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When a theatre becomes a tank

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When a theatre becomes a tank: Russian theatre critic on war support in his professional community

While European theatres express solidarity with the people of Ukraine, some of their Russian colleagues support Vladimir Putin’s aggressive war. Russian theatre critic Anton Khitrov analyzes a sinister militaristic action, which involves 19 theatres.

Demonstration of loyalty

It happens like this. A regional cultural official urges a state theatre CEO to join an action in support of the so-called ‘special operation’ in Ukraine, which is a Russian euphemism for the war. That means he should place a Latin letter Z, a new militaristic symbol that Vladimir Putin’s opponents have nicknamed the half-swastika, on his facade. Sometimes the CEO finds an excuse not to do it. Sometimes he/she agrees. Local journalists write that the theatre team decided to support the Russian army. In fact, artists and other theatre employees may not even be consulted: one day they just come to work and see the emblem of war on their building.

The action was started by Putin’s supporter Vladimir Mashkov, a well-known movie actor and the artistic director of Oleg Tabakov’s Moscow Theatre — apparently, at his own initiative. Later it spread to the Russian regions. Today, 19 Russian theatres are marked with a Z. In total, there are more than 600 of them in the country, so active war supporters are an absolute minority.

Those demonstrations of loyalty began only at the end of March, a month after the invasion of Ukraine began. However, in the early days of the war, one could observe a completely different reaction from the Russian theatre community: many of its members, including famous actors and directors, even leaders of state theatres, were not afraid to speak out against Putin’s actions. Some of them have already paid for these speak-outs with their jobs, such as Dmitry Volkostrelov, ex- artistic director of the Meyerhold Centre, Moscow.

As a theatre critic from Russia, I really would not like a Z to become the face of the Russian theatre recognizable in the world instead of the seagull — the emblem of the Moscow Art Theatre. Therefore, I focus on the fact that this action is by no means a mass one. However, it says a lot about the role Putin’s authoritarian regime wants to impose on art in general and theatre in particular.

Turning into a tank

The Z action not only testifies to some theatre CEOs’ outstanding conformism — a quality purposefully cultivated in Russian state employees — but also casts doubt on their competence. People versed in theatrical art would never put up with such a symbol on their building, and here’s why.

According to Meduza, an independent Russian-language media, a Z became an emblem of the so-called special operation at the suggestion of the Russia Today propagandistic channel and PR specialists from the Ministry of Defence. However, initially it was a mark on Russian military vehicles, which, apparently, means belonging to the Western Military District (the Russian word for ‘Western’ begins with z in Latin transliteration). So the letter Z, depicted on anything, is, in fact, a costume of a tank or a howitzer.

Acting is an ancient craft that bears a trace of magical ideas about the world. Dressing up as a character has long been considered the nearest thing to shapeshifting. When a person portrays someone else, it changes her or his nature, and sometimes irreversibly. This mystical interpretation of acting can be found, for example, in the legend of Saint Genesius, the Christian patron of the theatre.

Genesius was a comedian in ancient Rome. He once played a sick man about to be baptised in a satirical play that ridiculed Christians. When actors representing priests poured water over him, he saw angels holding a book with a list of his sins erasing themselves. Genesius announced to the audience that he had indeed converted to the faith. Later he was executed by order of the emperor.

The irrational belief in the supernatural component of acting has survived in modern culture. This is confirmed by the case of Volodymyr Zelensky, who used to be a comedian like Genesius and played a president of Ukraine in the Servant of the People TV series. In 2019, Ukrainians voted for him in the real presidential election. Zelensky’s courageous behaviour during the war proved that the presidency was for him something incomparably more than a well-played role.

It is well known that not only people can act on stage, but also inanimate objects: fabric becomes the sky, a lantern becomes the moon, and paint becomes blood. A theatre building can perform as well.

At the end of March, European theatres began placing the Cyrillic lettering “дети” (“children” in Russian) in front of their entrances. They do this in memory of civilians who hid in the Mariupol drama theatre, Ukraine, on March 16: a similar lettering ‘children’ did not save them from a Russian airstrike (130 people survived the attack, but 300 were killed according to the Ukrainian authorities). Given the above, every theater which has decided to express solidarity with the Ukrainians in this way, in a sense, turns itself into a destroyed bomb shelter and shares Ukraine’s pain.

It is also true that every theatre that has placed Z on its façade becomes a Russian tank and shares responsibility for the aggression of its country. The consequences of these metamorphoses are inevitable.

A disastrous union

War playing is generally a typical thing for the Russian society of the Putin era. Victory Day in World War II, which is celebrated in Russia on May 9, changed its content in the first decades of the 21st century: now on this day, Russians celebrate their country’s military strength instead of mourning fallen soldiers. The unofficial slogan of this holiday is ‘We can repeat!’, which is understood as a threat to Western countries. By May 9, ‘To Berlin!’ stickers appear on cars, reproducing the inscriptions on Soviet military vehicles, children are dressed up as soldiers, and even baby carriages are sometimes given the appearance of tanks. In 2022, looking back at these militaristic performances, no one will call them a harmless masquerade.

Вack to the theatres and their actions. I can easily imagine art in a former bomb shelter, but a tank in the service of culture is unthinkable. No weapon, not even that of a defender, can be an artist’s tool, unless it has been demonstratively disarmed and turned from a military symbol into an anti-war one.

This is what happened to the Soviet tank-monument IS-2 in Prague: in 1991, Czech artist David Czerny repainted a camouflage-coloured war vehicle in feminine (which usually means denying violence) pink, protesting against the Soviet military blackmail against Eastern Europe. Another example is the Hope for Peace Monument created by French-American artist Armand in Yarze, Lebanon, in 1995 to commemorate the end of the civil war: it is a concrete tower with tanks walled up in it.

The purpose of art is to resolve contradictions in society through their understanding and discussion, and not through violence. Therefore, the union of artists and the military is impossible, and therefore I have always been confused that there is an Army Theatre in Moscow, which is subordinate to the Ministry of Defence (however, surprisingly, this theatre did not publicly express solidarity with the latest actions of the Russian military).

In practice, turning into a tank means giving up artistic independence and the final capitulation to an authoritarian state. The Z-marked theatres agreed with the role that Putin’s officials have in store for artists: to imitate cultural life in Russia. The state wants to use the authority of culture to achieve its own goals. It is important for the regime that art should be loyal and at the same time look independent — that is why they try to present the Z-action as an initiative of theatres themselves. Obediently fulfilling the desires of officials, these groups cease to be theatres and begin to pretend to be them. In other words, theatres decorated to look like tanks are actually tanks pretending to be theatres.


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