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‘Latching onto successful projects’ Leaked documents suggest Kremlin spin doctors are presenting popular movies and TV to Putin as propaganda wins

Source: Meduza

In late 2023, the Estonian news agency Delfi Estonia obtained a set of leaked documents from the Russian presidential administration. In the weeks that followed, journalists from Meduza, iStories, and numerous other international outlets studied the documents and used them to conduct investigations into Russian government activity as part of a joint project called Kremlin Leaks. One of the documents included in the leak was a lengthy presentation that claims a variety of popular movies and TV shows were made with the aim of boosting support for Putin in the lead-up to his reelection in March 2024. According to several Russian media industry executives, however, the creators of many of these projects had no idea they were supposed to be making pro-Putin content. Meduza explains how this could have happened.

In the spring of 2023, the Russian presidential administration held a meeting to discuss Vladimir Putin’s upcoming reelection, which was exactly a year away at the time. According to a person who attended the meeting, participants included administration members, federal officials, and political strategists. The attendees were shown a long presentation titled “Creative Content for the Elections.”

The presentation was given by Sergey Novikov, who heads Russia’s Presidential Directorate for Social Projects. As Meduza and iStories have previously reported, this agency is now responsible for making major decisions regarding Russia’s cultural policy — for example, which musicians are allowed to perform in Russia and which ones are unofficially banned from giving concerts.

Novikov’s co-author on the presentation was Alexey Goreslavsky, the head of the Kremlin’s Internet Development Institute (IDI). Since the start of the full-scale war in Ukraine, the Russian government has allocated enormous amounts of money to the IDI to spend on movies, TV shows, and other media, much of which is blatantly propagandistic.

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According to documents from the presentation, the Putin administration and the IDI prepared dozens of “creative projects” aimed at boosting Putin’s popularity in the lead-up to his 2024 reelection. Novikov’s subordinates were responsible for promoting these projects with the help of bloggers and media outlets, while Goreslavsky’s agency was in charge of traditional marketing. Dialog, a pro-Kremlin “autonomous nonprofit organization” that has played a key role in spreading disinformation about the war among Russian society, was tasked with “distributing the content in Russia’s regions.”

The presentation’s list of films and TV shows to be “distributed” and “promoted” for the sake of Putin’s approval ratings includes projects financed by the IDI itself as well as content funded by Russia’s Culture Ministry and even some sponsored by private investors. Many of the shows and movies are difficult to construe as obviously aligned with the Kremlin’s agenda.

Seeing what sticks

The most notable item on the list of purportedly pro-Putin media is the 2023 series “The Boy’s Word,” a violent drama about the lives of young gang members in Kazan in the 1980s (and Russia’s most popular TV show in recent years). Novikov and Goreslavsky’s presentation claims that “The Boy’s Word” was created with the aim of “raising public awareness of the positive changes in the lives of people in Russia [since the 1980s], the historical and modern achievements of one’s fellow citizens, and the heroes of our times and role models.” (“The Boy’s Word” was funded in part by the IDI.)

Movies that appear on the list include “The Prophet,” a musical film about the life of Alexander Pushkin; the comedy film “Serf 2”; the figure skating drama “Ice 3”; and the children’s fantasy movie “Wish of the Fairy Fish.” These films made a combined total of 10 billion rubles ($108.3 million) at the box office — and according to Novikov and Goreslavsky, they also helped “protect [Russia’s] national interests and traditional values.”

Other items on the list bear more obvious relevance to the Kremlin’s interests. It’s easy to see, for example, how the TV series “GDR,” which depicts a Soviet intelligence agent in East Germany, meets the propagandists’ stated goal of “conveying a positive image of a security service officer.” Some of the projects even deal directly with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, such as the series “Fathers of the Donbas,” which is billed as a “multi-part documentary about the people and events taking place on the southern borders of Russia in the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, and Rostov regions.”

