Russian utopia has always been slightly post-apocalyptic. If you are building a new world, you have to destroy the old one first. The city of Kitezh submerged when it was in danger, becoming an earthly paradise only in the afterlife.
Many people regarded the October Revolution of 1917 both as the end of the world and a step into a real utopia. The years of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War were contradictory times. They were something like a second coming that annulled social reality, a second coming in whose wake many hoped for eternal communist bliss.
Many people, including artists, tried to understand what was happening in those years and affect its outcome. The utopia of building a new world made a big splash in the theater, where the creation of such worlds through the joint efforts of a large number of people was already a regular artistic practice.
The revolutionary theater was built equally by zealots and by freaks, by the most educated people of the time and by yesterday’s workers, who were passionately involved in amateur performance. Their ideas and practices often resembled those that have become increasingly popular in contemporary theater in recent decades— that is, participatory theater, theater for social change, site-specific theater, and postdramatic theater. Only slightly different terms were used in the early 1920s—“agitation,” “amateurism,” “battling for the repertoire.” It was the done thing to combat the dominance of “literature” on the stage and use public holidays as a means of educating popular sentiment.
This article explores the quest undertaken by some revolutionary theaters and how these theatrical utopias are reflected in the present day.
Digging graves for cholera victims in Petrograd was the labor duty into which Mikhail Razumny, an actor at the famous Crooked Mirror Theater, had been conscripted in the summer of 1918. His trade union tried to get the actor released from the work, but could not do it even with the support of People’s Commissar of Education Anatoly Lunacharsky.
A year and a half later, the enterprising Razumny would find himself in Vitebsk in charge of the local terevsat—the theater of revolutionary satire, where skits denouncing White General Anton Denikin would be stage-designed by Marc Chagall. Razumny then moved his project to Moscow. For a couple of years, the Moscow Terevsat under his leadership would become nearly the largest Soviet propaganda theater, while, however, preserving the spirit of a pre-revolutionary private theater company.
Razumny’s escapades surprised few people during the years of war communism. The theater of the time could be compared to an intellectual Decameron consisting of tragicomic stories about the adventures of revolutionary romantics and tricksters and their ideas. The role of chance in their lives loomed larger than their aesthetic credos. Many artists survived simply because they received rations for frontline propaganda performances for the Red Army. Or, on the contrary, they died during just such dangerous frontline tours.
For example, in May 1919, Vsevolod Meyerhold, having completed several major theatrical projects in Petrograd, went to Crimea for medical treatment. However, General Denikin’s troops arrived Crimea the same time as the director. Meyerhold was soon arrested in occupied Novorossiysk after he was reported to the new authorities. As he awaited his court martial, he lectured his cellmates about the theater and staged Boris Godunov with them. Meyerhold had almost immediately welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution and was a member of the Party, so the White court could have sentenced him to death. After Meyerhold was liberated by the Red Army, he was a slightly different, more militarized person.
When Meyerhold was given the opportunity to implement his program for reforming the Russian theater, his bellicose rhetoric was remembered by many. Meyerhold was appointed head of the Theater Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education in September 1920. His project for launching the new Soviet theater was called “Theatrical October.”
In the early 1920s, Meyerhold argued that the Russian theater should be politicized: a revolution was needed in art as well, and the theater required new propaganda forms that could sway the masses. Meyerhold referred to the “old” art and “bourgeois” theater as a “genuine theatrical counter-revolution.” He also associated professionalism in the theater with “bourgeoisness”: at the time, he believed that “professional” theater should be completely replaced by workers engaged in amateur productions. Meyerhold’s stance, by the way, was soon directly brought to life by the troupe of the Red Army District Amateur Theater in Moscow, who on their own authority seized the premises of Konstantin Nezlobin’s former theater.
Another of Meyerhold’s ideas was the creation of “generic” Soviet theaters: RSFSR Theater No. 1, RSFSR Theater No. 2, RSFSR Theater No. 3, and so on. In practice, the director managed to build only his own theater, RSFSR Theater No. 1, and stage in it The Dawn, a propaganda performance-cum-political rally based on Émile Verhaeren’s play Les Aubes.
Literary texts were treated quite liberally in Meyerhold’s theater, where it was believed that they should conform to the laws of stage action. Therefore, the directors reworked Verhaeren’s Symbolist play about an uprising, linking it with the then-current Soviet agenda.
