Money, sanctions, and the Kremlin are getting mixed up with tigers, acrobats, and monkeys to create a new circus in Russia, but it’s not getting many laughs, oohs, or aahs.
The Moscow State Circus -- a beloved Russian institution whose decades of performances have included bicycling bears, lion tamers, clowns, and trapeze artists -- is worried.
More specifically, it’s Edgard Zapashny, the circus’s general director, who is fretting.
His concern? Competition from the West.
At a Kremlin meeting on December 15, Zapashny alleged that the famed Canadian troupe, Cirque du Soleil, was seeking to undermine the Moscow circus by angling to build a facility in Moscow for performances and training.
At the meeting -- which was chaired by President Vladimir Putin and included prominent figures from Russia’s cultural and artistic community -- Zapashny complained to Putin about rising costs for his legendary circus, which had been slated for partial privatization until 2007 when Putin signed a decree maintaining the organization as a state-owned entity.
Zapashny, who is an animal trainer by profession, said he had no problems with the internationally acclaimed Cirque du Soleil’s traveling performances visiting Russia regularly.
But the group’s proposal to build a dedicated facility on Moscow’s outskirts was too much, particularly since his circus troupes haven’t been allowed to make extended trips to Canada, he suggested, because of Western economic sanctions imposed on Russia in recent years.
“They don’t let us come [and stay there]. They’ll say: ‘Come on over, do your work, thank you, then go home.’ And here we are, at a time when Canada actively introduces sanctions against us, and we for some reason remain hospitable,” he said.
"No one stops them from coming here with temporary shows. They've been coming here for more than 10 years now," Zapashny said. But the proposed permanent home in Moscow “will definitely have an adverse effect on Russian sports as well as the Russian circus.”
Zapashny’s complaint elicited mild acceptance from Putin, who said he was on Zapashny’s side.
"Basically, this is a struggle for the market and throwing the gates wide open [to other circuses] -- well, I don't know," Putin said.
Watching Cirque du Soleil perform in Russia, he said, “that’s one thing, but giving them the opportunity to flourish on our soil, on our territory, that’s a completely different story.
“My position is close to yours,” Putin told Zapashny.
Zapashny’s comments sparked an angry response from the developer of the proposed facility, which is to be located at Skolkovo, a high-tech business park just outside Moscow’s city limits.
The Safmar Group, which is owned by the billionaire developer Mikhail Gutseriyev, said the new facility is not intended solely for Cirque du Soleil, but for any performance or theatrical groups.
"We did not invest and are not going to invest in the development of the Canadian circus. Our relations with Cirque du Soleil are strictly within the framework of a lease agreement and we intend to build neither a dedicated site nor a circus school for Cirque du Soleil," the company said in statement published on December 17.
“These statements [by Zapashny] are nonsense -- that is, a complete fantasy by the animal trainer Zapashny. Therefore, we consider Zapashny’s hallucinations to be brazen slander and an outright lie,” it said.
Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based troupe whose death-defying performances have turned it into a worldwide multimillion-dollar entertainment giant, also issued a statement, denying it was seeking a permanent home in Moscow and saying its only relationship with the Safmar Group was as a tenant at the proposed facility.
Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, walked back Putin's tepid support for the Moscow State Circus's position on December 17.
"Saying that [the] state should support our national circus would be absolutely right...[but] to say that the state should create absolutely comfortable conditions for our circus while somehow restricting the work of the foreign ones that tour here would be wrong," he said.
The Moscow State Circus’s woes are similar to what other circuses have faced, namely growing competition from other forms of entertainment, including Internet and video games.
But big circuses have also come under fire for the continued use of animals in their shows.
One of the oldest and most famous circuses in the world, the U.S.-based Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, ended its operations last year, citing a huge drop in ticket sales.
But the circus -- which famously billed itself as "The greatest show on Earth" -- had earlier phased out the use of elephants in its acts after years of pressure and lawsuits from animal rights groups who claimed the pachyderms were mistreated or abused.
The Moscow circus has similar problems.
In 2013, a Russian rights group published a secret video on YouTube that showed workers at the Moscow State Circus and two other famous Russian circuses whipping and beating a kangaroo, several poodles, and two monkeys.
At the time, there was little reaction outside of the small community of animal rights activists and no circus employees were punished because of the incidents.
But the growing number of countries around the world that are restricting the use of animals in circus performances is putting increased pressure on the Russian circuses.
On December 19, the Russian lower house of parliament gave final backing to legislation that forbids animal abuse. It’s unclear how the legislation will affect circus performances.
In an interview on December 18 with Current Time TV, a project of RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA, Zapashny lashed out at animal rights activists.
"We are being guided by pseudo-animal rights defenders and by animal nutjobs, people who are, at best, mentally deficient, fanatics, extremists,” he said.
Cirque du Soleil, by contrast, uses no performing animals in its shows.