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There Was Some Contemporary Culture Left in Russia. Then Putin Started a War.

On 24 February 2022, eight hours after the war began, Elena Kovalskaya, general manager and previously artistic director of the Meyerhold Theatre and Cultural Center, wrote on Facebook: “Friends, in protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I resign as director of the state-funded theatre, the Meyerhold Center. It is impossible to work for a murderer and get paid by him.” This was the first and most significant protest gesture by a Russian theatre professional. Five days later, Dmitry Volkostrelov, the artistic director of the Meyerhold Center, was fired by order of the Moscow Department of Culture without explanation. On the same day, it was announced that the Meyerhold Center would be “merged” with the School of Dramatic Art Theatre (SDA). In essence, the Meyerhold Center's building was taken over by the directorate of the SDA.

I begin with the Meyerhold Center because it is an unprecedented story. It was almost the only theatre venue in Russia where experimentation was accepted as an artistic policy. The Meyerhold Center served as a platform for resident events, and those residents were as diverse as possible. On the one hand, Meyerhold Center events attracted the most varied categories of audience; on the other hand, they have consistently forged an audience ready to watch different things, which is a rarity for Russian theatres. The Meyerhold Center was an inclusive and queer-friendly space. In addition to performances, it hosted educational programs and conferences, and it was almost the only place in the state where left-wing artists could feel free. In recent years, it began to develop a decolonial agenda by showing performances about the reality of migrants in Russia and bringing performances by representatives of Indigenous peoples to Moscow. Finally, the Meyerhold Center has been one of the most politically active theatre spaces due to the views and activism of the people who work there. It was home to hundreds of different artists, directors, and activists—and it was destroyed in a mere five days, something that had never happened in the modern history of Russian theatre.

The SDA Theatre, which received control of the Meyerhold Center building, was founded in 1987 by Anatoly Vasilyev, a legendary Russian director. In 2006, the Moscow authorities took the building from him and fired Vasilyev, and in 2007 he emigrated from Russia. The current managing director of the SDA, Olga Sokolova, is associated with the firing of two directors from SDA for pure censorship reasons, and she forced the actors of the theatre to vote for the constitutional amendments that allowed Putin to be reelected for another term. Now she is in charge of the building that was the Meyerhold Center.

Sokolova’s first action in her new position was to demand that the marketing department remove the “No to War” post on Meyerhold Center’s Instagram. She then announced that she would fine residents who cancelled their performances at the venue because of anti-war positions or their disagreement with the destruction of Meyerhold Center. On the first day of the new administration, all anti-war posters and stickers were torn down at the Meyerhold Center, and the new head of security interrogated employees about their colleagues with anti-war stances. As one of the Meyerhold Center employees tells me, with the arrival of the new SDA security service, the guards at the entrance were immediately changed. The previous guards knew the staff and residents by sight, and the Meyerhold Center was generally an open place for audiences and residents to meet and work. The new director made this impossible by requiring that all admission lists be submitted to her personally for signature. They even replaced the box office door with a turnstile. The Meyerhold Center was an open venue for all kinds of people, and the new administration is completely upending that.

The Meyerhold Center has been one of the most politically active theatre spaces due to the views and activism of the people who work there. It was home to hundreds of different artists, directors, and activists—and it was destroyed in a mere five days.

Over the past ten years, the space of free expression for artists, curators, writers, and other creative workers in Russia has been rapidly shrinking, but this has been relatively stealthy and targeted. The authorities have promoted the right people to administrative positions and reduced funding for liberal and leftist initiatives. The special services, the police, and paid thugs have been cracking down on especially politically active people. In the last three years, this process intensified: institutions and people began to be recognized as foreign agents, completely cut off from budget financing, and made targets of criminal and administrative proceedings, making their work impossible. It is a strange and scary process when people who just a couple of years ago looked like loyalist gatekeepers have now, by doing the same things, turned into oppositionists. In just over a month of war, the infrastructure for any kind of modern independent culture in Russia seems to have been completely destroyed by an unprecedented state attack on people and institutions that dared to oppose the war or did not support it actively enough.

A performance artist confronted by police.

Anti war performance in St. Petersburg center. Activist Zhenya Isaeva was arrested and held for eight days.

