How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Over a year and a half has passed since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. Since then, Russia has waged a campaign of aggression against Kiev and, despite Western economic and political pressure on Moscow, Moscow has not changed its foreign policy stripes. Although many have focused on what Russia has done internationally, however, too few have paid attention to what has happened inside Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism has become extreme.
Putin’s reputation as a champion against a supposedly predatory West has solidified among the public, and hard-liners within Putin’s circle—the siloviki (men of force), as this group of generals and ex-KGB veterans are known—have seen their influence expand. As a result, anti-Western conservatism, on the rise since Putin became president in 2012, is now widespread. Aided by an atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia that enjoys unspoken government support, Putin has launched a crackdown on civil and political freedoms through Russia’s abusive legal system—all under the guise of limiting Western (and, more generally, modernizing) influences.
The cancellation of the Moscow Premiere Film Festival, which was due to take place in early September, is a case in point. Headed by Russian film critic Vyacheslav Shmyrov, the festival began in 2002 and was famed for showing controversial films, including Russia-88, a feature about Russian neo-Nazis; Winter’s Path, an idiosyncratic love story between a classical singer and a homeless, homophobic, psychotic criminal; and other films that have struggled to get distribution in Russia. For Shmyrov, the festival was as much a charitable and social enterprise as it was an artistic one—Muscovites could attend the festival simply by collecting vouchers published in Moskovsky Kosmomolets, a daily newspaper.
A state-sanctioned festival that showed films promoting alternative lifestyles and politics, however, could last only so long in a country that has become increasingly closed and controlled.
In late 2014, Russia passed a law banning the use of profanities in films as part of a wider campaign by Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to foster national strength. New rules for exhibition licenses for films were introduced earlier this year. They decreed that films “defiling the national culture, posing a threat to national unity and undermining the foundations of the constitutional order” could not be screened.
All of this came after the release of Leviathan, a film partially sponsored by the Kremlin that won Best Screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, won a Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film, and was shortlisted for an Oscar. Leviathan told the story of one man’s fight against corruption and intimidation in contemporary Russia, topics that cut close to the bone for many within the Russian elite. Public surveys in Russia consistently rank corruption as an important concern, and Putin has launched sporadic anti-corruption campaigns to keep his subservient underlings in check. Medinsky said he disliked the film because of its profanity and portrayal of Russian culture. Sergey Markov, a Kremlin loyalist who has held several official positions, called it “an ideological justification for a genocide of the Russian people.”
On August 26, just a week before the film festival was due to begin, Moscow city council abruptly removed funding, citing “difficult economic conditions.” In its place, the Kremlin is backing the Youth Festival of Life-Affirming Film, overseen by Yevgeny Gerasimov, a member of Putin’s ruling United Russia party and head of the Duma’s commission for culture and mass communications.
The Kremlin’s crackdown on expression is not limited to Russia, either. Nor is it confined to its own citizenry. Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was arrested in Crimea last May, shortly after Russia annexed the province from Ukraine. He was arrested and accused of being part of a terrorist group that had, among other things, plotted to blow up a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Simferopol, Crimea’s regional capital. While in pre-trial detention, Sentsov claims he was beaten, tortured, and threatened with rape or death.
Born in Simferopol, Sentsov directed the 2011 feature film Gamer, which was shown to great acclaim at the Rotterdam International Film Festival in 2012. Its success led Sentsov to secure funding for a forthcoming feature, Rhino, but he postponed work on the new movie after becoming involved in Kiev’s Euromaidan protests in late 2013.
The only evidence directly linking Sentsov to the alleged plot was the testimony of two “co-conspirators”: one who had a history of psychological illness and another who retracted his testimony and said that he had been tortured. In court, prosecutors rejected Sentsov’s claims of torture, alleging instead that his injuries were a result of his “attempts to gain sexual pleasure” and that he was a sadomasochist. Prosecutors also referenced videos found in Sentsov’s home—including Triumph Over Violence and The Third Reich in Colour, both renowned as anti-fascist films—as evidence of his extremism. On August 25, Sentsov was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Sentsov’s trial, mirrored by the cancellation of the Moscow Premiere Film Festival, reveals more about Putin’s desire for power than it does about threats to the Russian state.
Just as the film festival encouraged attendees to experiment with subversive cultures and critically examine mainstream Russian thought, Sentsov’s crime was participation in political protest: he had opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and had helped deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers barricaded in their bases after the Russian invasion.
Having brought Russia’s media to heel, Putin has paved a path for propagandists to revise and rewrite history. The Kremlin is now doing the same with law. Artistic and cultural productions are having constraints imposed on them in an effort to ensure that they are ideologically “pure.” Child 44, the 2015 feature film about a disgraced KGB agent who pursues a pedophilic serial killer (and whose villain is reminiscent of Andrei Chikatilo, the real-life Soviet serial killer who murdered more than 50 people in the 1970s and 1980s), was denied circulation in Russia because its “peculiar interpretation” of the Soviet period was “unacceptable,” according to the Russian Ministry of Culture. The Russian release of Leviathan, meanwhile, included dubbing over dialogue that contravenes Russia’s new law and had all profanities censored.
It is the knowledge that anything is possible in the service of propaganda that makes Russia so dangerous.
Within Russia, few question the Kremlin’s official version of events. For those who do, there are few sources of information, and there are great punishments for creating, challenging, or distributing it. As Russia passes increasingly draconian laws on civil and political freedoms, authorities will likely encourage individuals to engage in self-censorship. And with this, Russia’s authoritarianism will be complete.