Novosibirsk's cultural history of loss


When it comes to loss, this city has form stretching back to the Soviet era. But is the scandal surrounding the city's Opera House just another page in this century-long saga?


Mikhail Kaluzhsky
8 April 2015

Novosibirsk, Russia's third largest city, doesn't often make the headlines. But on Sunday, Russian journalists together with their international colleagues found themselves outside the city's opera house to report on a demonstration for artistic freedom. In recent weeks, the scandal unfolding around a production of Wagner's opera Tannhäuser at the Novosibirsk Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet has drawn more and more attention.

Indeed, an unprecedented number of people (for Novosibirsk, at least) attended this meeting in defence of artistic freedom, and its final resolution included – for the first time in recent Russian history – the resignation of the Minister of Culture as one of its demands. This protest and the events surrounding the production of Wagner's opera says much about Russia's largest provincial city and the workings of Russia's cultural politics today.

Federal intervention

The brouhaha surrounding Tannhäuser exemplifies the rapidly developing alliance of the Russian Orthodox Church and state authorities, in their campaign against the freedom of self-expression.

The clerics' attack on the Novosibirsk theatre was sustained and effective. Soon after the December 2014 premiere of Tannhäuser, produced by Timofei Kuliabin (director of Novosibirsk's Red Torch Theatre), Metropolitan Tikhon of Novosibirsk made a complaint to the city prosecutor's office. The cleric had discovered an 'affront to the feelings of believers' in the production, even though – by all accounts – the metropolitan had not seen it.

Believers’ feelings were reportedly offended by Kuliabin's interpretation of Tannhäuser, in which the protagonist was transformed into a movie director responsible for a film about Jesus' wild youth. At the end of February, the city prosecutor's office opened an administrative court case against Kuliabin and the director of the theatre, Boris Mezdrich. But the court found nothing offensive in the staging, and the case was dismissed.

The prosecutor's office, however, appealed against the court decision, and 'Orthodox activists' picketed the theatre, demanding a criminal investigation into Kuliabin's activities. The federal Ministry of Culture condemned the production and opened its own investigation into the theatre's finances.

On 29 March, Mezdrich was sacked and the Ministry of Culture appointed Vladimir Kekhman in his place. An entrepreneur from St Petersburg who made his money in the banana trade, Kekhman is general director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre. It perhaps should be noted that the 'Banana King' is currently under investigation for large-scale embezzlement. Kekhman is also the only colleague of Mezdrich who has publicly condemned Tannhäuser, in discussions with the Ministry of Culture.

You'd be forgiven for thinking of the events in Novosibirsk as a purely local phenomenon. With clear support from the Russian authorities, the clerics are attacking freedom of speech all over the country. But the attack on Tannhäuser in Novosibirsk provoked an unexpectedly large protest. The residents of Novosibirsk are a cultured lot, and in their latest endeavour, the Ministry of Culture and Russian Orthodox Church hit soft tissue in the city's consciousness and cultural identity.

Alexander Kriazhev - VISUALRIA - NSB meeting 2015_0.jpg

On Sunday, 4,000 people came out in defence of artistic freedom in central Novosibirsk. (c) Aleksandr Kriazhev / VisualRIA.

On 5 April, roughly 4,000 people gathered outside the opera house to pass a resolution with the following demands: the inadmissability of censorship, amendment to Article 148 of the Criminal Code ('Violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom'), resignation of Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky, resignation of Vladimir Kekhman, and restoration of Tannhäuser in the theatre's repertoire.

The meeting's organisers requested that participants come to the demonstration without political slogans and placards, which was done. Although party slogans were almost completely absent (the only exception being a local cell of Yabloko), it's hard not to consider statements such as 'No to censorship!', 'Russia is a secular state' and 'Keep your religion to yourself' as political slogans in today's Russia. 

In Novosibirsk, it's not so much a case of political opposition, but rather a certain dissenting energy in local society.

Russia's 'opposition city'

People sometimes speak of Novosibirsk as the most opposition-minded of Russia's big cities. In the 2011 Duma elections, United Russia lost to the Communist Party (KPRF) here, and in 2014, a member of the Communist Party became mayor.

Last year, Novosibirsk's Ilya Ponomarev was the only Duma deputy to vote against 'unification' with Crimea. But Ponomarev recently lost his deputy's immunity after the intervention of the General Prosecutor's Office, and KPRF cannot be considered a true opposition party. The Communist Party is just as much a force of conservative reaction as the ruling party. 

