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Chekhov's assault rifle: Z-mobilization can destroy Russian theater, but won't help capture Bakhmut

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“Theaters, with their knowingly liberal atmosphere, are vital to us,

because they meet the needs of a certain viewership segment and ensure that such people remain firmly under our control.”

Rainer Schlosser, head of theaters in the Third Reich

Artur Shuvalov (on the photo above), an actor at the Russian Drama Theater in Ulan-Ude, who slit his wrists on stage with a clerical knife, said in an interview: “They are trying to turn theater into a propaganda tool, a function that supports state policy, while actors are used as dummies. But theater should not be aimed at propaganda. Theater is a mirror that should show the problems of society.” A year into the war, these words may seem naïve. What might those “problems of society” be, when the country is ruled by a war criminal and is waging a war of aggression, unprecedented in its cruelty and cynicism?

The actor's action created a stir both within his theater and throughout the city, demonstrating that society is not a homogeneous mass of voiceless individuals encased in concrete. Shuvalov received support from his colleagues, but they were later forcibly removed from the theater by the police when they attempted to attend their own theater's premiere with the participation of Moscow artists. This ongoing conflict between the actors and the current pro-war art director began a year ago, when the former director, Sergei Levitsky, was ousted from the theater due to his outspoken anti-war views. Even then, the actors did not remain silent, demanding an explanation for the director's dismissal, especially since he had led the theater to be included in the prestigious Golden Mask long list and invited to numerous theater festivals. On the eve of May 9, Shuvalov took down the banners with the letters V and Z in front of the theater, citing a Moscow theater critic and Golden Mask expert's refusal to attend the premiere if militaristic symbols were present.

The actor who slit his wrists created a stir both within his theater and throughout the city

You have to hand it to the Moscow critic who, for understandable reasons, shall remain anonymous. However, it is evident that Moscow's impact on regional theaters is quite distinct. The Ministry of Culture issues not only directives regarding the specific adornment of theaters but also censorship lists, staffing decisions, and instructions to detach actors to agit-brigades that glorify the “special operation” in occupied territories (Shuvalov explicitly declined to participate in such activities, citing his monthly salary, which he claims is no more than 26,000 rubles ($320), although many individuals, burdened by poverty and unemployment, acquiesce).

The Theater magazine, which is now officially closed in Russia, chronicled the demise of the Russian theater on the anniversary of the war's commencement. Several prominent theater directors have resigned, while leading actors have either been dismissed or have voluntarily resigned. Many have sought refuge abroad, and productions by numerous playwrights and directors have been prohibited from being staged. Even if not banned, some have had their names removed from posters and programs. Some have even been labeled as “foreign agents,” while others have faced administrative and criminal charges. The list of individuals affected by these actions is extensive, totaling dozens of names.

What is being suggested as a replacement for all that has been banned and prohibited?

The proposed replacements primarily involve agit-brigade trips and individual theatrical actors traveling to Donetsk, Luhansk, and Mariupol, as well as the display of Z-decorations on building facades. Some of the “creative accomplishments” include the Donetsk Musical and Drama Theater's extensive tour across Russia with the play “I Know the Truth” [“Ya Znayu PraVdu” in Russian],” the establishment of partnership agreements with the Investigative Committee and the Ministry of Defense. Prominent actors such as Yevgeny Mironov, Polina Agureyeva, Vladimir Mashkov (who appears to have lost his sanity completely), Sergey Bezrukov, Irina Apeksimova, Dmitry Pevtsov, and the late actor and director Sergey Puskepalis (who was killed in a car accident while delivering “aid to Donbass”) serve as the leading figures of the Z-movement.

While the majority of the “events,” such as fundraisers and “agit-brigade tours,” may have a bureaucratic nature and lack transparency, there were only a few “creative achievements” showcased throughout the year, including the play from Donetsk (no independent reviews of the play were available, and there is no data on its audience success) and televised “goyda” shrieks of the former actor Okhlobystin on Red Square. However, it must be acknowledged that the mobilization of renowned theater personalities appears to be more successful compared to other sectors of the “culture and art” industry.

The mobilization of renowned theater personalities appears to be more successful compared to other sectors of the “culture and art” industry

Theaters are receiving an influx of funding, and the public is buying up tickets for any performance available, quite unlike empty movie theaters. However, the Ministry of Culture maintains strict control over personnel and repertory policies.

Although the number of theatergoers in the country is physically limited by the number of available seats, it appears that the political leadership is acutely aware of the theater's significance as the live action that takes place here and now has traditionally been the nerve of the capital, and urban life in general, since the time of the opera “Life for the Tsar!” This importance is felt in the spinal cord of the political leadership.

Whereas Lenin prioritized cinema and circus as the most important arts, Stalin placed great importance on theater. He was deeply involved in micromanaging the theater industry, attending plays, scrutinizing the repertoire, and influencing the fate of individual playwrights, theaters, and the entire chain. In fact, it appeared that Stalin was more interested in managing the performing arts and literature than the less exciting and less appreciated field of the economy, which did not benefit from Marxist theory or repression.

