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OPINION

A theater of war. How the Russian government is purging the theater community from “traitors”

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Since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian regime has “spit out” civil rights activists and members of the opposition, independent journalists, sociologists and political scientists, writers and poets, lawyers and human rights defenders, performers and directors. Not only Moscow is purging its theater circles: disloyal directors and theater managers are being removed all over the country. Russia's theater community is lying low, keeping their heads down, treading lightly, staying out of sight – in the hope that it might save them.

Putin's call for the “self-purification of the nation” in the early days of the war was received with enthusiasm, as the nation expressed its willingness to “self-purify” immediately and comprehensively.

Enjoying the trust of your leader is a nice feeling. So is having a clear goal and a simple task that needs no further explanations. It's also nice to hear that the Russian nation “will always be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and will simply spit them out like a gnat that accidentally flew into their mouths”.

After a standing ovation, “Putin's footsoldiers” began their sweep of the entrusted territories to clean up garbage.

They “spat out” civil rights activists and opposition members, independent journalists, sociologists, and political scientists, economists and historians, college professors and school teachers, novelists and poets, lawyers and human rights defenders, homosexuals, rappers and standup comedians, feminists and pacifists, performers and directors, screenwriters and producers, and content creators of all sorts.

Isn't it all nice and clean now? Faceless cleanliness humming in approval. Nothing but the wind blowing and a lone centaur roaming the steppe: the loyalist writer Prilepin’s head, the patriotic actor Pevtsov’s head, and his zealous colleague Mashkov's smoking butt. The scary mascot of state-approved Russian culture.

We have to give it to them: the special nation-purifying operation has been a success, completed on a tight timeline and without any objections from the surviving “elite” or professional associations.

All we heard were docile expressions of surprise: “Why him? What on earth has he done?” In an old Soviet joke, the slogan “Fight the Jews and the cyclists!” was met with a paradoxical reaction: “But why the cyclists?” The joke may be grim, but the reality is no fun at all.

The unfriendlies

The theater community sustained the heaviest blow when the Department of Culture beheaded three Moscow theaters at once with a single directive: the Gogol Center lost its artistic director Alexei Agranovich and theater manager Alexei Kabeshev, the School of Modern Drama lost Joseph Raihelgauz, and Sovremennik had to dismiss Viktor Ryzhakov. However, theater pogroms had started even earlier.

Mindaugas Karbauskis, the artistic director of the Mayakovsky Theater, who had headed the theater for a decade and had transformed it into one of Moscow’s most successful establishments, carefully preserving its history and traditions and masterfully blending European aloofness with blazing-hot Russian temperament, was quietly removed from his post. Why? Because of his origins, his Lithuanian accent, and loyalty to “alien” Western values. Karbauskis handed in his resignation a day after the invasion, on February 25.

The Department of Culture beheaded three Moscow theaters at once with a single directive

The day before, the Department of Culture strongly advised Moscow theaters against any public or online discussion of the “special operation” and requested that they convey the message to all their staff members. The Mayakovsky Theater meekly obeyed, and to keep it silent in the future, the officials gagged it with a young and promising director Yegor Peregudov. He may well be a nice guy, but he did not have a single nice word to say about his predecessor and did not even have the decency to call him.

Shortly after a loud scandal following a provocation by notorious pranksters Vovan and Lexus, when director Rimas Tuminas allegedly agreed to stage a production about Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, he had to step down from his leading post at the Vakhtangov Theater, which he'd occupied since 2007. His talent and leadership had propelled the theater to unprecedented heights rivaled only by the achievements of its founder, Evgeny Vakhtangov. Tuminas had transformed it into Russia’s best drama theater, the storefront, the facade of Russian dramatic arts. Notably, he had always been loyal to the regime, had refrained from seditious rhetoric or ambiguous metaphors, had shown nothing but respect for the powers that be, and had followed the lead of the manager, Kirill Krok – a loyalist to the core, Putin’s puppet, and the signatory of pro-government letters.

Despite such connections, Tuminas has always been a stranger. He once joined the theater as a stranger, met with hostility by its patriarchs, and has now left as a stranger too, with complete silence from the company that owes him worldwide recognition and unprecedented success. Not a single actor or staff member said a word in his favor. Meanwhile, the government spat in his back, taking away his awards, which he’d received from their hands in the Kremlin halls. Tuminas’ last Russian production came to be the master's last will of sorts, a prescient warning, a powerful pacifist manifesto. It is still on – a stage rendition of War and Peace.

