Alexandra Vorobyova
Red Drama

In 1919, the Bolshevik Alexander Vermishev wrote the play The Red Truth. He soon perished in the Russian Civil War, and his text was long forgotten.

The Red Truth cannot be called a bad play, but nor is it a masterpiece. Imperfect as a text for the stage, it did not pass the test of time: Vermishev himself considered it one of a number of plays on “topical issues.” But The Red Truth is quite interesting as a document of its era.

It is probably not quite correct to label the plays written shortly after October 1917 “Soviet.” The Russian Civil War was underway, and those fighting for the future “land of the Soviets” were more often simply called Reds, communists, and Bolsheviks.

We could say that a play is a germ of the world that emerges in it. The dramatic works written during the Revolution and the Civil War also contain the first experiments in modeling the nascent Soviet universe. In this sense, Vermishev’s agitprop play The Red Truth is something like a key to the mock-up room where these experiments were staged. Let’s examine some of them — and talk about how today’s contemporary Russian drama resembles the drama of the early 1920s.

The Hero

The soldier-actors were rehearsing the last scene of the play. Suddenly there was a shout.

“Grab your guns! Mamontov’s men are in the rear!”

The artists instantly became fighters. They joined the battle, with the play’s author, Vermishev, leading them. They were outgunned. Vermishev was captured and taken to Denikin’s general.

“Did you graduate from university?” asked Mamontov, holding the poet’s notebook.

“Yes, and the Shlisselburg Fortress,” said Vermishev, spitting out clumps of blood.

“It turns out you’re a joker. […] What are you, Commissar? A blade of grass! What will be left of you? Ashes! Repent before it’s too late. Lend your pen to the service of holy Russia, and I shall probably spare your life.”

“My pen is not for sale!”

The Cossacks tortured Vermishev for three hours in a row. He made no plea for mercy or even leniency. Enraged, Mamontov ordered him chopped to pieces.

Vermishev’s last words were: “Long live the power of the Soviets! Long live Comrade Lenin! Be damned, executioners!”

This happened on August 31, 1919.

This is how the death of the Bolshevik, writer and Red Army commissar Alexander Vermishev is described in the preface to a volume of his poems and plays published in Moscow in 1977. In 1919, an unknown author, writing under the pseudonym “Old Democrat” in the Oryol Province Izvestia, described Vermishev’s more honestly and more terribly. Along with his battalion, the commissar was defending the railway station in Yelets when he was captured. The Cossacks whipped him unconscious, tied him to a saddle and dragged him to the city to General Konstantin Mamontov. There Vermishev was brutally executed. “[His] fingers, nose, ears and other parts of [his] body were cut off in parts, and then Comrade Vermishev was hung from a fence by his feet and, after three hours of torture, was hacked to bits with sabers.”

The Red Truth, which Vermishev and the soldiers of his battalion were rehearsing shortly before his death, outlived its author by several years. It was staged in front-line and agitprop theaters, but after the Civil War ended, the play was dropped from the Soviet repertoire.

The Competition

The Department of Theaters and Circuses announces a melodrama competition. The terms of the competition:

— Four acts.

— The choice of era and nation is left up to authors.

— Since melodrama is based on simplifying the feelings and relationships of characters, it is desirable that authors definitely and clearly underscore their sympathy and antipathy towards one character or another.

— It is desirable that choral songs, topical ditties, duets, etc., are incorporated into the text of the melodrama.

This ad appeared on the front page of the Petrograd newspaper Zhizn’ iskusstva (The Life of Art) in early 1919. The winners of the competition, sponsored by the People’s Commissariat for Education of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, were promised monetary awards. The playwright who took first place could win ten thousand rubles and, if he was lucky, buy himself a decent amount of bread or flour.

Anatoly Lunacharsky, Feodor Chaliapin, and the famous Petersburg actors Nikolai Monakhov and Yuri Yuryev were to select the plays, while A.M. Peshkov aka Maxim Gorky was listed as the chair of the jury. According to the terms of the competition, authors had to remain anonymous: they signed their texts not with their names, but with mottos, which the jury used to identify them.

In April 1919, the head of the transport department of the Petrograd Labor Commune, Alexander Vermishev, wrote a letter to Lenin:

Dear leader and comrade Vladimir Ilyich! I urge you to take the time and look at the attached work. At a time when our communal theaters are without plays on topical issues, because the “empaneled” writers of the Russian land, obviously, continue to sulk about the October Revolution […] we, ordinary Party and Soviet workers, unknown and inexperienced in literature, have to show our strength and energy in this area of our construction. […] While carrying out work on transport, I took seven nights of personal time and wrote this play for the proletarian theater.

