Russian theater takes on the LGBT struggle.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Beau Lebens.
By Evgeny Belyakov
In the summer of 2015, the Satirikon Theater, one of Moscow’s most popular theaters dropped a political bombshell when it premiered the gay-themed play, “All Shades of Blue.” The play itself was a big surprise but even more so was the reaction of audiences and the critics who unanimously praised both the courage of the director and the very powerful message that the play delivered. Moreover, inspired by the success of this play, another large theater in Moscow is about to premiere a pro-LGBT performance. This next premiere is not going to be announced in advance due to security considerations, but the director expects the performance to be a hit. Even without a proper advertising campaign, such events simply do not go unnoticed in Russia.
All Shades of Blue
The 2015 play, “All Shades of Blue,” is a kind of play on words. “Blue” is a slang word for “gay” in Russian and it is not a politically correct term. The performance was based on a script that had won the dramaturgical contest in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk in 2014. The script was noticed by the iconic Soviet and Russian actor Konstantin Raikin who is a manager of the Satirikon Theater. Raikin, who had been known for making brave and bold artistic choices, described the script shortly before the premiere: “This is a harsh conversation about contemporary life. I have not read anything like this for a long time.”
Indeed, the conversation was harsh. Public discussions on homosexuality in Russia have been a social taboo for a long time, and several years ago it became a political issue as well. Five minutes before playtime a pre-recorded voice of Raikin informed the viewers in the auditorium that the performance was not going to be easy to watch and that he asked for the audience’s understanding. In this little overture, he tried to prepare the viewers for what they were about to see, insisting that theater is a place based on the values of empathy and compassion. His caution was justified. The visitors of this theater are the typical residents of Moscow who are exposed to homophobic smear campaigns. Given the widespread anti-gay attitudes and taking into account that religious or pro-Kremlin activist often scuttle LGBT-related events, one could have expected anything from an interruption by the provocateurs to a hoax bomb threat. But none of this happened, neither at the premiere nor other performances of the play.
The play allows the viewers to fully indulge in typical homophobic “fun”. But, finally, when all the jokes have been made, and the audience tested its own homophobic prejudices, the play depicts a more bare and ugly reality.
The play‘s opening scenes set it up as a light comedy evoking some of the most widespread stereotypes related to gay people in Russia. It initially comes across as just another version of a typical gay-bashing show aired on state sponsored television programs. Half an hour later, however, the laughter in the audience subsides as the comedy turns into drama and later into horror.
At the very inception of the play a young teenage boy comes out to his parents who react the way most Russian parents would react: with disbelief and shock. At first, the audience willingly enjoyed the awkward attempts of a young teenager coming to terms with his sexuality and internalized homophobia. Then, the author poked fun at the boy’s parents’ clumsy attempts to cure him with the help of a priest and an exorcist—something that actually happens in Russia these days. The father is especially offended, crying at one point: “I am the officer of the Russian Army and my son is a faggot!” The play allows the viewers to fully indulge in typical homophobic “fun”. But, finally, when all the jokes have been made, and the audience tested its own homophobic prejudices, the play depicts a more bare and ugly reality. By the time the young boy is forced into a psychiatric hospital where he is force-fed with medications that cause terrifying hallucinations, the audience goes silent except for occasional, quiet sobbing. During the curtain call, the audience unanimously reacts with a standing ovation, loud and long, though few bring themselves to cheer. And as people slowly leave the auditorium, the smoking areas get filled with men and women rushing to have a cigarette. Women, fixing their make up with tissues, fiercely debate what they had just seen, while men mostly stand aside silently.
Accidentally or not, several weeks into the triumphant success of the show, the local Prosecutor’s office sent out warnings to multiple Moscow theaters inquiring if their repertoire contains any “abusive expressions, propaganda of immoral behavior or pornography.” Konstantin Raikin’s theater did not avoid this lot. The Prosecutors specifically inquired about the content of “All Shades of Blue.” Ultimately, there were no consequences for the theater and the play went on for several more months as planned. It is hard to say why the authorities did not go on with pressuring the theater to remove the play. It might have been due, in part, to the iconic status of the theater’s manager who personally endorsed the play and also due to the precautionary measures—all of the programs and tickets had to have a large and visible 21+ sign. The current homophobic legislation requires that only individuals under eighteen have to be “protected from gay propaganda”, so Raikin’s decision to put the 21 age limit—which does not have any legal significance in Russia—was a grotesque way to say that he is ready to fulfil and overfulfill any ridiculous regulation, just to make sure the show goes on.
For all of the Russians’ distrust in public politics and any sort of political activism, they still see classical art, mostly literature and theater, as legitimate forms of self-expression. And it seems that these genres simply work better on Russian soil.
This performance and its resonance signify a milestone in the history of the Russian LGBT movement. Not because someone openly spoke out against homophobia—after all many have already done so—but because, for the first time, someone tried to get the message across by means of a theater performance. For all of the Russians’ distrust in public politics and any sort of political activism, they still see classical art, mostly literature and theater, as legitimate forms of self-expression. And it seems that these genres simply work better on Russian soil.
“Save the Russian gays!”
