It’s Dangerous to Protest, but in This Moscow Theater They Scream

Russia’s only documentary theater tackles topics such as the sisters who killed their abusive father. Three members of Teatr.Doc talk to Haaretz

A performer in the play 'Your Calendar: Torture.'
Stanislav Kruper/ Jeden svet

BERLIN – “Torture exists in the Russian police, in the Russian Federal Security Service, too, and also in the penal colonies. It is very hard to document the harm that’s done as long as the person is still in the hands of the law enforcement bodies. It is possible, however, if someone was released and acted correctly - documented all the injuries and went to the human rights organizations. Sometimes a situation is created where the law enforcement agencies themselves want to incriminate one another, and the side effect is that a certain amount of justice is done. When it comes to the federal security service, even if there is bodily injury – the case will never be opened. The system will do everything to make it impossible to document the damage. In cases involving terrorism or conspiring to foment a revolution, security service people use torture very happily.”

Yegor Skovoroda and Alexey Polikhovich sit in a Berlin café on a spring day, a few hours before appearing in the documentary play, “Your Calendar: Torture,” which they helped write. Both are journalists for opposition media outlets in Russia, who focus on the rights of prisoners and detainees. Polikhovich, 29, is a former prisoner himself; seven years ago he was arrested at an anti-government protest and imprisoned for 38 months.

Actors in the play 'The Bolotnaya Case.'
Aleksei Smirnov

It’s difficult to overstate this play’s relevance to current affairs in Russia. An estimated 10 percent of country’s citizens have been tortured by law enforcement authorities and 8 percent have been humiliated by them, according to a comprehensive study published in June by the independent Levada Center and the UN-affiliated Committee Against Torture. Moreover, the researchers report, 30 percent of Russians justify the use of torture.

When Zarema Zaudinova, the 29-year-old writer/director of “Torture” joins us, the two men give her center stage. It is clear that this woman, tall, impatient and sharp-tongued, is the boss here. She heads the “Department of Pain,” which produces works in the “civil theater” genre, as part of Moscow’s Teatr.Doc, the first and only documentary theater company operating in Russia today. “Torture,” which will be performed on July 27 at the Hateiva theater in Jaffa, may be about the situation in Russia but it also conducts its own dialogue with Israeli reality.

The focus on painful issues such as torture is just one of the directions being taken at Teatr.Doc, but also the “most problematic” one, as Zaudinova puts it. This is political theater – a description she personally doesn’t like – or, perhaps, what can be called theater for human rights. The founders of Teatr.Doc in 2002, Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gremina, began to take this tack after the death of the Russian whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, a tax adviser who had been accused of corruption by the authorities and died in custody before his trial began. Prosecutors, the judge and prison officials had prevented him from receiving medical treatment that could have saved his life.

“Torture,” first performed in 2010, about half a year after Magnitsky’s death, is based on transcripts from the court proceedings, legal documents, Magnitsky’s diaries and information from his mother. This is when the theater changed, and gave up the “zero position” of its founders, says Zaudinova.

According to that approach, she explains, “When I work with documentary material, I take no position. I collect material, I hear everyone. It is like collecting responses in order to write a newspaper article.” In the play about Magnitsky’s death, however, “the theater took a civil [society] position. We stood alongside Magnitsky’s mother. Since then the theater has not moved from this position.”

Actors in 'Your Calendar: Torture.'
Stanislav Kruper/ Jeden svet

In the spring of 2018, Teatr.Doc experienced an almost unimaginable tragedy: The two founders, Ugarov and Gremina, partners in their creative work as playwrights and directors for years, both died suddenly within six weeks of each other. Teatr.Doc felt orphaned. Zaudinova, who was their student and friend and admired them greatly professionally, says she has no words to describe this loss.

