The Jordan Center stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who oppose the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.
Above: A character poster for Empire V featuring the rapper Oxxxymiron. It was pegged to the film’s original, unrealized release date of 31 March 2022. Source
Alexander McConnell is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Michigan specializing in Russian/Soviet cultural and intellectual history.
Like its vampiric subjects, the beleaguered film adaptation of Victor Pelevin’s novel Empire V can perhaps best be described as neither fully dead nor fully alive. A year after the postponement of its premiere due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the film remains trapped in a kind of cultural netherworld, seemingly shelved forever with no definitive word on its status after rumors of a fall 2022 theatrical debut proved illusory. Only a cryptic holiday message posted on the film’s official Facebook page in December, which promised fans that Empire V would finally come out in the new year, gave any indication of positive momentum towards a public release.
That promise, it turns out, has now been fulfilled—though not in the way the film’s director Viktor Ginzburg would have hoped. On 27 March 2023, reports emerged that a pirated copy of Empire V had begun to appear on Russian torrent trackers. The file format of the leaked version, WEB-DL, suggests a copy intended for online streaming, leading some commenters to speculate about the leak’s potential origins somewhere in the film festival submission process.
Whatever its source, the online leak is only the latest setback for a project that has been plagued by budgetary shortfalls, production delays, and political interference. According to Ginzburg, the pirated copy (which has a runtime of 1 hour and 45 minutes) is an older, working edit of Empire V that lacks many scenes subsequently included in the final version. “I am very disappointed that viewers will see an unfinished work,” the director remarked to the website Kinopoisk. “I strongly advise viewers to wait—one way or another, the final version of the film will reach them.”
Ginzburg’s pleas appear to have done little to discourage domestic cinema aficionados from seeking out his movie online. In a recent list compiled by the cybersecurity firm Group-IB, Empire V was the most pirated Russian-made film of March 2023, placing sixth overall behind such Hollywood blockbusters as the latest Ant-Man and Magic Mike sequels. Nor has the film’s failure to reach theaters or its purportedly truncated status dissuaded critics from evaluating it as a finished product. In fact, several reviews had already appeared last spring, when Empire V was first shown to the press shortly before the postponement of its planned premiere on 31 March 2022.
Given the presumed impetus behind the film’s shelving—namely, the outspoken antiwar stance of cast member rapper Oxxxymiron (aka Miron Fyodorov), one might expect reviews to break down along similar political lines. Indeed, two early reviewers who assessed the film in positive terms, Viktor Matizen and Stanislav Rostotskii, were signatories to a collective letter of cinema professionals against the invasion of Ukraine that circulated in March 2022. Matizen’s review singled out Fyodorov for his “highly expressive” star turn as the villainous vampire Mitra, while Rostotskii endorsed the film mainly as an “interesting take on genre fiction” rather than for any “sharp social commentary.”
Other reviewers, however, have been less than complimentary in their assessments of the film. This category includes both critics who attended press screenings in early 2022 and those whose reviews appeared only following the online leak. (It is unclear whether the leaked version is identical to the one shown to critics last year.) In a particularly scathing review for Meduza, published a few days after the leak, the noted film critic and journalist Anton Dolin dismissed Ginzburg’s work as “boring and outdated.” Empire V, he continued, “remains frustratingly faithful to its source material in some respects but is outrageously inaccurate in others.” The film’s technical and philosophical “obsolescence,” he concludes, “is almost parodic,” yielding erotic scenes “awkward even by Russian standards” and clipped dream sequences “drawn on computer programs of some antediluvian generation.”
Dolin, who fled Russia under threat in March 2022 and has been named a “foreign agent” by the Kremlin, can hardly be described as an enforcer of the Putin regime’s cultural line. If Ginzburg is to be believed, however, the critic’s antipathy to Empire V may have a more personal dimension. In a surreal turn of events worthy of Pelevin himself, an extraordinary message written in the first-person (evidently by Ginzburg) appeared on the film’s official Facebook page on 3 April:
A certain AD—a literary critic by profession and a cinema critic by necessity—is writing reviews of an UNFINISHED film that’s been pirated and released online. It’s like a petty thief or something. Not very professional. He must have forgotten that he’s abroad, where copyright laws are respected.
This is personal. I met him only once, when he tried to get into a pre-release screening of Generation P [Ginzburg’s 2011 adaptation of another Pelevin novel—AM] for Kommersant journalists without an invitation. He begged, groveled, and promised to write a good review for Vedomosti. He wasn’t allowed in. Not by me, anyway. Andrei Vasil’ev, the editor-in-chief of Kommersant, told him to fuck off [послал его НХ]. I even felt sorry for him at the time. And he’s been taking revenge on me ever since, starting with his review of Generation P.
Ginzburg’s frustration with the plight of his ill-fated production is surely shared by many in the Russian film industry, which has shown surprising resilience in the midst of wartime censorship and Western sanctions yet still faces considerable economic headwinds going forward. Despite the smash success of Cheburashka, which in January became the highest-grossing movie in the history of Russian film distribution, the outlook for cinema houses remains bleak. “We need ten of these Cheburashkas every year,” quipped Aleksei Voronkov, head of the Russian Association of Theater Owners, in a recent interview.
Under normal circumstances, a big-budget action flick based on a reliable domestic pop culture brand like Pelevin would be just what the doctor ordered for the country’s ailing theater chains. Of course, these are far from normal circumstances. Whether or not audiences have the stomach for more serious fare than Soviet-era nostalgia, the Kremlin appears determined to use cinema as a weapon in its war for hearts and minds. As a set of presidential directives issued to the Ministry of Culture in February makes clear, Russian theaters are expected to prioritize “the screening of domestic documentary films dedicated to the special military operation and the battle against neo-Nazi and neo-fascist ideology.”
What happens next with Empire V is likely out of Ginzburg’s hands. The director has stated his intention to take the film on the festival circuit this summer, with the hope of reviving its chances at an eventual theatrical release. For fans who have waited more than a decade to see this “brutal satire against the vampire empire,” however, the online leak may well represent the final nail in the proverbial coffin.