Stalin, Paddington, and the Press

What do Josef Stalin and Paddington Bear have in common? Answer: The Russian Ministry of Culture has tried to ‘ban’ films about them – or at least that what recent headlines would have you believe. The truth is a bit more complex.

The Stalin story relates to a decision by the Ministry of Culture to withdraw a licence for the release of the movie Death of Stalin, pending further investigation. It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban. Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved. Given Mendinsky’s reasons for objecting to the film are political, an outright ban would be legally problematic since the Russian constitution prohibits censorship. This perhaps explains the ministry’s statement that is subjecting the film to further review rather than prohibiting it. Mendinsky says that it would be ‘extremely inappropriate for this picture to come out on the screens on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the historic victory in Stalingrad.’ This leaves open the possibility that the film may be given a licence once that anniversary is over in February.

Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible. I haven’t seen the film as it hasn’t been released in Ottawa where I live (for commercial reasons, I imagine, not censorship). But I have read the graphic novel on which it’s based, and there’s no doubt that it does indeed mock the Soviet leadership at the time of Stalin’s death. It also distorts history in certain respects – e.g. portraying Soviet citizens being gunned down by soldiers during Stalin’s funeral. But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake. Writing in Vzgliad, Pyotr Akopov claims that it’s not for foreigners (Death of Stalin is a British film) to satirize Russia – only Russians can do that. This again is a pretty poor argument. Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film. If you don’t like foreigners satirizing your country, just don’t go see it. Don’t ban it.

The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites (several film directors were among those who asked the Ministry not to licence the film). Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)? I don’t think so. The Ministry should rethink its actions.

The Paddington case is different. In this instance, the Ministry of Culture attempted to postpone release of the movie Paddington 2. It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies. Given Paddington 2’s success in Europe and North America, the Ministry obviously worried that it would attract viewers who might otherwise have gone to see something made in Russia – thus the decision. In the end, though, consumer outrage forced the Ministry to back down and a licence was released for the film to show from 20 January.

This was a clear instance of economic protectionism, completely unrelated to politics. Unlike the Stalin case, there was also no question of the film being forbidden. The plan was merely to postpone its release for a couple of weeks. It was a pretty dumb idea, but not as insidious as the case of Death of Stalin.

This, however, did not stop the British tabloid press from making some wild claims. The Sun led with the headline, ‘Russia wants to ban Paddington 2 because it’s too popular and considered Western propaganda.’ It followed up with the statement that the film was ‘deemed to be a threat to the Russian way of life,’ as well as with claims that Russia might soon ban McDonalds and KFC. None of this, of course, is true. There was no ‘ban’ of Paddington, the episode had nothing to do with the film being a ‘threat to the Russian way of life’, and the rumour about McDonalds and KFC is pure speculation and quite preposterous. The Sun finished off its article with a section about how the Soviet Union (in 1985 no less!!) had banned Western pop groups such as Village People. Quite what this has to do with modern Russia and Paddington wasn’t explained.

Other British tabloids joined in the feeding frenzy. ‘Russia tried to BAN Paddington 2 branding popular film Western PROPAGANDA,’ shouted the Daily Express, which went on to tell readers that ‘the Kremlin takes issue with the foreign values in the children’s film.’ The Daily Star, meanwhile, linked the affair to Russia’s leader with the headline, ‘Vladimir Putin in bid to ban Paddington film from Russian cinemas.’ There is, of course, no actual evidence to link Putin personally to any of this. Were such stories to appear in RT, they would no doubt soon be classified as ‘fake news.’

All of which goes to show that you shouldn’t put too much faith in either the Russian Ministry of Culture or the British press.

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17 thoughts on “Stalin, Paddington, and the Press”

  1. Read the graphic novel as well, it would be better without the historical falsification.
    I was also initially confused why Zhukov in the film looks far more like Rokosovskiy in real life then like Zhukov.

    I dont see it as overly hostile to Russians (in relation to what else comes out of holywood)though, at least Zhukov kind of comes across as a good guy/reasonably magnificient bastard, and Russians good guys are incredibly rare.

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  2. In ideal world movies shouldn’t be banned. But for the Russians, banning a movie is the only only way to register a protest that would be noticed.