The letter contained a postscript: “If it happens that you let someone read the play, I ask you not to tell them the author’s name yet, because I’m thinking of sending the work to a competition.” Along with the letter, Vermishev sent Lenin a copy of The Red Truth, which Vermishev did in fact submit to the melodrama competition sponsored by the People’s Commissariat for Education, signing it with the slogan “Being determines consciousness.”

Around thirty brief reviews of plays submitted to the competition have been preserved in Gorky’s archives. The reviews were published by the USSR Academy of Sciences only in 1934, with a delicate preface: “The exceptionally negative nature of M. Gorky’s reviews is probably explained both by the fact that he had to watch the weakest plays, and by the fact that only written assessments of the bad plays have been preserved in the writer’s archive.” Here are a few of them:

Motto: “A life for a life”
A domestic drama. Serfdom, the landowner — a despot, a tyrant — is engaged in robbery, oppresses his daughter, his foster child, the peasants, and especially the reader. The daughter is a fool, the foster son is a fool, the landowner is also a fool. There is no action, no meaning, no talent either, only oppression.

Motto: “Let there be light”
The play is purely communist, but is literarily incompetent and extremely boring. The protagonist — a chairman of the Cheka, a priest’s son-in-law, a former hard-labor convict — debunks a saint’s relics. A priest, after smearing his cassock with phosphorus, tries to entice the people to revolt against the Soviet government. The priest’s daughter — a former hard-labor convict — feels sorry for her father, but feels an extreme love for her husband and the Revolution, understanding it as the debunking of relics.

Motto: “Like a tick” “In the depths”
Written roughly and clumsily, but not without talent. It is impossible to stage, because it feeds anti-Semitic sentiments and opinions. A Jewish brothel. There are no ethnic Russians or anything Russian in the play, except for the police, but they have no lines.

And yet the caustic Soviet literary superstar noted the merits of the plays submitted by several contestants, including Vermishev’s Red Truth: “It’s not a melodrama, but a domestic agitprop play on a modern topic. The author is not without talent. If it is staged, the play requires significant cuts.” However, Gorky could not help but make fun of the White colonel in the play, who “goes on reconnaissance in galoshes,” and Vermishev did not receive a prize — like most of the other contestants. “Forty-one plays were sent. Most of them were purely domestic dramas and did not correspond to the melodrama form, while the rest were devoid of literary significance,” the newspaper The Life of Art wrote, summing up the results of the competition.

Soviet Melodrama and the Revolutionary Repertoire

But why did the Russian Soviet Republic need melodramas and drama competitions at all? After the October Revolution, the theater was an important tool in the cultural policy of the newly created Soviet state. Many inhabitants of the former Russian Empire — both literate and illiterate people, depressed by the aftermath of the protracted First World War — had to have it explained to them who the Bolsheviks were, what communism was and why it was necessary to fight for it (and why fighting against it was dastardly).

The theater was an excellent venue for such conversations, but in order to have them, the theater itself first needed to master the new “red” idiom. Thus, soon after October 1917, the Theater Department of the People’s Commissariat for Education began crafting a new repertoire for the theater companies affiliated with the state. The department’s repertoire division, chaired by Alexander Blok, was tasked with this mission.

“Our task is not only to give the people artistic works. We must also help them to grasp these works and must find new techniques for doing this,” Blok wrote about the division’s mission. “We cannot take to the podium with a sense of superiority and arrogance. We are not shepherds, and the people are not a flock. We are only more knowledgeable comrades.” As a humanist and an adherent of high Romanticism, Blok believed that the new repertoire of state theaters should consist mainly of the European classics: “I would like us to finally say decisively that we need Shakespeare and Goethe, Sophocles and Moliere, great tears and great laughter.”

Gorky also discussed the revolutionary repertoire in a similar way during this period. “Everyone, and especially the popular masses, must return to a clarity of feeling, even to a primitivism of feeling, with primitivism understood as those great feelings on which the greatest connoisseurs of the human soul — the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe — built their dramas,” he wrote in a draft of the article “On the Heroic Theater.” In some ways, Gorky was much more radical than Blok. “If the old is dying, it must be buried, and in any case, it is not the plays of Ostrovsky, Chekhov, Gorky, etc., the Russian theater’s usual repertoire, that will inspire people with new ideas, feelings and thoughts. On the stage, we need to talk about courage, selflessness, love for people and respect for them, about the individual as citizen, while the drama of the individual as philistine, as the passive spectator of life’s tragedy, this drama must die.”