“For me this was a story about how the country murdered artists. But that was only my story. Everyone explains it to themselves in a different way,” she explains, quoting in this context an expression that Ugarov liked to use: “For all the reasons, all at once.’ Someone told Ugarov how a couple lives together for 30 years and one day the woman notices that the man chews loudly and she gets up and leaves. After all that’s: ‘For all the reasons, all at once.’”

Zaudinova views the couple’s death as the result of continuing persecution by the authorities. Over the past five years, the theater has been forced to find a new home no less than three times: The landlords canceled the contracts with various excuses, without even bothering to hide the fact that they were acting on orders from above.

It all began when Moscow authorities canceled the rental contract for a small basement where the theater had operated since it was founded. At the same time, during a screening of a film on the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014, the federal security service – the successor of the KGB – broke into the basement and announced that they thought a bomb had been planted in the building. Despite that, instead of evacuating the audience the troops locked everyone inside, took down their personal details and later welded shut the door, says Ivan Ugarov, Mikhail’s son and one of the company’s leading playwrights, in a video interview. Teatr.Doc never returned to its original home.

The attempts to disrupt performances, readings and screenings organized by the theater never ended. Sometimes the authorities got confused and came to ruin the wrong event – for example, a play about ancient Greece, instead of a reading by an imprisoned journalist, the Teatr.Doc people tell us with a smile. But also the theater’s management was fined, they were prevented from traveling overseas and the company’s bank account was blocked (which didn’t really cause much damage to a theater that in any case survives mostly on the enthusiasm of the artists working there, and not on donations).

Immediately after being exiled from its first home, Gremina decided to stage a play dedicated to the protesters who demonstrated in May 2012 against Vladimir Putin’s regime and were imprisoned for years. When the play: “The Bolotnaya Case” was first performed, many of the convicted individuals were still in prison, but they had already disappeared long since from the headlines, even in the opposition media.

The founders of  Teatr.Doc, Mikhail Ugarov and Elena Gremina.
Courtesy of family.

“Everyone thought Gremina had gone mad,” Zaudinova recalls. “But if we hadn’t put on the play, we would not be ‘Doc.’ And the day after the premiere, the owners came and canceled the new lease.”

For his part, Polikhovich’s path to Teatr.Doc passed through “The Bolotnaya Case.” “I came to Theater.Doc from prison,” he says, explaining that he was among the demonstrators arrested. He was released in 2015, but knew about the play based on interviews with the prisoners’ relatives, while he was still inside. “I corresponded with the playwright who interviewed our relatives, and it was embedded in my consciousness that there was a theater that cared about us. When I got out, I was interested in what was going on there. I went to meet [Zaudinova].”

Hundreds of young people, actors, journalists, artists and activists, foreigners and youths – all have been part of Teatr.Doc over the years. What united them was the desire to create different theater.

Zaudinova: “Gremina and Ugarov always gave people a chance. Gremina always said: ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe write a play about it?’ If you told her you didn’t know how, she would say: ‘Oh, really. Try, it will all work out.’”

It takes a lot of strength to keep all this inside you and to try and work it out, I tell her.

Yegor Skovoroda.
Stanislav Kruper/ Jeden svet

“Well, so, they died in the end,” she sighs.

A lost teenager

The months after the deaths of Teatr.Doc’s founders were a period of deep crisis. The day after Ugarov’s death, which was on April 1, 2018, unknown people bought 10 tickets to one of the plays and threatened to disrupt the proceedings. The theater published the threats – and dozens of supporters, from anarchists to journalists, came out to protect the actors. Those who made the threats never showed up. But for months, the only context in which the theater’s name was mentioned was: “Police and funerals, funerals and police,” says Zaudinova.

But the theater held on, and a few months ago it moved into a new building, after lengthy renovations. At the same time as the shows produced by its Department of Pain and older productions continue to run, alongside readings and various theatrical experiments – Teatr.Doc has also managed to stage two new plays that are not related to politics – at least not directly. One, “How to Live With It,” is a dialogue between two sisters about their mother’s death. The second, “Future.Doc,” written by Ivan Ugarov, reconstructs interviews the theater’s staff conducted with young people all over Russia, using the “headphone verbatim” technique, whereby actors serve as a sort of broadcast media for texts they are hearing in their earphones in real time. The technique does not let the actors “act”; they are too busy precisely repeating what they have heard and thus, surprisingly, the reconstruction is very natural and accurate.

