“Stalin died but not completely”: Dialogue with Artur Solomonov*

Yana Meerzon**

On February 24, 2022, the world woke up to a new reality: the Russian invasion of the Ukraine broke the fragile stability of Europe, if not of the rest of the world. The attacks brought up the memories and the stories of WWII and created associations with the military assaults of Nazi Germany. Many citizens of Russia, both within the country and abroad, found themselves facing moral and ethical choices. In the country, many of those who used to oppose the regime before the war continued to do so. They took to the streets to protest, signed petitions against the war and denounced the actions of the Russian government on their social media. The regime responded immediately: with numerous arrests of private citizens and shutting down all independent media (including the journal Teatr).

On March 22, 2022, the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation passed a series of amendments to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation and to the Code of Administrative Offenses, which now presupposed “administrative and criminal liability for the dissemination of fakes about the actions of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.”[1] Substantial fines, criminal charges and imprisonment up to 15 years were listed as potential repercussions to any Russian citizen who would doubt the regime and its military actions.

The war which was begun by Putin brought devastation for Ukraine and its people, but it also wreaked havoc on Russia: its economy, its culture, its independent thinkers and its image in the world. Many Russian artists and intellectuals, who condemned the regime, stepped down from their positions, like Elena Kovalskaya, director of the state-owned Meyerhold Theatre Center (TSIM), Moscow, who announced on her Facebook page on February 24 that she would be resigning immediately because it had become “impossible to work for a murderer and receive salary from him.” Some fled the country.[2]

Some theatre companies—like Teatr.Doc, one of the oldest independent theatre organizations in the post-Soviet Russia—remained open. Unlike many other theatre enterprises today, which openly support the invasion and display the war symbols on their facades, Teatr.Doc continues with its practice of political resistance. What started in the early 2000s as a theatre company fighting social and political injustice, today has turned into a place for solidarity and anti-war effort. In this context, a decision of Teatr.Doc to go on with the opening of Artur Solomonov’s play How We Buried Joseph Stalin, a witty satire about the dark legacy of Stalinism, which still marks the collective psyche of many Russians, must be understood as a symbolic gesture of resistance to the invasion and a token of the artists’ fight for justice. 

Poster for the play How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov

The following is a dialogue between Artur Solomonov and me, which took place in April 2022. We prepared this dialogue in the time when many intellectuals, artists and public organizations worldwide have been calling to sever ties with the Russian culture and Russian artists, specifically those who still work for the regime.

The decision to continue with this interview and its publication reflects our personal need to protest the invasion and to stand in solidarity with Ukraine. Both Artur Solomonov, who after February 24 decided to remain in Jerusalem for good, and I, who has been living and working in Canada for the past 25 years, condemn the actions of the Russian government. But we strongly believe that it is the responsibility of artists and intellectuals to continue investigating (artistically and otherwise) the roots of this aggression. It is important to study Russian culture and its attempts at resistance, so to better understand how hostility to the world, isolationism and nationalistic aspirations are deeply ingrained in the collective psyche of the Russian society; the society that for generations has been living in the shadow of the tyrant, the society that has not atoned for this tyrant and his regime’s crimes, the society that has internalized the fear of the regime to the point of  oblivion, incomprehension and inability to resist it. 

Solomonov’s play How We Buried Joseph Stalin is exactly about this: using irony and satire, it speaks of how we make moral, ethical and political decisions, and how these decisions cause each of us be personally responsible for what we allow the tyrant to get away with.  

How We Buried Josef Stalin, official trailer of recording of a play by Artur Solomonov, translated by John J. Hanlon, directed by Mary Ann Rodgers. Created with actors in the San Francisco Bay Area, Winter 2021

Artur: These past few days, I have been having the hardest conversations of my life with my Ukrainian friends. Some friends from Kharkiv tell me that there are no more houses, squares or playgrounds left . . . Another friend from Kiev tells me that she almost lost her mind because of the air-raid sirens, the need to suddenly run to the bomb shelter, the feeling of her life under threat 24/7 . . . She eventually left Ukraine, although she has never imagined such a thing before . . . And the only thing Ukrainians wanted was to be able to shape their own country themselves! Whereas the Russian TV continues telling us that Russia wanted to save them, that this “military operation” is based on our love for the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. This goddamn Russian “love” for other people! It’ll be the funeral pyre of Russia and its neighbours!  

When the war started, I was in a rich, bourgeois Moscow. The nightmarish news of the outbreak of hostilities did not change much in the capital, although already on the first day of the war there was this feeling deep down, not so much of fear, but that things will never be the same, the situation will surely get worse.

