06.12.22 Expertise

War as a Civilisational Shift

Resistance and the ‘Cleansing’ of Russian Theatrical Life

The war against Ukraine has become a mechanism for creating large-scale social and cultural division within Russia, a sort of civilisational shift. While the political and economic aims of this war cannot be defined rationally, its domestic political objectives are fairly easy to parse. The war has been used as a tool to radically sever Russia's connections with the West, which has resulted in an equally radical, almost revolutionary, transformation within Russian society, changing the trajectory of its natural development. 

This process is unfolding in various areas and at different levels of public infrastructure. This review presents how Russia's ‘war losses’ have manifested in the field of theatre. The decade preceding the war was not just a period of rapid and varied development and prosperity for Russian theatre, which determined its prominent place on the world’s theatrical map, but it was also a period of theatrical politicisation, which reflected a more general trend of politicisation within Russian public life. It would be incorrect to simply state that Russian theatrical life has been destroyed: a huge number of strong, talented troupes, directors, and actors have continued to work in Russia. And while ideological control is gradually increasing, it is by no means total, and has so far just been focused on certain themes and subjects. At the same time, the infrastructure that had made Russian theatre a part of the European and global theatre world has been dealt a colossal blow. 

In her special article for Re: Russia Marina Davydova, one of the main ideologues and facilitators of the integration between Russian and European theatre over the last decade, and until recently the editor-in-chief of ‘Theatre’ magazine and artistic director of the NET (New European Theatre) festival, describes the nature and consequences of this cultural and civilizational shift.

The Cultural Counterrevolution: As Above, so Below

Marina Davydova
Director of Drama of the Salzburg Festival

On February 24th 2022, Russia not only attacked Ukraine, but it also attacked itself. We are witnessing, playing out simultaneously in real time, a catastrophe in not just one, but two countries. In one (Ukraine) the infrastructure is being systematically and brutally destroyed, and people are being killed in the same barbaric manner, while in the other (Russia) we are witnessing the destruction of the arts, science, education, media, social aid institutions, and the entire humanitarian sphere at an incredible rate.

Geopolitically and economically, a war with Ukraine makes absolutely no sense for Russia, and the Kremlin has had to invent excuses as it goes along — this is to protect the children of the Donbas, or to pre-empt an attack by the Ukrainian military, or to shape a new world order, or to protect traditional values from the corrosive influence of the West. 

But if we examine the events that have taken place since February as if it were an internal war, in which Russia attacked itself, it becomes evident why a large part of our society, including a significant portion of the cultural community, deemed this external war necessary, and in a certain sense stands to benefit from it.

Since the time of Peter the Great, Russia has been some sort of centaur: its political system resembled the despotism of the East, while its culture was oriented towards the West. Not even the Bolshevik Revolution and the radical change of the elites that followed could change this. The figures of the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s existed within the context of European trends to the same extent as those who had left their homeland on the so-called ‘philosopher’s ships’ in the first wave of emigration. Moreover, on occasions, they defined these trends and even surpassed them. 

Comrade Stalin was the first leader to resolve the contradiction between the paths of political and cultural development. It was under him that, for the first time since Peter the Great, the culture of the vast empire became forcibly isolated from the West. In this sense, the confrontation between the avant-garde of the 1920s and the dark decades under Stalin was even more acute than the confrontation between Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia. 

The current cultural revolution has quite literally been modelled on the Stalinist revolution. 

Politically, since 2012, Russia has been transforming into a typical model of Asian despotism with political freedoms shrinking like shagreen leather. But culturally it had been increasingly integrating with Europe over the last decade. Before 24 February 2022, I would not have hesitated to call Moscow one of the most important cultural capitals in the world. Throughout the 2010s, in terms of the number of interesting premieres, exhibitions, concerts, and international festivals, it surpassed Berlin, Paris, Rome, and Vienna.

Even outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russian theatrical life had been flourishing in recent years. It featured all types of performing arts, from contemporary dance to new circus. Social, visual, immersive, inclusive, and feminist theatre could be found within the country’s vast expanse, as it steadily slid towards totalitarianism.