I left Russia the day before the war began, on 23 February. On that day, Russia celebrates Defender of the Fatherland Day, a militaristic holiday. Children in schools and kindergartens are dressed in military uniforms, and drunken men shout and harass women in the streets. Russia began pulling troops to the border with Ukraine back in the winter, so by that point we had been living in tension for months. Still, few believed in a full-scale invasion; most thought it was just a threat so that the West would finally start talking to Putin. On 22 February, my friend and I flew from St. Petersburg to Krasnodar, a city in the south of Russia, to give a performance-lecture on how the theme of love—including queer love—had been developed in performance art over the last sixty years. It was an anti-war gesture: the lecture argued that our bodies are needed to make connections, not to defend the homeland through war. We did the event, then flew from Krasnodar to the Armenian city of Gyumri on 23 February, and on 24 February I woke up and read that Russia had started an invasion of Ukraine. Within hours Rosaviation had closed flights from airports in the south of the country, so I had actually left at the last minute. I had just finished my second book and was planning to fly for a vacation for two or three weeks, but I ended up in forced migration.

It has been more than a month. I really want to go back to St. Petersburg, but now it doesn’t seem safe at all. You can be detained for a badge with a Ukrainian flag on it; in the centers and subways of Moscow and St. Petersburg, the police stop people who seem suspicious and look at their phone, checking messages. They do the same with many people at the border who are trying to fly out of Russia. That's not the worst thing that can happen: there are plenty of activists in Russia who continue to be detained and searched, and why should I be in better position than they are? But the war is paralyzing, and it's very hard to decide to do anything at all because life is just cracking at the seams.

In just over a month of war, the infrastructure for any kind of modern independent culture in Russia seems to have been completely destroyed.

"I quit too!"

Today, there is a full-fledged military censorship in Russia. All independent media outlets have been officially blocked, and largest—like Echo of Moscow or TV Rain—have been shut down completely. Below, I will describe a substantial part of what has happened in the landscape of Russian theatre and performance during this month of war. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is clear from it that almost all the key institutions which produced contemporary theatre and performance in Russia have been closed, shut down in protest, lost key people in administrations, or gone into hibernation mode; people are quitting their jobs or are being forced to quit; artists and critics are being locked up for protesting or for being suspected of expressing “incorrect” positions; theatre education, already nearly non-existent in Russia, is incorporating ecstatic pro-Putin positions and pushing out people with anti-war stances; international cultural exchange has virtually stopped; major independent cultural foundations have been declared foreign agents or are withdrawing from Russia themselves. In short, everything that has been accumulating drop by drop since the 1990s has been trampled in a month of war, and if Russia emerges from the war as the same country, which is doubtful, people here will have to rebuild the cultural landscape from scratch.

Many dissenters have resigned quietly and without scandal or without public sanctions against them, and the public just doesn't know about a lot of things that are happening in the regions of Russia right now. Nevertheless, the day after Kovalskaya's dismissal, Mindaugas Karbauskis, the artistic director of the Mayakovsky Theatre since 2011, resigned. He wrote on Facebook, “I quit too!” Earlier, that theatre's actors had been instructed in writing not to speak out on social media about the war, so as “not to let the Theatre down.” Two days later, Laurent Hilaire, the French choreographer who has been the artistic director of ballet at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Musical Theatre since 2017, resigned. Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of the V-A-C Foundation and their House of Culture GES-2 (which opened in the winter and was to become a hot new center for contemporary culture), resigned, too. Ragnar Kjartanson prematurely terminated Santa Barbara, his long-term performance at the V-A-C. Curators Ekaterina Krupennikova and Nikita Rasskazov also quit, and a group of young Russian performance artists declined to participate in the Foundation's projects. As a result, GES-2 suspended all exhibition and performance activities indefinitely, as did the private museum GARAGE, Russia's largest museum of contemporary art. Conductor Vasily Petrenko resigned as artistic director of the Svetlanov State Academic Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Sanderling resigned as artistic director and chief conductor of the Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra, and Tugan Sokhiev resigned as chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre.

