A Movie Valentine for Putin

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Kissing the first lady may be off the record in this movie, but what about smooching a young boy's tummy?

"Live, learn and work as the Great Vladimir Lenin ordained," was a basic brainwashing slogan of the Soviet era. "Live, love and have sex as the Great Vladimir Putin does," is the parallel message of an off-the-wall Russian movie that hits DVD shops on St. Valentine Day. A Kiss — Off the Record is a big, sloppy, and cloying smooch to the Russian President — and to Russians enthralled by his uplifting image of the motherland. "It's a film on family values — and we want families to watch it at home together," the film's producer Anatoli Voropayev told the audience at the single Moscow preview earlier this week. He said he was forgoing a cinema release and going straight to DVD "because we want the film to reach people across the country, where movie theaters do not exists, not just in the cities."

The movie tells the story of Tatyana, an ordinary Aeroflot air hostess, who, between flights from her native Kaliningrad to Leningrad, falls in love with Alexander Alexandrovich Platov, an ordinary non-descript "lawyer" who soon gets a posting in Germany.

Those familiar with biographies of Lyudmila and Vladimir Putin will easily identify the air hostess and her husband — and as easily will guess the rest of the plot: an inexorable climb to the pinnacle of the Russian state. It does not deviate from their real bios except for some dramatic "improvements" for the sake of political correctness. In real life, unlike in the film, Lyudmila Putina rarely appears in public alongside her husband, nor does she join him on his numerous foreign and domestic trips.

There may be more than mere St. Valentine's romance (or even crass commercial motives) at play in the new film's appearance right now. A Kiss — Off the Record was made in 2003, but shelved, Voropayev explains, to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest after he became a civil servant later that year. He has since served as vice-governor in two Russian regions. Voropayev resigned in December, so he says he thought it quite proper to release this movie at last. That may be true. But Voropayev may well figure that it can't hurt to send Russians a timely reminder of who will really remain in charge of the country after next month, when Putin's hand-picked heir, Dmitri Medvedev, becomes the figurehead President. After all, as Platov says to Tatyana: "Should I just sell sunflower seeds when the highest job in this country presents itself?" It is of course no secret that Platov's prototype, who says he'll take up the post of Prime Minister, isn't going to trade in sunflower seeds. A Valentine's Day love story sends that message as good as any.

The movie ends on this heady note: President Platov is late to a major press conference on a foreign visit, so the First Lady faces the press instead. Tatyana handles the test with such intelligence, grace and charm that she reaps a standing ovation from the audience, which had before been biased against all things Russian. President Platov joins the applause in the wings, then, failing to contain his feelings, steps up and kisses his darling First Lady under dozens of whizzing cameras, telling the press offhandedly: "This kiss is off the record."

Honestly, I can't see many families in the heartland wiping away tears as the movie runs out, unless it's for the 149 rubles ($6) they will have wasted on the DVD. After all, that's enough to buy a kilo of barely edible sausage.

During the screening, young opposition protesters tried to break the monotony by shouting "Putin is an executioner!" and throwing packs of anti-Putin flyers from the balcony, but security quickly rounded them up. The audience greeted the film, and the protest, with an indifference typical of today's cynical and worn-out Moscow. Only once during the screening did the audience react with real laughter and applause: when the fictional First Lady told the press that "Freedom of speech is sacred to us." I couldn't help laughing either. Love indeed conquers all. Happy St. Valentine's Day!