“Winning the Space Race” & Victimising Russia. Kremlin propaganda in Romanian public cinemas

June 2024


Promoting open pro-Russian propaganda in Romania is traditionally difficult due to the general opposition of Romanians to Russian imperialist politics. Particularly, the war in Ukraine has accentuated this, stirring in the minds of the majority of Romanians concerns about a potential invasion.

The standard strategy of voices aligned with the Kremlin during the current war in Ukraine has been to avoid most discussions about Russia and instead construct a set of negative narratives on Ukraine.

In this report we will discuss another more discreet trend present in recent months, namely the appeal to artistic productions for propagandistic value.

We will discuss the attempt to screen in Romanian public cultural institutions two films which aim to glorify the Russian space program. These films are part of an official Russian propaganda line, which asserts that notwithstanding the situation in Ukraine, Russia’s achievements are so significant globally – that they cannot be ignored.

After RFE/RL revealed the arrangement, the Ministry of Culture, which oversees the institutions planning to screen the movies, decided to cancel all screenings.

We will also talk about 21 Rubies, a film with strong anti-West elements, which portrays Russia as a victim of conspiracies. The director, Ciprian Mega, is a Romanian Orthodox priest with a history of conflicts with the Romanian Orthodox Church that predates the war in Ukraine. The film itself stars Romanian, Moldovan, as well as other foreign actors, including a few with some notoriety in Romania.

The financing of the production is unclear, Mega citing funding from a Romanian company that develops Internet applications. This is particularly interesting since the film is broadcasted for free on YouTube[1].

Although the Kremlin is the natural beneficiary of the toxic discourse in 21 Rubies, there is no explicit evidence of external influence or funding. But, once released, the film was embraced by the Russian propaganda machine; the director and a main actor were invited to a film festival in Moscow, where, according to the director’s statements, they had meetings with several Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin.

In Romania, the film was promoted by Diana Șoșoacă and Luis Lazarus, recently elected MEPs of the pro-Russian SOS party. They were relatively discreet, probably to avoid any negative impact in the European elections held in June.

In contrast, Cozmin Gușă, a self-declared political strategist, former politician and currently influencer / journalist with pro-Putin far-right views, promoted the film on all available channels, including his Facebook account, Gold FM (an online radio), and Realitatea TV, a news station that hosts far-right talk shows and broadcasted the movie integrally, after its banning.

The film was also promoted by the Romanian national television (TVR), which made a behind-the-scenes documentary about it[2], in a similar model to how institutions subordinated to the Ministry of Culture took over Russian films about the space program. Unlike the Ministry of Culture, which eventually renounced broadcasting the films, the public television did not assume any necessary culpability.

The case studies above illustrate two trends. One is an effort by Russian propaganda to seek forms of expression that offer its agents and allies plausible deniability. The other is the complexity of the Kremlin’s web of allies.  While AUR and SOS, traditional supporters of Russian narratives, stood largely aside prioritising electoral interests, the Gușă-Realiatea group was available to step in.

Additionally, from both case studies, we see how people in institutions affiliated with the Romanian state are unable to separate artistic value from hostile propaganda.


Russian propaganda in public cinemas

In April 2024, the Romanian Minister of Culture announced that the National Film Archive was cancelling the screening in public theatres of two movies considered to be Russian soft propaganda. This decision came after Radio Free Europe Romania (Europa Liberă/RFL) published a piece[3] on the Russian Embassy’s plans to organise a series of Cosmonautics Day (April 12) celebration events in Bucharest, which included the screening of two films featuring Space Race-era Russian exceptionalism.  The piece included a contribution from GlobalFocus Center expert Andrei Tiut who connected the screening of the propaganda movies with the activity of Romanian-speaking, Sputnik-related Telegram channels),

One, The Challenge (2023)[4], was partially filmed on the International Space Station (ISS) just before the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine; the other, “The Age of Pioneers/The Time of the First” (2017)[5], is set during the Cold War and centres on the cosmonaut Alexei Leonov, the first human to perform a spacewalk.

When questioned on the decision to facilitate the screenings, the director of the National Film Archive (which operates under the Ministry of Culture and manages three public theatres in Bucharest) claimed that the call was made from a position of “neutrality” and to ensure “equal access to culture […] without discrimination based on current or future political contexts”. However, after the publication of RFE’s article, the government intervened to terminate the contracts signed with the Russian representatives in Bucharest.