A desire for order and uniformity in equal measure is characteristic of people who vote for Russia's parliamentary parties. And it's not by accident that Novosibirsk region became one of the first Russian regions to pass a law 'on homosexual propaganda' well before its federal counterpart. Neither is it an accident that regional deputies from various parties supported 'Orthodox activists' who picketed the Novosibirsk Regional Museum in 2012 after catching sight of 'pornography' in an exhibition of Picasso engravings. In Novosibirsk, it's not so much a case of political opposition, but rather a certain dissenting energy in local society – this energy is still alive, and this is what brought people out against censorship on Sunday.

But there was another demand at Sunday's meeting, which, though it remained undeclared by those present, is an important factor not only for Novosibirsk, but for Siberia as a whole – decentralisation.

Legally speaking, Novosibirsk Opera House does not belong to Novosibirsk region. It is a federal institution. The Ministry of Culture appointed Kekhman as the new director, and there's little that locals can do about it. But the Novosibirsk State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is a civic achievement, and the city's residents are asking that all views be considered when it comes to key decisions. 

And, of course, the opera house is a well-known symbol of Novosibirsk. In a certain sense, it's an embodiment of the city. 

Russia's upstart

Just like any upstart, and the city certainly is one, Novosibirsk has 'identity issues'. Appearing on the map at the end of the 19th century, the city grew exponentially for a variety of reasons – at times, coincidental.

In the absence of an illustrious history, Novosibirsk's identity is based on a selection of achievements: the city with the most dynamic growth in the 20th century (Novosibirsk gained one million inhabitants in just 70 years – that's quicker than Chicago); the biggest city east of the Urals; the city with the fastest-growing scientific and research centre, or Akademgorodok.

Novosibirsk identity was forged in this combination of love for scale and a desire to believe in the power of scientific-technological progress. In the Soviet era, the city crest depicted not only the usual torch, sheaf of wheat and machine cog, but an orbit of electrons, too. But the way Akademgorodok was built meant that it lacked a clearly identifiable architectural style; and so the opera house became the city's symbolic structure. 


Ugly it may be, Novosibirsk Opera House is the largest and most technically advanced theatre in Russia. (c) Jarvin / Wikipedia.

A monstruous, pseudo-classical building, the opera house is a refuge for the most academic of arts, and is ideally located in the heart of Novosibirsk, ensuring that town pride remains nourished on a diet of impressive achievements: the largest theatre building in the Old World, a unique architectural design, the first repertoire opera house east of the Urals, and the First Soviet Academic Theatre in the provinces. 

The scale of the building is impressive, to say the least. After Verdi's Aida was performed here in 2005 (directed by Dmitry Chernyakov), it was brought to Moscow's Palace of Congresses at the Kremlin – not one Moscow theatre, including the Bolshoi, could physically cope with the production.

While some clever clogs in the 1920s originally came up with the idea of building a House of Science and Culture, the project soon travelled Soviet culture's well-known path from modernism to academicism. After it opened on 12 May 1945 with Mikhail Glinka's Life for the Tsar, the theatre became a model of the Soviet empire's 'big style'. Quasi-antique statues loom over the largest auditorium of the largest theatre in Siberia's largest city. Indeed, for many, this interior is what forms ideas of the 'fine' in 'fine art'. With every fibre in its architectural body, this space resists innovation.

But in the past 15 years, Novosibirsk Opera House has become one of Russia's most interesting musical theatres – an achievement of the (recently fired) Boris Mezdrich. People here were not afraid to experiment, perform new texts and re-interpret the classics. Meanwhile, Vladimir Kekhman's first order of business was to remove Tannhäuser from the theatre's repertoire.

People come up with great ideas here, but their inventions don't live long.

A cultural history of loss

It is far from accidental that people came out onto the streets for an opera, rather than a banned book or concert. In Russia, theatre has become the most interesting and accessible medium for new aesthetics and new ideas.

This phenomenon has multiple sources – whether it is the festival-prize combination of the Golden Mask, Russia's theatre education system, Russian theatre's links into global theatre, and excellent festivals. Moreover, Russian theatrical life is not confined to Moscow and Petersburg. The regions, particularly the big cities, are full participants in this intense theatrical activity, and this goes for theatre workers and viewers alike.

The Novosibirsk residents who came out on Sunday outside the Opera House know what they have to lose. The disappearance of Tannhäuser from the theatre's repetoire is just another loss in a long list. When it comes to loss, the city has form stretching back to the Soviet era. In this town, people come up with great ideas, but their inventions don't live long in an indifferent and, at times, hostile environment.

