In Other Words

The KGB Oscars

In Putin's Russia, it's the spies that are handing out the awards for the year's best movies.

Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images
Peeter Viisimaa/Getty Images

MOSCOW — Last fall, when Russian filmmaker Karen Shakhnazarov learned that he was up for another prize, part of him wished he could politely decline. It’s not that the award was a Razzie, the annual Hollywood prize for the worst in film, or anything like that. It was just the first time he stood to receive an FSB Award — known here in Moscow, irony fully intended, as the Oscars of the KGB — and he knew that some of his peers would whisper if he accepted an honor handed out by the secret police. "But whether you like it or not," said Shakhnazarov, "that is a very influential organization." So when the ceremony rolled around in late November, he dusted off his tuxedo and prepared a little speech about the need for the state and the movie business to work together. This is Russia after all; it went over very well.

The Federal Security Service, the KGB successor known as the FSB, has been ascendant in Russian society ever since its former director, Vladimir Putin, became president in 2000. Since then, the agency has been obsessed with finding ways to bring Russian movies and TV under its patronage. As early as 2001, the agency began financing Russian whodunits and spy thrillers; in 2006, it handed out the first FSB Awards — glass statuettes embossed with its sword-and-shield insignia — to the filmmakers, actors, and novelists who had "most accurately" portrayed the warriors of the secret front. The galas had all the pomp of a Western awards ceremony, except they were held at the FSB’s notorious headquarters on Lubyanka Square, inside the hulking mass of orange stone that many Russians still associate with the KGB’s interrogation chambers. That, of course, meant no paparazzi, red carpets, or pesky independent journalists — just a few hundred Russian cinematic insiders packed into an auditorium with the country’s top spies. By the time the sixth one was held in January 2012, the agency’s mouthpiece newspaper, Granitsa Rossii, proclaimed that the ceremony had become a "platform for creative dialogue" between the art world and the security services.

In itself, collaboration between spy agencies and the silver screen is nothing new. Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond books, was himself a British naval intelligence officer; even in the United States, it’s not uncommon for Langley and Hollywood to team up. Former spooks often spice up their retirements with work as on-set movie consultants, and the CIA in the 1990s even established a liaison program for the entertainment industry to influence how its agents get portrayed on screen, according to Tricia Jenkins, author of The CIA in Hollywood. Claire Danes, in preparing for her starring role in the television series Homeland, was helped along by a CIA officer who took her on a tour of Langley, and the screenwriter for the film Zero Dark Thirty met with multiple CIA officers, including the analyst who helped track down Osama bin Laden and was the model for the film’s lead character, Maya.

But ever since Putin came to power, the FSB has taken this type of cooperation in a new direction — or, rather, one not seen in Russia since the days of the KGB. The awards today are actually a revival of the KGB honors bestowed on Soviet authors and filmmakers from 1978 to 1988. And just like its Cold War-era predecessor, the FSB has started financing and producing films from start to finish. "These have been attempts to rewrite reality, to cast the FSB brass in the role of comic book heroes like Batman and Robin," says Alexander Cherkasov, an expert on the security services at Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights organization.

The most egregious is, fittingly, also the FSB’s most ambitious artistic project to date: the 2004 feature film Personal Number, which offers a reinterpretation of the controversial and macabre real-life siege of a Moscow theater two years earlier. In 2002, Chechen terrorists took some 850 hostages during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost; when special-operations forces stormed the building, about 130 of those hostages were killed by an incapacitating gas used by the FSB to subdue the hostage-takers. In the cinematic version of the events, the theater is replaced by a circus, and when the FSB raids the building, all the hostages are triumphantly saved. The terrorists in the film are meanwhile revealed to have links to foreign intelligence services and a shady Russian oligarch living in London — the latter a crude nod to Boris Berezovsky, one of Putin’s staunchest enemies. "This pretty picture is not made out of a love for art," says Cherkasov, "but with a totally practical goal: to justify the [FSB’s] crimes, those of the past and those yet to be committed."

According to Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and historian of the Russian security services, the FSB spent $7 million on the production of Personal Number, but that’s just a taste of the movies and television shows it’s financing. The Special Department, a detective series that aired in 2001, tells the story of an FSB agent descended from St. Petersburg’s blue-blooded intelligentsia who tracks down art thieves while defending the treasures of the Hermitage. The agent was the first favorable protagonist from the secret police to gain attention on Russian television since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the show played into the notion of Putin’s long-serving security chief, Nikolai Patrushev, that the FSB should be treated as a "new nobility" in Russia. Four years later came Secret Watch, a popular TV show about the agency’s modern-day surveillance practices that showed FSB officers nabbing terrorists and protecting innocent Muscovites. In 2007, a 16-part TV series, Special Group, depicted FSB agents in Moscow foiling attacks and tracking financial swindlers.

