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The cinematic pink wave sweeping the world hits Russia. 'Barbie' lands in Moscow

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

There's a new front in Russia's battle with the West, and it's very pink. "Barbie," the hit summer film, has arrived in Russia more than a year after Hollywood studios left in protest over the Kremlin's invasion of Ukraine. NPR's Charles Maynes tells us more from Moscow.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: With the war in Ukraine still raging and Hollywood's boycott of Russia firmly in place, there's been a strange absence of Western pop culture in Russia of late. Blockbusters passed Russia by this summer, and Russians took notice.

ZHENYA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "It's sad because we used to go to all the big premieres," says Zhenya, a 26-year-old logistics manager outside a Moscow theater, which is why the arrival of "Barbie," a very American film, on Russian screens has struck many as weird, at least unexpected, and yet not soon enough for some.

ALISA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "We've been waiting from the very beginning, ever since the trailer came out," says Alisa, a 25-year-old lawyer who attended a recent Moscow showing and, like all women at this theater, declined to provide her last name to an American reporter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MAYNES: Exactly how "Barbie" arrived in Russia is a story about the challenges of enforcing Western sanctions and, more broadly, boxing in culture, technology, even fun, amid geopolitical rifts over Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "Barbie's" Russian premiere came in, of all places, a rooftop in Siberia.

VLADIMIR TIKHONENKO: I decided to screen "Barbie" because a lot of companies left country, and we didn't have these films in our movie theaters.

MAYNES: That's local promoter and current university student Vladimir Tikhonenko in the city of Tyumen. Tikhonenko says his copy of "Barbie" came bootlegged from a theater in neighboring Kazakhstan.

TIKHONENKO: I found a good-quality conversion of the film that was filmed in the movie theater by camera.

MAYNES: Tikhonenko says local young women in particular were eager to see director Greta Gerwig's feminist riff on Mattel's most famous doll, even as he, a self-professed film buff, held his nose.

TIKHONENKO: I respect this director, but as a cinema, as a film, as a piece of art, I not really like this film. I think that these movies are for girls.

MAYNES: "Barbie's" wider Russia release soon followed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Russian).

(LAUGHTER)

MAYNES: A higher-quality dubbed version - again, a stolen digital copy - hit Russian movie chains with a wink and a nod. Despite no license to show the film, theaters went all-in with Barbie banners, pink popcorn, even a life-size Barbie doll box for selfies.

POLINA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Polina, an usher at a Moscow theater says tickets have been going fast.

POLINA: (Through interpreter) We debated, can we show the film? Are we not allowed? We decided to do it in the end because everyone was waiting for the movie. And ever since, there's been a stampede.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARGOT ROBBIE AND RYAN GOSLING: (As Barbie and Ken, singing) I went to the doctor. I went to the mountains.

MAYNES: Making this even stranger, Russian audiences are watching "Barbie" over the apparent objections of the Russian government. Russia's Ministry of Culture in particular called for the film to be banned over its feminist and gay friendly messaging seen by officials and conservative lawmakers as anti-family and in potential violation of Russia's so-called anti-LGBT propaganda laws.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Culture Ministry officials, in turn, argue Russians should be enjoying Russian-made films, ones that reflect Russian values and tell stories that affect Russian lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SVIDETEL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Films like "Svidetel," or "Witness," a fictionalized version of the start of the war in Ukraine. It portrays Kyiv as a city overrun by modern-day fascists preparing an attack on the Russian homeland.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character, speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Russian).

MAYNES: It's, of course, Russian state propaganda. But that's not the problem, says conservative Russian film critic Ivan Didenko. What is? According to Didenko, the film is propaganda poorly served.

IVAN DIDENKO: (Through interpreter) This film should transmit to society our views on the current situation with Ukraine, and instead, it's a failure from beginning to end.

MAYNES: "Svidetel" bombed at the box office, and rightly so, says Didenko, who calls the film a movie in search of an idea, with a bad cast and a bad script typical of the times. Amid a battle with the West over Russian hearts and eyes, Didenko says Hollywood is firmly in the lead.

DIDENKO: (Through interpreter) We're utterly losing on this front. To my great regret, the West still has an ability to get their ideas and values across using cultural means, which was demonstrated once again in the film "Barbie."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIKTORIA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: At a recent packed showing in Moscow, Viktoria, a 27-year-old photographer, says she found "Barbie" lived up to the hype.

VIKTORIA: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "This film has a universal message," she says. "It's about problems with women in both our cultures, East and West." Behind us, teenage Russian boys played air hockey.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUCK BEING HIT)

MAYNES: Young women posed and took photos in a life-size pink Mattel box - liberated Russian Barbies in their not-so-Barbie world.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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