Anatoly Lunacharsky, who headed the People’s Commissariat for Education, was also looking for “big,” clear feelings in drama in those years. In January 1919, The Life of Art published his article “What Kind of Melodrama Do We Need?”, in which Lunacharsky spoke out against “aristocratic” contempt for the genre. According to the People’s Commissar, the melodrama could be more than “lofty” if it was purged of “unbearable vulgarity.” To accomplish this, only a new type of author was needed. “The world should be polarized to him. The colors used should be as in frescoes, picturesque and clean, the lines simple,” Lunacharsky argued.

Both Lunacharsky and Gorky sought to foster conditions for the emergence of plays that matched their ideals. The Theater Department of the People’s Commissariat of Education regularly sponsored drama competitions, and Lunacharsky wrote plays himself.

Theater historians point out that it was Lunacharsky, Gorky and the actress Maria Andreyeva, who was in charge of Petrograd theaters, who suggested that Vladimir Mayakovsky write a play about the Revolution, which eventually took shape as Mystery-Bouffe. In November 1918, on the first anniversary of the October Revolution, the play was staged in Petrograd by Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was willingly assisted by the author himself. “I sincerely wish success to this young, almost boyish, but sincere, noisy, triumphant, undoubtedly democratic and revolutionary play,” Lunacharsky wrote on the eve of the premiere in the article “A Communist Play.” “Maybe the child will come out crooked, but we still shall find it lovely, because it is generated by the same revolution that we all consider our great mother.”

Seven Pairs of the Unclean

Mystery-Bouffe is often referred to as the first Soviet play. Mayakovsky’s text does in fact feature techniques and themes that are significant both for the “red” drama of the Revolution and the Civil War, and for subsequent generations of authors.

In the play, Mayakovsky describes a new universal deluge — the Revolution — which literally washes the old world from the face of the earth. The characters who must escape from this flood on the new Ark are “seven pairs of the clean” (including an Indian raja, a Turkish pasha, a Russian merchant, a Persian, a Frenchman, a priest, a German officer and an Italian officer) and “seven pairs of the unclean” (including a chimney sweep, a lamplighter, a driver, a seamstress, a miner, a carpenter, a farmhand, a servant, a shoemaker, a blacksmith, a baker and a laundress). Unlike the “clean,” the “unclean” have no nationalities. “Labor is our native land,” they say.

One of the play’s most striking features is its poster-like images and the social typing on which the system of characters is based. The protagonists of Mystery-Bouffe have no names — only classes and nations are mentioned in the list of characters. The conflicts in which they engage are also class conflicts. Typified workers and peasants would soon began fighting the tsars, the bourgeoisie, the interventionists and the kulaks in other revolutionary plays. Later, these villains would be replaced by philistines, bureaucrats, NEP men and idlers, among others. But the ideological front line separating them from the communist heroes would long remain on the Soviet stage.

Important as well for the early “red” drama is the desire to portray “the masses” on the stage, rather than individual heroes. Composite “soldiers,” “workers,” “peasants” and “common folk” feature in many plays of the period. This was partly due to the fact that many theater people then dreamed of staging not so much plays as much as large-scale “mass actions” in praise of the Revolution, in which both actors and ordinary people could participate without special training.

Mystery-Bouffe also featured a new type of author, who was politically engaged, consciously taking his place on a particular side of the ideological barricades. It was the agitprop missions that such authors tackled that often shaped the plots of their plays and their slates of characters.

Finally, an important feature of Mayakovsky’s play was the genre highlighted in its title. Historically, the mystery play was a medieval theatrical performance whose participants acted out biblical scenes in front of an audience. In Mystery-Bouffe, the sacred is both ridiculed (the “bouffe” obviously refers to opéra bouffe, the French comic opera) and reinterpreted. There are non-ironical solemn moments in the play.

One of the most powerful scenes in the first version of Mystery-Bouffe is the encounter of the “unclean” with the Simple Man, who walks towards them on the water. This character has nothing to do with the completely social conflict between the “clean” and the “unclean” or the play’s “anti-religious” storyline. The Simple Man, who delivers a fiery speech, is an orator, poet and prophet. Or even an incarnation of the irrational principle behind poetic speech, which in some traditions is congruent with religious practice. In other words, he is the spirit of revolution.

The demolition of the “old world” revealed new spiritual experiences to many Russian artists in those years — in this connection, we should recall Blok’s long poem The Twelve, at least. The attempts to portray these experiences on stage were not always successful. The many solemn, almost ritualistic performances betrayed a literal understanding of communism as a proletarian religion, in which exaltation replaced dialectics.

The Feast of Satan

The play with the sensational title The Feast of Satan was conceived by Alexander Vermishev, as his biographers indicate, during his imprisonment in the Shlisselburg Fortress. He was sent there because of another of his plays, For the Truth!

