3. Yeltsin. Three Days in August (2011)
A footage from "Yeltsin. Three Days in August" movie. Photo: Kinopoisk.ru
The first and still the only movie about Boris Yeltsin’s rise to power was filmed to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the events in 2001. The events of August 1991 (the putsch, the defense of the White House and the collapse of the Soviet Union) – these are some of the most sensitive subjects of recent Russian history. Society was split into supporters of democratic reforms of the 1990s and those who cannot hear Yeltsin’s name without a shudder and consider him to be a criminal.
During the years of 2000-2009, Russians had a particularly negative attitude towards Russia's first president and towards the Democrats behind the 1991 events. In such an atmosphere, anti-Yeltsin, anti-liberal rhetoric became commonplace.
It is no wonder, that, "Yeltsin. Three Days in August" is so far the only film version of the moment when the USSR became the Russian Federation.
Despite Yeltsin’s contradictory figure and the current attitude towards him, the film presents the president as a courageous man, a hero who enjoys popular support. In the film, he is a tall strong man, an unyielding fighter who saves Russia from a putsch carried out by conservative officials.
”I think that such a film couldn't have appeared in the 2000s in the wake of anti-Yeltsin hysteria in society and a total hatred of 'the cursed 1990s',” said Yeltsin's biographer, writer Boris Minayev. ”Yet now the situation seems to be changing. There are controversial films made about even the turbulent and painful events of the 1990s… The anti-Yeltsin trend is step-by-step stepping aside and we are seeing something like objectivity.”
4. Boris Godunov (2011)
The film is made by Vladimir Mirzoyev, one of the most popular Russian theater directors, and is based on Alexander Pushkin’s classic tragedy.
Mirzoyev made his actors dress exactly like the current Russian establishment, while reciting Pushkin’s canonical text describing the struggle for power in the 17th century.
Russian history is acted out in the scenery of modern Moscow. This technique of updated classics is very often used in Russian cinema and theater today.
A footage from "Boris Godunov" movie. Photo: Kinopoisk.ru
"We tried to understand what happens to a man when he begins to exist in isolation from society, ride in armored vehicles, live in residences, communicate with people once a year according to a promise,” says director Mirzoyev. “If he stays in this situation for too long, his mentality changes dramatically. That's what our shooting "Godunov" was based on. The main issues raised by Pushkin: the legitimacy of the regime, people's alienation from the elite, conflicts within the Kremlin’s towers – all of these are still topical issues."
5. The Case of Joseph Stalin (TV series, 2012)
According to a national survey ("Name of Russia") conducted a few years ago, one of the most popular historical figures in the country to date is Joseph Stalin. For some, he is a bloody dictator, for others he is the embodiment of a strong ruler, an ideal one for Russia.
Stalin is the most frequently occurring politician in Russian cinema over the past 70 years. He can be seen in hundreds of paintings, and each epoch adjusts his image in its own way. For most of today's Russians, Stalin is neither a villain, nor a hero; he is just a historic brand that embodies order and strength. This longing for order and force makes him such a popular figure in the consciousness of the mass population.
A footage from "The Case of Joseph Stalin" movie. Photo: Kinopoisk.ru
The documentary series "The Case of Joseph Stalin" has a clear anti-communist orientation. Director Victor Pravdyuk stands in his discussion of Stalin’s phenomenon pretty close to the monarchist views of the eminent Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the military historian Victor Suvorov (author of the books "Icebreaker" and "Aquarium"), as well as the positions of “White” monarchist Russia and the later waves of emigration. In their views, Russia is a great power that the communist monster tried to destroy.