This year, Russia has revelled in grand demonstrations. If Sochi’s opening ceremony is now a distant memory, the annexation of Crimea has offered a theme for mass spectacle to rival those of the Soviet Union. The Night Wolves motorcycle club (Russia’s Hells Angels) recently hosted their annual bike show in Sevastopol in Crimea, dedicated to the defenders of the fatherland from 1941 to 2014. Poems celebrating Russia’s historical struggle for Crimea were interspersed with black-clad “fascists” dancing to soundbites from Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. President Vladimir Putin sent a greeting; Steven Seagal made an appearance. These larger-than-life images of a triumphant fatherland, venerated leader and glorious history suggested a new return to Socialist Realism, albeit with a post-socialist twist.

Government-aligned demonstrations have cropped up in the halls of high culture too. In July, celebrated St Petersburg opera director Yuri Alexandrov staged Crimea, an hour-long chamber opera about the history of Russian claims to the Crimean Peninsula, which he called an “opera-demonstration” (opera-miting). Contemporary political pageantry meets Soviet kitsch.

The difference between this summer’s patriotic demonstrations and anti-government protests, such as those held in Bolotnaya Square in 2012, illustrate Michel Foucault’s distinction between rhetoric and parrhesia — “fearless speech”: the latter requires the speaker to put her or himself at risk by speaking truth to power. And this continues to get harder in Russia: a Moscow court has just sentenced key Bolotnaya activists to years in jail and the Kremlin has passed new “ anti-Maidan” legislation that will criminalise “repeated violations of the established procedure for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets”. However, pro-Kremlin performances like Alexandrov’s Crimea offer a key to understanding what is at stake for Putin’s supporters in the Bolotnaya case. Demonstrations, the opera suggests, are always staged, and Russia’s dramaturges must find a way to outperform the opposition.

The concept of an “opera-demonstration” was bigger than the event itself. Alexandrov wanted singers and audience members to interact, ideally in a large, visible forum like St Petersburg’s Palace Square — where Sergei Eisenstein filmed a crowd of 100,000 in his 1928 re-enactment of the storming of the Winter Palace. Alexandrov also hoped to incorporate the leader into his performance: “In the culmination of the opera Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin] would come onstage, explain his position, answer questions.”

Putin did not, however, show up for the 10 July premiere. Neither did members of far-right Ukrainian group Pravyi Sektor who, the theatre provocatively claimed, threatened to cause problems if the opera wasn’t to their liking.

Demonstrations, the opera suggests, are always staged, and Russia’s dramaturges must find a way to outperform the opposition

Instead of a spectacle in Palace Square, Alexandrov ended up staging Crimea at St Petersburg Opera, the repertory chamber-opera theatre that he founded during perestroika. The plush seats were arranged into theatre-in-the-round; the stage was a giant map of Crimea. Historical and current events were projected onto the ceiling: German bombers from the Second World War, Angela Merkel, newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, the Maidan protestors in Kiev, happy Crimeans after the 16 March referendum. In place of the Russian president, Alexandrov cast Nikita Zakharov, who “in his temperament really resembles the president”, as the narrator. Clad in a grey suit, his hair slicked back, Zakharov, who was billed as “the man from the theatre”, was a proxy chief executive and artistic director, providing spoken commentary on Russia’s love for Crimea between the musical numbers.

The director has called the “opera-demonstration” an attempt at articulating a “coherent way of understanding the struggle over Crimea”. The show spans three epochs: Russia’s devastating defeat in the Crimean Campaign of 1854 (nurses hand bloodied bandages to audience members), the 1941-42 siege and bombardment of the Crimean capital Sevastopol by the German Luftwaffe (sailors depart, girls wear enormous ribbons in their hair), and Russia’s territorial takeover of Crimea amidst, to quote Alexandrov, “Maidan and today’s Banderaite [Ukrainian nationalist] bastardry”.

Alexandrov, who has won multiple awards for his artistic direction, has made a name for himself with his creative take on classical opera. His Moscow revival of Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor was, according to Alexandrov, a way of pondering Russia’s “historical role, what it’s like now and what it’ll be like in the future”. I saw his Boris Godunov at St Petersburg Opera a few years ago. He had superimposed the 17th-century “time of troubles” onto the 1990s, placing the action aboard a train — the train of history — and presenting a hybrid between Yeltsin and the troubled usurper-tsar Godunov. Crimea, too, was a political hybrid. A new libretto was set to excerpts from Stalin Prize-laureate Marian Koval’s long forgotten 1946 opera The People of Sevastopol, based on the Siege of Sevastopol by the Axis powers during the Second World War.

