On New Year’s Eve, Russian state television aired a programme that represented the height of tastelessness and kitsch; compared to it, the former Engerian “cauldron of entertainment” Ein Kessel Buntes is the pinnacle of television entertainment. Words are usually a pity for a failed product, but in this case it was also a massive example of vicious, often cruel cynicism based on a false and distorted view not only of the war in Ukraine but of the world in general. Uniforms in the auditorium and on stage, inane and, above all, malicious joking about the irreplaceability of Russian gas, how it’s fine that Ukrainians are freezing and the world is short of energy, rhyming and singing with scandalous political lyrics. The whole programme was a testimony to the poverty of spirit of Russian wannabe artists. Not really worth further comment.
However, the downgraded State New Year’s Eve offered context. For there are also “non-radobes” in Russia, that is, genuine and respectable artists who declare themselves to be supporters, even passionate defenders, of Putin’s policies. Although I hope there are not many of them, they are just more vocal than the silent passive opposition. For many years they have included the outstanding Russian director and actor Nikita Mikhalkov. He is on the European Union sanctions list for his active pro-Putin attitudes and actions, as the foreign media have recently reminded us.
Yet the old man has had an impressive professional career and many successes; as a director, he is credited with films such as Tired of the Sun (he won an Oscar for the first installment in 1995), Twelve, The Siberian Lazebnik, Urga, Eyes of the Black, and other films he has directed, many of which featured dozens of major roles. In 2010, the Karlovy Vary Film Festival awarded him the Crystal Globe for his lifetime contribution to world cinema. (It will be quite interesting, by the way, to see if the Karlovy Vary IFF eventually agrees to strip Michalkov of this honor, as suggested some time ago by Yevhen Perebyjnis, the former Ukrainian ambassador to the Czech Republic. So far, this has not happened.)
Mikhalkov has supported Putin since the beginning of his rule, fondly characterizing him as a young, charismatic leader who has accomplished much and can still accomplish much. In the immediate aftermath of the events on Maidan – the anti-Russian coup in Ukraine in late 2013 and early 2014 – and the annexation of Crimea, he rushed to anti-Ukrainian positions and bizarre statements. For example, he claimed that Ukraine wanted to exterminate the Russians with infected birds and spread other nonsensical conspiracy theories. He was also involved in the anti-vaxxer campaign with similarly phantasmagoric views. He is, of course, also defending Russian aggression against Ukraine, where he says ‘horrible Nazism’ is spreading. “I got on the list because I’ve been talking about the emerging horrible Nazism in Ukraine for the last ten years in my home. When you are sanctioned for that, it means you are doing everything right,” he said of his inclusion on the sanctions list.
One could quote a number of other statements by Mikhalkov. It is puzzling where he got the idea why he is in Putin’s service. After all, in his writings he has repeatedly spoken out against injustice and lawlessness, and has proven his empathy, humanism, and sensitive engagement with human and human fates. In the film Tired of the Sun, he criticized Stalinist atrocities, from whose practices the current Putin regime does not differ much. Set in a Russian milieu, Twelve (a masterful remake of the famous American film Twelve Angry Men) put the fate of a young Chechen boy on the scales of justice: the boy is accused of killing his Russian father, and a jury is to decide his guilt…
How come a famous director is so vocal in his support for the Russian dictator? He is not bothered by the gratuitous aggression and dead children in Ukraine? Does he have a nationalistic Russian soul that he can’t deny? Is he thumbing his nose at his ruler because he wants to restore the greatness of the Soviet Union, even if he does it with blood and iron? Does he really believe that Putin’s policies will bring salvation and prosperity to Russia? Or is it perhaps the influence of his family background? He is, after all, the son of the Soviet poet and playwright Sergei Mikhalkov, author, among other things, of the lyrics to the Soviet and then Russian national anthem. (The new version does invoke God, but it obfuscates, if not lies, just like the old one.) He has been a longtime friend of Putin, and has always spoken of him with unequivocal sympathy. Who knows, maybe he wants to hold on to his positions, he finds it undignified to change them towards old age. War crimes notwithstanding.
When we consider the reasons for the renowned filmmaker’s warm relationship with Vladimir Putin, a number of possible (unknown) ones come to mind. But perhaps they are quite simple. Mikhalkov has had an extraordinarily good life under Putin’s rule; he has always had luxurious conditions and all the resources he needed for his work. He received honours, prizes, recognition, and held important positions in artistic institutions. As a critic of the current government, he would be much less comfortable. So maybe he is “only” concerned about his comfortable life. Which one can quite well imagine as a supporting motive for fervent loyalty. And not just for him.
True, there may also be a simple fear for health and life at work here. After all, in Russia people often fall out of windows by accident, they have famous prisons, Siberian winters and novichok. But in Nikita Mikhalkov’s case, such a thing is hard to believe.
I confess that I have a serious reason for urgently asking why this artist, like some other Russians like him in meaning and opinion, is close to Putin: it is hard to imagine a sincere relationship between an artist whose work we respect and a dictator and initiator of an unjust war. Instinctively, we would be happy if there were some humanly understandable reasons, because otherwise our heads are not in the right place. So we have no choice but to wish him to see and place on the scales of justice – like in the movie Twelve – values and “values” in time to decide which is worth more.
This article was translated from the original published in the magazine Přítomnost.
published: 23. 1. 2023