On January 26, 2017, Russian authorities raided Moscow’s Pioner Cinema, an art-house cinema which had defied the government ban on a screening of The Death of Stalin. Police officers and numerous plainclothes officials entered the theatre during the midday screening of the film in question. When asked whether the cinema faced legal troubles, officers only confirmed that an investigation was underway. Officers questioned the staff and collected evidence proving that the film had been shown.
Initially, staff of the Pioner claimed further screenings would go ahead without issue. However, later in the day Friday, management stated that due to “reasons beyond our control” all future showings were cancelled, promising to refund tickets to all customers. The film had premiered the day before and tickets had already been sold as far out as February 3rd.
The film, directed by Armando Iannucci, focused on the infighting that occurred following Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. The film had initially been approved by the culture ministry in the country. However, the day before its scheduled January 25 premier, this permission was withdrawn following a screening for government officials and other pro-Kremlin cultural figures. In the statement withdrawing permission, the ministry said that all theaters showing the film would be fined and potentially face temporary closure.
Similarly, an advisory committee to the culture ministry suggested that the premier be postponed to prevent its run intersecting with the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad. Pavel Pzhigailo, a member of this committee, claimed the film insulted the nation’s “historic symbols – the Soviet anthem, orders and medals,” going so far as to call it “blasphemous.”
This coincides with Stalin’s renewed popularity in the nation. In June of 2017, Stalin was named the “most outstanding person” in a poll carried out by the Levada Centre, an independent polling firm located in Moscow. As such, it follows the government would wish to protect this image and deter any negative points of view from coming in contact with the public.
However, such actions constitute a violation of freedom of speech. Oleg Berezin, head of the Association of Cinema Owners, claims, “There has not been any court decision about this,” referring to the withdrawal of the film’s distribution license. As such, he believes the actions taken by the government are in fact illegal and constitute a violation of freedom of speech.
Oleg, who is 78, lived when Stalin was in still in power. As such, he has seen the manner in which the government has constantly shifted the public’s opinion of Stalin for their own purposes. He told BBC, “I was 13 when Stalin died and I knelt down and wept. They taught us that Stalin was a god. Then, later, when Gorbachev was in power, they taught us that [Stalin] was a murderer and a destroyer of our nation. Now they are telling us how great he is. I want to see what this director thinks.”
The actions taken by the government appear to be an attempt to control public opinion, and it is certainly not the first time this has occurred in Russia. In July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released an 83 page report titled “Online and On All Fronts: Russia’s Assault on Freedom of Expression,” in which it describes the numerous ways in which Russia has interrupted and prevented freedom of speech, including the passage of laws which limit it. As such, it seems as if the raid on this theater is yet another example of Russia’s refusal to let ideas that differ from that of the government spread into the public.