Who Will Win the Battle for the Bolshoi?
The cancellation of a controversial ballet at Russia’s premiere theater holds dark clues as to where the country could be headed after Putin.
MOSCOW — In Washington, people speak of little else other than the unfolding story of the Trump family and their Russian relations; in Moscow itself, however, where this scheming supposedly got started, the Trump saga has been almost completely overshadowed. Instead, what people are focused on here is the scandal currently engulfing the Russian capital’s most high-profile stage: the legendary Bolshoi Theater.
This month, the director of the Bolshoi cancelled, at the very last minute, the premiere of a new ballet about the life of the legendary bisexual dissident dancer Rudolf Nureyev. The eponymous production had been in the works since January. It was a hotly anticipated show, for various reasons: It emphasized gay and gender subversive themes in a sympathetic and overt fashion (leaked rehearsal videos showed men in high heels), and it was staged by one of the Russian theater’s leading lights, Kirill Serebrennikov, whose 2016 film, The Student, was a prize winner at the Cannes Film Festival. The production may have had some flaws — the official reason for pulling the plug was that the corps de ballet was “not ready” — but the dancers, as well as a handful of viewers who’d seen dress rehearsals, believed that the performance was poised to be a success and that the Bolshoi administration could have fixed whatever small problems it had by making tweaks during the early weeks of performances. Instead, Nureyev was cancelled altogether and replaced for the foreseeable future with performances of an old standby, Don Quixote.
Outraged voices have framed the cancellation as an act of Soviet-style censorship — the result of a direct demand from the Kremlin to shut down a performance that would contradict the state’s conservative ideology. But this notion is a mistake: The reality is both more complex and more revealing about the power struggle that is taking place as President Vladimir Putin gets ready to run for a final term as Russian leader in 2018.
In the Soviet era, censorship was official and omnipresent: Every book, play, movie, and even song had to be shown to Communist Party functionaries before it could be released to the public at large. Today’s Russia works differently. Nowadays, there is far less official suppression; instead, censorship, particularly in the cultural realm, becomes the arena in which different groups and personalities — from grassroots anti-Western activists to high-ranking officials — compete for who can be the most hard-line and in doing so try to gain favor in the eyes of Kremlin.
Vladimir Urin, the 70-year-old director of the Bolshoi, may be older, but he is not a cultural conservative. Today’s Bolshoi is not a living museum, staging stale Soviet-era performances of Swan Lake. Last winter, the theater staged a production of Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd, about a handsome, popular young sailor, which did not hide the opera’s strong gay themes. Plenty of big theatrical productions in Putin’s Russia depict nudity on stage and experiment with daring interpretations of the classics. Those who saw rehearsals of Nureyev describe the Serebrennikov production as powerful and provocative, but not scandalous by Bolshoi standards.
But though the Bolshoi may be more willing to push boundaries than it once was, it still has the reputation of being a virtual Kremlin outside the Kremlin walls, the historical home of big Communist Party conferences, an obligatory stop for foreign dignitaries, a place where tradition must be respected. And while Urin may be the head of the greatest theater in the country, the Bolshoi is still a state theater, and Urin is still a Russian bureaucrat. And like any bureaucrat, Urin has had to think of his own career.
Surely Urin couldn’t help but notice that Serebrennikov, the would-be director of Nureyev, is viewed by the government as а weird experimentalist. Serebrennikov runs his own theater, the Gogol Center, where he has staged many modernized versions of Russian classics — for true conservative hard-liners, a crime unto itself — as well as some experimental performances, notably a work by modern German playwright Heiner Müller, which featured 20 naked dancers of both sexes. Such risks have made it easy for those who disapprove to place Serebrennikov in the same league as Pussy Riot or the performance artist Petr Pavlensky, who once nailed his scrotum to Red Square. It doesn’t help that Serebrennikov has also been accused of embezzlement.
Up until recently, this hasn’t been enough to make Serebrennikov persona non grata in Moscow. The director staged another performance at the Bolshoi in 2015, A Hero of Our Time, a modern ballet version of the 19th-century Russian novel, which played to sold-out crowds. But this year, it seems, things are different.
