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Justice for Magnitsky, at least on stage?

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THE CEELBAS DEBATE// In 2009 Sergei Magnitsky died in police custody, causing a commotion inside Russia and abroad. A year later, theatre company Teatr.doc staged ‘One Hour Eighteen’, a theatrical trial of those involved in Magnitsky's last days.  Molly Flynn considers the significance of this striking new form of political activism

Molly Flynn
4 April 2013

After exposing the biggest tax fraud in Russian history, lawyer Sergei Magnitsky was arrested and held in pre-trial detention for over eleven months. He died after being denied proper medical care in November 2009, eight days before the Russian legal limit of one-year’s detention without a trial.

Seven months later, Moscow’s leading documentary theatre company, Teatr.doc, opened a production entitled One Hour Eighteen: the trial that wasn’t but should have been. The title for the play made reference to the seventy-eight minutes during which Magnitsky was beaten to death by an ‘emergency medical team’, a group that was supposedly attending to his critical medical condition behind the closed doors of a prison cell. 

Structured around statements, articles, and interviews with prison and medical staff directly involved in the final days before Magnitsky’s death, One Hour Eighteen is an exploration of two important and interdependent anxieties in contemporary Russia. These are the question of what constitutes justice and how the answer to this question affects the country’s fraught relationship with its past. 

Preliminary instructions

As the audience enters Teatr.doc’s small basement theatre in central Moscow, each member is given ‘instructions’. These include a summary of the events that preceded Magnitsky’s death, a note from director Mikhail Ugarov about why Teatr.doc created a performance on the subject, and a list of the ‘characters’ about to be represented. As the audience files in, the actors sit casually on stage — waiting, as is later revealed, to be called to the stand.

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Waiting to be called to the stand. Photo (cc) Anastasia Patlai

Once seated, the audience is directed by one of the actors to read the instructions, ‘Item One: Natalya Nikolaevna Magnitskaya, Mother’. The actress playing Magnitsky’s mother then steps to the front of the stage and begins her monologue. She describes the experience of going to see her son’s body in the morgue and wonders about the bruises she saw on his wrists and knuckles. She talks about her experiences in the courtroom where the judge, prosecutor, and investigator treated Magnitsky’s case as a farce (which in the most cynical sense of the word it certainly was).

'Magnitsky was arrested on fabricated charges by the very officials he had testified against. Despite the international outcry from human rights groups, no one has been held legally responsible for Magnitsky’s death'

Despite the international outcry from human rights groups, no one has yet been held legally responsible for Magnitsky’s death. Former President Dmitry Medvedev’s promised an investigation into the matter, but like much else in his reign this turned out to be little more than a show. In September 2011, two doctors from the Butyrka detention centre were dismissed for having failed to diagnose either diabetes or hepatitis, yet Magnitsky had neither illnesses. Two years after his death, Russia’s Interior Ministry officially declared that it was in fact Magnitsky himself who had stolen the $230 million from the government, and in April 2012 the charges against Larisa A. Litvinova, the former prison doctor who had been in charge of his treatment, were dropped. 

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Actor and Director Alexei Zhiriakov plays Judge Krivoruchko, who sanctioned the extension of Magnitsky’s pre-trial detention twice. Photo (cc) Anastasia Patlai

 

The burden of proof: Soviet and Russian trial practices

The courtroom setting of One Hour Eighteen resonates as a symbol for the pursuit of justice in two specific cultural contexts. First, the play depicts certain similarities between Magnitsky’s case and the most fraudulent judicial practices of the Soviet period. Court proceedings under Stalin were used as extravagant modes of state terrorism, and in the creation of their own makeshift show trial the creators of One Hour Eighteen compare Magnitsky’s treatment with those times. In another sense, the use of a staged trial as a vehicle for social change draws on the traditions of the early Soviet mock trials, where Soviet narratives of good and evil were publicly enacted for the express purpose of providing a ‘moral education’ to the public. By placing the performance within the context of certain elements of Soviet judicial practice, One Hour Eighteen asks its audience to consider the unique nature of justice as it has come to be understood in Russia in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

'Court proceedings under Stalin were used as extravagant modes of state terrorism'

Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, the trial structure of One Hour Eighteen gives its audience unique access to the past through the process of live re-enactment. In one sense the play creates the atmosphere of a trial, though in another sense does it not actually create a trial? A theatre trial obviously doesn’t carry the legal repercussions of a court trial, but there is no doubt that real testimonies are given and real judgments are made. To what degree then does a re-enactment of texts from the past constitute an actual enactment of the historical moment represented, simply in the new context of the present tense?

By capturing the events of the past in the present and by re-framing the speakers’ texts as ‘testimony’, the creators of One Hour Eighteen emphasise the fact that one cannot change the events of history. However, each time the testimonies are presented, which is to say each time the play is performed, the audience is given the opportunity to revise their own understanding and memories of the being presented. The past and the present come together through the theatrical representation, and both become vulnerable and susceptible to revision.

Suspended sentence

Though audience reactions to the play have varied since it first opened in 2010, one of the most common concerns in the post-show discussions which follow every performance of the play, has been the issue of institutionalised injustice. Audience members are quick to point out that Magnitsky’s case is unfortunately one of many examples of legal and governmental corruption, and to draw direct connections between the case of Sergei Magnitsky and the centre of Russia’s political power. As we can see most recently in the events surrounding the Pussy Riot trial, the question of how legal injustice relates to political corruption is a growing concern in contemporary Russian culture. Since it was first founded in 2002, Teatr.doc has been one of the few venues in which people have come together to discuss publicly this question, one of central importance to life in twenty-first century Russia.

In an interview on the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy prior to the premiere of the production, Ugarov said he understood, ‘that a little play in a theatre isn’t going to change anything, but the word will be said’. The significance Ugarov ascribes to ‘the word’ in this statement is indicative of a central value of documentary theatre, where original statements and interviews are used to create play texts, most often in connection with controversial events from the recent past. The emphasis Ugarov places on the speaking of words, however, is only one part of the equation that forms the essential elements of documentary theatre. What Ugarov leaves out in this statement is that in addition to the impact of the words’ being spoken is the necessity for the words to be heard.

The strength of the theatre as a venue for social change lies in precisely this space between the actors’ speaking of words and the audience’s reception of the words. It is the fact of their physical proximity that allows the actors and the audience of One Hour Eighteen to enact a uniquely theatrical commemorative practice where the past, present, and future of the memory of Magnitsky’s death can be represented and redefined. As the words of those involved in Magnitsky’s last days fill the performance space, One Hour Eighteen makes clear the unchangeable consequences of the actions of those represented. While one’s perception of and access to the past may be altered through the experience of participating in the theatrical trial, one thing always remains clear: the horrors of the past did indeed happen. Despite any official efforts to cover up the cause of Magnitsky’s death and the deaths of countless others, their stories will, at least in this venue, still be both spoken and heard.

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