Aphrodite bends over Stalin
John Lloyd writes about the confusing state of the arts in Russia
Russian high culture has failed to flourish since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Though there are now signs of recovery, and though its magnificent base has not been destroyed, it is clear that the overwhelming feeling is still one of loss. Nothing can be done in the short term: the great institutions exist in suspended animation, the great figures age, pass from the scene, or get rich; the new names do not so much make great careers as find niches, very often abroad. In the theatre, incomparable acting is confined very largely to productions of the classics – Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Ostrovsky – in studios or rehearsal rooms before restricted audiences. At the opera, the repertoire is (usually) sung well, though the sets were made thirty years ago. In avant-garde art, the main reference point remains Ilya Kabakov, whose pre-eminence was established in the Seventies and who lives in Paris. Serious music – what there is of it – is as hermetic as anything in the West.
Even were money available, it could not recreate the infrastructure on which Soviet art depended. Soviet art, no matter how propagandist, always had a degree of autonomy, a space in which the practitioners could claw back a measure of freedom from the ideological controllers, but none, no matter how opaque, could avoid submitting in one way or another to the system.
The most ‘Russian’ of the arts, the one most closely identified with the state, is ballet, and Moscow is still regarded as its capital. But for many ballet-lovers and critics, Russia’s period of dominance has ended. For the ballet, as for space exploration and the arms race, money was once no object. The Bolshoi in particular was a Soviet hothouse, a showcase for visitors and sometimes an ambassador for the USSR abroad. Its most famous director, Yuri Grigorovich, who ruled the Bolshoi for 30 years, was prised from power in 1994. He was opposed by many of his leading performers, though not by the majority of the staff, who liked a conservative regime: more important, he failed to get backing from the Kremlin (which continues to have the last word where the Bolshoi is concerned) because of his opposition to a contract system of employment, designed in part to cut the huge cost of the theatrical army. The business manager, Vladimir Kokonin, defeated him in a fashion unthinkable in Soviet times. ‘People are going to have to start justifying their salaries,’ Kokonin announced. ‘We don’t want time-serving civil service types.’
Grigorovich has gone with dignity: not so Oleg Vinogradov, chief choreographer of the Maryinsky (the old name was restored for domestic purposes, but the name Kirov retained abroad, the anti-Communist gesture taking second place to market strategy). In October 1994, Vinogradov was arrested and charged with corruption, along with the theatre’s newly appointed director, Anatoly Malkov: he’d been in his post for 18 years. The police investigating the charges announced that Malkov was ‘just small fry. It is Vinogradov who is behind all the bribes’ – which they alleged to be worth many millions of dollars. John Cripton, a Canadian impresario who had booked the Maryinsky/Kirov on foreign tours for ten years, said that Vinogradov used to demand additional payments on every contract. Vinogradov denies everything, and – now out on bail – has continued to work at the Maryinsky. Even those activities which he has been open about suggest that the stars are able, and eager, to enrich themselves while the bit players struggle – a trend not confined to the ballet. Vinogradov took a house in Washington in order to be close to his Kirov Academy of Ballet, funded by members of the Unification Church (the Moonies). He is also consultant to a Japanese ballet company modelled on Kirov lines, and when asked if he would like to start other Kirov affiliates in Germany and Ireland gave a typical post-Soviet answer: ‘Why not?’
In ballet, opera and classical music, the companies and orchestras who survive are heavily dependent on figures like Vinogradov or Kokonin, who can secure foreign tours and earn hard currency. This means, in turn, that their repertoires tend to ossify, with the ‘favourites’ being played over and over again; there are rarely guest conductors and tours are longer and more debilitating than any equivalent Western company would allow. The St Petersburg Philharmonic appears for barely half the year in its home city. One of its two principal conductors, Mariss Jansons is chief conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony and principal guest conductor of the London Philharmonic; he also has a contract with the Oslo Philharmonic.
The absence of stars is striking by comparison with Soviet times. Defections were once intermittent. Under Gorbachev, the trickle became a flood, as performers realised what (relatively) high earnings were available even on minor international circuits. The Moscow Conservatoire, until the Eighties the best musical school in the world, producing a high proportion of the century’s most gifted pianists and violinists, still has an impressive list of professors, which includes many of these performers, but few give more than one or two classes a year on the rare occasions when they visit Moscow. The result, as the pianist and Conservatoire professor Nikolai Petrov put it, is that ‘we are very near the end of what we were most proud of – the Russian style of playing. The professors work so little with their pupils you cannot tell if it is a Russian playing.’
