Stephen M. Norris

Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus is a bad movie. It is too long, too preachy, poorly acted, poorly plotted, and at times laughable. Yet its awfulness has produced some good. In spite of Nikita Mikhalkov's reputation, his access to funds, his connections to the Kremlin, his marketing methods, and his power as a public figure, the movie flopped. In fact, it flopped because of these reasons, a sign of its good outcomes. It is possible to view Mikhalkov's blockbuster movies as bookends to the Putin era. Burnt by the Sun 2 is less a sequel to the original than an unintentional sequel to The Barber of Siberia.

Mikhalkov's 1999 blockbuster provided an answer to the director's call – famously made at the May 1998 Extraordinary Congress of the Filmmakers' Union – for post-Soviet cinema to create new heroes. Mikhalkov had worked on Barber for nearly a decade before he finished it in 1998. The director had initially planned to open his film in newly renovated theaters throughout Siberia. The financial crisis of 1998-1999 forced him to scale back his plans: instead the film debuted at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on 20 February 1999 (for more on the film, see Beumers 2000). Critics by and large savaged Barber for its historical inaccuracies and its attempts to resuscitate past values for present-day purposes. Yuri Gladilschikov saw some interesting signs in Mikhalkov's epic and the response to it in his review titled The First Blockbuster of the Russian Empire and commented that Mikhalkov's Barber had created a new film genre, the "patriotic melodrama". The film, as Gladilschikov interpreted it, created a mythical Russia with a new "father of the nation". Mikhalkov created a film where a spectator could see a beautiful Russia and where "love for a woman is equally important to love for the czar". Barber was not so much "mass culture for intellectuals" as "intellectual culture for the masses". As for the film's ideology, Gladilschikov viewed it as a "neo-conservative," "patriotic" one. Business, democracy, and freedom have never worked in Russia; instead, mysticism, national peculiarities, Orthodoxy, and the Russian soul guided the nation in the past and should continue to do so. Ultimately, Gladilschikov saw "Mikhalkov's system" as one of "classical authoritarianism," for he wanted to "impose an entirely new Russian cinema". Moreover, the director wanted his films to tie the masses to "single emotions" and "ideologies" without giving them "a freedom of choice". Mikhalkov helped to fuel this perspective, responding to critical scorn aimed at his product Russia by referring to the press as "dogs" and insinuating that their attacks were nothing less than an attack on the new Russian nation. As Gladilschikov posited, if Mikhalkov were to become President, "then film critics will have to become the first political emigrants and political prisoners".

Gladilschikov's diagnosis might sound familiar, particularly to Russian political observers. His article, written six months before Boris Yeltsin appointed a relative unknown to the office of Prime Minister, articulated a form of patriotic culture that would come to dominate the next ten years. The Barber of Siberia was a patriotic melodrama with a new masculine hero who unites a nation and not a state around emotional appeals to patriotism while labeling critics anti-Russians: Mikhalkov's film provided a ready-made brand for Putin's Russia.

Burnt by the Sun 2 updated this brand. Mikhalkov originally wanted to debut his film on Red Square as part of the 2010 Victory Day celebrations. The plan was too hard to pull off, so the film debuted at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses on 17 April 2010. Before this lavish premiere attended by 6000, a massive marketing campaign ensured that Russian cities were flooded with posters declaring that Exodus represented "the great film about the great war." At the event, Mikhalkov declared that "we intentionally showed this film at the beginning of the commemorations for the 65th anniversary of the victory [because] we were confident that to understand what this victory cost, we should see what our people went through". Critics once again savaged the film for its historical inaccuracies and Mikhalkov's attempt to use history for present-day ideological purposes. Whereas Barber represented a triumph of sorts (the film sold out theaters even though the ruble's collapse of 1998 ensured it did not earn back its production costs), Burnt 2 flopped in every respect. The reasons for that flop may be instructive: whereas critics in 1999 grudgingly admitted that Mikhalkov had succeeded in making a popular epic that tapped into a desire among Russian audiences to view their past with pride, by 2010 a similar attempt came across as derivative, tainted by state patronage, and pompous. If the February 1999 premiere of Barber presaged the dominant messages of Putin-era kvas culture, the April 2010 premiere proved that it had gone stale.

