Cossacks of St Petersburg attack theatre staging Death in Venice for promoting paedophilia

21 November 2013

Anyone walking down St Petersburg's Rubinshtein street this morning would have been in for a nasty surprise. The walls of the renowned Maly Drama Theatre (the Theatre of Europe) were daubed with graffiti attacking the theatre's artistic director, world-famous director Lev Dodin. In addition to the written insults, a pig's head was left by the entrance to the theatre and addressed to the director.

But this was not just a simple act of hooliganism. This action was carried out by local activist group the Cossacks of St Petersburg as a way of voicing their hostility to the theatre's recent staging of an adaptation of Death in Venice, performed by Berlin's Schaubühne group and directed by German director Thomas Ostermeier. The long-awaited performance was part of the annual Winter Festival organised by Dodin, a multi-award winning director and honorary president of the Union of Theatres of Europe.

Based on Thomas Mann's famous novella, Death in Venice tells the story of a dying author, Gustav von Aschenbach, who falls in love with a young boy, Tadzio. The so-called Cossacks regarded the production as in contravention of the recent law against promoting homosexuality and paedophilia among minors. The infamous law, which came into effect on 7 March 2012, carries a fine of up to 100 000 roubles. Ostermeier was well aware of the law: at the end of one performance he came on stage to address the audience in English and express the hope that next time these actors come to Russia, there would be nothing to fear.

The Cossack's violent reactions are now a feature of St Petersburg cultural life. Earlier this year, they used a bottle to break a window at the Nabokov Museum, accusing the deceased writer of paedophilia, and in March they prevented the performance of an adaptation of Nabokov's Lolita at Erarta Gallery.

With the exception of the Cossacks, no other visitors to the Winter Festival seemed troubled by insidious gay subtexts. Thanks to Dodin's initiative, Petersburgers have been enjoying a week of top-quality European theatre, including the work of stars like Peter Brooke, Luc Bondy and others. One can only hope that the Cossacks' threat to “cover this festival in pigs' heads”, written on the walls, will be an empty one.

The Winter Festival runs 14-29 November.