Why Russia’s Propaganda Machine Is on the Attack Against a Blockbuster Adaptation of ‘The Master and Margarita’

Rexa Vella

Why Russia’s Propaganda Machine Is on the Attack Against a Blockbuster Adaptation of ‘The Master and Margarita’

Just days after the Russian blockbuster “The Master and Margarita” surged to the top of the domestic box office, Kremlin cronies, pro-war propagandists and an army of online trolls have waged a campaign to discredit the film and its director, Michael Lockshin, a U.S. citizen who was raised in the Soviet Union and has been outspoken in his opposition to the war in Ukraine.

A source close to the film, who asked not to be named out of fear of potential repercussions, tells Variety that the movie’s staggering success and pointed critique of authoritarian rule has struck a nerve in right-wing circles at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has cracked down on any form of dissent.

“The propagandists are both envious and also hateful that a movie with an anti-censorship, anti-totalitarian, anti-war message is getting so much popularity, that they have doubled down,” the source said. “It started out with just a few patriots. Now it’s on state TV. They want blood.”

Produced by Amedia, Kinoprime and Mars Media Entertainment, “The Master and Margarita” cost an estimated $17 million, making it one of the most expensive Russian movies ever made. Notably, it also received financing from the state-backed Russian Cinema Fund, a fact that has also stoked the ire of many of the propagandists who are driving the current controversy.

“The Master and Margarita,” which was written by the Kyiv-born Soviet novelist Mikhail Bulgakov between 1928 and 1940 and published posthumously in Moscow magazine in the 1960s, is widely considered one of the great works of 20th century literature. It is a towering achievement of Soviet satire, heralded for its stinging social commentary and pointed critique of authoritarian rule during Stalin’s reign.

Lockshin’s big-budget adaptation of this celebrated novel, a blistering critique of Soviet power and authoritarianism, was released wide in Russian cinemas on Jan. 25. It quickly shot to the top of the box office, grossing more than 600 million rubles ($6.7 million) as of Feb. 1.

Within days, pro-government bloggers, media and TV personalities began waging a campaign against Lockshin, the U.S.-born son of a Russian-American scientist who spent a large portion of his childhood in the Soviet Union and currently lives in Los Angeles.

U.S.-born director Michael Lockshin emigrated to the Soviet Union as a child. Courtesy of Roskino

The popular Readovka Telegram channel, which has more than 2.1 million followers, called the director “an ardent Russophobe and a trans-Ukrainian,” while the radical right-wing group “Call of the People” urged for a criminal case to be opened against him for promoting “fake news” about the Russian army. The group also demanded Lockshin be added to the Kremlin’s list of extremists and terrorists, and that his earnings in Russia be confiscated.

Influential TV presenter Tigran Keosayan, whose wife, Margarita Simonyan, is the head of state-controlled broadcaster RT, blasted Lockshin’s “anti-Russian positions” in a Telegram post and demanded an investigation into the film, “starting from producers to law enforcement agencies.”

Meanwhile, on his widely watched TV program “Sunday Evening,” Vladimir Solovyov — who the U.S. State Department describes as perhaps “the most energetic Kremlin propagandist around today” — blasted the film for what he described as its “sharp, anti-Soviet, anti-modern Russian theme,” and questioned how it could even be made.

“How did this scheme come about? They hid information, carried out a special operation?” he asked. He then called for a “serious investigation” into the film’s production and release before drawing “drastic conclusions.”

Several screen adaptations of the novel have previously been made, including a popular TV mini-series released in 2005. However, Bulgakov’s iconic cult novel has never been fully realized on the big screen, only adding to the anticipation surrounding Lockshin’s blockbuster, according to influential film critic and radio host Anton Dolin, who says it’s hard to overstate the importance of Bulgakov’s novel on Russian society and culture. “A proper film based on it was a dream for everyone,” he says.