As the general director of Mosfilm, Russia’s largest movie studio, Shakhnazarov has watched these developments with a mix of resignation and fiscal pragmatism. The son of a high-ranking functionary in the Communist Party, he first gained renown in the mid-1980s for directing Jazzman, a wryly iconoclastic comedy about a student who gets booted from the communist youth league for his love of jazz in the 1920s. The film helped make Shakhnazarov an icon of the perestroika era. But in the tumult that followed the Soviet collapse, many of Russia’s movie studios were shuttered or sold off, including one across the street from Mosfilm. A garish high-rise of luxury apartments now stands in that spot, and its giant red banner — "For rent!" — serves as a constant reminder to Shakhnazarov of what could have become of his studio without the state’s support.

As for the price he paid in creative independence, Shakhnazarov sees it as par for the course in Russia. "Our country has always been ruled from the top down," he told me in his office at Mosfilm, where he was holed up like the Wizard of Oz toward the end of the winter holidays, the shades drawn, chain-smoking Montecristo cigarillos. "It is our mentality, our historical fate," he said. And the FSB’s money, he points out, is no less green than Disney’s. "We’re not in a position to turn down sponsors."

On the wall just above Shakhnazarov’s head, flanked by posters of his recent films, was a framed photograph of him giving Putin a tour of a movie set in 2005. The two men, both in black overcoats, are in the middle of an animated conversation, the director pointing at the chest of the president, who smiles with amusement. It was around that time, Shakhnazarov said, that Putin really started to realize the value of cinema, rather than just television news, as a tool of propaganda.

Entertainment certainly made an impression on Putin as a boy, sparking his obsession with becoming a spy. In his official biography, the only creative work that Putin names as having an impact on his early life was Shield and Sword, a spy movie that inspired him to seek work in the KGB while still in high school. But during the first two terms of his presidency, Shakhnazarov argues, Putin was more concerned with bringing Russia’s television networks, as well as the oligarchs who owned them, into line. "Putin has since undergone an evolution on that front," the director told me, glancing up at the photograph. "Now he has changed. Now he has a sense that film is important, not only as an industry, but as an instrument of ideology for the state."

That change has pushed Shakhnazarov into the spotlight of national politics. During Putin’s 2012 campaign to return to the Kremlin for a third term as president, and amid unprecedented protests against him by thousands of previously apolitical members of the Moscow middle class, the director acted as one of his "trusted faces," along with a couple of hundred other celebrities from the worlds of sports, culture, and the sciences, who spent a few months lauding the national leader. Although Shakhnazarov didn’t go so far as to publicly criticize the democracy protesters who crammed Moscow’s streets in the 2011-2012 winter — "they are part of my audience," he told me — after Putin’s reinauguration in May, Shakhnazarov said on Russia’s leading talk show that the president was the only man capable of leading Russia. A few months later, at the seventh annual FSB Awards, Shakhnazarov was seated in the front row alongside Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the spy agency, whom he affectionately calls Bortka.

The prize for best picture that night went to White Tiger, Shakhnazarov’s feature film about an unhinged Soviet tank driver hunting a phantom Nazi panzer through the battlefields of World War II. The protagonist, a sort of tank-whisperer who worships a mechanized god whose engine makes lightning appear in the sky, loses his memory doing battle with the ghost-panzer and then dedicates his life to destroying it. (Think Moby Dick with heavy artillery.) In the beginning of the film, a Soviet counterintelligence officer asks him if he wouldn’t rather be cured of amnesia and return to his family. The soldier answers, "I remember that I’m Russian. I remember I’m a tank driver. What more do I need?"

This kind of robo-patriotism is one of the values White Tiger extols — one clearly endorsed by the FSB — but Shakhnazarov, who co-wrote and directed the film, suspects Bortka and Co. were more flattered by his depiction of the counterintelligence officer, Maj. Alexei Fedotov. Partial to liquor and French cigarettes, Fedotov is assigned to oversee the hunt for the ghost-panzer, and his stoic devotion to the loony Soviet tank driver makes him the film’s most likable hero. The actor who plays Fedotov, Vitaly Kishchenko, also won an FSB Award for best actor, making White Tiger the only feature film to receive the FSB’s blessing for the year.

But Shakhnazarov insists he wasn’t following orders in making a movie the FSB found so favorable. "We never set out to portray the secret police in a positive way," he told me. After accepting his award, he got a chance to ask Bortnikov what kinds of films the FSB chief would like to see on the big screen. "Bortka didn’t give me any explicit instructions," Shakhnazarov said. "He just said to keep up the good work."

Simon Shuster is a journalist based in Moscow.