Russia Bids Farewell to Oleg Tabakov, a Theatrical Great

President Putin attended Oleg Tabakov's funeral, a recognition of the stature of one of Russian culture's most important figures whose spirit of rebellion infused his work.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/REUTERS/Vladimir Rodionov

MOSCOW–One of Oleg Tabakov's rules of life was: “Do not be afraid to seem stupid, funny or ridiculous.”

On Monday, Tabakov, a towering figure in Russia's cultural life, died at age 82 in a hospital in Moscow after several weeks of induced coma.

Tabakov, artistic director of The Moscow Art Theatre, played more than one hundred leading rolls in movies and theater productions, developed several theaters, and taught dozens of famous Russian actors.

He spent countless years acting and directing; international movie lovers knew him for his title role in Oblomov (1980) and Russian theater and cinema audiences adored him for dozens of comedian roles, including for voicing of Matroskin the cat in a popular Soviet cartoon.

Several generations of Russians remember the cat's voice and the quote mocking bureaucracy: "My mustache, my paws and my tail are my documents," he purred.

In Chekhov’s times, the Moscow Art Theatre, co-founded in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavski and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, rebelled against false pathos and affectionate declamation; after decades of the Cold War, Tabakov brought the school and its spirit of challenging authority to America.

In 1989, he taught the Stanislavski method at the Trinity School on New York City's Upper West Side.

The blue-eyed, spry director, dressed in casual sandals, jeans and a T-shirt, whispered, danced, performed, provoked and hugged his students, to show, rather than explain, why nearly a century after Anton Chekhov and Stanislavski’s deaths, the theatrical world was still interested in their heritage.

In 1992, Tabakov founded the Stanislavski summer school in Cambridge, Mass. and later annual exchange programs with American and European colleges, to share the method’s liberating spirit with thousands of international and Russian drama students.

Rebellious when it came to discovering new drama, Tabakov brought brave plays and talented actors from Russian basement theaters onto the country’s main stage. Under Tabakov’s 18-year-long, brilliant management, the Moscow Art Theatre was always packed – every night thousands of spectators could see both classical and brave modern productions on its three stages.

Today, Russia’s most internationally recognized drama theater faces big questions: how to protect Tabakov’s heritage and not let the theater’s free spirit disappear?

“Whoever comes to replace Oleg should remember how important it is to save freedom at this theater,” Dr. Anatoly Smeliansky, Tabakov’s old friend and deputy, told The Daily Beast. “This free spirit has survived the worst pressure in the past, I am sure that the country’s leaders will understand and give autonomy to the Moscow Art Theatre in the future.”

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Stepping over sensors’ heads in Soviet times and over critics’ heads in post-Soviet times, Tabakov founded the new era of modern Russian theater, embracing a new generation of young, talented authors.

In 2002, the Small Stage of the Moscow Art Theatre presented a play called Terrorism, directed by a young and little-known at the time director, Kirill Serebrennikov.

European and American theater critics loved the play, and the production was soon staged at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Later, Tabakov welcomed Serebrennikov to stage eight more plays. Even after Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest last year, the Moscow Art Theatre did not change the repertoire, seeing Serebrennikov’s case as clearly political.

Some of the modern plays enraged Russian nationalists.

In 2013, a group of religious activists protested outside of The Moscow Art Theater against a production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. The protesters brought a pig’s head with Tabakov's name inscribed on its forehead and demanded the director to resign.

“Normally undaunted, Oleg got very upset that day, he called me and said: ‘Black hundreds attacked me,’” Dr. Smeliansky, honorary patron of the College of Stanislavski, and Tabakov’s deputy at the theater told The Daily Beast in an interview on Wednesday. (The Black Hundreds was an ultra-nationalist movement in Russia in the early 20th century.)

But five years have passed, and An Ideal Husband is still a part of the repertoire. (In 2015, investigators from Moscow district court informed Orthodox activists from the "God's Will" movement that they could not find anything that would hurt the feelings of Orthodox believers in the Ideal Husband production.)

When it came to politics, Tabakov never considered himself a knowledgeable person. He was not a fan of online social networks, and occasionally learned his news from Russian state TV. In 2014, during the beginning of Russia’s conflict with Ukraine, the director got involved in a political scandal, by signing the letter in support of Crimea's annexation.

Ukraine immediately included Tabakov on a black list, and although the master did his best to explain that he had never meant to insult the people of Ukraine, it was too late.

“He was very hurt by the criticism, see, he was always proud of his multi-ethnic background, his own grandmother was Ukrainian,” Dr. Smeliansky recalled, sipping tea in the old principle’s office at Moscow Art Theatre School. “Try to look at Tabakov in the context of his entire life – he was responsible for more than 2,000 employees, he was saving our free theater under constant attacks from all sides; that was a hard role even for such a powerful hippopotamus as Tabakov.”  

Russian and foreign drama students, actors and directors adored Tabakov’s sense of humor, his acting technique, his taste, his deep understanding of Russian dramatists, as well as contemporary playwrights.

On Wednesday a girl student at Moscow Art Theatre School whispered to a friend, “Our beloved one,” pointing at Tabakov’s black and white portrait set, on a round table next to a bouquet of red carnations. From March 12 through 15, The Moscow Art Theatre held three days of mourning this week in Tabakov’s memory (ending today, Thursday), and cancelled all scheduled performances.

The requiem for the famous actor and director lasted for more than six hours on Thursday.

Thousand of fans waited in long lines under falling snow, outside The Moscow Art Theatre, for a chance to say good bye, to pass by the famous stage, the curtain with Stanislavski's Seagull on it, to lay flowers at the foot of the coffin. Actors from Moscow Art Theatre and Tabakerka, the theater studio created by the artist, stood on stage for hours by the coffin in support of the mourning family members. 

American Repertory Theatre, as well as Harvard University, sent their condolences. The Russian Minister of Culture, Moscow Mayor and dozens of Russian celebrities were present at the requiem for the great artist, remembering his roles, his words, his jokes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived by the end of the ceremony to pay tribute, too.

"Thank you, our great teacher," the famous Russian actor Vladimir Mashkov said by the coffin. Tabakov got one final, long round of applause.

As his coffin was carried off the stage, people continued to applaud even as it left the building and was carried down the street, past monuments to the fathers of Russian theater, Chekhov, Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko.