Back in 2008, Putin became a “chief director of Russian cinema.” At the time, a government council was set up for the development of domestic cinema, of which Putin took the helm as prime minister. Putin said “the potential of cinema as the most important tool of upbringing, education, and formation of values in society remains underutilized.” Critics described it as a return to the Leninist principle “of all the arts, cinema is the most important to us,” with all the same implications: ideological control coming back to the world of cinema.
Since then, more and more films have been made in Russia every year, with the government pouring billions into the industry, while the end product was increasingly becoming more akin to propaganda than actual art.
According to journalist Vladimir Tsybulsky, the era of Putin cinema started from The 9th Company movie filmed in 2005. “Turns out you can simply with the Afghan war with a single film. It was clear that this was just the beginning. Only a few years have passed. Just look at the daily TV programs on any TV channel. Any movie poster… It’s all really not that funny… Putin’s cinema brought the oh-so-necessary peace and grandeur into the souls of the average Russians.”
Journalist Andrei Arkhangelsky refers to Putin’s cinema as a “new socialist realism,” comparing it to Stalin’s cinema.
“You can’t say that Stalin-era films varied too much. They could differ in style, in the degree of the author’s talent; but you can’t imagine they could be different in content or set of ideas. You can’t say that Stalin’s movies had their own vision. They were all about one thing; regardless of genre, it was a total eulogy to the Soviet government,” Arkhangelsky writes.
Even “the wildest Russian movies,” he said, “adhere to unspoken loyalty codes.” Producers want to show to the government that they can be trusted. As an example, he cites the first 2013 Russian disaster film, Metro. The story tells of a group of people trying to survive following an accident. They have almost reached the surface before suddenly their effort fails as they fall back into the water. The characters are unable to save themselves without the government’s help.
Eight features of “correct” Russian cinema:
Arkhangelsky offers eight examples of “loyalty codes”: what’s mandated and what’s unacceptable in Russian cinema:
1) The main code is the suggestion that the authorities in Russia are an absolute, unchanging, and uninfluenced entity. The authorities can bring upon people horror, fear, even disgust, while they can never be ridiculed. This would be the worst sin. For example, in the 2018 Russian comedy President’s Holiday, which was promoted as “bold,” anyone is ridiculed, except for the Russian president. On the contrary, the film shows that if you give power to anyone else, this will saw chaos.
2) The main evil in films is now the conditional “West,” which has “always” sought to ruin Russia. The only time in history when Russia “showed some weakness” was the 1990s, and blaming this period for everything is a sort of a ritual in Russian film industry.
3) The very idea of private property is also tabooed in Russian movies and TV series. As a result, in 20 years, the film industry has managed to keep secret from most viewers that capitalism has in fact long come to Russia.
4) Whatever the era the story unfolds in, law enforcement or security agencies play a key role in a film.
5) It is impossible to imagine a Russian movie about civil society being able to achieve something on its own today. The newer films also insist on the idea of the fundamental impotence of society: “you can’t do anything on your own, you will only ruin things.”
6) Even if a Russian TV series or film is based on an actual event or character, it is absolutely wary of telling the true story. Producers claim the truth seems boring to them from the standpoint of art, but in reality, it’s just ideologically dangerous.
7) Patriotic films today are also uncontrollably taking up the form of aesthetic fascination with violence and death as such. The only thought that imposes on patriots today is that the best thing you can do for the country is to sacrifice your life for its sake.
8) Love is meant to humanize the most terrible historical periods, as well as compensate for any flaws of directors or screenwriters. In fact, on the Russian screen, love is a sort of a cover-up.
There is a peculiar way Russian cinema tackles the issue of a clash of generations and cultures, one of the favorite subjects of international cinematographic art. The characters may also embody an authoritarian type of leader/father: they are the only ones who know how to make things better for people depending on them. Also, they employ violence to impose their vision (yet, they are violent to others, not themselves). In such films, the cruelty of those in power is always about care, while tyranny is an ingenious plan calculated several steps ahead.
Russia, on the other hand, offers the idea of authorities that, despite being cruel to its people, remain indisputably wise. And this idea can manifest itself in various forms and shapes, even in films that seem to have nothing to do with politics.