Film about Russian tsar and dancer sparks protests and arrests

Believers protest over ‘Matilda’ exploring love life of sainted ‘Holy Tsar’ Nicholas

No serious historian would deny that Nicholas Romanov had a steamy love affair with a prima ballerina before he married and ascended to the Russian Imperial throne. But even the trailer for Matilda, a forthcoming film by Russian director Alexey Uchitel that explores Nicholas's relationship with the dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya, has stirred a furore among religious believers for desecrating the memory of the sainted "Holy Tsar".

Russia's culture ministry has tried to steer a neutral course in the dispute, refusing to censor Matilda while avoiding criticism of the thousands of believers who have joined marches and signed petitions calling for a ban on the film.

However, after events took a violent turn this month, the Russians were forced to act. Police swooped on the homes of suspected Christian Orthodox fanatics last Wednesday, taking four men into custody, including Alexander Kalinin, the leader of the “Christian State – Holy Rus”, a radical religious movement.

A court in Moscow ordered that Kalinin be held in jail until November 22nd on suspicion of threatening cinemas with reprisals if they screened Matilda after the film goes on general release next month. Kalinin is expected to lodge an appeal against his detention.


Three other members of Christian State – Holy Rus have been charged with an arson attack on two cars parked outside the Moscow office of Konstantin Dobrynin, a lawyer acting for Alexei Uchitel, early this month. Notes saying "Burn for Matilda" were found at the scene of the crime.

Fire bombs

Russian investigators have not revealed whether the activists are also suspected of involvement in a string of other anti-Matilda protests that have seen assailants throw fire bombs at Uchitel's studio in Saint Petersburg and ram a van into a cinema in Ekaterinburg close to the building where Tsar Nicholas II , his wife and five children were executed by a Bolshevik firing squad in 1918.

But Christian State – Holy Rus has made no secret of its determination to derail the screening of Matilda. The film is expected to go on general release on October 26th. In a letter sent to Russian cinemas early this year, the group warned that showing Matilda could lead to bloodshed and "civil war".

Matilda also has opponents within the Russian establishment.

It's not only marginal religious extremists who oppose Matilda. Nataliya Poklonskaya, a prominent parliamentary deputy and member of the Kremlin's United Russia party, has led a public campaign calling for the film to be banned. Poklonskaya has not seen Matilda and has no intention of doing so. It would be "a sin" to watch a film that contained erotic scenes of the tsar, she said last week.

Even if unafraid of the risk to their souls, the cinema goers could face physical danger if they opt to see Matilda. Two of Russia's biggest cinema chains cancelled plans to screen the film after the arson attacks this month, citing concerns about audience safety.

The escalating row over Matilda has created a dilemma for the Kremlin. Political and religious leaders have been encouraging a revival in Christian Orthodoxy over the past few years as part of a return to Russian traditional values and a rejection of the decadent West.

Censorship debate

Placing a ban on Matilda would violate Russia's constitution, which forbids censorship on ideological or political grounds.

Yet the film’s opponents – from the politically mainstream Poklonskaya to extremists like Kalinin – have caught the mood of the times, invoking a new Russian law introduced in 2013 that criminalises “insulting the feelings of religious believers”.

Fr Andrei Kurayev, a cleric often critical of the authorities, said last week that the Russian Christian Orthodox leaders "bore some moral responsibility" for the divisive scandal over Matilda. Church leaders had legitimised a divisive rhetoric that demonises opponents of the church, giving too much leeway to religious fanatics. "It's very easy for people to lose all boundaries," he told a press conference in Moscow.

The Russian Orthodox Church had canonised Nicholas II for dying as a martyr and it was irrelevant to dig up the last tsar’s sins, he added.

Nicholas II's Romanov descendants called for calm, saying there should be no return to censorship in Russia even if Matilda's portrayal of the late tsar "as a psychotic, unable to manage his feelings" was offensive.

Nicholas had done the right thing ending his relationship with Matilda before marrying the German princess who became Empress Alex of Russia, said Alexander Zakatov, the director of the Chancellery of the Head of the Russian Imperial House.