The performance-cum-rally was maximally audience friendly and meant to encourage audience participation. The audience and actors sang “The Internationale,” while tribunes moved around the auditorium, and proclamations floated down from the balcony. Over time, improvisational episodes made their way into The Dawn—actors relating the latest news from the front. It is reported that Larissa Reissner, a commissar of the fleet, writer, intellectual, and feminist icon of the Revolution, once spontaneously joined in the action while watching the production. Sporting a Mauser and wearing a leather jacket, she jumped up on stage, saluting war heroes, and also sharing news about the Red Army with the audience.
Experimental and too “leftist even for the left,” The Dawn was not liked by everyone. The production sparked not only the public discussions specially organized by the theater, but also ideological polemics. Other ideas proposed by the revolutionary firebrand Meyerhold were similarly unpopular—for example, establishing a military commandant’s office in each theater. The People’s Commissar of Education had to publicly condemn Meyerhold’s theatrical policy as unacceptable, and in 1921 Meyerhold was fired from his job overseeing Soviet theaters. The incident did not dampen his fervor, but that is a completely different story.
Meyerhold, who had embraced the Bolshevik Revolution, was often considered an opportunist. However, many of the theses of his “Theatrical October” were only logical continuations of ideas that the director had proposed in the first two decades of twentieth century.
In the pre-revolutionary 1900s and 1910s, the Russian theater was rife with disputes and confrontations: private theaters versus the imperial theaters, the Symbolists against the Realists, and the Futurists against everyone. “New forms are needed!” was one of the main theatrical slogans of the time. Along with new forms, the theater attracted new people. It was fashionable to invite contemporary artists from Alexandre Benois to Natalia Goncharova to work on set designs. Modern poets and prose writers from Maxim Gorky to Fyodor Sologub, tried their hand at drama. Like Ibsen, Hauptmann, and Maeterlinck, they were tasked with discovering new content.
The theatrical avant-garde in Russia was duller than the artistic avant-garde at the time, however. The project of a future theater seemed to many people to be impossible without reference to the past. While the Futurists dreamed of machine-powered velocities, theater people were most often interested in reenactments and stylizations, and studied the traditions of the commedia dell’arte, vernacular theater, and ancient theater.
The philosophy of Symbolism, the ideas of socialist god-building, and Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy led the Russian theater back to medieval mystery plays and folk rituals. The theater world was also influenced by the protests of 1905 and the political reaction that ensued.
In 1908, the Symbolist publishing house Shipovnik published On the New Theater, a book in which Meyerhold, Benois, Sologub, Lunacharsky, Valery Bryusov, Andrei Bely, and the mystical anarchist Georgy Chulkov (whom Bely would parody in his 1910 novel The Silver Dove) shared their projects for the theater of the future.
The future People’s Commissar of Education lived in exile at the time. Along with another revolutionary philosopher, Alexander Bogdanov, Lunacharsky was interested in turning the concept of socialism into a new proletarian religion. In his essay on the new theater, he wrote that humanity’s goal was to “become a god” for itself, that is, to unite en masse in the great cause of creative work. When humanity discovered its innate capacity for creating something comparable to the divine, only the problem of death would separate the gods from men. The theater would partly facilitate people’s attainment of immortality: according to Lunacharsky, theater in the future would consist of ritual amateur performances of unprecedented proportions. The place of the stage in the new theater would be taken by temples, where multitudes of people in bursts of collective creativity would perform tragedies in order to experience “oneness with ancestors and descendants who have died and brothers yet to be born.” Another idea that Lunacharsky had was “holidays of self-forgetfulness,” in which those who wished would be able to relax and not think about death during “minutes of orgiastic jubilation.”
Most of the other authors featured in On the New Theater reflected that the world had gone rotten by the turn of the twentieth century, and the modern bourgeois philistine was vicious and bad. Things had been better in earlier times, and since the best earlier time was Greco-Roman antiquity, the theater should return to ancient traditions and tragic heroism to cleanse human souls.
Referring alternately to Nietzsche and the fashionable Petersburg Symbolist philosopher Vyacheslav Ivanov, the theater theorists of the 1910s proposed banishing philistine realism and lifelike characters from the stage, smashing the footlights, and reducing the distance between actors and audience. Spectators had to be imagined as accomplices in mystery plays, or they even had to be directly involved in the action, functioning like the ancient Greek chorus. Only Bely archly urged his colleagues to think about the fact that a round dance in a village was no orchestra.
