Russia to screen propaganda movie about Donbas worldwide. Its protagonist defected to Ukraine
Russia’s strategy to openly promote its statelets in eastern Ukraine thorough open fake diplomatic consulates in the EU failed. Apparently, an anti-Ukrainian propagandist movie set in occupied Donbas to be screened in Russian official “cultural centers” across the world is the next soft power attempt. However, the film has run into problems even before its worldwide premiere: its real-life protagonist defected to free Ukraine while Russian distributors don’t accept the movie for release in Russian theaters.
Since 2014, Russia tried to utilize a century-old Soviet strategy to gain recognition for the puppet statelets it had established in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Donbas region. The so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” attempted to open a number of what they called embassies or representative offices in various European countries. However, official authorities of the countries denounced the phony offices, and most of the “embassies” shut down.
Now, Rossotrudnichestvo, the Kremlin’s top-soft power institution, is going to screen the propaganda movie “Opolchenochka” in its so-called “Russian Houses” in 80 countries in six languages across the world. This follows from an agreement for non-commercial screening that the agency has signed on 20 May with the so-called film studio Lugafilm, which produced the film.
The Russian state-funded news agency Sputnik calls “Opolchenochka” “the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic’s first full-length feature film.”
The movie’s title roughly translates to “dear female militant” and it’s an anti-Ukrainian propaganda action film that presents Ukrainian troops as invaders in the ostensibly self-dependent Donbas, where three local female protagonists defend their land against the alleged Ukrainian invaders as a female-only tank crew of the separatist “people’s militia.” The movie’s director and the major cast alike were from Russia.
The film’s producers hoped in February 2021 that the movie would be officially released in Russia, yet the film didn’t hit Russia’s theaters as it didn’t get approval from distribution companies. However, it is unclear whether it was forbidden or its release was just postponed for the summer or fall due to the full theater release schedule.
“Ukraine bad, Russia didn’t invade it” narrative
The propagandists are pretty straightforward about the goals they want to achieve by screenings of “Opolchenochka.”
Rossotrudnichestvo head Yevgeny Primakov Jr described the movie “Opolchenochka” in the following way,
“This is a heroic story, very touching for the heart, about how women stood up for defending their peaceful cities and villages, took weapons in their hands.”
Meanwhile, Roman Razum — some “LNR militia” officer who reportedly produced the film and co-authored its script — called it a tool of “soft power”:
“What happened today (signing the agreement on screening with Rossotrudnichestvo, – Ed.) is an essential element of the soft power that the people of the Donbas are demonstrating to the world through art and cinema. This is a powerful response to propaganda films made by deceitful and corrupt Ukraine,” he said.
Meanwhile Vladislav Plakhuta, whom Rossotrudnichestvo calls the general producer of the film, mentioned not only the “soft power” but also promoting the Russian perspective of the war in Ukraine’s Donbas:
“The demonstration of our film in Russian Houses is the best illustration of the use of soft power. We are confident that the screenings will become a noticeable cultural event in the countries where they will be held and will contribute to the promotion of an all-Russian view of the war in Donbas.”
So the movie itself is meant to denigrate Ukraine as an aggressor and legitimize the Russian-run “people’s republics” as a grass-roots movement against the supposed invader. Meanwhile, the planned screenings of the movie across the world is a propaganda trick of using soft power for further imposing the Russian narratives internationally – something that Russian diplomacy, academia, and propaganda machine has been doing throughout the seven years of war.
Failed screening in occupied Crimea
On 25 May 2021, the Opolchenochka producers were going to screen the film in occupied Crimea at the festival of Orthodox Christian movies Zolotoy Vityaz (“Golden Knight”). However, things went ridiculously wrong as someone run the wrong video file and for several minutes the audience in Sevastopol’s theater watched the Ukrainian 2018 feature “Call sign Banderas” set in the Donbas.
“It should be noted that at the beginning of the screening, instead of the announced film, a Ukrainian film was shown about the heroes of the ATO (“anti-terrorist operation,” Ukraine’s 2014-2018 designation of the war in the Donbas, – Ed.), and only the interruption of [producer] Roman Razum stopped this provocation,” wrote former Russian senator from occupied Sevastopol Andrey Sobolev on his Facebook page.
According to the festival organizers, after they stopped the wrong screening, a lamp burned out in the moving picture projector which prevented them from presenting the Opolchenochka at the festival.
Human rights activist Halya Coynash points out the serious side of this humorous accident,
“After seven years of Russian occupation, the human rights situation in Crimea, as assessed by Freedom House, is not significantly higher than in North Korea. There will, doubtless, be attempts to find out who was behind the disruption to the ‘Opolchenochka’ film showing, with those involved being in danger if discovered,” she wrote.
Real-life prototype of Opolchenochka’s protagonist defected to free Ukraine in 2019
The movie “Opolchenochka” isn’t a new production, it was filmed in 2018 in Russia’s St. Petersburg and across the occupied part of Luhansk oblast. Its premiere took place in 2019 in occupied Donetsk after several delays. However, since then it never reached movie thaters in Russia despite high hopes of the film’s producers.
Moreover, in early 2019, 40-year-old tank commander Svitlana Driuk who was the real-life prototype for the film’s protagonist escaped to free Ukraine with her children, helped by the Security Service of Ukraine.
In occupied Donetsk, Ms. Driuk was a local propaganda celebrity presented as a peaceful civilian who became a successful female warrior standing up to the defense of her Donbas motherland from Ukraine’s “invaders.” Fleeing to free Ukraine from the quasi-state of DNR, Svitlana reportedly brought military documents with her and was ready to testify in The Hague to some 30 Russian regular servicemen she knew.
Of course, after such a mishap film producers had to deny that Svitlana had ever been the inspiration for the protagonist.
In December 2019, a Ukrainian court sentenced Svitlana Driuk to five years probation for participating in a terrorist organization. She settled in the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi and started working in a manicure salon, which she now promotes on her TikTok.
As she explained in her interview with the Ukrainian news site Babel, she started cooperating with SBU in January 2015 as she couldn’t accept the way “DNR” handled civilians,
“They introduced the death-punishable Article 21. People disappeared day and night, and then you couldn’t even mention them,” Svitlana said.
It is now hard to predict whether screenings of Opolchenochka in Rossotrudnichestvo offices around the world have any effect propaganda-wise, however, the hilarious ill fate of the movie may promise more mishaps. What is for sure, Russia isn’t going to stop its propaganda attacks against Ukraine in the foreseeable future.