Lockshin, who is best known for directing “Silver Skates,” Netflix’s first Russian-language original film, was not the first director to be attached to the project, which faced several delays during production and post-production. German star August Diehl (“A Hidden Life,” “Inglourious Basterds”) was ultimately cast in the role of Woland, the Devil-like figure whose arrival in Moscow sets the plot into motion. Russian stars Yevgeny Tsyganov and Yuliya Snigir were cast in the other lead roles.

German star August Diehl plays the lead role of Woland. Courtesy of Atmosphere Kino

The film was shot over the course of four months in 2021, at which point Lockshin returned to L.A. to edit the footage. Universal Pictures International was originally slated to release the movie domestically in 2023. Those plans were upended, however, with Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, which prompted Universal and other Hollywood studios to pull out of the Russian market.

It was finally released last week by Russian distributor Atmosphere Kino, a company launched in 2022 by Central Partnership and Mars Media founder Ruben Dishdishyan and former Universal Pictures International Russia executives Vadim Ivanov and Nikolai Borunkov. Neither Mars Media, Amedia or Atmosphere Kino responded to Variety’s requests for comment.

As the war in Ukraine unfolded, Lockshin freely shared his opposition on social media, though his politics ruffled a few feathers at the time in Moscow, where he was still a little-known director. That quickly changed, however, when “The Master and Margarita” became a box-office smash and a cultural phenomenon.

For those who have watched the space for public dissent in Putin’s Russia gradually vanish since the Ukraine invasion, the vitriol directed at the filmmaker has stuck to a familiar playbook. “The mechanism of persecuting inconvenient people is well established and works like a clock,” says Anna Mongayt, a presenter and creative producer of the Russian opposition network TV Rain, which was forced from Russia after being shut down by the authorities in 2022.

“In two years, everyone who disagreed with the war and was ready to talk about it out loud was erased from culture,” Mongayt says. “No amount of fame can save you here. You get blacklisted and lose your job. Professional informers write denunciations about you — volunteers from the special services, war correspondents and public patriotic organizations. Criminal cases are being opened under the article of fake news about the armed forces. Films are re-edited, names are erased from posters.”

For Lockshin — an American citizen and outspoken critic of the war in Ukraine who “has never compromised when asked to do so” — the vicious propaganda campaign, she adds, was all but inevitable.

“He made a very successful movie. Everyone is talking about him. He became very famous,” Mongayt says. “In addition, his half-fantastic film about the totalitarian Soviet society of the 1930s looks defiantly critical and modern. And people really liked him. This means that this sarcastic look is close to them. The box-office numbers speak volumes about it. This also irritates the guards of ideology.”

Pro-Kremlin critics are demanding Lockshin face criminal charges for the film. Courtesy of Atmosphere Kino

Two-time Oscar-nominated producer Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”), who spent nearly three decades living and working in Russia but was forced to leave because of his opposition to the war in Ukraine, tells Variety the “smear campaign” against Lockshin is “just another example” of a dangerous trend.

“Russian president Vladimir Putin loves to publicly discuss the accusation that the West is canceling Russian culture, but to this day the only significant threat to the actual Russian culture comes from his regime, not Western countries,” says the Kyiv-born producer. “Many popular Russian writers have been accused and criminally prosecuted, their books banned from bookstores, their livelihoods destroyed.

“Michael publicly spoke out against the war and supported Ukraine. This is his only ‘crime,’ and for that he is facing an unprecedented campaign by the Russian propaganda,” Rodnyansky continues. “Not just to ‘cancel’ him or his film, but to send him to jail for a long time. I don’t think that after this there will be any people left in the industry who will dare to speak out publicly.”

Given the current political climate, the critic Dolin says it’s a “miracle” that “The Master and Margarita” was even released. For now, its fate in Russia remains uncertain. Pro-Kremlin critics are demanding it be pulled from cinemas, but largely favorable reviews, a wave of support on social media and, perhaps, the ongoing firestorm, continue to drive more moviegoers to the theater.

“It’s become a cultural phenomenon for people to get together against the war,” says the unnamed source. “There’s a whole narrative: ‘Go watch it before they take it out of the theaters.’”


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