Russia Withdraws Its Olive Branch to Poland

Instead of giving a prestigious humanitarian award to a Polish film director as planned, the Kremlin has decided to skip the award this year altogether. An insider tells Michael Idov why Russian cinematic legend Nikita Mikhalkov is behind the reversal.

06.11.10 11:45 AM ET

Well, that didn't last long. The Russian government appears to have slammed the brakes on its unusually gracious plan to award Polish film director Andrzej Wajda the coveted State Prize. As recently as Thursday morning, Russian and international media outlets—including Russia Today, the Kremlin's official English-language bullhorn—were confirming that the 84-year-old director would get the prize, as first reported here. It was to be the bow on Moscow's "Sorry your government died on our soil while commemorating your countrymen we've killed" gift basket. The latest word, however, is that on its way to President Medvedev's final signature, the initiative fell apart. Suddenly left without a replacement candidate, the government now says it won't award the Humanitarian prize at all this year. What happened in these last few hours?

Mikhalkov couldn't have been too happy about the "Russophobe" Wajda getting the nod for a film about Soviets killing Poles.

We do know Wajda's people were informed of the pending award—and leaked it to the Polish press, too. To hear our sources tell it, however, it wasn't the premature media coverage (or even the vicious reactions to the news in the Russian blogosphere) that scotched Moscow's plan. One insider reports that an intense anti-Wajda campaign was mounted at the eleventh hour by forces associated with fiercely nationalist film director Nikita Mikhalkov. Mikhalkov, a Kremlin favorite who is semi-officially in charge of the Russian cinema's purse strings, is a particularly influential member of the body that awards the prize. He couldn't have been too happy about the "Russophobe" Wajda getting the nod for Katyn, a film about Soviets killing Poles—especially as Mikhalkov's own World War II epic, Burnt by the Sun 2, had just received a monstrous drubbing at Cannes and the domestic box office. He certainly makes a compelling suspect. But even without him, there are plenty of cabinets in the Kremlin where the idea could have found opposition. As a liberal gesture, it was big even in light of the recent similarly Gorbachevian moves by Medvedev. The only lesson derivable from this reversal appears to be that Moscow is sorry, but not that sorry. Of course, there are still a few hours left until June 12, which gives it plenty of room to flip-flop a few more times.

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York magazine and has covered Russia for The New Republic. His debut novel, Ground Up, has just been released.