Alexandrov preserves a lot of Koval’s original, but reorients it for the current situation: in the 1946 opera a chorus of women sing “Take us with you!” to sailors departing Sevastopol; in Alexandrov’s rendition, a chorus of women and children sing “Take us with you!” to the Putin-like narrator in grey. The director places his most patriotic message into the mouth of a young girl. “Please!” she implores the Putin figure. “We can’t destroy the world today. … I have friends all over the world. … We are against violent killing and fascism.” The message is the same one Putin has repeated since February: Russia’s interests and the interests of world peace are aligned; it is western meddling and renascent fascism that have caused the chaos in Ukraine.

Scenes from Yuri Alexandrov's Crimea

The man in the grey suit embraces the child, then in a rabble-rousing crescendo presents the audience with a series of questions to which he receives unanimous yes or no votes. This referendum is the interactive part of the opera-demo. Lest there be any doubt as to how to vote on a particular question, the question rhymed with either “yes” (da) or “no” (net). Thus:

“Our brother nation has met with unexpected trouble (nezhdannaya beda). Does this tear at our soul?” “Da!”

“The fate of Russia through the ages should be in our firm hands, and this should be our answer to everyone (vsem otvet). Should it be left to foreign meddling?” Net!

Socialist Realism symbols abound. A “Doubting Citizen” in a trenchcoat and hat carries a briefcase and a globe. This cartoon western capitalist sings a stirring duet with the “Uncompromising Comrade”, whose red shirt with rolled-up sleeves is the costume of the Russian worker. 

Alexandrov’s staging, however provocative, could not match what is playing out across Ukraine right now

Socialist Realist art, by the mid-1930s, had to hail the revolution while putting it firmly in the past: according to Stalin, 1936 marked the achievement of Socialism in one state, and it was up to artists to prove it. Colourful images depicted orderly citizens and a leader who guaranteed them safety and happiness. Operas like Koval’s 1946 People of Sevastopol presented the idealised masses to the actual masses. Alexandrov’s Crimea, similarly, instructs a Russian audience to desire a reunion with Crimea. 

Opera is not a nuanced genre, and Alexandrov did not hide his Wagnerian aspirations. The opera, he explained, is about love for the motherland. When accused of substituting politics for art, Alexandrov compared himself to Dmitry Shostakovich, who composed his Seventh Symphony “under the crashing of bombs and shells in a city besieged by fascists". Paradoxically, Koval helped wage a campaign against Shostakovich in the late 1940s, shortly after writing The People of Sevastopol. If Alexandrov has thought about the darker sides of art’s service to authoritarianism he has not mentioned it.

Despite Putin’s popularity, and even the general apathy towards foreign sanctions, Alexandrov’s Crimea was a flop — encouraging evidence that contemporary Russia has not actually returned to 1936. St Petersburg’s theatre critics are clearly not ready to accept an unironic return to Socialist Realism. Yelena Volgust called the show “servile agitprop”; Andrei Alexeyev writes: “It makes you want to drink”. To be sure, there was some scattered enthusiasm — Natalia Blinnikova called the opera “an original patriotic manifesto” — but no future performances of Crimea are scheduled in St Petersburg or elsewhere, which suggests that it may share the fate of Koval’s now obscure The People of Sevastopol. Perhaps part of the problem is that Alexandrov’s staging, however provocative, could not match the Gesamtkunstwerk that played out in Crimea in the spring, and is playing out across Ukraine right now.

If the general verdict among theatre critics is that the “opera-demonstration” was hardly a success, Crimea does nevertheless provide important commentary on the nature of rallies. Alexandrov’s production bespeaks a belief that all demonstrations are staged and scripted, that a grand director — a “man from the theatre” — is always holding the strings, and that there is no such thing as spontaneity in history. The performance helps clarify how opponents of the Maidan movement have chosen to view last winter’s protests in Kiev — as a rally that must have been instigated by meddling powers, be they American, European or neo-fascist.

Large government-aligned demonstrations, be they historical operas, bike shows, or May Day parades, have long existed in Russia. Groups like Pussy Riot and the absurdist Monstration movement have poked fun at public fanfare, but the Bolotnaya sentences and anti-Maidan laws promise that public demonstration will be increasingly rhetorical. Alexandrov, who insists that Crimea was not commissioned, maintains high hopes for his “opera-demonstration”. He has told the press that he would like to stage it in Moscow — perhaps even in Red Square. “My letter is on President Putin’s desk. They told me that he has already read it. I am awaiting the result.”

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