Is a movie on DVD a good Valentine's Day gift? In Russia, one movie most certainly is.
The movie, "A Kiss – Not for the Press" is a romantic fiction tracing the career of a politician from rank-and-file KGB agent to president. But this film does not take viewers behind closed doors to get a glimpse of Kremlin intrigues or intricacies of world politics — it look at what goes on in the leader's private quarters.
At home, the leader is a tender, loving husband and father.
And he also happens to be Vladimir Putin, a president whose private life is shrouded in secrecy. Putin's family life is off limits to the press.
Not that anyone will explicitly admit that Putin was the blueprint for the movie's hero. The film's producers and director are careful not to give anyone a hint that this dreamy B-movie is based on Putin's and his wife's true life story.
"I simply made a movie about love," director Olga Zhulina tells ABC News about her film debut. "It would have been odd for me to tell the actors to personify specific people." In spite of her coy denial, the main hero clearly resembles Putin. The film wife and Russian first lady share a name, Ludmila. Events depicted in the film closely parallel the Putin family's real-life story.
Don't Ask, Don't Tell
If the veil of fiction is so thin, why not openly admit that this film is about Mr. Putin's private life? Call it Russian political correctness, or a certain adage that goes back to Soviet days: why talk about it if everyone knows anyway?
The film will be distributed on DVD only and its release was reserved for St. Valentine's Day, a holiday new to Russians but one they embraced with enthusiasm. Evgeny Chukhlomin, director of the distribution company DVD Land, told ABC News, "What better day for such a film than St. Valentine's? This film is just what is needed at this time – it is a movie without lies, without vulgarity and violence. It's about family values and meant for family viewing. We want to reach every home – that's why the DVD is priced at only 149 rubles ($6)."
Russians regularly see their President on television portrayed as a sporty he-man flying a fighter plane or challenging an opponent at judo. Kremlin propagandists know how to make the revered leader look impressive. But seldom do Russians get any glimpse of their president's private life.
Russia's first lady is rarely seen at her husband's side, and the Putins' two daughters, Maria and Ekaterina, are protected from the media so effectively that almost nothing is known about them. The new release is a keenly awaited chance to get to know the Putins better.
The Spy Who Loved Me
"What is he like in life and in the family? What is in his soul? Will he have room left in his heart for love?" asks the film's publicity brochure.
Viewers will follow the protagonist's St. Petersburg career — identical to that of Putin — when as a young KGB officer he falls in love and marries Ludmila, an airline hostess. They will perhaps shed a tear when he lovingly attends to his wife after she was badly hurt in a car crash, or when he valiantly dashes into flames to carry his daughters to safety when fire breaks out at their home.
Then they will be taken along to East Germany where the hero does heroic things for his country while in service for the KGB. This trip takes viewers all the way to the presidency, which the protagonist, it must be noted, accepts reluctantly, but does so for the good of the nation. And yes, along the way there is even time for a bedroom scene.
According to Andrei Kolesnikov, a veteran Kremlin correspondent for the Kommersant daily, viewers are shown an idealized picture that has little connection to true life. Kolesnikov told the French news agency AFP he thought the film was "Pretty hopeless from an artistic point of view. As a historic portrait it's useless. It's got nothing to do with reality and it's very naive."
There is little doubt that Russian authorities must have given their go-ahead to allow the film's distribution; otherwise no one would dare possibly anger the Kremlin. There is even some suspicion that the Kremlin's image-makers may have had a hand in the production. After all, the film's main producer was once a deputy governor of two Russian regions – very much a Kremlin insider.
Just One of Many Films
The movie serves the propaganda cause well – it shows the president as a warm human being, a man with a heart and hugely devoted to his wife and family. Images like that may do wonders to dispel Putin's icy public façade and perhaps win over the few Russians (13 percent according to latest poll) who remain unconvinced of their president's virtues.
Officially, the Kremlin has distanced itself from the project so it is not accused of upholding a Putin personality cult. By giving no endorsement the Kremlin and its leader also appear to be modest and serious with no time for frivolity. Even a Kremlin press official who spoke with ABC News asked to remain anonymous, "There are many films distributed in Russia – both Western and Russian. It's impossible to see all and this one is just one of the many. No, I don't think the president found time to see it."
"There are so many biographical films shot in America so why not here?" commented one of the film's producers, Oleg Fomin, when he spoke with ABC News. "There is nothing better than real life. I think that the Russian public is now ready for such a movie."
Obviously someone thought that before today Russian viewers were not yet ready to peek into their leader's personal life, however fictitiously it may have been presented. The movie was completed five years ago and kept under wraps. Russians speculate that the Kremlin preferred to play it safe and delayed its release until today, only weeks before Putin leaves office.
On March 2, Russians go to the polls to elect a new president. But Putin has made the hard choice for them and suggested a candidate he would like to replace him. With the following Putin enjoys, Russians are certain to heed his recommendation.
But at only 55, President Putin will not retire from politics. After his successor's term is over, he has the constitutional right to run for office again. In the meantime he is likely to become the prime minister. There is still every reason to maintain his persona and it looks like the Kremlin's image makers felt time was ripe to expose Putin's more affectionate guise and show him as the caring family man.
Without, of course, ever hinting that the fictitious characters depicted in the film have anything to do with the Putin family.