‘The Lord has given me a mission’ The leader of a Russian Orthodox Christian group explains how opposition to a film is tied to nationwide bomb threats
On September 13, the leader of the rightwing group “Christian State — Holy Rus,” Alexander Kalinin, declared on Vkontakte that an ongoing wave of bomb threats prompting evacuations across the country are part of a “social campaign” against Alexey Uchitel’s controversial new film “Matilda,” an upcoming movie about the ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska and her relationship with Nicholas II before he became tsar, which Orthodox Christian activists have condemned as a sacrilegious affront. This wouldn’t be the first time “Christian State” activists broke the law to protest the movie: activists from the group have threatened to burn down cinemas that show the film. Meduza special correspondent Daniil Turovsky spoke to Kalinin to learn more about the Christian State’s role in the recent mayhem.
Media reports about “Christian State — Holy Rus” emerged in early 2017, when the organization’s members began sending arson threats to movie theaters across the country, writing that “cinemas would burn,” if they showed “Matilda,” which is scheduled for nationwide release on October 25. The group’s leader is a 33-year-old man living in Lipetsk named Alexander Kalinin. In September, State Duma deputies Irina Rodina and Oksana Pushkina, along with filmmaker Alexey Uchitel, formally petitioned Russia’s Federal Security Service to review Kalinin’s movement for extremist activity. Uchitel, the director of the movie at the center of this controversy, has accused State Duma deputy and former Crimea attorney general Natalya Poklonskaya of protecting a “terrorist organization.” Back in February, however, Poklonskaya herself asked police to investigate the Christian State for extremism, accusing Kalinin of trying to discredit the Russian Orthodox Church. Formally, Russia’s Interior Ministry declined to bring charges against the group, but Kalinin says police have opened criminal cases against him and several of his “brothers.” Uchitel says he believes the Christian State played a role in an attack on a cinema in Yekaterinburg, where a man rammed a movie theater with his truck and started a fire. The organization claims it was not involved in this incident. On September 13, Russia’s biggest chain of movie theaters announced that it will not show “Matilda,” telling police that it's received threats of violence from members of the Christian State. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s official spokesman, has called the group’s activists “anonymous extremists.”
What is the “Christian State”? How did it appear and why?
It appeared in 2010. The purpose was to consolidate Russian Orthodox society to create opportunities for communication and interactions on spiritual issues. I got help from monasteries, cathedrals, and churches. I managed to bring together a pretty good number of believers. We didn’t unite to fight with someone, but to support each other in the regions where we lived. We did it so, if someone was traveling somewhere, everyone would know they’ve got brothers in Vladivostok or in Sochi, and so on. We created a network of brothers. It wasn’t our mission to go to war against any “Matilda” films or schizophrenics. When this movie appeared, it fell to us to join forces in the fight against this evil. By that time, we already had about 350 activists and their families. Today, there are another 4,000 people registered on our website.
I just tried to visit your site, and got a DNS error. What happened?
Hackers attacked the website yesterday. They destroyed the whole platform, deleting everything. This wasn’t Roskomnadzor [Russia’s federal censor].
Your group’s name is “Christian State.” Is that a direct reference to the terrorist group Islamic State? When did you come up with this?
In 2013. We looked at the whole, generally very bloody, Islamic world. We wanted to show that here there’s a Christian state, and those terrorist jerks should think twice before trying to creep in here. Come to the Christian state, and you’re in for the battle of your life. The Russian Orthodox world won’t sit idly by.
Yesterday, you wrote a post on Vkontakte where you claimed to know that the bomb threats across Russia are related to “Matilda.”
On September 10, we received an anonymous letter saying that there is this group of guys who are ready to show all these film distributors that there are methods of fighting them that are far more effective than arson and so on. They said they could make calls. The letter claimed that this would be enough to destabilize the entire country. Things got interesting after the letter. The first bomb threats specifically targeted cinemas. [Editors’ note: the first reported bomb threats were to schools and enterprises.] It’s clear there’s some kind of automated program here, and they uploaded the numbers for all schools and shopping centers. But we at Christian State don’t have any connection to this. [Editors’ note: Alexander Kalinin has been cataloguing news about Russia's bomb threats and evacuations on his Vkontakte page.]
Who are these people? Who are the “guys who are ready to show all these film distributors”?
