Censorship without censors
December 19, 2022
  • Alyona Solntseva
    Theater critic 
Alyona Solntseva writes that amid the “special military operation,” plays and the names of unreliable directors and playwrights have disappeared from theater repertoires. The bans, however, are informal, with no institutions authorized to monitor “ideological purity.”
Chulpan Khamatova, among the most famous theater and film actresses and a prominent Russian philanthropist as a cofounder of the Podari Zhizn charity fund. She left Russia at the beginning of the war. Source: Wiki Commons
All theaters in Russia live off the budget – federal or municipal – and that includes private theaters as well, which, however, are very few in number. Schools and clinics may be commercial, but not theater organizations – they do not have financial independence. And that fact is important.

Policy of bans, cancellations and omissions

The start of the special operation in Ukraine spurred a strong reaction from the Russian theater community. Open letters of protest were signed, and many young artists went to rallies and pickets. But the threat of criminal prosecution for anti-war speech quickly put an end to such actions.

Foreigners working in Russia left in the very first days: Mindaugas Karbauskis, a Lithuanian citizen, resigned as artistic director of the Mayakovsky Theater; the Frenchman Laurent Hilaire, the artistic director of the ballet group of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Musical Theater, left; a little later, they were followed by the Lithuanian actress Ingeborga Dapkunaite, who had worked in Russia for many years. All foreign ties were severed as European institutions canceled tours and terminated contracts. Ukrainians like director Andriy Zholdak and playwright Natalka Vorozhbit demanded that their names be removed from advertising, as did Latvian director Alvis Hermanis. Playwright Ivan Vyrypaev, who lives in Poland, stated on his website that he would send all the royalties from his plays put on in Russian theaters to "funds helping Ukraine,” after which his plays were removed from theater repertoires in Moscow, St Petersburg, Yaroslavl, Voronezh and Novosibirsk, among other cities.

Having received informal warnings that an anti-war stance would not go unpunished, some of the Russian artists who had signed letters of protest also began to leave. Leaving Russia were those who considered it ethically unacceptable to stay in the country that started the war. Choreographer Alexander Ratmansky, along with principal conductor Tugan Sokhiev, rescinded contracts with the Bolshoi Theater. Dmitri Krymov, who had been in the US for work, stayed there. After his three-year prison sentence was canceled, Kirill Serebrennikov fled the country. 

Following threats made or administrative cases opened against them, the editor-in-chief of Theater magazine Marina Davydova, along with actors Chulpan Khamatova, Anatoly Bely, Tatyana Rudina and Yulia Aug, left Russia. It is impossible to say how many people left theaters quietly, though many have simply disappeared from the public space. Young artists who made the decision to leave their homeland after the mobilization was announced did not advertise their departure, while starting in October replacements and new artists were often seen in theaters. In some cases, artists were offered protection from the mobilization in exchange for loyalty to the theater management.

The first non-state theater registered still back in the USSR, the KnAM Theater from Komsomolsk-on-Amur, closed its doors in Russia in early March, officially stating that it was not willing to limit the free expression of views.
"For their part, the Russian authorities have stepped up the old practice of removing disloyal or 'anti-Russian' artists."
Dmitri Glukhovsky, a well-known author and journalist, and vocal critic of the Russian government. He spends much of his time outside of Russia. In 2022, he was put on the Russian federal wanted list for his criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Source: Wiki Commons
Krymov was one of the first to suffer: the Moscow Department of Culture banned the showing of seven of his plays in theaters within its purview. This was done informally, as the theater management did not confirm a ban but did not advertise the performances either. Even the private company of Leonid Roberman refused to stage two Krymov performances, Dvoe and Boris Godunov. Both were a joint project with the Museum of Moscow, a state-funded cultural institution.

Meanwhile, in theaters within the purview of the federal bureaucracy, including the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater and the Theater of Nations, Krymov's plays are still running. On the other hand, after Serebrenikov's flight abroad, his ballet Nureyev disappeared from the repertoire of the Bolshoi Theater.

This could be attributed to an intensification of intolerant attitudes toward LGBT+ issues, though at the same time the opera Don Pasquale, staged by the “unreliable” Dmitri Chernyakov, was also canceled. A play based on Dmitri Glukhovsky's novel Text was also removed from the Yermolova Theater (Glukhovsky has been a vocal critic of the regime and left Russia after the outbreak of hostilities), as was a play based on Guzel Yakhina’s Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes at the Bashkir Drama Theater. Both novels topped bestseller lists and received numerous awards.

