One month remains until director Alexei Uchitel’s film Mathilde is released on the screen. Independent Gazette has appealed to the chairman of the Patriarchal Cultural Council Bishop Tikhon (Shevkunov) of Egorievsk with a request to express his personal point of view, and if possible, the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church on the conflict around the film Mathilde.
Mathilde, I would like to recall that at the beginning of the present year there was the unprecedentedly wide showing of another film, also dedicated to a real historical figure, who was also the head of the Russian state and also canonized as a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.
In contrast to Mathilde, “Viking” thundered throughout the country but did not cause any mass protests. There were no demonstrations, no demands for a ban (except for a few isolated letters), and that despite the fact that the main hero—Great Prince Vladimir Svyatoslavich—was shown in the film in a period of his life before he adopted Christianity as a ferocious beast: He kills his blood brother Yaropolk, rapes Princess Rogneda of Polotsk in front of her parents, then kills his father and erects pagan temples and brings human sacrifices to the idols. And with all of this, this masterfully shot naturalistic film didn’t evoke any protests in the whole country or in the Church community. But this supposedly “innocent” film about the youthful romance of the heir to the Russian throne and a ballerina of the imperial theaters has been responded to in society with 100,000 petitions demanding to ban the film, and demonstrations, and legal claims. I’m not talking about extremist excesses—that’s more likely a medical or criminal topic.
So what is going on? The answer seems quite clear. In the case of “Viking,” the filmmakers presented a very bitter, but true history on the screen. Ancient chronicles and hagiographies narrate this ugly truth to us. They convey to posterity a truly terrifying image of the Great Prince Vladimir before his Baptism, and only then do they speak about his astounding transformation from a pagan monster into the merciful, wise, and powerful Vladimir the Beautiful Sun, who our people have greatly venerated and loved for more than 1,000 years.
In the case of Mathilde, unfortunately, everything is quite different. The story and screenplay of the film is built upon a lie. Many who have seen the widely-released trailer on the internet, or who, like me, have read the script, felt this untruth particularly acutely. Why? Because, of course, for many people, the last Russian emperor is a holy passion-bearer, and because no matter what the various attitudes may be towards Nicholas II, it’s impossible not to admit that over the past 100 years such a torrent of defamation, slander, and filth was poured out upon him, such as none among our compatriots have ever been honored with. Today, when objective information about our history is accessible, the typical stereotypes about the last tsar and his family have for many fallen apart. For some, soviet clichés are replaced by sometimes excessive idealization; but the majority of sober-minded people reexamine their values by an objective assessment based on genuine historical facts.
And now, on the anniversary of the Russian revolution there appears a film with, again, an obvious lie. And the fabrication concerns, alas, the personal life of Nicholas II and his relationship with his wife, the empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Even in soviet times no self-respecting researcher subjected this theme to falsifications in favor of an ideological state of affairs. Today, in this given question we see, perhaps, the only case of complete agreement among historians of diametrically opposed convictions, schools, and orientations: All agree that the relationship between Nicholas Alexandrovich and Alexandra Feodorovna was filled with the highest love, absolute fidelity, responsibility, tenderness, and care. No one or anything, nor any of the most terrible, inconceivable trials which befell this family could shake their striking depth and strength of feeling.
But what about Mathilde Kschessinskaya? More often than not, critics of the film are accused of denying the very fact of the romantic relations of the heir and the young dancer. In fact, this is a distortion. No one denies that that there really were such relations.
The heir, who was then twenty-two years old, met the eighteen-year-old Mathilde Felixovna Kschessinskaya in a very difficult period in his life: The girl whom he had wholeheartedly fallen in love with forever at first sight, the Hesse-Darmstadt princess Alice (who became his wife a few years later—the empress Alexandra Feodorovna), had recently rejected him, as she found it impossible to change her religion—to convert from Protestantism to Orthodoxy, the latter of which she had only the vaguest idea.
Meanwhile, it [conversion to Orthodoxy] was obligatory for the future tsarina according to Russian imperial law; besides, his father, Alexander III, strongly opposed his son’s choice. The emperor had different views on the heir’s marriage.
And so, rejected by his beloved and having received a strict admonition from his father on the impossibility of his desired marriage, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich allowed himself to fall in love with this talented ballerina. What kind of relationship did they have? Some historians say that these young people were very close. Others claim their connection was purely platonic. Whatever it was, in the end, is none of our business. They communicated from 1892 to 1894. In the spring of 1894 Princess Alice finally agreed to become Nicholas’ wife; Alexander III gave his agreement to their wedding. Nicholas Alexandrovich was immensely happy. Breaking up with Mathilde went without drama and tears: He asked her forgiveness and promised to help her with everything. They decided to always remain sincere friends, speaking with one another on friendly terms… But communication by correspondence. Their communication was broken off once and for all in the same year, 1894, that he became engaged, and then was the wedding of Nicholas and Alexandra.
Nicholas considered it his duty to tell his fiancée about Mathilde. This is what Alix wrote to her fiancé after this difficult confession: “I love you even more now that you have told me this story. Your trust touches me very deeply… Will I be worthy of it?”
The period from 1894—when princess Alice was in Russia, converted to Orthodoxy, got married to Nicholas II, and became the empress of all Russia—to 1896, where the film ends, was the most serene and happy in the life of the young married couple.