While the Russian Embassy took over and held the screenings via its “Russian Club”[6], Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused Romanian authorities and the “biased media” of attempting to “cancel Russian culture”:

The National Film Archive of Romania, for political reasons, broke the lease agreements for cinema halls with our embassy in Bucharest, which, as part of an educational campaign, provided for the private screening of the Russian films <<The Time of the First>> and <<The Challenge>>. The decision was pushed through the biased press led by the local editorial office, the so-called <<Free Europe>> and the Romanian Culture Ministry. This is a typical manifestation of the so-called cancellation of Russian culture, which fits into the general picture of the actions of the West, that seeks to impose comprehensive censorship in the fight against dissent.[7]

On Telegram, discussions on the subject took off first in April 2022, practically two months after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The aim of this was to convince the public that Russia has, despite its international isolation, a globally recognized position. In this regard, a text published in 2022 by the Russian House, a Russian cultural institute in Bucharest, says that “On April 12, *the whole* (s.m.) world celebrates Aviation and Cosmonautics Day”.

The theme is reflected in propaganda videos that are being promoted in Romania on the Russian House Telegram channel (which also promotes movie screenings) and on at least two Telegram channels close to Sputnik, which are still available.

We have identified over 15 groups that talk (in Romanian) about the glorious exploits of Russian and Soviet cosmonauts. It is interesting how sometimes they also talk about American astronauts using the word cosmonaut, which suggests that the language from which it is translated is Russian.

“21 Rubies” – a caricature of Western influence in Romania

In November 2023, film director and Orthodox priest Ciprian Mega released the Romanian movie “21 Rubies”. The screenplay revolves around the politically-charged appointment of a young woman named Nina as Attorney General of Romania. While being in a public relationship with a director named Yuri, who is of Russian descent (played by French actor Anthony Delon[8]), Nina needs to navigate local politics and ultimately receive the approval of authorities in Washington and Brussels in order to assume this high-level position. As such, the story provides a conducive setting for the “Romania – a colony of Europe” narrative[9] which continues to have be promoted among Romanians[10].

The roles of US State Secretary Mandovanis (played by American actor Mickey Rourke) and representative of the European Commission Nicoletta Delalachiessa are essentially portrayed as caricatures of Western officials who peddle Western influence and are directly involved in national politics. European Commission’s Delalachiessa is shown interfering with a criminal case Nina is working on, by offering to facilitate Nina’s nomination as Attorney General in exchange of closing the investigation against a corruption network involving Romanian Orthodox[11] priests, paedophilia and European funds. Mandovanis, a cowboy hat wearing chainsmoker, is engaging in power schemes and showing particular interest in Nina’s connection to Russia.

“Deep-state” references are made throughout the film, with a focus on the overreaching involvement of intelligence services in criminal investigations, as well as the weaponisation of criminal investigations against political rivals.

The film was screened during the Moscow International Film Festival, where Ciprian Mega was pictured with Russian MFA spokesperson Maria Zakharova[12]

Some well known Romanian artists appear in the movie, including singer Loredana Groza, actress and influencer Dana Rogoz, comedian and radio host Daniel Buzdugan, as well as veteran Romanian actors such as Dorel Vișan and Carmen Tănase – all lending their decades-long popularity to the film. While some of the above-mentioned actors have already publicly expressed extremist, conspiracy-driven views, the more mainstream figures, including Rogoz and Groza, have chosen to promote the film without referencing its political orientation and messages.

The movie premiere in Romania was attended by a series of mainstream celebrities, including artists and TV hosts, and even the former president of Romania, Emil Constantinescu (1996-2000)[13].

Social media reach. On Facebook, over 400 posts were written about this topic, generating nearly 70,000 impressions, according to Crowdtangle data. Of these posts, around 60 were videos gathering ~600 000 views. This made the event more visible than the typical explicitly pro-Russian event or declaration.

