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Soviet Union


Soviet citizens have a rich cultural heritage in theater. Two of the most internationally famous theaters, Moscow's Bolshoi Theater and Leningrad's Kirov Theater, attracted both domestic and foreign audiences with striking performances in huge, ornate, and festive halls. The performers who played to sold-out performances in these theaters and who adhered to the regime's acting and directing guidelines received special benefits such as worldwide travel, luxurious apartments, and the highest state honors for their artistic contributions. Those artists, however, who chose to portray views opposed to the regime's artistic standards experienced shame and denunciation, even though audiences often admired them.

Such an artist was Vladimir Vysotskii. In his short lifetime, Vysotskii attracted widespread popularity but railed against a system he opposed. Although he died in 1980 of a heart attack, apparently the result of alcoholism, Vysotskii's mass appeal became in many ways more pervasive after his death. His memory evolved into a veritable cult, with thousands of people mourning the anniversaries of his death by filing past his burial place. This balladeer and actor, who for years played such famous roles as Hamlet under the tutelage of Taganka Theater director Iurii Liubimov, raised the avant-garde theater to a cultural pinnacle in Moscow by attracting thousands of followers, even for unannounced or unpublicized programs that featured his protests, often against the leadership's failings. His poetry and music, once banned in the Soviet Union, have been disseminated throughout the country and depict bureaucratic corruption, elitism, poverty, war, and prison camp horror. In the late 1980s, Vysotskii's mentor, Liubimov, continued to leave an indelible mark on the theater, even after his forced exile by the authorities and the bans on his productions. He lived abroad and continued to produce masterpieces adapted from Gor'kiy's novel Mother, Bertold Brecht's play The Good Woman of Szechuan, Mikhail Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita, and Fedor Dostoevskii's novel Crime and Punishment, making him the greatest Soviet theatrical director. The Taganka Theater performed without him, but the stage did not retain the same popularity. Under Gorbachev, Liubimov was allowed back to his homeland to direct his version of the opera Boris Godunov, banned in 1983 when he was forced to leave the Soviet Union. However, Liubimov remained only long enough to oversee the project's completion and left of his own accord, preferring to live abroad.

After 1985 a degree of liberalization similar to that permitted for literature and cinema prevailed for the stage. In 1985 and 1986, approximately 10 percent of the directors were replaced in favor of younger and more innovative directors, who, in turn, opened the door to more creative playwrights. In addition, theater groups (collectives) gained "full independence in the selection of plays," releasing them in some measure from the onus of the regime's authoritarian and arbitrary decisions. As a result of these changes, playwrights such as Mikhail Shatrov blossomed within the freer theater environment. In 1986 his "neo-Leninist" work Dictatorship of Conscience, which portrayed Stalin and Brezhnev as shady and sometimes unfaithful communists, played to receptive audiences. Shatrov's other prominent play from the 1987-88 period, . . . Further . . . Further, and Further!, offered a scathing indictment of the Stalin period, this time concentrating on Lenin's legacy and the way Stalin manipulated the other Bolshevik leaders during the 1920s in his successful effort to defeat them. Shatrov captured the characters of many early revolutionary leaders, using strong dialogue to depict vivid conflicts.

Data as of May 1989