But what happens in this film presented to the public as nothing more or less than “the year’s major historical blockbuster?” This whole time in the film Nicholas is thrown about in sufferings, hysteria, and in intimate scenes from Mathilde to Alexandra, from Alexandra to Mathilde…
And they supplement this “historical canvas” with such dramatic findings, as, for example, the scene where Alexandra Feodorovna, as if some dark fury, goes after Mathilde with a sharp knife to shed her blood; or the merry image of Alexander III, of an emperor of unusual nobility in life, foreign to every vulgarity, who the filmmakers have declare that he “was the only Romanov not to live with the ballerinas…”
I will not multiply the bitter examples. Overall, the story amounts to Nicholas, of course, loving the democratic, brave, free-thinking Mathilde, but “for the sake of duty and the throne” marrying Alexandra, and forcing his heart to love her. In general, it’s like the film adaptation of the famous song “Kings Can Do Anything,” except marry for love.
As has become known, the script of the film was given to two famous historians for review a few months ago. Their brief summary is given here by permission.
“On the script of the feature film Mathilde”
(Script author: Alexander Terekhov)
To seriously disassemble this piece is not necessary, and even impossible. The film’s story has no relation to the historical events related in it, except that only the names of the characters are true, and the heir-tsarevich had a romance with Mathilde Kschessinkaya. The rest is a fabrication in the worst taste. Already the first scene evokes a smile and strong bewilderment. Mathilde Kschessinkaya did not run up to the choir of the Dormition Cathedral in the Moscow Kremlin during the coronation of Emperor Nicholas II, and did not yell, “Nicky, Nicky!” and the emperor himself did not pass out. It’s all a fabrication of the script writer, calling to mind lines from the famous Ilf and Petrov novel: “The countess is running to the pond with a strange face.” Only with Ilf and Petrov it’s grotesque and ironic, but in the script it’s a harsh “truth” of the lives of the characters, as it is appears to the author.
The script is teeming with fabrications in the worst taste, having no relation either to real events or even to the feeling of the characters. One such ridiculous example is when Nicholas’ father, Emperor Alexander III, chooses a mistress for his son from among the ballerinas of the Mariinsky Theatre. Do we have to explain that such vulgarity could be born only in the mind of someone with no clue about the reality of the relationships in the royal family, and in the court environment?
The emperor Nicholas II and empress Alexandra Feodorovna were canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church as passion-bearers; but holiness is not sterility. There were different situations in their lives (for example, their relationship with Rasputin), and their activities are variously evaluated by historians. But one thing they did not have—vulgarity and filth. But it is precisely vulgarity and filth of the lowest order that the script writer gives for historical truth.
President of the History Dept. of Moscow State University
Professor, Academic of the Russian Academy of Sciences S. P. Karlov
Head of the 19th-Early 20th Century Russian History Department
of Moscow State University
Professor S. V. Mironenko
The director of the film Alexei Uchitel has repeatedly stated that he had and has no intention of offending the memory of Nicholas II. But what is presented in the plot of the film is nothing more than artistic imagination, which no historical canvas can bypass. There is no reason not to believe Alexei Efimovich. I only venture to recall the saying of the seventh century ascetic St. Isaac of Syria: “Moderation makes all things beautiful. That which is considered beautiful, without moderation turns bad.” There is no doubt that the artist has the right to artistic fiction. The question is only to what extent this right applies for the work to become a part of high culture.
In discussions of Mathilde, those who advocate the presumption of the boundless freedom of creativity for the artist often use great names in vain, in particular, Pushkin and Tolstoy. In vain they bring forth such examples; just as in The Captain’s Daughter and War and Peace we have before us examples of genius of the most boundless measure in relation to history and to its personalities in the artistic reconstruction of historical events.
“Fiction is not a hoax”—we recall these words of Bulat Okudzhava.1 In any case, artistic fiction should not be a deception, not for any reason. No matter what the creative, dramatic, and aesthetic reason, such a deception could not be justified. It is inconceivable to imagine that for the sake of the tradition of some special “creativity” with the plot of The Captain’s Daughter, the author would, for example, make Catherine II be Puchachev’s mistress, or in War and Peace, the author, burning with “inspiration” would be handed over to Napoleon, who would then burn not just Moscow, but also St. Petersburg, for more “dramatic tension.” And what? It’s nothing personal, just an artistic fabrication, because the author (or, as they love to say now, the “creator”) has the full right…
As regards the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church in relation to the film Mathilde, I expressed it as the chairman of the Patriarchal Cultural Council last year in The Russian Gazette: We don’t demand the film be banned, considering this a dead-end. But we reserve the right to refute the un-truths and convey to those who want to hear it, the credible story about this period in the life of the holy passion-bearer Tsar Nicholas. Also, the undoubted position of the Russian Orthodox Church has been expressed many times as a strong condemnation of any extremist actions of those drawn to discussions about the film.
I will not be speaking in this article about the offending of religious sensibilities—this matter is really too shaky, especially when it is supported by an article of the criminal code. What I would like to concentrate on is the offending of the sensibilities of historical truth, which is not subject to any legal punishment; on the artist’s moral responsibility for an obvious historical falsehood, which leads to societal conflicts, such as we see today—which nobody needs.
And, finally, the last thing. If a considerable number of my compatriots feel vividly and personally insulted when encountering historical untruths, if they consider it very important for themselves to stand up for the honor of their history, for the honor of their fellow citizens, both great and small, long departed into eternity, firstly using discussion, and, if deemed necessary, their legal civil rights, it’s a good, a very good sign.
And the film? In a month it will be shown on the screens of many Russian cities. It should also be noted that Mathilde is the only artistic film made in our country for the 100th anniversary of the revolution. Precisely this film, with such a story and with such an artistic approach, especially clearly marks what is in many respects and for our societal level a feasible understanding for our modern domestic cinematography of the most tragic and fateful events of our modern history.
But perhaps this will at least be a starting point for a more accurate historical evaluation.