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Russia 2013 in Review: Anti-Gay Laws, Pussy Riot, Kremlin Extends Control

Moscow Red Square - P 2012
Red Square, Moscow

International links are slashed, "Stalingrad" storms the box office, and filmmakers fight for freedom in another rollercoaster year.

Russia rarely has anything other than rollercoaster years. 2013 was no exception.

As is often the case in the country, political decisions and social trends had a big effect on the entertainment industry and community -- from the introduction of anti-gay legislation to new controls on Russian media.

Here is THR's look at the events and trends that shaped the media and entertainment industries in Russia in 2013:

Pussy Riot, Mikhail Khodorkovsky
Two young members of punk band Pussy Riot began the year still in shock, just a few months into a two-year stretch in prison colonies far from their young children and partners in Moscow.

But by mid-December, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, and Maria Alyokhina, 25, were looking forward to freedom, and they were finally released on Dec. 23.

Convicted on charges of "religiously motivated hooliganism" after performing a "punk prayer" in Feb. 2012 at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral against president Vladimir Putin, they were denied clemency, unlike the third member, Yekaterina Samusevich, who was freed on parole after a successful appeal in Oct. 2012.

Both young women struggled to survive in brutal prison colonies, at times resorting to hunger strikes to raise awareness for their plight in conditions that have changed little since the dark days of the Soviet Gulag. International outrage from show business figures, including Paul McCartney and Madonna, failed to achieve much. Only as Russia's Winter Olympics, due to start in early February, came closer did Putin act. He introduced a general clemency for non-violent crimes and mothers of young children.

Putin also pardoned jailed ex-Yukos oil company boss and political arch rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky, believed to face an extension of the 10 years that he had already served behind bars for tax evasion, theft and fraud. Once Russia's richest man with his eye on the Kremlin himself, Khodorkovsky was freed on Dec. 20. He immediately flew to Berlin amid speculation that he might seek asylum in the West despite being told his pardon was unconditional and he faced no further persecution at home.

Year-End Bombings Cause Sochi Olympics Concerns
Two bomb attacks on the Sunday and Monday before the end of 2013 killed at least 33 people, with the Winter Games in Sochi just six weeks away. The attacks caused concern that the Olympics, which will draw many international media folks, could be overshadowed by security worries.

Film Fund Takeover by Ministry of Culture
A bitter struggle for control of a film fund cash pot worth more than $70 million a year between the culture ministry and the Russian cinema fund began in Nov. 2012 and ended in early 2013 in victory for minister of culture and historian Vladimir Medinsky.

In January, the film fund’s head, Sergei Tolstikov, was replaced with Anton Malyshev, son of the head of Moscow's famed film academy VGIK. The fund was reduced to a channel for administering state cash, with few of its previous powers to determine which projects were funded.

A few weeks later, the fund’s international department was liquidated, and its head, Yelena Romanova, was fired. That decision put several Russian international collaboration projects on hold.

Developments in Copyright Law
2013 saw major developments in Russian copyright legislation. In August, a new anti-piracy law was introduced, giving powers to officials to block websites running unlicensed films without waiting for a court verdict.

Some in the Russian online community criticized the legislation, saying that it could also lead to the blocking of legitimate sites. The government responded by promising to improve the law, and various amendments are currently under consideration.

Meanwhile, the new law has widely been seen as a sign that Russia is getting serious about copyright. Some “rogue” websites, including Vkontakte, Russia’s biggest social network, have started moving toward switching to offers of legitimate content.

Restructuring of Russia's Oldest State Film Studio, Lenfilm
Russia’s oldest film studio, St. Petersburg-based Lenfilm, is undergoing a major restructuring, with actor, producer and director Fedor Bondarchuk at the helm.

In mid-2013, Lenfilm secured a $46 million loan from state-run bank VTB, which is being spent on upgrading the studio’s outdated facilities in a bid to turn it into an international-level studio complex attractive to local and foreign film crews alike. The studio also plans to supplement its revenues by negotiating a deal on royalties from its film library, which was recently transferred to the state film archives.

Anti-Gay Law
The introduction of a controversial law banning the promotion of homosexuality to young people sparked a furious international reaction.

In July, Dutch filmmakers making a documentary about the LGBT community in northern Russia were briefly detained under the new law but were later allowed to leave the country. A few weeks later, German playwright Marius von Mayenburg refused to attend a Moscow premiere of his play in protest.

