Kirill Serebrennikov Talks Russian Boycotts, Putin’s War and Oligarch Roman Abramovich

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Despite widespread calls to boycott Russian cinema in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, the Cannes Film Festival struck an uneasy compromise by banning state delegations and Russians with ties to President Vladimir Putin while allowing individual filmmakers to attend.

It’s a decision iconoclastic Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov was quick to support on the eve of the world premiere of his latest feature, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” which bows in competition on May 18.

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The director was a no-show at his last two Cannes premieres due in no small part to a history of provocation and dissent against the Russian government. But Serebrennikov – who after a nearly five-year legal ordeal learned on March 28 that he could leave Russia a free man – insists that the type of subversive cinema he creates should be separated from pro-Kremlin propaganda and the “paranoid ideology” of the Putin regime.

“Russian culture is about the fragility of life. It’s about people who are under oppression. Who are fighting for truth or justice,” he tells Variety. “That’s real culture. Not ideological culture. Not propaganda. I think it’s not good to boycott this kind of culture.”

When the director ascends the stairs of Cannes’ Grand Théâtre Lumière for the premiere of “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” it will have been a long time coming. In the wake of his 2017 arrest over a case of embezzlement on what his supporters say are trumped-up charges, and after being slapped with a three-year travel ban in 2020, Serebrennikov was granted permission to leave Russia. He has since relocated to Berlin.

Yet despite a long-awaited return to cinema’s biggest stage in Cannes, the filmmaker insists, “It’s not a good time for celebrations.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, says Serebrennikov, brought about “the collapse of all normal life,” and a sense of powerlessness among the many Russians who oppose Putin’s folly. “All your values are crushed or destroyed, and you have no idea how to live,” he says. “It’s [like a] nightmare. You can’t live. You can’t work. You can’t do what you’re used to doing every day.”

With “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” Serebrennikov explores the tumultuous relationship between the iconic Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky and his wife, Antonina Miliukova, who the composer blamed for his misfortunes and eventually drove to madness. The film is the latest collaboration between the director and Russia’s Hype Film, who produced his previous movies “The Student,” “Leto” and “Petrov’s Flu.” Co-producers are Charades Productions, Logical Pictures (“Revenge,” “Pleasure”) and Bord Cadre Films (“Monos”), with the support of the Kinoprime Foundation. Charades is also handling international sales.

Serebrennikov says he was drawn to the story of Russia’s most famous composer partly because of its vastness. “Tchaikovsky really is a universe. He’s huge,” says the director. “His life is the life of a genius Russian artist. At the same moment, he belongs to European culture, and even American culture.”

Though the composer was acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic – in 1891, he traveled to the U.S. aboard the ocean liner La Bretagne and opened Carnegie Hall with a performance of his “Marche Solennelle” – Tchaikovsky’s was a life that was little known among his contemporaries, says the director. That remained true after his death, when the government co-opted the composer’s life story in order to transform him into an icon of Soviet ideology. “All the controversial moments of his life were banned, blocked, erased,” Serebrennikov says.

It’s an erasure that resonates with a filmmaker whose willingness to provoke and tackle the taboo was the likely cause of his legal troubles with the Russian state. That ordeal, as well as the ongoing political and economic fallout of the Ukraine war, has underscored the challenges in creating subversive art in Putin’s Russia.

It’s a tension that has made for strange bedfellows, as in the case of billionaire Roman Abramovich, the Israeli-born tycoon who’s been sanctioned for his allegedly close ties to Putin, and whose $100 million Kinoprime film fund helped finance “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” “Petrov’s Flu,” and a host of other provocative Russian arthouse titles.

Serebrennikov does not mince words in his defense of the oligarch. “Roman Abramovich helped a lot of independent Russian films,” says the director. “He did a lot for independent Russian art. He did a lot for contemporary art in general. He did a lot for me, personally supporting me in very dark times.”

Even working in exile, Serebrennikov insists he is a Russian artist at heart, bound by culture, language and history to the country that – for better and for worse – has shaped him. “I’m going to keep loving my culture. To love Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Bulgakov, Tarkovsky, and other brilliant artists who made me the person who I am,” he says. “I don’t want to betray them.”

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