Alongside expensive futuristic opuses by Andrei Moguchy at the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theatre, small productions were staged in flats (Boris Pavlovich's ‘Exploring Terror’, based on documentary material about the oberiutists, was outstanding). Performances of documentary theatre were put on alongside exciting promenades through the back alleys of St. Petersburg and the world of graffiti (Kirill Lyukevich's ‘Man in a Mask’). The hours-long works of Boris Yukhananov, the guru of auteur theatre were performed alongside low-budget grassroots theatre projects (one of the best was called Bird University, a retelling of Bruno Latour's ideas using the language of theatre). 

This theatrical renaissance was reminiscent of the post-revolutionary 1920s, when even the destruction of political freedoms could not prevent the blossoming of art. It is safe to say that our culture experienced the greatest integration with Western culture at two moments in its history — in the 1920s and on the eve of the war of 2022. 

On February 24th everything changed. 

The speed at which the destruction of everything that had placed Russia within the sphere of Western civilisation is taking place is impressive. Even Comrade Stalin took two decades to provincialise Soviet culture and fence it off from the world with the construction of an iron curtain. This process began in 1929, the year of the ‘Great Break’, and had come to an end by the early 1950s, when all the talent and vivacity in the arts sphere — Meyerhold Theatre, Alexander Tairov's Chamber Theatre, Solomon Mikhoels' GOSET, outstanding examples of national absurdism, all the numerous movements in the fine arts and so on and so forth — had been weeded out. The current hit squad have managed to carry out a similar task without executing everyone involved and within a matter of mere months. 

The most important contemporary art institutions (from the Gogol Center to the Meyerhold Center or the Centre for Documentary Film) have been de facto destroyed. The theatres that had been undergoing a renaissance prior to February (such as Sovremennik, where the talented and energetic Viktor Ryzhakov had just recently been appointed director) have in effect been decapitated. There is a growing number of outstanding directors, scenographers, and playwrights leaving Russia every day — Kirill Serebrennikov, Dmitry Krymov, Rimas Tuminas, Yuri Butusov, Timofey Kuliabin, Vera Martynov, Ksenia Peretrukhina, Maxim Didenko, Philipp Grigoryan. The list goes on and on. 

It was only recently that Thomas Ostermeier, Robert Wilson and Robert Lepage worked at the Theatre of Nations in Moscow, and that the Stanislavsky Electric Theatre was working with Romeo Castellucci and Heiner Goebbels. This now seems like a distant and irrevocable past. 

And not too long ago, there was a performance in Moscow of ‘Gorbachev’ directed by Latvian director Alvis Hermanis, and starring Yevgeny Mironov (Mikhail Gorbachev) and Chulpan Khamatova (Raisa Gorbacheva). 

Today Khamatova, who has protested and made clear her position against the war, has emigrated and works with Hermanis in Riga; her co-star and the director of the Theatre of Nations, Yevgeny Mironov, made a deal with the government and assumed patronage over a theatre in occupied and destroyed Mariupol. Hermanis himself has disowned Mironov and his remaining theatre friends in Russia. Although the play itself may have fallen into obscurity, a recording of it continues to live online as evidence of a time before the war, a time that has irrevocably passed. 

The outbreak of the war helped to bring about this total cleansing of Russian theatre. Before February 24, it was impossible to outlaw cultural ties with the West. No matter how much political freedom was being suppressed in Russia, in the field of the humanities such ties were taken for granted, and even the most patriotically-minded politicians were willing to attend performances by international celebrities like Robert Wilson or premieres by disgraced directors such as Kirill Serebrennikov (the Bolshoi Theatre's production of Nureev received a rousing round of applause from President Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who was seated in the second row).

Now anyone who even looks in the direction of the European Union or the United States can be declared a national traitor and may lose their theatre, exhibition hall, lectern, concerts, and so on as a result. What had once been the coveted fever dream of obscurantists has now gained legitimacy. The Western-oriented cultural superstructure, which had seemed huge, powerful, and sustainable, has collapsed like a house of cards. And, suddenly, it became all too clear just how fragile it was, how it ran in contradiction with the country's general way of life and even the demands of the theatre community itself. After all, without the tacit consent of this very community, such a sweeping artistic purge of its ‘traitors’ would hardly have been possible. 