It just so happened that the beginning of this war coincided with the opening of my play How We Buried Joseph Stalin at Teatr.Doc. In those first days of the war, I was in touch only with the actors, the director and theatre management. So, I can speak only to the reaction of my friends and colleagues. Everyone was shocked, depressed and confused; it was really unclear for us whether we had any moral right to continue working on the play. On the other hand, we asked ourselves, would it be a capitulation to cancel the opening of the play, a play about the origins of totalitarianism and the impossibility to cast it out?

And so, we decided to run it. By 8 o’clock on the opening night the audience began to arrive; it was the most unhappy and confused auditorium I had ever seen. Many spectators told me that they could barely get out of bed and force themselves to go to the theatre. Many of them called to apologize—they didn’t have the energy to leave their houses. The conversations in the foyer were all about the war, with many people feeling ashamed and tormented by the guilt and their own powerlessness. And, of course, everybody felt this implausible and “bloody” coincidence: to open a play about the revival of Stalinism at such a moment and in the country that had just begun a new invasion.

When the performance was over, many friends told us that they were in shock when they heard these lines spoken on stage: “The state needs corpses! It needs dead people! A man is nothing, the state is everything!” When we started the rehearsals, I could not think of these words as the most significant in the script; but life itself has reset the emphases.

After I got home, I turned on the official TV, where the commentators relished in talking about the “Ukrainian Nazis” and “the victory of the Russian arms”—I turned it off because it felt so wrong, as if I was suddenly transported to 1941, to watch the news about the Stalin’s Russia and its fight against the Nazi Germany . . .

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, Moscow, Teatr.Doc. Photo: Artur Solomonov

Yana: I think it is time to reveal the secret: your play is not really about Stalin and his time; it is about the legacy of fear that he and his regime left. How We Buried Joseph Stalin is a meta-theatrical, playful and very dark farce about a contemporary Russian theatre company which is trying to put on a play about Stalin. The action takes place in a rehearsal hall of this company, with its major character, the artistic director of this troupe (Voldemar Arkadievich), slowly and steadily turning into Stalin. By the end of the play, reality and fiction are blurred, and it seems that neither the director nor his company realizes that the game is over, his costume has turned into his skin, the mask has become his substance. There is no space for laughter: the horror of this transformation is the horror of the current war because we know what actions this newly reborn Stalin will take and who his next victim will be.    

If one were to imagine Stalin suddenly rising from the dead and running for the office, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. The fact that such fantasy is possible at all is testimony that in Russia Stalin is immortal. This tyrant, even when he seems to be dead, is not dead, at least not completely dead. That is why this play is not so much about Stalin himself, it is about Stalinism, which has engulfed our country for a century. Stalin has been dead for more than half a century, but he still casts a shadow on the country, on its governing structures and on all of us, who either want to fight Stalinism or to worship it.

The situation is exceptional. What country can be compared to this? Where else does a dead man wield such influence? His name is brought up in private conversions and political debates, it is the subject of fierce debates in the State Duma but also around kitchen-tables and at gatherings. Who among the dead can incite such hatred and such blinding and all-forgiving love? And so, everyone who writes or thinks about Stalin now, writes and thinks about Russia today. That is why the genre of my play is a tragifarce and its subtitle is “A play about flexibility and immortality.” Our flexibility allows Stalin to remain immortal. The play illustrates the gradual penetration of the “virus of Stalinism” into modern man, to the point when the actors who play political figures—including Stalin, Beria and Khrushchev—turn into them. The actors transform into these monsters with excitement and admiration.

The main reason for the current, and perhaps even eternal, adulation of Stalin in my country is that he provided a final and terrifying solution to the question: who is more important in Russia—the man or the state? Stalin had introduced criminal arithmetic into our consciousness: on the one hand, millions of innocent people were murdered, turned into slaves and subjected to violence and humiliation. On the other hand, he had created an industrial giant of a country, won the great war and turned this country into a superpower. This is a devilish dilemma, and its creator is becoming more and more relevant. 

These past few years of my life in Russia, I’ve had a feeling that I was living inside a surrealist film. Logic and reason have steadily headed to obsolescence, and now they were done away with for lack of use. That is why Russian TV viewers see no contradiction in the fact that the head of the so-called “Nazi Ukraine” is a Jew, that our government is on the offensive for the sake of defense, is making war for the sake of peace, is wreaking havoc to bring happiness. They don’t see a problem in the fact that the slogan “No to War” is considered extremist in today’s Russia. Russia remains this super empire, extremely capacious when it comes to ideology and, therefore, infinitely contradictory.