Criticism of the infamous “gay propaganda” law has been pouring from all over the world for several years and there has been very limited result, if any. Over this period, a lot has been said regarding homophobia in Russia. International media, activist groups, and some Western governments have exerted much effort trying to reach out to the Russian government and public; world-renowned pop stars from Madonna to Elton John took turns giving brilliant speeches on tolerance and acceptance. But Pandora’s Box, filled with xenophobia, is hard to shut once it is opened. The hawks in the Kremlin and the obedient army of paper-pushers all around the country would never want to back down under the pressure and, to make things even worse, the public seems to increasingly enjoy the confrontational Realpolitik style of Vladimir Putin’s administration. Hence, the more pressure was coming from the “West”, the more resistance it provoked domestically.
The reasons for the crackdown against the LGBT movement have remained a matter of debate. Some suggested that this was a catch to deflect public attention from serious problems in the national economy; others argued that it was a natural populist move in a country that has always been one of the most conservative in Europe. The style and the methods of the homophobic campaign have been compared to the anti-Jewish campaign back in the 1970s. As one of American journalists put it in a private conversation with me, “Save the Russian Gays” became such a popular cause exactly because this sort of discourse resonated with “Save the Soviet Jews” which had been one of the largest and definitely one of the most well-known human rights campaigns during the Cold War. Back in the day, many Soviet Jews opted to move to Israel to support the young Zionist state, and expectedly the Soviet government was not very happy about this because “why would anyone want to leave the best socialist country in the world?” But most importantly, Israel as the close ally of the US, was one of the worst enemies of the Communist bloc. Soviet Jews, especially those who applied for emigration to Israel, were demonized and depicted as disloyal to the state and consequently ideologically dangerous and subversive. The anti-Jewish campaign helped justify the persistence of the paranoia and surveillance at a time when many Soviet citizens had grown tired of it. Today, the LGBT people face very reminiscent challenges. Just like the Jews several decades ago, they are suspected of being pro-Western and, by default, anti-Russian. And just like the Jews, Russian gays became unfortunate victims of the East-West standoff.
Using minorities as a scapegoat is not a new phenomenon as the recent triumph of Donald Trump clearly shows. This authoritarian logic always worked perfectly. It makes it possible for politicians to score higher in polls without actually doing anything. Once a group is perceived as anti-Russian (anti-Ugandan, anti-Hungarian, etc.) there is no more need to adopt restrictive legislations or launch an expensive surveillance campaign. The social forces will finish the job that the politicians started. This dangerous but very convenient game can serve many purposes. In countries like Russia—which have been shattered and traumatized by their turbulent and violent recent histories; which are still not sure about their role in the world; which have not even managed to create a unifying national identity for all of its citizens—the politics of exclusion whimsically turn into politics of inclusion. Anyone, except the excluded, suddenly gains a feeling of belonging and commonality.
The success of the play is one more indicator that political, social and cultural changes in different contexts occur in a variety of ways.
The good news for the LGBT community today is that there is a world of difference between contemporary Russia and the 1970s Soviet Union. Against all odds, independent human rights groups, independent civil society and even media still exist in the country. The space for all of these has been diminishing drastically, especially since Vladimir Putin’s “return to presidency” in 2012. But after seventy years of the Soviet regime (and a thousand years of all kinds of other regimes), Russian civil society elaborated a great number of techniques for survival and even promotion of its cause. The LGBT activist community is the best example of these traditions.
The success of the play is one more indicator that political, social and cultural changes in different contexts occur in a variety of ways. In the Western paradigm, the primary space where politics is shaped and re-negotiated is the public space. In many non-Western cultures, including Russia, the public space is routinely used for repetitive rituals which do little more than maintain the status quo. But the varieties of private spaces, on the contrary, serve as battlefields of ideas, practices and policies. These spaces are hidden from the public eye as well as from the all-seeing eye of the bureaucrats. In the Soviet Union, these places were the famous “kitchens” which literally were the kitchens of intelligentsia and which were used not only for culinary purposes but as the primary platform for miniature political conventions and as a space for free debate. One kitchen could not fill in more than a dozen people but millions of such kitchens all over the Communist camp, wedded by common interests, formed an immense power which revealed itself only in the late 1980s. Similarly, the advent of LGBT themes on the stages of Russian theaters can be a manifestation of, and an impetus for, the social and cultural change, barely visible, but slowly unfolding in front of our eyes and going from kitchens to public.
The “gay propaganda” law not only failed to scare away the activists from the streets, it provoked some of the largest LGBT demonstrations and campaigns unprecedented in the country’s history. The LGBTQI movement, which just started emerging five to seven years ago, was suddenly confronted with the first significant blow, but it decided to fight back: from the lawsuits against the government officials to mass petitioning; from public actions to TV appearances, activists in most of Russia’s regions finally found their unique voice. Russia’s human rights movement, which, until recently, did not regard the LGBT issues as pivotal, quickly included them into the larger human rights agenda in the country. And this is when another Pandora’s Box—this time, a good one—was opened. Once the official discourse picked up homophobia as one of its major themes, LGBT rights were destined to appear on the list of topics discussed in the multiple “kitchens” and finally end up on the stages of theaters. The next Moscow’s gay-themed premiere, the name and place of which has not yet been revealed to the public, is coming soon and it promises to be another successful wakeup call that brings public attention to LGBT rights, in a historically acceptable medium.
Evgeny Belyakov is a human rights advocate in Moscow. He studied history and political science at the Central European University in Budapest and worked at the Front Line Defenders and Human Rights Watch.