Jthe main character of Mephisto, the Oscar-winning film based on a 1936 novel by Klaus Mann, is about a brilliant stage actor who thinks he can outsmart the Nazis by collaborating with them. At the end of the film, he finds himself screaming hysterically, “Ich bin doch nur ein Schauspieler!” – “but I’m only an actor!” – because Hitler’s repression machine is attacking him too.
Mann’s anti-hero is a thinly veiled version of Gustaf Gründgens, a true German star who starred Hamlet and Faust for Nazi audiences, and died decades later still obsessed with the question of his complicity. As Vladimir Putin’s Russia crumbles down a neofascist path with its invasion of Ukraine and an intensified internal search for “national traitors”, Russian actors – many of whom hold progressive views – face the same enigma: is it collaborationism to simply continue to work?
Members of other creative professions – from musicians and novelists to graphic designers and dancers – are fleeing Russia in droves, forming ad hoc enclaves in places like Istanbul, Yerevan and Tbilisi; an estimated 250,000 Russians have left since the start of the war. Rap star Face has announced that he “no longer exists[s] as a Russian citizen and artist,” and prima ballerina Olga Smirnova left the Bolshoi for the Dutch National Ballet. Actors, however, find themselves bound by both an unchanging industry and the one language most can act in. Their only choice is to carry on as if nothing had happened or to look for a new job.
“I don’t know if I can do anything but act,” says a rising young movie star who, like several others interviewed for this story, asked me not to use his own name for fear of government reprisals. “but it’s time to start understanding.”
The Russian film industry, like most domestic theaters outside of the United States, is not designed for profit. Only about 7% of the more than 1,000 films released between 1992 and 2015, for example, went black. Privately funded content exists, but a large majority of films draw their budgets from two bodies: the Ministry of Culture and a quasi-governmental film fund.
For most of their existence, these bodies were no more or less politicized than their Western European counterparts, such as the Council of Europe’s Eurimages, to which Russia also belonged. Over time, however, Putinist ideology began to seep into their behavior, particularly with the arrival of eccentric World War II historian Vladimir Medinsky, who served as Minister of Culture from 2012 to 2020. (In an ostensibly troll choice of Putin, Medinsky is currently leading peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.)
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Yet even under Medinsky there was an unspoken understanding that, in order to compete for cultural “soft power” at international film festivals and markets, Russia should continue to support films critical of the regime, such as the Netflix title of ‘Aleksey German. Dovlatov or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar nominee Leviathan. The story of my directorial debut in 2019, The comedian—a highly indebted film Mephisto– is a good example. The Ministry of Culture was a minority investor there, alongside Eurimages and the Czech and Latvian film funds, and expressed no opinion on it despite its clearly anti-totalitarian position and my own American nationality.
Soft power, however, is no longer a concern. As Russia transforms from a hybrid authoritarianism that tolerated some dissent into outright dictatorship, festivals like Cannes and Berlin are closed to it, as are content markets like MIPTV. Netflix and other streaming players have suspended operations inside the country and stopped buying its content. On March 16, the Council of Europe, which finances Eurimages, voted to expel Russia. In essence, the state no longer has any impulse, internal or external, to fund an art that is ideologically out of step with its own warmongering.
What can an actor do in this situation? “Imagine yourself in my place,” says an actress with a long-standing opposition stance. “You did everything you could years before the war started. You have saved your messages. You filed your objections. You received all kinds of abuse in response, from police visits to your home to death threats in your DMs. You’ve done all of this, and you still can’t change anything.
The story of Russian actor dissent is, for the most part, a study of forced compromise. In 2021, dozens of movie and TV stars who had publicly voiced their support for Kremlin chief critic Alexei Navalny, which had previously been tacitly allowed, found themselves blacklisted from all future projects. Some curbed all political activity and were later “pardoned”. Others moved to places like Georgia.
Still by Michael Idov The comedian.