In today’s Russia, all its past is being idealized: tsarist and Soviet, ancient Russian and recent, Orthodox and atheist, the ideologists of modern Russia see it as an embodiment of all historical aspirations, stages and symbols. In this confused past, they fuse Stalin and Nicholas II, Lenin and Catherine the Great, Tsars and their assassins, the so-called Holy Russia and those who destroyed it.

This merging of myths and symbols does not help with our collective imagination and mental health. And as for communism, of course no one advocates for its ideas anymore—the “Communist Party” is now part of the big fake. What remains of the communist past is only the ideals of a super-state and the mythological unity of the people, the brotherhood of nations. A significant part of the Russian population, egged on and manipulated by propaganda, has spent the last twenty years feeling nostalgic for the past and wishing it back. This is both comical and tragic because even some of young people wanted to go back to a time that they never knew.

Today, we see a terrible result of this collective nostalgia in the war in Ukraine; it stems from the collective confusion about our object of desire, we are nostalgic for both the atheistic USSR and the Holy Russia at the same time. All this speaks to the fact that Stalinism is an extremely urgent problem for modern Russia, that Stalin has still not been put to rest properly.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov

In your play irony plays a leading role. You don’t seem to use any didactic hues. Do you seriously believe laughter is the language to fight this propaganda, to bring those 75–80% of the Russian population who support the invasion to their senses?  

Laughter indeed plays a defining role in my play. I wanted my readers or spectators to be amused and horrified at the same time and every minute of the show. I believe laughter may be the only weapon with which to fight the resurgent Stalinism. After all, it is no coincidence that the film/comedy “Death of Stalin” is banned in Russia. A tyrant cannot be ridiculous. And he must not die. One of the main reasons this film was banned in Russia was the irrational unwillingness of our authorities to be reminded of their own mortality. Or of the death of their illustrious predecessor, for that matter.

For the same reason, I strongly believe, theatre—its rehearsal hall—is the ideal space and metaphor to place the action of this play. Theatre is well suited to show how Stalinism takes over people, how much pleasure people derive from idolatry and then from becoming its victims, all the while continuing to rejoice in the presence of their idol.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov

In this play, theatre (a traditional directorial type of theatre) is a metaphor of state power. In theatre, actors are willing to give up their freedom, to hand it over to the director and to offer up their body and soul for experimentation. Such is the profession of the actor. The relationship between the director and the company is similar to that between the people and their dictator. Besides, in a theatre space (not only during performances and rehearsals but also in theatre as an institution) everything that happens has a tinge of unreal, or, if I may say so, “surreal.” Lately I’ve been getting the same feeling of the surreal not only in the theatre but also in our life in general. If our reality has an author, he spirits it away to the grotesque, if not the absurd. And for the past two months, into a bloody grotesque and absurd.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Marat Myllyev

The play was first produced in Chelyabinsk in February 2021, and now it opened in Moscow. What criticism and reactions did it receive?   

In Russia, everything is based on paradox: when the play was produced in Chelyabinsk, in the dead of winter of 2021, the pro-Stalin activists staged a protest. As I approached Chelyabinsk’s Chamber Theatre on the opening night, everything was covered in snow. It was freezing cold, the Ural type February, and I saw people freezing at the entrance of the theatre. They stood there with posters which read “Hands off Stalin.” I thought this was a clever performance action organized by the theatre company to bring attention to their work, so I was very pleased to see how witty and well organized the outreach of the Chelyabinsk Chamber Theatre was. Imagine my surprise, disgust and devastation when I learned that the freezing people in front of the theatre were not performance activists or PR people. They were very real supporters of Stalin who came on their own accord to protest against the play. These activists were the representatives of the party “Communists of Russia.” Stalin was their idol; and so, in their opinion, everyone was supposed to feel reverence and gratitude for him.

A protester with a poster Hands off Stalin stands outside the Chelyabinsk Chamber Theatre, at the opening night of the play. Photo: Marat Mulliev.

These are not the feelings that tens of millions of people in Russia have for Stalin. Stalin’s admirers will have to take this into account, although it is still hard to believe that I must speak these words today, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. On the other hand, this rise of the far right and orthodoxy in Russia can be understood within the recent ideological context and the atmosphere of cultural mirages and lies in which Russian citizens have been living for years now. For example, the religious revival of Russia, about which so much is said at the official level, is a fiction, a big idea that has no foothold. I would not call Russia an Orthodox Christian country: it is that in the name only. Most of the people who call themselves Orthodox Christian go to church only on major holidays, know nothing about the history of the Russian Church, much less history of religion, and at best can come up with a few imprecise quotes from the New Testament. The desire to call themselves “Orthodox” is an attempt to mark their belonging to a particular history and culture, to create a code common to all. Since the Orthodox Church supports absolutely all the state initiatives, it is perceived by progressive intelligentsia as a branch of the Kremlin. That, of course, affects its authority.

