This weekend’s hottest cinema ticket in Moscow should have been Going Vertical, a feel-good sports flick about the Soviet basketball team’s triumph over the US at the 1972 Olympics. Instead, the Ministry of Culture created a major sensation around Armando Iannucci’s satire The Death of Stalin, which it ham-handedly pulled from theatres on the eve of its premiere last week. Welcome to the self-defeating farce of Russia’s current culture establishment, which undermines its own success by alienating producers and consumers.

Young people don’t care much about Stalin, but they have grown up with the ability to watch whatever they want. Iannucci’s take on the power struggle following Stalin’s demise was slated to open in limited release on 25 January. After a closed screening for higher-ups three days prior, Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky called it “an insulting mockery of the entire Soviet past”. State officials and culture bigwigs signed an open letter describing The Death of Stalin as “libel of our country’s history” with “extremist views”. The ministry revoked the distribution license required to screen it, sowing confusion among movie theatres. One cinema in Moscow, Pioner, proceeded with several scheduled shows. After police showed up, however, it quickly vanished from the line-up.

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    Still from The Death of Stalin

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    Still from The Death of Stalin

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    Adrian McLoughlin as Iosif Stalin

Commentators have been quick to attribute the scandal surrounding The Death of Stalin to an official resurrection of the Stalin cult. But the real issue is that the Ministry of Culture wants Russians seeing fewer foreign films and more domestic ones, which are heavily dependent on state funding. This effort has been quite successful: last year, Russian movies took in 25 per cent of the box office for the first time since 2008. The Last Warrior, a fantasy about fairytale characters Baba Yaga and Koshchei, broke Stalingrad’s record for the highest-grossing domestic film of all time. But rather than quitting while it’s ahead, the Ministry is ruffling feathers by throwing its weight behind flag-waving favourites and abruptly eliminating the competition.

Earlier this month, the culture ministry delayed the opening of Paddington 2 by two weeks at the last minute in order to provide bigger audiences for Going Vertical and The Scythian, about the last stand of a pagan tribe in ancient Rus. This move shocked the industry and forced cinemas to return the 756,000 rubles ($13,439) they had sold in advance tickets. The Ministry issued a statement declaring that cinemas had acted illegally by selling tickets without a distribution license. By using licenses as a pawn, it can leave competitors dead in the water — temporarily or for good.

Young people don’t care much about Stalin, but they have grown up with the ability to watch whatever they want

Few would argue that a marmalade-eating bear is offensive to Russians. But where the Soviet past is concerned, commercial meddling is symbiotic with patriotic rhetoric. In revoking The Death of Stalin’s distribution license, Medinsky said the film’s mockery was an affront to “the victims of Stalinism”, a preemptive strike against those who would accuse the ministry of conservative censorship. Talk show blowhard Vladimir Solovyov opined about the film for several nights in a row, declaring that “in our culture it’s not acceptable to laugh at your mother.” In the corridors of power, moralistic bluster is good business. Among the signatories of the letter denouncing the film was veteran director Nikita Mikhalkov, the chairman of the cinematographers’ union whose company produced Going Vertical.

Some in the industry, however, are deeply unhappy with the Ministry’s approach. On 17 January, before the scandal surrounding The Death of Stalin broke, the association of Russian movie theatre owners issued a statement accusing it of “crude direct interference” and using distribution licenses as an “instrument of censorship”. Among the association’s members is Alexander Mamut, a billionaire who owns the large theatre chains Cinema Park and Formula Kino (as well as Pioner, the theatre that initially went ahead with The Death of Stalin). The statement concluded that Medinsky had returned film regulation to the Soviet era. While this claim is deeply hyperbolic, the rare move to engage in open confrontation with state institutions reveals that some with deep pockets are not eager to return to the cultural politics of the recent past.

Aside from hectoring TV hosts and top officials, there is little support for the ban. While stamping out foreign fare may have worked in the tightly controlled universe of Stalin’s day, there is too much cultural freedom in today’s Russia for it to make much sense. Even with more viewers turning out for domestic films, Hollywood productions still account for the vast majority of box office sales. Thanks to social networks and torrent sites, they’re also viewable for free online. A friend and I had tickets to the Saturday night showing at Pioner, but cancelled our plans after photos of police officers descending on the theatre spread on social media. “I don’t understand how our leaders can be so stupid,” she said, rolling her eyes.

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    Simon Russell Beale plays Lavrenty Beria, the ruthless head of the secret police

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    Beria, Khrushchev, and Svetlana Stalina, the dictator’s daughter

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    Jason Isaacs as Marshal Zhukov with Buscemi’s Khrushchev

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    Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov

Elena Drapenko, first deputy chairman of the Duma’s committee for culture, declared that The Death of Stalin “purposefully sows discord in our society”. But the discord is created by cultural authorities themselves, whose erratic interference draws attention away from the films they are funding and undermines their legitimacy. Instead of promoting the big-budget Going Vertical, Russian news outlets were consumed for days with discussing a foreign comedy that few would have seen. By preening and scrambling like Jeffrey Tambor’s deputy Georgy Malenkov in The Death of Stalin, officials made Iannucci’s point about the buffoonery of power for him — an analogy that was not lost on audiences. “I think our chinovniki [bureaucrats] were outraged by the film because they recognised themselves in it,” a student who made it to one of the few screenings said.

Meanwhile, there is another, bigger story that cultural authorities are in danger of rewriting. In the mid-1980s, the aging Soviet leadership, lacking a unifying vision or understanding of the younger generation, erratically condemned Western rock bands as ideologically unsound and forbid discos from playing them. People kept listening regardless. As the old guard died off and Gorbachev came to power, a seemingly stable system fell apart, due in part to frustrations among an educated urban populace tired of restrictions on their tastes. If today’s gatekeepers keep casting themselves as clowns, it is doubtful they will have the last laugh.

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