Anyone remotely familiar with Russian cinema has probably heard of Nikita Mikhalkov, an Oscar-winning film director, the son of an illustrious artist family, and a notorious asshole. It was just a few years after the end of the USSR, when Mikhalkov won his Academy Award for the 1994 film ‘Burnt by the Sun.’ That movie — a sharp critique of Stalinism — was an international success, the profits from which Mikhalkov dumped into his next epic, ‘The Barber of Siberia’ (1998). Three-hours-long, with a budget of 35 million dollars, ‘The Barber’ earned a lousy 2.6 million bucks. Adding insult to injury, it ended up being screened out of competition at the 1999 Cannes film festival. More than a decade later, Mikhalkov tried to reclaim his glory-days by releasing two sequels to ‘Burnt by the Sun’. The first installment, ‘Exodus,’ cost 40 million dollars, but earned just 7.5 million. The second release, ‘Citadel,’ cost 34 million, and earned a paltry 1.5 million at the box-office. In total, the two-part sequel lost a whopping 65 million dollars.
Mikhalkov’s obsession with himself and with all things ‘epic’ has helped make him one of the most mocked and reviled personalities on the RuNet. In March of 2010, ultra-popular blogger Artemii Lebedev (LJ user Tema) posted a series of photoshopped advertisement mockups, poking fun at ‘Exodus’s stupid-looking movie poster (which prominently featured Mikhalkov holding a machine gun under the tagline “A Great Film about the Great War”). Within a few hours, more than 200 ‘fotozhaby’ appeared in the comments section, prompting rumors that Mikhalkov was contemplating a lawsuit against Lebedev. (From what I can tell, that never ended up happening.)
More recently, the other thorn in Mikhalkov’s side has been his migalka: the blue siren atop elite vehicles that lets drivers circumvent traffic laws.
(I’ve written about the political significance of the migalka before, but it’s worth repeating that this little symbol of Russian legal inequality has social resonance far exceeding the object’s tiny size.) Mikhalkov owed his siren to his position as leader of the Defense Ministry’s Public Council — which he entered in 2006, when the Council was created. Last August, Mikhalkov defended his right to a migalka in an interview with RenTV, where he described driving with the blue siren as a general “obligation” that state servants needed to uphold to enforce law and order. In February this year, Russia’s Public Chamber turned its attention to the issue of migalki, specifically targeting Mikhalkov as an example of excess. Deputy Registrar Mikhail Ostrovskii singled him out, asking rhetorically: “Where’s he speeding off to? What kind of urgent errands is he running?” Around this time, Interfax reported that anonymous Defense Ministry sources had confirmed that Mikhalkov would be stripped of his migalka very soon. To add to the drama, RIA Novosti cited insider sources to the contrary, arguing that Mikhalkov would get to keep his blue light. The following month, in March, Mikhalkov and his migalka made headlines again, when he snapped during an interview with LifeNews and used obscene language in an open-ended tirade against critics of his road privileges. Mikhalkov explained that his special siren rights extended at least until 2012. In April, he said on NTV that he was ready to give up his migalka “when necessary.”
On May 16, 2011, Mikhalkov resigned from the Public Council and relinquished his special driving siren.
Though the author claims not to know who leaked the document, a full copy of Mikhalkov’s resignation letter reached Komsomolskaia Pravda a few days later. In the letter, the film-maker laments the embarrassment of Moscow’s two previous Victory Day parades — episodes Mikhalkov credits with demonstrating the weakness and moral collapse of Russia’s armed forces. (He notes with particular disapproval the inclusion of NATO-country soldiers in 2010′s march.) “In connection with [all of the above], and not being able to influence the situation, I ask you, dear Anatoly Eduardovich [Serdiukov], to relieve me of my post,” Mikhalkov wrote. This change of heart came just five months after being reelected to a new term in the Public Council last December, when he told the press: “I would never continue my work as Chairman of the PC if I had not seen results. [...] Our voice is almost always heard and I hope that this effective work will continue.”
LifeNews reported that Mikhalkov’s resignation was actually the result of a hostile ultimatum. According to the online paper, Defense Minister Serdiukov originally wanted merely to strip Mikhalkov of his migalka and keep him on as PC Chairman. When the latter learned of the Ministry’s plan, however, he vowed to resign from the Council altogether, if his siren was taken back. The result, the story goes, is that the Defense Ministry then forced Mikhalkov to resign as punishment for his threat.
