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Letter from Moscow: The history of Russian cinema locked up in the basement



As Moscow hosts the 29th International Film Festival with Soviet-style patriotic pomp, Russia’s acclaimed Cinema Museum remains confined to a metal locker in the basement of the Central House of Artists.

'Musei Kino' is written in jagged hand-written letters on its doors, behind which administrative essentials of the country's only institute devoted to the long history of cinema in the Soviet Union and Russia are stored.

Oleg has the key to the locker. The 29-year-old is the head of the press service, a duty for which he receives next to no money. He takes a bunch of posters and sticky tape from the locker and hurries to the VIP-bar of the film festival to get his fill of the free booze, for ‘if you don't make any money you need to find ways to get drunk for nothing’.

The history of the Cinema Museum is a typical story of post-Soviet greed and corruption. When is was founded during the closing days of the Soviet Union it was housed in a large cinema complex that belonged then to the All Soviet Trade Union of Cinematographers. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the haggle over the property began. The Russian Union of Cinematographers had from the start been the strongest force in trying to snatch up the valuable building and in which it succeeded after the influential director Nikita Mikhailkov became its head. His excellent connections to top-level bureaucrats gave the museum the deathblow. It was ordered to vacate its premises and promised a new building, which has never materialised.

But despite being homeless and starved of funds, the museum is surviving. Its friends have found temporary storages for the 400'000 pieces of collection and manage to keep screenings going in venues around the city. They vowed to keep the museum running to whatever personal cost.

For the International Film Festival, the director of the museum, Naum Kleiman, has curated a parallel program dedicated to Modern Indian Cinema beyond Bollywood.

The irony is that head of the festival is the same Mikhailkov who was pivotal in kicking the museum out of its premises. And the tragic is that Mikhailkov, who presides over Russian cinema as if it was his personal fiefdom, had been one of the country’s best directors, before he abused his talent to produce populist kitsch in the service of Russian chauvinism.

Yet complaining is to no avail, in Russia you have to live up to the circumstances and drink your enemy’s wine, which Oleg does with great indulgence at the festival bar before putting up posters for his museum’s Indian Movie cycle.