The biggest cultural effect of glasnost took place a quarter-century ago today: the release of a James Bond film in Russia. For decades, the adventures of Ian Fleming's ace spy were banned by the Kremlin during the Soviet regime. Although Bond was well-known in Redland thanks to the bootleg videotapes of the films –something even Polish-born actress Izabella Scorupco pointed out during interviews– it wasn't before January 19, 1996, that the sons of Mother Russia were able to enjoy 007 on the big screen when GOLDENEYE had its general release in the largest country in the world.
There is no need to rewatch GOLDENEYE frequently to see how much the geopolitical changes that took place after the fall of the USSR in the globe and (in Russia itself) are an integral part of the plot. In fact, the story has 007 visiting Soviet Russia during a mission in the pre-credits sequence and then the modern, democratic Russia in the present day to track the shadowy Janus. For the first time in a Bond movie, it is specified that nine years have passed since what we saw in the prologue and the main title sequence bears an obvious and dramatic reference to the end of the Soviet Union, as statues of Stalin and Lenin are torn apart by scantily-clad ladies with sledgehammers.
GOLDENEYE was, incidentally, shot on location in Russia, although none of the actors went there. A few members of the second unit went to St Petersburg and things didn't go as smoothly as planned when the script called for James Bond to drive an armoured T54 tank through the streets of the city once known as Leningrad, destroying buildings and monuments in an attempt to rescue Natalya Simonova from the clutches of General Ourumov.
Using this vehicle on location was potentially dangerous as its 42-ton weight could have damaged the city's main sewers. The areas where the action took place were surrounded by important buildings such as embassies and the Pushkin Museum, and, apart from that, traffic had to be halted and negotiations had to be held in Russian with many authorities, beyond the police or the government. Finally, production designer Peter Lamont faithfully recreated most of the city's streets in the backlot of Leavesden Studios in England, allowing the tank to do all the required stunts and saving over one million dollars of the film's budget, according to documentation published in Taschen's book The James Bond Archives. But that was not the only inconvenience the filmmakers had in Russia: author Garth Pearce claims in the Boxtree book The Making of GoldenEye that members of the art department were almost deported when the wife of Mayor Anatoli Sobchak alerted the militia that some people were damaging what she thought were ancient balustrades surrounding the Moika canal. The misunderstanding was clarified by art director Andrew Ackland-Snow proved that the balustrades were only verbatim replicas of the original made with timber.
The movie quickly became a smashing box-office hit in the United States just days after its release, and the Russian premiere for GOLDENEYE took place two months after the film's opening in the United States, on January 17th, 1996, at the Central House of Cinema (Центральный Дом кинематографистов) located at the Vasil'yevskaya street in Moscow. The theatre was decorated with Bond iconography, like irises that reminisced the Gunbarrel sequence and the titles of the previous 16 movies in each step of the main stairs leading to the screening room. Mike Mackonsfield, Vice-president of UIP (the film's international distribution company), pointed out that the release of a blockbuster like a Bond film would be good to attract people to theatres in Russia: "The only picture that really succeeds is a picture that is made for an audience. It's no good making movies for a small minority, yes there are some exceptions but in the main, if you want a successful picture it's got to be something which appeals to a wide audience. And with its mixture of humour, car-chases, daring stunts and beautiful women, GOLDENEYE certainly appeals to a wide audience."
The reactions to 007's first formal introduction to the Russian movie market didn't leave politics aside. Matt Taibbi opens his article on The Moscow Times pointing out that the spy genre has been fighting to survive "since the instant Boris Yeltsin stood on that tank in 1991". This is an obvious reference to the ill-fated coup against Mikhail Gorbachov that took place in August that year and led to the end of the Soviet Union, a historical event briefly referenced in the film when Judi Dench's M shows Bond a digital dossier of General Ourumov. The columnist continues observing how many changes there had been in this film in comparison to the others: "Bond suffers the humiliation of meeting a Russian gangster who wears a handsomer suit than his own, an unthinkable scenario in the Cold War days". He also remarks that the fact that the secret agent now uses a German car makes Pierce Brosnan "much less conspicuously English than previous Bonds", and the film nods to political-correctness when the secret agent visits a Third-World locale like Cuba but does not meet a single native in the country "to avoid the subtle racial condescension of the old movies".
