A Flashback to Traditions of the Soviet Era: Russians Break the Law to Watch “Barbie”

By: Annmarie Machado

During the Cold War, the USSR Government operated much like “Big Brother” in Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.” Western books, movies, and music were prohibited so as not to corrupt the Soviet citizens’ minds with the appeal of capitalist propaganda. But with strict rules oftentimes comes rebellion. Brave rebels opened “video salons,” in which people gathered in rooms for private viewings of pirated films they would not otherwise be allowed to watch.

On February 24, 2022, the Russo-Ukraine War that began in 2014 escalated dramatically when Russia invaded Ukraine in what has become the largest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. This invasion has left tens of thousands Ukrainians dead and even more displaced and forced to flee.

Today, the Russo-Ukraine War persists, and Russians are once again excluded from Western film screening privileges. Shortly after the invasion of Ukraine, a Hollywood boycott commenced, forbidding Russia from showing Hollywood movies. The “Barbie” movie, for example, has become one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, quite literally taking over the world and coaxing large audiences to the movie theaters for the first time since the pandemic. Russia’s Ministry of Culture, however, refuses to license “Barbie” screenings because it “[does] not meet the goals and objectives set by the head of state to preserve and strengthen traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.” Instead, the Ministry would only provide financial support for “approved themes,” such as the heroism of Russian soldiers in the Russo-Ukraine War or the degradation of Europe.

Even so, Russians have once again found a workaround. Movie theaters all over Russia are openly screening illegal copies of “Barbie” right under the government’s nose. There are no advertisements and no posters about it. While a normal passerby would not know “Barbie” is playing, someone with intel would know to buy tickets for another film or documentary because “Barbie” will be playing in its entirety during the previews slot.

This Hollywood boycott is reflective of a much broader attempt by the West to tighten sanctions on Russia in the hopes that it will halt the income facilitating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Leaders of the Group of 7 (“G7”) nations, including Joe Biden, released a joint statement regarding the situation in Ukraine. They “stand together against Russia’s illegal, unjustifiable, and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.” For this reason, Western governments have focused on limiting Russia’s revenue from energy exports. G7 met about a potential plan to sharply manipulate the price of oil. A leading oil producer and exporter, “Russia relies heavily on revenues from oil and natural gas, which in 2021 made up 45% of Russia’s federal budget.” Therefore, the aim of this oil price cap is to incentivize participation from countries buying Russian oil, notably India and China. In other words, it is a push and pull between reducing the funding behind Russia in this war while simultaneously limiting the suffering on global energy prices; a back-and-forth between “starving” Russia of goods, technology, and services while simultaneously qualifying the war’s impact on third world countries.

Movies and oil are not the only means to which G7 attempts to achieve these ends. G7 has also suggested they were going to ban imports of Russian gold and map Russia’s assets held by each member country in order to further isolate Russia financially and have Russia remain “immobilized until Russia pays for the damages it has cause to Ukraine.”

Before the war, about 70% of the Russian film market consisted of movies produced in the United States. Last year, revenues dropped by 44%. The Russian films with “approved themes” do not seem to generate as much revenue as the Western films did. One Russian film, however, accomplished this feat, generating 990 million rubles (the equivalent of roughly $10 million) in ticket sales. It did so by playing full-length illegally copied movies like “Barbie” during its previews. “Barbie” is billed as a pre-show service to make it seem as if no money is being generated by Hollywood films, when in reality, sources suggest that it “may have grossed up to $200m in total in Russia.” Similarly, “[o]il revenue fell 23% in the first half of this year but Russia still earned $425 million a day from oil sales, according to the Kyiv School of Economics.” In fact, notwithstanding G7’s attempts, Russian crude oil supplies have actually increased by 50%.

The sanctions have thus far seemingly fallen short. The Russian ruble has recovered from early losses, oil revenue is still high, and Western movies are still being watched. Despite G7’s attempts to isolate Russia from the West, it continues to find a workaround, suggesting not only that the Russo-Ukraine War is all-encompassing, but also that Russia is not afraid to paint outside the lines. However, G7 has clearly committed to holding Russia accountable for its attacks on Ukraine, stating that “there must be no impunity for war crimes and other atrocities.” Who will win this face-off remains to be seen.   

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