One sign of how it’s different: As soon as the cancellation was announced, anonymous sources in the state media suggested that Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky was seeking to take credit for Urin’s move.
Medinsky was appointed minister of culture after the wave of protests against Putin in 2011-2012. Many intellectuals saw the appointment of the conservative nationalist, who has written several books about Western conspiracies against Russia, as retaliation for their support for the protests. Medinsky is known for his love of Soviet-style imperial classicism in the arts and has declared multiple times that if an artist, film, or theater director receives state money, they shouldn’t, in return, criticize Russia.
Medinsky’s press campaign to take credit for cancelling Nureyev doesn’t necessarily tell us who was really responsible; what it does tell us is that Medinsky is making a bid for Putin’s ear, posturing himself as someone willing to put his reputation on the line to defend the sovereignty of Russian culture against the corrupting influence of the West. The minister understands which way the cultural winds are blowing in Russia at the moment and that you win points by attacking liberals.
Medinsky and Urin are hardly the first to discover this: Multiple religious, nationalist, and conservative anti-Western (and anti-LGBT) activists have seized opportunities to show how patriotic they are by attacking exhibitions, films, and performances. (The Nureyev cancellation comes amid a campaign against the screening and distribution of the movie Matilda, which portrays the romance between the last Russian emperor, Nicholas II, and the ballerina Matilda Kshesinskaya; the Russian Orthodox Church, which considers Nicholas a martyr and a saint, objects to this depiction.)
But this particular attack comes at a crucial moment. Everyone in Moscow is currently expecting the impending resignation of Prime Minister and former President Dmitry Medvedev, before or after the presidential election next spring. That means a new government, and, in time-honored fashion, officials are already jockeying for position. What better way to do that for a culture minister than speak out in order to protect the Bolshoi, this “Kremlin of the Russian culture,” from the clutches of perverts?
The Russian government is not monolithic, and different factions not only have different views on economic and foreign policy — they also have different views on culture. Some officials are said to be dismayed by the decision to cancel Nureyev. Though few have been willing to speak out publicly, many high-ranking Russian government officials and businessmen see culture not just as a useful ideological tool but something that has export value. After all, culture is one of the few fields where Russians can compete with the rest of the world, and cultural products need to be as interesting, competitive, and cutting-edge as their foreign rivals.
These people, however, are representatives of a camp that is currently in the midst of a losing battle. Since Putin’s return to power in 2012, Russia has been transformed from a country without ideology to a fortress of traditional religious values. To attack an artist who challenges this idea is to potentially gain favor in the Kremlin court; to defend such an artist is to risk one’s place. Attitudes toward culture have also become a fairly reliable guide to one’s position on other aspects of policy, too. Culture is the fault line that divides those who see Russia integrated into global modernity and those who want the country to be at the forefront of resisting modernity.
Up until now, Putin has managed to maintain an equal distance from both camps. To outsiders, it may look like Putin — who preaches the need for Russia to resist Western decadence — is the primary spokesman for the conservative nationalist camp. And he is, in the sense that he pushed this line after the 2011-2012 protests and is responsible for edging the country toward greater levels of confrontation with the West. But it is important to keep in mind the context in which Putin adopted this hard-line posture: When the state was promising (and partially fulfilling) its pledges of rapid economic growth and better living, culture was left alone; it’s only in the context of stagnation that Putin chose to adopt this new conservative ideology.
But we’re beginning to see that Putin may have unleashed forces beyond his control. And, in the cancellation of Nureyev and the campaign against Matilda, we are seeing a preview of what’s to come. While this power struggle is taking place in the context of a pending Medvedev resignation, it’s also taking place in a much bigger, more important context: Most Russians agree that Putin’s next presidential term is likely to be his last. In a fight over the fate of a performance at the Bolshoi, we’re witnessing the beginnings of the struggle for post-Putin Russia, what course it will take, and whether Russian culture will be anything more than a museum set piece.
Image credit: ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images