‘Near the end’: the theme of exhaustion recurs again and again. The great centres were and often still are under the control of an all-powerful director: Vinogradov has been at the Maryinsky/Kirov for 18 years, Grigorovich was at the Bolshoi for 30 and the late Yevgeny Mravinsky ran the St Petersburg Philharmonic for an astonishing 50 years. Such regimes were naturally conservative and authoritarian, but they created a disciplined environment in which talent could be nurtured. For Russian audiences, the conclusion is obvious: capital accumulated in socialist times is now being disbursed in foreign markets without any attempt being made to replace it.
In 1992 a Russian-American businessman, Tristan Del, began negotiating with the state TV and radio companies for the right to market its enormous archive of recorded classical music. He finally struck a deal last year, involving the UK marketing company Telstar, to issue selections from 400,000 hours of music, which include Shostakovich (playing as well as being performed), Prokofiev and Stravinsky, with performers like Gilels, Richter and Rostropovich. Del claimed the archive was worth as much as $9 billion – a huge exaggeration. But its value is great and the deal is being protested by Nikolai Petrov and the Ministry of Culture, among others. It is nonetheless going through. Del says he has invested some five billion dollars. He has clearly driven a hard bargain, but he is committed to making material available which might otherwise have been left to decay.
The greater exhaustion is ideological. The tyranny of the long-lived directors paralleled that of the state: their repertoire was a mixture of preserved classics and approved propagandist works such as Spartacus, scored by Khachaturyan and choreographed by Grigorovich – a conventional ballet expressing the Soviet Union’s liberating mission. Danced at full stretch, Spartacus is an astounding event – especially its climax where the hero is raised to the roof on the tips of spears – but is regarded by the ballet world as an ageing curiosity. ‘Only the Bolshoi could have danced this ballet ... and only the Bolshoi would have wanted to,’ Luke Jennings wrote in the New Yorker. Grigorovich, the central postwar figure in Russian ballet, was innovative at the start, seeking, for example, to stage Swan Lake with its original tragic ending. In the event, however, Ekaterina Furtseva, the Minister of Culture – decreed that the conventional happy ending had to stay. Soviet ballet was ferociously conservative; but it was a conservatism of a kind which required the strongest of defences, and no one was strong enough to prevent the escape of some of the finest performers and the infiltration of much that was subversive. By the end, the fortress was crumbling, both inside and out.
Killing ballet is not easy, however, as the Russian critic Vadim Gayevsky explained. ‘Ballet in Russia is very badly injured but it is not dead yet. The interest is still there as are the amazing schools that reflect that interest. Ballet is an art with a past and a future but with no present.’ That socialist artistic capital is being squandered is obvious, and perhaps inevitable as Russia joins the international cultural circuit. That its star figures should be trying, by every means, to get rich is also inevitable: they have after all long been envious guests on their foreign colleagues’ estates and in their palatial apartments. Lacking the old means of coercion over its artists, Russian musical society is faced with having to fund its institutions and find the money with which to hold onto its stars. There are some small signs that it is doing so: fees in Moscow, St Petersburg and other musical cities like Odessa are now closer to international levels. The state recording label Melodiya has been broken up and one part has concluded an agreement with the German company BMG to market its archive, with much larger fees being paid to the performers. On the other hand, as orchestras from Russia and other former Soviet republics pour onto the world market, they are putting great pressure on the international fee structure. For the moment it’s impossible to tell whether the barriers will go up or whether the hungry Easterners will be allowed to lower the price of classical and modern music, and add to the growing popularity of both.
In Omon Ra, a novel by Victor Pelevin published in 1992, the eponymous hero declares: ‘I realised at once and early on that only weightlessness can give man genuine freedom which is why all my life I’ve been bored by all those Western radio voices and those books by various Solzhenitsyns. In my heart, of course, I loathed a state whose silent menace obliged every group of people who came together, even if only for a few seconds, to zealously imitate the vilest and bawdiest individual among them.’ There, in two sentences, Pelevin delivers the judgment of his generation – he is in his early thirties – on both the Soviet system and its sternest critics. This careless tossing aside of both totalitarianism and dissidence, of the ‘various Solzhenitsyns’ along with a state of ‘silent menace’, has become an essential posture for novelists and poets struggling to cope with the ruins of a universe once entirely populated by Good and Evil figures.