For the Truth! dealt with the events of Bloody Sunday (January 9, 1905), which Vermishev witnessed. He was then a law student at Petersburg University, but he was also involved in underground work for the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, organizing study circles for factory workers, and doing educational outreach and campaigning. He was greatly shocked by the slaughter of the unarmed protesting workers, who were beaten with whips, crushed with horses, cut with bayonets and simply shot dead. On the evening of January 9, Vermishev was involved in barricade battles on Vasilyevsky Island, and a few years later he recalled these events in For the Truth!, which was banned in 1908.

Vermishev finished The Feast of Satan only in 1918, after the October Revolution. A dark dystopia with elements of science fiction and even fantasy, it is quite different from most revolutionary plays. The playwright conjures a world in which capital is victorious and people are completely subordinated to the will of financial “kings.” The “kings” own entire cities surrounded by high walls consisting of fire-breathing slabs to prevent people from escaping. The only thing left for the captives is to sell themselves into slavery to the capitalists, who have learned how “to extract with mathematical precision all the elements necessary for production from the physical person, converting the extracted into metallic pounds.” When surrendering their bodies, the slaves swear allegiance to capital — this is what Vermishev means by “Satan” in the play’s title — by swearing an oath: “May His name last forever.”

Exhausted and emaciated after such “work,” people are unable to resist the existing system and somehow eke out their lives on the outskirts of the monstrous cities. Vermishev conceived The Feast of Satan as the first part of a dramatic trilogy, in which he described the people’s uprising against the “kings.” In the second play, he wanted to depict the revolution’s struggle against capital and its defenders, while the third play would depict “the life of people under the socialist system” and “humanity’s further tasks.”

The Feast of Satan was to be staged at the Proletkult’s theater workshop in Petrograd. It is reported that Vermishev was friendly with the studio’s management — the husband-and-wife acting couple of Alexander Mgebrov and Victoria Chekan, and the charismatic proletarian writer Pavel Bessalko. The workshop and the Workers Revolutionary Heroic Theater that emerged from it were renowned for bombastic performances involving non-professional actors from the proletariat.

The theater’s hallmark was its May Day 1919 production of Pyotr Kozlov’s The Legend of the Communard. Kozlov had grown up in the Vologda countryside and remained an unskilled laborer for a long time as he tried to make his way in Petersburg and earn money through his literary endeavors. In the 1920s, Kozlov would write many humorous and satirical agitprop plays. Imbued with an almost Wagnerian pathos, The Legend of the Communard is quite different from these.

The action of the play begins in a fantastic forest, where mythological creatures, the Son of the Sun and the Son of the Earth, sing a song as they forge the heart of the future liberator of the oppressed, the Communard. Their work is surveilled by Sinister Forces, who have seemingly arrived in the play from the revolutionary song “Whirlwinds of Danger.” Fearing the coming Communard, the Sinister Forces drag a Vampire on stage (who, perhaps, is on loan from “The Workers’ Marseillaise”). The nastily sniggering Vampire, drunk on the blood of workers, tries to hinder the blacksmiths, but chickens out. Summoned by the Sinister Forces, Lord Evil himself is driven away by an allegorical maiden, Thought Armed with a Sword. The Communard comes to life and, in the second act, sparks an uprising at the factory, leading the workers who trusted him through the desert to a new life, like Moses. The play ends when they find the promised land in a fantastic city and throw a big celebration at which “The Dance of Labor” is performed.

Mgebrov, who staged the play, later recalled that the text had found him by accident: “One day I had gone to the Military District on some business, when suddenly a very small Red Army soldier with a somewhat strange face stopped me and timidly gave me his play to read.” Mgebrov considered it a happy chance encounter, and regarded his production of The Legend of the Communard as a great success. His memoirs contain a story about how his troupe performed the play for several days in the summer of 1919 for soldiers who had deserted from the Red Army:

Before the start of each such performance, as soon as the auditorium was filled with these deserters, the entire theater was cordoned off by troops in order to deprive them of the chance to escape. The deserters would come to the theater gloomy, little inclined to react to anything, regarding any attempt to win them over with great prejudice. And then what would happen? These same deserters, excited by the performance, would stand up without any compulsion as one person and at the end of the play sing “The Internationale” with great enthusiasm, swearing that they would immediately go to the front and fight.

Mgebrov appreciated the play for the fact that it featured fantasy, through which “rationalistic ideas often more readily reach the consciousness of the masses.”

Mgebrov’s production of Pavel Bessalko’s The Bricklayer, written in 1918, was less successful. The Proletkultists were able to perform it only a few times before their theater was sent to the front.

