In the 1990s Russia was a country where traditionalism was marginalised and liberalism was triumphant. Today we have a country where reactionary clerics and the all-approving majority are irritated with anything innovative. What was marginal in Russia 15 years ago has become central now, and what was central then is now a thing of the past.
Last December the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theatre, often dubbed “the Siberian Coliseum” for its grandeur, premiered its production of Tannhäuser. What was to be its first Richard Wagner opera production in decades quickly turned into a national-scale scandal, with people coming out onto the streets to rally for or against it. In a strange turn of events, the opera imitated its own libretto, illustrating how life and art go hand in hand. But it has also highlighted how Russia today is divided into two opposing camps, neither of which are ready to accommodate each other.
The production was spearheaded by the young director Timofey Kulyabin, who completely reworked Wagner’s libretto for the modern day. Instead of a singing contest in the second act, for example, Tannhäuser participates in a film festival with his own work about the unknown years of Jesus Christ. According to Tannhäuser, in Kulyabin’s version, Jesus spent 18 years in “Venus’s grotto, tested by temptations of love and pleasure only to leave the world of fantasy for the world of suffering and death”. Tannhäuser presents the film at the festival with a striking poster depicting a crucifix between a naked woman’s open legs. In the opera, the poster sparks virulent indignation from other contestants and the public. They attempt to physically beat Tannhäuser, but after his mother Elizabeth’s intrusion, can only banish him from the town of Wartburg, where the contest takes place.
This is where the opera merges with life: it was this poster which also caused an outrage among Russian Orthodox activists. Led by the head of the local Orthodox church they launched their own crusade against the theatre’s production, forcing local prosecutors to get involved in accordance with the 2013 Russian blasphemy law, under which those who offend religious feelings can face up to three years in prison. To show how serious they were, the activists summoned a rally of around a thousand people in front of the gigantic opera house.
The Orthodox activists not only claimed that the production was blasphemous, but that it was also an insult to Wagner himself. Prosecutors turned the complaint into a charge and sent it to a local court, which dismissed the case, finding no crime in the production. Still the activists persisted, calling for Russia’s Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky to condemn it. After intense public discussion, Medinsky replaced the theatre’s managing director Boris Mezdrich and Kulyabin’s Tannhäuser was removed from the theatre’s repertoire.
Mezdrich’s sacking has been sharply condemned by cultural elites in Novosibirsk, where a separate rally was held in front of the opera house demanding that the federal government sack Medinsky from his post. In Moscow the Culture Minister was heckled at the Golden Mask awards ceremony, the country’s most prestigious theatre prizes. “Bring back Tannhäuser” a voice shouted from the balcony, followed by a thunderous ovation.
At the same ceremony, the governor of the Voronezh region, who received an award for supporting the arts, declared, “We are all children of Leviathan” - a reference to the Golden Globe-winning Russian film that has divided public opinion with its depiction of despair and rampant corruption in a northern town.
Orthodox protests have also increased in vociferousness. At the end of March, a group of activists placed a pig’s head in front of Moscow’s iconic Chekhov Art Theater in protest at its Golden Mask-winning production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, which depicts promiscuity and adultery in contemporary Moscow. The pig’s head was scrawled with the name of the theatre’s eminent managing director Oleg Tabakov, one of Russia’s best actors.
Another Golden Mask-winner, the Bolshoi Theatre’s staging of Ruslan and Luydmila, directed by Russia’s most internationally-feted opera director Dmitry Chernyakov, had already come under attack in 2011. Chernyakov’s work bore all the hallmarks of today’s postmodern opera productions: video art beamed across the stage from two large screens at the back of the set, a cameraman running around between the protagonists and actors dressed either in lavish traditional costumes or jeans.
Traditionalists thought the production was an insult to the sacred world of Russian classics. One spectator filed a complaint in a local court asking for compensation and the production’s removal from the Bolshoi’s repetoire. The court ruled against her and unlike Tannhäuser, the opera was allowed to continue its season. The affair highlighted another tendency among traditionalists — claiming authority over classic works of art that in their view cannot have modern interpretations.
In the same vein, traditionalists also believe that no Russian writer should be allowed anywhere near classic theatre. One of the first scandals of this sort happened in 2005, when activists of the pro-Kremlin Walking Together youth movement threw books by the prominent novelist Vladimir Sorokin into a huge fake toilet bowl in front of the Bolshoi. The protest was a response to Sorokin’s libretto for Leonid Desyatnikov’s Rosenthal’s Children, the first Russian contemporary opera in a quarter of a century. The opera featured clones of Wagner, Verdi, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky and Mozart, who, according to the libretto, were left homeless after the collapse of the Soviet Union and had to perform their music on the streets.
These conflicts feel like a dire illustration of the tensions spreading across Russian society. Another acclaimed Russian writer, Boris Akunin, recently told BBC that he would have to leave Russia because he feels that it is “occupied by an enemy.” This is what the Tannhäuser situation has demonstrated — that people in Russia often feel as though they live in different countries.
This scandal has shown that different factions of the Russian public live in their own sealed worlds, where there is no space for alternative versions of reality. These groups have their own rigid narratives about the country’s past, present and future. While traditionalists see Russia as a bulwark of conservative values and draw inspiration from its past, the liberal urban intelligentsia see their ideal Russia as firmly integrated into the western world, into its arts, progressive values and economy. The difficult task for the future is to build a Russia where there will be enough space for everyone.