Russian Artists Are Under Siege at the Bolshoi and Beyond—but Some Are Fighting Back

The Russian leadership has allowed non-state groups to share its monopoly on violence. When they attack artists and intellectuals, the government can say it’s not responsible.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

MOSCOW—Art is one of Russia’s greatest assets, but over the weekend the nation’s artists looked like they were under siege, and some decided to fight back.

On Saturday, a political protest erupted on the Kremlin’s biggest stage, the Bolshoi Theater, an enormous theater for up to 2,500 seats. That night members of the Russian government, employees of the Kremlin administration, state propagandists, and members of the business elite watched the premiere of the ballet Nureyev about the life and death of a famous Soviet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, who died of complications related to AIDS in 1993.

The director, Kirill Serebrennikov, was not present at the theater, since he has been been under house arrest since August.

But the director was not forgotten: His production team walked onto the Bolshoi stage for the final bow, wearing T-shirts with Serebrennikov’s face on them and “Free the Director” emblazoned across their chests.

The Russian community of artists is demanding that authorities free their friend Serebrennikov and his colleagues, who are accused of an alleged fraud.

President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and his wife must have seen the slogan well from their seats in the second row.

Having no chance to communicate with the Kremlin’s decision makers directly, the artists expressed their opinion from the very stage that Josef Stalin patronized and considered his theater during the Great Terror of the 1930s.

The protest was a unique event for Russia’s most famous theater. It was a protest of people paid state salaries who risk losing their jobs and their incomes. The elite audience gave a rousing ovation—but it wasn’t clear whether they were applauding the protest or the performance, or both.

The following day, a shameful scene unfolded in the center of Moscow on, as it happened, the International Day of Human Rights. A few dozen men stormed the Karo October movie theater on New Arbat Avenue in the city center right in the midst of Artdocfest.

The festival of documentary films is an annual event beloved by Russian intellectuals. The intruders’ target was the movie hall which was about to screen a documentary called Bullet’s Flight by the young award-winning director Beata Bubenets. Many attackers wore camouflage clothing and “Novorossia” pins. They screamed that all the people in the audience were “fascists.”

Many of the spectators, Moscow professionals of all ages who were genuinely interested in the documentary, tried to calm the thugs, but in vain—the movie theater became a battle field.

A couple dozen policemen and special weapons and tactics units known as OMON arrived and lined up outside of the theater’s entrance, ostensibly to prevent the violent militia from entering, but it was too late. The film began, and after a few minutes some radicals sprayed the screen with liquid so unbearably malodorous that the festival’s organizers decided to interrupt the show and evacuate the audience.

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The violent attackers claimed they were patriots of Russia and supporters of pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in Luhansk and Donetsk. They managed to disrupt both the screening and the public discussion, which both the spectators and the film’s author looked forward to.

“None of these intruders had tickets, they did not even try to see the film, their job was clearly to just spoil our festival,” one of the Artdocfest organizers, Denis Platonikhin, told The Daily Beast.

Less than a year before presidential elections, Russian authorities appear unable or unwilling to do enough to protect the country’s artists and civil society from attacks by activist thugs.

“The Russian leadership delivered a part of its monopoly on violence into the hands of non-state groups, who often conduct attacks on Russian civil society but remain unpunished,” the Russia program director of Human Rights Watch, Tanya Lokshina, told The Daily Beast. “This is a very dangerous development, as authorities do not seem to be able to control violence by these non-state groups.”

On Sunday at Artdocfest, well-coordinated attackers threw urine, green antiseptic, or stinking liquids in the faces of civil society leaders, at politicians, and journalists, as well as at art pieces and movie screens.

Earlier last week some intruders poured some disgusting liquid all over works by the American photographer Jock Sturges, famous for his artistic photographs of nudes, at the private Lumiere Brothers art gallery in Moscow. Last year an aggressive activist threw urine over Sturges’ images at Lumiere Brothers.

Bubenets, whose documentary was targeted by the thugs on Saturday, is one of many Russian artists who yearn to create in a free and thoughtful country, where, at a minimum, the public has a chance to communicate with power.

Bubenets filmed her Bullet’s Flight in one continuous shot on a morning in 2014 in Schastye, a war-torn town in Eastern Ukraine. The film is a fragment of life showing Ukrainian volunteer soldiers from the Aidar Battalion, later officially banned by Ukrainian authorities for their abuse of human rights.

“I am deeply disappointed that the intruders did not try to have a civilized discussion,” Bubenets told The Daily Beast. “Neither the war in Ukraine, nor any other conflict can be stopped without the sides conversing with each other.” Last year Bubenets’ film Chechen was awarded the grand prize at the Russian Documentary Film festival in New York.

Even during the worst times of the Great Terror, which killed thousands of creative people, Russian artists continued to compose music, create powerful literature, cinema, ballets, and drama.

This year Artdocfest selected 137 documentaries by talented young directors. But last week authorities banned one of the entries, a film called Mustafa, which told the story of the prosecuted leader of Crimean Tatars, Mustafa Dzhemilev.

“We did not break any law when we selected Mustafa for the festival, but somebody called from some important office to forbid the screening of the film,” the award-winning director of the festival, Vitaly Mansky, told The Daily Beast. “Nobody plays with you by the rules.

“The only thing that inspires us to go on, to bring the festival back every year, is this flow of free and brave authors that never dries up, people who want to be heard, to be able to have a dialogue.”