Other dissenters lost their leadership positions in cultural institutions. The heads of two theatre museums, the Shchepkin House Museum and the Meyerhold Museum-Apartment of Meyerhold, were fired without explanation. The latter was closed “for technical reasons.” (In conjunction with the destruction of the Meyerhold Center, it is worth recalling that the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold was shot after three weeks of torture by Stalin's regime, and his wife was killed by unknown assailants after complaining about a NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs) officer.) In Novosibirsk, the Department of Culture fired Yulia Churilova, director of the First Theater, without any explanation. Shortly before that, anonymous telegram-channels affiliated with the security services had attacked her for plans to show a play in Ukrainian, Judith, the Secret Diary, in the One-Two-Three. festival. In Ulan-Ude, Sergey Levitsky, who openly declared his anti-war and anti-Putin stance on social media, was fired from the position of artistic director of the Bestuzhev Theatre. He was also fired from the local Institute of Culture, and the theatre cancelled all of his shows. Professor Alyona Karas, who had taught at the country’s main theatre university, Russian Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS), for twenty-five years, resigned in anti-war protest. She did this after the rector of GITIS, along with other rectors of major theatre, music, and film universities in Russia, signed—as representatives of the Association of Educational Institutions of Arts and Culture—a letter in support of the “special operation” in Ukraine.

Dozens of theatrical shows and performance projects in various cities have been postponed or cancelled due to the foreign performers’ refusal to participate or local artists’ protests. The team behind Access Point, the St. Petersburg festival of site-specific theatre announced its closure as a sign of disagreement with Russia’s military policy. This is significant, as Access Point in St. Petersburg and the Meyerhold Center in Moscow were the last two institutions that offered real contemporary theatre and performance art to young, politically active people. The major festivals Golden Mask and Dance Open also announced the cancellation of this year's international program after the companies and directors refused to come. Performances have also been canceled by the authorities or festival/theatre managers for the anti-war stance of their participants. Thus, within the Golden Mask festival, several productions on “sensitive topics” were cancelled. One of these productions, The Golden Rooster, was cancelled by the director of the Taganka Theatre, Irina Apeksimova, after the production’s director, Maxim Isayev, spoke out against the war from the stage. Apeksimova said that “The Golden Rooster went beyond a theatrical project.” It was a purposeful policy to establish many functionaries like her in positions of power in today’s Russia.

If Russia emerges from the war as the same country, which is doubtful, people here will have to rebuild the cultural landscape from scratch.

Foreign institutions have cancelled collaborations or postponed projects with Russian artists and institutions, including Romeo Castellucci's new project with conductor Theodor Kurentzis, whose work in Russia supported with money from the sanctioned VTB Bank. Russian artists who have not explicitly opposed the war have been suspended or fired in many places outside of Russia, as in the cases of Anna Netrebko, Valery Gergiev, Denis Matsuev, and Rimas Tuminas. The Met Opera has withdrawn from cooperation with the Bolshoi Theatre and will make its own costumes and sets for Lohengrin; they also terminated contracts with Russian performers. The Bolshoi, in turn, has postponed shows and is urgently recruiting a cast of Russians.

Performance rights and revenues have also become tools for theatremakers to support or oppose the war. One of Russia's most popular playwrights, Ivan Vyrypaev, wrote an open letter to Russian theatres in which he announced that he would donate royalties from shows to a fund providing humanitarian aid in Ukraine. Immediately afterwards, Russian theatres began to cancel performances of his plays—most citing “technical reasons,” some explicitly saying that they did not support the imposition of an “anti-Russian position.” The Globus Theatre in Novosibirsk announced that it would donate the proceeds from the play The Giant Bean “to help the children of Donbass.” (“Helping children” may sound like something noble, but in essence it is support for Putin's war. The mythical “genocide of children of Donbass” was invented as one of the reasons for the invasion). The director of the play, Polina Kardymon, said that the theatre had not asked or warned anyone from the team about this decision. Vladimir Mashkov, the artistic director of the Tabakov Theatre, was also about to donate the money the money from Seaman's Silence shows to the “national republics” occupied by pro-Russian gangs, but the son of the play's author, Alexander Galich, who lives in Ukraine, has already promised to ban the performance of his father's play. The son of Soviet classical playwright Alexander Volodin also revoked the rights of Russian theatres to stage plays based on his father's plays, and Georgian writer Tamta Melashvii revoked permission from an independent Russian theatre to perform a play based on her text, Counting, directed by Zhenya Berkovich, who had just served fifteen days in jail for participating in an anti-war protest.

