Russian Orthodox Christians sing prayers to protest controversial movie about last Tsar's affair

YouTubeA scene from the film Matilda

Around 20 Orthodox Christians in Russia last night sang prayers to protest against the controversial release of a movie about the last Russian tsar's affair with a ballerina.

The protesters gathered outside the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, where Matilda was shown yesterday to a selected audience ahead of its release this week.

The film, which tells the story of Nicholas II's infatuation with ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya, has angered hard-line nationalists, with some Orthodox believers seeing it as blasphemous. The tsar, who was executed along with his family by Bolsheviks in 1918, is glorified as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.

There have been a number of incidents in the build-up to the film's release. Last month, police detained several activists accused of setting cars on fire outside the office of the attorney for the movie's director.

Also last month, Russia's largest operator of movie theatres said it would not screen the controversial film following threats of arson attacks. Russian news agencies quoted cinema chain director Roman Linin as saying, in reference to the decision: 'The security of our viewers remains a priority for us.' The chain, which is operated by Formula Kino and Cinema Park, has 75 theatres. The announcement came a day after two cars were set on fire outside the office of the attorney for the film's director Alexei Uchitel.

Set in the late 19th century, the film tells the tale of the romance between Nicholas II, before he became tsar, and half-Polish dancer Matilda Kshesinskaya, who described the relationship in her memoirs.

Nicholas 'loved me dearly', she wrote. 'I adored Nikki, I thought only of him, of my sweetheart.'

Opposition to the film has ranged from street demonstrations to appeals from prominent clergy, with some activists making physical threats against cinemas who plan to show it.

Uchitel last month told Reuters: 'The tense atmosphere for the studio these past few months, for those who are making the movie and for the exhibitors, is a serious test. They could say [to a cinema] over the phone: You have two showings, for the sake of form, and that's it. I'm not afraid of an official ban in particular regions, but I fear this kind of pressure.'

The director said that the main Russian distributor of the film, Karo, had received a letter from a hardline Orthodox Christian group, calling itself 'Christian State – Holy Rus'.

In a statement on its website, the hardline group said the film was an insult to Russia and its history and warned that it could drive some people to commit violence, such as setting cinemas on fire. It denied it planned to do anything illegal or had anything to do with acts already committed.

In late August, someone tried to set fire to a studio complex in St Petersburg that houses Uchitel's studio. There was minor damage to a part of the complex used by another organisation.

Also, a man drove a car packed with gas canisters into the entrance of a cinema in Yekaterinburg, the city where Bolshevik revolutionaries executed the Tsar and his family.

Authorities said the driver had been arrested. The cinema, which caught fire, had been hosting a film festival at which the chairman of the festival jury spoke in support of Uchitel.

Tensions over the film come against the backdrop of close ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and President Vladimir Putin.

ReutersRussian President Vladimir Putin (right) congratulates Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on his birthday during a ceremony in Moscow, Russia on Nov. 20, 2016.

The new closeness between Church and state comes some 26 years after the end of the Soviet-era repression of the Church, which has around 165 million members worldwide.

President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, share similarly authoritarian positions on human rights as well as issues relating to foreign policy, family values and more.