Censorship in the Ukraine is targeting a lot of Russian cinema which is being labelled as propaganda from the ‘aggressor state’. Oksana Chelysheva looks into these bans and navigates us through the films that can’t be seen.
Between the years 2014 and 2017, 544 films produced in Russia have been banned from broadcasting and distribution in the Ukraine. The list, published by Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting, comprises films not only produced in Russia during the conflict which erupted in spring 2014 – there are also titles of films made in the 1980s and 1990s. The Council bases the ban on two specific Ukrainian laws: the Law on Cinematography, which was amended in March 2016 “with respect to films from the aggressor state” and the new Ukrainian law on Condemnation of Communist and Nazi Totalitarian Regimes as well as the Prohibition of their Propaganda Symbols. However, there is not a single movie on the released in Hitler’s Germany or, let’s say, a film promoting values of “a one nation-one leader” state. All the films are made in Russia, many of which are even based on books by authors who died long before both the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 or, at the very latest, before World War II.
However, there is not a single movie on the released in Hitler’s Germany or, let’s say, a film promoting values of “a one nation-one leader” state.
Thus, Dubrovsky (2014) by Alexander Vartanov and Kirill Mikhanovskiy is a modern take on the novel by Alexander Pushkin. The same names of the characters, Masha and Vladimir, the same plot of two eccentric fathers quarrelling, which leads the loving pair to go through the drama of Pushkin’s novel.
The White Guard TV series (2012) by Sergey Snezhkin is a historic drama by the world-famous Mikhail Bulgakov and his novel of the same name. Actually, The White Guard has been banned twice – as the TV film made in 2005 by Zhenovach and Timofeeva was also censored, although the film is actually a TV version of a famous theatre staging by the Moscow Chekhov Theatre. The Moscow Times refers to the Ukraine Culture Ministry’s explanation of “The White Guard distorting historical facts” in favour of Russia as a reason for the ban.
Does it mean that Mikhail Bulgakov himself – who lived in Kiev at the time of the revolution and civil war turmoil – is also banned in Ukraine for “expressing contempt towards Kiev”?
The other film depicting Kiev during the same historical period is Iron Ivan (2014) by Gleb Orlov. It’s the story of a famous wrestler at the beginning of the 20th century called Ivan Poddubny. His career lasted for forty years and he lost just once, yet seems to have become a victim due to the fact that he is regarded to be “a famous Russian and Soviet sportsman”. All this despite the fact that he was born in the village of Krasenivka of the Russian Empire Poltava Governorate, which is now the Cherkasy Region of Ukraine. Iron Ivan lived through revolutions, the civil war and the II World War. He fought honestly and won fairly, he stayed away from politics as far as he could during his life. At that, he never tried to be “good” in the eyes of those who had power, even if the power was backed by arms. Iron Ivan is known for crossing out Russian as his nationality in his Soviet passport but stating that “being a Russian sportsman”, he can’t accept the proposal of Nazi Germany to move there to train German athletes. He got this offer when the German army seized the town of Yeyesk by the Azov city where he lived. In both cases the powers-that-be decided to leave the naughty celebrity in peace. He didn’t suffer any consequences then. Nevertheless, politics caught up with him long after his death by banning a film about his victories.
In both cases the powers-that-be decided to leave the naughty celebrity in peace. He didn’t suffer any consequences then. Nevertheless, politics caught up with him long after his death by banning a film about his victories.
Among the banned films are also those which are based on novels by another Russian writer, Alexander Kuprin. He was born in 1870 in Penza Governorate of the Russian Empire. He died in 1938 in Leningrad of the Soviet Union. Kuprin is best known for his novels The Pit and The Duel. Three movie adaptations of Kuprin’s novels feature amongst the censored films: In the Dark (2014) by Andrei Eshpai, The Pit (2014) by V.Furman and The Duel (2014) by Andrey Malyukov.
Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy is a novella the great writer published in 1889. It was censored almost immediately, first in Russia and then in the USA. The story of love-hate relations inside a family infuriated both Russian Empire moralists as well as Theodore Roosevelt who called Tolstoy “a sexual moral pervert”. The Ukraine of today has added another paragraph to the history of censorship as regards Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy is subjected to censorship – even in post-mortem – by the banning of the 2011 film by Anton Yakovlev based upon the aforementioned novella and the Chekhov Art Theatre’s staging of the tragic story.
The story of love-hate relations inside a family infuriated both Russian Empire moralists as well as Theodore Roosevelt who called Tolstoy “a sexual moral pervert”.
Lastly, but it’s not the least, there is the legendary Master and Margarita – based upon Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel – on the list of forbidden Russia-made films. In 2005 Vladimir Bortko made a TV mini series, which scored amazing ratings. In 2016 it was banned by the Ukrainian authorities and never broadcast.
