Last month, Russian Orthodox extremists attempted two acts of terror. In the first, they crashed a car loaded with gas canisters into a movie theater in Yekaterinburg on September 4. Then, on September 11, they burned cars near the Moscow office of Konstantin Dobrynin, a liberal former senator. The attacks were motivated by the religious extremists’ opposition to Matilda, an upcoming movie by director Alexei Uchitel (who retains Dobrynin as his lawyer) that the protestors have deemed blasphemous. The film tells the story of Czar Nicholas II’s premarital love affair with ballerina Matilda Kschessinska. Scheduled for release in October, it has already enraged religious conservatives because the last czar and his family are saints in the Russian Orthodox Church. On August 31, religious extremists even threw Molotov cocktails at the director’s studio in St. Petersburg.
President Vladimir Putin could have easily cracked down on this campaign and reprimanded Natalya Poklonskaya, the parliamentarian from Crimea who instigated it through various media appearances and speeches in the Duma. The fact that he hasn’t done so exposes a gaping paradox at the heart of his authoritarian rule.
In recent years, Putin has been happy to inculcate a conservative, nationalist ideology in Russia, which much of the Russian Orthodox Church has supported. And he has encouraged protestors, worshippers, and ordinary Russians to propagate this creed to demonstrate that this is a grassroots movement, not something imposed from the top down by the Kremlin.
By doing so, however, Putin has undermined his own authority. In threatening the makers of an innocuous movie with violence and intimidating members of Russia’s cultural elite, the conservative nationalist movement has demonstrated its ugly side, and Putin seems unable to stop it. Doing so would enrage the so-called patriotic part of the political establishment he has emboldened over the last few years.
Up until now, the Kremlin’s standard domestic political model has been to lay out a general goal and allow lower levels of society to lead the way there. With the new movie, however, the model has malfunctioned, and the Kremlin is now forced to deal not with one extremist but with a full-blown social phenomenon.
The paradox of the Matilda controversy is that, if he so chose, Putin could halt Poklonskaya in her tracks. But once her grassroots initiative grew large enough for him to notice, it already had the backing of some of his Kremlin allies and associates with whom he does not want to pick a fight. (These include figures such as Bishop Tikhon Shevkunov, Putin’s own confessor and an important link between the Church and Russian special services.) The cost of pacifying the anti-Matilda campaign is now sufficiently high that it could mean alienating many of his most ardent supporters.
A central problem of Russia’s personality-based regime is that only Putin himself can stop something from happening with certainty. Although his word continues to be taken very seriously, the word of almost any other functionary—even when spoken on the Kremlin’s behalf—carries too little weight to stop a nationalist campaign that has already reached critical mass.
Poklonskaya herself has found a particular role in Russia’s shifting ideological space. Hailing from Crimea, she was plucked directly from the Ukrainian political milieu by the Putin administration to serve as prosecutor for the region after it was forcibly annexed in 2014. (Poklonskaya was a fervent supporter of the annexation.) Putin’s nationalist ideology gained strength following the takeover, and by the time Poklonskaya arrived in Moscow in October 2016 to serve as a deputy in the State Duma, Russia’s political center had already spent two more years moving toward embracing Orthodoxy as a collective identity that promised a feeling of superiority over the Cold War’s winners. Having found considerable support for her campaign in the Orthodox Church, Poklonskaya asked the Russian general prosecutor’s office to investigate both Matilda and its director. Reining in Poklonskaya would mean questioning the country’s ideological direction, which Putin is not prepared to do.
For every public scolding received from figures they don’t regard as authorities, Russia’s conservative crusaders can now find public or unspoken support in the circles they respect. That is how to understand Poklonskaya’s insolent response to mild criticism from Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky: “Critical opinions should be given by experts,” she said. “I was unaware that Medinsky has a record of expert work.” The minister is a nobody, she was saying, and we can find our own authorities to contradict him.
The conservative zealots are also winning the blessing of friendly priests, including the ultraconservative Archpriest Dmitri Smirnov, who claimed that the film was created to mock Russian saints. Fliers attacking Matilda are now lying on candle boxes in parishes across the country. It no longer matters who put them there; all that matters is that they are not being removed.
For these Russian conservatives, Poklonskaya’s campaign is a means to prevent the country from sliding into pragmatism. It is a warning shot at a regime that still considers reforms and returning to the club of Western powers to secure investment and economic growth. Poklonskaya is making the point that if a mere film generates such a backlash, apostasy over far more important issues could cost the regime dearly. Putin’s conservative nationalist ideology now serves as a reference point for ordinary Russians, but someone like Poklonskaya can embody this set of ideas just as well as he does.
As this new ideology continues to evolve, a temporary, vague alliance is forming between Orthodox priests, security service operatives, businessmen, and government functionaries loyal not so much to Putin as to his declared ideals. Many lower- and mid-level officials are starting to voice support for banning Matilda. And they cannot believe that this campaign could win such momentum without approval from the top. Take the case of Russia’s far eastern Kamchatka region. After Medinsky expressed support for Matilda’s release, several local distributors still decided not to show the film, calling it their “civic position.” The local ministry of culture even displayed the distributors’ manifesto on its website. This is a sign of divided loyalty.
Supporters of a free Russia have long dreamed of a day when the Orthodox Church is separate from the state and when elected officials are unafraid to oppose Kremlin ministers. The latter is certainly happening, but among those who are taking advantage of this new freedom first are zealots who speak in a language of aggressive and intimidating conservatism.
This op-ed was originally published in Foreign Affairs