The comedian, set in 1984, illustrates just that choice: its main character is a fictional Soviet comedian who has changed his surname from the Jewish-sounding Aronson to the neutral Arkadiev and spends his days entertaining the KGB elite; his friend Simon Greenberg, who refuses to do either, languishes unpublished and banished from television – but one of the points of the film was that the Greenberg way is also feasible for those willing to give up the comforts of mainstream fame. I meant this as a comment on rampant Putin-era censorship, but the stakes have risen much higher since then. Where dissent once meant career risk, it now means jail or exile.
In the early days after the invasion, many actors posted innocuous yet anti-war messages on Instagram and other social media. On March 4, however, even the simplest pacifist sentiment was banned: anything that could be construed as “spreading false information about the Russian military” – including calling the war a war – was now punishable by 15 years. from prison.
Some actors have brought down the anti-war posts. Those who managed to leave in time, like actress Irina Gorbacheva, began using their social media platforms to amplify and repost Ukrainian refugees’ pleas for humanitarian aid. Others half-heartedly returned to the usual light fare — pets, premieres, fashion shows, hotel room selfies. (It comes with its own risks – “I get hundreds of DMs a day from Ukrainians wishing me dead for not talking,” said one popular actress/influencer who stuck to the usual tactic. She is currently moving to Berlin.)
Read more: How Telegram became the digital battleground of the Russian-Ukrainian war
On March 15, a dedicated list of “national traitors” emerged on the website of a Russian NGO, with photos of many film industry professionals (including the star of my latest film) tagged enemy Where traitor. If there was any hope that this was the work of an overzealous stooge, it was dashed the very next day when Putin went on television to denounce the “fifth column” of “scum” and traitors” among the Russians themselves. Most analysts see this speech as an indirect green light for mass repressions.
Four days later, Chulpan Khamatova, one of Russia’s biggest movie stars and philanthropists, revealed in an interview that she had left the country. “I’m afraid to go back,” she said. “Returning to Russia would mean ignoring what I see with my own eyes, ignoring what I hear from my Ukrainian friends, lying to myself, lying to the whole world and asking [the Russian government] to forgive me for not supporting the war from the start. That, or go to jail.
Khamatova is a rare case of a Russian star with a career on the Western side, including a role in the much-loved German comedy Goodbye lin! Far more often, the skills of actors, unlike those of musicians or dancers, are not easily exportable and their work cannot be performed remotely. Even in better times, crossbreeding was rare. Exceptions like Yuri Kolokolnikov, a character actor working in Hollywood, are treated as unlikely international hits at home. Few young stars, even the worldliest and most ambitious, take it upon themselves to learn English well enough to try to become the next Alicia Vikander or Gal Gadot. And, of course, once the war started, the prospect of working with a Russian citizen made it almost impossible to find work in any other major market, except perhaps China.
The inability to cross forces artists to make the real-life Faustian decision: what to do once new censorship laws and the cratering economy have swept away almost everything but state-sponsored propaganda? “I asked around,” says the rising young movie star. “All my friends say they won’t. I haven’t found a single soul that would say, ‘Oh, I don’t care, money is money.’Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), are strong supporters of the war and will no doubt feel very comfortable under the new circumstances.
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At the moment, almost all Russian films and TV series currently scheduled for production are moving forward, even as international sanctions destroy the value of the ruble and the country’s economy. One insider calls this fare “the last of the VOD momentum,” meaning the glossy and mostly apolitical entertainment commissioned before the war by half a dozen video-on-demand platforms. Of the few projects that have been blocked, some did so because they were intended for Western services such as Netflix, and others because Ukrainian stars dropped them. Two new fairy tales, flying ship and the latest installment of the popular Disney brand last warrior franchise, had chosen Ukrainian actresses who left the country at the start of the war.
The Russian and Ukrainian film industries were once linked to such an extent that most of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pre-political career was spent in Russian comedies. The longtime opposition actress recalled working in Kyiv in the years following Putin’s land grab, which she criticized, and noted fewer Russians on set than in the past. Still, she expected a somewhat tense reception from the Ukrainian public and was pleasantly shocked by the warmth of the reception.
“I made tons of friends there,” she says. “Most of them are texting me from bomb shelters.”
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