Still, the most inexplicable example is the film Taras Bulba (2009) by Vladimir Bortko, based on the story of a Cossack chief as written by Nikolai Gogol. The ban is puzzling despite the fact that Bortko’s film featured at least two legends of Ukraine cinematography, Bogdan Stupka and Ada Rogovtseva. Rogovtseva is known for her staunch nationalist stance towards current trends in the Ukraine. The film is no longer part of modern Ukraine’s culture. It is labelled as being under “Russia’s influence denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation”. Actually, the ban of Bortko’s epic film is the final chapter in the fight regarding Gogol over his Ukrainian or Russian citizenship – this debate has been ongoing since the film’s release. Even the New York Times pointed out the attempts by the Ukrainian translators to change the lyrical references from Russia and its people to those of the Ukraine within Gogol’s masterpiece. Ukraine’s TSN media outlet referred to the film’s anti-Ukrainian sentiments and “amending history in favour of Russia” as reasons for prohibiting it’s release, and quoting their Culture Ministry. The film is still available both in the USA and the UK where it was released in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
The film is no longer part of modern Ukraine’s culture. It is labelled as being under “Russia’s influence denying the existence of the Ukrainian nation”.
Gogol’s name appears in the list of banned films one more time. But it is a film about this great writer – who is also forbidden in the Ukraine. The film, Nikolai Gogol. Portrait of Mysterious Genius (2008) by Dmitry Dyomin was to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the writer.
Apart from the group of titles based upon renowned pieces of Russian classic literature, there is another group of films, which can hardly be taken for any manifestation of admiration or signs of totalitarianism. I refer to the films which are based on pieces of literature of Soviet authors who were undeniably broader in their views than the reality around them.
There are, for instance, two versions of The Tale of Fedot the Soldier, a Daring Lad, both a feature film and a cartoon – based upon the satirical poem by Soviet and Russian actor/poet Leonid Filatov (1946-2003). A bitter satire of politicians in power, this subject remains too sharp for Ukraine nowadays; it is even more afraid of it than the Soviet totalitarianism which allowed this to be published in 1987. The story of a fight between the Tsar, his General and a common folk lad remains sensitive. I failed to find an exact explanation of the reasons behind the ban. Maybe, these verses can offer insight:
There’s… what is it?.. a crowd
of people on the palace grounds!
So it’s obvious: things are taking
A social turn, if I’m not mistaken!
It’s Fedot who is to blame,
He is playing a deep game,
Setting people against you,
Urging them to stage a coup!
Leonid Filatov was an actor with the Taganka Theater in Moscow. He was also friends with another mythical personality of Soviet-time art, Vladimir Vysotsky. It’s puzzling that the feature film about Vysotsky, the rebellious poet, actor and singer, is also banned in Ukraine. The film by Pyotr Buslov was made in 2011 and it tells a story of a few tragic days in the life of the poet and singer. Likewise a number of documentaries about those Soviet actors, who like Oleg Yankovsky, outlived the USSR and remained in the memory of the people and are seen as positives of that era.
A bitter satire of politicians in power, this subject remains too sharp for Ukraine nowadays; it is even more afraid of it than the Soviet totalitarianism which allowed this to be published in 1987.
In April 2016, Vasily Gritsak, the head of Ukrainian Security Service, appealed to the country’s Culture Ministry with recommendations to “revise approaches for making decisions toward banned films made in Russia”. Gritsak continued “…We ask you to initiate a more thorough processing of content that is prohibited, with the mandatory involvement of experts from the Committee for cinematography, which operates under the State Agency of Ukraine for the movies. This will allow you to select from the General list of prohibited films, especially movies well-known and popular among the population.” Gritsak’s letter was addressed specifically to the Minister of Culture Vyacheslav Kirilenko. A photocopy of the letter was unveiled on Facebook by the communications officer of the secret service, Elena Gitlyanskaya.
At this time, it doesn’t look likely that the Culture Ministry representatives are going to take such a consideration into account, as in January 2017 it was announced that 18 more films have been forbidden from being broadcast in the Ukraine. These include two movies by the famous Soviet/Russian film director Eldar Ryazanov. He has been made another victim of this new-style censorship alongside Vladimir Bortko, Garik Sukachov and Ivan Okhlobystin, Dmitry Meskhiev, Vladimir Khotinenko, Alexander Rogozhkin and Sergey Ursulyak.
The official explanation for the ban imposed upon so many films refers to either views of some particular actors or film directors, or some kind of criticism which they expressed towards Ukraine at the moment. Yet, in the Ukrainian media publications stating their full rejection of the Russian literature are in abundance. The list of banned films is long. Many of them are TV series of no particular significance. However, they are just a smokescreen for a more significant step towards the attempt to cleanse the Ukrainian culture from what is seen as “Russian influence”.