Physicists vs. lyricists 

Novosibirsk first became famous in the 1960s, in the era of building Akademgorodok, when physicists and lyricists (fiziki-liriki) came to – metaphorical – blows. The physicists won. And post-Soviet Russia is still paying for it - and this can be felt nowhere as strongly as in Novosibirsk.

Here it is clear that the Soviet modernising project was exclusively technocratic, and completely ignored the cultural sphere and the humanities. While the local physicists, geneticists and engineers invented or found new ways of interpreting the world, local culture created nothing that could match that level of innovation or creativity. Ideas of development based on the sum of technologies and skills pushed culture and cultural innovation to the side, marginalising it once and for all.

This was the situation in the Soviet era, and this is how it is today. And now it's not only the authorities, but society too, who don't know what to do with the new and complex beyond the limits of the essentially material world. The word 'innovation' might roll off the tongue when it describes a scientific, economic or technological reality. But any new or complex phenomenon from the world of art or social relations provokes misunderstanding, at best.

We understand gadgets, sure, but video art – no. Moreover, this was the situation in the pluralist 1990s. But nowadays, the new or the difficult provokes active rejection. And this trend has nothing in common with politics. It's part of cultural politics. Or rather, it's part of the continuing absence of cultural politics and its return as an instrument of repression. 

On 7 March 1968, the famous bard Alexander Galich gave his only public concert at a festival of bard song in Akademgorodok's House of Researchers. This performance would lead to the open persecution of the poet, and Akademgorodok's first festival of bard song quickly became its last. On the cultural map of Russia, Novosibirsk is the home town of Yanka Diagileva, one of the most promising Russian singers of the late 1980s. It is the birthplace of the Blue Noses art group – famous for their absurd, hilarious, and provocative art, and where the Greek conductor, musician and actor Teodor Currentzis made his name. Every year, the city hosts the 'Monstratsiya' or 'Monstration', a mass absurdist performance in the spirit of Poland's 'Orange Alternative'

But Diagileva killed herself, and the Blue Noses skipped town together with Currentzis. The director of the Oscar-nominated film Leviathan, Andrei Zviagintsev, began his theatrical career here, and then left. In 2009, the innovation congress Interra was set up in Novosibirsk in order to discuss problems in education, technology and culture – it now takes place in Krasnoyarsk.


Like a time capsule, Siberia has preserved a certain Soviet flavour in many ways. (c) Aiham Dib / Demotix.

At one time, there was a move to open a branch of the State Centre for Modern Art in Novosibirsk, but after the city authorities refused a permit to the Rodina exhibition in 2012 (curated by Marat Gelman), the Siberian branch opened in Tomsk. It is now chaired by Vyacheslav Mizin, a former 'Blue Nose'. The artist who came up with the Monstratsiya, Artyom Loskutov, came into conflict with the authorities and left town. Though the annual Monstratsiya should take place in May, the city authorities claim that they haven't received an application (a clear sign that it won't go ahead). And at the end of February, the Novosibirsk poet Viktor Ivaniv took his own life.

Recently, just as the scandal with Tannhäuser arose, Novosibirsk's Globus theatre cut short its run of Songs about the Homeland after the feelings of Orthodox activists were hurt by one of the acts, a staging of a Maiya Kucherskaya story, The Tale of the Orthodox Hedgehog

We understand gadgets, sure, but video art – no. 

An omen of things to come

Without a doubt, the scandal surrounding Tannhäuser is an omen – an omen of a new stage of establishing state censorship in favour of the Orthodox Church and 'traditional values'.

The problem is not so much that the new cultural policy 'after Tannhäuser' (or 'after Perm'-36', or 'after ArtDokFest') presumes that the only safe thing to stage is Shakespeare. The problem is that it implies only one interpretation of Shakespeare. 

This is a direct threat to Russia's big cities with their sizeable educated class. This is an audience interested in new art and new ideas, but whose access to artistic innovation cannot be compared to Moscow or Petersburg. Independent cultural institutions have not been created in the Russian provinces: there are no conditions for them to grow.

The main fora for artistic innovation, ideas of complexity and variety were and remain state cultural institutions. These institutions – at least those which were ready to speak about contemporary problems – create the intellectual space where educated citizens find support for their own identities.

Contemporary art without censorship is an integral part of that identity. In defending the theatre and the production under attack by the clerics, those 4,000 people on the square were defending, first and foremost, themselves. And this is why the Novosibirsk protest without political slogans could just be the most promising political protest of 2015.

Standfirst image: Novosibirsk's Lenin Square with the Novosibirsk Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet in the background. (c) Aladux / WikimediaCommons.

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