The writers who have become known as the ‘new’ Russians are sometimes not new, not very young and rejected official Communism while it was still in business and official anti-Communism when it was still being punished. As they have won wider recognition at home and abroad – attended by a barrage of criticism from the Sixties generation, who regard them as an abomination – they have become bolder. Omon Ra expresses some of their preoccupations. Its hero – whose name combines the acronym of the Russian special forces and the name of the Egyptian sun god – enrols as a pilot, is recruited as an astronaut and is told by his superiors that he and the rest of his crew will not survive the mission they are assigned. In fulfilling it, he discovers that he is caught up in an interlocking series of lies: that he has ‘volunteered’ for the mission; that the Soviet space programme is more humane than the American since it uses unmanned rockets, while in actual fact young men like Omon are deliberately sent to their deaths; that the mission does not leave the ground anyway, being an elaborate charade mounted for television. The KGB colonel who assists in Omon’s training tells him: ‘We just didn’t have time to defeat the West technologically. But in the battle of ideas you can’t stand still for a second. The paradox – another piece of dialectics – is that we support the truth with falsehood because Marxism carries within it an all-conquering truth, and the goal for which you will give your life is, in a formal sense, a deception. But ... the more consciously you perform your feat of heroism, the greater will be the degree of its truth, the greater will be the meaning of your brief and beautiful life.’ Later, in a passage of triumphantly black humour, Pelevin/Omon Ra hears from one of his fellow victims the story of how, in order to induce a good mood in a visiting Henry Kissinger, the Soviet leadership dresses two other ‘volunteers’ up in bearskins to pose as easy targets for their guest to bag. Failing to hit them even at close range, an enraged Kissinger falls upon one ‘bear’, wounds it mortally with a knife – and signs an arms-control agreement on top of it as it expires.
Like most of his contemporaries, Pelevin is indebted to Venedict Erofeyev, a writer brought up in an orphanage after his father was imprisoned and his mother ran off. Erofeyev led a life of menial labour and drunkenness in the late Sixties while writing Moscow-Petushki, which became a Soviet underground classic – a complex, parodic work in which the narrator-hero Venichka travels from the capital to the small town of Petushki while soliloquising on a world from which the standard Soviet virtues are absent. Erofeyev died in 1992. His novel’s indifference to the constraints of both the state and dissident culture, its disorienting episodic form, its romantic individualism and its hopelessness have all influenced the ‘new’ writers. But where Moscow-Petushki remains for the most part allegorically dense and restrained, many of the newcomers write with an extraordinary violence about the world they have lost or disowned. Vladimir Sorokin, for example, writes about bestial sex, excrement, disease and amputation, then suddenly switches into passages of genteel narrative. Yuz Aleshkovsky, who is older than most of his ‘new’ contemporaries and spent four years in a prison camp, mixes obscenities with powerful evocations of the institutional follies of Soviet life. Yuri Miloslavsky (an exile) describes in expressionless prose a universe of lawless predation. ‘The patrolmen caught Katya when she was coming home from a craft club where they taught her how to make green cardigans. They felt her up and decided she was OK, took her back to the station and gang-banged her until blood ran from her mouth. Then they threw her out of the station in a snowdrift, green cardigan and all.’ This is shocking enough for Western readers, but it is much more so for a Russian audience whose reading matter has in the past been decorous, not to say prudish.
In one sense – as Russian critics have noted – these writers are the first ‘social realists’: they depict the reality that Socialist Realism (i.e. socialist idealism) left out. Vladimir Sorokin’s famous Queue, published in Paris in 1985, consists entirely of dialogue spoken by people standing in line for an unknown commodity which will become available in some indefinite future. In the plays and novels of Ludmila Petrushevskaya, one of the best-known (and best) of the ‘new writers’, the characters behave with consistent vileness – especially the men towards the women, as in Nets and Traps and A Girl Like That. The very concept of redemption is crushed, as the writer dwells on the arbitrariness and cruelty of fate. The assumption is that nothing better can be expected – the opposite of the ‘bright future’ of official Soviet literature.
The ‘new’ writers often hate the Soviet Union, despise the Sixties generation and show only a perfunctory respect for the dissidents. Though clearly unable to resist poking about in the ruins and cloaca of a society they no longer regard as ‘ours’, they are inclined to deny that they are part of a tradition, or interested in politics, or even literary citizens of any definite country. ‘It’s wrong to think there’s a Russian literature,’ says Pelevin. ‘There is nowhere Russian literature could come from. We all grew up amid McDonald’s, dollars, American cars. What’s specifically Russian about it all? The climate perhaps.’