Soviet critics often described Bessalko’s play as a simple allegorical story that riffed on Ibsen’s The Master Builder. The title character, a bricklayer, is building a house designed by a famous architect. The architect comes to the construction site with his wife, who, weary of her boring and proud husband, engages in a philosophical conversation with the bricklayer. The bricklayer argues that well-off and well-fed people live on the first, “comfortable” floors, while poor but brave people live in the upper floors and attics. The architect’s wife says that she adores daredevils who are not afraid of heights, so she wants to leave her cowardly husband. Hearing this, the architect defiantly climbs up to the top floor, but falls to his death. The architect’s wife moves in with the bricklayer who wants to become an architect himself. She condemns his desire to master the sciences of the “lower floors,” but the bricklayer needs the knowledge because he plans to build an unprecedentedly tall tower for the Commune. A rebellion kicks off in the city. At the end of the play, a crowd of workers waits for the grand opening of the tower built by the bricklayer. Delegates from different countries gather at its foot, casually discussing the creation of a single international language (“commune” will probably be the first word in it). The indefatigable bricklayer climbs to the top of the skyscraper and plants a red flag there.

The large helpings of Masonic symbolism in Bessalko’s play are noticeable: there are direct references in the text to Freemasons. In the Masonic tradition, God is called the “Great Architect,” so the story of a mason who successfully builds his own version of the Tower of Babel comes across as emblematic of man’s victory over God. In addition to symbolism, however, there are also frankly frightening moments in the play — for example, the cult of superhuman strength, heroism and courage that inspires the bricklayer and his wife. Nowadays, Bessalko’s imaginary Commune Tower brings to mind Stalin’s Palace of the Soviets project, and the play itself seems like a harbinger of the coming totalitarianism.

However, mysticism and science fiction were treated during the Civil War not only with Proletkultian pathos, but also quite ironically. In 1921, one of the prizes at the Siberian Political Education Office’s drama competition was awarded to the play Seance by Ilya Ben. In his “one-act joke,” Ben depicts a provincial social party at which “former” people — a count, a landowner, a minister and a manufacturer — try to distract themselves from gloomy thoughts about the Revolution. To entertain his guests, the count invites the famous magician Przybyszewski to the party, who summons a ghost for his venerable audience. But when asked whether the rule of the “yahoos,” that is, the “indignant rabble,” will soon cease in Russia, the spirit menacingly replies that the “former” people themselves are the “yahoos,” and their rule really is over. With cries of “The spirit is a Bolshevik! The spirit is a Bolshevik!” the guests run off in horror. The ghost turns out to be an actor-cum-Red Army agitator who has made his way to the party, and he is followed by soldiers who invade the count’s estate.

Peasant Drama

After Vermishev’s death, Bessalko told the front-line newspaper Krasnyi Voin (Red Warrior) that Mgrebov’s Heroic Theater had planned to stage not only The Feast of Satan, but also The Red Truth, which the commissar had written shortly before his death. “But neither I, the theater’s business manager, nor their creator was able to see them performed on the stage. We were both sent by the Party to the Southern Front. Our dreams were shattered by the harsh reality that demanded the art of bravely fighting and fearlessly dying from us. This duty was honestly discharged by my friend and comrade,” wrote Bessalko. Soon Bessalko himself paid his debt: the proletarian writer died at the front in 1920, from typhus. Meanwhile, The Red Truth really did take its place in the Heroic Theater’s repertoire.

Vermishev’s play is set in a village “on the outskirts of Soviet Russia.” The communists are in power there, but the local rich people and the village priest are not happy with this state of affairs. They contact the White Guards, asking them to put down the Reds. At a secret meeting with a White colonel, a retired soldier, the poor peasant Ipat, is present. Old Ipat was invited as a recipient of the Cross of St. George, since the tsarist officers consider such soldiers to be disciplined and loyal. However, the meeting is shut down by a Red patrol. The owner of the house lies to the patrolmen, claiming that he and Ipat are discussing the wedding of their children. Ipat is happy: an accident has enabled his daughter to marry into a rich family. However, the young woman is in love with one of the main local communists, who tries to tell his beloved’s father about his own “red truth.” But Ipat stubbornly argues with him: the old man wants to feel respect for himself and for his military experience.

The White Guards’ invasion of the village is cruel and bloody. The real goal of the Whites is not to protect the interests of the locals, but to secure provisions and women. Observing this, Ipat helps his daughter and her lover escape before finding the surviving communist villagers and teaching them basic military tactics. They listen to him with gratitude. On the old man’s advice, the communists leave the village to get reinforcements. In the play’s finale, as Ipat, left alone with his wife, reflects on how he has understood the truth of the Reds, the White Guards creep towards the old man and the old woman.

The clash between Reds and Whites in rural Russia is one of the most frequent plots in Civil War-era drama. The Red Truth and similar plays told audiences about the values for which the communists and the Red Army were fighting, and showed how the new and not yet very familiar organizations for the poor and local clubs worked. And they also attempted to turn the public against priests, kulaks and the White Guards.

