A bridge too far for Russia’s propagandists
“At last they’ll be able to show something good about Russia,” says a handsome-looking press spokesman in the movie, as he prepares to give a US television crew a tour of the almost-finished sea bridge connecting the Crimean peninsula with Russia. Of course, the Americans let their hosts down, showing they are incapable even of praising this Russian achievement. “Just another Potemkin village,” they say, using the old Russian term for a fake.
The real interest in this film, though, lies in who is behind it: Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the RT network, one of the pillars of the Kremlin’s international propaganda machine, who is now trying her hand at movie-making.
Four years since her ultimate boss, President Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea from Ukraine, she has used the construction of the real-life, 11 mile-long road link connecting the peninsula to Russia as the backdrop for her first romantic comedy.
She wrote the screenplay. Her husband, Tigran Keosayan, directed it, and according to the BBC’s Russian website, they received at least 100 million rubles ($1.5 million) in funding from the Culture Ministry’s cinema foundation, without having to worry about any competition.
“Light, summery, kind, touching.” Maria Zakharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, on “Crimean Bridge. Made with Love”
When “Crimean Bridge” had its premiere earlier this month in the glitzy new Zaryadye park next to the Kremlin, it was the event of the night for Russia’s ruling elite — with Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov and Maria Zakharova, his high-profile counterpart at the Foreign Ministry, among the guests.
Talking to state media afterwards, they heaped praise on the film. “It’s very cool,” said Peskov. “Everyone should go and see it.” Zakharova called it: “Light, summery, kind, touching.” Beyond this elite audience, though, the reaction has not been so positive.
Any hopes the wife-and-husband team may have had of a box office hit were dashed by the first weekend takings, which came in at a disappointing 6th place in the rankings. And the film has been panned on review sites. “Boring,” “talent-free,” “propaganda,” “trash,” and “platitudes” were just some of the comments.
The plot for “Crimean Bridge”? There isn’t one really. The film consists of several boy-meets-girl plot lines, connected by one thing — they all take place in Crimea, near the bridge construction site.
But as you might expect from filmmakers with this profile, it depicts the kind of idealized Russia that the Kremlin has been trying to conjure up in recent years through its various information campaigns. You can catch snippets of this Russia on news broadcasts, documentaries about Putin and other programs on state-run TV. “Crimean Bridge” collects them in one place.
This and a stream of racist and sexist jokes are apparently aimed at Western political correctness, a target favored by Putin and his supporters just as much as Trump.
It is a mix that includes images of modern high-tech strength (represented here by the bridge) blended with nationalist-traditional values, a constant emphasis on the World War II victory, known in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War,” along with regular doses of anti-Western rhetoric and rewritten history. There are plenty of darker episodes in Crimea’s past under communist rule, but here they are carefully edited and glossed over.
For instance, the Crimean Tatars — who suffered mass deportations under Stalin and discriminatory crackdowns more recently since the Russian annexation — are portrayed in the film as being quite happy with life. As Damir Nadyrovich, an older Tatar character, listens to a political program on a state-run TV channel, he nods in agreement as the host argues that “Western democracy can’t possibly work for every country.”
We learn that his childhood sweetheart Raya, along with her whole family, were “taken away” by Stalin — so the Soviet dictator does get a mention. But Damir Nadyrovich apparently holds no grudge, and certainly doesn’t blame Stalin and his secret police. “They sent [them] away,” he says, “because, apparently, there was a reason.”
The opposition does get a part, as a slightly ridiculous Moscow hipster who calls his mom every two minutes and spends the rest of his time filming with his smartphone. He is apparently in Crimea to do a story on the reality of life under Russian control. When the hipster says that the peninsula was annexed in the middle of a market, he is chased and beaten up.
Significantly, it is a Ukrainian speaker who leads the pursuit — a signal that in Simonyan’s world, even Ukrainians consider Crimea to be a lawful part of Russia and that any attempt to contest that is a serious offense.
All the young women in “Crimean Bridge” are slender and beautiful — except for one overweight American. They’re also smart, pushy and prepared to “give birth to the next president of the Russian Federation” (the reality is that most young Russians just say “Russia”) if they are accidentally impregnated during a one-night stand.
This and a stream of borderline racist and sexist jokes are apparently aimed at Western political correctness, a favorite target for Putin and his supporters just as much as for Trump. In addition to the lying American journalists, the film takes other subtle digs at the US. A young man changes his mind about moving to Hollywood to chase his dreams after he realises how lucky he is be living in Crimea.
Such unabashed manipulation has left many Russians disillusioned. “After watching it, I became so unbearably ashamed for my once great country that I’d prefer to erase it from memory for good,” one viewer wrote on the Afisha culture site.
“It’s plain propaganda,” wrote another. “The Culture Ministry should instead think about making a documentary — because what do we really know about how the bridge was built?” There have been widespread reports of extensive fraud during the construction process.
“After watching it, I became so unbearably ashamed for my once great country that I’d prefer to erase it from my memory for good.”Afisha website review
Simonyan has not reacted publicly to this drubbing for her first foray into movie-making. If her statements in defense of RT are any guide, she’s likely to portray it as part of a continuing anti-Russian conspiracy.
Komsomolskaya Pravda, a pro-Kremlin tabloid, gave some insight into official thinking with its own review, headlined “Made with love. Met with hatred.” It was not being criticized for any shortcomings, the newspaper said, but because it was created by people “directly associated with the authorities.”
In the film of course, everything has a happy ending. The project is completed on time with no corruption. Every couple lives happily ever after — and even Damir Nadyrovich reunites with his long-lost love Raya, in the middle of the bridge.
The story you just read is a small piece of a complex and an ever-changing storyline that Coda covers relentlessly and with singular focus. But we can’t do it without your help. Show your support for journalism that stays on the story by becoming a member today. Coda Story is a 501(c)3 U.S. non-profit. Your contribution to Coda Story is tax deductible.