As they designed the future, the authors of On the New Theater would hardly have suspected that ten years later they would meet in Petrograd at the Theater Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education of the RSFSR (TEO Narkomprosa).
TEO Narkomprosa should have been created at least for the sake of its melodious revolutionary abbreviation. The institution behind it, however, was remarkable in itself. It was TEO that in 1918 began elaborating the artistic policy of the future Soviet theater.
Lunacharsky had by this time officially abandoned his god-building ideas: both he and Bogdanov had been roundly criticized by Lenin for espousing them. But TEO’s mission still involved building, albeit without messianic principles. The theater of the future classless society could not be imbued with the bourgeois values of the past. TEO’s new theater was to be built while preserving the best of existing theaters.
In Petrograd in 1918, TEO had three divisions: the repertoire division, supervised by the poet Alexander Blok; the theater history division, headed by one of the most influential Pushkin specialists and theater scholars of his era, Pyotr Morozov; and the pedagogical division, led by the Symbolist Konstantin Erberg. TEO’s vice-chairman was Meyerhold, and a range of quite different people—from the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov—were involved in its deliberations.
In cold and starving Petrograd, the Theater Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education did unexpectedly high-quality intellectual work. The theater history division, according to the memoirs of contemporaries, set out to create nothing less than “consistent theater scholarship” in Russia and began collecting relevant materials. The repertoire division compiled lists of plays recommended for production in the new Soviet theaters: Blok nobly defended the need for “high” classical drama in these lists. The pedagogical division dealt with both the teaching of theater and children’s theater, which had yet to be invented. Finally, when TEO launched its theater directing courses (abbreviated Kurmastsep), they were headed by Meyerhold.
The Petrograd TEO functioned quite chaotically, producing unexpected outcomes. For example, Calderon’s Baroque drama Life Is a Dream, Sologub’s Symbolist play A Pattern of Roses, and Leonid Andreyev’s The Life of Man were included in the list of plays the department recommended for production by the people’s theaters that served popular audiences. Although ideologically more congenial to the new socialist society, Hauptmann’s The Weavers and Moliere’s Tartuffe were paradoxically not included in the list. The Russian stage was still a long way from embracing the Beryozka Dance Ensemble: the Petersburg intelligentsia continued to see “folksiness” as synonymous with Italian vernacular comedy and the ancient theater.
The Theater Department’s incredible intellectual adventures in Petrograd did not last long, however. After the Russian capital was moved to Moscow, both the Commissariat of Education and the TEO’s real leadership were transferred there as well. In Moscow, the Theater Department was headed by Meyerhold, who had returned from Crimea armed with a new revolutionary rhetoric, which was still redolent of pre-revolutionary ideas.
In the revolutionary theater, as in the projects sketched the mystics of the 1900s, the audience was again the protagonist. Only this time it was not abstract “hungry souls” that had to be awakened from a philistine dream, but quite genuine people—for example, workers and Red Army soldiers, who were supposed to be supplied with culture by the theaters.
Access to the theater was granted to many people who had never frequented it before. Theaters, especially the former imperial ones, also welcomed these people for the first time. There was talk of the “new spectator,” and the tone of this talk was often contemptuous.
It was impossible to turn away from this audience, however. The new socialist state required theaters to engage with this human energy, especially in the midst of the Civil War. And, although many theaters carried out the state’s orders under duress, the number of enthusiasts who sincerely pursued the “new spectator” was no fewer.
“The Revolution’s thunder and whirlwind awakened in the souls of people who lived in oppression and resentment all the darkness and evil that they had amassed in the recesses of their hearts. We must teach people to love and respect what is truly human, and our ultimate aim is that they should be able to be proud of themselves,” wrote Gorky in 1919 about the mission of the recently opened Bolshoi Drama Theater (BDT) in Petrograd. The BDT’s repertoire in its early seasons was crafted by Blok. It was he who lectured to the Red Army soldiers who came to the theater before the performances about Schiller and Shakespeare, and to the theater troupe about why they should perform Schiller and Shakespeare for Red Army soldiers. Blok’s repertoire—high tragedy, drama, and comedy—was meant to show specimens of the finest, loftiest human sentiments to both new and old spectators, who were equally devastated by the events of recent years in Russia. Blok soon came to hate his work in the theater, but he did not quit, regarding it as his civic duty.