Burnt by the Sun 2. Exodus tells the story of how a wandering people found their faith again. In it, Mikhalkov depicts a Soviet people that have strayed from their beliefs and been punished for their sins. The film delivered an earlier version of the message Patriarch Kirill would provide for Victory Day. On 6 May 2010 the Patriarch gave a sermon at St. George's Chapel in Victory Park. He mentioned that he had just composed a new liturgy for Victory Day and that he took his inspiration from Filaret, later the Metropolitan of Moscow, who canonized the Russian victory over Napoleon in a speech that declared Russia had been invaded as punishment for her sins. Patriarch Kirill declared that "the Great Patriotic War was a punishment for our sins" and that God had brought "a miracle by rescuing our country and all of Europe". On Victory Day itself, the Patriarch led the first liturgy of this new tradition, praising the return of Russia's "spiritual sight," which he defined as "the ability to see and to understand errors you have made, to learn important lessons from the experience of the past." It is also, he noted, "the ability to avoid errors in the future". The Great Patriotic War was atonement for the bloodbath of the Bolshevik Revolution. "God revealed to us a truth about ourselves in the Great Patriotic War," he concluded. "He punished us for our sins, but he also appeared to us and gave us his glory and the strength of our people." Today Russians must remember by "finding our spiritual sight" and learning this lesson.

Nikita Mikhalkov certainly found his spiritual sight: his film unfolds like a three-hour version of the Patriarch's sermon. It opens by attempting to answer the question of how all the protagonists from 1994's Burnt by the Sun survived their scripted deaths. The former Red Army colonel, Sergei Kotov (Mikhalkov) was not shot in the purges after all. Instead, he was sent to the special camps for political prisoners under Article 58. Kotov's sentence, he learns at roll call, had been changed from Article 58 to 129. Someone "from the central machinery," we later learn, "watched his fate closely", for the change to a charge of grand larceny means that Kotov has gone from a political prisoner to a criminal. Just as he finds out about his new charge, Nazi planes strafe the camp. Kotov escapes. He is joined by an Ivan the Fool, Vanya (Dmitri Diuzhev, overacting). The first miracle – Kotov's resurrection – is revealed.

The rest of Kotov's family also experienced miraculous resurrections. When the film flashes forward to 1943, Mitya Arsentyev (Oleg Menshikov) is called before Stalin and Beria about Kotov's fate (we do not learn how Mitya survived his suicide). Stalin tells Mitya he is interested in Kotov's wife and daughter, both of whom supposedly died in camps for enemies of the people but both of whom are now alive. Mitya is told to "rectify a mistake" and find the Kotov family again. We then transport back to June 1941 and a Pioneer Camp, where Nadia Arsentyev has been denounced by her best friend to the Pioneer leader (Andrei Panin, overacting). Mitya came to investigate; Nadia has told her friend not to renounce her father for Article 58 and revealed that her real name is Kotov. She has not committed the sin of repudiating her family. Mitya covers up the investigation, warns Nadia to be quiet, and leaves in a car with Marusya (now played by Viktoriya Tolstoganova). Mother and daughter have survived and taken Mitya's name as a disguise. The second miracle has been revealed: the Kotov family lives.

The film gets its first definitive message when Kotov and Vanya the Fool wander through the Stalinist wartime landscape. They encounter a chaotic attempt to evacuate Soviet citizens across a bridge that the Red Army leadership has decided to blow up. A Soviet officer (Yevgeny Mironov, overacting), is given the task. Before he does so, we get glimpses of Soviet sinners: a Party official protecting money, and commissars who threaten patriotic Russian soldiers. When German planes fly by, Kotov tells Vanya that this is "our war, this is our only salvation". Afterwards, as the officer floats with Kotov, the former general berates him for just following the orders to blow up the bridge. He has committed a sin, but now – in Kotov's company – he can repent by taking part in the salvation of war. This is not just the Holy War of a colossal land and a noble people (to paraphrase Lebedev-Kumach's and Aleksandrov's famous 1941 song), this is a Holy War to find God and with Him, spiritual sight.