But let’s return to the incidents in Chelyabinsk. After the local communists staged this political protest on the opening night, they took up theatre criticism and started writing scathing reviews of the play on the website of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). The articles were called “The Outrageous Opus of Losers” and some other names, no less condescending and Soviet-like. In response, some other vigilant citizens, not really members of CPRF, wrote complaints to the FSB, the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Presidential Administration of Russian Federation. They accused me and the theatre of distortion of historical truth, of attacking the authority of the government, and they called the play “an enemy political act.” But I truly think that this display of Stalinism and Stalinists protesting Stalin’s funeral in 2021 is a magnificent addition to the play. Art, it seems to me, should be proud of this response to reality, for which I congratulate the Chamber Theatre.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov

I did not write about some historical, unfamiliar, Stalin: I was not around in his times, I am not a historian or a biographer. The subject of my interest is the hear and now. This play and performance are about the modern version of Stalinism, about our awe before those in power, big and small, living and dead. Judging by the reaction of the Chelyabinsk’s audiences, people are ready and willing to treat those in power and their own fear of them with irony. The Chelyabinsk show, among other things, demonstrated that people had accumulated enough irony to the state’s power and its symbols. The production distilled this irony and gave it an outlet. Simply banning artistic statements of this kind is ineffective: the irony and skepticism will not vanish; they will only become more potent. Or perhaps even transform into something more aggressive.

But how do you think this irony works?

At first, there is a kind of shock in the audience, a kind of numbness: can we really do this? Can we really speak onstage, in a public space, about the current and deceased rulers (or, as in the case of Stalin, not quite dead)? And then the audience begins to laugh nonstop, both at their own initial fear and at the trepidation of the play’s characters. Sitting in the theatre auditorium, one cannot help but wonder whether this notorious “firm hand,” this mythical love for the tsar of the Russian people, is really such an essential, such a genuine part of our collective psyche. Or are we forced to feel this awe for anyone who sits in the boss’s chair, be it a throne or a tiny little local seat of power chair? And perhaps this reverence is not something endemic or primal, it is not part of our nature, and so we are not obliged to have this feeling for centuries? We never did try to live without a “firm hand”—a short period at the end of the last century passed almost without a trace, and now we are essentially back to monarchy. So, it seems to me that this play is not only a fully-fledged artefact but also—excuse my pathos—a civic act of theatre—and our theatres very rarely dare to do that, to be honest. And I’m very grateful for this to the theatre’s head director and director of production, Viktoria Meshchaninova.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov
How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov

I listened with great interest to audience feedback in public discussions and read them on social media. Many spectators said: “It’s just like us!” “Just like in our department,” “Just like in our newspaper,” “Just like in our theatre” . . .  Because the figure of the Boss is the same everywhere. In Russia at least, the Boss tends to regard himself as the total master of his inferiors: of their time, of their moods and, ultimately, of their destiny. Be it the boss of a restaurant, a theatre or a country. I am glad that the Chelyabinsk theatre fearlessly showed the disease of Stalinism, which affects all communities, large and small, and which creates little Stalinists all over the country—at gas stations, in furniture stores and sewing factories.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, in Chelyabinsk. Photo: Artur Solomonov

Exactly one year has passed since the play’s first opening in Chelyabinsk. By some mystical coincidence, the opening night in Moscow took place on the same day as in Chelyabinsk, but one year later: February 27, 2022. The Moscow audience did not want to leave theatre. People discussed what they saw, thanked the actors, many said that the performance gave them hope and now they had the strength to go on living.

How We Buried Joseph Stalin, Moscow, Teatr.Doc. Photo: Artur Solomonov

Of course, to run this play in today’s Moscow was an act of civic courage, and I admire Teatr.Doc and its actors for taking on this text. This company has a history of being a victim of political attacks. It produces politically urgent performances, which are often disrupted by the representatives of different “patriotic” organizations, who commit various acts of vandalism. For example, these patriots can throw faeces in the hall, they can verbally and physically abuse spectators and they can be aggressive towards the actors; so, for people to go and see a performance at Teatr.Doc is also an act of courage.

I think the reason these people decided to see my play is because, nowadays, there is nothing left in Russia except art and the power of the state. Courts, the press, public organizations, political parties, the Parliament—everything is fiction. But power, on the other hand, is more than real; it is frighteningly real. And so is art. That is why, in Russia, people often see arts and, specifically, theatre as a catalyst of great upheavals. Often, they hope that theatre arts can help them better understand what is really going on in the country, what is good and evil. For this reason, Russian theatre and art still hold this special role or even mission in the peoples’ psyche. It is dangerous to make political art in Russia, unless, of course, you make a special pact with the authorities, but there is a feeling that your work can make a real difference.  