Theatres are removing productions from their repertoires by directors and playwrights who have spoken out against the war on the word of the authorities. This is how the productions of Ivan Vyrypayev's plays were removed. They had been performed in dozens of Russian theatres, often featuring top-tier stars, and now in the blink of an eye they have disappeared, without either the slightest attempt at resistance, or any hint of solidarity. 

This has led to a strong feeling that many people in the arts sector are driven not just by fear, but also by the same resentment that defines the country's policy on the international stage.

While Russian culture was integrated into the culture of Western Europe and the world, the huge army of theatre workers looked uncompetitive. They had no chance of touring internationally, and received neither invitations from prestigious festivals, nor interest from the theatre critics touring these festivals. Now they exist exclusively for the domestic market, where their talent, and especially their international relevance, is not an important consideration. Instead, what matters is loyalty to the regime. 

The current wave of Russian emigration has frequently been compared to the first post-revolutionary wave. But the refined pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, many of whom were forced to leave Russia after 1917, were replaced by an equally talented cultural vanguard. What is happening now is a cultural revolution of nobodies. And indeed, Stalin's cultural revolution was carried out in much the same way.

It was also a revolution of mediocrity. Nobodies ruled the ball. There was an absolutely certainty that any extraordinary person would become a victim of the regime. In order to survive, they either had to go underground or be fully reborn, quite literally ceasing to be themselves.

From an ideological point of view, Stalin's cleansing of culture seemed paradoxical. After all, the members of the avant-garde who were systematically eliminated — whether it was Meyerhold, Babel or Malevich — were mostly supporters of the Bolshevik government, not opponents. But they were exterminated on aesthetic grounds, not political. 

When one looks at the Stalinist period through the prism of its relationship to culture, and its furious struggle against ‘degenerate art’, it becomes clear that after 1929 it was not a leftist project that was being implemented in the USSR, but an ultra-right project. It was simply carried out under leftist slogans. In this case, fascist ideology grew out of fascist aesthetics. This is exactly the order in which it happened, not the other way around. Fascism is always the triumph of mediocrity and the total victory of average philistine tastes.

I feel as though the exact same process is taking place right now. The incredible creative freedom and fantastic flourishing of theatre that we had witnessed in Russia up until recently has entered into a momentous clash, not just with the tightening screws of the political machine, but also with the interests of a huge number of obscurantists and mediocre personalities from the field of the humanities. It is their triumph that we are witnessing today in Putin's empire. It is they who, next in line after the people from the powerful FSB, are the real beneficiaries of the current war. 

It sometimes seems to me that the war was started not for the purpose of a victory on the frontlines, but as a tool for those who are afraid of the very possibility of living in an open world to enact their revenge. And while Russia's army is very far from winning the war with Ukraine, on the domestic front the supporters of isolationism have already won. 

The paradox is that, on the other side of the border, the calls to fence off Russia coming from the West itself, and by extension its pro-Western intelligentsia, are sometimes no less insistent. It is as if the authors of these appeals do not understand that they are pouring fuel onto the fire of the most terrible part of Russian society, the part that dreams not only of merely political isolation, but of total, utter isolation.

Through their joint efforts, the westward path of Russian culture has been interrupted for the second time in history. This bridge, which for centuries has served to link the vast country with the civilised world, may once again be destroyed. 

Theatrical Cleanse: Resistance and Russian Theatre’s ‘losses’ during the war

Ignat Davydov

Dozens of theatrical figures have left Russia since February 24th. Many popular names have disappeared from theatre posters, and some institutions like the Gogol Center and the NET Festival no longer exist or have relocated their activities outside Russia. The authorities continue to cancel anti-war productions or to initiate criminal and administrative proceedings against theatre actors. Nine months on, we can clearly state that Russian theatre has experienced a great deal of damage, and that those who are prepared to record patriotic videos and express their approval for the war in Ukraine are the most likely to survive.


