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Why Is Vladimir Putin So Afraid of ‘The Master and Margarita’?

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In another world, The Master and Margarita director Michael Lockshin would be spending evenings in a tuxedo strolling the red carpet along with the actors from his new film. He’d spend his days smiling for photographers, giving Champagne toasts, and taking limo rides to media appearances. But in our world, the 43-year-old filmmaker is unable to promote his blockbuster, a triumphant success in the only country where it is currently being shown: Russia. “My name wasn’t even on the poster or any of the marketing materials for the release in Russia,” the director with a salt-and-pepper mustache tells me from his Los Angeles home. That would have been too dangerous.

Lockshin’s adaptation of the acclaimed Russian novel by Mikhail Bulgakov was an enormous feat—with a reported cost of $17 million, a plethora of special effects, a storyline that’s a full-throated critique of authoritarianism, and a message the filmmaker sums up as: “How do you remain free as a writer in the face of censorship?” It’s a subject that was difficult to tackle in Russia even before the “special military operation” in Ukraine, to borrow the language of Vladimir Putin’s regime, began in 2022. It is an even more daring movie now as dissident artists, authors, and journalists are being thrown in jail, banned, and in some cases murdered.

Lockshin’s film was released on January 25. To date, more than five million Russians have seen The Master and Margarita in theaters, making it one of the best-performing films of the year. Audience reactions have been ecstatic: Finally, they’re able to see a film critical of the regime. They have discovered the story of a writer on trial for the plays he has created, ostracized by his peers. They have laughed at scenes that parody propaganda and others in which bureaucrats outdo each other in their stupidity.

For the last two years in Russia, culture has been under wraps, with cinemas showing only benignly innocuous films approved by official authorities. Moscow’s cinemas are now breathing a sigh of relief. Some screenings of the film even ended with rounds of enthusiastic applause. Is the Kremlin listening?

A scene from Michael Lockshin’s film adaptation of The Master and Margarita.

Mars Media

Putin’s propaganda machine went into overdrive the day after the film’s theatrical release. First, star television presenter Tigran Keosayan blasted Lockshin’s “anti-Russian” stance and urged authorities to launch an investigation into the film’s production. Vladimir Solovyov, considered one of Russia’s main propogandists, then asked on his program—one of Russian’s most viewed television shows, “How could this unpatriotic film have been authorized? Is this a special operation?”

Readovka, a pro-Kremlin Telegram channel with over two million viewers, took aim at the filmmaker, describing him as a “notorious Russophobe” guilty of having expressed his opposition to the Ukraine war on TV networks. Finally, Sputnik radio host Trofim Tatarenkov compared Lockshin to the “enemies of the people” who would have been assassinated in Stalin’s time.

From Los Angeles, the filmmaker describes navigating his work’s reception as if he’s a sailor watching a tempest through a telescope. But the sun is shining in California, far from the storm raging in Moscow. Nevertheless, he avoids some of the questions I ask about the actors who remain in Russia. “Everyone’s scared over there,” he says.

Listening to him talk about his childhood divided between the United States and Russia, the modest beginnings of his career, and his Hollywood ambitions, I wonder whether he’s living a filmmaker’s dream, a nightmare, or both at the same time. “I’m very proud of this film, of course,” he says, as if there were any doubt about that. As the interview progresses, he asks me to reread some of his quotes. (In light of death threats and Lockshin’s concern with protecting colleagues who are still in Russia, Vanity Fair chose to comply with this request). How could I refuse when he tells me that he’s threatened anew every time an article is published?

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