Officially, the Barbie movie isn’t showing in Russia.
I’m in a Moscow shopping centre. A giant pink house has been erected next to the food court. Inside: pink furniture, pink popcorn and life-size cardboard cut-outs of Barbie and Ken who are beaming from ear to ear.
No wonder they’re smiling: the Barbie film is pulling in the crowds at the multiplex opposite, despite Western sanctions. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, a string of Hollywood studios stopped releasing their movies in Russia. But unauthorised copies are getting through and being dubbed into Russian.
Over at the cinema it’s a bit cloak and dagger. When I ask one visitor which movie he’s come to watch he names an obscure 15-minute Russian film and smiles.
To avoid licensing issues, some cinemas in Russia have been selling tickets to Russian-made shorts and showing the Barbie feature film as the preview.
Russia’s culture ministry is not amused. Last month it concluded that the Barbie movie was “not in line with the aims and goals laid out by our president for preserving and strengthening traditional Russian moral and spiritual values.”
Mind you, the cinemagoers I speak to are tickled pink that Barbie’s hit the big screen here.
“People should have the right to choose what they want to watch,” Karina says. “I think it’s good that Russian cinemas are able to show these films for us.”
“It’s about being open-minded about other people’s cultures,” says Alyona. “Even if you don’t agree with other people’s standards, it’s still great if you can watch it.”
But Russian MP Maria Butina believes there’s nothing great about Barbie: the doll or the film.
“I have issues with Barbie as a female form,” she tells me. “Some girls – especially in their teens – try to be like a Barbie girl, and they exhaust their bodies.”
Ms Butina adds that the film has not been licensed to appear in Russian cinemas.
“Do not break the law. Is this a question for our movie theatres? Absolutely. I filed several requests to cinemas asking on what basis they are showing the film,” she says.
“You talk about the importance of following the law,” I say, “but Russia invaded Ukraine. The United Nations says that was a complete violation of international law.”
“Russia is saving Ukraine,” she replies, “and saving the Donbas.”
You hear this often from those in power in Russia. They paint Moscow as peacemaker, not warmonger. They argue that it is America, Nato, the West, that are using Ukraine to wage war on Russia. It is an alternative reality designed to rally Russians around the flag.
Amid growing confrontation with Europe and America, the Russian authorities seem determined to turn Russians against the West.
From morning till night state TV here tells viewers that Western leaders are out to destroy Russia. The brand-new modern history textbook for Russian high-school students (obligatory for use) claims that the aim of the West is “to dismember Russia and take control of her natural resources.”
It asserts that “in the 1990s, in place of our traditional cultural values such as good, justice, collectivism, charity and self-sacrifice, under the influence of Western propaganda a sense of individualism was forced on Russia, along with the idea that people bear no responsibility for society.”
The text book encourages Russian 11th graders to “multiply the glory and strength of the Motherland.”
In other words, Your Motherland (not Barbie Land) needs you!
At the Moscow multiplex I’d found many people still open to experiencing Western culture and ideas. But what’s the situation away from the Russian capital?
I drive to the town of Shchekino, 140 miles from Moscow. There’s a concert on at the local culture centre. Up on stage four Russian soldiers in military fatigues are playing electric guitars and singing their hearts out about patriotism and Russian invincibility.
One of the songs is about Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“We will serve the Motherland and crush the enemy!” they croon.
The audience (it’s almost a full house) is a mixture of young and old, including school children, military cadets, and senior citizens. For the up-tempo numbers they’re waving Russian tricolours that have been handed to them.
As the paratrooper pop stars sing their patriotic repertoire, film is being projected onto the screen behind them. No Barbie or Ken here. There are images of Russian tanks, soldiers marching and shooting and, at one point, of President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin.
Patriotic messaging is effective. Barbie mania isn’t a thing on the streets of Shchekino.
“Right now it’s important to make patriotic Russian films to raise morale,” Andrei tells me. “And we need to cut out Western habits from our lives. How can we do that? Through film. Cinema can influence the masses.”
“In Western films they talk a lot about sexual orientation. We don’t support that,” Ekaterina tells me. “Russian cinema is about family values, love and friendship.”
But Diana is reluctant to divide cinema into Russian films and foreign movies.
“Art is for everyone. It doesn’t matter where you’re from,” Diana tells me. “And we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to art from one nation. To become a more cultured, sociable and a more interesting person, you need to watch films and read books from other countries, too.”