Among the boldest and most prominent of the new writers is Victor Erofeyev (no relation to Venedict) who, in a celebrated essay in the Literary Gazette, proposed that each of the three ‘streams’ of literature which developed after Stalin’s death – ‘official’, ‘village prose’ and ‘liberal’ – was in terminal crisis: the first two have collapsed into a Russian nationalism made the more bitter for official writers by the loss of prestige, money and subsidised print runs, and for the ‘village prose’ writers by the loss of artistic vigour (with the major exception of Victor Astafiev). As for the liberals and the dissidents, their literature ‘has completed the social mission which literature, alas, was forced to assume during the era of the strong state. But in post-utopian Russia, it’s time to return to literature-as-such.’ In a later essay, ‘Russia’s Fleurs du Mal’, published as the Introduction to Penguin’s recent anthology of new Russian writing,[*] Erofeyev pointed to the decade before the 1917 Revolution, Russia’s ‘silver age’, as one in which writers had disengaged from political and social concerns on the grounds – in the words of Fyodor Sologub’s ‘Little demon’ – that ‘evil has free rein in the human soul.’ This fin-de-siècle posture is contrasted with what Erofeyev calls, cuttingly, the ‘warmth of goodness’ which breathed from the lyrics and the prose of the Sixties liberals – Yevtushenko, Okudjawa and even the harder-edged exile writer Vladimir Voinovich.
The Soviet collapse, as Erofeyev acknowledges, involved a real loss; throughout the Soviet period, from Zamyatin through Bulgakov and Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn, writing had displayed a ‘worthy resistance to tyranny’. But the loss has also released ‘the energy that is indispensable for a full journey . . the new Russian literature flutters out of its mine cage. The intensity with which it experiences freedom, it would seem, underpins its very existence.’
The Sixties people think the opposite. Many of them do not recognise what they commonly call this ‘shit’ as literature at all. Lev Annensky, among the most prominent of the Sixties generation still writing in the mid-Nineties, has declared that ‘most modern writers get a kick out of the fact that they buried the Sixties liberals and are now dancing on their graves. They get their energy from anger. Only when they kill us completely will they start to appreciate and feel nostalgic about the culture of the past age. We are living corpses, surviving on artificial respiration.’ Ina Solovyeva, a former Novy Mir editor, says: ‘All the artists want to do today is to yell that everyone is a bastard and everything is shit. I fail to understand the joy and excitement about it.’ And the critic Igor Zolotussky: ‘Dostoevsky never showed intercourse: the new writers believe that if they give us pornography they will show us the depths of evil which Dostoevsky was not capable of plumbing. But they do not show us the depths of evil. They show us the depths of dirt and ugliness.’ This fundamental literary divide is evident in the choices made by the judges of the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Russian Booker Prize (worth $12,500 – a huge sum for Russian writers). The prize raises the profile of Russian fiction at home and abroad. It has helped writers like Mark Kharitonov (winner in 1992), Nikolai Klimontovich (twice nominated) and Alexei Slapovsky (twice nominated). Annensky, the chairman of the jury in 1994, awarded the prize to Okudjawa’s novel The Show is Over, an account of the fate of the author’s own family, reduced from the nomenklatura to prison camps in the purges of the late Thirties – on the grounds of the author’s suffering. It was a last prize for his clan, for the Sixties generation, before the Post-Modernists and their successors swept them away.
However history deals with the ‘new’ writing, there is no doubt the opposition to it represents a final unavailing effort to shore up the old order. Erofeyev is right: the collapse of the Soviet Communist Party removed the raison d’être of those who opposed it, both within the system and without; and the passions which had erupted in the Gorbachev years and which split the Writer’s Union have dwindled into mere spitting and hissing. ‘When I look at my colleagues in the Writers’ Union,’ Mikhail Shatov, a young lion of the Eighties remarks, ‘I see only ... a grubby competition for publication and money.’
