Russian movie chain won't show Tsar 'affair' film after threats from Christian hardliners

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

Russia's largest operator of movie theatres says it will not screen a controversial film depicting an affair between a young ballerina and the last tsar, considered a martyr by the Orthodox Church, following accusations of 'blasphemy', threats and 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, Uchitel's Matilda, to be released internationally in late October, 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.'

Christian Today reported last week on how cinema operators planning to show Matilda are coming under pressure, ranging from behind-the-scenes lobbying to arson threats.

The opposition 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 week 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'.

Karo and 'Holy Rus' representatives did not comment to Reuters.

But 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.

The tsar and his family were executed soon after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution – an event whose hundredth anniversary is being commemorated this year.

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

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.