“Responsibility,” “humanism” and “enlightenment” were keywords for those involved in the construction of the new theater after 1917. The word “enlightenment” (prosveshchenie) was soon joined by the word “education” (vospitanie), which became especially audible due to the huge numbers of street children in Russia. Before the Revolution, Alexander Bryantsev and Viktor Soroka-Rosinky graduated from the same department (historical philology) at St. Petersburg University. After the revolution, Soroka-Rosinsky became Vikniksor, director of the Dostoevsky School Commune in Petrograd, the famous Republic of ShKID, while Bryantsev opened the first Theater for Young Spectators in the Soviet Union. The Moscow Children’s Theater project was launched in 1918 by fifteen-year-old Natalya Sats, who also sought to create an accessible cultural environment for children by organizing concerts, taking them on outings to the Bolshoi Ballet, and so on.
Another word that was important for the theater during war communism was “agitation,” which had two meanings—inculcating people with the new revolutionary values and competently familiarizing the masses with current events. The theater was capable of explaining to people who could not read what soviets were and who the Reds were. Therefore, one of the era’s hallmarks was the mobile theatrical propaganda teams that performed in workers clubs, toured the country, and traveled to the frontlines.
The word “building” (stroitel’stvo), a word we have encountered earlier in this essay, had also been firmly established in the revolutionary theater’s lexicon. Despite Lenin’s criticisms, Bodganov’s ideas had not been forgotten. They had given birth to Proletkult, the Proletarian Culture movement, which championed amateur creativity by workers. Proletkult tried to realize the dreams of communalism fostered by Bogdanov and the theater theorists of the 1900s by bringing together ordinary people—non-professional workers—in mass theatrical performances.
In the new theatrical lexicon, the term “mystery play” (misteria) was associated with mass performances. It is no coincidence that Mayakovsky and Meyerhold's Mystery-Bouffe, staged in 1918, is often posited as the starting point in the revolutionary theater’s history. The new Soviet myth was in need of a new iconography. The mystery play was the simplest means of incarnating this iconography at a time when serious historical plays about the Revolution had not yet been written.
One of the most popular types of propaganda theater during the Civil War was the satirical theater. Lunacharsky proposed the concept in his 1920 article “Let’s Laugh,” and it was supported by Meyerhold. Terevsats—theatres of revolutionary satire—soon emerged in Russia.
The terevsats were something like the nationwide KVN network in late-Soviet and post-Soviet times. Those who wanted to do propaganda satire could put together their own team in any Soviet city. Many terevsatirists had previously worked in “small form” theaters—for example, the legendary Bat (La Chauve-Souris) in Moscow and the Crooked Mirror in Saint Petersburg. From these venerable predecessors, revolutionary satire inherited the practice of structuring performances as a series of alternating numbers and skits, presided over by an emcee.
For example, the theater historian David Zolotnitsky has listed the numbers and sketches in the “Agit-Panto” program at the aptly named Red Pepper Satire Theater in the city of Nikolaev: “Punch and Destruction,” “The Water Transport Worker and the Metal Worker,” topical ballads, ditties, numerous ballet scenes (“Dance of the Red Cavalrymen,” “March of the Red Sailors,” “The Internationale” (including a musical-poetic recitation), “The Labor Conscription Dance”), and the sketch “Purgatory,” which ended in a ballet number entitled “Purge.”
The terevsats often employed such traditional forms as the panto, the puppet theater, and street performance in their numbers. In an attempt to find a common tongue with the new spectator, the revolutionary theater regularly turned to artistic methods that were considered popular or vernacular. Already extant folk characters such as Punch (in Russian, Petrushka) were used, and new ones were invented, such as Old Lady Destruction (Razrukha) and a character called Organized Labor (Organizovannyi trud).
Another source of inspiration for the early Soviet propaganda theater was the circus—another “folk” or popular art. Meyerhold again set the trend for the theater’s “circusization”: he argued that the circus was capable of “infecting performers with an example of the greatest daring.” The most famous early example of fusing the theater with the circus was the People’s Comedy Theater in Petrograd, directed by Sergei Radlov, which existed from 1920 to 1922.
Radlov had worked with Meyerhold for many years and was fond of theatrical reenactments. Most of the people in the troupe of his People's Comedy Theater on the Petrograd Side were famous circus artists. They performed for the working-class public, for traders from the neighboring market, and for street children.
Radlov created his people’s theater by combining the Italian comedy of masks with circus acts, clownery, and a topical social agenda. In Radlov’s productions, Harlequin turned into a worker or a sailor, while still remaining the recognizable prankster from the vernacular theater. Radlov was also fond of the idiom of the “folk” art known as cinema, so much so that Petrograd punks delighted in tossing baranki and cigarettes at the feet of the artists performing cinematic-style stunts.
