Things in Russia have changed so much during the five years Yury Urnov has spent in Baltimore that he jokes it feels more like 350 years. When he first arrived in 2009, he worked with the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) to host the New Russian Drama Festival. This November, they were set were set to go ahead with a four-play festival called the Russians Are Coming: A Festival of Radical New Theatre from Moscow-at Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre-until global politics intervened. As Russian troops amassed in Crimea and Vladimir Putin began a battle of the giants with NATO, the festival was cancelled.
The cancellation brings together the two very different stories the 38-year-old Urnov has been watching develop across the Atlantic. One follows Putin, first as prime minister and then president, as he solidified his grip on power, instituted strict media laws, intimidated opposing parties, stirred up a wave of nationalism, and imprisoned protestors like the punk band Pussy Riot. But, Urnov is quick to add, there is a second story too: the emergence of a young, vital Russian theater. Over the last decade or so, the young theater community in Russia has established a collaborative dialogue with American and European artists on a grassroots independent-theater level. Through the CITD, Baltimore has played a major role in facilitating that. But recently those theater artists have become more progressive and more visible. What was once an underground clique of DIY hipsters has begun to go mainstream.
"It's this weird thing that only happens in Russia," says Urnov. "With all the big trends that are getting more and more restrictive, in the theater community there's this group of people that's trying to do something progressive. I was there last summer, and I saw some changes on the Moscow theater landscape. People of my generation were taking over in very important places," Urnov says. "They are doing the most socially engaged, progressive stuff-about problems with nationalism, all the hate issues."
Urnov knew American theater audiences would appreciate this voice. So he assembled a program of four plays by contemporary Russian playwrights. "It was a strong program, but also focused," he says. "It was contemporary Moscow theater, which is still very authentically Russian, but very watchable for the Western spectator on the aesthetic and social level."
And Moscow's Ministry of Culture-now a younger, progressive crew, not to be confused with Russia's national Ministry of Culture-was also on board, ready to fund the project. Through the winter, Urnov and CITD worked on the logistics, which would involve transporting about 90 Russian theater artists to the mid-Atlantic.
Then, as they went into the final phases of planning, Ukraine hit the headlines. Urnov admits that even he was taken by surprise by the speed of the change. "No one was expecting this," he says. "I was trying to evaluate risks. No one was expecting anything like this to happen so fast." Suddenly, Cold War rhetoric had ratcheted up to the point where artistic collaboration with Americans was controversial. Artists of the post-Soviet era suddenly had a taste of what the world was like before the fall of the wall. "This is the biggest thing that has happened since 1991," Urnov says.
He arrived in Moscow in April to salvage the festival. The Moscow Ministry of Culture, which had offered financial backing, told him that, for now, the funds had been frozen. The message everywhere was similar: This was not the right time to ruffle feathers. "You wouldn't believe it over there," Urnov says. "The media is going crazy. It's a pre-war atmosphere."
"I had two reactions to all of this," says Urnov. "First, of horror. But also of relief. Now it's clear what's going on. It's like Russia was playing a game of 'We're special but pro-Western,' but now it feels as though the masks have come off."
With the masks off, Russian theater artists-once safely below the radar-were finding themselves in the spotlight. Suddenly, what may have been tolerated or ignored as youthful self-indulgence was looked at as "a negative influence," according to the Russian Ministry of Culture's ominous new Foundation of State Cultural Policies.
But Urnov cautions against the simplistic comparisons to Soviet-era Russia that may dominate talk shows. Censorship isn't necessarily delivered by an iron fist. People censor themselves. And funds get frozen. Projects like the Russians Are Coming get "postponed."
"It feels like there is a strategy of dividing people," says Urnov, as he watches friends and colleagues start to choose sides. The community of theater artists, he says, is split down the middle. A 500-signature petition in the theater community supporting Putin's absorption of Crimea was followed by a 500-signature petition opposing it. During one of the shows at Moscow Art Theatre, radical Christian activists rushed onstage and stopped the production. Gogol Center-Moscow's brand-new center for Russia's emerging theater community-invited Pussy Riot to a a documentary screening. Then they withdrew the invitation.
There is a strong sector of the theater community which has vocally opposed Russian military engagement in Ukraine. "Maxim Kurochkin [who visited Baltimore and whose work was produced at Towson's New Drama Festival in 2009] was speaking at an anti-war rally, reciting his monologue through the mic," Urnov recalls. "A couple of friends were arrested for a few hours, so it's hard to talk about mass repressions. It's happening slowly."
But Putin's message of aggrieved nationalism is also finding a receptive audience in part of the artistic community. Some theater artists endorse Putin's muscular confrontation with the U.S. because they want to keep their jobs. Others find that, after 20 years of uncertainty, they have something to grab on to. Russia, once again, is a player on the world stage.
"Their main sort of argument is that, 'Guys, you're very naive, it's all just a big geopolitical fight, there are no morals there; if we aren't in Crimea, the American fleet will be there,'" says Urnov. "I don't know where it comes from, but-'Yeah! We're doing something! Finally! We're strong again!' Which horrifies me, but it's the mind of a lot of people." He pauses. "But then, I'm not living there."
In this nationalist and isolationist atmosphere, the CITD is playing damage control back in Baltimore. The meticulously networked relationships between theater artists-especially the underfunded, independent variety-are fragile.
But as CITD director Philip Arnoult is quick to note, actors and artists are waiting to see what happens next.
"It's such a fluid situation, but we're all waiting to see if there's any way to salvage this," Arnoult says. "I've made a proposal. For the moment this [festival] is a bull's-eye, so maybe we'll focus on individual exchanges first. So I'm watching and listening and thinking, like everybody else, and we're all waiting for this story to continue."
For the moment, Arnoult is headed to Hungary and Poland for three weeks to focus on keeping the dialogue going. "Keeping the communications going is more important than ever. Keeping artists talking is more important than ever."
Urnov also hopes that Woolly Mammoth, the CITD, and Moscow's Ministry of Culture can fix this. But for the moment, all bets are off.