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3 Censorship and Repertoire 88 The hand of the state, in the guise of censorship, weighed heavily on the arts in Russia, and most heavily on popular theater. Art and politics were closely linked in the minds of tsarist officials, who as a result were suspicious of any initiative to bring secular art to the masses. If theater might combat drunkenness and civilize the common people, might it not also expose them to dangerous notions with unpredictable consequences? Although all writing was subject to preliminary censorship before publication or performance, only works destined for the popular stage had to undergo special scrutiny to determine whether they were suitable for popular audiences. Like the proponents of the people’s theater, the state was convinced that the common people were especially susceptible to visual impressions, and it took extra care to control the content of what they saw in the theater. The state’s anxiety about the theater’s potentially subversive impact on the common people was a major factor in its resistance before the 1880s to calls to lift the monopoly of imperial theaters.1 After the monopoly was lifted in 1882, the state was faced with the problem of regulating the repertoires of the people’s theaters that began to appear: the Skomorokh Theater (Moscow, 1882), the theater of the Nevskii Society for the Organization of Popular Recreations (St. Petersburg, 1885), the Vasilevskii Island Theater for Workers (St. Petersburg, 1887). Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the procurator of the Holy Synod and a notorious reactionary who was one of Alexander III’s chief advisers, sounded the alarm. In 1887 he warned Minister of Internal Affairs Dmitrii Tolstoi that the Skomorokh was “catering to the bad taste and sensual instincts of the crowd and thus having a harmful influence on the morals of the poor” and was even intending to stage Leo Tolstoy’s controversial drama The Power of Darkness.2 Tolstoi drew up a plan for a special censorship policy applying to works performed on the popular stage, which he submitted to Alexander III in early 1888. Noting with trepidation the recent proliferation of popular theaters , he echoed Pobedonostsev’s claim that they were staging plays that had the potential to corrupt the common people. Although the censors had already approved the performance of most of the plays in question, the minister now questioned whether they were suitable for mass consumption: In examining plays the censor has in view the more or less educated public that attends theater performances, but not exclusively any one social class. Due to his level of mental development, his outlooks and conceptions, the common man will often interpret in an utterly wrong sense something that would present no temptation for a somewhat educated person, and thus a play containing nothing blameworthy from a general point of view may be unsuitable and even harmful for him. Since the theater unquestionably has an important educational significance , it would seem necessary to ensure that the people receive from it sober and beneficial impressions and nothing that would promote their moral corruption.3 In other words, what was good for educated society was not necessarily good for the people, and it was the state’s duty to protect them from a diet they were not equipped to digest. Theater censorship would have to be adjusted to take account of the cultural and educational differences separating the educated public from the narod. Tolstoi proposed the enactment of a “temporary measure” requiring theaters attended mainly by the common people to perform only plays that had been specifically approved for popular audiences, regardless of whether the work had already been approved for other theaters. He noted that the new policy would be difficult to enforce, however, because theater owners could potentially avoid the restrictions on popular repertoire “by not calling their theaters ‘popular’ [narodnyi] and by establishing them as if on a general basis.” Moscow’s Skomorokh Theater, for instance, was oriented to popular audiences but bore the designation “accessible” (obshchedostupnyi) rather than “popular.”To ensure against circumvention of the popular theater censorship , Tolstoi suggested that seat prices be considered in determining whether to classify a theater as “popular” and thereby subject to special restrictions on its repertoire, leaving it up to local officials to determine whether prices were low enough to make a theater “popular.”4 He drew no distinction between purely commercial popular theaters and the didactic people’s theaters; from the state’s perspective, the issue was the nature of the audience...


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