Radlov’s People’s Comedy Theater did not last long, but numerous people tried, in its wake, to synthesize theater, circus and cinema. Sergei Eisenstein, for example, was another disciple of Meyerhold’s in this respect.
Eisenstein, who had begun his career as a theater director, wrote his famous essay “The Montage of Attractions” in 1923. The essay was based on his experience of staging Alexander Ostrovsky’s play Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man at the Proletkult Theater in Moscow.
The production was preceded by a long, intense period of work. Proletkult, whose principal mastermind was Bogdanov, had been established in 1918 to organize amateur creativity by workers. Bogdanov believed that the proletariat should independently build a new culture to replace the already existing, bourgeois one. Bogdanov’s followers, the theorists of the Proletkult, often went beyond their chairman’s vision, raising the class struggle to an absolute.
For example, Boris Arvatov, who advanced the concept of art as production, believed that there was no place for “abstract aesthetics” in the new communist world. The proletariat was supposed to create an art that did not reflect or even distort life, but organized it. The artists of the new era should be engineers, switching from abstract painting to designing useful things. The theater, according to Arvatov, was to become the “factory of the skilled individual,” proving the new people with examples of “human types,” behavior, and how to organize everyday life.
In the early 1920s, Arvatov was involved in establishing a theater studio and the First Workers Theater of the Proletkult in Moscow. During this period, the young Eisenstein worked as a director and artist at the theater. Arvatov and Eisenstein became kindred spirits.
Eisenstein’s reimagining of Ostrovsky’s Wise Man featured trapeze numbers, topical propaganda ballets, screenings of absurdist newsreels à la Dziga Vertov, and pyrotechnics. The director claimed that he was making propaganda theater. The audience was the theater’s “basic material,” and “shaping the viewer in the desired direction” was its primary mission. “All the component parts of the theatrical apparatus” were to be employed as “weapons for handling” the audience. Arvatov, who sought to free the theater from bourgeois “fiction,” argued that Wise Man was a great victory for “left” art.
Within the Proletkult, Eisenstein and Arvatov (who also collaborated with LEF) really did look like leftists. The rowdy Wise Man was the odd man out amid the inclusive socialist performances that were staged by most Proletkult studios.
The Proletkult’s theatrical manifesto, the book The Creative Theater, was penned by the energetic Old Bolshevik Platon Kerzhentsev. In the book, the well-educated Kerzhentsev referred in particular to director Nikolai Evreinov’s theory of “theatrical instinct”: shortly before the Revolution, this mystic and mystifier had declared that it was natural for people to act, to pretend to be something which with humans were endowed by nature. According to Kerzhentsev, the theatrical instinct would lead people in the socialist society to organize large-scale open-air celebrations—for example, “a chain [sic] of historical paintings based on famous passages on the class struggle from The Communist Manifesto.” Or a “small” group of two or three thousand people would perform improvisations for their own pleasure.
On the way to creating stadium stages, Proletkult organized amateur theaters around the country: Proletkult theater groups for workers were established throughout the RSFSR. The most capable members of these groups were eventually selected for workshops where they were seriously taught the art of theater.
Radio House in Petersburg, recently occupied by conductor Teodor Currentzis and his orchestra, was the home of the Noblemen’s Assembly before the revolution. After 1917, the building served as the Proletkult Arena for several years, and it was thanks to the Proletkult that the site can be considered sacred for mystery plays. The Petrograd Proletkult’s theater workshop was initially run by actors Alexander Mgebrov and Victoria Chekan. Before the Revolution, they had worked with Meyerhold and Evreinov, and so were no strangers to Petersburg theatrical mysticism. This mystical spirit was soon revived in the “proletarian” workshop.
Most of the Petrograd Proletkult’s productions were performed by young female and male workers dressed in white clothes. Symbolizing the working people, they recited everything from Walt Whitman to the proletarian poet Alexei Gastev on a red-lit stage. From time to time, the working people’s inner radiance was banished from the stage by grotesque “tsars,” “jailers,” and “priests.”
Two contemporaries provided this ironic description of a Petrograd Proletkult performance:
The allegorical beings Wisdom, Thought, Son of the Sun, and Son of the Earth hammer out the heart of a communard in a fantastic forest, where Dark Forces, Evil, and a Vampire crawl around, gnashing their teeth. The heart of the communard is thrown into a flaming furnace, whence appears (as a contemporary reviewer has described it) the image of “an angelic creature with curls, in gold-embroidered clothes and brandishing a huge sword.” This is the communard. The allegorical beings hand him a red banner and, waving the banner, the communard marches off to save the human race.