Mikhalkov takes us on this journey through Nadia. She is on board an overcrowded Red Cross ship in August 1941 with wounded soldiers and Pioneers. On another, nearly empty boat, a Soviet apparatchik (Aleksandr Adabashian) and his wife store their valuables, including a lavish chandelier, alongside busts of Stalin. A German fighter squadron practices maneuvers around the Red Cross boat and makes one prisoner nervous. He fires a flare at a Nazi bomber who is trying to defecate on the Red Cross boat, killing the prankster. The Germans retaliate and strife the ship. Nadia is plunged into the water with a wounded soldier (Sergei Garmash) clutching a mine. The soldier reveals that he is Father Aleksandr, an Orthodox priest. He dunks her in the water and blesses her. Aleksandr has lost his legs; as he bleeds to death, he tells Nadia to pray. She finds her way to shore after kissing the mine for her salvation; the mine hits the boat carrying the Stalin busts and Soviet sinners. Nadia has been led out of the desert: she has found her sight.

Kotov finds his, too. He has joined a penal battalion in October 1941 led by the officer who blew up the bridge. When a group of young military cadets arrive, hilarity and male bonding ensue. It's cadets (kursanty) meeting the penal battalion (shtrafbat) – and both groups bond over faith. The cadet leader, Capt. Lyskov (played by Aleksandr Golubev, who played a cadet in the 2005 series "Kursanty") asks the penal battalion commander: "people pray here?" He responds: "They do whatever they can to defend our motherland." In a tank battle where virtually everyone dies, Kotov is once again spared. Then he receives another miracle: while chasing a runaway German soldier, he enters a decrepit Orthodox church, where he finds a Red Cross bag with Nadia's name on it. As he takes out a comb and smells it, the German soldier approaches. Just then a bomb from a German plane crashes through the church but does not detonate. Kotov and the German soldier flee just in time to avoid the ensuing explosion. The German declares it a miracle, and as Kotov gazes through the smoke, he sees that a Mother of God icon has survived. The last scene of the film transforms Nadia into this Soviet Madonna. She finds a mortally wounded Soviet soldier, bares her breasts to him because he reveals that he is a virgin, and then tells him that he should believe in God, not Stalin. The film ends with this sequence: the Kotov family miraculously survives while father and daughter have found their spiritual sight.

To say the reaction to the film and its messages was negative would be an understatement. The massive public-relations campaign waged by Mikhalkov even before the film's premiere produced criticisms. Irina Liubarskaya entitled her review Overtired ["Pereutomlenie"] and commented that the film's tepid performance in the box office had to do with the "unprecedented PR campaign". The campaign started, Liubarskaya notes, more than five years prior to the film's release, when trailers advertising the film screened at various film festivals. Mikhalkov bombarded the airwaves beginning in April: a Russian analytical center estimated that he appeared on television five times a day that month promoting the film. As a result of this PR overload, Liubarskaya writes, a "similarly pushy PR campaign operated against the film." Together, both campaigns ensured that "the mysteries of the film died together with its spin. Now it is only possible to go and be convinced of what you had already concluded about the film".

LiveJournal users particularly reacted to the PR campaign. One creative site asked viewers to take the poster and create a new version of it. Artyom Lebedev, an art designer whose blog is among the most read on LJ, initiated the campaign. He simply uploaded the poster and asked readers to express themselves. The response was massive: online art entrepreneurs turned Mikhalkov into the Terminator, into a gangster, cast him in public toilets, drew genitalia on him, and placed the imperial crown on his head (to name just a few of the posts across 16 pages). Mikhalkov threatened to sue the bloggers. One user posted that "if Nikita Sergeyevich Mikhalkov sues bloggers for the Photoshop contest involving the poster of his upcoming movie, I will sue Mikhalkov for offending the memory of the veterans of the war". Other users offered equally nasty reactions after viewing the film. Yelena Tokareva posted that she "forced myself to see Mikhalkov's film" and that "on Friday evening" "the film halls were empty", making it "a complete failure". She concluded that "it's better to take a gun and shoot yourself in the mouth" than to go and see Burnt 2.

