His name is Nikita


Nikita Mikhalkov, a famous Russian filmmaker and head of the Russian Cinematographers Union, comes across as, to rephrase Goethe, ‘the part of that power which still produceth ill, whilst ever scheming good.’ One of the most celebrated movie directors - he has received, among many other awards, the Oscar and the Grand Prix at Cannes – Mr Mikhalkov has managed to alienate people so much that everything he touches seems tainted with mire.

For some inexplicable reason, he keeps showing an explosive mixture of hubris and disdain towards ordinary people, yet kowtows to the powerful. There is something maddening in Mikhalkov’s knack of being the Kremlin’s best friend, irrespective of who holds office.

Nikita Mikhalkov, who is 65 and is formidably energetic, has a past so colourful that it might make even a sixties rock musician blush. In March 1999, during a master-class when a young man thrown an egg at him, the maestro kicked the attacker in the face while his guards were holding the man. He comes from an aristocratic family, yet the Mikhalkovs have never fallen out of favour. Sergey Mikhalkov, the filmmaker’s father, was the author of the Soviet, and later Russian, anthems: first, in 1944 glorifying Stalin, then in 1977 minus Stalin, and in 2000 minus the Communists.

When asked whether he has a flashing blue-light on his car - the privilege only top government officials are supposed to have - Mikhalkov guilelessly answered that he has and that ‘this has always been the case and will always be so.’ In 2008 he sent a letter to President Putin asking him to remain in power, though the Constitution does not allow one person to hold the office three times in a sequence. This week, Mikhalkov announced his political manifesto, called Enlightened Conservatism, where he said that ‘it is time to stop talking about political independence, individual freedom and the miracles of the market economy – they have never happened in Russia and bring little effect.’

It is not surprising, then, that Russians were infuriated last week when Vladimir Putin signed a decree setting up a levy on recordable media and delegated the collection and distribution of potentially $100 million to the Mikhalkov’s recently founded Russian Union of the Rightholders. According to the decree 1% will be charged on the price of any piece of equipment that can be used to record data like clean CDs, DVDs, players or even mobile phones.

The idea of the levy is not new. When someone buys a CD and makes a copy on his or her iPhone to listen to music outdoors, it is generally believed that the author must receive some compensation for this copy too. Yet there is a practical difficulty in collecting these payments. To compensate the copyright holders for such private usage legislators in many countries have introduced levies like the one that has been introduced in Russia. The money collected this way is distributed to the producers of content.

(There is, however, a problem with the decree in Russia. Here levies, not only taxes, must be introduced by federal law – a prime-minister’s signature is not good enough; the legality of the levy can be challenged in court.)

Though the very fact of a duty payable on something you may never use may seem unfair, the Russian levy is incredibly low compared to the ones in other countries where it can reach more than half of the retail price. In a country, where according to some reports up to 95% of the media is pirated, this is a very modest fee to pay.

So, why this uproar and calls for sending Mikhalkov small money transfers, so he would get drowned under the piles of coppers? Perhaps the madness is not about the levy, after all, but about the person who will be collecting the money and then dole it out as he wishes.


October 28, 2010