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  3. The film “Life of Brian” comes to my mind. It was banned in some countries while in others screening was restricted. So nothing new on the “western/eastern front”.

    Regards,

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    1. “Life of Brian”

      I feel that far more obvious whataboutit-ist case here would be the whole Russia-gate phenomenon. Ongoing.

      Congressional hearings on ‘foreign propaganda’ in social networks, internet, tv, and radio. Government demands (enthusiastically fulfilled) to tech companies to implement (on behalf of the state) strict monitoring and censorship.

      Banning one film? Not even close.

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    2. The Life of Brian was banned from parts of the UK itself:

      Toilet Barf: Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian film ban lifted after 28 years
      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/3073308/Monty-Pythons-The-Life-Of-Brian-film-ban-lifted-after-28-years.html

      A council has lifted its 28-year ban on Monty Python’s film The Life of Brian after declaring its own X-rating certificate void.

      Thirty-nine local authorities either imposed an outright ban, or imposed an X certificate to the Biblical satire after it was condemned as blasphemous when it was released in 1980.

      Torbay Council’s finance and general purpose committee in Devon voted five to one that the AA (15) certificate was not strong enough and that it should be given an X-rating when shown in the area. …

      …In 1980, of the councils that scrutinized the film, 68 upheld the British Board of Film Censors’ AA certificate, 28 enforced a local X rating and 11 banned it outright…

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  4. “It is debatable whether this really constitutes a ban”

    It’s not a ban. It’s just one particular form of capitalism (protectionism) in action. Russia has no obligation to allow just about everyone to make a profit by screening their, foreign, movie herein. Those who want to see this “movie” (based not on the original scenario or “research”, as the director claims, but on a Frenchie graphic novel of the same name) are welcome to buy DVDs.

    “Culture Minister Vladimir Mendinsky claims that viewers might consider the film ‘an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past’, something which you might think was richly deserved”

    Define “you”. Liberast? Anti-Sovietist? Run of the mill Russophobe? Member of the hipsteriat? Mmeber of the shy and conscientious intelligentsia?

    “Regardless of what happens, the Ministry of Culture’s action is quite indefensible”

    Why?

    “But mockery and bad history aren’t reasons for refusing to licence a film. It’s satire, for goodness sake”

    Let everyone be my evidence – these words came from our esteemed host, the owner and the proprietor of the Irrussionality blog, professor Robinson! He himself hang this Chekov’s gun on the wall.

    “Nobody is forcing anybody to watch this film”

    But is it right to force Russians to provide even a few pennies to the (foreign) producers of that film?

    “The Death of Stalin episode reveals a hyper-sensitive, paranoid, and authoritarian strain in Russia’s cultural elites”

    It has nothing to do with our so-called Russian so-called “cultural” so-called “elite”. It is lily-livered handshakable and liberast.

    “Is Russian identity and national pride really so fragile that the country can’t tolerate some mockery of Stalin’s Politburo (who, let’s face it, were hardly paragons of virtue)?”

    Ask me after 100+ years of the entirety of the world cinematograph will decide for portraying the US as a crony capitalist shithole where Ku Klux Klan members lynch blacks on a daily basis and which is mostly inhabited by dumb fat alcoholic rednecks living in decaying farmhouses with an IQ of 60 (at best) who are controlled by a group of lawless scrounger-politicians. All of whom are eating hamburgers all the time.

    “The Ministry should rethink its actions”

    It’s Russian Ministry, answerable to the people of Russia – not Canada.

    “It has the right to do this with foreign films if it thinks that the timing of the release will adversely affect sales of tickets to Russian movies.”

    Disagree completely. Given the fact that Paddington 2 place had been given to the “historical fantasy” movie “The Scythian”, which:

    >takes place in late 11 c.
    > has the Scythians in it.
    > said Scythians are some unholy cross between the Witchers and ninjas
    > Scythians use crossbows with glass scopes
    > They pray to Ares.
    > The movie shamelessly rips off “Mad Max 3: Under the Thunderdome”:

    >Everyone is covered in shit. Several layers deep.
    > It’s production cost was 150 mln. rubles. Budget money, of course.

