Russia Braces for Violent Protests as Controversial Film About Last Tsar Set to Open


'Matilda' tells the story of an affair between Nicholas II and an actress, and the movie's premise has already led religious extremists to carry out a firebomb attack against the director, Alexei Uchitel.

A controversial film that tells the story of an affair between a beautiful ballerina and Russia's last emperor is due to be released Thursday after months of protest.

Matilda, by award-winning director Alexei Uchitel, has attracted the ire of the Russian Orthodox Church and nationalist extremists, angered by the depiction of a man they consider a saint.

The Russia-wide release on more than 1,000 screens is likely to reignite tensions after months of protests that have included the fire bombing of Uchitel's St Petersburg offices, attacks on cinemas and a billboard poster campaign by the church emphasizing the love between Tsar Nicholas II and his German princess wife.

Russia's interior ministry has said it is braced to maintain order during the period Matilda is on release, but has not specified whether extra police will be deployed at movie theaters.

Uchitel — who has welcomed billboard campaigns, if not the more violent protests — stresses the film examines an affair with a ballerina, Matilda Kshesinskaya, which took place before the tsar's marriage in 1894 to Alix of Hesse.

He says the last third of the film is devoted to their love and ends with a caption stating that they had lived happily together for nearly a quarter of a century.

The couple, along with their children, were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918 while in detention in a house in Ekaterinburg. After their remains were exhumed and verified by genetic analysis in the late 1990s, in 2000 the Orthodox Church declared Nicholas a saint.

The last tsar has since become a potent symbol for nationalists and Orthodox believers and critical appraisals of a man viewed at the time as a weak and indecisive leader attract violent opposition.

Although only trailers of the film have so far been released, theaters that plan to show the film have been attacked, and last month Molotov cocktails were lobbed through the windows of Uchitel's St Petersburg office. No one was injured.

Earlier this month the Orthodox church paid for more than 300 billboard posters displaying "words about love" exchanged between the imperial couple that were put up at prominent sites around Moscow.

Thursday's release of the film at cinemas in Moscow, St Petersburg and across Russia could present a fresh flashpoint for protestors.

The controversy around the movie began last year when Natalia Poklonskaya, an MP and former general prosecutor of Crimea, a region annexed by Russia in 2014, accused the movie — which wasn't even completed at that time — of portraying Nicholas in a negative light.

Her view — shared by many conservatives and Orthodox believers in Russia — was that the portrayal of the tsar as having an affair with a ballerina was sacrilegious.

In the past 10 months, Poklonskaya has submitted 43 requests to the Russian prosecutor's office, calling for a probe into the legitimacy of the film's funding, which included state money, and the issuance of an exhibition license. On Monday, the prosecutor office said it saw no grounds for a probe into the movie.

The film's distributor, Karoprokat, has complained that major TV networks, including Channel One and NTV, have canceled their contracts for running Matilda ads. The country's two largest cinema chains, Cinema Park and Formula Kino, said earlier this month that they would not exhibit the movie following threats from protesters, but later reconsidered their decision, saying law enforcers had been able to stop a flow of threats against theaters.

No foreign sales deals regarding Matilda have been announced so far.