Russian theater stalwart sees little change
Legendary Russian stage director Yuri Lyubimov was born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution.
He became a theater actor, fought in World War II, then returned to acting and teaching at a theater school. In 1964, he became director of the famed Moscow Taganka Theater, whose productions were heavily censored, if not banned.
Along with authors such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lyubimov helped inspire the growing dissent against Soviet rule. In 1983, he was allowed to work in Britain; a year later, he was stripped of Soviet citizenship and fired. He staged numerous drama and opera productions all over the world.
Lyubimov returned to Moscow in 1988 at the height of former President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika, regaining his citizenship and returning to his post at the theater. Today, the 93-year-old is still the theater’s director.
What is the atmosphere like in Russia now?
Truth be told, our milk has gone sour and it will never be fresh again. The big problem is that our citizens are half-asleep; they are too lazy.... I think that a bigger part of our population still lives in the past and they are still missing the USSR. They say it was better then. But it is not true.
Why did you choose to perform the role of Josef Stalin in one of your productions?
They’ve begun to glorify comrade Stalin again, a bloodthirsty pervert who killed more of our people than German fascists did. Are they completely nuts? When I play Stalin … I lure the audience only to hit them with: [quotes Stalin with a heavy Georgian accent] “The crowd is like history’s matter; the more it diminishes in one place the more it increases in another and we shouldn’t be sorry for them.”
Is it easier for you to work now than back in Soviet times?
It is of course better for me to work now because I am free. But financially it is much more difficult now. They promised me a new theater center and even allocated a land plot … but 13 years have passed since and nothing has been done. Last year I asked them for a possibility to hold an event celebrating the 45th anniversary of my theater. They said it is not the right kind of date and asked me to wait five more years for the 50th anniversary! Don’t they know I am 93?
Do you come under pressure from the authorities about your work, the way it was back in the Soviet Union, when they mercilessly censored and banned your productions?
Never. But they often threaten to close down my theater for fire safety reasons and order me to improve the situation, but they don’t give me a penny to do it. Thus they always have a pretext in store to fire me. At the same time, they built a Hollywood-like theater for themselves in just two years … in which a foreign pop star performs once in a while for 100 people in an 800-seat hall for a fee of around $2.5 million.
In the past you met with many Soviet leaders. Do you meet with Russian leaders?
I remember [former Soviet President Yuri] Andropov asking me, “Do you know what happened in Indonesia?” I said, “They hanged all the communists, didn’t they?” “Yes, they did,” he said. “Is that your prophesy for us?”
I have never met with [President Dmitry] Medvedev, but I have twice met with [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin.... I must admit he has some very curious traits. When he was here, he carefully looked for a place on the wall to leave his autograph [a tradition for all important guests] and found a suitable place under a portrait of Alexander Pushkin. Then he began to read other autographs and found one by [exiled oligarch and Putin’s sworn enemy Boris] Berezovsky and he said, “How did he reach out so high?” “He stood on the back of a bench,” I responded. Try to guess his next question. Well, he asked, “Who helped him do it, who supported him?” I said, “I did.”
He looked at me as if he wanted to ask why but he didn’t. Maybe I will be brought to account someday, who knows? I asked him then what kind of character [Berezovsky] is and he said, “He likes to stick his head out.” Then he thought a little and added, “Well, let him.”
What do you think will be the outcome of jailed oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s second trial?
I would like to be mistaken but I think he will get a guilty verdict. It is a test for our leaders. When you sit in prison for so long, you become a hero. People hated him at first as an oligarch and they initially hailed his imprisonment. Now many have changed their minds.... If it were up to me, I would let [Khodorkovsky] go free. It would be better for both of our leaders. It would be useful for them on all counts. They would display mercy. People are tired of hearing “Tighten the bolts!”
Do you see a significant change in the country since the Soviet period?
Very little has changed since 1985, almost a quarter of a century! And this is a real problem. Something is just beginning to move there. It is of course nothing close to an upheaval the way it was during the thaw of the ‘60s. People are silent. They are tired and they are simply scared. They don’t want to get a stick on the head, be thrown into a van and beaten up.
But something tells me [the authorities] are under pressure now. Why else should they so roughly disperse opposition demonstrations? Five hundred people came out and [the authorities] send a thousand and a half punitive troops!
What about the proclaimed fight against corruption?
They fight corruption, but very selectively. The problem is that we have so much oil. Once they dip themselves in it, they find it very difficult to wash it off.
Why do many in Russia still regard America as an enemy despite the declaration of a reset in the relations?
They can’t exist without an enemy! If they have an enemy, then everything falls into place and everything can be explained, from the military budget to other things. And the more powerful, the stronger the enemy is, the better. Everyone knows that we have mighty weapons too, but they are no match for the [ U.S.] military machine. Russia, just like its predecessor, is lagging behind, always trying to catch up with somebody.... So much envy and so much aggression! And this constant need to protect ourselves from somebody! From whom? No one is attacking us! Strong countries are indifferent toward us.
You used to have endless problems with Soviet bureaucrats before. Is it easier with Russian bureaucracy?
They sometimes congratulate me. Sometimes hang awards on me. Recently they called me from the president’s office and said they would invite me [to the Kremlin]. Here comes to mind a similar episode with Alexander Isayevich [Solzhenitsyn] whom Reagan invited to dinner when he already lived in exile. This is what he said in response, “With pleasure, but only when we can talk one on one; as for dinner I prefer to have it at home.”
When I meet with them they usually exclaim, “Oh, you were the gulp of freedom!” And then they say, “Sit down please,” which sounds quite more sinister to me. [In Russian “to sit” has a connotation “to be in prison.”]
All things considered, I am an alien to them. They need me only as some decorative element of the facade they build here. They want me as a billboard. Otherwise they don’t need me at all. They prefer a theater of marionettes.
How do you feel about your work now?
The public stopped looking for politics in the theater.... People are struck with apathy. They come for entertainment. It looks as if nothing is forbidden anymore. But it is only an appearance. In reality only some superficial things are allowed, such as idle talk. People are indifferent now. They are tired. Their hopes have been dashed....
You know, as they like to say, here we are born to make Kafka a reality. We don’t have a heart and we don’t have a soul. But we love to talk about a mysterious Russian soul. It is better not to dig into this or such astonishing things may come out. Nothing is ever enough for us.
What we did in the first 20 years is no longer interesting to the public. Our theater has become just one of other theaters. But even in these conditions we preserve our face, I think. Some people say that I am degrading, that in the past I directed good productions and now I am staging boring things. But I am doing what is interesting to me.
Back in March I tendered my resignation. I am fed up with everything we have just discussed. Then I got a phone call from up above and I was told to hold off for a while. “It is not the right time,” the caller said. Everywhere abroad, including America, it was much easier for me to work because of order and discipline. I wouldn’t mind to live in America when I retire. It is a good country for old men.
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