Muscovites

The dismissal of Joseph Raihelgauz, the artistic director at the School of Modern Drama, was also met with a “what-on-earth-has-he-done”. Raihelgauz did not just head the School of Modern Drama; he had founded and built this theater in more ways than one, securing permission to use the building in Trubnaya Square, overseeing the renovation, miraculously saving the theater after a horrific fire by not letting city officials use the occasion to take away the unique historical building, and doing all he could for the theater to keep its home. And the theater did keep its home.

Meanwhile, Raihelgauz was always friends with the city administration, trying to stay in their good graces and inviting them to all first nights and soirées. Moscow's minister of culture, Alexander Kibovsky, even had a one-man show at his theater. All this time, Raihelgauz’ right-hand woman was Ekaterina Kretova – a prominent, or rather, a notorious figure in the theater community, well-known for her patriotic attitude. Like Krok balanced out Tuminas, Kretova provided a sort of smokescreen for her superior’s liberal zeal.

Kretova provided a sort of smokescreen for her superior’s liberal zeal

Raihelgauz attended every political talk show, using his charm and talent to enact the role of a “mainstream liberal” and a “whipping boy” – a popular archetype in television propaganda. However, the unleashed war exposed him as an enemy and a renegade: Odesa-born, he did not conceal his pro-Ukrainian sentiment and was close friends with the disgraced fugitive Anatoly Chubais, who was also the theater's patron. And just like that, he became a foe. He was replaced by Dmitry Astrakhan – once a promising director, who has nevertheless failed to do anything culturally meaningful in the last couple of decades.

In April, Denis Azarov, the artistic director of Roman Viktyuk's Theater, was fired for an anti-war statement. All of Azarov's projects have been canceled. Theater manager Alexander Smertin ordered to fire all “politically unreliable” staff.

Denis Azarov, the artistic director of Roman Viktyuk's Theater, was fired for an anti-war statement

Dmitry Krymov, one of Russia's most in-demand theater directors, a unique artist and drama professor, left for the US, where he had a production scheduled, at the beginning of the war and decided against returning to Russia. He is now staging productions in Lithuania and Latvia. In Riga, Krymov accepted the invitation of Alvis Hermanis, the artistic director of the New Riga Theater, to work on a performance starring Chulpan Khamatova, an actress who had also left Russia in the outrage over the war.

Viktor Ryzhakov, the artistic director of Sovremennik, managed to hold his position for a year and a half. All this time, he was the object of well-organized bullying by fake civil activist groups like the Veterans or the Officers of Russia. He was accused of desecrating the great victory for his project Conversations about the War (a website with audios of young actors talking about their understanding of the Great Patriotic War and the Soviet Union's victory, openly and sincerely, without pathos or show-off patriotism). He also allegedly insulted war veterans and spread “gay propaganda” with his production First Bread (staged by Polish director Benjamin Koc), and suggestions were made to strip its lead actress, award-winning Liya Akhedzhakova, from all her national awards and titles.

Meanwhile, the theater suffered from internal dissent: company members who’d inherited the former artistic director Galina Volchek’s patriotic sentiment (alas!) believed that Sergey Garmash was a more worthy successor for her and could do justice to the theater's traditions. Consequently, they were vehemently opposed to Viktor Ryzhakov’s plans of transforming the theater in line with its initial concept (sovremennik is the Russian for “contemporary”). Sergey Garmash is yet to return to Sovremennik from his home city of Kherson, where he has been tasked with “reviving Russian culture” on occupied land. We can’t rule out, however, that once he is done with Kherson, Sovremennik will be in for “cultural revival” as well – starting, no doubt, with the expulsion of Akhedzhakova and the like.

“I resign. You make me sick,” Meyerhold Center employees wrote to their new manager

Prior to Sovremennik, Viktor Ryzhakov founded and headed the Meyerhold Center (TSIM), where he put together a unique team of modern, free-thinking, bright, and unconventional creators. With Ryzhakov at the helm, TSIM was a truly contemporary theater: a multi-floor space for experimental performing arts, lectures, seminars, workshops, debuts, and festivals. After Ryzhakov left, his team remained at TSIM, led by the art director Elena Kovalskaya and director Dmitry Volkostrelov. On February 24, Kovalskaya publicly announced her resignation in protest over Russia's military aggression against Ukraine, and Volkostrelov published an anti-war declaration on the theater's website.