It is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s misfortune to have survived into the new age. Alone of the major dissidents – only Sakharov rivalled him in stature – he came back to the country from which he had been expelled twenty years before. The late Joseph Brodsky, asked in July 1995 if he would return, said flatly: ‘I don’t think I can. The country in which I grew up doesn’t exist anymore. You can’t step into the same river twice.’ Though he had the same qualms, Solzhenitsyn yielded to the temptation to emulate the later Tolstoy in acting the sage and returned to Moscow in 1994. He has a group of followers and admirers in the media, and most political figures find it advisable to genuflect to his greatness. He has addressed the Duma, warning of the decadence of the authorities and the growing impatience of the people; has talked with President Yeltsin on the same subject; was given a TV programme on the main state channel; and published a tract, The Russian Question,[†] in which he excoriated most of Russia’s past rulers – tsars as well as Bolsheviks – for betraying her national interest, took a tilt at the Communists, and ended with a warning of racial extinction:
The ‘Russian question’ at the end of the 20th century is unequivocal: shall our people be or not be? The tidal wave of vulgarity and insipidity which seeks to level distinctions between cultures, traditions, nationalities and characters has engulfed the whole planet. And how many are withstanding this onslaught, unwavering and with their heads held high! We are not ... If we persist as we are, who knows whether, a century from now, the time may have come to erase the word ‘Russian’ from the dictionary? ... We must build a moral Russia, or no Russia at all.
Solzhenitsyn would have been better advised to follow Brodsky’s example. He has become yet another object of derision for the young, while their compromised elders still sneer at him. Even his well-wishers are embarrassed and bored. In September 1995, the journalist Konstantin Kedrov wrote in Izvestiya that ‘for many years we were spectators at Solzhenitsyn’s political theatre. Now it’s clear that the new play hasn’t worked. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is worth more than all the days of Solzhenitsyn on TV.’ In the New York Review of Books, Tatyana Tolstaya repeated the rumour that Solzhenitsyn had paid to have his show put on and cast doubt on the reality of the cancer which formed the subject-matter of Cancer Ward. Not long after the appearance of these two articles, the show was killed off: a curt message from the new management of Russian Television mentioned falling ratings. Solzhenitsyn himself has said nothing about it in public but his wife talks of Communists in positions of influence who wish to silence him. This no longer holds water, however: the new media powers, cool and bored, like Tolstaya, are non-ideological. Solzhenitsyn has done himself no favours. His complaints and moral posturings are futile: words are cheap and unheeded in any quarter.
Aphrodite bends over Stalin, apparently about to whisper something in his ear. He is sitting beside massive pillars which have a curtain draped around them, with a Roman oil-lamp burning on a bracket against the wall. The title: The Appearance of Socialist Realism.
A painting of fleecy clouds in a blue sky is almost blotted out by the huge red letters ‘PRAISE TO THE CPSU’.
An empty tin, on whose white label numerous signatures are scribbled, has above its rim a notice on a stick reading: ‘Tin of signatures for the full and unconditional disarmament of America’.
This was SotsArt, a school which flourished underground and abroad from the early Seventies to the late Eighties, when it achieved legitimacy and promptly died. Its main figures – Erik Bulatov, Dmitry Prigov, Grisha Bruskin – were men of the Sixties, or later. Their work often juxtaposed Western consumer or showbiz symbols with Soviet icons – Leonid Sokov’s Stalin and Marilyn, for instance, or Alexander Kosolapov’s Plan for an Advertisement in Times Square (a huge red poster with the Coca-Cola sign and Lenin’s face on it, and the slogan ‘it’s the real thing – Lenin’).
By the late Eighties, everyone could be his own SotsArtist. Indeed, this promiscuous jumbling together of images once implacably hostile to each other is better seen on the streets and on TV than in galleries. Pushkin, not Times Square, was the epicentre – because it was in Pushkin Square that McDonald’s opened its first Russian restaurant. In 1992 Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi signalled his opposition to economic reform by telling of his despair at the sight of Russians queuing in huge numbers for American hamburgers (seen presumably from the window of his Zil limousine). The writer Anatoly Smelyansky introduced a booklet on the state of Russian theatre with a description of the square as a Post-Modern Hell’s Kitchen:
Trading goes on above and below ground. Papers from the Baltics, homemade flysheets; hand-printed flysheets, handpainted publications of every possible group and tendency flash past your eyes. Appeals are stuck up on the wall of the building housing Moscow News. A brochure advertises about 37 different types of sex, promising instant happiness. From beneath the ground an age-old Russian accompaniment can be heard – harmonica, guitar, blind people, beggars, alcoholics, gypsies. And winding round the square, doubling back on itself, a queue for McDonald’s.