According to the website of ‘Theatre’ magazine, in the initial days of the war dozens of theatre personalities and even entire institutions spoke out against the invasion of Ukraine. The CIM, Theatre.doc, the Lyubimovka and Territory festivals, prima ballerina Diana Vishneva, founder of the AKHE theatre Maxim Isayev, Yevgeny Grishkovets and others voiced their positions on social media. A collective letter expressing their opposition to the hostilities in Ukraine was signed by the heads of many Moscow theatres, including the BDT's Artistic Director Andrey Moguchiy, the Artistic Director of the Theatre of Nations Yevgeny Mironov, the Artistic Director of the Chamber Theatre in Voronezh Mikhail Bychkov and others. Marina Davydova, editor-in-chief of Theatre magazine, published a petition on her Facebook page on the first day of the war, demanding ‘an immediate cessation of hostilities in Ukraine’, and it was immediately signed by several hundred theatre professionals. CIM’s director Elena Kovalskaya announced her resignation on Facebook the same day, specifying that ‘it is impossible to work for a murderer, to get your salary from him’. Lev Dodin, the artistic director of the theatre, not only published the petition, but also wrote a personal letter to Vladimir Putin in which he ‘begged him to stop’. The Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre, the Tovstonogov Bolshoi Drama Theatre, the Gogol Center, the RAMT and the Alexandrinsky Theatre added a symbolic image of a dove to their logos in solidarity with Ukrainians.


Administrative and on occasion criminal charges are now being brought against theatre professionals for their anti-war stance. A total of 25 such cases have been published in Theatre magazine’s bulletin. 

In the first few days of war there was news that composer and director Alexander Manotskov and director Yuri Shekhvatov had been detained at anti-war rallies. They were charged under Article 20.2 of the Administrative Code (‘violation of the rules for holding a rally’). On February 27th, the playwright Yekaterina Augusteniak was also detained. Theatre critic Yulia Oseeva was arrested for 10 days under the same article because she had allegedly ‘created obstacles to the movement of citizens’. On three separate occasions (on May 9th, May 20th, and September 2nd), director Vsevolod Lisovsky and his troupe were detained during street performances of texts by Brecht and Plato. On two occasions, the director of the Bestuzhev State Russian Drama Theatre (Ulan-Ude), Sergey Levitsky, who was fired in March for making anti-war statements, has been charged by police.

A further four people have had criminal cases opened against them, charged with telephone extremism (article 205.2), rehabilitation of Nazism (article 354.1 part 3), spreading fake news about the army (article 207.3) and spreading deliberately false information with grave consequences (article 207.2). One of the defendants, journalist Andrei Novashov, is currently under house arrest and faces up to three years in prison. 


But a much larger number of theatrical professionals, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, have expressed their approval of the invasion of Ukraine.

One of the first was Valery Gergiev, the Mariinsky Theatre's chief conductor. Shortly afterwards he was dismissed from his post as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Many theatre universities, including the GITIS, VTU, VGIK and the Shchukin Theatre Institute, signed a letter recognising the autonomy of the Donbas republics. Some theatres have hung the letter Z on their buildings, an initiative begun by Oleg Tabakov's Studio Theatre and its artistic director Vladimir Mashkov. ‘Theatre’ magazine has named Bryansk Drama Theatre, Novosibirsk Puppet Theatre, Ulyanovsk Drama Theatre, Kamala Theatre, and others among the theatres that have been decorated with the letter Z. Actors of the Theatre of the Russian Army and the Minusinsk Drama Theatre recorded patriotic videos supporting Russian soldiers, while the Pushkin Drama Theatre in Pskov announced that it would donate funds to help the 76th Guards Airborne Assault Division of the Pskov Airborne Troops. In response to such initiatives, director Nikita Betekhtin began compiling a list of ‘patriotic’ theatres and urged critics not to visit them. He was soon forced to leave Russia because of the threats he received. 

Relocation and emigration

In all, dozens of directors, critics, actors and theatre managers left the country since the start of the war. Among them were actresses Chulpan Khamatova, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Varvara Shmykova, actors Anatoly Bely, Filipp Avdeev, Alexander Gorchilin, playwright Asya Voloshina, and set designers Kseniya Peretrukhina, Vera Martynov, Galia Solodovnikova. 