Agitprop texts could be devoid of the detailed character development found in The Red Truth, and they could be very short. A striking example is the one-act agitprop play For the Red Soviets (1920), by the proletarian writer Pavel Arsky. The action takes place in the home of a village communist, Rusanov, who has gone to the front. Whites come to the village and burst into the house. They brutally kill Rusanov’s wife, her sister, their children and the grandfather who tried to protect them. The White Guards are about to set fire to the house when the advancing Reds intervene. Rusanov himself is among them. Looking at his dead loved ones, he appeals to his fellow soldiers: “Comrades, we shall avenge all the atrocities.” Per the author’s stage direction, the eyes of the Red Army soldiers “twinkle menacingly.”

The Woman Question

An important heroine in certain revolutionary plays about the countryside is the woman who chooses the path of emancipation. Such a heroine can be seen, for example, in Maryana (1919), by Alexander Serafimovich. The title character, private and strong-willed, is constantly picked on in household of her husband, who is missing in action in the World War. A visiting Red Army soldier, the proletarian Pavel, lodges with Maryana’s family and openly flirts with the peasant woman. However, he flirts in an ideologically adept way: he tells Mariana about why he is fighting for the Revolution, and explains the "darkness” in which the villagers dwell. In the play’s finale, her husband returns to Maryana, but his “kulak” habits are now unbearable to her. She runs away from home, hoping someday to find Pavel’s company, which has gone into battle.

Including women in public life was one of the important tasks of the Bolsheviks after the Revolution. During those years, especially, there was a lot of talk about peasant women, who suffered from more constraints than urban women. In the play Women (1920), which is set in 1916, the Samara writer Alexander Neverov depicts these restrictions with naturalistic horror. The women suffer infidelity and beatings from their husbands, the venereal diseases that men bring from the front, endless scolding by older relatives and even the sexual advances of their fathers-in-law.

Reflections on the situation of women in the proletarian milieu can be seen in the play Don’t Go (1919) by the Rybinsk Proletkult Theater Studio. It was written by workers taking stage improvisation classes: “While reproducing various paintings, we paused for a long time on [Ivan Vladimirov’s painting] Don’t Go. A number of important questions occurred to us. Why, for example, is it the woman trying to stop the man from going to the barricades? Why couldn’t it be the other way around? In this regard, we posed ourselves a number of questions: about the level of general development in the working-class milieu, about the attitude towards women and girls, about the solution envisaged for this hopeless situation.” In answering these questions, the studio members collectively wrote a play: “We roughly outlined a script and began reproducing it in parts, first without words, then we began saying the words. A typist was invited to join us, and everyone sat around her dictating the text.”

Don’t Go takes place at a factory before the 1905 Russian Revolution. The main character is a heavy-drinking proletarian. He regularly spends his pay at the tavern and beats up his wife. Her niece, looking at her aunt’s family, comes to fear factory men. But the protagonist’s life changes after a secret Marxist meeting: he stops drinking and joins the labor movement. His wife is happy about this, but not for long. In the play’s finale, the main character runs away from home, wielding a revolver, to join a factory strike. The wife looks at the procession of workers through the window, crosses herself and whispers, “Lord, help them.”

Although the play addresses the problem of domestic violence, the main character of Don’t Go is still a man. It was mainly men who were involved in creating the new female character types in the drama of those years: only two or three women are mentioned in lists of revolutionary repertoire playwrights. The most notable of them (it is difficult to find even biographical references about the rest) was the writer and translator Maria Loevberg. Loevberg was involved in the projects launched by Blok and Gorky to revamp the dramatic theater: her play Danton (circa 1919) was accepted for production at the BDT in Petrograd, where Blok worked at the time, and she was working on a play about Joan of Arc, commissioned by Gorky. Many of Loevberg’s texts have still not been published, however.

The New Drama

In his book about the Civil War-era drama, published in 1961, the Soviet theater critic Lev Tamashin points out that the number of plays written in this brief period was clearly more than 1,500. In particular, Tamashin’s book lists twenty-eight drama competitions that took place in the Russian Soviet Republic between 1918 and 1922. It is noteworthy that the People's Commissariat for Education sponsored less than half of these competitions — many of them were run by the political departments of military units that solicited material for front-line theaters. In the Petrograd Military District, competitions were also held several times for Red Army soldiers themselves. Competitions were announced for plays for children and plays about the lives of miners and water-transport workers. Proletkult proposed that authors use the stage to talk about the “world proletariat movement,” “the fight against imperialism” and “communism’s cultural achievements.”

