MOSCOW (Reuters) - In a film that hit cinema screens this week, patriotic Russians despairing at the lack of a strong leader rise up, throw out their Western overlords and make Russia a proud country once again.
It could be a documentary about how President Vladimir Putin put an end to the turmoil that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. In fact, it is based on a period in the 17th century known as the “Time of Troubles”.
But the parallels may be more than a coincidence: the film was commissioned by the Kremlin to mark National Unity Day on Sunday, and the director makes little secret that it is an allegory for modern Russia.
The film is being released a month before Russia votes in a parliamentary election that many observers say is a referendum on Putin’s rule, during which he has accumulated huge power and hit back at what he calls Western encroachment.
“I ... consider the 17th century an extremely important period in our history, without which you simply cannot understand Russia,” director Vladimir Khotinenko said in an interview with the Izvestia newspaper.
“And now those times are really relevant,” he said. “I am talking about the period after Perestroika. We lived in a Time of Troubles. Its duration even coincided with the one in the 17th century.”
He added: “I’m convinced — and I have nothing against democracy — that Russians have a strong desire for a Tsar.”
The film, called “1612”, centres around a ragtag group of Russian peasants who assemble what cannons they can and employ the services of wayward knight to dispatch their Polish occupiers.
It is an action movie, featuring huge battle scenes, sword-fighting in period costume, stunt horse-riding and a siege at a castle. It also has mythical elements: talking fish and a unicorn feature in the story.
At a lavish premiere in Moscow this week, limousines disgorged VIP guests onto a red carpet and two models in white leather outfits handed out glasses of birch-flavoured vodka.
The Time of Troubles is the term used in Russia to describe the period starting in 1598, when a ruling family dynasty in what was then known as Muscovy died out.
In the absence of a true royal descendant, Russian peasants fell under the rule of foreign powers, including Swedish, Lithuanian, German and Polish occupiers. That period ended when the Romanov dynasty took over the throne in 1613.
Many Russians see Putin as a leader who brought stability and prosperity to the country after a new Time of Trouble — the post-Soviet 1990s marked with economic chaos, political turmoil and Western blocs moving closer to Russia’s borders.
Critics though say he has sacrificed democracy to achieve stability and has taken on the role of a new Tsar.
The film has an impeccable pro-Kremlin pedigree. It was produced by Nikita Mikhalkov, a director who won the 1994 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his “Burnt by the Sun”.
Last month he put his name to an open letter asking Putin — required by the constitution to step down when his second term ends next year — to stay in office.
The Gazeta.ru Internet news site reported that oil tycoon Viktor Vekselberg pitched in $4 million of his fortune to help finance the film.
He has made a name for himself by using his wealth to buy back Russian cultural treasures — including a collection of Faberge eggs — that had been sold abroad.