Byline: Richard Godwin
WHY do you keep asking me about Putin?" demands Andrei Konchalovsky. "We are supposed to be talking about theatre..."
He has a point. I have come to discuss the two Chekhov productions he is bringing to the West End next month, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters. It ought to be a fascinating event, a chance to experience both plays in the original Russian, directed by one of the country's most distinguished directors in the best Russian tradition. And don't let your inability to speak the language put you off: surtitles are provided and Konchalovsky maintains you don't need to follow every plot point anyway. "It is not the story I am interested in," he says, Russianly. "It is the flow of emotions and discoveries. If you are taken by your heart, I succeed."
Still, with Crimea only a shot away from catastrophe and mistrust of his country reaching Cold War levels, our conversation does keep returning to Russian politics. Konchalovsky is in a unique position to philosophise on both subjects.
At 76, he is full of energy, a funny and worldly conversationalist. His career has taken him from the heart of the Soviet Establishment to the mad excesses of Hollywood and back to his homeland. It was his father, Sergei Mikhalkov, a chair of the writers' union, who wrote the Soviet national anthem, later rewriting the lyrics for Putin when the Russian President reinstated it. Konchalovsky seems faintly embarrassed by this. "Yes, so what?" he says, a bit like an English actor shrugging off the fact he went to Eton.
Even if his upbringing was privileged by Soviet standards, Konchalovsky's achievements are impressive and eclectic. As a young man he wrote the script for Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece, Andrei Rublev ("A good film for the time," he says dismissively) and later directed the lyrical Asya's Happiness, as well as the definitive screen version of Uncle Vanya. His success took him to Hollywood in the Eighties, where he directed action movies Runaway Train and Tango & Cash, but the Hollywood money men proved far harder to please than the Soviet censors. "Ever since Star Wars all Hollywood films are aimed at children. No one makes films for parents any more," he complains. The Soviet system was easier to get around than the American studios. "Cervantes wrote Don Quixote at the time of the Spanish Inquisition, you know. I doubt he'd have managed it in Hollywood."
Konchalovsky's most recent international production was one of the most spectacular flops in film history, a 2010 3D adaptation of The Nutcracker that lost an estimated $80 million -- he maintains it was misunderstood by critics more familiar with the Tchaikovsky ballet than the original ETA Hoffmann tale that inspired it. His recent Russian films, however, received critical acclaim. In 2002 the excellent House of Fools won the Jury Prize in Venice, even if its sceptical depiction of life in the new Russian "Mafia state" drew condemnation in his homeland -- not least from Konchalovsky's own brother, the director Nikita Mikhalkov, an ardent Putin supporter with whom he has a rivalry not unlike the Hitchens brothers'.
Konchalovsky is an avid Westerniser, and when he speaks of Russia it is with a Chekhovian mixture of exasperation and amusement. "You have to understand that there are two nations," he says. "There is European Russia, what we call White Russia, which was created by Peter the Great. Everything that modern Russia can be proud of happened after his reforms: Tchaikovsky, Dostoevsky, Chekhov. What did we have beforehand? A few icon painters? That's it."
This, he believes, is the Russia that Western audiences find so enchanting. The Russia we fear, however, is "Black Russia", the "medieval mass" in Moscow and the provinces, where Putin enjoys his greatest support. "We haven't got rid of slavery. Nominally, yes, but in reality Russian people are bound by servitude -- they see themselves as subjects, not citizens. …