Maksim Hanukai at n+1:
THEATER HAS LONG BEEN at the center of political struggle in Russia. The theatricalization of life was one of the key aims of the Russian avant-garde, which embraced the 1917 revolution in part because it promised to transform everyday life into living theater. With the advent of socialist realism in the 1930s, Stalin turned theater into an instrument of state propaganda, but restrictions loosened again in the period of late socialism, from the 1960s to the 1980s, at which time theater acquired a near sacred status in Soviet culture. As Marina Davydova, a leading expert on Russian theater, observes in her 2005 book The End of a Theater Epoch, “Russia in the period of late socialism was not a literature- but a theater-centric country.” While censorship was strong, and many Western authors remained taboo, Soviet directors began to test the boundaries of artistic speech through the camouflaging techniques of Aesopian language. Ordinary citizens went to great lengths for the chance to see Russian bard Vladimir Vysotsky in the role of Hamlet at the Taganka or, with the introduction of glasnost, to attend a new play by Liudmila Petrushevskaya. Outside Moscow, too, amateur theater circles flourished (my own parents first met in one such circle in Baku). In a country without a functioning civil society and, officially, without religion, theater became a substitute for the church, the parliament, and the free press.
All of this changed in the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union—perhaps unfairly regarded as a period of stagnation for Russian theater. Historians cite various reasons for theater’s decline in the 1990s. The rate of emigration among the intelligentsia was high; the economy was in free fall; new social and civic institutions, however imperfect, had begun to emerge; and theater now had greater competition from other media, such as commercial film and television.