Creating the “Motherland” in Russian theatre

Andrey Stadnikov and Dmitry Vlasik are producing a new show on Russian history. I talked to them about the role of the collective, Stalin and music as a way of unlocking memory. RU

Варвара Склез
22 March 2018

Andrey Stadnikov and Dmitry Vlasik. Photo: Gleb Kuznetsov. All rights reserved.This article is part of a series entitled "Practically about Memory", which you can read about here.

Director and playwright Andrey Stadnikov and composer Dmitry Vlasik have collaborated on six theatrical projects, including two, “Elephant” and “Descendents of the Sun”, that centred on the theme of the collective past and historical memory. Their new show, “Motherland”, which had its premiere at the end of 2017 and will be on stage three more times on 29 and 30 April and 1 May, is a re-interpretation of Russia’s post-Soviet past and an attempt to discover how and when our present began.

During the show, the audience at the Meyerhold Centre, named after the great innovative actor and director of the first decades of the 20th century, sit on the steps of a huge pyramid in the centre of the auditorium, around which the action takes place. Alongside dramatic episodes that uncover the mechanisms of political decision making in the past and present, a large part of the work consists of a musical score, written by Vlasik, for 50 marching girls. And unlike the actors playing leaders from the past (two Stalins, Trotsky, Bukharin) as well as such powerful figures of today as businessman and Former President of Russian Railways Vladimir Yakunin, ex-president of the Russian Football Union Vyacheslav Koloskov and Yevgeny Giner, head of the RFU’s Financial Committee, these performers are not professionals.

I spoke to Stadnikov and Vlasik about how they put the show together, the role of the human factor in history and the “Internationale” in each of us.

Andrey Stadnikov: “From a certain point in the auditorium Stalin can’t be seen, although he’s there”


Andrey Stadnikov. Photo: Gleb Kuzhetsov. All rights reserved.

Varvara Sklez: Your shows have often been based on stories of the “downtrodden” who have been ignored in the past for one reason or another. Your “Orchestral Rehearsal” gave voice to the people who work behind the scenes at the Taganka Theatre and whose input has been left out of the theatre’s history. And in “Elephant”, Soviet songs of the 1920s and 30s were looked at in the context of prison camp theatre. In this new show of yours, you explore the mechanisms of political power. Why have you called it “Motherland”?

The concept of motherland is connected with for me with a unique, two-faced apparatus of power. It may sound banal, but in Russia, nothing is what it seems. The power structure seems to work in one way, but in fact works in another. Stalin almost always said “We, us”, rather than “I”, but was still constructing a power vertical. I wanted to base a show on that hierarchy of power, because unfortunately this is a legacy that goes back even further, to Tsarist times. And I thought, among other things, about my motherland – in the first act there are scenes set in my hometown.

Your first act is based on a transcript of a meeting of the Russian Football Union committee in August 2014 and a conversation between Ilya Potapov, the ex-mayor of Berdsk [a city in the Novosibirsk Region – ed.], who in 1915 was given a 10 year prison sentence for corruption, and businessman Viktor Golubev. What do these documents say about Russia’s apparatus of power? And what’s their connection with 50 marching girls?

I wanted to demonstrate this power pyramid, to show that there are the Russian people on the one hand, and the people in power on the other. All the scenes in the first act are about that disconnection. In the scene about football, the players can’t connect with the “bosses”, and the interaction between the mayor and the businessman – representatives of nominal and real power – is an argument rather than a conversation.

Mitya [Dmitry] Vlasik looked after the marching bit, and I have been impressed by the results. Marching shows the life of the body, which is subsidiary to the general goal. I wanted to discredit the idea of the collective levelling the differences between people. I needed a good finale, where the powerful characters would leave and the “people” could mobilise itself. And in terms of structure I wanted to end the first half by creating something that I would then destroy in the second half.

So how did that creation, constructed as it was out of events from the recent past, work with the story of party in-fighting in the 1920s that you reveal in the second half?

That story is about how the illusion of the possibility of a different life was shattered. Perhaps the Soviet project was doomed from the start, but if it was all a mistake, I’m interested in the mistake (or what now seems like a mistake) that was Soviet Russian history.

If we are looking at more individual history, I was interested, for example, in discovering the mistakes made in my education, which was evidently a kind of Soviet education, even though I wasn’t living in the Soviet Union [Stadnikov was born in 1988 – ed.]. The vestiges of a Soviet education, then. Even the books that we think of as classics entered the school syllabus in Soviet times. It’s no surprise, for example, that there is more Pushkin than [his lesser known contemporary] Baratynsky.

Perhaps the Soviet project was doomed from the start, but if it was all a mistake, I’m interested in the mistake (or what now seems like a mistake) that was Soviet Russian history

Even when you see that everyone feels the same, it still awakens pleasant thoughts in you. I think that these childhood feelings will never leave me – I grew up on them, after all. I love hearing everyone sing the Internationale.

In Russia, documentary theatre is mostly associated with the verbatim method that implies a compilation of interviews taken for a specific play or production. At what point did you realise that the historical sources that you use in the second half of “Motherland” could also be interesting material for a show?