The reaction was instant. Volkostrelov was fired without any explanation; the Meyerhold Center was merged with Drama Arts School, with Olga Sokolova as its new manager. It was Sokolova whose leadership had once forced Dmitry Krymov to leave another theater, saying “Olga Eduardovna, you make me sick!” The sentiment was shared by many TSIM employees, who were abandoning the center in droves. “I resign. You make me sick,” they wrote to their new manager. Yet another hub of modern art was erased from the map of Moscow.

The liberal lair

In the new landscape, such a lair of liberalism as the Gogol Center never stood a chance.

Theater historians have drawn parallels between the crackdown on the Gogol Center and the destruction of Alexander Tairov's Chamber Theater in 1949 under the banners of combating formalism, cosmopolitanism, and ideological impotence. A year after his theater was closed down, Tairov died. The Chamber Theater, however, lived on as a legend: a theater that was way ahead of its time, that declared the freedom of artistic language, discovered a new style of acting and expression, and fused all possible art genres in its productions, from ancient tragedy to vaudeville, from opera to circus, from oratorios to pantomime. The Chamber Theater was a far cry from the aesthetics of social realism – and so is today's Gogol Center.

Its artistic director Kirill Serebrennikov drew inspiration from modern European theaters, transforming the Center into an open (literally: the theater welcomed visitors at any time, not only for performances), multi-genre, and multi-layered space. It was a center of modern arts that encouraged all forms of creative self-expression. Gogol Center residents turned art into an exciting game, always kept their doors open, held public discussions on the hottest topics, opened performances with lectures, and offered book presentations and first screenings of new films; musicians gave concerts in the lobby, the book shop sold modern literature and theater periodicals, and celebrities would leave their autographs on its walls.

The Gogol Center was a center of modern arts that encouraged all forms of creative self-expression

Within less than a decade, Serebrennikov alone launched around twenty productions. The overall repertoire included dozens of new performances – and each was a cultural highlight. The Center was a smashing success: not a single failed production, full houses every night. Getting a suspended sentence after a pointless, humiliating lawsuit (the notorious “theater case”), Serebrennikov realized his contract would be terminated. When he was replaced by Alexei Agranovich, his associate and colleague, it became clear that his appointment was temporary. The theater’s days were numbered. Back then, no one could anticipate the imminent national catastrophe, but the authorities had already made up their minds about the Gogol Center: revert it to what it had been. Just like workers took their hammers to the Chamber Theater sign in Tverskoy Boulevard in May 1949, the Gogol Center sign in Kazakova Street was dismantled in May 2022. We are in a time loop.

The newly-appointed artistic director of the Gogol Theater (with the new name intentionally stripped of the word “center”), Anton Yakovlev, may well be a nice guy or even an apt director, but...

Not only Moscow is purging its theater circles: disloyal directors and theater managers are being removed all over the country. Many choose to leave instead of waiting for the hammer to fall, and join the ranks of Russian emigrants all over the world: Russian directors, musicians, playwrights, theater critics, and actors are now in Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Turkey, Israel, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw... Meanwhile, at home, Russia's theater community is lying low, keeping their heads down, treading lightly, staying out of sight – in the hope that it might save them.

Not only Moscow is purging its theater circles: disloyal directors and theater managers are being removed all over the country

But they are in for some bad news: it won’t. There is no running and no place to hide. There is no pretending either, as the authorities have honed their friend-or-foe detectors over the years, know the “rotten intelligentsia” like the back of their hands, and can detect and destroy any of them. The long-standing tradition never went away: breaking people and extorting their loyalty through threats, blackmail, or bribes are skills the Russian government never lost – but rather polished to perfection. However, even the letter “Z” on the facade or your tee-shirt doesn’t cut it: nothing but unwavering faith and loyalty is good enough. A perfect role model is the actor and director Vladimir Mashkov, zealous to the extreme, saluting the war with tears in his eyes and all the passion he can muster. He even gives political education speeches at his theater and personally “re-educates” those in doubt. Interestingly, it is the students of celebrated Soviet actor and director Oleg Tabakov (he died in 2018 but had always been known for his sympathies for the ruling party), who are the most ardent henchmen of the dictatorship: Vladimir Mashkov, Evgeny Mironov, and Sergey Bezrukov. This succession is a scary sight to watch. And yet it is even scarier to observe their peers meekly awaiting their turn in silence.


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