The most visible was a promotional clip[14][15] by the Moldovan influencer, Gigi Tabarcea, alias Bora Gospodariu, who promoted the production as the first Romanian film with an international cast and mentioned the presence of actors from the Republic of Moldova; the video was targeted at a Moldovan Audience. Luis Lazarus, MEP of the pro-Russia SOS party, put up a video filmed when he attended the film’s premiere in Romania, alongside the SOS president, Diana Șoșoacă.

Pro-Russian former politician and influencer/journalist Cozmin Gușă also heavily[16][17][18] promoted the film on his own channels as well as on those of the online radio station Gold FM[19]. Additionally, Realitatea TV, a television news station close to Cozmin Gușă, broadcasted the film in its entirety. Several of these posts promoted the narrative that the movie was somehow censored. In his Facebook posts and Youtube videos Gușă spoke at large about the claimed official meetings Ciprian Mega had in Russia. Gușă claimed he counselled Mega throughout the visit.

Mainstream commentators and staring actresses Loredana Groza[20] and Dana Rogoz[21]  generally mentioned the film without referring to its political orientation.

On Youtube the film was made fully available bay Ciprian Mega[22] and at least another channel[23] and received more than 250 000 views. Mega was interviewed by former celebrity journalist Ion Cristoiu[24] and by Mihail Neamțu[25], influencer turned MEP candidate for the Russia-aligned AUR party. Interestingly Mihail Neamțu had historically anti-Kremlin views[26] but currently has more favourable views, speaking of conciliatory messages from Moscow to NATO[27] or claiming that giving Patriot missiles to Ukraine might be tantamount to a first step into recruiting Romanians for the Ukrainian army.

[1] https://youtu.be/_OjVS1CuD0w?si=p9o5syzqtVGQzRWj

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qmeKRGwqTVM

[3] https://romania.europalibera.org/a/filme-propaganda-rusa-bucuresti/32897305.html

[4] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt14812496/

[5] Also known as “Spacewalk” or “The Spacewalker” – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6673840/

[6] https://romania.mid.ru/ro/press-centre/arkhiv_novostey/despre_evenimentele_organizate_de_ambasad_cu_ocazia_zilei_cosmonauticii_i_a_zilei_interna_ionale_a_z/

[7] https://tass.com/politics/1777187

[8] The son of French actor Alain Delon, who was also a hugely popular figure in communist Romania

[9] This narrative focuses on the supposed subordinated role of Romania to Western powers, who pull the strings of national politicians and use the country’s resources, including its workforce

[10] https://pressone.ro/romania-colonia-europei-o-poveste-cu-propaganda-care-nu-se-mai-termina

[11] The Romanian Orthodox Church, with few notable exceptions, has largely positioned itself against Russia, and particularly against the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which prompted a series of public attacks from the Russian Orthodox Church, and particularly from Patriarch Kiril himself – https://romania.europalibera.org/a/biserica-ortodoxa-rusa-acuzatii-biserica-ortodoxa-romana/32860106.html.

[12] https://pressone.ro/_next/image?url=https%3A%2F%2Fimg.pressone.ro%2FjBSTwMbZKTSQXKcZWUC7xiOoI2E%3D%2F819x1024%2Fhttps%253A%252F%252Fimages.pressone.ro%252Fwp-content%252Fuploads%252F2024%252F04%252F25100435%252FCiprian-MWga-Zaharova-819×1024.jpeg&w=828&q=75

[13] https://www.facebook.com/share/p/WTC1RgGpfT1XZtTv/

[14] https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1034390181018430

[15] https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?ref=watch_permalink&v=3489340624666707

[16] https://www.facebook.com/100063303756078/posts/751897436930375

[17] https://www.facebook.com/100063303756078/posts/748918863894899

[18] https://www.facebook.com/100063303756078/posts/747324080721044

[19] https://www.facebook.com/100063623349419/posts/985203236943779

[20] https://www.facebook.com/100044551561266/posts/890597665768611

[21] https://www.facebook.com/100044623380432/posts/899249744905797

[22] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OjVS1CuD0w

[23] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqSpLtge09o

[24] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2SeDVo3cAE

[25] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ih1jUKM9H0

[26] https://www.capital.ro/exclusiv-mihail-neamtu-noi-dezvaluiri-despre-razboiul-din-ucraina-vladimir-putin-este-un-criminal-video.html

[27] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x-1HxsjEtLg