Is Putin Losing Control of Russia’s Conservative Nationalists?

What the Matilda Controversy Reveals About His Rule

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 2017. Mikhail Klimentyev / REUTERS

Last month, Russian Orthodox extremists attempted two acts of terror. In the first, they crashed a car loaded with gas canisters into a movie theater in Yekaterinburg on September 4. Then, on September 11, they burned cars near the Moscow office of Konstantin Dobrynin, a liberal former senator. The attacks were motivated by the religious extremists’ opposition to Matilda, an upcoming movie by director Alexei Uchitel (who retains Dobrynin as his lawyer) that the protestors have deemed blasphemous. The film tells the story of Czar Nicholas II’s premarital love affair with ballerina Matilda Kschessinska. Scheduled for release in October, it has already enraged religious conservatives because the last czar and his family are saints in the Russian Orthodox Church. On August 31, religious extremists even threw Molotov cocktails at the director’s studio in St. Petersburg.

President Vladimir Putin could have easily cracked down on this campaign and reprimanded Natalya Poklonskaya, the parliamentarian from Crimea who instigated it through various media appearances and speeches in the Duma. The fact that he hasn’t done so exposes a gaping paradox at the heart of his authoritarian rule.

In recent years, Putin has been happy to inculcate a conservative, nationalist ideology in Russia, which much of the Russian Orthodox Church has supported. And he has encouraged protestors, worshippers, and ordinary Russians to propagate this creed to demonstrate that this is a grassroots movement, not something imposed from the top down by the Kremlin.

By doing so, however, Putin has undermined his own authority. In threatening the makers of an innocuous movie with violence and intimidating members of Russia’s cultural elite, the conservative nationalist movement has demonstrated its ugly side, and Putin seems unable to stop it. Doing so would enrage the so-called patriotic part of the political establishment he has emboldened over the last few years.

Up until now, the Kremlin’s standard domestic political model has been to lay out a general goal and allow lower levels of society to lead the way

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