When Vermishev wrote to Lenin about writers who were allegedly sulking about the October Revolution, he was partly right. Many recognized authors were wary of, or hostile to, the revolutionary reality, and while they were silent, other people — “second-rank” writers, journalists, Party administrators, workers and soldiers — were passionately engaged in producing plays.

The circumstances in which numerous “red” plays appeared partly recalls the boom of the Russian “new drama” in the late 1990s and of the drama theater movement that grew out of this boom. Both the authors who wrote plays after the Revolution, and the authors who wrote the, after the collapse of the Soviet Union were trying to comprehend the new life that had arisen in place of the collapsed old one. Many of them were not professionally involved in drama before their debuts. But the playwrights of the 1990s, unlike their predecessors, were not so politically committed. They could openly depict pain, fear and hopelessness in their texts, while social pessimism was unacceptable for the “red” authors of the early 1920s, who were involved in both a real war and an ideological war.

Another parallel that can be drawn between today’s contemporary drama and the drama of the revolutionary years is the difficult destiny of the plays.

It is quite natural that many dramatic works of the Civil War period are now forgotten. First, they were often up-to-the-minute agitprop texts dictated by the political agenda or the political conjuncture. Second, the lack of professionalism of some authors led to problems with the structure, characterization and language of the plays. All these shortcomings could easily be overcome when the play was staged in a front-line theater and edited on the go, but they were problematic off the stage. Finally, if thousands of people went missing in the chaos and confusion of the Civil War, it is not surprising that it also happened with texts. At best, many works were typed in the political departments of military units on typewriters; at worst, they were not printed at all and not preserved in manuscript. Therefore, by the early 1930s, when life had finally calmed down and the ideologues of socialist realism had begun shaping the official literary canon, the revolutionary “agitators” had almost no chance of entering it. If a work contradicted the ideology of the Stalinist period, but it had been published and preserved, it was roundly criticized and “erased” from literary memory. It is not surprising that, after a while, historians had to rediscover the plays of the early 1920s.

The plays of today’s contemporary Russian playwrights are also often forgotten and do not reach audiences and readers — for other reasons, however. The drama community today mostly lives within the theater world, subsisting via numerous competitions festivals, readings and workshops in which young directors experiment with plays, but this is often the end of the life of their texts. The major theaters continue to stage proven repertoire hits, and so they produce contemporary plays much less frequently than the classic plays of Chekhov and Ostrovsky. Drama also seems to have a half-severed connection with the literary process: literary critics rarely engage with drama, and the number of anthologies of the latest plays published in Russia can be counted on the fingers of one hand. As in the early 1920s, contemporary Russian drama also exists in a situation of overproduction: thanks to the culture of competitions and festivals, there are lots of plays.

Sa-ve

The reasons why the first “red” plays were forgotten over time can be named. It is more difficult to understand why Alexander Vermishev disappeared from Soviet culture after his heroic death. Perhaps the commissar’s story was also “lost” — if not in the heat of the Civil War, then in the heat of the subsequent eradication of its aftermath. Perhaps it was the fact that some of the Old Bolsheviks who knew Vermishev were repressed in the 1930s. Critics began to write a lot about him only in 1959, on the eightieth anniversary of his birth.

In 1963, the cultural center in the Leningrad suburb of Strelna was named in memory of Vermishev. In 1964, a memorial plaque was installed at the railway station in Yelets that Vermishev defended with his battalion before his death. In parallel, several books about Vermishev were published. In Lipetsk, the capital of the region in which Yelets is located, Anatoly Bayukansky wrote a play about the commissar’s final days, When the Heather Blooms. It was staged at a Lipetsk theater in 1967 and performed on the radio. In Yelets itself, a production of Vermishev’s The Red Truth was staged. In 1969, a steamship was named after Vermishev.

It is difficult to distinguish real facts from conjecture in the biographical literature that emerged in the wake of Vermishev’s official canonization. We know that he was born on August 29, 1879, was a member of a famous Armenian clan, and was the grandson of a Baku oil industrialist. The writer’s father worked as a forester in the Caucasus, espoused democratic views and had once been involved in the student movement. Vermishev, Jr. began writing poetry in his youth, later taking up journalism and drama. He signed some of his texts with the pseudonym “Sa-ve,” made up of the first syllables of the surnames of his mother, Maria Savitskaya, and his father, Alexander Vermishev.

His son most likely became interested in Marxism while studying at a university prep school in Baku. There, according to one version of his biography, Vermishev, Jr. was able to observe the hard lives of oil field workers. It was probably these observations, as well as his reading, the views of his father and a number of other circumstances, that led Vermishev to fight consciously to abolish inequality and establish socialism. In 1903, after moving to Petersburg and enrolling in law school, he joined the illegal Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Due to his political activity, Vermishev was often suspended from his studies.

