For more than two decades, the Golden Mask theater festival and awards have been highlights of Russia's theatrical season, a homegrown equivalent of the Tony Awards in the United States.
The 2016 festival will unfold in Moscow in March and April, with the list of nominees for the prestigious awards to be announced in November.
But when the festival's organizers, the Russian Union of Theater Professionals, this month announced the makeup of the festival jury, alarm bells went off throughout the theatrical community.
Prominent directors Konstantin Bogomolov and Kirill Serebrennikov announced they would not submit any productions for participation in the festival.
"Just out of hygienic considerations, I do not want my productions to be seen and evaluated by people who wrote so many gross denunciations and libels about me and about the theater that I serve," Serebrennikov wrote on Facebook.
Theater critics Olga Fuks and Alla Shenderova, who had been named to the jury, promptly resigned from it.
Nearly 100 theater critics from at least 12 regions of Russia have signed an open letter to theater-union director Aleksandr Kalyagin calling for the new jury to be disbanded and a new one formed that "does not arouse suspicions of ideological tendentiousness and bias."
Those suspicions -- signatories say -- are focused on controversial Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky.
"Personally, I signed the letter because one member of the jury is a person with whom no one can agree -- a person who was nominated, unfortunately, by the Culture Ministry," says Natalia Kaminskaya, editor of the magazine Stsena (Stage).
'Odious, Obscurantist, Illiterate'
The woman at the center of the objections is Moscow theater critic Kapitolina Kokshenyova.
"The things Kokshenyova has written," Kaminskaya adds, "are odious, obscurantist, and simply illiterate."
Earlier this year, Kokshenyova led the assault on a production of Richard Wagner's opera Tannhauser in Novosibirsk. The acclaimed production offended the Russian Orthodox Church and Russian nationalists. In the end, Medinsky dismissed the director of the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theater.
Since becoming culture minister in 2012, Medinsky has pushed for stronger doses of patriotism in the cultural sphere. He is the chairman of the conservative Russian Military Historical Society. He has called for "patriotic" summer camps and films. In January, he called for a "patriotic Internet," saying the West has launched "a new blitzkrieg" against Russia.
"We need a patriotic trend in the public conscience," ran a statement Medinsky signed in January, along with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, film director Nikita Mikhailkov, and other conservative notables. "We need films, books, exhibitions, modern video games. We need a patriotic Internet, patriotic radio and television."
In September Medinsky launched a program for state-funded "patriotic graffiti" in Moscow.
Now, Russian theater aficionados say, Medinsky has his sights on them. Although the Golden Mask jury is formally selected only by the Russian Union of Theater Professionals, critics are certain the Culture Ministry has significant influence. In June, the ministry hosted a meeting with theater professionals about the festival and, according to Izvestia on October 14 "on July 2 Medinsky and Kalyagin held a working meeting to discuss matters of the development of the Golden Mask prizes and festival."
Anna Stepanova, a professor at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts who signed the open letter to Kalyagin, also insists that Kokshenyova is not qualified to serve on the Golden Mask jury.
"Although she is a graduate of our theater department," Stepanova says, "she has not worked in this field for some time and has written almost nothing about the theater -- with just a few exceptions. Those rare exceptions were of a highly tendentious nature. She took militant positions targeting specific directors. Such a person, by their very nature, shouldn't be on an expert council."
Other names on the new jury also raise concerns, Stepanova says.
"It isn't just Kokshenyova," Stepanova says. "There are several such odious figures on the list. But the main thing is that the [selection] process is unclear. Why have they deviated from the past practice in forming the expert council?"
Critic Kaminskaya shares those concerns.
"I see Kokshenyova's appearance as a clear ideological command from the Culture Ministry, a drive to dictate its will that we have not seen in the past," she says.
On October 20, the Union of Theater Professionals posted a statement responding to the open letter by saying that the jury was selected properly and that the Culture Ministry, as an "organizer" of the festival, "has the right to participate in the formation of the expert council." The statement called the open letter and the decisions not to work with Golden Mask "unconstructive."
At the same time, the union's statement took Kokshenyova to task for an interview she gave to Izvestia on October 14 in which she criticized director Serebrennikov for dominating the Golden Mask awards in the past.
"We are in the midst of a terrible stagnation, worse than the Soviet party stagnation," Kokshenyova said. "The prizes label themselves as 'national,' but I don't think they have grown into that designation yet. On the contrary, I think Golden Mask must demonstrate the national peculiarities of our country. A lot of work is needed."
"The work of the expert council must be entirely confidential," the theater union's working group wrote. "New experts should not give cause for accusing them of a lack of objectivity or of bias."