There Is Something Putin Can’t Control

According to “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated novel about the devil’s visit to Stalinist Moscow, “manuscripts don’t burn.” This famous phrase became a shorthand for art’s supposed ability to triumph over repression. Today, Bulgakov’s formula is being put to the test once again in Russia, where a new film adaptation of the book has caused a scandal.

“The Master and Margarita” captured the surreal atmosphere of dark forces and mysterious disappearances in the 1930s Soviet Union. Firmly in the national canon, the book would seem to be safe for cinematic treatment. But the movie’s director is an American citizen who opposes the war in Ukraine, and its winking allusions to the cruelties of life under dictatorship resonate a little too uncannily among Russian audiences, who are flocking to see it.

In response, self-declared patriots have called for the film to be banned and for its director to be prosecuted. They’ve aimed much of their ire at the Ministry of Culture and the state film fund, which cosponsored the film’s production before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the invasion’s wake, President Vladimir Putin has made sweeping attempts to restrict creative expression. Writers, visual artists and performers who’ve spoken out against the war have variously been shunned, labeled “foreign agents” and imprisoned.

But as “The Master and Margarita” shows — after decades of suppression and censorship, the book helped liberate readers’ imaginations and provide a touchstone for the reforming Soviet intelligentsia — power never totally succeeds in shaping art to its ends. Ahead of a presidential election expected to extend his tenure by six more years, Mr. Putin appears politically impregnable. Yet try all he might, he can’t control culture.

The Kremlin does not operate by force alone. Pro-war Z culture, named after the letter written on Russian tanks, is touted on television and promoted across the country, with the promise of cash prizes, contracts and publicity for those who participate. Z poems and songs relentlessly invoke the Soviet Union’s fight against the Nazis in World War II. According to the nationalist writer Alexander Prokhanov, the war in Ukraine has fueled a new “Russian avant-garde.” Its dubious fruits are on display in “Walking Into the Fire,” a rock opera based on Mr. Prokhanov’s poems whose stars croon about defending the motherland atop real tanks.

The Ministry of Culture, for its part, offers funding for films on approved topics, including “the degradation of Europe” and “Russia’s peacekeeping mission.” In the state-backed 2023 movie “The Witness,” a Belgian violin player in Kyiv is tortured by Ukrainian soldiers, who coerce him into playing the Nazi Air Force anthem near a portrait of Adolf Hitler. Subtlety is not a must.

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