“We have interviewed about 50 young people and we don’t plan on stopping,” says Ugarov. “Different actors appear in every show and the play changes too. We add and take out parts from the large amount of material we have collected.”

The two new productions reflect the state of Teatr.Doc itself. It is now, says Ugarov, like a lost teenager, 15 or 16, after his parents have died: “We want to know what the future holds for us, where we are going and what we will do. So, we decided to gather adolescents like us and ask them questions.”

Since the founding couple died, the company is managed in a lateral manner: without an artistic director or a single administrative director. The idea is that all the responsibility will be divided up between a number of people and those who at the top will not be worn down, as Ugarov and Gremina were, says Zaudinova.

Nonetheless, the Department of Pain part of Teatr.Doc, which responds in its works to current events, is the liveliest, most sarcastic and acerbic part of the enterprise, frequently in the headlines and now one of the symbols of civil society in Russia.

The latest project Teatr.Doc and one of the department’s standouts is “Three Sisters.” Except for the title, there is no connection with the Chekhov play. It was a one-time effort that Zaudinova organized to express support for the Khachaturyan sisters – three young women who murdered their father after years of abuse, during which he raped two of them regularly. Last month the sisters were charged with murder and conspiracy to commit murder; they could face prison sentences of eight to 20 years. The indictments led to a wave of protests and trained a critical spotlight on the very lenient laws on crimes involving domestic violence.

In the play, eight women take the stage to read items from the press, testimonies and transcripts that expose the hell the Khachaturyan sisters endured. In between sections, the women – actresses, artists and journalists – stand up and tell stories, some of them improvised, of the physical, psychological or sexual violence they themselves suffered. This performance, described as activist and not artistic, was shocking.

All of Teatr.Doc’s works are important, but maybe there are cases in which the political, principled statement they make comes at the expense of the shows’ artistic value? This is a question that kept bothering me when I attended a number of performances there. I asked Zaudinova how it’s possible for the art and the political manifesto to exist together.

Zaudinova: “What political manifesto? We have no political manifesto. I’m simply one of those who … an artist who is always against the regime, every regime. Because government is violent and an artist is against violence. [Artists] cannot stand alongside the violence, they are always on the other side. Where is the art here? I don’t know, in the ‘Divine Comedy’ there are a lot of disgusting characters through which Dante depicts the politicians of his era. Time simply passes, it passes and the principle remains.”

That’s exactly the question. Are you writing something eternal, universal, while also having something to say about the contemporary, or are you writing something current with a concrete purpose: To tell about the Bolotnaya case, to tell about torture?

“I don’t think the motif of ‘I write about the good and eternal’ works at all in art. If you write about eternal things, chances are you’re writing bullshit. Chekhov wrote that the ‘bourgeoise world is falling apart,’ too. He wrote the story of the private person.”

But let’s take the great writer Vladimir Mayakovsky. For many he was the great poet as long as he wrote about stars, but became a pathetic propagandist when he began to glorify the communist regime.

“Because that’s propaganda.”

Okay. Propaganda from the negative side, and defending human rights is from the positive side. Still, where is the line between current events and art?

“Propaganda is related to politics and the government. I never say things in the name of politicians, don’t ever take their side. We stand alongside the person. The person is the important thing for art.”

Zaudinova ends by mentioning Samuel Beckett, who once told Harold Pinter: “I was in hospital once. There was a man in another ward, dying of throat cancer. In the silences, I could hear his screams continually. That’s the only kind of form my work has.”

“We are talking about pain,” she says. “This is an attempt to find a language for the pain of a person who was imprisoned in a prison for nothing.”