We are working on this dialogue when many artists and intellectuals in the West, as well as funding bodies, refuse to collaborate with the Russian artists and organizations. They question this messianic purpose of the Russian literature and arts, they often blame Russian culture and cultural workers for not being able to stop the new imperialism, this war and the current authorities. What is your position on this situation?    

Yes, I do hear that this tour of a Russian theatre or orchestra was canceled, Chekhov was taken off the repertoire, Tchaikovsky is no longer played, and many of our cultural icons frown back. I don’t think now is the time to take offense at such actions—Chekhov and Tchaikovsky aren’t going to lose anything, and time will pass, and those names will return to our posters, theatres and concert halls. And we won’t miss out either—because we ourselves have not been able to prevent the catastrophe with our own cultural influence, and now that it is happening, we certainly do not need to speak out about our oppression. If we don’t all burn in this nightmare that was brought about by delusion, by fakes, by mania, by fighting ghosts, then the post-war period, which will clearly be very hard, could be a chance for Russia to realize itself in a new capacity. To stop idealizing them, to stop trying to find geopolitical excuses for violence and blood, to stop creating heroes out of executioners. To come to our senses, to become normal again, to stop torturing neighboring countries and peoples with our “love.” To recognize ourselves within our own borders, both physical and metaphysical.

On the contrary, I was both surprised and taken aback by the attention of many Western theatres and performers to my work: although when you realize that the disease you have diagnosed in your play is international and ubiquitous, it makes you happy as an author but sad as a human being. I listened with interest to an interview with the wonderful translator John J. Hanlon and the director of the online play How We Buried Joseph Stalin, Mary Ann Rogers, about how frighteningly relevant the concept of fear has become in the United States over these past few years, and how tangibly divided the society has become because of Trump. And that the “witch hunt” is no longer something abstract and distant for the Americans.

I don’t know how widespread these ideas are in the United States today, but I understand that the play raises issues close to many countries, in which nationalism, xenophobia and the far-right are rising. I understand, of course, that no theatre company in the West—from Poland to Canada—would produce a historical play about Russia, unless they recognize the evils of totalitarianism, which my play points at, as their own, common to their own moment in history.

NOTE: Edited by Yana Meerzon and translated by Dmitri Priven


Endnotes

[1] Amendments on liability for fakes about the work of state bodies of the Russian Federation abroad have been adopted, THE STATE DUMA, March 22, 2022.

[2] More on this context see: 2022 Anti-war Protests in Russia.


*Artur Solomonov is a theatre critic, political and cultural journalist, and writer. He was born in Russia’s Far East, in the city of Khabarovsk. His mother was a musicologist and his father an ethnographer, a specialist of Nivkh and Nanai languages and cultures, with more than nine books dedicated to these indigenous peoples. His grandfather, Alexey Slavinsky, was a published poet and died in WWII at the age of 28. Solomonov came to playwriting after a career as a theatre critic, an editor of the culture section of the opposition magazine The New Times, and one of the artistic producers for the TV channel Kultura. In 2011, he went to India, where he began writing his novel A Theater Story, which by now have had five reprints and in 2015 it was adapted for the sage. In 2016 he wrote the play “Grace”, which was staged in Moscow, Tatarstan, and in London at the International Biennale of Contemporary Dramaturgy. There it won a prize in the category “A play on a socio-political theme.” In 2019, he wrote the tragifarce How We Buried Josef Stalin, which was translated into English, German, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Hebrew. The play was published first in the journal Dialog (Warsaw), and in 2021, in Russian, English and German by the Austrian publishing house Danzig & unfried. It received several stage-readings in English, including a Zoom staging by the Ross Valley Theatre in the U.S.A.. In Russia, it was produced in Chelyabinsk by the Chelyabinsk Chamber Theater (2021) and in Moscow by Teatr.Doc (2022). Сейчас готовится спектакль в Грузии, в Тбилиси.

**Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa and President of Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Trained as a professional theatre critic in Moscow, Russia (GITIS), she also holds a PHD from University of Toronto, Canada. Yana is the author of three books, with the latest volume Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism published by Palgrave in August 2020. She co-edited seven collections of articles, including Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with David Dean and Daniel McNeil (Palgrave 2020). Her current research project is entitled “Between Migration and Neo-Nationalism(s): Performing the European Nation—Playing a Foreigner,” and it has been funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Yana is the editor of the Essays Section of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.

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