The Star Wars
in Russia

From the USSR to the present

A long time ago, in a country far far away, which no longer exists on the political map of the world... Star Wars was not released in movie theaters.

"It's difficult to imagine what would have happened to the Soviet viewer, had the saga's first film been released in Soviet theaters along with theaters elsewhere in the world in 1977," reflects movie critic Sergei Lunev. "At most the socialist system allowed Indian films and on rare occasions would permit absolutely insipid American comedies criticizing capitalism."

The wide distribution of Star Wars in the USSR took place only 13 years after the release of the first episode, although it had become popular much earlier.

1980s : diplomatic fans

In February 1988 the Days of U.S. Cinema in the USSR film festival took place with the participation of some of America's leading stars including Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. People who attended it remember that it was a sensational event and that ticket scalpers hiked up prices by 20-30 times. It was then that a few select viewers officially got to see The Empire Strikes Back.

The only ones who were allowed to watch foreign films at the end of the 1970s and the early 1980s were Soviet diplomats, high government officials and actors that worked abroad. They were the ones who became the "conductors" of Western culture, bringing back contraband videotapes with films for themselves and their friends.

Therefore at the dachas of high communist apparatchiks people were able to watch Star Wars almost immediately after the premiere. According to an individual close to the film industry, the Soviet government secretly hired dubbing professionals to translate the Star Wars videotapes brought from abroad. The translations were recorded onto audiotapes and were played simultaneously with the video track. In the 1990s dubbing became one of the main pirate sectors in the exploding multimedia black market.
The Soviet press, which gave the film the title War of the Stars, named the first film of Lucas' classic trilogy "horrors on a truly cosmic scale," and dubbed the main characters "the round-faced princess," "the village youth," and "the old knight of the Round Table."

Certain pirates given special permission
In 1989 the Zebra youth television program in Leningrad began bypassing copyright laws and showing five-minute Star Wars clips. A pirated videotape with one-voice dubbing had been found somewhere in the editorial office and, as the program's conductor Pavel Gladkov says, the saga was aired at the TV station at its own initiative, while knowing the risks.

"Once we received a notice from the U.S. Consulate General about the legitimacy of the clips. But since the program was very popular, the consulate did us a favor and let us continue showing the film in pieces."

Pavel Gladkov
TV presenter

1990s: the first broad release
Star Wars was released on a mass scale only in the summer of 1990 and became one of the first big premieres of Western cinema in the Soviet Union.

For the premiere in the USSR poster artists Yuri Bokser and Alexander Chantsev created four official movie posters, which today are collector's items, while the leading women's magazine at the time, Rabotnitsa (Women Worker) published a homemade cover for the videotapes containing the entire trilogy.
Meanwhile, the saga's "secret" life continued: it triumphed throughout the USSR as pirated video copies with the same one-voice dubbing, gathering an army of fans.

A couple of years later the USSR fell apart and the first attempt to show Star Wars on TV was unsuccessful. The Ostankino TV Channel (today's Pervy Kanal) was forced to remove Episode IV: A New Hope, the saga's first installment, three hours before its airing because the copy they had bought turned out to be pirated.

Local fans strike back
The saga made great strides forward in 1999 together with the official release of the trilogy's first chronological installment, Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
The film concluded the XXI Moscow International Film Festival and its producer Rick McCallum was present at the event. In 1999 the film was the country's No. 1 blockbuster.

In the same year the Starcon Festival was organized for the first time in Russia and 11 years later it had become the most popular science fiction festival in the country, gathering not only Star Wars fans but also those of other invented universes.

2000s: the official classics
The classic trilogy was first released in Russia in licensed video format in 2000. Anthony Daniels, the voice behind the C-3PO robot, was present at the ceremony. "He was greeted with a pompous reception and a press conference," says Lunev. "It was as if Harrison Ford himself had come to Moscow."
"All my ideas of Russia were taken from the James Bond movies: All Russians are spies, all men wear beards and drink vodka. Only the latter proved to be true."
Anthony Daniels
The saga had become so familiar to the Russian viewer that in 2001 Kukly, the most popular satirical show in the country in which puppets impersonated politicians, chose a plot from the classic Star Wars trilogy for one of its episodes. In the episode the recently elected president Vladimir Putin portrays Luke Skywalker and the former president Boris Yeltsin portrays Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi.
In the following years the main national television channels fought for the right to show the various Star Wars episodes, as well as the supplemental documentary films and parodies such as A Long Time Ago: The Story of Star Wars and Spaceballs.

The last two Star Wars episodes came out in Russia without delay, practically at the same time as the world premieres in 2002 and 2005. Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith were both top five blockbusters in the country in the year of their release.
An exhibition devoted to the release of the seventh episode of Star Wars in Moscow's Tsvetnoi mall.

"Star" love
Meanwhile, fans had reached unprecedented numbers mostly thanks to social networks. For example, the unofficial Star Wars group consists of 120,000 members on the VKontakte social network.
Obviously fans do not limit their interactivity to the internet. Large cities hold meetings, thematic games, exercises and championships dedicated to artistic fencing with laser swords, also known as "saber fighting." The fans are exceptionally attracted to cosplay, which involves fans dressing up in the costumes of their favorite characters.

Kirill Tikhomirov, one of the founders of the group in VKontakte, found love and had a family thanks to his fondness of the saga. He and his wife Alena married five years ago after meeting through a fan community.

They both work in Russia at the American 501st Legion, a Star Wars fan club that unites series buffs all over the world to help children with cancer. In the Russian division Kirill is responsible for public relations while Alena heads the organization.

Together with volunteers they sew costumes and hold charity events for Moscow and St. Petersburg hospitals.
Just like fans all over the world, Russians are also holding their breath waiting for the saga's new episode. However, their relationship with Disney, the holder of the rights to the new films, varies (Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012). Tikhomirov believes that gradually they will reconcile themselves with this fact. "Only one thing is important: after a long period the story that seemed to have ended now continues," he says. "This means that there will be a new trend in Star Wars culture, in books, in games and comic books."

Text by Nadezhda Ustinova, edited by Joe Crescente
Image credits: Ilia Pitalev / RIA Novosti,, press photos, personal archives
Design and layout by Ekaterina Chipurenko

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