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News to the creators

In many cases, according to industry sources who spoke to Meduza, the creators of the movies and TV shows mentioned in Novikov and Goreslavsky’s presentation had no idea the content they were creating was supposed to help Putin.

One person in the film industry told Meduza that “The Boy’s Word,” for example, was filmed “with no political or ideological motives.” “This series has no relation to current events. It was simply made to be commercially successful,” the source emphasized.

According to a source close to Alexander Voitinsky, the director of “Wish of the Fairy Fish,” Voitinsky knew nothing about Novikov and Goreslavsky’s presentation. The source said that even after learning his film had been named as a successful Kremlin messaging effort, the director “continues to love Russian fairy tales, despite the political activity around them.” (Voitinsky himself declined to speak to Meduza as the Russian government has declared Meduza an “undesirable organization.”)

Additionally, a source close to journalist Alexander Lyubimov, who is named in the presentation as a “public opinion leader” tasked with promoting the show “Fathers of the Donbas,” said that Lyubimov “knew nothing about” the presentation — or even the series itself. “Apparently they stuck his name in there to sell it better and to enhance their own credibility,” said the source. He said the film’s producer Sergey Ponomarev didn’t know anything about Lyubimov’s alleged participation in the project either.

A source close to the team behind the 2023 film “Air” had a similar response to Meduza’s inquiry. Production on the movie, which depicts female pilots protecting the skies over besieged Leningrad, began several years ago; nonetheless, the presentation shown to the Putin administration says that it was strategically funded to “defend [Russia’s] national interests and traditional values” ahead of the March 2024 vote. “[The film’s creators] didn’t have the slightest inkling that this could be linked to the election in any way,” said the source.

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Another film industry source noted that “The Prophet,” the musical about Alexander Pushkin, was initially rejected when its creators applied for government funding:

In 2021, when they sent in their application, they showed a clip in which Borisov, the actor playing Pushkin, read the poem “Ode to Liberty.” It includes the lines: “You autocratic psychopath, / You and your throne do I despise!” And for some odd reason, the Cinema Foundation rejected the application.

But a year later, the source said, “they sorted something out, got the money, and the scene is no longer in the film:

No one ever mentioned this being creative content for the election; there was no talk of that at all. I can only speculate about why the film was included in the presentation. Evidently, the people who made [the presentation] needed to justify the decision to fund it. I mean, how can this be creative content for [Putin’s campaign] when Pushkin’s whole biography is the story of an artist saying ‘Screw the authorities?’

“GDR,” the series about an intelligence agent in East Germany, was also not made with the election in mind, according to another film industry source, although the Telegram channel Ruthless PR has written that the show’s protagonist may be based on Vladimir Putin himself (Putin worked as a KGB agent in East Germany in the 1980s). The source said that production on “GDR” began several years ago and that it was “originally conceived as a mass market film but it happened to fit [the Kremlin’s needs].” He said that when production on the show began, there were no similarities to Putin’s career (other than the obvious one, presumably).

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“Apparently, Novikov and Goreslavsky are just latching onto successful projects,” one source involved in the production of “GDR” told Meduza. Another source familiar with the shooting process of one of the shows on the Kremlin list agreed: “I think they just chose everything that could feasibly be related to the elections. They pulled everything they could out of thin air.”

A source from the film industry offered a similar explanation. “They’re trying to bolster their own activities with these ideological supports,” he said.

They look at what projects have been released and what they can latch onto to justify their expenses. It’s like, “Look, we’re doing ideological work, working for the good of the country, spending money wisely. There are mistakes sometimes, like ‘The Master and Margarita,’ but we’re moving in the right direction and self-correcting.”

Alexey Goreslavsky; Sergey Novikov; representatives of the film companies STV, YBW, Art Pictures Studio, Studio Trite, and Bubblegum Production; and the Patriot National Film Foundation did not respond to requests for comment from the authors of this story.

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Reporting by Svetlana Reiter, Maria Zholobova (iStories), and Andrey Pertsev, with contributions by Kristina Safonova. Abridged English-language version by Sam Breazeale.

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