The artists have now moved on to different styles of painting, sculpture and ‘happenings’. The artists of the Seventies and Eighties are still working, but most of the best known are abroad. Of these only Ilya Kabakov, the creator above all of ‘installations’ on Soviet themes, has an international reputation. In Moscow, new galleries open, become fashionable, feature in the new glossy magazines like Domovoi, Matador or the Russian Playboy. The avant-garde treads a similar path to that of the new writers, cutting itself loose from ‘meaningful’ art – SotsArt was its last hurrah – and taking up mysticism of various kinds, ransacking the past for inspiration and seeking, above all, to amaze, amuse or shock.
Yet Soviet life is an unending preoccupation. Valentin Cherkashin has conducted a long dialogue with Stalinist art and architecture, has painted it, photographed it and cut up and treated the prints; he has also staged happenings around the statues in the Moscow Metro. Sergei Shutov used the première of the film Assa – a Post-Modern film about the corruption and sloth of Brezhnev’s time – to stage a rock concert, fashion show and installation in which mock-Stalino-classical pillars appear, edged with the limbs of broken dolls. He now works with video and has compiled an affectionate, dreamy tribute to Soviet cinema. A group of artists called Eti (These) took off their clothes in Red Square and spelled out the word khui (‘fuck’) with their naked bodies. They hoped to be arrested and were. A performance artist, Alexander Bremmer, announced an exhibition and appeared before the assembled visitors wearing women’s stockings on his legs and head screaming: ‘Why haven’t you included me in this exhibition?’ At the other extreme, Sergei Barkhin, survivor from the late Fifties, takes earth brought back from trips round the country, or abroad, and sticks it on canvas, as if to establish some stability in a vertiginous world.
Clearly, there is no longer an official style. Art separates into the avant-garde (with an audience little larger than the one it had when it was underground); the commercial – mainstream artists working for corporate buyers and collectors; and the new civic monumentalism. The Ministry of Culture, a largely liberal institution, spreads its exiguous subsidies among a few artists of the less extreme avant-garde in an effort to form a cadre of working professionals.
Like musicians, artists find their society in Moscow and Petersburg being whittled away by emigration – though there is no compelling reason for them to leave. The system of education remains extensive and strict; commercial cancers in advertising and the media are multiplying; the work of their counterparts in the West is freely seen, imitated or surpassed. For older artists, the loss of a system in which union membership brought with it a lifetime’s guaranteed income, studio space and exhibitions is a real blow: their sons and daughters have to sink or swim in more treacherous waters.
Theatre was one of the great Soviet art forms, but recalcitrant. For its first two decades it fell too much under the sway of Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Mayakovsky and Bulgakov for the authorities to enjoy peace of mind. After Stalin’s death, it was among the first arts to press for more space, staging anti-Stalinist pieces with a suspicious gusto. Mayakovsky’s Bedbug was revived in 1955 to capacity crowds, and his proletarian-Bolshevik Pripkin, preserved in a cage by a society in which socialism has reached an inhuman perfection, was heard once again to cry out: ‘Why am I alone in the cage? Why am I suffering?’
For the great post-Stalin directors such as Yuri Lubimov, Oleg Efremov, Mark Zakharov and Georgy Tostonogov, hidden allusions and buried satire were the way to elude the clumsy bureaucracy – a primary objective. But although it had some of the finest actors and directors in the world, Russian theatre was in no shape to face a post-Soviet world. The companies were and are huge – 200 actors on the books at the Moscow Arts, for example – and their ticket prices derisory. They were paid out of the Ministry of Culture’s budget, and for prestige theatres there was always enough money.
It wasn’t only official drama that portrayed the statutory Soviet heroes: even more adventurous work, by playwrights like Alexander Gelman and Mikhail Shatrov, was aimed (at least formally) at purifying Communism. Gelman’s The Minutes of a Meeting, which came out in the mid-Seventies, showed a factory foreman refusing to accept an award because he knew of his bosses’ corruption. The play ran into problems, but was shown to and approved by Alexei Kosygin, the then Prime Minister. In general directors and stars were skilled at flattering and conning the cultural bureaucrats into believing that they had never made any money: officially, wealth was either unimportant or sordid, interfering with the communion between artist and audience.
In 1989, the theatre ceased to be a forum for political discussion. These were difficult times – especially for the intelligentsia – and life itself was becoming more of a spectacle. Television was now interesting, in part because the proceedings of the Supreme Soviet, elected in that year, were screened each night, and new current affairs and discussion programmes were providing the political class with real drama. By the late Eighties, the sermons and lectures that had previously been confined to the stage of Moscow’s theatres were to be found on radio and TV, as well as in newspapers and on the street.