I don’t usually think about what might make an interesting production, and I try not to define a show as documentary or not documentary, theatre or not theatre. The important thing is that the audience comes to the theatre, and that what happens there is an experience shared by the audience and the performers. But their experiences can be different. You can play with the idea that you come to a theatre and, hey, it’s not a theatre – we have done things like that. But I don’t want to deliberately set these boundaries. It can be important to the audience to somehow denote them, so they know how to watch a performance. I but I find boundaries limiting – and in an ideal world it’s not important. Audiences need some kind of starting point or concept; they come to a theatre with some pre-understanding of what they will see and of theatre in general.


Photo: Gleb Kuznetsov. All rights reserved.In the case of “Motherland”, I got carried away with the historical documents and began to examine them closely. I got interested in then way the Soviet project ended and was replaced by another one. And how the people at its centre lost their authority and power. At first, people said that no one criticised Trotsky or belittled his achievements, but after a few years it turned out that you could not only criticise him but call him a spy. It’s all very banal, but I found it interesting to see how these changes have taken place, step by step, in the history of Russia.

What sources did you use for the second half of the show?

There were a lot of them. There is a biography of Trotsky, and last year’s anthology: L.D.Trotsky: pro et contra. There are also memoirs and speeches by Dzerzhinsky, a lot of which were published during Khrushchev’s “thaw” – I read a 1967 two volume work by him. And then there is an 11-year correspondence between Molotov and Stalin, and Olga Edelman’s Stalin, Koba and Coco: The Young Stalin in Historical Sources, published in 2016, which uses Khrushchev’s memoirs to analyse how Stalin spoke to Beria.

I also read a lot of transcripts of Party Congresses – you can find them online. The time when there was conflict among the leadership after Lenin’s death, but still within legal limits, is also recorded in these transcripts. Some of them were amended afterwards: when Molotov swore, for example, his words would be deleted. A transcript of a speech given by Dzerzhinsky on 20 June 1926, not long before his death, has the stenographer tactfully noting that some of it wasn’t audible, when in fact he was shouting or interrupting someone else. I included two scenes from German playwright Volker Braun’s drama “The Death of Lenin”. In general, the production shifts between documentary scenes reproducing extracts from articles and letters, and scenes where I was more interested in showing the relationships between the characters.

After examining all the sources, what conclusion did you come to?

Looking at the overlaps of the story with the human factors involved, I feel that the right man won. Stalin had the strongest will among the contenders: he staked everything on this victory. I had discussions with the actors about whether at some point he suddenly found an aim and just went for it. He realised he could do it and found the strength and will not to be deflected from his goal. In the system that was created by Lenin, the victory of that group of people seems inevitable. It would be a different matter if there hadn’t been the dictatorship of the Party: if they had allowed other parties to emerge, everything would have been different. But from what I’ve read, I don’t think that would have been possible. If it hadn’t been for that Bolshevik sectarianism, they wouldn’t have come to power.

In an interview with the “Rain” radio channel, you said that this show is all about memory for the simple reason that it contains fragments from different times – stuff written by Trotsky, for example, post factum, when he was already in exile in Mexico. Was it important to you to include all these layers of information in the show? Can people who have been in the audience verify them all afterwards?

As well as the live action that takes place in real time, there are other recorded voices that bring the history together. The voice of Askar Nigamedzyanov, the actor who plays Trotsky, for example, sounds like a cinema voiceover, as though it’s a tale from the future about the past. It was important to have these two different layers: if the story is live on the stage, it can be changed over time.

The people who have been involved in the creation of the show have contributed to it in many and various ways. There is your hard work looking at the history of Party in-fighting; there is the way the performers have some input into the way they marched; the details of individual women’s costumes; the mass collection of costumes for the performers and the comments of the actors and production team stuck on the walls. Then the audience members occupy spaces on one of the levels of the pyramid, around and on which the action takes place. They are tied into a pretty rigid structure where it’s not always clear what is happening and who is speaking. Why is this so? And what chance do they have to take part in the action?

It’s a question of my concept of art at a given moment. There is an objective, which might involve a lot of people and a lot of work. You allow it to be observed, heard, watched. You don’t direct the action, but simply allow it to take place. It was important for me that the audience members could feel they were inside the space and could watch whatever parts of it they wanted – deliberately avoid looking at an actor who was speaking, for example. In the first half, where we have the march, more people could feel part of the show, whereas in the second half it was important that audience members could listen and understand everything that was going on, although also be involved to some extent in the action. In a TV sitcom you understand everything that’s going on because all of it is shown, whereas if you are watching something happening in real life, you don’t have all the information you need to understand it. In our show you can hear the full story, but only see part of it: from a certain part of the auditorium Stalin can’t be seen, although he’s there.

It was important for me that the audience members could feel they were inside the space and could watch whatever parts of it they wanted 

There is usually a large team working on the projects that you are involved in. “Elephant”, for example, involved teamwork between a choreographer, a composer and a director. This creates various kinds of audience perception that are connected with more than theatrical experience. Do you feel that the resources available to the dramatic theatre are inadequate?

