Ukraine invasion deals blow to Russia’s experimental theater scene

Some of the most prestigious directors have emigrated, while the actors who publicly speak out against the war often pay for their words with their jobs. Many prefer to remain silent or work in the alternative scene

Pilar Bonet
Theater director Yevgeniya Berkovich, arrested on charges of "justifying terrorism," during a video conference at the Moscow City Court on May 30, 2023.
Theater director Yevgeniya Berkovich, arrested on charges of "justifying terrorism," during a video conference at the Moscow City Court on May 30, 2023.NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA (AFP)

The invasion of Ukraine has dealt a severe blow to Russia’s innovative and progressive theater scene, which dares to speak out against the war and also to defend values that are attacked by Russia official nationalist and ultra-conservative politics.

Since the beginning of the invasion on February 24, 2022, some of Russia’s most prestigious directors have emigrated, while actors who have spoken out against Russia’s war have often paid for their words with their jobs. In addition to emigrating (either as a result of making anti-war statements or not), theater professionals who question the war are forced to either keep silent, hide their opinions, learn to speak in a way that does not provoke conflict or perform in alternative or semi-clandestine settings, where actors and spectators are bound by trust.

Some even go to jail. That’s what happened to directors and writers Yevgeniya Berkovich and Svetlana Petriychuk, who were both arrested in early May in Moscow, after being accused of “public exhortations to commit terrorist acts, justifying terrorism and terrorism propaganda.”

Berkóvich, who is the director of the independent theater project Docheri Soso, put on a performance of Finist, the Brave Falcon, a documentary-style play by Petrichuk, based on the real experiences of women who traveled to Syria following radical Islamists who had seduced them on social media. Finist, the Brave Falcon includes materials from the trials against the women and combines contemporary documentary, psychological and social aspects with a traditional Russian fable of the same title.

The linguistic analysis that led to charges against Berkovich and Petrichuk detected ideological indications of “Islamism and jihadism,” as well as “radical feminism.” The two women — who deny all charges and had been awarded one of the highest distinctions in Russian theater for the play — will remain in jail awaiting trial until at least July. Several works directed by Berkovich are still on the program at the Inner Space Theater in Moscow.

Pressures on experimental scene

The pressures on the more experimental and independent sector of the Russian theater scene generally take the form of reorganizations, playbill changes and other bureaucratic pretexts. The names of the wayward creators are erased in the programs of the works that they themselves directed or starred in.

On February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine, respected Russian theater director Dmitry Krymov was in Philadelphia, in the United States, rehearsing his interpretation of The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. Krymov condemned the war and decided that he could not return to his country given the circumstances. The director now works in New York and has spoken about the hardships he has encountered since emigrating, in particular, the difficulty of not being part of the cultural and creative milieu in which he operated in Moscow.

The Russian capital has been characterized by its great theatrical offerings and Krymov’s works, such as Seriozha (his peculiar staging of the play Anna Karenina from the perspective of Sergei, her son). Seriozha is still on the program, although Krymov’s name is no longer mentioned. Other productions such as Kostik and Don Juan have disappeared from the Moscow theater repertoire.

Konstantin Khabensky, the director of the Moscow Art Theater, had to replace Anatoliy Beliy, a prestigious actor who played the role of Ana’s husband Alexei Karenin in Seriozha. Beliy emigrated to Israel after publicly condemning the war in Ukraine.

Dmitry Krymov at a premiere in Santa Monica, California on April 11, 2012.
Dmitry Krymov at a premiere in Santa Monica, California on April 11, 2012.Angela Weiss (WireImage)

For theater directors in Russia, the new cultural climate means they can either continue to work as usual and stay quiet, or speak out against the war and risk not only losing their jobs, but their entire company. This is what appears to have happened to Khabensky. Not only did he have to replace Beliy, he also fired Dmitriy Nazarov, a veteran actor who was named the People’s Artist of Russia in 2000. The decision came after Nazarov shared videos of himself reading pacifist poems. Nazarov’s wife, Russian actress Olga Vasilyeva, was also fired from the Moscow Art Theater. The two are now trying to emigrate to Israel. After the invasion of Ukraine, Khabensky stated that he was going to tale all works concerning war activities off the program.

Another prominent figure who has left Russia is Rimas Tuminas. In 2022, the Lithuanian director was fired from the Moscow Vakhtangov Theater, where he had been chief director, and had to give back the State Prize of the Russian Federation over allegations he had been disloyal to the regime. Yuri Butusov, another award-winning director from the Vakhtangov Theater, is also now living aboard. Butusov’s only comment was a letter from Paris announcing that he did not intend to return to Moscow. His production of King Lear is still playing at the theater.

Even the Bolshoi Theater has been affected. It removed two operas directed by Aleksandr Molochnikov last season after the Research Group on Anti-Russian Activities in the Cultural Field (an entity created within the framework of Russia’s lower house, the State Duma) considered the director a possible anti-Russian agent. Kiril Serebrianikov’s opera Nureyev, about the esteemed Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, has also been taken off the program. The leaders of the theater believe the opera directed by Serebrianikov — who is no longer in Russia — violates the law passed last year that prohibits so-called “gay propaganda.”

Among the talented directors who have left Russia is Yevgeny Mironov, who has gone even further in denouncing the war. He took his company, the Theater of Nations, to Mariupol, the Ukrainian city devastated by Russian bombs, with a play dedicated to children’s day, and offered to lead the operation to restore the city’s destroyed theater.

“Theater in Russia will survive if the directors who are leaving the country are replaced by others who can do a decent job of dodging the official ideology. The big problem is whether the theater is going to be replaced by propaganda,” says Anastasia Patlay, the artistic director at Teatr.doc in Moscow.

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