Serebrennikov and the attack of the Russian state-security chimera

There’s a chimera coming for Russian theatre – and it’s not corruption, but a bloated state apparatus. RU

Sergey Damberg
13 September 2017

Kirill Serebrennikov near Basmanny Court in Moscow on 4 September. Image: (c) Ramil Sitdikov/RIA Novosti. All rights reserved.

Theatre tends to prompt the asking of two questions. Is it appropriate to spend public money on creative experiments? And can the performing arts generate profits? It’s the done thing to judge theatre through the prism of money.

But in a country where the state doesn’t fulfill its technical functions so much as it simply rules over everyone, there’s no taxpayers’ money in the budget. There’s officials’ money and there’s state money - money that’s been taken away from taxpayers once and for all. And the directors of every state institution must try and get their hands on as much of that money as possible - wheedle and acquire it; such are the official rules.

The actual state of Russian theatre

Whichever way you slice it, most theatrical genres require subsidies. Now, musicals do sometimes bring in profits. Widely publicised, long-running productions at well-patronised 1000-seater-plus venues can amass handsome box office takings… provided the songs are accompanied by recorded music. But throw in a live orchestra – and the concomitant wage bill - and all said profits will disappear.

At the same time, scandals around so-called “stolen stage millions” must surely please our quasi-military officialdom: anything to distract the populace’s attention from the question of “defence billions”, with their cozy mysteriousness and dubious returns. Take a look at this year’s budget: a mere fraction thereof - just over 0.5% - has been allocated for culture, an order of magnitude more for defense, and 13 times more for “security and law enforcement”. Both the army and the National Guard receive a trillion plus - but what do you know about this money? Is it “public” as well?

Most theatres are devoid of experimentation; they exist in the service of clichés as required by the audience

Secondly, there’s the issue of “experimentation”. Creative experimentation is a pleonasm. A director can, of course, stage any play without experimenting: the text is there to be used, along with long-established stereotypes regarding costumes and décor. And most theatres are indeed devoid of experimentation; they exist in the service of clichés as required by the audience. In the provinces, where great works are parasitised by directors, theatres often remain half-empty. You don’t head to a provincial theatre to catch a show; you head there to show off your new dress, civilise your husband and to pretend you’re actually middle-class. But even provincial stage veterans will tell you that they were staging nudity as long ago as the late sixties, that they appreciate and value experimentation, and that they’re being forced into wilful bungling of the art form.

There are approximately 600 to 700 theatres in Russia (a number that doesn’t include several hundred non-state theatres with no stages of their own). Of these, perhaps one hundred at most enjoy wide renown, and even the most forward-minded of theatre connoisseurs would struggle to name more than two hundred. All the rest simply amuse their audiences with sitcoms and comedies of manners. Molière? Just a bunch of uproarious comedies. Beaumarchais? Ditto. Richard III? Pantomime freak.

If there’s no experimentation to be seen onstage, there’s none at management level either. Most theatres are run by old-timers who’ve long since turned their offices into holiday retreats for the elderly. They’ll never be a thorn in the side of any governor, and you’ll never find out their surnames. Their theatres wither and die - but who cares?

Say some artistic director decides to put on a stage version of Snow White for the fifth time. This means he’ll be pocketing extra roubles on top of his basic salary - something like 1.5 million for the adaptation, the set design and the costumes. Of course, the whole thing is utter garbage: the adaptation is vacuous, the set wouldn’t be out of place in a middling school production, and the costumes even more so - but the director has connections and years of experience. So the guy gets his way. Come New Year’s, he might award everyone bonuses of 5,700 roubles - and a 750,000-rouble bonus for himself. And only the committee chair ever gets to see the figures. The director’s nephew, meanwhile, has opened a touring agency and taken the theatre abroad - making use of Culture Ministry grants all the way, of course.

Murky money; obscure festivals; expensive tours embarked upon for the sake of a three-show run; grants awarded to the same “trusted individuals” year in, year out - all this smoke-and-mirror stuff corrupts management and eats up hundreds of millions of roubles every year. Roubles that wouldn’t need to be spent if the state stopped trying to control theatres and, indeed, culture in general.

Committee Culture

There are three strata of cultural administration in Russia: the Ministry of Culture, at the top of the pile, is followed by regional committees at the intermediate level and municipal departments and committees at the bottom.

The primary objective across all these strata is the implementation of cultural policy. But it doesn’t exist even at the federal level (save for the usual comic backwardness the Russian public is occasionally witness to) - and its aims on the municipal level are entertainment-driven at best.   

