Orango Goes Bananas

Peter Pomerantsev · Propaganda at the Proms

Orango hated communists. Part man, part ape, he was the product of a French biologist’s experiments in inseminating monkeys with human sperm. The human overcame the animal in him and in the early 20th century he rose to become a star journalist and media mogul, using his power to attack the fledgling Soviet Union. But the more he ranted about the evils of the working class and communism, the more ape-like he became, both physically and psychologically, descending into violence and finally madness. By this point a world cataclysm had brought down the bourgeois order, and Orango was sold to a Soviet circus: shown off at Red Square parades as the ape who could blow his nose like a human being.

This is where Shostakovich’s opéra bouffe Orango opens. Indeed it is the only scene we have. The opera was commissioned in 1932 for the annual celebration of the Russian Revolution, but its humour (not unlike Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog) didn’t fit the latest demands of Stalinist style and the score was abandoned, only to be accidentally recovered, sitting in a box, in a Moscow music school in 2004. I went to see it at the Proms last week, and on my way was wondering how the director, Irina Brown, would go about dealing with the lack of a proper stage at the Albert Hall. Would we be forced to sit through a recital?

Brown’s staging turned out to be a treat. The small cast entered down the audience aisles wearing early 20th-century costumes, while the orchestra and choir wore very 21st-century Lenin and Stalin T-shirts. ‘I really wanted to force home the point the old propaganda is back,’ Brown told me afterwards. The real twist, however, came when the audience in the standing area all brought out little red flags and started waving them to simulate a Red Square parade (Brown’s team had given out the flags before the performance). This was a lovely piss-take of the Last Night of the Proms, when the audience wave Union Jacks to Elgar in patriotic fervour. As Brown’s audience waved their little red flags, KGB men in leather coats demanded more happiness with guns and threats. To reinforce the point the choir put on happy masks. Do people believe propaganda, Brown seemed to be asking, and/or do they follow it out of fear, and with an awareness of irony?

The morning after the performance I woke to find that the Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov had been given a twenty-year sentence by a Russian court for ‘terrorism’. A Russian-speaking Crimean, he had opposed the peninsula’s annexation and was arrested at a pro-Ukrainian protest. Much of the case was straight out of a horror opéra bouffe. Sentsov’s body showed torture marks. Sentsov said security services had beaten him with batons, choked him with plastic bags, stripped him and threatened to rape him with a baton and bury him in the woods. The prosecutor didn’t deny the presence of the marks but claimed that bondage equipment had been found in a raid on Sentsov’s home and the marks were the results of a search for sexual satisfaction. In his final speech Sentsov quoted Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita: ‘Cowardice is the greatest sin,’ he said, calling on the ‘informed’ part of the Russian public not to be afraid of the Kremlin.

Part of the point of show trials is that the over-the-top absurdity of the charges intimidates any potential opposition. They have the added benefit of making the general population feel complicit in the injustice. After the sentence Russian oppositionists agonised over the extent of their guilt. ‘We will all now write we feel a sense of shame,’ the journalist Oleg Kashin wrote. ‘But a sense of shame is a sense of solidarity. Are you sure the Russian state deserves your solidarity?’ Others vehemently disagreed, arguing that some great act of bravery was needed to absolve the guilt, or that if you felt good about Russia annexing Crimea (as many ‘liberals’ do), you now had to accept responsibility for the Sentsov sentence.

The theme of being co-opted is a subject of the great St Petersburg director Aleksey German’s final movie, It’s Hard to be a God, now showing at the ICA. The film follows the struggles of a man from Earth trying to keep his humanity after being sent to an alien planet. He is trapped in a Bruegel-like medieval world of mud, murder, rape, torture, squelching, smells and more mud (the opening credits warn the viewer of violence, sex and gore). He is constantly wiping the mud off his face with white handkerchiefs, his desperate attempts at hygiene one of the few things that mark his difference from the locals, another being his refusal to kill despite being the best swordsman on the planet.

Towards the end of the film the hero starts to repeat the defeatist truisms one hears in Russia (and which the Kremlin likes to reinforce): ‘Nothing will ever change here’; ‘If a new power comes it will be the same.’ After his lover is murdered he finally breaks and goes on a mass killing spree. At the very end we see him sitting, surrounded by hills of corpses, his feet in a large puddle, looking comparatively clean, and barking that he will never go back to Earth.


  • 6 September 2015 at 5:18pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    The anti-Bolshevik (or perhaps, more generally, anti-communist) message of Bulgakov’s "Heart of a Dog" is very clear, while this short dystopian fantasy brims over with bitter, satiric humor; and, it can also be considered as a thoughtful effort in the realm of “science fiction”. It would be interesting to know if Bulgakov had read "The Island of Dr. Moreau" or Kafka's story about the humanized ape who addressed his existential complaints to an Academy? I wonder if Mr. Pomerantsev can enlighten readers about "Heart of a Dog"'s publication history. Did it ever appear in the USSR, or did its Russian release come after the collapse of the Soviet Union? Did zamizdat or mimeographed versions ever make the rounds? I read a good English translation of it years ago, but cannot remember any supplementary information in the book which shed light on its publication history (perils of old age).

  • 8 September 2015 at 6:01pm
    zsumo says:
    Bulgakov certainly knew “The Island of Dr. Moreau”, but not surely Kafka. “The Heart of a Dog”‘s publication history is as follows: published in Russian at Paris (1968, 1969), it reached some Russian readers in this 'tamizdat' editions (at least 3 editions by YMCA Press); and was published first in the Soviet Union on 1987.

  • 9 September 2015 at 3:31pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Thank you, zsumo. The "vector of development" of these works goes in different directions anyway. Kafka's humanized ape (a state he achiwves by mastery of language) is a sympathetic character who looks good in comparison to his captors and trainers. Bulgakov's dog-man hybrid (the product of a "mad scientist", i.e., a stand-in for the Bolsheviks and their project of constructing A New Man) gets more obnoxious and shifty over time, indicting the alleged New Man as both a joke and a failure. By 1987 I'm guessing that there were a lot of potential young Russian readers who wouldn't get the joke at all. "Free Market Man" didn't turn out to be much of an improvement, either.

  • 10 September 2015 at 9:06pm
    zsumo says:
    Russian readers are and were still in 1987 the best in the world -- I mean not only the quantity but reading behind the lines. There are dramatic changes in this, no doubt.
    As for Bulgakov's dog allegory, I dare to propose my article: "Fatal Hearts of the 1920s. On Mikhail Bulgakov's Story The Heart of a Dog." Scottish Slavonic Review 14, July 1990. 181–190. In Hungary this piece was also prohibited, so appeared only in clandestine samizdat, in my translation, hence my emotional atatchment to it.

  • 12 September 2015 at 2:48pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I'd like to read the piece but have had no luck in tracking it down in a form which I can either download or read on the screen, either through the CEEOL website or through your (ZH) professional links on the internet (this is due to my lack of a facebook account, etc.). I do have a question, however. Why would commentary on or analysis of Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog be banned in Hungary after the collapse of the communist regime? (I can imagine all kinds of writing being stifled and/or assaulted, if not outright banned, by the Orban regime, but think of 1990-2010 as a relatively open period for the arts and political commentary in Hungary).