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Memories of the Soviet Censors

GALINA VOLCHEK is one tough bird. While this founder and artistic director of the Sovremennik Theater of Moscow has not had the horrific 18 years of imprisonment that playwright Eugenia Ginzburg had, she has nonetheless had to fight against another kind of repressive regime: the Soviet arts censors.

Edward Albee, author of ``Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,'' in which Ms. Volchek once performed, calls her his ``Russian Martha.''

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When the Sovremennik company was formed in 1956 by independent-minded graduates from the Moscow Art Theater, it sought to address current issues truthfully, rather than through the eyes of the state. It wanted to show Soviet audiences new, more ordinary kinds of heroes.

Though the theater sprang into being during the period of renewal and change known as ``Khrushchev's Thaw,'' Soviet arts censors remained ready with pen and veto to stifle art not in line with state views. Sovremennik plays were sliced up, productions shut down. Arthur Miller's ``Incident at Vichy'' was allowed to join the repertory only after a delay of 20 years.

But Volchek, who has also acted and directed, fought back. She sat on park bench near the backstage of the Intiman Theatre here, where several of her actors in ``Three Sisters'' were playing cards between scenes, and through an interpreter talked about her experiences in Soviet theater and the play ``Into the Whirlwind,'' now playing as part of Seattle's Goodwill Arts Festival.

How has theater in the USSR changed since Gorbachev came to power?

``There has been no censorship at all for two or three years. At first I was in shock, I was always searching for the censors - where are they? Before they would say, `This is forbidden.' Now nobody says anything to me. Now I'm beginning to think it has always been this way!''

Did you change your work so that the censors would not object?

``If I knew they wouldn't let me do it, I would do it anyway. I don't remember a case in my life that we didn't push a production that we wanted. At times we would be breaking our foreheads on the wall.''

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But how did the censors let your theater survive?

``The censors didn't physically close the doors of the theater, but they closed the doors inside [she points to her chest], and this is more dreadful. Probably the worst impact was on the artistic intelligensia: they narrowed the angle of their own vision. In ``Into the Whirlwind,'' you see how people survived under unhuman conditions..... They survived. And in easier, but In other, more difficult times, the theater survived. In a struggle sometimes something very useful is born. The theater has become a kind of national consciousness as the result of this struggle.''

But now that that struggle has lessened, what will happen to the theater's moral force?

``It's possible they can lose it. Art can become more bourgeouse inside. It could become merely entertaining. I don't see that happening right now, because the time hasn't come. But the tendency is there. Yes, I'm very much worried. People are more interested in watching the `performance' on TV of our Congress than in the theater. Perhaps the theater should adjust itself and change somehow. But it's not done just like that.''

What do you intend to do so that this doesn't happen to your theater?

``[I'm going to] keep my hand on the pulse. Then you are capable of doing something. If you don't hear anything, then nobody needs your art and nobody's interested.''

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