The principal task of any cultural committee is a time-honoured one: it must ensure that official holidays are marked in appropriate fashion. Insipid song concerts are very convenient to organise: every town has its own concert hall, little orchestra and amateur choir - and, needless to say, it’s thanks to cultural committees that all these Soviet-era trappings are still flourishing. To say nothing of separate budgets for Flag Day, National Unity Day and so on and so forth.

Secondly, committees have to distribute money. They inherit and come up with a load of accounting documents, each with its own disputable meaning. Officials understand that they don’t need to evaluate the quality of performances - so they evaluate quantity instead, and do so in the following way: too few means you’re doing a bad job, too many means you’re being greedy. Which means you need to put on 280 performances a year. Yes, a normative standard exists even for this. An entirely arbitrary one. Committees concoct rules regarding how theatres should function, and the theatres manoeuvre as best they can.   

For example, the state decrees that a theatre’s average attendance must be 80% of capacity. Someone concocts the rule, someone gives it the green light - and so cadets, schoolkids and “theatre fans” head to the stalls, arms twisted behind their backs. And there are yet more cunning ways of achieving that 80% figure; ticket sales, for instance, can be limited to 100 per performance, allegedly for “artistic reasons”. Why control such variables? Could it really be that this is how officials motivate theatres to seek out their audiences? Of course not: for officials, control is an end, not a means.

Culture committees are bodies of power unburdened of objectively necessary tasks, methodologies and undertakings. They can dispense money to some and withhold it from others

And here’s another such rule: all state money must be distributed by means of funding competitions. In requiring these competitions to be held, our honourable lawmakers steer    cultural administrators away from familiar, tried-and-tested contracts and towards unknowns. But they also provide a load of loopholes: yes, the competition must take place – but you can still enter into contract with just one single producer – but don’t conclude too many of them – but make sure the whole thing’s arranged correctly… Why all these “buts”? Why do the authorities seek control over these procedures? Same reason as above, of course: control is power.

Far from stymying corruption, these rules stimulate it.

Everything culture committees do – with the exception of actual budget transfers – constitutes corruption. Their officials sit in working groups, decide to construct some new theatre venue, put up a memorial plaque, rename a street. Why do these specific people get these jobs? Only because they work in culture committees.      

If, officially speaking, rank-and-file experts are competitively selected, committee chairs are appointed without any public procedures whatsoever. The right to influence the selection of a committee chair is an eminently corrupt privilege: the appointment sometimes arises out of complicated bargaining between the governor and the Ministry of Culture, senators and party officials.      


The "Pskov Bath Attendant" performance directed by Varvara Fire, was canceled when Sergey Damberg and the Pskov Drama artistic director Vasily Senin were forced to leave the theatre. Image: Che TV / YouTube. Some rights reserved.

Culture committees are bodies of power unburdened of objectively necessary tasks, methodologies and undertakings. They can dispense money to some and withhold it from others; they can give a theatre 100 million, or they can give it 50. And so GR -government relations - becomes the most important of the arts for us. It works a little something like this:

The conductor of a symphony orchestra calls up to find out about what’s going on with his orchestra’s application for a contest - and gets through to an “expert” who, with qualifications from music school and the ministry of culture under her belt, has been pushing papers around in this government body for the past zillion years or so.

“You’re really floating our boat!” she says. “Yes, you gave a wonderful performance at the opening of Chelyabinsk Days in Chelyabinsk - well done, guys!”

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re happy, honestly, I don’t even know...”

“Though you did upset me the other week. Yes, you upset me!” (always a bit of sweet talk before the reprimand)

“Oh God, what was it??”

“I took a look at your report on the disabled - you didn’t create a single position for them, there’s still no mention of anything in the report. I did warn you, you’re like little children, I have to scold you every time!”

“Oh, will you find it in your heart to forgive me?” (And so on and so forth.)

This is passive “GR”. Active GR, meanwhile, could be termed Kekhman’s Syndrome.

Great theatre director Mezdrich is sacked; brilliant theatre director Itin prostrates himself before investigators; fantastic theatre director Serebrennikov finds himself under arrest. The state accepts only the Kekhmans of this world

There was once a Russian banana mogul, Vladimir Kekhman, and he went bankrupt. But he bounced back by managing to become director of two (!) opera houses, one in Europe, one in Asia. How did he do it? Well, he had a knack for making friends. Get chummy with an official with the power to appoint you to some post or other and everything else becomes quite meaningless. It really works, funnily enough. The great theatre director Boris Mezdrich is sacked; the brilliant theatre director Yury Itin prostrates himself before investigators; the fantastic theatre director Kirill Serebrennikov finds himself under arrest. The state accepts only the Kekhmans of this world.      