Entire companies have also left the country, these include the KNAM theatre, which is now based in Lyon. The Petersburg AKHE theatre announced it was shutting down; its founders Maxim Isayev and Pavel Semchenko now live in Europe. Kirill Serebrennikov, director of the Gogol Centre, Mindaugas Karbauskis, director of the Mayakovsky Theatre, Rimas Tuminas, director of the Vakhtangov Theatre, Timofey Kuliabin, director of the Red Torch Theatre and Laurent Iler, chief choreographer of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre have all left the country. Directors Dmitry Krymov, Yury Butusov, Maxim Didenko, Alexander Molochnikov, Semyon Aleksandrovsky, Filipp Grigoryan, Roman Kaganovich, Ilya Moshchitsky, Marfa Gorvits, Sergey Levitsky, Nikita Betekhtin, Talgat Batalov are no longer working in Russia. 

The Cleanse

Josef Raykhelgauz, founder of the Theatre School of Modern Drama; Denis Azarov, head director of the Viktyuk Theatre; and Dmitri Volkostrelov, artistic director of the CIM Theatre, have been stripped of their posts. 

It is not only people, but also many important institutions that have been disappearing from the Russian theatrical map. The Access Point and NET Festivals have ceased to exist, the Lyubimovka Modern Drama Festival is now held abroad, ‘Theatre’ magazine has closed down its publication (its chief editor Marina Davydova has left Russia due to the threats against her), and the CIM has virtually ceased to exist (it has merged with the Dramatic Art School theatre). The event that arguably made the biggest waves was the closure of one of Moscow's most popular theatres, the Gogol Center. 

At the same time, premieres involving people who have spoken out against the war have disappeared from theatre schedules, and the plays that they had already staged have disappeared from playbills. Dozens of productions of plays by Ivan Vyrypayev, who had promised to donate any royalties he would receive in Russia to aid Ukraine, have been cancelled all over the country. The Moscow repertoire no longer includes productions starring actress and director Yulia Aug. One such play, The Garden, directed by Denis Azarov, was cancelled following a complaint by MP Aleksandr Khinstein, who called the actress a ‘russophobe’. Sometimes the names of directors and authors are simply removed from posters, preserving their, usually very profitable, productions. For example, Boris Akunin disappeared from the website and posters of RAMT, Rimas Tuminas disappeared from the Vakhtangov Theatre website and posters, and the Chekhov Moscow Art Theatre removed the names of Dmitri Krymov, Kirill Serebrennikov and Alexander Molochnikov. In these instances, the programs at the Moscow Art Theatre simply display a cryptic ‘THE DIRECTOR’ where a name should be.

The case of Mikhail Durnenkov caused much public outcry in the theatre community. In April he published a Facebook post in which he wished for ‘a total and crushing defeat of the Russian army’. Several theatres then cancelled performances of his plays, Durnenkov himself was fired from the MKhAT Studio School, and Alexander Kalyagin, chairman of the Union of Russian Drama Theatres, proposed that Durnenkov be expelled from the Union. Many theatrical figures have come out in support of the playwright, some have announced their withdrawal from the Union and the cancellation of performances at Kalyagin’s venue, Boyarskye Palaty. 


By autumn the protest activity of theatre professionals had subsided. Their protests against the war are no longer recorded on Theatre magazine’s website. Everyone who wanted to, had already spoken out by that point and, more often than not, had left the country. Many have fallen silent. Some have publicly expressed support for the Kremlin: for example, Yevgeny Mironov, the director of the Theatre of Nations, who visited Donbas and said that he was going to ‘take over patronage of the Mariupol Drama Theatre’.

At the same time, theatrical collaborationism has begun to take new forms. At the opening of its season, the Vakhtangov Theatre had the head of the Investigative Committee Alexander Bastrykin as its guest, the Ermolova Theater signed a ‘cooperation agreement’ with the same Investigative Committee, and a similar agreement with the Ministry of Defence was signed by the Maly Theatre. It is worth noting that no explanation is provided in the signed documents as to how the security services intend to cooperate with these theatres.