What’s the most popular Russian movie right now, you ask? A Viking movie, of course. Millions of Russians have flocked to theatres to watch Viking, a violent story about how the ancient Russians became Christians.
Not a lot of people know that Scandinavian Vikings basically founded Russia. In the mid-9th century, Vikings began to trade along the waterways from the Eastern Baltic to the Black and Caspian Seas. A Swedish Viking named Rurik was elected ruler of Novgorod in about 860, and his successors expanded their territory to other important areas in what was to become Russia. Rurik’s sons and relatives would go on to rule their empire for 400 years, effectively creating the loose coalition of tribes that would later develop into Russia.
Viking tells the story of the Viking prince Vladimir of Novgorod – to the Vikings known as Valdemar – a descendant of Rurik. Vladimir (Danila Kozlovsky) is forced into exile in Norway to escape his treacherous half-brother Yaropolk (Aleksandr Ustyugov), who has murdered his other brother Oleg (Kirill Pletnyov) and conquered the Viking territory in the Kiev and Novgorod areas. The old warrior Sveneld (Maksim Sukhanov) convinces Vladimir to assemble a Viking army, hoping to reconquer land from Yaropolk and ultimately face the mighty Byzantine forces.
The core theme of the movie is the introduction of the Christian Orthodox Church in Russia, labelled by president Vladimir Putin as “the most important event in the country’s history”.
Viking is not just another Russian movie; it is one of the most expensive movies ever produced in the country, and on track to become one of the all-time best selling movies in the local market, after premiering on December 29th, 2016.
However, it is not all success and glory. Viking has received a lot of criticism, not surprisingly for its extreme violence. In blood-drenched scenes Vladimir kills his brother, rapes his soon-to-be wife Ragnhild “Rogneda” Ragnvaldsdatter (Aleksandra Bortich), murders his in-laws and slaughter countless other people. Other scenes include human sacrifice and graphic sex. Just another day at the Viking office, you might say. However, the movie has also been criticized for its portrayal of the Church and Russian history.
Russia’s president today, another Vladimir, i.e. Putin, is a big fan of prince Vladimir of Novgorod. In November, he installed a statue of the ancient ruler. -He laid the moral foundations that our lives are based on today, Putin said, while historians accuse him and the Church for rewriting Russian history. Actually, the movie itself is produced by the Putin controlled TV channel Kanal 1, so it belongs to the narrative that Putin currently promotes.
Journalists, historians, politicians and the Russian Church do not agree that the movie is a true depiction of historical events. Prince Vladimir was not as brutal, dirty and horny as in the movie, some say, while the politicial opposition think of the film as cultural propaganda that “paint a sick and false picture of Russia”. The film allegedly shows many historical incorrect events, and is “an insult to Russian culture”. Fingers are also pointed at one of the most famous young Russian actresses, who is covered in blood and has sex with the prince, who is an official Saint in Russia. The film has a 12 year age limit in theatres. How much sex and violence can 12 year old children take in, parents have asked. A child psychologist, Jana Golosjapova, suggests the film might scar children for life. -Our ancestors are portrayed as wild, savage people who don’t know what beauty and honour is, she says. Another commentator said: -As a viewer you have a simple choice. Either be filled with disgust and run home, or find masochistic pleasure in the bloodsoaked axes of this puppet theatre.
In spite of this, the movie is hugely popular, perhaps not only due to its spectacular story, but perhaps thanks to the central idea that Russians essentially are Scandinavians. This goes against the new offical line from the Kremlin, but the movie is defended by author and politicial researcher Denis Dragonskij, who suggests that most Russians do not like the idea of false history linking their heritage to Asia. -The movie captures the essence of our national aspirations. We don’t want to be from the desert, from the taiga or from a mongol village. We want to be from Scandinavia. We’re not Asians, and never will be. We’re Vikings from Scandinavia, he claims.
The $20 million movie has been 7 years in production and is praised for its production design, sets, ships and props. The creators built a whole Viking city to film in, a location which now is a theme park (which is something similar to what happened with the sets of the Swedish Arn movies, with Joakim Nätterqvist in the lead. Nätterqvist also has a prominent role in Viking). The Pecheneg language, an extinct Turkic language once spoken in Eastern Europe (in what today is most of Ukraine) in the 7th – 12th centuries, was re-invented for the movie.
The movie will continue to be a success, the producers hope, as it has now been sold to more than 60 countries, including Germany, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, the countries of the former Yugoslavia, China, South Korea, South-East Asia and Latin America. Konstantin Ernst, one of the film’s producers and Kanal 1 chief (and producer of the popular fantasy films Night Watch and Day Watch), said that the sales “have acknowledged not only the film’s cinematographic merits but have also demonstrated a major interest in Russian history”. The Russian blockbuster screened (and is still screening) in 2600 theaters plus a few more in the Baltic states, and has as of mid January 2017 earned more than 23 million dollars in ticket sales.
Viking is directed and co-written by Andrey Kravchuk, and is his 5th feature movie.
According to Radio P4 Stockholm, the movie will eventually be released as a TV-series, featuring hours of footage that did not make it into the cinematic release. US, UK and Scandinavian dates of release have yet to be announced.
Behind the scenes featurettes, in Russian: