In the wake of Warner Bros’ decision to pull out of Russia last year following the war in Ukraine, an unexpected Barbie wave has rippled across to the motherland, with packed viewings and pink fever.
Barbie becomes the latest Hollywood film to slip through sanctions and emerge in Russian cinemas. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last year saw the withdrawal numerous American media companies including Warner Bros, the studio behind Barbie. Despite there being no legal distribution network for Western films in Russia, numerous workarounds have been created to meet the demand of the Russian public, to fill a gaping hole in the appetite of the public for Hollywood films. The primary source of these bootleg movies is Kazakhstan, with the quality and resolution far below that of in a licensed western theatre. The Gorky Cinema in Tyumen even told its own audiences that “lovers of 4K quality and perfect sound should wait for the digital release in November.” Despite the subpar resolution, Barbie has smashed records by making an estimated $120 million dollars in its opening weekend in Russia, the biggest box office hit in Russia since 2019’s The Lion King.
Like many other sanctions, Russian cinemas have found loopholes in order to avoid breaking international copyright. The Lord Cinema in Moscow currently offers Barbie as a free pre-screening to Stop, a 2015 short film with a run time of 7 minutes, enabling them to sidestep the official sale of tickets for Barbie.
This craze became so widespread that local restaurant guides began to publish lists of the best places to have pink food in town.
Much like in the West, businesses have capitalised on the popularity of the movie with young audiences and have created promotions and events to jump on the Barbie bandwagon. In Moscow, restaurants created pink dishes to draw in customers. This craze became so widespread that local restaurant guides began to publish lists of the best places to have pink food in town. The Kuntsevo shopping centre in the capital even opened ‘House of Barbie’, a 250-square-foot sanctuary where the staff were dressed as Barbies and Kens, with visitors could take photos for just £4.25 an hour, alongside a plethora of other events.
Whilst the Russian public find themselves humming to the tune of ‘I’m just Ken’, the same cannot be said for the government. Deputy Culture Minister Andrei Malyshev recently stated, “We believe that Barbie and Oppenheimer do not meet the aims and objectives set out by the head of state, to preserve and strengthen traditional Russian spiritual and moral values.” Some have gone further in their condemnation, with Russian lawmaker Maria Butina telling state TV “What we see [in the Barbie movie]: gays, she-males, women who have taken over the world … Barbie, along with Mattel, must be removed, because they are ‘importing’ the LGBT theme to Russia.”
The Invasion of Ukraine saw a huge drive to create patriotic movies to help drive support for the war.
These voices are indicative of the cultural crusade of Vladimir Putin in Russia. The Invasion of Ukraine saw a huge drive to create patriotic movies to help drive support for the war. The government provides funding for nationalistic-themed movies and particularly loves the trifecta of “Sports, War and Space” according to film critic Zinaida Pronchencko.
But these new films have failed spectacularly at the box office and have been beaten at every turn by Barbie. Russia’s first feature-length film about the so called “special military operation”, The Witness, has been among these failures. The film depicts Ukraine as a neo-Nazi nation bent on torture and murdering their own populace. In the second half of August, it grossed less than 14 million roubles (£110,000) despite having a budget of 200 million roubles (£1.5m).
Unlike Barbie, cinema screenings for The Witness have been empty as it seems Russians prefer the pink summer flick as opposed to a grim reminder of the ongoing war. This whole escapade seems to further underline the importance that cinema serves as a haven for escapism, and how government overreach on culture can be overridden by the people.