Foreign Policy Blogs

Putinism: Burnt by the Box Office?


All is not lost in Russia. Though deprived of meaningful political democracy, its citizens can still vote with their wallets and cinema tickets.

And their hearty rejection of “Burnt by the Sun 2”, Russia’s most expensive movie showed more than mere disgust at the laughably bad WWII ‘epic’ or the bloated vanity of its sycophant director, the Kremlin court film maker Mikhalkov; could the tanking of Burnt by the Sun 2 augur a similar fate for Putinism itself?mikhalkov-boutique-by-matchgirl_ru

The film, which came out Thursday (and which I will admit to not having yet seen) seems to have distilled all of the core qualities of Putin’s ‘epoch’: materialism and obsession with money, a bombastic certainty, a fixation with war and battle, total lack of self-awareness or irony, a Manichean outlook, historical dogmatism, machismo, social conservatism, an emphasis on male heroism and female sacrifice, nationalism, special effects and pyrotechnics without substance.

One criticism of the film has been its ostensible rehabilitation of Stalin, another Putinist hallmark. But the rehabilitation was less in the outwardly ambivalent way that the dictator is depicted in the film than in the structure and subject matter itself.mikhalkov-is-poo-by-ternivka

Most of all, there was a sense of ‘falseness’ about it. And in Russia, whose literature and philosophy has been overwhelmingly concerned with the concept of honesty and truth but was for years suffocated under layers of Soviet kitsch, the whiff of ‘falseness’ can be the kiss of death. Veterans have said it does not honestly depict the war experience from which it has sought to profiteer.

Hearteningly, the movie was hounded from the get go on Russia’s most vibrant arena of civil society – the Livejournal. Indeed, ridicule seems to be the perfect weapon to defeat such po-faced propaganda.


In a great article at Global Voices, Vadim Isakov goes through the various hilarious ways that the film’s bombastic posters had been taken down a few pegs on the message boards. Bloggers zealously competed for who can come up with the most creative defacement of the main image – Mikhalkov with a machine gun- and the improbable  slogan: “The Great Movie about the Great War”. Writes Isakov,

They renamed the movie into “Nikita,” drew Mikhalkov as Terminator, depicted him as Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, transformed him into Robocop, made fun of his previous role as a Russian gangster, added flashy glasses and arty skulls, whitened and enlarged his teeth…

Some other sample titles: “A Great Shit about the Great War”, “A Great Film about the Great Me” and “The Great Nikita about the Great Mikhalkov”. great-film-abt-a-great-warrior-by-kvitka_es1

Mocking the Soviet throwback feel of the film, one blogger,  LJ user artemdragunov, wrote a negative review “in the style of Soviet art reviews accusing authors, directors and artists of plotting against communism”, saying:

Since Mr. Mikhalkov is know in the world as a supporter of the monarchy and the White Movement [military anti-Bolsheviks forces in Russia – V.I], I have no doubt that under the veil of a Soviet soldier, the poster for “Burnt by the Sun 2″ depicts a traitor and enemy of the Soviet country and communism.

Mikhalkov did not sue the poster-defacers as he had threatened, but the ensuing flop at the box office showed that the mockery was not simply confined to the LJ and twitter accounts of snarky, burn-by-sun-2-spoof-footie irony-loving youths.

At all levels of society, there is a growing sense of push-back against the socio-political climate.  For example, this week, my relatively non-hipster 61 year old dad vowed never to turn on the TV again because the programming ‘is worse than during the Brezhnev years’.

The Kremlin had better start taking note that the 70s, another period of subtle Stalin-rehabilitation and social conservatism, were quickly swept aside by the radical upheavals of Perestroika.

Could Mikhalkov’s turkey actually be a dead canary in Putin’s mine?

*Thanks to LJ user itditpspb for the title cover art.



Vadim Nikitin

Vadim Nikitin was born in Murmansk, Russia and grew up there and in Britain. He graduated from Harvard University with a thesis on American democracy promotion in Russia. Vadim's articles about Russia have appeared in The Nation, Dissent Magazine, and The Moscow Times. He is currently researching a comparative study of post-Soviet and post-Apartheid nostalgia.
Areas of Focus:
USSR; US-Russia Relations; Culture and Society; Media; Civil Society; Politics; Espionage; Oligarchs