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  • The Theater Tsar:art and politics in occupied Crimea
  • Dimiter Kenarov (bio) and Boryana Katsarova (bio)

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Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit, at the Crimean Academic Russian Drama Theater, three days before Crimeans voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.

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“I have called you together, gentlemen, to communicate to you a most unpleasant piece of news: an Inspector is coming to visit us,” says Anton Antonovitch, the corrupt mayor in Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector, one of Russia’s most famous and beloved plays. The plot revolves around the arrival, in a provincial town, of a foppish young man who is mistaken for an important government official working undercover. On a clear March night at the Russian Drama Theater, in the Crimean capital of Simferopol, the lines have an added resonance.

“A Government Inspector, from Petersburg, incognito; and with secret orders,” says the mayor. Arrangements need to be made quickly. Two policemen in combat fatigues stand at attention nearby, ready to carry out orders.

“I imagine, Anton Antonovitch, that there is a subtle and chiefly political reason,” the judge, Ammos Fyodorovitch, ventures. “I’ll tell you what it means: Russia . . . yes . . . is meaning to go to war, and the ministers, you see, have sent an official to find out whether there is any treason here.”

There are whispers and chuckles in the audience. Gogol’s play sounds strangely familiar, as if art and life were indistinguishable from each other. Two performances seem to be taking place in parallel: one inside the theater and another one in the streets outside, where soldiers in green balaclavas and no recognizable insignia—incognito, so to speak—have just arrived.

The Crimean Academic Russian Drama Theater is an imposing, gray, neoclassical building at the intersection of Pushkin and Gorky streets, just a stone’s throw from the Crimean Parliament. It was founded nearly two centuries ago, when an ailing Moscow merchant, visiting the peninsula on the advice of his physician, decided to dispel his boredom by starting a theater company in a modest, stone barn. It soon became the center of town life. Over the years, the barn was expanded, then replaced by newer structures. Today the theater complex covers almost an entire city block. With six stages of various sizes, ballrooms with frescoed ceilings and crystal chandeliers, marble staircases, and corridors flanked by oil paintings, it could rival any royal or presidential palace—and it may as well be one, since it is ruled by the will of one man, a theater director named Anatoly Novikov.

“I like to impose myself,” Novikov says, sitting behind an enormous desk in his spacious [End Page 44] apartment-office at the theater. “You have to be on top, otherwise you’re nothing but protoplasm floating down the current.” Eighty-seven years old, dressed in a dark-green, double-breasted suit and purple necktie with a gold pin, he projects an air of elegant, incontrovertible authority. He refuses to bow even to age: His hairline may have receded, but he dyes his comb-over black, and his smile reveals a perfect set of white teeth. The hearing aid in his right ear seems to be a ruse, since he can choose to hear with or without it as he pleases.

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Anatoly Novikov, director of the Russian Drama Theater, at his office.

“Human life is just a twinkling, but theater has been around for three thousand years,” he says. “Leaders, luminaries, emperors, states—they all come and go, but the theater survives.”

If Novikov speaks with bombast about the survival of theater, it is largely because he is a survivor himself. Born in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, as a child he lived through the mass famine of the early 1930s triggered [End Page 45] by Joseph Stalin’s decision to confiscate all the grain from the countryside. He managed to survive the Second World War partly because two Nazi officers lodged in the family house and offered him and his parents a modicum of protection, as well as food.



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