For those readers who may not have followed the events: Matilda is a historical movie about the love affair of the future Tsar Nicholas II with the ballet dancer Matilda Kschessinka. The film covers the time span from 1890 until 1896 and does not touch Nicholas II’s rule and his death, when, along with his family, he was killed by Bolsheviks in 1918. The whole family was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in 1981 and by the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000. Even before reaching Russian cinemas, the film about the last Tsar’s pre-marital affair has stirred heated controversies. Conservative Orthodox believers called the film “blasphemous,” because the pre-release trailer shows the Russian ruler and future saint in sex scenes and emotional turmoil over his romantic love for the ballet dancer and his raison d’etat-marriage with Princess Alexandra of Hesse.
She compares the Matilda controversy to the 2012 Pussy Riot case:
In both cases, the critics bemoan the “insult of religious feelings”. But what is so special about the feelings of Orthodox believers for their rulers? How are we to make sense of this panic over lèse-majesté (“injured majesty,” the insulting of a monarch), over the violation of the dignity of the sovereign, as a form of blasphemy?
From the perspective of Orthodox believers, the Pussy Riot controversy had a tragic political dimension. The event posed the question whether the language of political protest could have a place inside their Church. Many Orthodox believers probably felt that, in principle, it should, but few could support the kind of articulation staged by the rebellious performers. Some, like Diakon Kuraev, tried to find a way around it by arguing that the incidence had taken place in the week of Russian Carnival. The tragic dimension of the controversy and court trial following the group’s performance lay precisely in the alienation of those open-minded Orthodox believers who felt that, at the end of the day, maybe some criticism of close church-state relations was not entirely out of place. Whoever did not feel offended in his or her religious feelings, such was the message at the court trial, was not a true Orthodox believer. (Also for the convicted women and their families the consequences of the performance were tragic, however, my point here is about the Orthodox believers.)
A couple of thoughts from me, an Orthodox Christian.
First, though it apparently doesn’t matter under Russian law, as a moral issue, I see this film and Pussy Riot’s performance as substantially different. The punk band went into a church and invaded an altar to make a political statement. That is sacred space, period. Had they done this on the street, no problem. This is not the same thing as this film, morally speaking. It may be hard to convey fully to Western Christians how sacred Russian Orthodox believers hold their churches, especially their altars. Personally, I would find it inappropriate, but not blasphemous, if an anti-Putin protester held up a sign inside the cathedral. But if you watch the video, these three women acted in a manner that disrespected not Putin (who cares about that?), but the Mother of God and ultimately the sanctity of the Cathedral.
Second, it seems to me that Orthodox critics of the movie have a very weak case. It may or may not be a tasteless film, but a movie that shows a Tsar having a love affair that he actually did have can hardly be considered blasphemous, especially given that Nicholas II was given sainthood for the way he died (executed, along with his family, by the Bolsheviks). The memory of the tsar-saint does not need to be protected from filmmakers, especially if the story they tell is essentially true (that she was his mistress, which she indeed was). To repeat: Nicholas Romanov is not a saint because of the way he lived, but because of the way he died. If you read Robert Massie’s excellent history Nicholas and Alexandra, the execution scene will bring you to tears. I had not realized how bravely the Tsar and his wife and children lived in captivity, awaiting their execution.
Third, the memory of Tsar Nicholas II does not belong to Orthodox believers. He was the Tsar of all Russia. Nor does the historical truth belong only to those who wish to remember it a certain way.
I wish the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution were being marked by a different film, but that’s neither here nor there. Next year is the centennial of the Romanov family’s execution. I hope the Russian film industry tells the story of the royal family’s captivity and death at the hands of those demons. I am reading The Gulag Archipelago now, so you can imagine where my imagination is regarding the evil of Soviet communism.