The ironic description of the Petrograd Proletkult performance was penned by the famous Soviet theater critic Alexei Gvozdev and Adrian Piotrovsky, a man who had a serious impact on the Soviet revolutionary theater’s evolution.
Piotrovsky was a translator, playwright, and curator. While he identified himself a disciple of Vyacheslav Ivanov, he was also a sincere romantic of the October Revolution. In 1916, a year before Red October, he had begun studying classical philology at St. Petersburg University, where his father, the influential Polish classicist Tadeusz Zieliński, taught. After the Revolution, Piotrovsky became involved in social activism and soon, with the director Nikolai Vinogradov, he was named one of the leaders of the Red Army’s Theater and Drama Workshop in Petrograd.
In 1919, the political administration of the Petrograd Military District issued an instruction: “Amid a revolutionary war, all the forces of the theater should be directed toward raising the energy and the will to fight of the Workers and Peasants Army.” Consequently, Red Army soldiers in Petrograd attended numerous performances and took part in amateur activities organized by the local intelligentsia. They tried to teach the soldiers in some units Spanish and ballet. It was thus no surprise that a theater workshop directed by a classical philologist and professor’s son was set up within the army.
The theater and drama workshop where Piotrovsky worked consisted of 180 soldiers and functioned as a special military unit. The workshop was tasked with “establishing a new heroic and monumental theater imbued with the spirit of the proletariat’s class struggle.” It was also planned to nurture playwrights who “should surpass Aeschylus inasmuch as the ideas that animate the proletarian Red Army are loftier than the ideas of the slave-owning society of ancient Athens.” Unfortunately, the workshop was unable to realize these goals: having existed from 1919 to 1920, it was dispatched to Donbas, where it was disbanded.
The Theater and Drama Workshop staged “dramatizations”—a genre developed in the period that was modeled on the Proletkult practice of “dramatizing” poems. The dramatizations usually dealt with the struggle of oppressed against oppressors, and the dramatis personae consisted of a heroic chorus symbolizing the rebellious masses, and the “masques” of enemies (tsars, capitalists, generals). Aspiring amateur theaters could not afford scenery, and their participants had no acting skills. So, when staging dramatizations, the theaters foregrounded impressive stage wizardry, employing choral singing, pantomime, and acrobatics—if the participants were capable of performing them.
As the Civil War came to an end, and the army was demobilized, the army’s amateur activities also died out. In Petrograd, they were replaced by clubs and group at the factories to which the soldiers returned after their wartime service. But the officers in the army’s political administration also went back to civilian life, and so the same people who had directed amateur activities during the Civil War took up organizing them in peacetime.
In 1920, the United Art Circle emerged in Petrograd, and one of its movers and shakers was Piotrovsky. The platform encompassed nearly the entire amateur theater scene in Petrograd. The United Art Circle believed that amateur theater should not entertain workers and Red Army soldiers, but transform their "class outlook" and everyday life. Large-scale festive spectacles, staged on the holidays in the new “red calendar,” thus became the focus of amateur art and theater in Petrograd.
The “red” holidays in Petrograd were celebrated on a grand scale, briefly changing the rules of life in the city, and modeling a new social reality. They replaced the old ecclesiastical and official tsarist holidays, bringing people together around new values. The “red calendar” consisted of significant dates for the proletarian revolution: Bloody Sunday (January 9), Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg Memorial Day (January 17), Red Army Day (February 23), International Women's Day (March 8), Paris Commune Memorial Day (March 18), Lenin’s arrival in Petrograd (April 16), May Day, the anniversary of the October Revolution, and others.
The new government vigorously recruited artists to orchestrate these celebrations. In May 1920, a genuine artistic assault force hit the streets of Petrograd. Boats bearing singers and guitarists sailed the Neva, the Fontanka and the Moika near the Summer Garden. At the entrance to the garden, Euripides’ Hippolytus was performed. Decorated streetcars traversed the city, their cargo platforms serving as stages where the artists of Radlov’s People’s Comedy Theater and other theater troupes performed. “At festival headquarters, situations reports were received hourly," Piotrovsky recalled. “The troupes often got stuck on the way, so we had to quickly mobilize reserves of entertainers and balalaika players.”
