THE PLAY’S THE THING
Putin Didn’t Murder the Playwrights. His Regime Broke Their Hearts.
When Mikhail Ugarov and Yelina Gremina died only 45 days apart after producing a play about Sergei Magnitsky, conspiracy theories were rife. But the truth is simpler, and sadder.
MOSCOW—Mikhail Ugarov and Yelina Gremina, husband and wife, created the only independent documentary theater company in Moscow. Teatr.doc took on contemporary Russia and its most acute issues with anthropological rigor. Every performance gave clear evidence, hard proof of injustice.
There is a sort of bitter irony in the narrative that developed about the couple’s passing, as people on the other side of the world tried to fit them into a narrative of mysterious deaths that might be linked to vindictive conspiracies by the Kremlin. But that simply was not the case. The couple’s love for the theater and for each other was bigger than life, and they died within less than two months of each other, not least, because their hearts were broken.
Ugarov died age 62 on April Fool’s Day this year. People who loved him complained that it was a poor joke. Gremina passed away on Wednesday. In the past year she was seriously ill and rarely left the house, and everybody who knew her understood that she could not live long without her Ugarov. To those who loved them it felt “as if they disappeared under water, while still hugging,” culture and art observer Ksenia Larina wrote on her blog.
To be sure, Gremina’s play “One Hour Eighteen” was not to the Kremlin’s liking. It documented the death of anti-corruption lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, whose name has been given to laws the world over punishing Russia for human rights abuses.
“Our theater is about true details and not about conspiracy. Both Yelena Anatolyevna [Gremina] and Mikhail Yuryevich [Ugarov] were very serious about honesty,” Zarema Zaudinova, Ugarov’s assistant and one of Teatr.doc’s young directors, told The Daily Beast on Friday. Gremina showed the human indifference around the death of a prisoner suffering agonizing pain, and it is classic Teatr.doc: the viewer is given a chance to see a well-verified drama—the nurse, who is standing by the door to the cell, not doing anything, while security officers are inside the cell with Magnitsky during the last minutes of his life.
Gremina wrote and Ugarov staged the play in 2010, soon after the 37-year-old Magnistky died in prison begging his guards for a glass of water and being ignored. Together the couple created a piece of art that hits you over the head with a simple idea: a young lawyer jailed with pancreatitis asks the state machine to give him medicine, to obey the rules of the judicial system, but everybody around the lawyer made a decision not to help him.
“Our theater is about true details and not about conspiracy. Both Yelena Anatolyevna [Gremina] and Mikhail Yuryevich [Ugarov] were very serious about honesty,” Zarema Zaudinova, Ugarov’s assistant and one of Teatr.doc’s young directors, told The Daily Beast on Friday.
Zaudinova, like many others in Teatr.doc’s troupe, was upset about the miasma of conspiracy and gossip that floated around the deaths of their beloved directors.
Naturally, many wondered why two directors who created a theater criticizing the Russian government died just 45 days apart. But the story was as straightforward as it was sad. In December 2016 Gremina fell and broke her leg. Over the past year she rarely left her apartment. On Wednesday, Gremina passed away in a Moscow hospital.
The couple’s colleagues at Teatr.doc and their family members do not share any conspiracy theories about the causes of death. “Nobody murdered them, we know how they died,” the couple’s close friend Zoya Svetova, a prominent human rights defender, told The Daily Beast.
Over the past two decades Gremina and Ugarov gave life to what’s called the New Drama movement. Today it involves thousands of young authors, a generation of free-thinking independent documentary playwrights and theater directors. Many of their students later produced plays on big Moscow stages, including The Moscow Art Theater, where Russia’s theatrical great Oleg Tabakov embraced everything brave and honest. Tabakov passed away in March.
Teatr.doc is an orphan now, but not a helpless orphan. On Wednesday afternoon, a few hours after the news of Gremina’s death, the company held an emergency meeting under a blooming chestnut tree outside Teatr.doc’s doors. They decided to work as a team to find a new home for the theater, moving out of the apartment building where they are based now ,and where neighbors often complain about crowds of spectators.
