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Magnitsky's Final Hours A Theater Success In Moscow

A scene from the Teatr.doc production in early June
A scene from the Teatr.doc production in early June
The small theater stage is the world and all the people on it are to be judged, says the director of a play based on the diary of a Russian lawyer who died in prison last year.

The production -- based on the daily writings of Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Moscow prison in October after awaiting trial for nearly one year -- has been running in Moscow for more than a month and is completely booked through August, organizers say.

The venue, Teatr.doc, doesn't sell the tickets to "One Hour and 18 Minutes" but rather gives them away on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Director Mikhail Ugarov tells RFE/RL he didn't expect the play to be so successful.

"After each performance we have a sort of discussion [with the audience]," he says. "People stick around and talk -– about the kind of country we live in and what we can do about it. And the thing is, these [discussions] have happened because there is no public forum [in Russia] where people can express an opposing opinion."

Documentary theater is an uncommon thing in Russia. In fact, this is only the country's second "documentary play." The first, also staged by Teatr.doc, was called "September.doc" and was based on notes that appeared on message boards and chat rooms after the tragic school massacre in the Russian city of Beslan in 2004.

This latest play has been reviewed in Russian newspapers and journals, and the government seems to knows about it, too. It has even been watched by the head of the Public Commission for the Supervision of Prisons, Valery Borshev.

Moscow authorities have been silent about it, letting the play run its course.

Ugarov says that doing so is in their best interest: "Any kind of disturbance or outcry would not be advantageous for the authorities."

In hundreds of letters written while he was in custody, the 37-year-old Magnitsky claimed that his imprisonment on suspicion of tax evasion was a result of his testimony against two Russian Interior Ministry officers who, Magnitsky claimed, had embezzled more than $230 million from the government.

On the day of his death, Magnitsky reportedly suffered horrible stomach pains and repeatedly asked for medical care. As the title of the play reminds, Magnitsky was refused medical aid and died after being handcuffed and alone in his cell for an hour and 18 minutes.

Here's a passage of the production that comes from an excerpt of the final entry Magnitsky made in his diary:

There they are following the court. I am way too tired to ask. Understand, I don't need anything -- only a glass of water. Understand, I just need a plate of noodles and some medicine. I am in pain -- not too horrible -- it's true. But what is the point of this judgment? Remember that according to the law, people are still allowed a hot's not right to treat someone like this. Fine. Ok, I'll pay. I even know how much it costs. Here, take it. Only give me a drop. And the glass? What? It's not funny.... Into what will I pour the water? There's no cup? Not even a plastic one? I would pay you more, but I don't have any more. I gave you everything. I don't have anything. (Screams).

Ugarov says he has run into critics who say that theater shouldn't shadow real life events. But he disagrees. He hopes that the play can help lead a new wave of documentary theater productions in Russia.

"You know, it's hard to create documentary plays," says Ugarov. "For one, it's emotional because it's real. And secondly, there aren't many examples to follow, so we kind of have to make our own."

He says that while the success of "One Hour and 18 Minutes" is great for the theater, what he hopes is that documentary theaters offer spaces where the public can openly debate issues often muted in Russian society.

In the fall, the play will travel to St. Petersburg, where, Ugarov expects, it will also play to packed houses and lead to interesting discussions with the audience.

-- RFE/RL Russian Service/Ashley Cleek

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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