The National Interest
Ariel Cohen

The recent Putin-Medvedev spat over Libya exposed deep rifts at the highest levels of Russia's political leadership and among the ruling elite. Yet, power struggles in Russia never disappear, they only become less visible – what Winston Churchill once called "bulldog fights under the rug." These political struggles often play out in other arenas: journalism, literature, cinema and television.

Discerning the messages and political affiliations of their creators and political clients while watching Russian movies and TV programs is a worthy and fun substitute for Soviet-era Kremlinology. ... Since 2004, most political struggles in Russia no longer occur in the Duma, which is firmly in the hands of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia majority. Instead, proxy wars race around TV screens and movie theaters. ...

We mustn't forget the formative experience of the twentieth century: World War II, or as it is known in Russia, The Great Patriotic War. ... Truly a heroic event (the Soviet Union lost up to 25 million people), the war triggered countless acts of selflessness and self-sacrifice in a country devastated by Communist atrocities, agricultural collectivization and Stalinist purges. It united the population and forced a partial and tentative rehabilitation of the Orthodox Church as a means to call the Russian people to arms.

However, the war as it is used in Russian TV and cinema conveys messages of the hostile encirclement of Russia. It emphasizes threats from the West (not the east or the south) and at times applauds the alleged unity between the peoples of the Soviet Union and the Communist party. The war is also used to reinforce messages of faith, self-sacrifice, and inspired leadership. The implication: No one other than Vladimir Putin is capable of leading Russia in the current hard times of international turbulence. And no one articulates that message louder and clearer than the grand old man of the Russian cinema, Nikita Mikhalkov.

Mikhalkov casts a giant shadow in Russian cinema. He was born in 1945, to a couple who were famous writers of children's poetry, Sergei Mikhalkov and Nataliya Konchalovskaya. It certainly helped his career that his father wrote lyrics to three Soviet/Russian national anthems, from Stalin to Putin, penned movie scripts, and was always close to power.

Nevertheless, Nikita Mikhalkov's talent is there for all to see in such films as Burnt by the Sun and Twelve. He has led the Russian cinema guild since 2007 and chaired the Moscow Film Festival. His movies and acting repeatedly won top prizes in Nice, Cannes, and other cinematic venues. And he is also a successful producer. His ThreeTees movie studio received ample funding for the sequel, Burnt by the Sun 2, and a TV series based on the film. The VTB state-owned bank provided $14.5 million; Vneshekonom, also a state-owned bank, kicked in $5.5 million; Gazprombank, $6.15 million; and the Ministry of Culture and the State Cinema Fund, another $3.35 million. The state TV channel VGTRK will have parted with close to $10 million for the TV-series rights. Altogether, the studio attracted close to $40 million in state funding.

Mikhalkov's friendship with, and admiration of, Vladimir Putin, is there for all to see as well. He produced a Putin birthday show for national TV in 2007, and signed a petition for him to stay on for a third term – something the Russian Constitution prohibits.

His love of Russia, its history, its religion, and its authoritarian form of government is also on display. Mikhalkov is a living embodiment of Russia's nineteenth-century state policy of "Orthodoxy, autocracy and populism," a phrase coined in 1833 by Nicholas I's minister of education, Count Sergei Uvarov. Mikhalkov, born to a noble family, adores the Russian monarchy, and would like, perhaps out of naïveté, to bring back the old bliss.

In his films, YouTube and media interviews, and publications, the maestro calls for a Russia infused with the spirit of Christian Orthodoxy, patriotism, and unity between the rulers and the ruled. Non-Russians, who represent over 20 percent of the country's population, he seems to tolerate, though he sometimes relegates them to second-class citizens.

The release of the two-part sequel to the Oscar winning Burnt by the Sun. Exodus (2010) and Citadel (2011) – reiterate the message of inspired, spiritual, self-sacrificing leadership, while rejecting the high-tech solutions symbolized by the German invaders. The main lead, General Kotov, despite being arrested and tortured by Stalin's NKVD, is willing to forgive his tormentors in order to serve the Motherland. In the yet-to-be-released second movie, Kotov leads an unarmed gang of criminals to storm a heavily fortified German fortress, in what promises to be yet another blood bath. However, his faith is rewarded with a miracle: A German mistake triggers a massive explosion, and the citadel falls.

Orthodox faith is also on display in a heart-wrenching scene in which a severely wounded Russian soldier saves Kotov's daughter, Nadia (played by Mikhalkov's own daughter). The soldier baptizes her in the middle of the sea before succumbing to his wounds. This baptism saves Nadia's life many times over, and she lives to perform feats of heroism on the battlefield as a nurse.

Yet, while such highbrow, nostalgic cinema may resonate strongly with Russia's older generation, who grew up in Soviet times and were fed on Soviet aesthetics, younger viewers want action and Hollywood pizzazz. ...

Not surprisingly, Russia's "court" filmmakers are coming under increasing attack. Mikhalkov is a divisive figure, at times smug and overbearing. He is vehemently hated by the liberal wing of the Russian intelligentsia, as was his Communist father, for being favored by the powers that be.

In a recent torrent of publications, the Russian media claimed that Vladislav Surkov, Medvedev's powerful deputy chief of administration in charge of politics and ideology, and Marat Guelman, a famed cultural icon and gallery owner, have launched a well-coordinated smear campaign against Mikhalkov. Alledgedly, the campaign went so far as to contact PR agencies in Paris, London and Washington to bad-mouth Citadel and its creator – which is bizarre, as Surkov ultimately felt compelled to personally call Mikhalkov to deny involvement. ...