    In the ideal world we won’t be seeing neither “The Scythian” nor “The Death of Stalin”.

    P.S. You know, earlier this week I’ve talking with my friends about this whole situation. They offered the usual arguments: “Show just one Russian/Soviet movie, portraying the Western modern heads of state as some sort of incompetent morass or making fun of their deaths and the resulting power struggle”. Some were offering to “strike back” with such “black comedies” as “The Death of Nemtsov” (I personally suggested to pay the BraZZers Studio to film it and drag Rocco Sifferdi from his retirement for his last hurrah role) or “The Death of Lady D” (by the same film studio with the similar approach to the narrative, but this time invite Sasha Baron Coen), or even “The Death of JFK”.

    I said they don’t grok it. The West, in it’s claim to support the liberal values, claims there are no sacred cows and that you can make fun of anything, that the personal Liberte of expression is paramount. They lie, of course, they have different set of the sacred cows and totem poles, but to test them, I suggested to make (black comedies, of course, and, as per the director Ianucchi’s words, “based on true history”) movies like “The Death of Brandon Tina” or “The Death of MLK”.

    I’ve been met with blank stares. Maybe, it was for the better, that Russian’s don’t really know about alien totems and sacred cows.

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    1. but to test them, I suggested to make (black comedies, of course, and, as per the director Ianucchi’s words, “based on true history”) movies like “The Death of Brandon Tina” or “The Death of MLK”.

      Shooting of Trayvon Martin a la The Naked Gun, with O. J. Simpson in the title role?
      United Airlines Flight 93 a la Airplane!

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  5. I’m afraid I’m going to come down on the side of the Ministry of Culture. For one thing, I read the subject article before I saw your usual excellent analysis of it, and I was immediately annoyed that the author continuously reinforced the point that Stalin ‘remains popular in Russia’ and that sensitivity to the way the era is portrayed reflects a yearning for the return of Stalin. Russian rebuttals consistently made the point that it is the portrayal of Russians as stupid louts which they found objectionable – ‘they may have been dictators, but they weren’t idiots. This is what the west thinks of our people’.

    You might say “It’s satire, for God’s sake”, but how many of the audience would make that distinction? The Russian charge is essentially true – that is what many westerners think of Russians; that they are all alcoholics or murderers or brainwashed drones or whatever. And not everything about Soviet history can be dismissed as deserving of mockery.

    Russia is poorly understood in the west. Thanks to the spread of western culture through film, everyone knows that Americans and the British are not actually room-temperature-IQ stupid just because films like “The Life of Brian” or “Spies Like Us” portray them that way. But encouraging a dehumanizing stereotype of Russians is a growth industry in the west.

    Granted, banning the film – if that turns out to be the case – in Russia does not prevent it from being seen in the west. But Russians have probably had enough of being asked to laugh at themselves by westerners. Presenting a film which culture buffs believe will encourage Russians to believe westerners see them as targets for ridicule is unlikely to bring about any sort of reconciliation, if that is even possible any more.

    I had not, however, read about the Paddington II story, so I’m afraid I can’t comment on that except to say I saw Paddington I and enjoyed it very much. Unless the sequel portrays the villain of the story as an evil Russian mastermind, I think your assessment that it was a purely economic decision is probably right on the money. Very good piece.

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  6. Let’s allow the talented creator of this brilliant movie (“based on secret documental evidence” ™) to speak for himself!

    “Iannucci, the writer and director who made the political satires Veep and The Thick of It, said: “All the Russians we’ve shown the film to so far, including Russian press, have said how much they enjoyed and appreciated the film. They say two things: it’s funny, but it’s true. I’m still confident we can get it in cinemas.””
    The Guardian (23 Jan 2017)

    “Iannucci’s latest target is Stalin and his cronies. His new film, The Death of Stalin, is set in 1953 and depicts – with unexpected historical accuracy – the undignified scrabble for dominance that followed the demise of the Soviet despot. It is silly, moving and revelatory, all at once, with deft, pitch-perfect turns from Simon Russell Beale as Beria and Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev”

    […]

    The Guardian: Was it easier than you expected to make a comedy about Stalin and his inner circle that was also factually accurate?