In a healthy state, government relations constitute a partnership between business, NGOs and the state. Here in Russia, on the other hand, GR exists as a competition within the public sector: everyone’s studying Kekhman’s Syndrome and trying to apply it in practice.

What do we need instead of these culture committees? Nothing but simple and transparent agencies that would distribute equal, preliminarily announced grants to contest winners. Production grants. Festival grants. Theatre building maintenance grants. The latter are easy to calculate: the standrd norms are multiplied by square footage and a special coefficient, if you’re talking about a historic building. Not exactly rocket science, is it?

Furthermore, all the committees’ strategic functions - the discussion and implementation of cultural policy, the assembling of competition juries, decisions regarding construction and perpetuation - must be transferred in toto from the state to the third sector, that has its creative unions, human rights movements, veteran organisations, and so on. But this won’t happen as long as theatres remain under the control of the state-security chimera.

The state-security chimera

What exactly led to the arrest of the popular and much-loved Serebrennikov?

Consider this: Soviet people lived by simple stereotypes, the most important of these being the notion of the state as the foundation of the entire societal edifice on one hand, and the source of justice, pensions and television on the other. Decommunisation didn’t really happen in Russia - leaving us with a state qualitatively different to those throughout the rest of Europe. For our state, functionality is secondary; what truly matters is status and greatness.


A pro-Serebrennikov protester near Basmanny Court in Moscow. Image: Youtube / Radio Svoboda. Some rights reserved.

The culture of state grandeur and the belief in the sacredness of all things governmental converge in the phenomenon of "state security". This has been all-encompassing throughout Russian history, its structures proliferating far beyond the FSB.

The state security apparatus is a club for the elites of officialdom; everyone within it exists above and beyond their professions, their industry expertise, their technical skills - they’re masters of "communication", that is, of subjugating and being subjugated. And of course they exist alongside thousands of their charges: investigators, security guards, diplomats, protocol assistants, awards departments, narks, political officers…                 

Functionally speaking, only the budget transfer side of things is truly indispensable

The state-security club first came to power in 2000. Ivan IV wasn’t an oprichnik (that is, a member of the imperial Russian police force), Nicholas II wasn’t a gendarme, Stalin wasn’t a Chekist. So if Andropov’s abortive term can be considered a farce, then Putin’s is a veritable tragedy. The tragedy stems from the fact that the very existence of a state where high-status demagoguery trumps any institutional functions is criminal through and through. Criminal, too, are said state’s component structures: convicts are abused in prisons; ditto international law in the embassies; ditto army conscripts in the regiments; ditto penurious regions and municipalities in tax administration offices; ditto libraries, newspapers, hospitals and farmers in the regional administrations; and so on.

But not everyone’s a criminal, are they? The majority of people are actually very decent! I’ve observed the work of several cultural committees in several regions. Not a single committee was devoid of sensible, right-minded people; not a single committee boasted a majority thereof; not a single committee operated in anything other than a friendly atmosphere; not a single committee had enemies of culture and creative freedom in its ranks; not a single committee was chaired by an individual without manifold positive qualities; and not a single committee was in any way indispensable. Not one generated obviously useful results for the industry. Not one was responsible for any breakthrough achievements. Their sudden dissolution wouldn’t paralyse the industry even for a day. Not a single day.  

Functionally speaking, only the budget transfer side of things is truly indispensable. As for the committees and departments, the audit chambers and the dozens of different inspectorates, they’re entirely surplus to requirements. They are, in fact, dysfunctional.

Serebrennikov was arrested by state security because we believe that state security is a necessary thing

Dysfunction doesn’t destroy society; society can neither materialise nor perish - it only mutates. Our own society is mutating very slowly and tortuously because it is paralysed by the culture of state security. Here, people believe that the driver of commerce isn’t advertising but some commerce development committee - and they believe that culture is created in culture committees.

In the twenty-first century, maintaining this kind of state is beyond anyone’s means. Its eternal culture of state security perpetuates poverty and rightlessness. Today we need nothing more than mechanisms for the centralised redistribution of resources. The most complicated of these is competition among public experts, conducted with the involvement of the media and the general public. We’re seriously lacking experience in this regard, and we need to gain it quickly. Before we do so, however, we must dismantle status structures that are incapable of working properly.

Don’t ask how this is to be done. First and foremost, we have to stop believing in the state and in the idea that its security structures are of benefit to anyone. We have to stop believing that the suspicions of the investigator are of greater consequence than the convictions of the theatre director. And that case materials are more substantial than the live materials utilised by theatre.

At the end of the day, Serebrennikov was arrested by the state security apparatus because we believe that said apparatus is a necessary thing.   

Translated by Leo Shtutin

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