In 1908, his play For the Truth! led to Vermishev’s imprisonment in the Shlisselburg Fortress, after which he graduated from university and began practicing law in Petersburg. At the same time, he was involved in underground political work and journalism: he wrote columns in defense of workers’ rights and advocated important Party positions in the press. Vermishev also continued to write plays and sometimes worked as a theater critic. He also pursued technology as a hobby and attempted to patent several of his own inventions.

In 1917, Vermishev was involved in the storming of the Winter Palace, and after the Revolution he worked in the Petrograd Soviet. In 1919, he volunteered for the front, where he became not only a commissar, but also a correspondent for ROSTA, the state news agency. Apparently, Vermishev actually was rehearsing The Red Truth with soldiers in Yelets before he died. But the story, found in some sources, that he went into his last battle while practically still onstage is an exaggeration. His Red Army soldiers fought Mamontov’s men at the Yelets railway station, where they went after postponing their rehearsal.

In the Russian State Library, you can find two collections of works by Vermishev, published after his “canonization” in the 1960s. We have already mentioned one of them, the Moscow edition of 1977. The second book was published in Yerevan in 1976. In addition to poems and plays, it includes very personal letters from Vermishev to family and friends. In them, Sa-ve tells his father about his life as a student in cold Petersburg, shares the thoughts that torment him in the Shlisselburg Fortress, offers words of support to his half-brother and half-sister, longs to be able to celebrate the New Year with his family, and voices his anguish over the Armenian genocide.

No one knew, in the summer of 1913, that in a few years a Bolshevik revolution would triumph in Russia. Vermishev, who had recently graduated from the university, was trying to make his way in the world in Petersburg, while simultaneously doing underground political work. He wrote the following to his relatives, who were worried about his unsettled life:

[I]n the opinion of others, it’s quixotic. But in my opinion, it’s an honest and necessary struggle in life. In our day and age, not everyone can avoid becoming a renegade over 200 rubles […] The awareness that so-and-so has given up, while I’m still squealing, fills me with the strength to keep going. It’s not a matter of me with my nose in the air, imagining myself a grandee and a giant, but the pleasant realization that my soul and body have not turned into crumpled paper at the age of thirty-four, that there are strong cells of resistance in my body that will help me finally jump onto my own road, as I hang onto my own birds in the bush by the tails and wings.

I had no sympathy for the bird in my hand in Baku, and I rejected the one in Petersburg. I’m seeking, demanding my own birds in the bush. And I’ll either have them or, exhausting myself, I will be gone.

[…]

The struggle is the only joy and goal in life and its meaning!

I warmly embrace you all. Goodbye for now, my dears...

Lovingly yours,
Sasha Vermishev

Translated, from the Russian, by Thomas H. Campbell

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Plays Discussed in the Text

Arskii, Pavel. Za krasnye sovety [For red soviets]. Petersburg: Proletkul’t, 1920.
Ben, Il’ia. Spiriticheskii seans [Seance]. Omsk: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo, Sibirskoe oblastnoe otdelenie, 1921
Bessal’ko, Pavel. Kamenshchik [Bricklayer]. Murom: Literaturno-izdatel’skaia sektsiia Muromskogo ispolkoma proletarskikh kulturno-prosvetitel’skikh organizatsii, 1919.
Kozlov, Petr. Legenda o kommunare [The legend of the communard]. Arkhangelsk: Volna, 1923.
Maiakovskii, Vladimir. Misteriia-buff [Mystery-bouffe]. Petrograd: Svoboda, 1918.
Neverov, Aleksandr. Baby [Women]. In: Aleksandr Neverov, P’esy [Plays], Moscow: Krasnaia nov’, 1923.
Rybinsk Proletkult Theater Studio. Ne khodi [Don’t go]. In: Sbornik Rybinskogo proletkul’ta [Rybinsk Proletkult anthology], Rybinsk: Rybinskii gorodskoi proletkul’t, 1919.
Serafimovich, Aleksandr. Mar’iana [Maryana]. In: Pervye sovetskie p’esy [Early Soviet plays], Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1958.
Vermishev, Aleksandr. Krasnaia pravda [Red truth]. Moscow: Teatral’naia biblioteka Gubpolitprosveta M.O.N.O., 1922.
Vermishev, Aleksandr. Prazdnik Satany [Feast of Satan], St. Petersburg, 1908–1919. Russian National Library, Manuscripts Department, f. 713, op. Sobranie teatral’nykh p’es, no. 59.
Vermishev, Aleksandr. Za pravdoi! [For the truth!]. In: Aleksandr Vermishev, Izbrannoe, Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1977.

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