The LifeNews and Komsomolskaia Pravda leaks went public on May 23rd. One week later, on May 30th, Mikhalkov suffered yet another scandal, when his black Range Rover was video-taped on Moscow’s Garden Ring driving recklessly, repeatedly crossing the double yellow lines into oncoming traffic (without a migalka). His license plate (A375MP97) is clearly visible, but Mikhalkov’s face does not appear in the video, though the man behind the camera claims to have seen the director himself behind the wheel. Mikhalkov told LifeNews that he was speeding to a live taping, where “every second counts.” He went on to explain that he “leads a rich life” and criticized those who filmed him as “crazy people, smart asses [khamy], and assholes with cameras,” who “need to be stripped of their driver licenses.”
Just one day later in an interview with Komsomolskaia Pravda, however, Mikhalkov suddenly denied that he or his Range Rover had traveled the Garden Ring on the day of the incriminating video. “I want to let all the liars know: you can’t phase me,” he announced. “I never called anyone a smart ass [kham],” he continued, claiming that he’d been outside Moscow on Saturday evening getting ready to watch the Barcelona-Manchester soccer game. “And my car was right in front of me,” he added, before concluding by paraphrasing John 7:6 (“My time is not yet here; for you any time will do”).
Aside from the comedy that is Mikhalkov’s bottomless dickishness (in a fit of pique he claimed that both tandem members proved weaker than Brezhnev because both sat during the May 9th parade), there is a potentially explosive political element in all this foolishness — namely, that the campaign against Russia’s prized director was pioneered and carried out primarily online, most prominently by the Blue Buckets Society. The May 30th video of Mikhalkov’s black Range Rover became such a scandal because a random citizen posted the clip to the Blue Bucketeers’ LiveJournal community. Hardly a radical activist, Mr. Dorton’ian (LJ user ultra_nm) had never before posted anything to the ru-vederko LJ community, yet his spontaneous decision to capture the traffic violation on film and share it online garnered more than 700 comments, stirring up a media storm that pressured Mikhalkov into making the two embarrassing contradictory statements.
In the video, Mikhalkov drives directly by a DPS police officer, who makes no effort to pull over the Range Rover. (The license plate’s particulars reveal that the vehicle belongs to someone with connections.) When Dorton’ian stops to question the traffic cop, the latter says that he never saw the car. Apparently in response to this particular aspect of the story, Mikhalkov reported that he has special immunity from road inspections — a traffic privilege that the Blue Bucketeers insist is legally enjoyed only by members of the MVD and FSB. The organization immediately called for an official investigation into Mikhalkov’s alleged immunity. Today, Duma Deputy Aleksandr Khinshtein aided their cause by telling Vzgliad that it was unlikely Mikhalkov really had such immunity — meaning that the director is either lying or he illegally purchased the permit on the black market.
The surprising success of the Blue Buckets Society caught Stanislav Belkovsky’s attention, who suggested that it demonstrates the potential real-world potency of online activism. “It may have been easier to overthrow Ben Ali, Murbarak, and Gaddafi together than tear out from Mikhalkov’s teeth what he’d clamped down on,” Belkovsky concluded triumphantly, who thinks the Web might be the long-awaited instrument capable of mobilizing the vital “two percent” of society necessary for reform (or even revolution). Originally laid out in a 2007 Drugaia Rossiia convention speech (and revised slightly over time), Belkovsky theorizes that Russia’s current leadership is founded not on mass appeal but on the overlapping, coordinated interests of a small minority (roughly two percent of the population) that forms today’s elite (a mix of Soviet chinovniki outsiders and oligarch businessmen). Alluding to “the call of history,” Belkovsky argues that the opposition needs to form a counter-elite based on a “perpendicular morality” around a “united candidate.”
Belkovsky’s active promotion and defense of Aleksei Navalny gives some clue as to whom he might nominate today for that leadership role. The Blue Buckets Society and its impressive hounding of Nikita Mikhalkov perhaps highlights a plausible “perpendicular morality” — aimed at the heart of revived Russian monarchism, a philosophy with which Mikhalkov is commonly identified. The opposition has long sought to unify the masses, but it’s never been able to successfully unify itself first. Could popular outrage surrounding migalki and road traffic become a basis for a larger political movement?
Ever the opportunist, Navalny isn’t wasting time to wait and see. Just this week, he unveiled his latest crowd-sourcing civic initiative: RosYama, a website designed to collect complaints about potholes and under-maintained roads, in order to lobby for proper repairs and upkeep.