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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lyubimov's Political Drama

Yury Lyubimov knows what it is like to have to defend his theater. When he took over the Theater of Drama and Comedy on Taganka Square in 1964, he quickly found himself in the eye of a storm. His productions breathed too freely and smacked too plainly of the truth to satisfy the ideologues whose job it was to keep art properly clipped for mass consumption.


Until he was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1984, while mounting a production of "Crime and Punishment" in London, Lyubimov waged one of the most publicized and celebrated struggles for artistic autonomy of the Soviet period.


But now that his old nemesis, the Communist Party, has been dethroned, the Taganka is once again embroiled in a vicious battle for survival. The difference is that now, the opposition is led from within, and ironically Lyubimov is looking to the government for help.


"I think the president and the administration will take measures to preserve the theater", Lyubimov says in a calm and mesmerizing voice which he punctuates by tapping rhythmically on a small table in front of him. He indicated that Yeltsin has repeatedly voiced support for Lyubimov's side in the present dispute, although he regretted that "no one is taking action".


Referring to the City Council deputies who have backed the efforts by a group of Taganka actors to acquire control of the theater's largest stage, Lyubimov adds: "These deputies think they are the chief power in this country. But all they have done is discredit the concept of democracy".


The opposition is led by Nikolai Gubenko, whom Lyubimov casually refers to as a "bandit". Gubenko was a leading actor at the Taganka until 1968, when he was fired for failing to report at the beginning of the season. The two men patched up their differences in 1980, when Lyubimov invited him to star in "Boris Godunov", a project that was subsequently banned by the Culture Ministry. As Mikhail Gorbachev's culture minister, Gubenko engineered the director's return from exile in 1988. Lyubimov dismisses Gubenko's claim that he abandoned the actors who helped him acquire fame. He points out that since he was reinstated as the Taganka's artistic director in 1989, many of his productions, old and new, have toured the world to the praise of critics and audiences alike. He also denies that he has tried to stop his opponents from mounting their own productions.


"The mayor gave them their choice of three venues in the center of Moscow", he said, referring to Mayor Yury Luzhkov's offer to turn over to Gubenko either the Ukraina, the Kazakhstan or the Praga cinema. "But what they want is to destroy the Taganka. and then they'll all cry crocodile tears when I die".


His opponents do not understand that a theater belongs to its director, he says.


"A theater is created by someone and when that person goes, the theater goes with him", he said. "Sure, the physical plant and the people in it carry on under the same name in honor of past glory. But at that point, it becomes something different altogether".


One of the Soviet Union's best and most beloved actors during the late years of the Stalin era, the director is appalled but not surprised by the recent turn of events. He insists that the forces trying to divide his theater today are the same ones he battled in the past.


Born just two months before the October Revolution in 1917, Lyubimov characterized the current political situation as "the second October Revolution". and he lashed out at the inability of today's politicians to take effective action.


"They missed their chance when they didn't condemn the Communist Party in court", he said. "They missed their chance when they didn't take immediate advantage of the referendum. They missed their chance when they didn't convict those responsible for the May 1 events".


He sees the current dispute as a litmus test for the future. Belittling the recent decision of a municipal arbitration court to uphold Gubenko's claim to the Taganka's biggest stage, Lyubimov said he hopes to remove the theater from the jurisdiction of the city and put it under the control of the federal authorities. He will appeal the case in an all-Russian arbitration court.


If that action fails, Lyubimov says he will break with Moscow entirely.


"I have several contracts and offers for production in the West", he said. "I will not be without work".