It was important for me that “Motherland” would contain both a marching parade and a dramatic element. This might be the last large scale work I make where I want to spread my wings not only in terms of a variety of resources but also in leaps between means of perception. I wanted something three-dimensional that would include a number of elements. So far, it’s pretty much a continuation of what I’ve done earlier, but now I want to squeeze one technique to its limit. I realise that I’m trying to hit one single target with several weapons, although they are all similar in some way.

Dmitry Vlasik: Evil has its place in turning the wheels of reality


Dmitry Vlasik. Photo: Gleb Kuznetsov. All rights reserved.

What does the theme of memory mean for music?

Music, by definition, works with memory. There is a continuum between the moments it unites. Each moment is a fragment of the memory of previous moments. This simple but fundamental property of music has been exploited by composers through the ages – in the classical form of repetition, for example. If the finale of a symphony returns to the themes of its first movement, that is also a matter of memory, of working with time.

Music can also be connected with historical events. When the theme of the Internationale sounds in “Motherland”, it takes us back to a specific context. On the other hand, I have realised that it can also be used directly in this show. It is sung in such a way that it is not just about revolution, the proletariat and an end to the lord of the manor, but about something inside every human being.

Andrey Stadnikov and you have written and produced a number of shows together, and often taken historical events and themes as your subject. Why are you so interested in working with history?

History is a very important subject for me. It doesn’t have to be seen as one-dimensional. We no longer talk about history as a succession of events. There are more elegant ways of working with time, juxtaposing phenomena and – the most crucial thing – interpreting them in their own context. It’s all about people, whom we love and hate in equal measure.

I’m very concerned about humanity. I know that human suffering, human happiness and the human condition in general form a pretty constant context that has been interpreted in different ways throughout history. I know this from musical history, musical documents and from what I try to talk about in conversations with my director. I have had access to a very wide range of music and discovered that it is no less powerful than the music that we call modern. And it is no less modern in that sense.

Do the instruments used in contemporary academic music allow composers to create different models for perceiving time?

There is an academic context, with its own composers. I know about them and have a good idea of how they work. What we do in our shows can undoubtedly be called contemporary, but doesn’t quite fit the model of contemporary academic music. An academy implies a basis, an acquired skill. You have an object that you start by spending time with, and then play something on it. It’s certainly an interesting situation, but pretty limiting.


Photo: Gleb Kuznetsov. All rights reserved.In “Motherland”, we don’t use any professional musicians. And the first time our performers started singing, they sounded fairly rough by any “normal” standards. But on the other hand, when we have workers singing the Internationale as they leave their workbenches, it’s practically impossible to recreate that in an academic context. The most recent music being composed in Russia now is very prone to this kind of reconstruction, and I’ve had experience of that. But when a group of academic musicians sit down at a table and try to imitate workers at their bench, it sounds smoother from the start. And then the bench disappears and you’re left with just a violin. It’s strange, but the difference in context is very clear.

What opportunities and limitations do you see in working in theatre?

Theatre work also involves an enormous number of written and unwritten rules. We obviously have to comply with certain conditions. But we still try to do innovative stuff, and not just in terms of the Meyerhold Centre, but for ourselves. We try to do something that we’ve never done before, and each time, it’s more and more difficult. Ideally, our re-invention of ourselves should mean a rejection of all our previous experiments, some of which were quite successful. It’s a provocative and unconscious repetition that demands quite hard work and always involves trauma and clumsy, complex states of mind. I don’t think that totally new ideas work for us anymore. Perhaps that’s OK: you don’t always have to take giant steps; you can sometimes make small advances.

Where does the march in “Motherland” fit into this? Where did the idea come from, to use 50 blonde young women?

Formally, it was Stadnikov’s idea. I think it came out of our collaborative work, not only on shows but also readings. The more we do together, the more we recognise our unconscious and bring it into play. We find it easier to accept things that just happen. While we used to put a lot of effort into working out why we had decided to use a particular text – and in a particular context – to create a show, now we’re much more laid back.

Our show “Nation” had a little steam train march at the start. We read books about marching drill and I sent Andrey video clips of people marching. And when I started work on “Motherland” and saw our marchers, I realised that their sequences could be much more varied than I had realised. Even if they were repetitive, it was important for us to get a response from that number of people. I’m really glad that every one of our wonderful performers got something out of the experience.

How does the marching work in terms of developing body memory?

There is something that the performers are aware of, although the audience isn’t. I’m talking about the changes that take place as they rehearse. At the beginning, they don’t interact with the people on either side of them, but the very situation, that they are walking side by side, leads to a synchronisation of their movements, so they become a single moving body. And the synchronicity extends to a micro-level. So now they maintain both their individuality and their unity at the same time.

What effect would you like this show to have on audiences?

After the first day of performances, our lighting guy Fedya wandered past and suddenly said that it was a very nasty show. I decided that he might be right, possibly because we are both rather grumpy at the moment, for personal reasons. And nastiness has its place among the levers that turn our reality. It can sometimes even be an essential tool. In a situation where we have nothing to offer, my only hope is that somebody, at least, has found it helpful in some way.


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