Vit Kogut, a 35-year-old theater director, was dragging on a cigarette as he walked around Moscow. He had spent most of the Ukraine war abroad and when he returned he could not recognize his city—the territory of art that was his world had been destroyed. The bombardment by the state sensors, including GRAD, a group of conservative and nationalist politicians named after a multiple rocket launcher, had compiled blacklists of artists who had spoken against the massacres in Ukraine and pushed leading theaters to cancel their shows by artists with anti-war positions.
The number of banned theater directors, filmmakers, playwrights and musicians had been growing by the day. “I look around and I cannot find anything left of my favorite free theater,” Kigurt told The Daily Beast. “There is not a single acute play left in the repertoires of Moscow theaters. The loyal state theaters salute the power and once again explore the Russian soul instead of social issues.”
He sounded down. “My theater, Perovo, demands to cut out all the sharpest, sarcastic lines from my play Land of Elza but I do not agree with the censored versions—if I did, I would be pledging loyalty to the state’s line, which I do not accept.”
Russia has targeted its most popular authors who disagreed with the aggression and asked for peace. Last month, the GRAD commission at the Russian State Duma declared their role as “to identify the mechanisms spreading foreign influence and anti-state activities in our theater, cinema, fine art and literature.”
Sofia Kapkova, the founder of the Documentary Film Center said that Sept. 2 had been a painful turning point. The center was the place where thousands of film lovers could see the best international feature and documentary films. Intellectuals, artists, hipsters loved it—the center screened film five times a day, five days a week, and invited international directors for long and thoughtful discussions with their audiences.
Last year the center presented the American Autumn Film Festival from early October till late December, playing the best American movies from 1970s, with support of the U.S. Embassy and Kapkova’s Mart Foundation. “On Sept. 2 we were supposed to start our new season but the city authorities shut down the center, which is a private company,” Kapkova told The Daily Beast on the phone from New York. “By one version, it was done for fire safety reasons, by the other they shut it down because I spoke against the war. It also looks like they are fighting against any Western influence in arts.”
For 38-year-old Evdokia Moskvina, an award-winning filmmaker, the end of the center was also the end of an exciting era, a place where she had premieres and talked of her films, Occupation 1968, about a journey of old Russian generals from their hometown of Odesa to Prague, and Forbidden Children, in which Moskvina documented the sad lives of five Russian girls in the refugee camp of Al-Khol, whose parents were killed by ISIS.
“It was the only center in Russia that showed so many of the world’s best documentary films. But Russia is fighting against the leading voices in arts.”
— Evdokia Moskvina
“The USSR did not have any documentary filmmakers and now authorities ban international documentary films. The development of cinematography in Russia, just when it started joining the international process of art development is frozen,” Moskvina told The Daily Beast. “It was the only center in Russia that showed so many of the world’s best documentary films. But Russia is fighting against the leading voices in arts.”
Ever since Russian president Vladimir Putin sent the army to Ukraine on Feb. 24, dozens of Russia’s leading artists have been signing letters, petitions, and recording videos addressed to the Kremlin demanding an end to the war.
“As a child of the World War II, I could not imagine even in my worst nightmare that Russian bombs would target Ukrainian cities, villages, force Kyiv residence into bomb shelters, make them flee from their own country,” Lev Dodin, an acclaimed Russian theater director of the Maly Drama Theatre said.
Celebrated pianist Polina Osetinskaya, who played a concert at Carnegie Hall last October, posted on Facebook on the first day of the war: “Horror, shame and disgust. My friends in Ukraine, Kyiv, Odesa, I have no words, I did not think I would ever live to see this.”
On Sept. 2, Osetinskaya arrived to perform in St. Petersburg but found out that her performance had been cancelled. “I have no idea who makes such decisions, out of the blue I was informed I would not be playing the Triple Concerto by Beethoven. Then more concerts were cancelled,” Osetinskaya told The Daily Beast.
“Beginning from the first day of the war, I posted on social media for Russia to stop the horror. I do not delete my posts,” she added.
“GRAD is a far-right group. They are building a nationalist culture, where the core is the Orthodox church and imperialism.”
— Ivan Vyrypayev
The Kremlin fired back at artists by shutting down Russia’s best contemporary theatre, Gogol Center, on July 1, then the Bolshoi cancelled ballets and operas by its directors without giving any reason, and finally, on Sept. 2, an avalanche of cancellations and bans began all across the country after Russia officially outlawed criticism of war.
“I am a totally banned playwright in Russia. Forty-five theaters have cancelled my plays,” Ivan Vyrypayev, one of the leading playwrights of Russian contemporary drama, told The Daily Beast. “GRAD is a far-right group. They are building a nationalist culture, where the core is the Orthodox church and imperialism; they plan to spread the influence of the Russian world, all the way to the western part of Ukraine, banning every performance, every piece of art representing liberal values.”
Vyrypayev is now in Poland. He stages his thoughtful plays with Polish, Belarusian, Russian, and Ukrainian actors.
As a student at the Russian Institute of Theater Arts, he made a deal with his master, Leonid Kheifets. “We agreed that everything I ever create will be honest,” he said. “I keep my promise to my teacher.”
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