congress / reading room

Russia is a Mixed Bag

Interview with Maria Revyakina

“You have to understand: you live in Europe. Russia isn’t completely European. I would describe it as half Asian, half European. The differences are immense, and are also apparent in the economy, in politics, and morality.” Maryla Zielińska talks to Maria Revyakina, director of the Golden Mask theater festival in Moscow.

The Golden Mask attempts to give audiences an objective look at Russian theater by presenting the most interesting premieres of the season. Meanwhile Poland – and other countries as well, I would say – are shifting towards a festival model in which curators assume a critical stance towards the world. Is there no interest in a program such as this in Russia?

These are two different types of festivals. On the one hand, you have festivals curated by one or two people, like in Avignon or Edinburgh, and then you have festivals like ours, where the result is the work of a large number of critics. First, a group of experts prepare a competition selection, and then judges give prizes for the best plays. But the selection process is the most important part, because it follows the outlines of history. It shows us what is alive in theater and explains why certain processes occur.

You have to remember that Russia is an enormous country. The idea that inspired the founders of the Golden Mask was to show the most interesting performances of the season to audiences, critics, and the general public. And isn’t every play a venue for social commentary on the part of the artist? I find it interesting to see what directors from all over this immense country are thinking about. How do they stand up to the world? What do they want to tell us through theater? What does their artistic perspective tell us?

So if you want to know what’s going on in Russia, all you need to do is come to the festival every year?

Directors in Omsk are up against completely different issues than directors in Sovetsk, in Irkutsk, and in Moscow. Their experiences may be completely different, but that’s precisely what gives us a sense of what’s going on in Russia.

We have a three to four day program for international critics that we call “Russian Case,”where we present a selection of the most interesting and socially confrontational work.

You saw René Pollesch’s “Ein Chor irrt sich gewaltig” yesterday in Warsaw. The play was performed as a part of this year’s Warszawa Centralna festival, the theme of which was “Migrations.” This is an example of a critical festival where the program sets a theme and artists are invited to take part in a discussion about the world. Could Moscow use a festival like this? Should the Golden Mask be going in this direction?

There are many festivals taking place in Moscow. We have the Chekhov festival, which focuses on foreign adaptations, and NET (New European Theatre), devoted to work by young artists. The Golden Mask is completely different. Every play is a separate issue. You have to understand: you live in Europe.

So do you.

I wouldn’t say that. Russia isn’t completely European. I would describe it as half Asian, half European. It’s a mixed bag. You have Eastern influences on the one hand, and Western ones on the other. I don’t just mean theater ― I’m talking about culture in general. Russia is a jumble of cultures. History and Orthodox Christianity are two of the key factors. Catholicism and Protestantism have given Europeans a different perspective on the world and have shaped different customs. The differences between Russia and Europe are immense, and are also apparent in the economy, in politics, and morality. Take for example the issue of migrations, a salient problem in Europe at the moment, and one that the festival in Warsaw picked up on. This is a highly visible phenomenon in Moscow and Russia’s Far East, but not so much in other areas of the country.

Or take the problem posed by the European Culture Congress: how do we make everyone a part of culture? How do we evoke creativity in the audience, or even make artists of them?

These are non-issues in Russia. We are steadfast in our belief that the essence of art lies in professionalism. That is what makes it interesting.

Diversity in terms of culture and nationality carries a different meaning for Russians and Western Europeans.

Multiculturalism is becoming an enormous problem for Moscow. There are many immigrants living here, many of whom are illegal. They have no clear rights or legal status. They usually come from the poorest regions in the country, and also from former Soviet republics such as Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan – countries with dire economic situations. They live and work here, and one cannot help but notice them, and yet officially they do not exist. Left to fend for themselves, they remain in their close-knit minority and religious communities. This particularly applies to Muslims. The Moscow city government has been trying to level the access to religious facilities: there’s a mosque, and other religious communities have their own temples.

What are the perspectives for cultural integration between Moscovians and immigrants from the Caucasus?

That is a difficult, politically-charged issue. I can’t even imagine a solution. There can be no talk of building a society together if we cannot respect other cultures, if we can’t try to listen to them and understand them. Culture is like a tree, and we are its branches. We all grow out of the same, clear moral principles, and we should all stick to them. But in Moscow, the pervasive attitude is that the city has been flooded by good-for-nothing foreigners. Like every wealthy capital, the city produces very rich people and enormous funds. But that doesn’t mean it represents the true face of Russia.

So what is the true face of Russia?

Provincial Russia. That’s where you can still find sincere interpersonal relationships, a place where you can still feel the positive aura. People work hard and want to achieve results. They’re open people.

Is that where true Russian theater is?

Moscow poaches all the talent away from provincial Russia. You’ll find the same problem in every capital, but it’s all the more relevant in Russia. I recently heard someone say that theater companies that make it into the Golden Mask selection are basically doomed to lose a few of their best artists.

You‘ve recently begun inviting European theater productions to the Golden Mask. Why the change in course?

Our out of competition program “Maska Plus” showcases borderline phenomena that don’t fit into any of the other categories: plays by young directors, theater school students, and new plays and theater companies from former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, and the Baltic countries. We studied together for many years and know each other well. Culture shouldn’t have to depend on politics. Theater gives us a real opportunity to communicate. We hosted a Polish play for the first time this year, the excellent pre-premiere of Dorota Masłowska’s “Między nami dobrze jest,” directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna. Critics hailed the performance as the greatest discovery of the festival. They completely forgot about the competition selection and wrote about no one but Jarzyna. The play establishes a dialog with Poland and Polish culture, but the talent displayed by the author and director made it a painfully stirring performance for Russian audiences.

What does it mean to be avant-garde in contemporary Russian theater?

I would be hard-pressed to give you any examples. We have no such phenomena in the sense in which the term is used when describing European directors.

You stress the distinction between Europe and Russia, but you’ve nevertheless accepted an invitation to sit on the European Culture Congress Council. Does that mean you believe in the principles of the Congress?

Of course. Culture is a common concept. Governments tend to forget that creativity is what keeps it all from falling apart. Without culture, any economic, social, or personal development would be impossible. The more involved people become in different forms of culture: audio, performance, architecture, video installations, etc., the fewer problems society will have.

The Polish Presidency in the Europe Union and the fact that the Congress was conceived here, at the frontier of the continent, is relevant because it confronts the East and the West.

In Russia, the state focuses on sports and devotes minimal attention to culture.

Many directors hold positions for decades with no personal progress or development in the theater to show for it. Normal people as such cannot exist without culture and science. Even the ancient Greeks, who gave us the Olympic games, understood that harmony between the body and mind is essential. In Russia, the spirit finishes dead last. The events in Wrocław will be a valuable opportunity to discuss the relevance of culture, its degradation, and the possibilities of including others in the field of culture. Because we need to regain that harmony.

Interview by Maryla Zielińska
Translated by Arthur Barys