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Zoya Svetova: "Elena Gremina, one of the founders of Teatr.doc, died this morning" [MBKh-Media]

posted 24 May 2018, 12:29 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 24 May 2018, 12:36 ]
16 May 2018 

By Zoya Svetova, journalist, human rights activist and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s human rights prize 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: MBKh-Media

Elena Gremina, one of the founders of Teatr.doc, died this morning. Lena died 45 days after the death of her husband, Mikhail Ugarov, the theatre’s principal director.

Lena Gremina was one of our great contemporaries. Her plays ran in many theatres, and films and TV series were shot from her screenplays. Gremina has been called the ideologue of the documentary theatre movement known as “New Drama,” which was completely new for Russia. Together, she and Mikhail Ugarov created the unique Teatr.doc, which has no analogue in Russia or the world.

Lena was one of the strongest, boldest, and most courageous people I have known in my life. She was not afraid to speak publicly on the topics most sensitive to the regime. As for Mikhail Ugarov, the “norm” for Lena was the fight against injustice and for the truth.

Recently, Lena and I had become friends, and she had become a very important person for me. I think it is absolutely essential that Lena’s voice now be heard. Here are excerpts from an interview recorded a little more than a year ago on the fifteenth anniversary of Teatr.doc. 


For a while, Teatr.doc was a small, harmless, experimental theatre to which the regime paid no particular attention. In October 2014, you were asked to vacate the space on Trekhprudny Lane that you had occupied for 12 years and your lease agreement was abrogated. Did you understand why this happened? That space is empty to this day.

At the time we didn’t understand what was going on. But now it’s all clear. Later I found out that there was a resolution that Teatr.doc not operate in Moscow. We had been put on blacklists. In the winter of 2014, they wreaked havoc on the theatre. That evening, we had shown a harmless Ukrainian film, and two men from the Cultural Ministry, a dog, and OMON riot police came, and they kicked our sets apart, smashed in the doors, and detained three of our people. In the summer of 2014, we were invited to bring our show 150 Reasons Not To Defend the Homeland to two festivals in Georgia and Armenia. The Ministry of Culture had always paid for trips to the festival in Armenia. But they turned us down. I had a call from people in Armenia who were stunned that the Cultural Ministry had explained to them that we, it turned out, were on blacklists.

Was there any kind of aftermath to the pogrom in the theatre?

The next day I was called into the Ministry of Culture. That was 30 December 2014. It turns out the Cultural Ministry has a special department where there are men from the FSB. They wouldn’t let Maksim Kurochkin, who had accompanied me, come in, and I found myself in a KGB-like interrogation: two of them, one of me. One of them boasted to me that he had a medal for the conquest of Crimea. I asked them how they could have allowed the theatre to be essentially destroyed and its sets kicked apart in their presence. To me it was clear that this was a scare tactic, but I wanted to hear it from them. They told me, “Wasn’t yesterday enough for you? We’re going to put you in prison.” I stood up and said, “That’s it. I’ll see you in court. There aren’t going to be any more unofficial conversations.” Probably if I’d been a state employee, I’d have been scared. But what do I have to be afraid of?

What do you attribute this negative attitude to? Maybe Hour 18, about Magnitsky, or BerlusPutin?

I think a new era began in 2014. These “edgy” performances had been going on calmly all these years, when everything was fine, when Moscow’s Department of Culture had ordered the School Masterpieces on Stage project from us, which supported us significantly because it meant we could pay the rent out of that money and at the same time bring some benefit with this social project. But now, when the new times came, we were supposed to change. But we kept doing what we do. In particular, we staged the perfectly innocent Maidan Journals at the Golden Mask, for its New Play Festival. Later, the Cultural Ministry banned two of our plays, Herbivorous and Child of the Pillow (for the use of obscenity—MBKh Media). Now at the beginning of every performance we say, “Dear viewers. We want to warn you that in this performance there will be conversations about sex and stories about sexual relations. If you feel this might offend you, you have a minute to leave the hall.” And tickets could be bought for Come Out of the Closet, about gays, only by showing a passport.

You once said that the story of the death of Sergei Magnitsky changed you and the theatre. How did it come about?

We, and the theatre, were working very hard, and a lot of great stuff was happening. At first, the Magnitsky thing was just another project that we had to decide whether to stage or not. But once we started our research, I realised there was this parallel universe, and it's very frightening. It turns any notion of fairness on its head; its very existence is an outrage. This is a world where prisoners are tortured, a world in which you have to pay a bribe to get some hot water, and where judges take a memory stick containing a charge sheet and type up the contents into their judgment. Once you know all this, your world is never the same again.

Teatr.doc was the only theatre that responded to this. Weren’t you worried about doing the play?