As did the theatre critic and teacher Yulia Oseeva, who spent ten days in jail. Director Yuri Shekhvatov got fifteen days in jail and was beaten by two policemen when they arrested him. The performance artist and activist Katrin Nenasheva, who works with marginalized groups and troubled teens, was sentenced to fourteen days in jail after being arrested in front of her house simply because she has a background in protest speech. So were dozens of other artists, filmmakers, actors, and actresses who came out for anti-war protests in early March and got two weeks of jail time or heavy fines. And that's not the worst of it: at the Brateevo police station, as well as in some others, anti-war girl activists were beaten, doused with water, and forced to undress.

A woman with a sign stands behind a news anchor.

Editor of First TV Channel Marina Ovsyannikova protests in live news stream.

My friend, with whom I flew from Krasnodar, told me about one of the Ukrainian refugees she now helps in Finland: a Ukrainian theatre director who had been working in Moscow for several years. After the war started, the Federal Security Service (FSB) came to her address just because of her Ukrainian passport. She was not at home, and when she found out about the visit, she flew out of Russia. Like this Ukrainian director, many people have left Russia in a month of war. For example, one of the most popular theatre and film actresses, Chulpan Khamatova, who was scolded a few years ago for her public support of Putin, did not return from Riga, Latvia. She said in an interview that she was afraid of losing herself and her conscience by remaining an actress in Russia. Prima ballerina Olga Smirnova quit Bolshoi Theatre and left Russia as well.

On the other hand, Putin just recently proposed that Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Theatre's director general and Putin’s longtime trustee, should consider restoring “the United Directorate of Imperial Theatres”—essentially merging the two oldest opera theatres, the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. The Bolshoi has its own directorate, but Putin didn't ask them, apparently because Bolshoi director Vladimir Urin signed an anti-war letter. This appeal to the “imperial directorate of theatres” indicates what Putin thinks of his place in Russian history, but it is also a sign of the verticalization policy that Putin has been pursuing all along. He has failed in most of what he wanted and promised to do, but most seriously he has failed in building institutions in Russia. Now in Russia everything is in manual control, hence the desire to concentrate as many structures as possible in one hand: merging theatres and firing dissenting administrations is one key example of Putin’s verticalization policy.

This is one of the reasons why cultural institutions and people in Russia are wary of speaking out directly against the war: today in Russia you cannot call the war a war.

Performing the Protest

Of course, there is also active resistance. At the beginning of the war, self-organized groups of young artists demanded explicit anti-war statements from cultural institutions. When institutions refused to do so, or when they spoke in innuendo (“the current events,” “the difficult situation”), the artists broke their contracts and refused to work. Their reason here is not only the timidity of cultural institutions, but also the new law “on fake-news discrediting the activities of the Russian military during the special operation in Ukraine.” Behind the convoluted name hides military censorship: in practice, these amendments to the criminal and administrative codes prohibit calling war a war. Several hundred administrative protocols have already been drawn up for this, and a pile of fines have been imposed. For this reason, the remaining independent media are blocked by Roskomnadzor (the Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology, and Mass Media); there is no doubt that there will be criminal cases under this policy next. This is one of the reasons why cultural institutions and people in Russia are wary of speaking out directly against the war: today in Russia you cannot call the war a war.

Three women dressed in black stand in front of a building holding flowers.

Women In Black action in Ekaterinburg city. Participants were detained.

But this does not stop everyone. One recent phenomenon is the Feminist Anti-War Resistance, a decentralized organization of activists and activist cells that organizes protest actions and info-campaigns. Until now, the “serious opposition” in Russia has had one working tool: mass city protests. But the effectiveness of the rallies has come to naught, and so has their attendance. The police and the National Guard openly beat the protesters, making them bleed and breaking their limbs, and they detain everyone—even those who just walk by. At the February and March protests across Russia, over fifteen thousand people were detained. The Feminist Anti-War Resistance then proposed that protest is a spectrum, and everyone can protest to the best of their ability. They focused on decentralized performative actions: laying flowers, bringing back feminist protest formats like “Women in Black,” writing antiwar slogans on cash, and giving new impetus to the “silent picket” format in which protest slogans become part of clothing or outfit. Yet people in Russia already get arrested and subjected to administrative protocols for actions like writing on backpacks, combining clothes in the colors of the Ukrainian flag, holding posters with only asterisks: “*** *****” (which in Russian is easily read as “no to war” or “fuck war”), and so on. Nevertheless, their activities are quite effective. With local actions and small visual elements—flowers, ribbons, small figurines of soldiers, stickers and posters—they turn spaces in Russian cities into information sites, overcoming a media blockade about the war to inform Russians.

