On March 15, less than three weeks removed from his country’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu drafted a letter to the Minister of Culture demanding the film and TV work of Ukrainian actor-turned-wartime-President Volodymyr Zelensky be “removed from the cultural agenda of the Russian Federation,” citing efforts to rally the public behind President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression.
Also mentioned in his complaint: two-time Oscar nominee Alexander Rodnyansky (“Leviathan,” “Loveless”), the Kyiv-born producer who has called Russia home for two decades.
Rodnyansky had already fled the country. On March 1, he was tipped off by a friend that his opposition to the Ukraine war had landed him in the government’s crosshairs. Rodnyansky and his wife left the same day. “I cut off my business ties with Russia,” the producer told Variety. “I left behind everything. The company, the house, everything. Everything that I had.”
For the past two months, Rodnyansky has been traveling between Europe and L.A., where his production shingle AR Content is based. While managing personal and professional commitments suddenly thrown into flux, the producer has also been advising President Zelensky and assisting in efforts to broker an end to the war. Rodnyansky has known the president since the former’s days at the head of the Ukrainian TV channel 1 + 1, which frequently worked with the former actor and comedian.
Despite nearly three decades of living and working in Russia, where he has become one of the country’s most successful and acclaimed producers, Rodnyansky insists there was no question of divided loyalty once the Russian army began its invasion. “I was always a Ukrainian citizen living there. I never had Russian citizenship. I never wanted it,” he said. “I had my emotional attachment to Ukraine, always. So when [the invasion] happened, I never had a second to doubt.”
More than 15,000 Russians were arrested at anti-war protests early in the war, as the Kremlin swiftly cracked down on dissent against what it referred to as a “special military operation” in Ukraine. Though he safely fled the country, many of Rodnyansky’s friends and associates were detained and questioned over offenses as trivial as a social media post opposing the war. Artists, actors, filmmakers, and celebrities have been especially singled out by the government and pro-Kremlin media. “I saw myself on a list of traitors and enemies,” said Rodnyansky.
The experience has left him reflecting on his life in Russia, “the nature of violence,” and the barbarity of the Russian state in its unprovoked attack on his homeland. Photographs of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine, such as the massacre of unarmed civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, left Rodnyansky “speechless.” Yet he also acknowledged that the Putin regime has been no less brutal in its assault on its own people. “What the world saw in Bucha…was tested in Russia,” he said. “It has been the Russian reality for years.”
Amid calls for boycotts of Russian businesses and sanctions against Putin, his inner circle, and the many oligarchs who have benefited from their Kremlin ties, Rodnyansky nevertheless remains defiant that opposition voices in Russia should not be silenced by cultural boycotts. He also defended the work of Kinoprime, the $100 million film fund established by billionaire Roman Abramovich, who was slapped with sanctions by U.K. lawmakers over his allegedly close ties to Putin.
Rodnyansky, who served on Kinoprime’s advisory board but never received funding from it, said that the fund has consistently supported “directors who were many times publicly humiliated by the state, by the state-affiliated media, [and] were branded as traitors and enemies of the people for their anti-war, anti-system positions.” Among them is Kirill Serebrennikov, the controversial director and Putin critic who recently wrapped up a nearly five-year legal ordeal stemming from what his supporters describe as trumped-up, politically motivated charges. Serebrennikov’s latest feature, “Tchaikovsky’s Wife,” which received financing from Kinoprime, is playing in the official competition at the Cannes Film Festival.
Rodnyansky continued: “I believe this fund does a great job, and it would be very unfair to let the great filmmakers and their films that have been done absolutely freely, independently, in a real free spirit – it would be unfair to make them hostages of the sanctions [against Abramovich].”
In Moscow, Rodnyansky left behind an estimated 15 series in development and production, though his L.A.-based shingle, which last year inked a first-look deal with Apple to produce multilingual international shows for Apple Plus TV, has not been impacted by the war’s fallout.
Projects on AR Content’s slate include the Soviet-era period drama “Red Rainbow,” which won the Series Mania Forum Best Project Award last August; “Debriefing the President,” an adaptation of former CIA analyst John Nixon’s firsthand account of the interrogation of Saddam Hussein, directed by Ziad Doueiri; and “Khan,” an epic action series about Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire, led by showrunner Chris Collins (“Sons of Anarchy”), which was acquired by Fox Entertainment for North America.
Feature films include “What Happens,” the first English-language film from Andrey Zvyagintsev, who partnered with Rodnyansky on the Oscar-nominated dramas “Leviathan” and “Loveless”; and “Monica,” the third feature from Kantemir Balagov, whose Rodnyansky-produced “Beanpole” won the best director prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard in 2019.
For the time being, Rodnyansky sees a dark future for his former Russian colleagues. “I don’t believe [there is the possibility of] any Russian film market at the moment,” he said, mooting the prospect of a boom in state-backed blockbusters and patriotic films. “The Russian state will finance some movies and TV shows. But it’s far from the market that [existed] before, because I don’t…imagine that there are entrepreneurs willing and able to back the production of movies or TV shows.”
The impact, however, goes beyond the simple prospect of financing, producing and distributing future projects. “Many decent Russian people feel shame. It’s a very bad time for them. Even for people who never supported Putin, who never voted for him, who protested. These people feel the shame, because they are good people,” Rodnyansky said. “The fact that such a huge country has become an outcast in many ways, and isolated, and getting more and more isolated, it is a tragedy for Russia.”
The producer said it’s too soon to say what the future holds, speculating that a return to Russia could be possible “when the war is over, [and] when Putin is over.” “But right now, I don’t think it’s possible,” he added. “I do believe Russia should be punished in many ways. It’s deserved.”