The Difficult Decision Facing Russian TV and Film Actors

TThe main character in MephistoThe Oscar-winning movie based on the 1936 book by Klaus Mann is about a talented theater actor who believes he can outsmart Nazis through collaborating with them. By the film’s end, he is left hysterically screaming, “Ich bin doch nur ein Schauspieler!”—“but I am only an actor!”—as Hitler’s repression machine comes for him, too.

Mann’s antihero is a thinly veiled version of Gustaf Gründgens, a real-life German star who famously played Hamlet FaustFor Nazi audiences and was still haunted by his complicity decades later. As Vladimir Putin’s Russia tumbles down the neofascist path with its invasion of Ukraine and intensifying internal search for “national traitors,” Russian actors—many of whom hold progressive views—are facing the same conundrum: is it collaborationism to simply continue working?

Members of other creative professions—from musicians and novelists to graphic designers and dancers—are fleeing Russia in droves, forming ad hoc enclaves in places like Istanbul, Yerevan, and Tbilisi; an estimated 250,000 Russians have left since the start of the war. Rap star Face announced he “no longer exist[s] as a Russian citizen and artist,” and prima ballerina Olga Smirnova quit the Bolshoi for the Dutch National Ballet. However, actors are tied down by both an immovable industry as well as the language they can only perform in. The only option is to continue as if nothing happened or search for a better job.

“I don’t know if I can do anything other than act,” says one young, formerly rising film star who, like several others interviewed for this story, asked me not to use his own name for fear of government retribution, “but it’s time to start figuring it out.”

Russian Cinema IndustryIt is primarily not a national cinema, as are most other ones outside the U.S. For example, only 7% of more than 1000 films that were released in the period 1992 to 2015 have gone into the black. Privately financed content exists, but a vast majority of films derive their budgets from two bodies—the Ministry of Culture and a quasi-governmental Cinema Fund.

For most of their existence, these bodies were no more or less politicized than their West European counterparts, such as Council of Europe’s Eurimages, to which Russia used to belong as well. Over time, however, Putinist ideology began to seep into their behavior—especially with the arrival of crank World War II historian Vladimir Medinsky, who served as the Minister of Culture from 2012 to 2020. (In a pointedly trollish choice by Putin, Medinsky is currently heading up Russia’s peace talks with Ukraine.)

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Yet even under Medinsky, there existed a tacit understanding that, in order to compete for cultural “soft power” at international film festivals and markets, Russia would have to keep supporting films critical of the regime, such as Aleksey German’s Netflix title Dovlatov or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated Leviathan. My 2019 debut feature-directing film. The Humorist—a film heavily indebted to Mephisto—is a good example. The Ministry of Culture, along with Eurimages, Czech, and Latvian film fund funds, was a minor investor. Despite its anti-totalitarian stance, my U.S. citizenship has not been mentioned.

However, soft power is not a problem anymore. Russia’s transformation from an authoritarian hybrid that allowed some opposition to full dictatorship is now evident. This means festivals like Cannes and Berlin, along with content markets such MIPTV, are no longer open for Russia. Netflix and other streaming services have stopped operating in Russia and stopped purchasing its content. The Council of Europe (which funds Eurimages) voted on March 16 to expedite Russia. The bottom line is that the state doesn’t have any incentive, either internal or external to finance art which goes against its ideology.

In this circumstance, what can an actor do? “Imagine yourself in my place,” says one actress with a longtime oppositional stance. “You’ve done everything you could years before the war began. You’ve taped your messages. You’ve lodged your objections. All kinds of abuse were received in response to this, including visits by police to your house and death threats via your DMs. You’ve done all of this, and you still can’t change anything.”

The history of Russian actors’ dissent is, for the most part, a study in forced compromise. In 2021, dozens of film and TV stars who had publicly voiced support for the Kremlin’s chief critic Alexei Navalny, which had been tacitly allowed before, found themselves blacklisted from all future projects. Some curbed all political activity and were subsequently “forgiven.” Others moved to places like Georgia.