Censorship without censors

Still, theaters are quite reluctant to remove plays from their repertoires, citing the fact that state money was spent on the production, so removing it would punish the entire team for one person. Thus, if it is directors or playwrights fingered for “anti-Russian positions,” the production may remain in the repertoire if their names are simply removed from advertising; however, if it is performers or actors who can’t be replaced (like in the play Gorbachev, where the central role of Raisa Gorbacheva was played by Chulpan Khamatova), then the production is removed altogether. Duma Deputy Dmitri Gusev laid things out plainly: “We just want to take state money away from those who speak bad about that state yet receive budget-funded salaries.” In other words, the Russian government sees the performing arts as a privilege, an opportunity to use state resources for self-expression.

In the programs of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater for Serebrennikov's Forest and Alexander Molochnikov's 19.14, the word "Director” has replaced their names. The name of Krymov, the creator of the play Seryozha (based on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), is listed neither on the website of the Moscow Art Theater, nor in the program. The Vakhtangov Theater puts on the plays of its former artistic director Rimas Tuminas, who went back to Lithuania, without mentioning his name. At the Russian Academic Youth Theater, the two plays based on Boris Akunin novels no longer bear his name (Akunin, one of the most popular Russian writers, has long lived abroad).

The same tactics have been used at a number of other theaters, including the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Mariinsky in St Petersburg and the Opera House in Yekaterinburg – performances are put on without mentioning the names of objectionable producers and directors.
"Officially, no one has announced bans or cites laws that would require the plays of unreliable directors to be banned. It is not clear who is making the decisions, who is giving instructions to theaters – no one talks about it."
Nor is the rationale behind the decisions announced. Only in October did the first statement from the Ministry of Culture emerge: “The cultural figures who left the country at this difficult time, abandoned Russia, who publicly opposed its rich culture, are absolutely logically leaving both our institutions and their programs one after another.” Still, the ministry did not announce this as its own decision but rather cited “a large number of appeals from citizens who are outraged at the presence of such figures in the information and advertising materials of state institutions.” In other words, officials are outraged not by the actions themselves, and certainly not by the art, but by some people’s “presence in the advertising space.”

According to officials, the outrage of citizens is being triggered by productions showing “non-traditional sexual relations” and scenes that offend the religious feelings of Orthodox Christians. Against this backdrop, director Konstantin Bogomolov proactively made changes to his play The Ideal Husband. A Comedy – which the Moscow Art Theater has been running successfully since 2013 – removing risqué episodes with religious symbols so as not to cause "pain and distress to true believers." (See more on the nature of the state's interference in the world of theater in Anatoly Golubovsky's piece in RP)

Erring on the side of caution

Even before Putin signed a law completely banning “LGBT propaganda” in December, a children's play based on poems by Genrikh Sapgir and Igor Kholin, The Princess and the Ogre, directed by Polina Kardymon, was cancelled in Novosibirsk following an anonymous complaint on a Telegram channel. The complaint alleged that the play contained propaganda of “LGBT values,” as all the roles, including that of the princess, were played by men. The Novosibirsk Department of Culture carried out an investigation, which established that there were no same-sex relationships in the play. But just in case, the play is still not being run. In Perm, the play Goodbye, Berlin! was pulled after a woman demanded to stop “propagandizing homosexuality” during the performance.

The most radical method in the struggle for ideological purity is personnel reshuffles, which have taken place at several Moscow and provincial theaters. The Gogol Center, previously headed by Serebrennikov, was simply closed, with the director and artistic director, who had been agreed with the troupe after Serebrennikov, fired; now the theater is once again called the Gogol Theater, as it was before the arrival of Serebrennikov. In several theaters, the dismissal of “toxic” heads who had stated their disagreement with the general line of the state was attributed to a merger or reform.

Back in March, the artistic director of the Russian Drama Theater Sergei Levitsky was fired by the Bashkortostan Ministry of Culture after being accused in two cases of “discrediting the army” (in June, he was also fired from the East Siberia Institute of Culture, where he taught). Now Levitsky, the laureate of many awards and a bright and talented director, works in Kazakhstan.
Kirill Serebrennikov, one of the most prominent Russian stage and film directors. He fell victim to politically motivated persecution. He left Russia when his sentence was cancelled in March 2022.
Source: Wiki Commons
Crackdown on festivals

Another victim has been Russian theater festivals, which usually featured the most interesting and long-awaited premieres from different cities. In February-March, Moscow hosted Russia's largest festival and national theater award, called the Golden Mask. With the outbreak of hostilities, changes began to be made in the program, with some performances canceled "for organizational reasons."