    Iannucci: Yeah. When we were researching it, we found out things like Vasily, Stalin’s son, really did lose the ice-hockey team in a plane crash. And because the comedy is the comedy of hysteria, you want to be true to what happened and how people responded. So anything that was so-bizarre-and-yet-true was a candidate for going in. I thought about having “This is a true story…”, but then I thought, no, just watch it for what it is, and it would be great if you subsequently found out that the bulk of it was true.

    G: These men are vicious, but your film also gives them a human side. They have families they fear for; they play practical jokes. Did your feelings towards them change?

    I: Um, no. But I did think, what must they have done to have survived and ended up so close to Stalin, and what has it done to them? The fact, for example, that he would almost taunt them and mock them and play them off against each other… With all these things it’s about posing the question, “What would you have done in those circumstances?”

    […]

    G: Is it true there have been calls in Russia for the film to be banned?

    I: You say Russia – it’s a person in a country of 200 million people. Just somebody somewhere said something.

    G: Were you expecting a reaction?

    I: I was wondering what it would be. I was surprised to hear we sold it to a Russian distributor. Stalin’s been making a comeback. There have been busts of Lenin, Stalin and other key figures going up in Moscow for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s that sense of, don’t be frightened of strong men. That’s the message in Moscow at the moment.
    The Guardian (15 Oct 2017)

    “The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw said The Death of Stalin was the film of the year and gave it five stars. Many in Russia are less amused, however, as the film threatens to reopen heated Russian debates about the role of Stalin as the centenary of the October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power approaches.

    “The death of any person is not a subject for comedy, and even more so the death of a head of state and a great leader,” said Nikolai Starikov, a politician who leads a fringe nationalist party and has written a series of bestselling books on Russian history, including one glorifying Stalin. “He was the leader of a state that was an ally of Great Britain during the war. Could you imagine the Russians making a film mocking the death of a British king?”

    Starikov said the film was an “unfriendly act by the British intellectual class” and said it was very clear that the film was part of an “anti-Russian information war” aimed at discrediting the figure of Stalin.

    A spokeswoman for Russia’s culture ministry said she could not comment on whether the film might be banned in Russia, as no application for a licence had yet been made. A representative of Volga Films, the Russian distributor of The Death of Stalin, confirmed that the company had yet to submit an official request to the culture ministry for a licence for the film, saying this would take place after the UK premiere on 20 October. She said any public commentary about a potential ban was “simply speculation”.

    It is clear, however, that the prospect of the film being screened is already causing uproar among nationalists.

    The pro-Kremlin newspaper Vzglyad recommended the film should not be screened in Russia, calling it “a nasty sendup by outsiders who know nothing of our history”. Pavel Pozhigailo, an adviser to Russia’s culture ministry, said the film was a “planned provocation” aimed at angering Communists in Russia and had the potential to “incite hatred”.

    […]

    In June, Russia’s Levada Centre polled the country’s citizens on who they believed to be “the greatest person of all nations and all eras”, and Stalin came in first place. Putin came second, and the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin third.”
    The Guardian (14 Oct 2017).

    I have two questions.

    1) Did those “Russians” before whom the maître Iannucci screened “his” masterpiece and who furiously handshaked it afterwards included the people currently residing in Berlin, London, Haifa, Brighton Beach (NY) and/or this man?

    2) Is it absolutely necessary from every kreakl to be a piece of lying shytte in order to receive the top marks of handshakability?

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  7. Regarding film and satire.
    If you are par on the “in” group it’s impossibke for you to judge the possible response / impact on the group that’s subject of the satire/ joke.

    Years ago I let some comedy /daturas videos (it was along time ago) to a friend I was at college with.

    He returned them and I asked whether he enjoyed them. One of the films he hated and said it was only on in his house for ten minutes before his family and friends reacted and he had to turn it off. He hated the film and was really angry about it.

    Why?

    The film was staring Steve Martin it was called the jerk – it was a satire with jokes about black people – my college friend was black.

    I learned a lesson. When your the subject of jokes that belittle your culture – it’s not funny.