Such international stars and directors as Gus Van Sent, Elton John and Madonna have been among the vocal critics of the law. John condemned the law during a concert in Russia late in the year.

Kremlin-Connected Companies Take Over Indie Media
November's buyout of billionaire oligarch Vladimir Potanin's ProfMedia by Gazprom Media, the media wing of Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, reflected a creeping takeover of independent media companies by Kremlin-connected outfits.

The move signaled a further consolidation of Russian media under state control. ProfMedia owns TV channels TV3, 2x2 and Pyatnitsa, film production company Central Partnership and several FM radio stations. The addition of those to Gazprom Media’s existing assets, TV networks NTV and TNT, satellite company NTV Plus, radio stations Echo of Moscow and Comedy Radio, and online video services Rutube and Now.ru, make it one of the country's biggest media conglomerates.

Few major independent and private players, such as broadcaster CTC Media, remain in the sector.

Russian News Agency RIA Novosti Closed
The sudden closure, by presidential decree, in early December of long-established and respected Russian news agency RIA Novosti came as a bolt out of the blue.

Widely seen as a reasonably balanced and unbiased service, RIA Novosti had gained a reputation for reporting both sides of the mass civil disobedience of the winter of 2011/2012 when hundreds of thousands of Russians took to the streets of Moscow to protest against election rigging, corruption and cronyism in the Kremlin.

As similar events rapidly unfolded late November in Kiev, the capital of Russia's southern neighbor Ukraine, it seems Putin feared a resumption of protests at home and moved to take firmer control of state news outlets. He appointed conservative TV pundit Dmitry Kiselev to head a new news, TV and radio agency called Rossiya Segodnya (Russia Today).

The Ukraine protests drew supportive comments from such celebrities as George Clooney.

"Stalingrad" Storms the Box Office ...
It was probably never going to be a flop. Stalingrad, a 3D special effects-driven movie released during the 70th anniversary year of Russia's famous victory over Nazi forces in the battle of Stalingrad, came out in October. But few expected Fedor Bondarchuk's $30 million budget Imax epic to take in more than $66 million within two months of its release.

It reached that figure and continued climbing, well after it had become Russia's biggest-grossing box-office hit of all time.

… But Hollywood Stills Holds Its Head High
Box office hits for local-language fare in Russia remain the exception rather than the rule. Hollywood blockbusters still rake in most of the bucks, as 2013 figures show.

Iron Man 3 had taken in north of $44 million by mid-December, making it the territory's second-highest grossing movie of the year, with Thor: The Dark World at number three with over $36 million. In fourth place, Despicable Me 2 took in more than $35 million and Fast & Furious 6 took fifth position with $34 million, according to Russian industry source Kinobusiness.com.

Putin's Games
Russia is currently gearing up for the Winter Olympics, which are due to start in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi on Feb. 7.

Dogged by delays, corruption and accusations that the controversial anti-gay laws will put the entire Games under a cloud as a number of the athletes taking part are openly gay or lesbian and many more are outraged at Russia's discriminatory laws, the Kremlin has been on tenterhooks about the Olympics all year.

No surprise, then, that when the producers of a controversial documentary, Putin's Games, by Israeli Russian director Alexander Gentelev, screened the film at Moscow's ArtdokFest in early December, Russian authorities reacted with predictable paranoia.

German producer Simone Baumann, who has a track record of producing cutting-edge documentaries in Russia, had already fended off attempts by a Kremlin middle-man to buy out the film's rights for nearly $1 million. There were threats to close down the cinema where two screenings were held, and an independent TV channel in Siberia that aired it also felt the pressure.

But in the end, perhaps the Kremlin had little to fear. As Baumann herself pointed out to Russian weekly journal New Times, all of 1,200 people saw the film in Moscow, a city of 15 million in a country of 140 million, and there was nothing in the film that had not already been reported in the Russian press or online.

Animated Year for Russia
Animation fare did well at the Russian box office in 2013.

Family film Three Heroes On Remote Shores, part of an established franchise by Sergei Selyanov's independent production and distribution shingle, CTB, took north of $20 million at the box office.

Wizart Animation, based in Voronezh, some 880 miles east of Moscow, fresh from the international release of Hans Christian Andersen-inspired The Snow Queen, announced a sequel, Snow King, and in December Toonbox market-tested a new series of animated shorts aimed at toddlers and their parents, Kit 'n Kate's Imaginarium, on fundraising site KickStarter.