Meet the latest bogeymen in the Kremlin’s propaganda war against the West: cartoon Scottish wizards.
A major new animated feature, backed by the Russian government and church, is under production, putting Scotland firmly on the front line of what some see as a new cold war, a cultural one, David Leask writes for Sunday Herald.
The movie, Kids against the Sorcerers, pitches patriotic and devoutly Orthodox Christian Russian school children in to a terrifying battle with occultist Scots backed by – as surreal as this may sound – Nato navies.
Kids Against the Sorcerers: Poster for the new patriotic Russian cartoon
A trailer – out now – has sparked a social media furore in Russia as it shows teens in Bond-style mini helicopters whooshing over Skye’s Quiraing to tackle ”the enemy”.
Essentially, Kids Against Sorcerers is a war between a kind of patriotic junior KGB and a gang of Harry Potters who have turned evil. And the KGB kids win.
Its critics see it as crude Stalinist propaganda, with a sinister undercurrent of McCarthyite paranoia about an enemy within.
Its creator reckons it is “just a fairy tale” and dismisses the hugely negative response as the bile of “people who just sit at home and criticise because they have nothing better to do”.
Kids Against The Sorcerers Trailer:
Glasgow University’s Ammon Cheskin is one of those alarmed by an eight-minute clip, complete with jingoist commentary from a former KGB officer.
“I have never seen anything quite like this,” Dr Cheskin said. “This looks like a crass film. It talks about people who speaks like Russians and look like Russians but who, in their souls, are not Russian. This sounds Stalinist. The trailer has people taking about ‘internal enemies’.”
The story of Kids against the Sorcerers will be familiar to many Russians. That is because it is based on a controversial children’s novel, supposedly written by a Greek author nobody has ever been able to trace.
Anti-hero Leonard, as illustrated in the original book “Kids against the Sorcerers“.
In the book, some cadets from Moscow’s elite Suvorov military school are sent on a secret mission to a Scottish island called Loch Horrog to rescue some Russian children who are being brainwashed in to the occult by Harry Potter.
JK Rowling’s boy wizard may be as popular in Russia as anywhere else but for a certain kind of conservative and patriotic Russian Orthodox priest he represents a sinister threat to both faith and the motherland.
Russian poster for Hollywood’s Harry Potter
Potter himself has been dropped from the movie of the book. But, according to the trailer, the Scottish baddies still buzz about on broomsticks in a castle on Loch Horrog that is a very thinly disguised Hogwarts.
And in the film, as in the book, Russia’s young heroes stop off in Kosovo on their way to Scotland, allowing some flashback scenes of Nato baddies pushing a bearded Orthodox priest to the ground, his crucifix falling in to the Balkan dirt.
Nato appears again at the end of the film when a fleet of aircraft carriers, in support of the wizards, try to stop the young heroes escaping from Loch Horrog in their helicopters. Just as they are about to catch the heroes, the Nato ships are scared off by Russian submarines emerging from the deep.
Clip: Sinister aircraft carriers chase plucky Russians from Scotland
The real villain in Kids against the Sorcerers isn’t Nato. It is a Russian called called Leonard. This, say critics, is where the story gets sinister.
The voiceover on the trailer says: “The main antagonist, Leonard, took up occultism and betrayed his motherland. But this isn’t obvious to others. He didn’t take on the enemy’s form. From the outside, he looks the same, but he has changed on the inside. At first glance, he is Russian. But he hates Russia.”
Meet Leonard: the man who sounds Russian but has betrayed his motherland
The voiceover says the wizards are seeking revenge for their defeat 75 years ago. That is a direct reference to the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany. An apparently law-abiding foe like Leonard, it suggests, is more dangerous than the Nazis.
It adds: “You can’t tell him apart from others but he is cultivating hatred against Russia in its youth, so they grow up to be enemies of the motherland. Such children speak Russian, they even live here, but they are only at home in other countries. A hidden enemy is more dangerous than one you can see.”
The film is being made by a young Russian director called Nikolai Mazurov, pictured below.
When challenged by the Sunday Herald, Mr Mazurov struck a very different tone to the patriotic rhetoric of the trailer.
“In no way is this propaganda,” he said by telephone from his studio in Moscow. “It is just a fairy tale.
“The story is very simple. There is a mythical secret ancient organisation that has no link to anything real or to Scotland. It is make-believe. This organisation kidnapped children from children’s homes.
“Two youngsters from Russia went undercover in the organisation to rescue the kids. There is nothing political or propagandistic about this story.
“I understand that there is a complex political situation in the global arena and there are all sorts of different ideas about Russia. “But there is no point looking for things in this movie that just aren’t there. “And we have cut a lot of things out of the film that were in the book: there is no Harry Potter in the film.
“I have nothing against Scotland or the UK and I have visited regularly. The Scotland we show was inspired by photos I have taken but none of the scenes are supposed to represent real places. This isn’t about Scotland; it is just that the wizard organisation is based there.”
Mr Mazurov stressed that the project was not “commercial”. He said: “This is just an attempt to put the book on screen at the request of our customers.“
The customers Mr Mazurov is referring to are from charitable body associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, or at least a part of the church that frets about Harry Potter, the occult and capitalist greed.
Some of the criticism in Russia – where there is a lot of pride over the internationally recognised quality of its cartoons – has been firmly aimed at the crude animation of the trailer.
Loch Horrog, courtesy of Mr Mazurov’s production company Madmoon:
Mr Mazurov stressed videos on YouTube were rough drafts. He said: “We are not trying to be Pixar but this trailer does not represent the final product.”
But Mr Cheskin, like critics in Russia, said he believed poor production values and heavily ladled patriotism might make the Kids Against the Sorcerers a hard sell.
He said: “I don’t think many Russians will buy in to this, because it is quite so crass.
“Certainly comments on social media and Youtube have been far from complimentary.
“But it is interesting that the film is backed by an organisation within the Russian Orthodox Church, which is now really associated with the Kremlin.”
The Kremlin as seen in Kids Against the Sorcerers:
Dr Cheskin adds: “Some of the contributors to the trailer talk of something they called a ‘unbreakable Russian soul’, which is a notion that does have some resonance in Russia from those who feel their society is under assault from what they see as Western values.
“They have set it in Scotland because of Harry Potter – or Garry Potter as he is called in Russia – and all the associations with Hogwarts and the Highlands. “The film is not really about Scotland other than this country is seen as being somehow associated with the occult and sorcery thanks to JK Rowling.”
There is nothing new in Russian cinema about fresh-faced idealistic young patriots setting off to farflung places to tackle injustice.
The classic children’s The Elusive Avengers trilogy, the first of which hit the big screens in 1966, features similarly patriotic young people to the heroes of Kids against the Sorcerers battling enemies at home and abroad.
Only now Avengers are not fighting capitalists in the Russian civil war. They are fighting Harry Potter and Scottish occult in the new culture wars.
The closing scene of Elusive Avengers, one of the most iconic moments of Soviet cinema.
By David Leask, Chief Reporter of Herald Scotland