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    1. Good point, James, but ‘Death in Stalin’ isn’t mocking Russians or Russia. It’s mocking the leaders of the 1953 Soviet Union. To be frank, they’re fair game.

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      1. “they’re fair game”

        Still, it’s a bit weird. As if Bollywood produced a dance-and-sing comedy about the Kennedy assassination, or something.

        Watch this one: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0127729/ . Superb literature, quite a decent film. Could it be done in the west? Nah, I don’t think so. Should stick with Fawlty Towers and La Grande Vadrouille.

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      2. ” It’s mocking the leaders of the 1953 Soviet Union. To be frank, they’re fair game.”

        Why? C’mon, Paul! I don’t suppose you are a nihilistic socipath, who thinks that everything and everyone is mockable. You have your own sacred cows and totems. I think you are an honest “pro-freedom of speech but with some limits” hypocrite – i.e. a person one can deal with in the everyday life (I deal with so-called “baptized, but not religious” folks claiming to be Russian Orthodox Christians on daily basis).

        De-Sovietization attempts of your collegues and so-called Russian intelligentsia which descended like an awalanche on us starting with Perestroika didn’t change us that much – and it had mockery, lies and slander aplenty. That’s your problem, Paul – that we, the Russians, are not like you, the Westerners?

        But, if I’m wrong, then I await for you to come up with thunderous approval of the potential movie “Death of Lady Dee”, starring Sasha Baron Coen in multiple roles. Oh, and I still await for you to use the term “backlash”, when there yet another terrorist attack in the West happens. After all – you used it one while talking about Russia!

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      3. ” As if Bollywood produced a dance-and-sing comedy about the Kennedy assassination, or something. “

        I mean – that’s Bollywood we are talking about! Thei re-makes of the “Commando” and “The Snatch” were e-peek!

        P.S. Oh, and one more thing:

        Channel 4 under fire for new series set to be the ‘Shameless in famine Ireland’ (3 January 2015):

        “After creating uproar with its coverage of the unemployed in Benefits Street, Channel 4 is generating new outrage after commissioning a comedy series on the Irish potato famine, a tragedy thought to have cost a million lives.

        The sitcom, called Hungry, has been revealed by Dublin-based writer Hugh Travers, who told the Irish Times that “we’re kind of thinking of it as Shameless in famine Ireland.”

        News of the project has caused an immediate backlash in Ireland. Dublin councillor David McGuinness claimed the show was intended to “embarrass and denigrate” one of the most painful periods in Irish history.

        “Jewish people would never endorse making a comedy of the mass extermination of their ancestors at the hands of the Nazis, Cambodians would never support people laughing at what happened to their people at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the people of Somalia, Ethiopia or Sudan would never accept the plight of their people, through generational famine, being the source of humour in Britain,” he said, calling on Irish broadcasters to shun the project. “I am not surprised that it is a British television outlet funding this venture.

        The Great Famine lasted from 1846 until 1851 when Ireland was part of the British Empire, killing one eighth of the population and prompting the emigration of two million people. Niall O’Dowd, of the Irish-American site Irish Central blog, asked: “How about a comedy about Ebola with black kids dying on screen and doctors telling funny jokes about them?

        James Dempsey, of the national Irish radio station NewsTalk, said: “A lot of people have been very quick to be outraged and say this is absolutely insensitive.” Others had pointed out that comedies such as Blackadder found humour in dark subjects. He said Travers was not well-enough known in Ireland for people to be able to trust his ability to tread a difficult path.

        Some online commentators called on Irish broadcaster RTE to retaliate by making comedies about the London Blitz.”

        The series never saw the release. “The Invisible Hand of the Market” ™ strikes again!

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  8. Article 10 – Freedom of expression

    1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

    2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
    – European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)

    The same caveat as written in p.2. is also present in Art. 8 (Right to respect for private and family life) and Art. 11 (Freedom of assembly and association) of said Convention. In the Russian language text we have “нравственность” instead of “morals”. Do you, in the West, have any idea what is “нравственность” or some equivalents to it? Because your “morals” surely won’t do.

    I’m mentioning it to show, once again, that RF did everything right both from the capitalist standpoint and legally. We are just preventing the disorder and crime and defending or morals. Have all rights to do so.

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