Performance is more central to the current phase of protests than ever before. Although there was already Moscow Actionism, Pussy Riot, Petr Pavlensky, and others, these were individual artists and small groups. Now, performative and actionist methods are becoming part of mass anonymous protest. Activists make happenings, draw graffiti, burn effigies in military uniforms—in short, they make performance out of protest. When Marina Ovsyannikova, editor of Channel One, ran out in front of the camera with a placard reading “No to War! They lie to you here!” during a news livestream, it was a form of pure protest actionism that had simply never happened before on Russian federal television.

Protest is not the only thing that is performative now. Politics has become performative in general, but especially in Russia where both domestic and foreign policies are almost exclusively media simulacra, unconnected to reality. Putin's Russia struggles against threats and lauds achievements that are mostly the product of federal television and the state security bloc, where the paranoid old men sit. Federal television has practically stopped broadcasting anything but “informational” and “political” programs, and there was a concert with Putin and his lackeys performing under the slogan “World without Nazi!” One must understand that the “Nazis in Ukraine” that Russia is supposedly fighting is a total phantom. Because the members of the state security bloc do not work with reality, but with phantoms, they inevitably increase the degree of media hysteria.

The level of street aggression is increasing; protesters are now attacked not only by police, but also by fellow citizens zombified by propaganda. Russian cities are disfigured with the letters Z and V, which are used by the Russian military in Ukraine; the same letters are painted on the apartment doors of opposition activists along with the words “traitor to the motherland.” Theatre critic and New European Theatre (NET) festival curator Marina Davydova found the letter Z, a swastika-like symbol of the ongoing war in Russia, painted on the door of her apartment in Moscow. She received numerous threats in connection with the publication of the anti-war petition and had to leave Russia. And on 24 March it became known that the Union of Theatre Workers of the Russian Federation (closely aligned with the Ministry of Culture) had suspended the publication of the magazine Teatr, where Davydova was editor-in-chief. Teatr was the only professional publication in Russia about theatre and performance with a liberal focus, and now it's gone.

Under such conditions, it is easy for the population to be fed war.

In general, the level of absurdity and injustice in Russia now causes a mental severance that I have no idea how to deal with. A policeman erases the word “no to war” in the snow with his shoe and then reports that the task is completed; municipal workers pour paint over the ice of the Griboyedov Canal in order to cover the “no to war” inscription, and the paint covers the word “no,” leaving only “war.” This is all in St. Petersburg, my city. There are hundreds of cases like this.

Now a lot of people write that Russia has fallen into fascism in a month. Of course, this has not all happened in a month. The direct analogies do not seem correct, but in a very short period of time, the rise of reactionary forces and repressive apparatus in the country indeed created an atmosphere of post-fascism, about which the historian Enzo Traverso wrote. This is the kind of authoritarian regime that is characterized by military aggression, internal violence, and the destruction of social self-organization, but which no longer needs a mass movement from below because society has already become extremely atomized by neoliberal reforms. Therefore, this post-fascist regime in Russia simply falsifies the mass support of the people and creates a semblance. Huge numbers of people in Russia live in what Lauren Berlant called “slow death”: the necropolitics of the state support them enough to barely survive but not to think of a “life-affirming life.” Under such conditions, it is easy for the population to be fed war. Sure, the victim of this regime in Russia was, as we can see, the entire theatrical and performance sphere and, more broadly, the sphere of contemporary culture and art. But in just one attack by Russian military forces in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol alone, the Donetsk Regional Drama Theatre, used as a bomb shelter, was physically destroyed; three hundred people were reported dead under the rubble there alone. And I just can't stop thinking about it.

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