The main event of May Day 1920 in Petrograd was the mass spectacle The Mystery of Liberated Labor, performed on the steps of the Stock Exchange on Vasilievsky Island. More than two thousand people were involved in the production, including Red Army soldiers, theater workshop students, professional actors, circus performers, and musicians from military bands, conducted by the famous Hugo Warlich. The action was staged by the artist and director Yuri Annenkov, Crooked Mirror founder Alexander Kugel, and Sofia Maslovskaya, the first female director in the history of Soviet opera. The production was designed by the artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, the architect and BDT set designer Vladimir Shchuko, and Annenkov himself.
“The action of the mystery was historical and symbolic,” recounted Piotrovsky. “The doorway of the Stock Exchange was covered by a large decorative curtain bearing the perspectival image of a fortress wall, equipped with a golden gate and a large lock hanging from it. Fanfare signaled the advent of the ‘rulers’ in front of this scenery, surrounded by an entourage: Napoleon, the Pope, a banker, and a Russian merchant. They were seated at a table before which ballet dancers danced on the upper platform of the Stock Exchange. Meanwhile, on the square, gray-clad ‘slaves’ in shackles (the commonplace symbol of hard labor in the symbolic spectacles of recent years) filed toward the lower ends of the stairs from both directions, accompanied by Chopin’s Funeral March. The strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin were heard from behind the scenic wall. The slaves began to grumble. Up the stairs ran Roman gladiators, followed by the rebellious peasants inspired by Stenka Razin, but in each instance the servants of the ‘masters’ drove away the slaves. There was a third attack: red flags appeared in the hands of the rebels, instantly embellishing the Stock Exchange’s gray staircase. The masters made an exaggerated and grotesque escape, tumbling down the stairs and disappearing. (The methods of exiting the ring used by circus performers were employed in this scene.) The backing emblazoned with the image of the fortress fell, revealing a second canvas with the ‘tree of liberty’ painted on it. The orchestra played the aria “The heights, the heights of the earth,” from the opera Sadko. The slaves danced around the tree of liberty. Fireworks erupted over the Neva River.”
The Mystery of Liberated Labor was a success: around 35,000 viewers watched it from the banks of the Neva River, and Proletkult theater mastermind Kerzhentsev praised the production in the press. Two months later, it was decided to repeat the experience by staging another mass performance on the steps of the Stock Exchange in honor of the Congress of the Third International and Lenin’s arrival in the city. For a World Commune engaged around four thousand Red Army soldiers and members of youth theaters and theater clubs. They depicted the history of the liberation of the oppressed not only on the steps of the Stock Exchange—both nearby bridges and the descents to the Neva served as stages for the production. Spotlights mounted on the Rostral Columns and the Peter and Paul Fortress illuminated the event.
The third and largest mass outdoor performance in Petrograd was The Storming of the Winter Palace. It was staged by Evreinov, Kugel and Nikolai Petrov for the third anniversary of the October Revolution, and was designed by Annenkov.
The perennial skeptic Evreinov had doubts about the October Revolution and its ideals. The production of The Storming of the Winter Palace was an escapade for him, a chance to test in practice his own theories about the theatricalization of life and autobioreconstructive theater. For example, he wanted to recruit performers for the spectacle from among actual veterans of the storming of the Winter Palace.
Combat squads and sailors were engaged in the production, and they were transported to the palace in 320 trucks. When the rebels broke into the palace, four hundred windows flashed in the actual Winter Palace, in front of which light screens had been installed to pantomime the battle scenes. Even the battleship Aurora took part in the action: when signaled from the director’s booth, it was supposed to fire off three “historical” blank volleys. In the event, however, it did not receive the signal in time and consequently unleashed a whole cannonade.
After war communism was abandoned as a policy and the Civil War ended, performances of this scale were no longer organized in Petrograd. Without the army’s involvement, it was difficult to mobilize thousands of people and provide the necessary equipment. Accidentally brought together by the first wave of the revolutionary theater movement, the organizers of the mass performances scattered in different directions. Annenkov and Evreinov emigrated. Kugel died in 1928.
