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Opinion

When Art Precedes Life: On the Persecution of Kirill Serebrennikov

Photo from gogolcenter.com

When I visited Moscow a few weeks ago for the last event in the Writers in Dialogue Program series, our joint project with Russian independent cultural platform Colta.ru, I went to see Kirill Serebrennikov’s Little Tragedies. Gogol Center resumed working on this play in September of last year under quite extraordinary circumstances—Serebrennikov was arrested just a few weeks before.

In his play, Serebrennikov precedes Pushkin’s Little Tragedies, known by every Russian from their school days, with the author’s poem, “Prophet.” Imagine arriving at the theater’s auditorium, timidly looking around in search of your seat, talking with other theatergoers, watching people change seats after someone sat in the wrong one—and all the while, the actors are already on the stage. You see a scene of a typical railway station buffet somewhere in a Russian province, or maybe even in Moscow, with its bored saleswoman trying to solve her crossword puzzles, a standing table and a police officer eating his junk food, and a couple of old women with their big bags. On the screen, instead of the train schedule, the poem “Prophet” is projected. And you are still not sure if the play has already started or not. Even when the light is off, you don’t pay attention to the poem—as you’ve known it by heart since childhood—or to the strange, extremely tall man who has recently joined the company and doesn’t really look like anyone else. Everything is still slow and nothing happens . . . until the tall man actually takes his coat off, jumps on a young man sleeping on a bench, throws him here and there, pulls out the man’s tongue, cuts his chest, and finally pulls out his heart. And here, yes, you start paying attention—to everything, including the poem. And you realize that this deadly cyborg is six-winged Seraph, God’s envoy. He does exactly what Pushkin wrote in 1825, and the poor young guy is not just a guy but a prophet himself:

And with his sword he cleft my chest,
And reft my quaking heart out whole,
And thrust inside my sundered breast
A blazing shard of living coal

The video screen, which in Serebrennikov’s multimedia, multichannel space becomes a separate actor by itself, accents the word BURN from the voice of God addressed to the poet: “And burn Man’s heart with this My Word.” Popular rapper Husky continues the scene with the song where burn (жги) becomes a shrill refrain. With very complex ingenuity, Serebrennikov brings together styles, technics, designs, and generations.

What really struck me in this first scene was not the violence itself—I guess spending hours each day reading detailed reports of torture in Russian prisons could be part of the reason—but the obliviousness of the other people in the scene. They acted like nothing was happening—some were casually talking, some were watching TV. To me, alongside an authoritarian government and corrupted officials all over Russia, this kind of ignorance is one of the most dangerous threats in modern Russia. We could long argue what causes this ignorance: lack of independent media, or widespread fear, or anything else, or all of these things at once. Unfortunately, for the majority of people, it is still much easier to believe that Oleg Sentsov was a terrorist than it is to open their eyes, look around, pay attention, and realize what kind of country they live in. And that’s what, to me, was part of Serebrennikov’s idea in this scene.

Four different Pushkin plays that make up Little Tragedies are beautifully performed by actors of different generations of Gogol Center (previously Gogol Theater) who, as one critic said, “play like it is their last time because it might be actually their last time,” a reference to Serebrennikov’s arrest. Another symbolic metaphor that stuck with me was a poem “October 19th,” read by the oldest actress of Gogol Center, Maya Ivashkevich, in the last part of the play, A Feast in Time of Plague. It’s not only that Pushkin wrote this poem while in exile as a letter to his friends who he could not join on this day, special for all of them, but it also, in an absolutely mystical manner, coincided with the date until which the Bassmany District Court of Moscow first chose to keep Serebrennikov under house arrest. Art preceded life, unfortunately.

Serebrennikov’s house arrest was extended to April 19. On April 12, 2018, it was officially announced that his film Leto, about Soviet rock star Victor Tsoi, will join the Cannes Film Festival lineup this year. On the same day, the Basmanny District Court of Moscow announced that the investigative bodies had submitted a petition to extend Serebrennikov’s arrest until July 19.

There have been a few recent cases where professional communities managed to save their colleagues from unjust imprisonment: Doctors saved Elena Misyurina, and human rights defenders and historians secured the release of Yuri Dmitriev. Can the artistic community save Kirill Serebrennikov?

According to Serebrennikov’s own words, one of the key themes of Little Tragedies is “pain and the artist’s right to inflict it, the right to “burn hearts” and turn suffering into art.” It is the role of civil society now to counter this painful relationship between art and government in Russia and to prevent it from turning art into suffering.

By Polina Kovaleva, PEN America Free Expression Programs Manager, April 17, 2018   

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