Theatre divided into commercial or classical. Zakharov, always the most entrepreneurial of the directors, began staging lavish costume dramas and contemporary musicals at the Lenkom Theatre for the newly wealthy or at least comfortably-off, whose taste still ran to theatrical evenings. The palaces of culture and factory theatres which had put on plays and shows for the workers nearly all closed. Many of them, often owned by the official unions, were rented out as casinos or nightclubs.
The new wave of directors – Lev Dodin (of St Petersburg’s Maly Theatre), Pyotr Fomenko, Sergei Zhenovach, Kama Ginkas and the veteran enfant terrible, Anatoly Vasiliev – concentrate on the classics, especially Dostoevsky. Dodin and Zhenovach seek and gain wide audiences – including, in Dodin’s case, a following abroad; Ginkas prefers small stages, even rehearsal rooms; while Fomenko managed, in 1995, to turn an Ostrovsky melodrama, The Guilt of the Guiltless, into an experience of exorcism for an audience of seventy in a theatre bar. After a string of successful productions in the Seventies and Eighties, Vasiliev retreated into permanent ‘rehearsals’, proclaiming his to be a ‘theatre without an audience’, a work or ritual for the participants rather than a presentation for spectators.
There has been little or no new drama. Eduard Radzinsky, who has worked in the theatre since the Sixties, wrote a play called Our Decameron which at the time – the late Eighties – appeared to be a scandalous mishmash of old Soviet and new capitalist absurdities. Petrushevskaya’s grim plays are not popular. Gelman’s Misha’s Party, set in the Ukraine Hotel opposite the Russian Parliament during the 1991 coup, was produced abroad, but did not do well in Moscow. Translations, especially of American plays, are usually successful, and in 1994 the Georgian Rustaveli Theatre was given a tremendous ovation – in part no doubt an expression of nostalgia for the days when they were a troupe from another part of the same country.
The Moscow Arts Theatre split after glasnost. One of its stars, Tatiana Doronina, increasingly out of sympathy with Efremov’s weary liberalism, left to start another theatre nearby, which she also called the Moscow Arts Theatre, while dedicating it to the Soviet writer Gorky rather than – as in Efremov’s case – Chekhov. It specialises in drama expressing the ideals of a pure Communism, or a pure nationalism, or both. It was perhaps not surprising that the Moscow Arts, the favourite of the political leadership but also for a century a meeting point for different temperaments, styles and races, should have fallen apart once freedom came.
Traditionally, in the Soviet Union, cinema was the source of the keenest social criticism and comment. Vladimir Menshov, who directed a blockbuster called Moscow Does not Believe in Tears in 1980, recently tried to repeat his success in a film called Shirly Mirly (translated as What a Mess), which was heavily promoted at the 1995 Moscow Film Festival. Foreigners didn’t like it but Russians did. The critic Kyrill Razlogov explained why: ‘the film is a kind of family affair, for the initiated; the circle of the initiated in this case is fairly wide, since it comprises all the Soviet people, united not just by history but by the cinema and by common jokes. The initiated will understand this film from half a word – something that would have to be explained to foreigners, who even then would not understand it.’ Moscow Does not Believe in Tears was the most popular film of its day – seventy-five million tickets sold, an Academy Award gained – and incorporated a Soviet-style happy ending, with the heroine ending up in charge of a factory and married to an honest worker. ‘I made this film,’ Menshov said at the time, ‘with the mass spectator in mind.’ It is a hugely energetic film, full of allusions: a snatch of song from the singer Bulat Okudjawa as the heroine walks back to her hostel, a glimpse of the movie star Innokenty Smoktunovsky, a vignette of the poet Andrei Vosnesensky declaiming his verse in a Moscow square.
Shirly Mirly is also energetic and at times very funny – and beautifully performed. In the opening scenes, a large diamond is stolen by a fake chief of the general staff at a fake airport. The film indeed is full of fakes: fake Americans, fake blacks, fake Jews – even the diamond turns out to be a fake. Race, country, everything is confused: a Russian marries an American, Gypsies play in the Conservatoire, Russian crooks deal in New York. The shots of Moscow focus on the signs – often in English – advertising casinos and nightclubs; the policemen are comically helpless; all institutions – government, military, police – are made fun of. The acting is, as usual on the Russian stage or screen, outstanding, but the film has no core. Even the happy ending is tacked on, and could be ironic – which the Brezhnev-era happy ending of Moscow Does not Believe in Tears, ironically, was not.