In autumn, when it came time to announce the next nominees for the Golden Mask, the committee of experts had a disagreement with the festival management over the selections. In the end, a compromise was reached: the nominations for ‘drama theater director’ and ‘playwright’ were simply removed from the competition, while the plays of the already mentioned Tuminas and Krymov were left as nominees for ‘best play in drama.’

After the nominees were unveiled, longtime program director Maria Beilina left the Golden Mask directorate. Later, when the committee of experts that selects the plays for the 2023 competition was put together, it emerged that six out of the 10 theater critics recommended, as has always been the practice, by public organizations were replaced by the directorate with other experts, without the reasons being disclosed.

In September, the 32nd Baltic House International Theater Festival unexpectedly refused to show a number of plays announced earlier in the program. Whether this was a decision of the festival management or the St Petersburg Department of Culture is not clear. On the other hand, the Moscow Pushkin Theater’s play Kostik by Krymov was shown in St Petersburg, even though it had not been on the Moscow stage in a long time.

A warning to the rest

The list of bans, cancellations and omissions goes on. However, the logic behind these semi-anonymous activities – like why the same play can be pulled at one theater but still be running in another – is often impossible to explain. It is not typical censorship: first, there is no official censorship in Russia; second, no one has formally banned plays or their authors – it has evolved on its own, meaning no single person can be blamed.
"Personal bans do not seem to be directly related to content.Theater is not an art for the masses and is hardly seriously viewed as an ideological tool. Reprisals against well-known people most likely represent a warning to the rest.That is why popular theaters loved by young people, or especially well-known directors and actors, were targeted with the toughest measures."
The authorities do not yet care what is actually happening inside theaters or what is being shown in plays. There are people who are interested in measures being taken, however, who quietly monitor social media and are always ready to send in a complaint, if not right to the Investigative Committee or the Prosecutor's Office, then to institutions that deal with culture. At those institutions, the rule is: if a denunciation comes in, take action. Thus, names that are not recommended for some theaters sometimes continue to appear at others.

"We must endure"

If state agencies are prone to acting in a gray zone, then the Duma is not. In August, a Duma working group was established to “investigate anti-Russian activities in the sphere of culture” (known by its Russian acronym GRAD) and announced a campaign “against state funding of ‘pro-Ukraine’ cultural figures” and “for the liberation of art from liberal censorship and globalist dictates.” The name, seemingly straight out of the McCarthy era in the US, might sound funny, just like the initiatives announced by GRAD. However, because of its activities, the director of the Bolshoi Theater was forced to cancel the productions of director Alexander Molochnikov, having been accused by GRAD members of having a “pro-Ukraine,” anti-Russian stance.

Still, when GRAD tried to accuse the members of the jury for the Big Book award of being “pro-Ukraine,” the accusations were simply ignored.

Inside the world of theater, the most active people have left, and many who remain have chosen to “not take a stand;” life goes on by the motto “we must endure it, it will end soon,” though such hopes are hardly justified. Theaters choose different tactics. As early as last season, the Yermolova Theater signed a cooperation agreement with the Investigative Committee’s “cultural center” – surprisingly not a recent innovation – with students from the agency’s educational institutions, along with its numerous employees, ensuring attendance at performances. The Maly Theater, meanwhile, has teamed up with the Ministry of Defense, and its artistic director Yuri Solomin stated that “the theater has never said no to the army and, if needed, we will go [serve] where they tell us… the Maly Theater has always been with our Army!” So far, however, it has been shown for mobilized men and ongoing cooperation between the Maly and the Lugansk Academic Russian Theater. At the same time, actress Natalia Tenyakova appealed to the audience of the Chekhov Moscow Art Theater after the finale of the play Forest to save their programs, in which instead of Kirill Serebrennikov’s name there was just the word “director.” The hall responded with an ovation.

Nikolai Kolyada, the well-known playwright and head of the eponymous theater, has expressed a widespread feeling among theater people: “I feel sorry for everyone who left. But what should I do now? Leave too or go out into the street, douse myself with gasoline and set myself on fire? Who will that help? Nobody. Our battlefield is the stage, we have to go to rehearsals every day and work, create our own world and water the flowers in our garden. And in the evenings, you return home, lie down – and as if sand was poured into your eyes, you look at the ceiling and cry, realizing that you are a small person, smaller than a small person and cannot change anything...”
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