Once upon a time (in the 1890s, to be more exact) there was a beautiful young girl who fell in love with a prince. And the prince fell in love with her too. In this story the prince was not a frog. He was Grand Duke Nicholas, the future Russian Emperor, Nicholas II. And the girl was Matilda Kshesinskaya, a Russian Polish ballerina who, after Nicholas, had an affair with another Grand Duke and then married a third one, thus becoming a princess herself.
None of which, of course, could be of any interest to the busy people of Cape Town today – except if they are interested in the phenomenon of religious extremism. This is because the obscure and non–consequential love affair of the young tsar, as screened by Aleksandr Uchitel, a Russian producer, has stirred a massive wave of protests by Russian Orthodox Christians – some of them violent.
A hundred years ago the Russian revolution sought to turn the country atheist, and by the middle of the last century, this goal seemed to have been achieved. By then, an absolute majority of Russians were at least non–believers, if not conscious atheists, and remained so until the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Now, a quarter of a century later, the majority seem to be ardent Christians. The story of the film “Matilda” is testimony to the fact that their faith can be not just passionate, but also aggressive.
The campaign against the film was started by Natalia Poklonskaya, a former Public Prosecutor of the Crimea, and now a Russian Duma (Parliament) deputy. In 2016 Poklonskaya demanded that the film – which was not even finished then – should be banned. She then requested and achieved an investigation into the financial side of production of the film and into its contents (to ascertain whether it insulted the feelings of the believers). In either case, the experts found nothing untoward. But the campaign gathered momentum. Poklonskaya’s logic is simple: in 2000 Nicholas, who was assassinated by the Bolsheviks in 1918, was canonised by the Russian Orthodox Church for his suffering. And, as a saint, he simply could not have had any love affairs before or outside of his marriage. The fact that Nicholas’ role was played by a German actor only made things worse. This is despite the fact that Nicholas’s wife, Alexandra, now also a Russian saint, was herself a German. Poklonskaya had not seen the film, but denounced it nonetheless as blasphemy and called on the authorities again and again to ban it, since, in her view, it insulted the feelings of the believers.
The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church either said nothing or supported the campaign.
As a result in 2017 some official religious events were overtaken by anti-“Matilda” protests. Several official Orthodox processions carried anti-“Matilda” posters, such as “‘Matilda’ is slap in the face of the Russian people” or “The Tsar’s honour is the honour of the nation”. Some of these processions gathered dozens of thousands of people. The biggest one, a hundred thousand people, took place in St. Petersburg.
But Poklonskaya’s call for action against the film was also taken up by Russian radical religious organisations. Three of these, “The Tsar’s Cross”, “Forty Times Forty” and the “Christian State – Sacred Rus” threatened the producers of the film. Hundreds of cinema halls which were going to run the film were threatened with arson. Journalists who criticised Poklonskaya received death threats. The office of the film’s maker, Uchitel, was attacked with Molotov cocktails. Two cars were burnt in front of the office of Uchitel’s lawyer, the arsonists leaving the notice: “Burn for Matilda”. In September a car packed with gas cylinders rammed the entrance to a Yekaterinburg cinema hall and exploded. When arrested, the driver said that he acted in protest against “Matilda”.
Throughout 2017 the fate of the film hung in the balance. The biggest cinema chains refused to run it, in order to avoid any risk. The heads of two Russian autonomous republics asked the Ministry of Culture to ban the film in their territories. The main channel on Russian TV had planned to show the serialised version of the film, but then decided not to do so.
In the end the film was not banned and is now showing in Russian cinemas. The arsonists were arrested. Some of Poklonskaya’s colleagues in the Duma attempted to persuade her that Christianity was about love, not hatred. And even Poklonskaya herself now calls on the government to ban not only “Matilda”, but also “Christian State – Sacred Rus”. Yet this ban also did not happen. Perhaps the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian authorities think that “Christian State” and the like are just a small group of fringe religious fanatics. But they have been allowed to act long enough to demonstrate that there is fertile ground for religious radicalisation in Russia and that they can use it with great efficiency. The precedent of Christian religious terrorism has been set.
What happened with “Matilda” reminds us, of course, that no particular creed or ideology, religious, nationalist or racial, has a monopoly on extremism or terrorism. But it is also a warning: if not nipped in the bud, extremism is almost impossible to stop.
Irina Filatova is a Russian and South African academic