Guest Column: What Putin’s War on Ukraine and LGBTQ Rights Means for Russian Culture

Russian filmmakers had been doing their best to build up new international cultural relations and embed our country into a global art world. Vladimir Putin has unearthed the hatchet and buried all these efforts by our national talents.

On Feb. 24, President Putin declared war on Ukraine in all but name. But war has been waged inside Russia for years. Culture — cinema to be exact — has become a battlefield. We now have to stand up for the right to talk about issues we have been discussing for decades.

The so-called “gay propaganda” law, the infamous anti-gay legislation, has prevented LGBTQ filmmakers like me from representing my community without demeaning euphemisms. It was impossible, for example, in my country to shoot and release a series about a 15-year-old transgender girl. I’ve seen such stories seep into pitching sessions, only to be killed before getting the green light.

It was out of the question that my feature-length, high-concept horror script Absence, for example, get government support. In the story, the main character turns out to be gay and in the closet, and one of the key problems is them being outed. Now, there is talk of this law being extended to a total ban on all information about LGBTQ people, not just for children but for all Russians.

Patriarchal and imperial views on the creative professions have often kept women out of the directors’ ranks and removed ethnic diversity from our screens. Two men wrote and directed a supposedly “pro-feminist” series on one of our local streaming services, a series that actually ridiculed the feminist movement. Slavic-looking actors receive far more job offers than those that, according to the judgment of Russian authorities, appear “other” and are therefore perceived as potential enemies within.

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Despite all these starchy and rigid prejudices, open-minded Russian writers and directors have, over the past five to seven years 7, accomplished amazing things. We were trying to build a Tower of Babel and we did it. Victories at international film festivals have made some, from Andrei Tarkovsky to Andrei Zvyagintsev, household names in Russian art cinema. There have also been commercial successes: Major Grom: The Plague Doctor and Silver Skates, both Russian Netflix Originals, were chart toppers in dozens of countries. Russian TV series sold to platforms from Amazon Prime to AppleTV+.

These industry milestones helped pave the way for domestic talents to go global. In the European arthouse world, there is a well-established career path: you write and shoot an indie film in your own country, in your own language, follow up with an English-language debut, and then, if you’re lucky, go on to become a studio director. This is the model of the careers of Norwegian director André Øvredal (Troll Hunter, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), the Swede Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), or French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, who, in addition to her French festival successes Raw and Titane, directed episodes of the AppleTV + series Servant.

Russian talents have occasionally made that jump abroad as well. HBO called on Kantemir Balagov, director of Closeness and Beanpole, to helm the pilot of its Last of Us series. Ilya Naishuller directed Universal Pictures’ action thriller Nobody starring Bob Odenkirk.

But both national successes and the international victories of Russian filmmakers are now banned. Russia abroad is seen as an aggressor country. Its rulers have painted its own culture in bloody shades. Netflix has suspended production on all its Russian originals. The world is trying to reach out to independent Russian talent, but they are being extremely cautious. The fate of many films on the international festival circuit remains uncertain. I don’t know, for example, if my short film Dead End will or can be shown on the international circuit. My future career path as a director is unclear.

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Like myself, many filmmakers have fled Russia. We are scattered around the neighboring countries, unable to vent or express our sense of bleak dismay. It’s no longer possible to turn a blind eye or delude yourself as to what’s been happening inside the country. Our career plans are in a constant state of flux. Many now seem little more than pipe dreams. The Tower of Babel has fallen. Russia’s talents have been lost.

It is dismaying to be at once uprooted by your own government and not be able to express yourself through culture. Will Russia’s talents be able to stand on their own abroad? It’s unknown. In a column for Vanity Fair, writer/director Mikhail Idov (Leto, Deutschland 89) wrote that he would no longer write in Russian while Vladimir Putin remains in power. Maybe this is the only way out for Russian filmmakers: to become non-Russian. Up-and-coming directors and screenwriters will have to find their way in the English-speaking world, to try to create truly excellent works which bring cultural value to other countries.

Even if it works out, it will leave Russian culture as an isolated and deserted territory, an obscure empire that Putin has built. What’s the point of a land invasion of another country if it turns your own home into a cultural wasteland?

Dima Barch is a Russian cultural and society journalist, and film director. He has left Russia and now lives abroad.