The movie's marketing, as Liubarskaya noted and LiveJournal users documented, shaped perceptions about the film before it hit screens. The pushy, brash, and pompous PR helped to ensure that the film would be seen as such. Critics tended to expand on these pre-film parameters and, when the film only made $2.5m of its $55m budget back on the opening weekend, they attempted to diagnose the reasons for the film's failure. Oleg Zolotaryov believed that "the reasons it has flopped are psychological", for "Mikhalkov is no longer seen as a director but as a state bureaucrat". Valery Kichin noted that the "PR campaign that declared the film as great" certainly clouded his view, writing that "the main shock I had at the film was its inadequacy", stating "there is no Mikhalkov [the talented director] in it". He also dismissed Mikhalkov's conclusion that "World War II returned God to Russia", arguing that this is "the main historical distortion" of the film. "Anyone who remembers Russia in the middle of the 20th Century", Kichin posits, "will remember that it was a deeply atheistic country [...] that worshipped another religion: Stalin's cult. [...] And Victory itself was proclaimed as proof of his genius. Now it is fashionable to explain a new tendency, to explain that the great victory was by the grace of God. This film specifically expresses this tendency". Dmitri Bykov wrote that "even if we have to evaluate this film and do so abstractly, away from the personality and social activities of its creator, although this approach is hardly possible", then one has to conclude that "he created not an historical picture, but a people's myth [...] Mikhalkov's cinematography is a strange brew that contains Soviet, Russian, and evangelical symbols, Stalinist and anti-Stalinist clichés, pieces of other people's concepts and quotes from other people's masterpieces". He concluded that "Many of us – including this author, sincerely hoped that Mikhalkov's film would prove to be a masterpiece [...] It did not happen". Mikhail Trofimenko did not expect or hope that the film would be good: "I knew that it would be bad, but did not know that it would be so bad so soon". He called Burnt 2 "pornography in the bad sense of the word" because "a pornographer does not know how to depict love, he only knows how to depict mechanics". Burnt 2 is pornographic because it only attempts to show an epic war, not any real emotions or understanding of that war (Trofimenko also believes it is pornographic for the scene where Nadia Mikhalkov bares her breasts). He ultimately apologizes to Pavel Loungin and Vladimir Khotinenko for his negative reviews of The Island, Czar, and Priest because "I had not yet seen Burnt 2".

When Barber hit screens in February 1999, major Russian media outlets covered its reception as much as they covered the film's content. Itogi's correspondents, for example, surveyed audiences and found that 95% liked the film, leading the magazine to dub Mikhalkov "the people's favorite". Iskusstvo kino argued in July 1999 that Mikhalkov had created a "new spectator" in Russia and even suggested that, after the chernukha culture of the 1990s, the emotional ties created between director and audience over a patriotic melodrama might be "necessary for our society". Coverage of Burnt by the Sun 2's reception, by contrast, led no journalist to revive these sentiments.The Icelandic volcano got more coverage, erupting two days before the premiere; and when Iron Man 2 opened a week after Burnt 2, the American superhero blockbuster crushed Mikhalkov's war epic at the box office. One respondent to Argumenty i fakty's poll about the film stated that Mikhalkov wanted "the contemporary "Pepsi generation" to feel the war's tragedy" and therefore pitched the film to them. For him, "every scene was full of absurdity". Another took issue even with the attempt to make a film for post-Soviet young people, declaring that "I saw the film and consider it complete ideological shit for those whom we call "teenagers" [tineidzhery] or "Generation Next [pokolenie NEKST]". Burnt 2 is "not for normal young people, patriots of their country". In the paper's internet poll that asked whether or not viewers liked the film (1662 responded), 18% said "no", 8% "yes", 32% said they "had not seen it but plan to go," and 42% said they "had not seen it and will not on principle".

In the end, Burnt by the Sun 2 became defined by its failure. This failure, however, is instructive. Mikhalkov had become too tainted by his association with Putin and Putin-era patriotism. The heavy-handed declaration that his latest historical blockbuster was a "great film about the great war" provoked outrage. Critics lined up against its historical inaccuracies and its message of redemption through Orthodoxy, but this time audiences dismissed these themes. When reports began appearing in major media outlets that schoolchildren were being forced by administrators to take their classes to see the film (and have the parents pay for it) because, as several city government officials declared, "schoolchildren need to know the history of their country and the whole truth about the war", the outrage only increased. Yuri Gladilschikov, who was not invited to the premiere because of his earlier negative reviews, concluded that the film had enough bad parts to make anyone angry, whether it was because of Kotov's "Freddy Kruger hand", its "brutal naturalism", its "propagation of Orthodoxy", or "the showing of Nadia Mikhalkov's breasts". Mikhalkov's cinematic "classical authoritarianism" built on conservative patriotism no longer worked. In its failure, a bad movie did some good.