Piotrovsky, who produced the most complete sketch of the history of the Petrograd mass performances, continued his involvement with amateur performing arts for workers. In the mid-1920s, he was first put in charge of the literary section at the BDT, where he became interested in expressionism, and then Theater of Working-Class Youth (TRAM). In the 1930s, he was appointed artistic director of Lenfilm Studios, and wrote a great deal about theater and cinema. Along with Alexei Gvozdev, Piotrovsky wrote the essay “Petrograd Theaters and Festivities in the Era of War Communism" for the book A History of the Soviet Theater, published in 1933. The essay contains much self-criticism: Piotrovsky, in the spirit of the times, condemns himself for “bourgeois symbolism,” while at the same time examining in detail the question of how exactly the aspirations of the Symbolists diverged from the plans of the Communist Party. In 1937, Piotrovsky, like many of the first-wave revolutionary romantics, was arrested and shot.
People (ordinary people, but also people dressed in plush animal costumes) and angels in overalls ascended the ramp in the constructivist-style tower of Laboratory Building “E” at the Moscow Power Engineering Institute (MEI). They carried DIY banners: an “Ilyich light bulb” decorated with artificial flowers, portraits of their forebears who lived through the period of electrification, and much more. Some people listened and others performed post-baroque arias about the specifics of industrial relations, interspersed with recitatives about the everyday work of power plant workers. When people finished their climb to the top, they were offered to take communion by drinking charcoal-filtered water from a Soviet-era soda machine, and a giant flower stalk sprouted through the floors of the tower. This was what the May 2019 premiere of GES-2 Opera, commissioned by the V–A–C Foundation, and created by director Vsevolod Lisovsky, composer Dmitry Vlasik, poet Andrey Rodionov and artist Irina Korina, looked like.
The post-industrial mystery at MEI vividly recalled the revolutionary mystery plays of the 1920s. But its cadences were lyrical, not those of a march. Instead of anthems to liberated labor, GES-2 Opera featured documentary material—the story of Ilya Vlasov, the foreman of the engineers at the power plant. Vlasov talked about the plant, about his job there, and about what he planned to do after the plant is turned into a museum. When you listened to his story you understood that in one or two generations the times had completely changed, and you had to look at the lives of your forebears as if through glasses mounted on other glasses.
And yet GES-2 Opera could be called an anthem to utopia. After all, the project of transforming an urban power plant into a museum would seem to be a story about a garden city come true, in which industrial buildings are no longer needed and are overgrown with grass.
But there are also utopias in reverse, utopias tagged with the prefixes anti- and dys-. And it is anti-utopia and dystopia that are the best friends of the post-apocalypse in the modern canon of genres.
The memory of revolutionary violence, the collapse of the Revolution, and totalitarianism have forced us to distance ourselves from the Soviet past. Russians are wary of the state as an institution and any nationwide transformation declared as a one-hundred-percent path to a “bright tomorrow,” as well as the very idea of such a future. Although the “beautiful Russia of the future” seemed quite inevitable in 1917, people nowadays usually make post-ironic jokes about it on Twitter.
However, just as a hundred years ago, no one wants to tolerate injustice. The dream of a utopian country cleansed of disenfranchisement, lawlessness, corruption, sexism, and other vices is still attractive. The modern culture of participation—the new “theory of small causes,” which argues that everyone tries to improve the piece of reality entrusted to them as far as their reasonable selfishness allows them—has replaced the idea of socialism for the many. That is, utopia gave way to dystopia, followed by the ghost of a new utopian project, which is aware, however, of its own fragility and does not claim that it will come true once and for all.
How does the theater abide within this project?
With a few exceptions, the institutional theater in Russia has been historically constrained by internal censorship and has become inert. It has been slow to comprehend current socio-political issues and concerns, and has responded to the growing tension in Russia society rather intuitively. As the history of the early twentieth century shows, the quest for new forms in the institutional theater quickens precisely when the theatrical beaten path has lost its connection with social reality. Now is the time for just such a quest.
At the same time, there is a part of the Russian theater that consciously engages with topical issues that concern modern people. This work is mainly done by independent theater companies, but unlike the theaters of the early 1920s, they usually have no means to draw on the resources of the state, and they often oppose official institutions. The mood of these theaters is also different: they operate not amid a revolutionary upsurge, but in the midst of a myriad of unresolvable social conflicts and contradictions.
“The tension is growing” was the slogan adopted by street artist Timofei Radya in 2014. In a lecture on Schiller delivered to Red Army soldiers, Blok said something similar: “When a thunderstorm gathers in the air, great poets feel the storm coming, although their contemporaries usually do not expect it. The soul of the poet is like a radio receiver that gathers all the power of electricity from the air, concentrating it inside itself.”
Could something be gathering again?
Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell
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