How theater directors are making backstage agreements with their state sponsors
December 16, 2022
  • Anatoly Golubovsky
Anatoly Golubovsky explains how government interference in Russian theaters differs from Soviet-era censorship. Despite its relative mildness, it causes serious damage to public life.
The attacks aimed at suppression and censorship of Russian theater figures with anti-war positions that have taken place in recent months are bloodless and unofficial. Their quiet, “behind the scenes” nature is the result of some important circumstances.

Already in the late 1980s, at the height of perestroika, artistic councils disappeared from theaters, ministries and departments of culture. These were the censorship bodies of the Soviet era, which decided whether a performance could be shown, whether changes should be made or whether it should be banned altogether. In October 1991, Glavlit, the main censorship organ of the USSR, was liquidated – in other words, so-called prior censorship was abolished in the country. Since then, a ban on censorship is enshrined in the Russian Constitution, while civil law expressly prohibits the founder of a culture institution from interfering in its substantive activities. In addition, the concept of the 2017 “Law on Culture” draft states: “Government and administration organs have no right to interfere in creative activity or in the content of professional cultural activity through instructions, orders or requirements, or by linking the size of state support with the content of creative or professional cultural activities, or by making personnel decisions in connection with the content of creative or professional cultural activities.”

Despite this, every theater director signs an agreement in which there is a clause on the right of the incorporator (in our case, a local department or ministry of culture) to dismiss the director without disclosing the reasons. It was this little-known provision of the Labor Code that became the most effective tool for so-called “post-censorship” and interference of the founder, acting as a de-facto state official, in the life of theaters.
"Under the threat of 'dismissal without reason', the director in most cases receives – over the phone – political instructions and puts them into effect, removing plays from the repertoire or the names of objectionable people from posters and programs."
Economic considerations are also a factor for decisions by theaters about plays. The theater must make money while fulfilling the state assignment. Meanwhile, the showing of popular shows is an important source of income that cannot be refused, while it is the plays of unreliable directors who publicly state their positions that are often in demand and sold out. It seems the idea of removing the name of a director from everywhere without touching the play itself is attributable precisely to economic considerations.

In addition, in Russia a playwright has copyright, but a director doesn’t. Thus, it is possible to remove the name of the director from posters, websites and programs without risking a lawsuit.

The games with the names of theater directors are not such a simple story as it might seem at first glance. This or that method of removing an author is likely the result of “phone-call” agreements between the theater and officials that take into account the interests of both parties. It can be a condition for a play being allowed to run. And if information about the director remains (for example, on the website), it stops running. Take Dmitri Krymov, who staged the plays Seryozha (Moscow Art Theater) and Mumu (Theater of Nations) but is not listed on the websites of the theaters – neither in the lists of the creative groups, nor in the descriptions of the projects.

Here's how it looks on the Theater of Nations website: “The director about the new performance: ‘I'm terribly interested in the challenge of translating Turgenev's classical prose into the language of the theater.’” Just 'director' – no name. Both Krymov plays are being shown and drawing full houses. Meanwhile, on the websites of the Pushkin Theater and the Pyotr Fomenko Workshop Theater, it says that Krymov is a director, producer, author, Golden Mask laureate, etc., but none of his performances are advertised for the coming months. At the Fomenko Workshop, the star of Krymov’s Don Juan Yevgeny Tsyganov staged Comedy about Tragedy, which is running, but there is no information about the director on the website of his native theater – because in June, Tsyganov recorded and posted on YouTube an anti-war video.

There is a lot of rumors and noise on social media around the removal of names – who warned whom or asked for permission to put on a play without mentioning the director or playwright, or how to behave in such situations. All this has a detrimental effect on reputations and distorts or destroys ideas about professional ethical standards.
"Yet it is not true – or at least it is inaccurate – that what is happening is a return of Soviet censorship."
There were rules in the USSR. Officials could ban a performance or a play at the stage of prior censorship but very rarely pulled one that was already running. Getting rid of the name of the playwright or director and continuing to show it was impossible. Only one case – and that outside the theater – is known: the unofficial “anthem of the cosmonauts" 14 Minutes to Start composed by Oscar Feltsman to lyrics of the dissident writer Vladimir Voinovich. A decade after it was composed and became a hit, mentioning Voinovich became unacceptable because of his involvement in human rights activism.

Another institution on which the theater is based and which has already been seriously damaged amid the special military operation is that of independent professional expertise. The cancellation this year of the two most important Golden Mask nominations – for drama director and playwright – was clearly related to the impermissibility of mentioning and recognizing such nominees as Krymov, director Rimas Tuminas and playwright Mikhail Durnenkov. The Golden Mask website says: "According to the decision of the Sponsor of the Award, the Theater Union of the Russian Federation, no one will be nominated.” This dealt a severe blow to the reputation of the Golden Mask and the union. Meanwhile, the replacement of six expert judges for the 2023 prize made the situation worse, with rumors quickly emerging that the command to remove potentially unpredictable experts was given “at the very top,” though of course without specifics being provided.

The Golden Mask was established in 1993 as a public initiative and is the most important institution for the Russian theater. It is safe to say that the awarding of national prizes during those very difficult times for culture saved the Russian theater as an art form and culture industry. The Mask supported and produced a convertible cultural product, valued all over the world, and represented a kind of theatrical “mark of quality,” which experts and an authoritative jury gave to many outstanding productions that came from the provinces. 
"If not for the network of the Golden Mask, no one in Moscow, St Petersburg or abroad would ever have known about the achievements of the provincial theater."
According to the then Minister Vladimir Medinsky and his successor Olga Lyubimova, the only agent of cultural policy in Russia should be the state. Source: Wiki Commons
The Ministry of Culture has long been wary of the Mask as an uncontrolled source of independent culture. In 2018, the Ministry of Culture withdrew as an organizer of the prize. According to the then Minister Vladimir Medinsky and his successor Olga Lyubimova, the only agent of cultural policy in Russia should be the state. This position was enshrined in the “Basics of State Cultural Policy,” a document with an unclear legal status signed by President Putin in December 2014. The Ministry of Culture and the Presidential Administration haven’t yet created their own national state prize, however.

The backdrop of war has provided a unique opportunity, if not to destroy the Golden Mask altogether, then at least to sharply curtail its independence, demonstrably subordinating it to the state over national security concerns.

What is happening with the Russian theater is not an exception. In all spheres of social and economic life, the most important institutions are being destroyed by state officials, while attempts to save them by making concessions are inevitably leading to an ethical mess.
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