Whereas Lenin prioritized cinema and circus as the most important arts, Stalin placed great importance on theater

Even the elderly and deeply ill Leonid Brezhnev personally attended the Moscow Art Theater premiere of “Thus We Shall Win!” starring Kalyagin in 1981 (according to memoirs, when Kalyagin appeared on stage, Brezhnev asked Chernenko: “Is that Lenin? Should I greet him?” To which the latter, without turning his head, loudly cut him off: “Don't.”)

And this is not strictly domestic history. Nicholas Stargardt's book, “The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945”, recently translated into Russian, is about theater in the Third Reich:

Goebbels had always been prepared to spend huge sums on live performance in order to keep the theaters going. By 1942-43, he was allocating 45 million marks to the theaters - up nearly a hundredfold from a decade earlier. This sum, which the Gaus and the municipalities were meant to top up, amounted to a full quarter of Goebbels' entire budget. It was more than he spent on propaganda itself, and more than twice the amount spent on film - for where the film industry was profitable, the theater would have folded without subsidies. And while the regime called for theater to be opened up to the masses, it tolerated the enduring cultural grip of the middle classes, which they exercised through the tradition of renewable annual subscriptions for seats. The scale of resources allocated to theater shows just how seriously the Nazi regime took the notion of 'German culture' and satisfying the educated classes who embodied it. Most of the Reich's 300 theater companies operated all year round, performing two or three times every day.

Nothing saved Hitler and Goebbels from Allied bombs and Stalin's tanks; their actions led to their demise through poison and their comrades-in-arms being tried at Nuremberg. Similarly, it is unclear how expelling Levitsky from the theater in Ulan-Ude, Nazarov from the MHT, and Liya Akhedzhakova from Sovremennik would contribute to the “second world army” taking Bakhmut or even Tchaikovsky Street there.

Hitler and Goebbels' attention to theaters saved neither of them from Allied bombs and Stalin's tanks

During Stalin's reign, actors such as Vladimir Yakhontov feared being arrested and resorted to jumping out of windows. Others, like Georgy Zhzhenov, were sent to lengthy prison terms or exiled to Siberia. However, after Stalin's death and the subsequent thawing of the country, theaters such as Sovremennik and Theater on Taganka emerged, placing a renewed emphasis on the pursuit of creative (semi-)freedom, meaning, and even political activism.

Under Andropov, this led to a fresh wave of repression and the temporary exile of Yuri Lyubimov. However, even during perestroika, the emergence of amateur studios and theaters was not just a significant cultural but also a social phenomenon. Many stars and even new generation classics emerged from this movement.

Nowadays, theater stars who are compelled to work abroad are not dismissed, disregarded, or erased from memory. Anatoly Belykh, with his solo performance “I am here”, has performed 20 times in Israel and is currently on a tour across Europe. Alexander Filippenko had a sold-out performance of “How We Buried Joseph Vissarionovich” in Riga. Artur Smolyaninov is a rising star in the “Citizen Poet” project and has also performed in several European capitals. These are just a few examples, and if we were to consider directors like Krymov and Serebrennikov, we would need to dedicate a separate column.

Theater stars who are compelled to work abroad are not dismissed, disregarded, or erased from memory

In November, critic Alexei Kiselyov attempted to “count” the rapidly expanding Russian theater diaspora around the world: “Maxim Didenko, who is in Berlin, Timofey Kuliabin in Sofia, Semyon Aleksandrovsky in Tel Aviv, and Dmitry Krymov in the United States. Director Ilya Moshchitskiy stages plays in Yerevan, while producer Yuri Shekhvatov brings together Russian theatrical emigrants in Almaty. Vika Privalova, who specializes in cross-disciplinary projects, is based in Tbilisi, and Polina Struzhkova, an acclaimed theater director for teenagers, works in Tallinn.”

Currently, Sergey Levitsky, who was expelled from Ulan-Ude, has found acceptance in Kazakhstan, and he is currently working at the Theatre of Young Spectators in Almaty.

Actor Artur Shuvalov, like hundreds and thousands of actors and directors, stays home and continues his interview:

“The overwhelming support I received from the public left me astonished and grateful. To this day, people continue to reach out to me in solidarity, and I believe it's not just hundreds, but thousands of individuals. My phone never leaves my side, and I have to switch it off when I want to sleep because of the constant stream of messages and calls. Artists from other theaters and strangers from all over the country, and even some from abroad, write to me saying, 'We support you.'“

I would love to discuss the independent theaters in Russia who continue to work despite the challenges they face. They often move from one stage to another, rent venues covertly, and even perform in the streets and underpasses. Additionally, there are actors and directors in state theaters who do not behave in a subservient manner, even though they do not have the freedom of expression, similar to the Soviet era. However, such a discussion would require creating a kill list of those who have tried to suppress them, including Ms. Lyubimova, Roskomnadzor, and the theater patron Bastrykin. Unfortunately, I cannot do so.

* * *

The laws of thermodynamics apply to both art and human life, regardless of geographical borders, the delusions of officials, censorship and propaganda, or criminal cases. Throughout history, these challenges have arisen time and time again, from the prohibition of the Mysteries in medieval Europe to the complete ban on theater in the English Republic during the seventeenth century.

Even now almost no one remembers or knows the author of the play “Ya Znayu PraVdu”. Artur Shuvalov, at least in Buryatia, will be remembered for a long time.

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