In 2018, the film was voted one of the worst by Russian critics: a comedic love story taking place against the triumphant backdrop of the bridge linking Russia to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Moscow seized from Ukraine four years earlier.
The movie, titled The Crimean Bridge. Made With Love!, was intended to help celebrate the Kremlin’s multibillion-dollar effort to cement the peninsula as part of Russia, international opprobrium and Western sanctions be damned.
It turns out scathing reviews weren’t the only thing garnered by director Tigran Keosayan.
An investigation by anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny charged that Keosayan, his wife, Margarita Simonyan, and their relatives made around 46 million rubles on the project. At the time of the film’s release in late 2018, that amounted to about $700,000.
Simonyan, who is credited with writing the screenplay, is the head of the state-funded TV channel RT, formerly known as Russia Today.
According to the investigation by Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation, the film’s budget was about 154 million rubles. Nearly two-thirds of that came from federal funds, according to an earlier report by the BBC.
The remaining amount came from businesses linked to Arkady Rotenberg, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and the owner of the construction conglomerate that built the bridge to Crimea, the investigation found.
The funds granted to Simonyan and her family were awarded without any competitive bidding process, Navalny’s foundation said. Keosayan earned 13.9 million rubles ($211,000) while Simonyan made 9.1 million rubles ($138,000), the investigation found.
Other relatives receiving salaries or payments for their work on the film include Keosayan’s brother, identified as the general producer; Keosayan’s nephew, identified as a unit production manager; and the nephew’s wife, identified as an executive producer for the film.
The BBC, in its initial investigation into the movie, published in November 2018, found that the Russian Culture Ministry’s Cinema Fund initially rejected the film’s application for financing. Ultimately, the funds were released only at the request of Aleksei Gromov, a long-time Putin subordinate who was then his first deputy chief of staff.
As head of RT, Simonyan earns millions of dollars annually. The channel is funded overwhelmingly, if not entirely, by the Russian government budget.
Neither Simonyan nor RT had any immediate response to the Navalny investigation.
The news site Open Media, which is funded by exiled oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, spoke to several actors who appeared in the film, but they declined to comment on the allegations in the investigation.
It was also a bomb where critics were concerned. Several Russian movie sites called it not only the worst film of 2018, but one of the worst of all time. On the Russian movie fan site Kinopoisk, 17,490 users voted, giving the flick a rating of 2.7 out of 10.
“Тhis is completely monstrous and unbearable to the point to never ever think about it again,” wrote film critic Yegor Belikov, in the art journal Afisha.
The investigation was the second this month by Navalny’s foundation looking into the finances of Simonyan, a long-time journalist with state media, and her family.
On March 10, the foundation alleged that Simonyan and Keosayan had improperly received more than 700 million rubles for intermediary services between advertisers and NTV, a major Russian TV channel that is owned by the natural gas monopoly, Gazprom.
Simonyan denied that she or her husband had done anything illegal.
The bridge to Crimea, which spans 17 kilometers (11 miles) across the Kerch Strait, was completed in 2018 at a cost of $3.7 billion, and is key to the Kremlin’s efforts to incorporate the peninsula into the Russian economy. There are no other land links between Russia and Crimea, which Putin claims is sacred to his nation.
Russia seized control of Crimea in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests.
Most governments reject Moscow’s claim that Crimea is part of Russia and continue to consider it a region of Ukraine.
Rotenberg’s construction company, Stroigazmontazh, won the contract despite not having any experience in constructing bridges.