The Humorist, set in 1984, happened to depict this very choice: its main character is a fictional Soviet comedian who has changed his last name from the Jewish-sounding Aronson to a neutral Arkadiev and spends his days entertaining the KGB elite; his friend Simon Greenberg, who refuses to do either, languishes unpublished and banned from TV—but one of the film’s points was that the Greenberg way is feasible, too, for those willing to forgo the comforts of mainstream fame. Although I intended it to comment on Putin-era censorship in general, the stakes have risen significantly since then. Dissension used to mean career danger, now it means exile or prison.

In the initial days of the invasion many actors shared anti-war sentiments on Instagram and the other social media platforms. On March 4, though, even the simplest pacifist sentiment was outlawed: anything that could be construed as “spreading false information about the Russian military”—including calling the war a war—was now punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

Actors took down the posts that were antiwar. Those who managed to leave in time, like actress Irina Gorbacheva, began using their social-media platforms to amplify and repost Ukrainian refugees’ calls for humanitarian aid. Others half-heartedly went back to the usual light fare—pets, premieres, fashion shows, hotel-room selfies. (This carries its own risks—“I get hundreds of DMs a day from Ukrainians wishing me death for not speaking up,” says one popular actress/influencer who stuck to the business-as-usual tactic. This actress is moving to Berlin at the moment.

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On March 15, a dedicated list of “national traitors” sprung up on the site of a Russian NGO, with photos of many film-industry professionals (including the star of my most recent film) marked EnemyOr traitor. If some hope remained that this was a work of an overeager flunkie, it was dashed the very next day when Putin went on TV to decry the “fifth column” of “scum and traitors” in the Russians’ own midst. Many analysts see the speech as an indirect green light for mass repressions.

Four days later, Chulpan Khamatova, one of Russia’s biggest film stars and philanthropists, revealed in an interview that she had left the country. “I’m afraid to go back,” she said. “To come back to Russia would mean to ignore what I see with my own eyes, ignore what I hear from my Ukrainian friends, lie to myself, lie to the entire world, and ask [the Russian government]Please forgive me for my inability to support the war right from the beginning. That, or to go to prison.”

Khamatova, a very rare instanceA Russian actor with a Western career including the role of an actress in the beloved German comedy Lenin, Good bye! Far more often, actors’ skills, unlike musicians’ or dancers’, are not easily exportable, and their work cannot be performed remotely. Crossovers have been rare, even in times of greater prosperity. Exceptions such as Yuri Kolokolnikov who is a Hollywood actor and a character actor, are considered unlikely international success stories back home. Many of today’s young stars don’t learn enough English to become the next Gal Gadot and Alicia Vikander. It was also difficult to find employment in major markets other than China, because of the optics involved with working alongside a Russian citizen once the war had begun.

Inability to transfer forces artists to face the Faustian dilemma: What do you do when the new censorship legislations and the faltering economy wipe out almost all state-sponsored propaganda? “I’ve asked around,” says the young, formerly rising film star. “All of my friends are saying they’re not going to do it. I haven’t found a single soul who’d say, ‘Oh, I don’t care, money is money.’” Many older actors, however, including stars Sergey Bezrukov and Vladimir Mashkov (Mission: Impossible – Ghost ProtocolThese people, who are staunch supporters of the war, will be able to feel very comfortable under the new conditions.

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For the moment, almost all Russian films and TV series currently slated for production are still moving ahead, even as international sanctions are destroying the value of the ruble and the country’s economy. An insider calls this fare “the last of the VOD momentum,” meaning the high-gloss, mostly apolitical entertainment commissioned before the war by a half-dozen video-on-demand platforms. Some of the projects that failed were due to Western service providers like Netflix while others did so because their stars left them. Two fairy tales are now. Flying ShipThis is the new installment of Disney’s popular series Last Warrior Franchise, cast Ukrainian actresses that fled the country immediately after the war started.

The Russian and Ukrainian film industries used to be linked to such an extent that most of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pre-politics career was spent starring in Russian comedies. The actress with the longtime oppositional stance recalled working in Kyiv in the years after Putin’s land grab, which she criticized, and noting a smaller number of Russians on set than in the past. She expected to be met with tension by the Ukrainian audience, but was surprised at how warm the reception turned out.

“I made tons of friends there,” she says. “Most of them are texting me now from bomb shelters.”

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