Liya Akhedzhakova has for years been one of Russia’s most popular stage actresses, and her latest performance at Moscow’s Sovremennik (Contemporary) theater has garnered plaudits from an audience comprising many members of Russia’s intelligentsia and business elite.
A minority, however, reacted very differently indeed.
Decrying her character’s impassioned monologues as an offense to Russia’s war veterans and a promotion of “gay propaganda,” they charged the whole institution with a rejection of the “patriotic values” on which, they say, Russia should be built.
Those complaints have now led to trouble not only for the celebrated Moscow theater, but potentially for others across the country.
On August 2, a Culture Ministry advisory board announced it was launching a probe of the country’s leading theaters to check their compliance with Russia’s new National Security Strategy. The document, signed by President Vladimir Putin on June 3, asserts that Russia's "cultural sovereignty" is at risk and that its "traditional values" are “under active attack” by the West.
“A group of comrades approached us about problems with the repertoire policies of theaters, and we decided that the issue had to be publicly discussed,” the chairman of the Culture Ministry’s Public Council, Mikhail Lermontov, told the Interfax news agency.
Lermontov did not specify when the public discussion would take place, but he told state news agency RIA Novosti that attention will be paid particularly to “the preservation of patriotic and moral-spiritual values.”
The “comrades” he cited were apparently members of a pro-Kremlin group who denounced Akhedzhakova’s performance just days earlier.
Akhedzhakova had a lead role in a production of Rinat Tashimov’s play The First Bread, staged by Polish director Benjamin Koc at Sovremennik. But the group, Officers of Russia, described it as "blatant propaganda of same-sex love” and said that expletives included in the script were an affront to those who defended the Soviet Union from fascism in World War II.
They sent complaints to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the theater's leadership, and Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s office. Two days after the complaints were made public on July 21, the theater said it changed the monologue of the character played by Akhedzhakova, eliminating all swear words from it.
But on August 3 the plot thickened, exposing an apparent rift within the Culture Ministry. The minister, Olga Lyubimova, pointedly distanced herself from Lermontov’s statements, saying they “were not discussed” with the ministry’s leadership.
“One should not attribute to the ministry the ideas and opinions of individual members of its Public Council,” she said.
Lyubimova said that the Culture Ministry is forbidden by law from interfering with the creative work of cultural institutions, and added: “I want to remind everyone that censorship in our country is unacceptable under the constitution.”
That did not resolve the controversy surrounding Sovremennik, which was already under serious pressure from the nationalist groups to which Lermontov’s public council appeared to be responding.
Akhedzhakova, an outspoken critic of Putin’s government and a vocal supporter of political prisoners in Russia, asserted in an interview with the newspaper RBC that the campaign against the arts by movements like Officers of Russia amounted to “terrorism.”
“Who stirred up these people? Who distorted everything? What veterans have I and my author offended?” she said, going on to allege that the group was instigated by people who want to remove Sovremennik’s creative director, Viktor Ryzhakov, from his post.
According to RIA Novosti, the complaints against Sovremennik also received the backing of the writer Svyatoslav Rybas, who in July wrote a column for the newspaper Literaturnaya Gazeta asserting that “Russia’s national idea is the preservation of its national identity.”
In his article, Rybas criticized leading Russian theaters for several recent performances, including St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre for a staging of British director Graham Vick’s opera adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
Rybas claimed that the protagonists of Tolstoy’s classic had been portrayed as “abnormal” and that Vick, who died last month in London, had besmirched the “bright image” of Natasha Rostova, the lovestruck daughter of Count Ilya Rostov, and turned her into a “prostitute.”
Rybas ended by urging authorities to “look more closely at Russia’s theaters.”
If the probe proposed by Lermontov goes ahead, it would fit a broader political trend that threatens to align the arts sphere in Russia more closely with conservative government policy, and its directors could soon be subject to a long blacklist of prohibited topics.
Russia’s National Security Strategy has served as a cue for pro-Kremlin groups and conservative movements. The new edition, which replaced a 2015 version, places a sharp focus on values and steps up criticism of the West, promoting the notion that Russian culture is threatened by the United States and its allies and partners.
It accuses “unfriendly countries” in the West of “deliberate attempts to erode traditional values, distort global history, [and] change opinions about Russia’s role and place in it,” among other things.
Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in a July 6 article in the newspaper Kommersant that the document sets out “fundamental Russian values” such as “service to the Fatherland” and placing the spiritual over the material.
"It's understood that this is an ideal,” he wrote. “But possibly the main problem with Russia today lies in the fact that its ruling elite shares these ideals only in rare cases and, according to opinion polls, possesses not even a minimum of moral authority to lead society in its path.”