Police raid Moscow cinema showing banned Stalin film

Culture ministry ban comes amid renewed popularity of dictator in Russia

Armed Russian police have raided a Moscow arthouse cinema that defied a government ban on the screening of the Scottish director Armando Iannucci's dark comedy The Death of Stalin.

Six police officers and a number of plainclothes officials arrived at the Pioner cinema in central Moscow on Friday after the midday screening of the film, which revolves around the bitter in-fighting following the death of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953. Officers would only confirm that they were carrying out an investigation.

Plainclothes officials questioned staff and collected evidence that the film had been shown. Pioner management declined to comment on the raid, but staff insisted that further scheduled screenings of the film would go ahead. The culture ministry says cinemas that show it will face fines and possible temporary closure.

The raid came just days after the culture ministry abruptly withdrew permission for The Death of Stalin's release on the eve of its scheduled January 25th nationwide premiere, after government officials and pro-Kremlin cultural figures had attended a private viewing.


Battle of Stalingrad

An advisory committee to the culture ministry recommended that the film be postponed to avoid clashing with the 75th anniversary of the end of the Battle of Stalingrad, a key turning point in the second world war. Pavel Pozhigailo, a member of the advisory committee, said the film "insults our historic symbols – the Soviet anthem, orders and medals" and called it "blasphemous". Committee officials say the film will be examined for "extremism" in comings weeks.

Oleg Berezin, head of the Association of Cinema Owners, which represents independent cinemas in Russia, said the culture ministry's decision to withdraw the film's distribution licence was illegal. "There has not been any court decision about this," he said.

The culture ministry ban comes amid Stalin's renewed popularity in Russia: the president, Vladimir Putin, said last year that western countries were using the "excessive demonisation" of Stalin to attack Russia. In an opinion poll published in June by the independent, Moscow-based Levada Centre, Russians named Stalin the "most outstanding person" in world history. Boosted interest

The row has clearly boosted interest in the film. Tickets for its 10-day run at the Pioner quickly sold out after the cinema screened it for the first time on Thursday evening.

“I was 13 when Stalin died and I knelt down and wept,” said Oleg, a 78-year-old pensioner who managed to secure a ticket for a screening on 30 January. “They taught us that Stalin was a god. Then, later, when [Mikhail] Gorbachev was in power, they told us he was a murderer and a destroyer of our nation. Now they are telling us again how great he is. I want to see what this director thinks.”

Opinions differed as to its merits among those who had attended Friday’s screening.

“The film is good enough. But the period of Stalin’s rule was much more terrifying than this film depicts. Stalin was still alive when I was born, and my parents later told me all about what they had been through,” said Yelena, an elderly woman who attended the screening with friends.

“This film mocks my country,” said Alexander, a middle-aged man, his face red with rage. “It’s a warped western view of the Stalin years.” – Guardian