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Opera Lauding Crimea Annexation Makes A Splash In Petersburg

The production has been billed as an "opera-rally."
The production has been billed as an "opera-rally."

As the curtain rises, a gray-suited figure looking suspiciously like Russian President Vladimir Putin stands in front of a huge map of Crimea and reads a poem titled "My Crimea."

Later, groups of happy children dance and sing Crimean Tatar songs.

On July 10, the St. Petersburg Opera theater debuted "Crimea," a new production based on a 1946 opera called "The Sevastopolians" by Marian Koval.

Koval, who died in 1971, was a laureate of the prestigious Stalin Prize who is also known for actively participating in the Stalin-inspired campaign against fellow composer Dmitry Shostakovich.

The new production is billed as an "opera-rally." According to the publicity, it is "an operational meeting with the public" in which the audience takes an active part and, in one scene, viewers are asked to "express their civic position." In the finale, a choir of Crimeans turns to the audience and sings "Take us with you!"

Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea in March over the protests of Kyiv and most of the international community.

No Hymns To Stalin

Art director Yury Aleksandrov removed all the hymns to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and the romantic subplot of the original, leaving behind only love for the Motherland.

"Our main position is clear and principled," he told RFE/RL. "We have Crimea. It is ours. We will not surrender it to anyone."

"No one ordered this work. No one paid for it. We did it ourselves with our own resources. We couldn't be silent," Aleksandrov adds.

Theater critic Yevgeny Khakhnazarov says Koval's music is impressive and that he "was not given the Stalin Prize for nothing."

He also lauds Aleksandrov's reworked version:

"This is not just propaganda material," says theater critic Yevgeny Khakhnazarov." It is also a work of art. I think that it will enjoy success."

Others are more skeptical.

"It is soaked in ideology," says critic Yelena Volgust. "Aleksandrov has clearly been holding his tongue for years, waiting for the gift to be returned to its owner. [Eds: Crimea was transferred from the Russian Soviet republic to the Ukrainian Soviet republic in 1954. Many in Russia claim that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula as a gift to his home republic.] I have given many people gifts in my lifetime and some of those people then behaved in various ways, but it never occurred to me to take the gifts back."

Aleksandr Kobrinsky, a professor at the Herzen Pedagogical University, sees ominous historical parallels.

"Our intelligentsia is acting just like it did in 1914," he told RFE/RL. "Then it was joyfully shouting 'The Bosporus and Dardanelles are ours!' and 'Long live the Russian Army!' Everyone loved the tsar and the government, while shamefully ignoring the pogroms against Germans that were taking place at that time in Petrograd. Just two years later, in 1916, the views of the Russian intelligentsia and the public toward the government changed 180 degrees. Unfortunately, this is a common phenomenon with us."

Kobrinsky feels most sorry for the children participating in the "Crimea" performance.

"Experience shows, children grow up; they study; they learn and they begin to understand everything," he says. "You can't constantly brainwash people. At some point they will put things in their proper place."

Art director Aleksandrov hopes to perform the opera in one of the northern capital's large public spaces such as Palace Square or even on Moscow's Red Square.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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