As the general director of Mosfilm, Russia's largest movie studio, Shakhnazarov has watched these developments with a mix of resignation and fiscal pragmatism. The son of a high-ranking functionary in the Communist Party, he first gained renown in the mid-1980s for directing Jazzman, a wryly iconoclastic comedy about a student who gets booted from the communist youth league for his love of jazz in the 1920s. The film helped make Shakhnazarov an icon of the perestroika era. But in the tumult that followed the Soviet collapse, many of Russia's movie studios were shuttered or sold off, including one across the street from Mosfilm. A garish high-rise of luxury apartments now stands in that spot, and its giant red banner -- "For rent!" -- serves as a constant reminder to Shakhnazarov of what could have become of his studio without the state's support.
As for the price he paid in creative independence, Shakhnazarov sees it as par for the course in Russia. "Our country has always been ruled from the top down," he told me in his office at Mosfilm, where he was holed up like the Wizard of Oz toward the end of the winter holidays, the shades drawn, chain-smoking Montecristo cigarillos. "It is our mentality, our historical fate," he said. And the FSB's money, he points out, is no less green than Disney's. "We're not in a position to turn down sponsors."
On the wall just above Shakhnazarov's head, flanked by posters of his recent films, was a framed photograph of him giving Putin a tour of a movie set in 2005. The two men, both in black overcoats, are in the middle of an animated conversation, the director pointing at the chest of the president, who smiles with amusement. It was around that time, Shakhnazarov said, that Putin really started to realize the value of cinema, rather than just television news, as a tool of propaganda.
Entertainment certainly made an impression on Putin as a boy, sparking his obsession with becoming a spy. In his official biography, the only creative work that Putin names as having an impact on his early life was Shield and Sword, a spy movie that inspired him to seek work in the KGB while still in high school. But during the first two terms of his presidency, Shakhnazarov argues, Putin was more concerned with bringing Russia's television networks, as well as the oligarchs who owned them, into line. "Putin has since undergone an evolution on that front," the director told me, glancing up at the photograph. "Now he has changed. Now he has a sense that film is important, not only as an industry, but as an instrument of ideology for the state."
That change has pushed Shakhnazarov into the spotlight of national politics. During Putin's 2012 campaign to return to the Kremlin for a third term as president, and amid unprecedented protests against him by thousands of previously apolitical members of the Moscow middle class, the director acted as one of his "trusted faces," along with a couple of hundred other celebrities from the worlds of sports, culture, and the sciences, who spent a few months lauding the national leader. Although Shakhnazarov didn't go so far as to publicly criticize the democracy protesters who crammed Moscow's streets in the 2011-2012 winter -- "they are part of my audience," he told me -- after Putin's reinauguration in May, Shakhnazarov said on Russia's leading talk show that the president was the only man capable of leading Russia. A few months later, at the seventh annual FSB Awards, Shakhnazarov was seated in the front row alongside Alexander Bortnikov, the director of the spy agency, whom he affectionately calls Bortka.
The prize for best picture that night went to White Tiger, Shakhnazarov's feature film about an unhinged Soviet tank driver hunting a phantom Nazi panzer through the battlefields of World War II. The protagonist, a sort of tank-whisperer who worships a mechanized god whose engine makes lightning appear in the sky, loses his memory doing battle with the ghost-panzer and then dedicates his life to destroying it. (Think Moby Dick with heavy artillery.) In the beginning of the film, a Soviet counterintelligence officer asks him if he wouldn't rather be cured of amnesia and return to his family. The soldier answers, "I remember that I'm Russian. I remember I'm a tank driver. What more do I need?"
This kind of robo-patriotism is one of the values White Tiger extols -- one clearly endorsed by the FSB -- but Shakhnazarov, who co-wrote and directed the film, suspects Bortka and Co. were more flattered by his depiction of the counterintelligence officer, Maj. Alexei Fedotov. Partial to liquor and French cigarettes, Fedotov is assigned to oversee the hunt for the ghost-panzer, and his stoic devotion to the loony Soviet tank driver makes him the film's most likable hero. The actor who plays Fedotov, Vitaly Kishchenko, also won an FSB Award for best actor, making White Tiger the only feature film to receive the FSB's blessing for the year.
But Shakhnazarov insists he wasn't following orders in making a movie the FSB found so favorable. "We never set out to portray the secret police in a positive way," he told me. After accepting his award, he got a chance to ask Bortnikov what kinds of films the FSB chief would like to see on the big screen. "Bortka didn't give me any explicit instructions," Shakhnazarov said. "He just said to keep up the good work."