Teatr.doc is a noisy place. After almost every performance spectators have long and emotional discussions.
Gremina and Ugarov left an important legacy in Russia: their theater is a home for people who are serious about justice. “Most of our plays tell true-life stories about the state’s crude intervention in a person’s life,” Zaudinova said. “I personally blame the state for Gremina’s and Ugarov’s deaths, because our directors’ health failed as a result of the state constantly crushing the tiny personal freedom of expression in Russia. But there are lots and lots of us, their students and followers, we are a huge company. We are not going to allow the thugs to touch our theater.”
Ugarov and Gremina were fearless optimists. It seemed that nothing could ever stop them from teaching, writing, directing, discussing new documentary drama. They taught fun, exciting, interesting drama courses. Their students loved them.
A few years ago Ugarov told The Daily Beast that no censor could ever stop all the young, talented Russian artists. “People won’t stop creating free art—efforts at ideological bans are just as useless as somebody’s desire to ban Putin,” Ugarov said.
Today, people take inspiration from such words. “The theater should have autonomy from the state, that is Konstantin Stanislavsky’s legacy,” Anatoly Smeliansky, Russia’s leading theater scholar and critic told The Daily Beast.
In December 2014 police stormed Teatr.doc, interrupting the screening of a film about the pro-European revolution in Kiev. After the raid, the state pushed the theater out of the small basement where it operated. Gremina and Ugarov had a tough time, but they managed to find a new place, a new stage.
“That move ruined his health, I am not sure he would survive another move,” Gremina told me back then about her husband’s suffering. A year later in 2015 Gremina and Ugarov were evicted again.
Such dislocations had become, for better or worse, part of Teatr.doc’s lore.
In 2002 Ugarov wrote and staged a play after Oblomov, a famous novel by Ivan Goncharov. He called his play “Oblom off, or The Death of Ilya Ilyich.” It made big news in Moscow’s theatrical world and marked the beginning of the wave of New Drama political authors.
“Ugarov, just like the character in his play, died because he could not exist in a black and white world, where the state cuts all the oxygen for individuals, for critical opinions, for any independent movement,” Zaudinova explained.
In the early years Teatr.doc’s stage was built from plywood found in the garbage. There were no advertisements—only announcements on the internet. But every time Teatr.doc opened its doors, it was packed immediately with spectators. For years crowds have been pouring into the theater where they could hear edgy jokes and, cramped as it was, they could breathe freedom.
Just a few days ago Teatr.doc was packed again with spectators, some young and some silver-haired. Moscow’s Helsinki Group for human rights awarded a prize to Yuriy Dmitriev of the human rights group Memorial—an innocent man who was recently released from jail.
“Our Teatr.doc is like a bamboo tree. It grows in stages, in segments, depending on what is happening in Russia,” says Mikhail Durnenkov, a well-known theater director and a long-time friend of Gramina and Ugarov. “So in the last two to three years the theater produced plays talking of human rights violations, it is a political theater. Every time the theater company was evicted it had to find a new space, but it was growing. Now Teatr.doc has two stages for more than 100 spectators.”
For the last five years Durnenkov has been directing the Lyubimovka Festival, inspired by Gremina’s and Ugarov’s concept of dramatic readings. Every year playwrights from all over Russia send their plays to participate.
Last September, Lyubimovka received more than 600 dramas for its competition, and the winners of the contest have a chance to stage their plays at Teatr.doc.
“The festival and what we later see at Teatr.doc is like ideal television, where the dramas tell you the truth about what is actually happening in Russia,” Durnenkov said. “We are many. We will protect and support the movement inspired by Gremina and Ugarov—it is immense, and it is especially heating up now, when Russia fights wars, beats protesters, and locks up and tortures people in its jails.”