Menshov can no longer make a mass film because there are no masses left. Cinema attendances plunged after 1991 – as erotic and violent films took over, aimed at a youth market (which flocked to them at first, then grew tired of them), and as seat prices went up, street crime soared and TV became more varied. From being a normal weekly event, cinema-going has become an occasional venture. This was not what Soviet directors had wanted when, in 1986, led by the director Elem Klimov, they became the first artists to claim that their work should be under their own – and not the Party’s – control. They wanted the state to cease censoring their output and the industry to become self-financing. Their demands drew the perfect response – the first was granted, as the censorship retreated then withdrew; the second was ignored, as subsidies continued and, until 1990, were even increased. This liberating state of affairs seemed to inhibit many directors, however, including Klimov himself, whose 1985 Agony was a horrifying depiction of wartime brutality but who has been unable to bring any other project to fruition.
Many of the most talented people working in the film industry now seek inspiration and money in the West exclusively. A string of ‘black’ films has been made, inspired by Valery Pichul’s Little Vera, a kind of anti-socialist-realist piece starring an actress called Natalya Negoda, whose nude love-making scene, unprecedented in Soviet cinema, ensured its success (and made her into a Playboy centrefold). Intergirl by Valery Todorovsky and Taxi Blues by Pavel Loungin (a French co-production) were in the same vein, and the second had a similar succès d’estime in the West. Todorovsky has since teamed up with Sergei Livnev – who made a film called Kicks in 1992 about a rock and roll star who is also a drug addict – to take over the Gorky Film Studio in Moscow, a virtual gift from the state. The number of films being made surged in the late Eighties and early Nineties, from 150-200 to 350-400 a year, as speculative and criminal money replaced state subsidies. Businessmen were attracted by both the glamour of the industry and the ease with which they could put dirty money into a film and get clean money out in the form of box-office receipts. Since 1992, the figure has dropped to around 120 (in some of the other republics, no films at all were made) and the state has stepped in to pay some 30 per cent of all production costs, sponsoring ‘art’ films and prestige projects, including a new version of Anna Karenina.
The one director who has kept, or indeed increased, his pre-glasnost reputation is Nikita Mikhalkov. He was part of the Soviet ‘aristocracy’, the son of the composer of the Soviet national anthem, the brother of Anton Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, also a famous director (now working largely in the US), and brother-in-law (through his first wife) of the writer Julian Semyenov. Mikhalkov began as an actor, then in 1980 had an instant success with his first film, a version of Oblomov. Later films, including Dark Eyes and Slave of Love, were also ecstatically received both at home and abroad. In 1994 he brought out Burnt by the Sun, a story set in the Thirties, in the dacha of a Red Army general who is arrested by a young NKVD officer, a former lover of his wife. Mikhalkov portrays the general and his family (he plays the general, the daughter is played by his own daughter) as a loving, upright and sympathetic group – in contrast to the world of the NKVD and of the young man who capitalises on his friendship with the family to insinuate himself into its midst. Mikhalkov had avoided politics in the Soviet period, and this anti-Stalinist film appeared somewhat past the fashionable time for making such statements in Russia. It was so well acted and directed, however, that it won awards at Cannes and in Hollywood, and raised Mikhalkov from mere fame to a state of near royalty. Even his father, who wrote an anthem thanking Stalin for the happiness of the people (the line was later excised), has been sanctified, simply for being Mikhalkov’s father.
Part of the reason for Burnt by the Sun’s success is the photogeneity of the family at its centre. But the film’s emphasis on reconciliation is what matters. It is not simply an anti-Stalinist film: it dissociates the healthy elements in Russia itself, and indeed in Communism, from Stalinism. Significantly, Mikhalkov’s political career has been of a piece with his art. He joined Sergei Shakhrai’s Party of Unity and Reconciliation in 1993, then broke with it to join Victor Chernomyrdin’s Our Home is Russia, becoming second to Chernomyrdin himself in its list of candidates for the Parliament – though, since the election in December, he has said he will not take the seat to which his position on the Party list entitles him. His father was once a member of the Central Committee, so one could say that, in his politics, Mikhalkov has brilliantly observed the basic rule of film-making: continuity – which is what the Russian nation most desires, and what, at present, it cannot have.
[*] The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, edited by Victor Erofeyev (Penguin, 416 pp., £8.99, 29 June 1995, 0 140 15963 6).
[†] Harvill, 144 pp., £7.99, 7 September 1995, 1 86046 064 X.