— What struck me about it all was that he was a normal person who worked for his company and voted for Edinaya Rossiya. But when his employer fell out with the siloviki [security officials], there was this bust-up like Alien vs Predator. He ended up as the scapegoat, because the others scarpered, the siloviki won out, and he was left behind as a pawn. That's when he began to show incredible courage, which really impressed me. They demanded that he testify against his employer, but the more they piled on the pressure, the more he resisted. The whole affair, which cost this 37-year-old man his life, shocked me. I wanted some sort of justice. I remember Natalya Nikolaevna Magnistakaya saying in an interview on Ekho Moskvy, "My son never made it to the trial. Perhaps there might have been a good judge who would have acquitted him". Then it came to me: the story of the trial that never was. We had people who might have been involved in his murder defend themselves in this fictitious trial.

'The theatre that isn't afraid' – is that your catchphrase?

That came later. The first catchphrase was, 'The theatre without any acting'. Sasha Zherebtsov, the St Petersburg playwright who lives in Moscow, came up with that one. We have several catchphrases now, in particular, "Doc: a theatre for everyone". It's true, though, that we aren't afraid. However much they strong-arm us, it won’t have any effect whatsoever.

Another instance of such pressure would be the police turning up at the premiere of the ‘Bolotnaya Square Case’ play at Teatr.doc in May 2015 and carrying out an inspection.

Yes, and then a week after the inspection, I got a call and was told that the owners of the premises on Razgulyai Square had asked to cancel our lease and wanted us out the next day. That was after the ‘Bolotnaya Square Case’ play, in May. The people who thought they could shut down our theatre don't know anything about private theatres. They know you can shut down a state theatre. But you can't shut down a private one; there is no mechanism for doing it. That’s because when we were landed with an horrendous fine (there was an inspection after ‘Bolotnaya Case’, and a solid waste engineer found violations to do with the rigging of the lights for ‘MBKh Media’), we paid it in full. Then there was a special inspection by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, a homicide expert, two FSB officers, and a solid waste engineer, and they spent six hours in the theatre. It's understandable that they would have found some sort of violations. The upshot of this was the cancellation of the lease on Razgulyai Square and, later on, that fine. These were all attempts to destroy our organisation. But even if they abolish our legal entity, we would go on working without one. The non-profit 'Dokumentalnaya Stsena' has been around for 15 years now.

Which of Teatr.doc’s performances are your favourites?

‘Human rights activists’. I wanted to do that play for a long time. For me it was very important to pay tribute to these people. It is very difficult because working with the interviews of human rights activists was difficult. I’m also proud of the ‘New Antigona’ project. In the play, texts from Novaya Gazeta’s Elena Kostyuchenko are used and the play is now on stage. When I worked with the texts as a director I thought up one particular way of doing things. Usually, montage is the main tool of the documentary maker in theatre. For me, the main tool was syntax. Lena speaks in one syntactical style while the legal texts and those of the witnesses are spoken in a completely different syntactical style. I read viewers’ reviews and saw that they got it. The courts’ texts are like horrible music. The actors do this. Texts are read not only by professional artists but by women from the general public too. The texts are so horrible that we wanted the public to share in this too. From a theatrical point of view, I’m happy the way it came off. As a director, I’m very happy with the play ‘War is Coming’. I’m proud of the way the actors worked. The new play that I’m about to put on is ‘Bolotnaya Affair 2’. Polina Borodina is collecting material from guys who have already been released. Maybe you read Volodya Akimenkov’s work, he wrote ‘Why did we come out on the Square? The whole protest was crushed’.

I want the heroes of the ‘Bolotnaya Affair’ to be on stage. I want Stepa Zimin to dance, Aleksei Gaskarov to perform. Polikhovich is making his debut as a playwright. He wrote a sketch about cats in prison. He tells a wonderful story about how dogs aren’t loved in prison while cats are. The cat is the animal of the thief while the dog is the animal of the pigs. We will be showing Bolotnaya Affair 2 on 6th May 2017. I want both the actors and witnesses to be there. This really is a work about heroes.

You say that it’s impossible to close Teatr.doc. Maybe it’s just that no order has been given yet?

I’m sure that no order has been given. On the other hand, they understand that it’s impossible to close us down. We’ll just rent somewhere else or rent a garage and perform there.

27th April 2018 Lena wrote on Facebook about Mikhail Ugarov and their love and how they met. This is now one of her last long posts on Facebook:

No need for condolences

I was very very lucky that we met – it might never have happened.

We are too different. But I was lucky once in my life, me, the traumatised, unfortunate, incapable - I thought before meeting – of finding personal happiness. I met him, we got to know one another and decided to be together.

I’m lucky that I read what he wrote and couldn’t believe my eyes. I liked it so much. Lucky too that I witnessed how he created plays and could not understand the magic in his work with artists.

That our sons from our first marriages became our family and family for each other too.

That we created Teatr.doc together, and in this it’s not only me who was lucky. It wasn’t just one person whose life he changed, whom he taught, whom he helped.

That we were together for almost 25 years (it would’ve have been 25 in September 2018). He would always say to me. “It can’t be, not 25 already! People don’t live that long! – and it’s true. People don’t live that long, in our case.

Something that good can’t last forever. 

From myself I will add: it’s unfair.

Translated by Lindsay Munford, Marian Schwartz and Matthew Quigley