In GOLDENEYE, the villain is not Russia but a renegade 00 agent who steals a satellite weapon from the Russians, which are indirectly Bond's ally, something Taibbi sees as "a fact Bond can never seem to reconcile himself to". A critique is made at 007's apparent killing of innocent Russian soldiers and policemen during the tank chase, although director Martin Campbell used many artistic resorts to establish that whenever the secret agent ran over a police patrol with his heavy vehicle, all of their occupants miraculously managed to escape alive. On the film's audio commentary, Campbell stresses repeatedly that the censors were worried about the depiction of innocents dying in the hands of the hero and not showing these people surviving Bond's trail of destruction would have caused a rating higher than the required PG-13. Despite some criticism here and there, however, the Taibbi concludes that GOLDENEYE is "a fun movie with great action scenes and that "the new Bond is certainly worth developing."
On January 20th, one day after the film's general Russian release, The Moscow Times publishes another article titled "From Russia With Scorn of Past Idols", where an anonymous author puts the focus on how the Indian Communist Party felt offended with the vain use of their sacred iconography throughout the movie, particularly in Daniel Kleinman's main titles. Although the author sees this as "blasphemous", he points out that he still doesn't understand their anger at the destruction of Soviet statues by sexy girls since "the real statues of Communism's heroes have undergone arguably a less elegant fate". When interviewed by The GoldenEye Dossier in 2013, Kleinman himself clarified that he wasn't making moral judgements of any ideology but playfully illustrating factual events: "Statues really were torn down, and although it wasn't literally girls in lingerie who caused icons to fall and the Soviet State to break up, in an analogous way perhaps it was, the Soviet people wanted what the west had, goods and glamour"
This unnamed columnist, however, thinks the anger of the Indian Communists goes beyond the main titles, and that they felt upset with the fact that GOLDENEYE depicts modern Russia in a way where the old Soviet superpower is disrespected: "The KGB, formally the omnipresent and venerable competition, does not even figure. Its only vestige is a former opposite number of Bond's who is now the seedy boss of a second-rate mafia gang. In this Russia, the government barely exists, the mafia rules with impunity, and there is a general sense of chaos in the streets. This superpower still has its dangerous toys but it is out of control". For him, the movie sums up how Russia is seen by the West and this affects heavily to die-hard Communists who also have to bear how their ideology is laughed at.
Russia's political situation creeps into this analysis as the columnist thinks that this visual "anti-Communism" of sorts depicted in the movie might influence Boris Yeltsin's aggressive presidential campaign for the June 1996 elections after the Communist Party's triumph in the December 1995 legislative ballots: "Perhaps he saw the movie too", the article concludes.
Despite the objections of some Soviet nostalgics, GOLDENEYE became the top-grossing film in Russia in 1996 and turned James Bond into a cultural icon for a new generation of Russians just like it did everywhere in the world, where 007 wasn't banned but almost forgotten or unknown to the younger moviegoers. On an article written for the Summer 1997 issue of the Ian Fleming Foundation's Goldeneye Magazine (issue 5, vol. 1), Professor Nicolas Berchinko noted that the popular and financial success of the movie in Russia is not surprising, since it "portrays the absurd and dangerous world that now exists in the former Soviet Union".
In retrospect, Pierce Brosnan's debut James Bond film can be seen as the closure of an old tradition in the series. Those were the times where our favourite secret agent battled olive-uniformed soldiers and the main antagonist was trying to politically involve Russia into his plan. The following Bond moviess were completely detached from these politics, only THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH in 1999 barely attempts to give us a few nods to these old days. GOLDENEYE was truly the last time this indirect confrontation with the Russians so typical in the Bond series could be appreciated somehow. At the same time, it opened a new era in Russia's culture, an era when watching James Bond on the big screen was a possible option.
Russian 35mm print capture by Robert Williams. Visit his site at the007dossier.com.