They’re supporters of the fight against insanity and immorality. They could end up taking very extreme measures, and then the problems would be even greater. [Officials] could have just revoked the license for “Matilda” — the people are against the film, after all. Now, when we find out that the movie might come to this or that theater, one of the brothers or I call them, and we convey the position of God-fearing people.
Who set fire to the cars outside Dobrynin’s office? [Editors’ note: On September 11, 2017, unknown persons set fire to two cars outside the office of Alexey Uchitel’s lawyer, Konstantin Dobrynin, and scattered slips of paper reading, “You’ll burn for ‘Matilda!’”]
Angry people set those fires. This is all small stuff. They burned two cars. They could have set fire to a lot more. And they will burn a lot more. Just on Vkontakte, I’ve got about 900 messages from people who are really angry. The Lord has given me a mission to retransmit society’s position, but I’m not going to throw a Molotov cocktail or anything. What I’d like is somehow to communicate to everyone that all these movie theaters and regional offices of the Culture Ministry are in great danger. People are ready to follow through with action, if cinemas don’t officially refuse to show this film.
You’ve said that the regional offices of the Culture Ministry are in danger.
People are prepared to burn down anything — anything that facilitates this blasphemy. And they won’t talk about murders, but about taking lives for the faith.
What’s wrong with the film itself?
The film is a slap in the face to history. It’s about a holy saint. It doesn’t actually matter which saint it’s about. A holy person is one of the diamond facets of our church. With this film, the very casting of the male lead [editors' note: German actor Lars Eidinger plays Nicholas II] is enough of a slap in the face.
Have you seen the film?
Yes. In Vladivostok, I got two bootleg screeners from different angles. If you want, I can send them to you. I can send you the most disgusting bits. There’s not a single good thing in the film.
Two weeks ago, you wrote on Vkontakte: “If they don’t ban ‘Matilda,’ then the current provocations will look like horseplay [compared to what comes next].” What did you mean?
I’m in contact with people. We’re not just sending warning letters to movie theaters. We know what Russian Orthodox society is thinking. And some people are prepared to take more serious action.
It could reach a point of something terrible. We have great saints who impaled people for committing blasphemy and sacrilege. Ours is a militant Christianity — Russian Orthodoxy. When people see this blasphemous insanity, they arm themselves with the examples offered by the saints. Some people might take inspiration from the prayers of Seraphim of Sarov, while others might look to the examples of warriors. They think they can impale Uchitel. A man who sees how uncompromising Uchitel is could very well try to impale him. People are moved by their Russian Orthodox faith. A person like this will believe in his heart that he’s right. He’ll risk prison to go after Uchitel, and he’ll be happy that he saved Russia from blasphemy. We don’t want this, so we’re warning everyone. But there are people who will follow Uchitel, and watch him in the lobby of his apartment. They’ll camp out nearby from morning until night, when they find him and break his legs. Or something worse.
We want our “little wall” to push back against these two uncompromising people, Uchitel and [Russian Culture Minister Vladimir] Medinsky. Medinsky is a lunatic. He talks about our country’s cultural policy, while they show pornography on TV. Everywhere there’s filth and immorality. Even religious people now remember the Soviet Union with reverence.
What’s the ideal Russian society that you dream of?
It should be a society without that which is alien to the heart of man. If obscenity is alien, then it should be banned. If an immoral joke is alien, you ban it. Being uncultured and immoral should be illegal.
Criminal punishment for being uncultured and immoral? Who would determine what qualifies?
There are institutes today that define every kind of trash. They can take up this task and sort it out. It applies to anything that offends another person’s feelings. No one should be offended.
But that’s impossible.
It is possible. In Iran, it’s possible. Nobody swears, and no one drinks beer in the streets. Because the punishment is getting your hands chopped off. [Editors’ note: the consumption of alcohol in Iran is punishable by prison sentence and lashes. Persons convicted of theft can lose a finger or a hand.]
Iran today is a totalitarian religious state. You want a totalitarian religious state?
A Russian Orthodox state should be exactly that. We’d get another Ivan the Terrible.
Are you certain that you’ll succeed in preventing the film from being released?
Absolutely. And if it is released, I assure you that every day will be like this: they’ll show the movie in a theater, and the next day it will burn down. They’ll show the film in another theater, and it will burn, too.
Who will set these fires? Who are these people? How would you characterize them?
They’re [Russian Orthodox] believers.