Russian theatre is fighting for the right to independence and diversity — and showing how to do that beyond political protest. RU

Mikhail Kaluzhsky
5 July 2017

28 June: solidarity action in support of Russian theatre at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin. I’ve figured out why Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate is so popular among young tourists. Your friend crouches down in front and then you jump in the air — your silhouette then appears with the four bronze horses driven by Eirene, the goddess of peace, immortalised on your Instagram or Facebook.

I know this because two days ago I spent three hours in front of the gate. There were a dozen or so of us, all Russian-born Berliners, and we were determined to present our placards, with slogans in English, to the tourists’ cameras. The placards called for support for creative freedom in Russia and demanded a fair investigation into the case of Alexei Malobrodsky.

A Midsummer Night’s nightmare

Alexei Malobrodsky, a well known theatre manager and former general producer of Studio Seven, an independent not-for-profit theatre, is currently being held in a pre-trial remand centre. The studio’s chief accountant Nina Maslyaeva is also on remand and Yuri Itin, its former head, is under house arrest. At the end of May, Russian Investigative Committee officers also searched the home of director Kirill Serebrennikov, the studio’s founder, and questioned several other former members of staff before relieving some of them of their foreign passports.

The former studio employees are being accused of embezzling 200 million roubles out of the 216 million (£2.8m) they received from the Ministry of Culture for their Platform project. The accusation seems absurd — between 2011 and 2014, the project was rolled out at such a rate that it would have been impossible to stage all the shows and hold all the round table discussions for a mere 16 million roubles (£208,000).

Russia’s theatre sector has somehow managed to be much freer and more diverse than its media and cinema. In the current situation, with Russia’s conservative turn and daily restrictions on freedom of speech, independent artistic expression is inevitably seen as political

Even more absurd was the statement made by the public prosecutor, who claimed that the studio’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream never took place and the money designated for it disappeared into people’s pockets. Apparently, reviews weren’t enough to prove that it had been staged. Serebrennikov’s production opened, was nominated for a Golden Mask award in 2016, went on tour and closed just a few days ago. But Russia’s performing arts and the Investigative Committee exist in parallel universes. After the public prosecutor refused to admit the reviews as sufficient evidence, Malobrodsky was arrested and remanded in custody.

I don’t know Alexei Malobrodsky personally. But I know that his reputation in the arts world is spotless. I also know how Russia’s theatre economy works. Like any other Russian business enterprise (with the exception of the corporations close to the Kremlin), its activities are subject to dozens of regulations and the ever-changing rules of the game. State owned theatres (i.e. practically every theatre in Russia) are, in addition, required to comply with the demands of superior bodies, account for their activity and expenditure, fulfil their “state commission” and follow the “road map”. This economic and legal straightjacket would impede any business enterprise. For a creative industry it is doubly disastrous.

The result of all this is what director Boris Pavlovich wrote about on his Facebook page a few days ago: “Russia’s legal and economic structures leave no opportunity for entrepreneurs, including cultural entrepreneurs, to be completely ‘snow white’ and ‘transparent’ — simply because of the mutually exclusive regulations and lose-lose situations they encounter at every step. Absolutely every executive producer has to take decisions without knowing the complete picture, and then tailor their expenditure to the real needs of the production process. This is in no way a matter of squandering or, even less, with misappropriation. Simply, individual people sacrifice themselves to fill the gaps in our cultural politics and economics, which are the enemies of real art.” 23 May: Kirill Serebrennikov is taken in for questioning. Source: Ruptly/Youtube.

And “real art” is just as important here as “the needs of the production process”. Russia’s theatre sector has somehow managed to be much freer and more diverse than its media and cinema. In the current situation, with Russia’s conservative turn and daily restrictions on freedom of speech, independent artistic expression is inevitably seen as political.

The Platform project was a free space to speak a new language. But it would be naïve to see the Studio Seven case as an isolated incident. It is part of a trend that includes Teatr Doc’s eviction from its premises in 2015; the rows over the Taganka Theatre’s “Anniversary Year Group”, the ban on a production of Tannhäuser at Novosibirsk’s opera theatre over a disagreement between its director and the theatre management, attempts to derail shows at the Moscow Arts Theatre and Sakharov Centre, attacks on the Gogol Centre and the “Golden Mask” award ceremony and attempts to merge the Theatre History and Criticism and Theatre Management and Production faculties of the Russian University of Theatre Arts (GITIS). The theatre is a dangerous place for those afraid of diversity and discussion.

