The next Cold War may well be cultural, as Putin seeks to promote Russian films

Hollywood ties may be burning. EPA/Yuri Kochetkov

Russian cinemas could soon face far more restriction than the fines they have been faced with after showing The Wolf of Wall Street. Lawmakers there are debating a new bill that would restrict the number of foreign films shown by domestic cinemas. The bill, proposed by Robert Schlegel, aims to limit the number of foreign films imported by Russia to 50%. Currently they account for 70% of the Russian film market.

Schlegel is a deputy for the United Russia party, with which Putin is closely aligned. Coming at a time of heightened East-West tensions over the Ukraine crisis, this should not be dismissed. What explains this development? Will it succeed? How might the Russian public react?

The move is a reminder of the historical significance attached to film in Russian culture. This is no new thing – in 1922, Lenin claimed that “of all the arts, cinema is the most important”. And this is a sentiment that lingers – in May 2013, Putin called for more Russian movies that promote patriotic values.

The new bill is not the first attempt to limit foreign films by quota. In 1931, Stalin’s paranoid Soviet Union stopped importing foreign films altogether. And more recently, the State Duma rejected a similar bill proposed in 2013 by the far-right LDPR party. Nor is Russia entirely alone. France operates quotas on audio-visual output of non-European origin to combat “American cultural imperialism”. Putin’s Russia has actually been a more enthusiastic free marketeer in this sense than many of its European neighbours.

Indeed, it would be easy to misread the context for Schlegel’s new bill. Western commentators depict a Russia ruled by a dominant authoritarian leader manipulating a compliant political class to his own ends. This myth masks a more complex reality. The Duma is not merely Putin’s mouthpiece. As the national debate over the controversial reality TV serial, School (Shkola) indicates, United Russia itself does not always speak with one voice. Despite Russia’s tightly managed electoral system, the ruling party competes with others. Some are considerably more extreme than Putin, who is shaped by the environment in which he operates as much as he controls it.

The quota proposal belongs to the same environment, forming part of the wave of anti-western bile that has swept Russian society since the Crimean annexation. Prominent broadcaster Dmitrii Kiselev recently reminded viewers on his news programme that Russia alone was capable of turning the USA “to radioactive dust”.

And right-wing commentator Aleksandr Prokhanov declared that he has dreamed of the return of the Cold War for 20 years. The anti-western rhetoric forms part of a wider campaign against enemies of the nation, external and internal: migrants, LGBT activists, liberals, radical Islamists and, chillingly, the fifth column of “national traitors” Putin invoked in his post-annexation speech. And anti-gay groups in Russia have mounted a campaign against the critically acclaimed French film Blue is the Warmest Colour, which features explicit lesbian sex scenes.

But the anti-western sentiments reflect multiple visions of Russia which the Kremlin struggles to navigate. There is the isolationist Russian nationalism which rails against migration, privileging the status of ethnic Russians and showing little interest in engagement beyond Russia’s borders. This competes with an imperialist variant that is nostalgic for the Soviet Union and keen to preserve the Russian Federation as a multicultural state. And also influential is a Eurasianist vision of Russia as the leader of a powerful union of Slavic and Central Asian states, capable of reconciling Islam and Christianity.

Finally, a narrative has emerged positing Russia as a global champion of conservative, Christian values. In justifying Russia’s actions in Crimea, Putin succeeded in blending several of these strands, prompting a spectacular rise in his approval ratings.

Schlegel’s new bill, too, draws on popular intellectual currents. Russia is paying increasing attention to “soft power”, countering that of its geopolitical opponents with its own. For example, its state-funded international television channel, RT (Russia Today), which now broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic, competes with the likes of CNN and Al Jazeera for global influence. Russia has also acknowledged its defeat in the “information war” surrounding the Ukrainian crisis.

But here again, strategies differ. Tight restrictions on free expression in Russia’s state media co-exist with relative tolerance of pluralism on the internet and in the press. Strenuous efforts are being made to co-opt the very tools of cultural domination deployed by its opponents. Films like Fedor Bondarchuk’s 9th Company (2005) and Aleksander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2003), each promoting the Russian national myth, enjoyed success in British and American cinemas.

The prevailing cold-war atmosphere offers the new bill some chance of success. But it will encounter little deference from Russian audiences. Russians are world leaders in electronic piracy. They can often acquire illegal copies of foreign films before their release dates. However strong their patriotic fervour, periodic attempts to wean them from their fascination with western popular culture have invariably failed. And, lest we forget, Stalin adored Hollywood musicals.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.