Getting on camera

The action at the Brandenburg Gate was conceived and organised by choreographer Sonya Levin, a Muscovite who now lives and works in Berlin.

At midday on 28 June we took our homemade placards to the biggest tourist site in the city. There weren’t many of us, and many people who would have liked to join us weren’t able to: “who organises stuff like this in the middle of a working day?” But it was important for us to hold our little Berlin rally before the start of a big “Solidarity of Theatres and People” action in Russia, designed to support the accused in the Studio Seven case. If we’d synchronised it, it would have been too late for Berlin.

Our placards were on the photos taken by the tourists recording their visit to the Brandenburg Gate. (It naturally reminded us of an old Soviet joke: “There is freedom of speech in the USSR. Anyone can stand in Red Square and shout ‘Reagan is an idiot!’”) It’s easy to protest in Berlin about something happening in Russia. Much easier than doing it in Russia itself.

Sonya Levin had asked for permission to hold an action on the previous Friday. By law, the police have to give approval to a rally within three days — and calendar days, not working days. Sonya deliberately chose the Brandenburg gate, rather than the Russian Embassy a few hundred metres away, because there would more people around. We’d be more visible. There would be no point in standing in front of the Embassy’s monstrous building on Unter den Linden: it was much more important to tell as many different people as possible what we were doing, and why: our action was about solidarity, not protest.

The momentum of resistance in the Russian theatrical community is the best example of the fact that not everyone is ready to resign themselves to injustice — or play their role in someone’s else play

Over our three hours at the Brandenburg Gate, we were approached by dozens of very different people asking: “What’s happening here?” How do you answer a question like that? We told them that the theatre was Russia’s free-est space, that the government mistakes creative courage for political threat; that the public prosecutor’s demands are absurd and their actions selective and too harsh.

Our placards graced photos by people from the USA, Germany, Sri Lanka, China, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel — and others whom we didn’t ask for their country. For those three hours we weren’t just people holding placards, but a natural part of the urban landscape: heaven only knows how many times our call for solidarity with Russian theatre and the hashtag #freemalobrodsky was recorded on people’s cameras and phones.

Opponents of NATO and Ukraine appeared and stood in front of our theatrical action (which was ignored by all the media people we had asked to come). After about two hours other demonstrators set up their pitch 20 metres or so away from us, and an energetic woman detached herself from the group to tell us that there was more freedom in Russia than in Germany. They then unfurled Russian and separatist Ukrainian flags and produced placards describing Ukraine as a fascist state and the war in Donbas as a piece of NATO aggression. The energetic woman cursed us as part of a global conspiracy and followers of the still controversial Second World War Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, and from time to time turned towards us with her megaphone to tell the assembled tourists that we were a fifth column for global imperialism.

Our rival campaigners — against NATO and "fascist" Ukraine. Did these anti NATO and Ukraine activists turn up to harass us by mere chance? It’s impossible to tell, but the coincidence of time and place was pretty amazing: the tourists coming to goggle at the Brandenburg Gate saw the DNR faction first, and us only afterwards.

Theatre of dignity

By the time we left the Brandenburg Gate, an “Act of Solidarity by Theatres and People”, calling for the release of Alexei Malobrodsky, was taking place all over Russia. Directors and theatre heads took the stage before curtain up to express their support for the accused in the Studio Seven case.

The theatres and people involved had three simple demands: to release Alexei Malobrodsky and Nina Maslyaeva on bail until their trial; to carry out an impartial investigation of their and their colleague Yuri Itin’s activities and to enlist the help of theatrical experts in investigating the case.

Tourists took selfies with our placards; Sonya Levin explained what the action was all about. The Act of Solidarity was unprecedented in its scale: theatres in 21 cities from Archangelsk to Khabarovsk took part and dozens of filmmakers produced videos. Nothing like this ever happened before: neither with the Tannhäuser affair, nor Teatr Doc, nor the Gogol Center (of which Malobrodsky is a former head), never.

What happened was more than just support for its own. The theatre world has shown a phenomenal desire to show the solidarity that is so lacking in Russian society as a whole. There is no guarantee that Russia’s rulers will take any notice of this protest, or that the investigation of Studio Seven will be impartial. The punitive machine lives by its own rules. A 2015 rally in Novosibirsk that attracted thousands in support of a production of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser was ignored by the authorities.

The momentum of resistance in the Russian theatrical community is the best example of the fact that not everyone is ready to resign themselves to injustice — or play their role in someone’s else play.


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