In the shadows of the new city of light

In 1983, Michael Pennington starred in Yuri Lyubimov's London staging of 'Crime and Punishment'. Earlier this year, he went to Moscow in search of his old friend, and found a city struggling to establish a new identity

The scene: a gala performance in Moscow in memory of Vladimir Vysotsky, legendary actor, chanteur and poet, at Yuri Lyubimov's Taganka Theatre. It is attended by Boris Yemtsov, Yeltsin's deputy Prime Minister. During an interlude, a young actor brilliantly impersonates first Brezhnev ("Who is this Vysotsky?"), then Gorbachev ("Vysotsky started the ball rolling. I followed it up"), and finally Yeltsin himself, promising that, in future, Vysotsky's birthday will be marked by payment of all Russian workers' overdue back-pay. This light reference to a topical scandal brings the house down; even Yemtsov and his pals are seen to roll in the aisles. The Taganka, crucible of political dissent in Moscow theatre throughout the 1970s and 1980s, is suddenly a freeway for political cabaret, weighing in like Spitting Image.

That day in January would have been Vysotsky's 60th birthday, and I wonder what he, scourge of greedy apparatchiks and a rallying-point Hamlet at the Taganka in the 1970s, would have made of it. Dead in 1980 - at the age of 42 - from heart disease aggravated by chronic drinking, his funeral procession brought Moscow to a standstill, and until recently you could still see little candle-lit Vysotsky shrines on many street corners. He lies now in the same cemetery as Andrei Sakharov, and on his birthday buses leave the Taganka Theatre at regular intervals to visit the grave.

Typically, though, Vysotsky ("the keeper of the nation's spirit, of our pain and all our joys") used to work not so much in theatres, concert halls and studios as in private apartments or on the streets, as the spirit took him: people would simply gather, squat down and listen. The best image in Lyubimov's commemorative show was of 25 actors crouched attentively on the floor, while a block of auditorium seating covered by a vast white sheet swung gently from side to side above them, like a giant cradle.

Walking the Soviet highwire with Vysotsky was always Yuri Lyubimov. His coded productions of Pushkin's Boris Godunov, Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (in which I played Raskolnikov when he brought it to London in 1983) were subtle calls to arms for an audience utterly demoralised by Soviet diktat.

At the end of Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov steps forward and quotes, from a Soviet school textbook, the official view that Raskolnikov was right to kill the old woman as she was a drain on society. After the show's unsympathetic portrayal of his character, the critique is obvious. Lyubimov's subversive function might now seem out of date, yet oddly he represents a continuity. His new Brothers Karamazov (Dostoyevsky again) bears his unrepentant signature. He insists that his was never a political theatre like Brecht's, but purely a classical one - it's an astute position, allowing him to float insouciantly over Russia's new revolution on his own cradle of international reclame.

But his side is dented: when he came to the West in 1983, the Soviet government gave his theatre to a compliant administrator called Nikolai Gubenko, who still, to Lyubimov's disgust now that he's back in Moscow, runs one of the two Taganka auditoria.

Although this loss of half of his old empire rankles deeply, his energies are still colossal: he attends virtually all his own performances, participating and responding to the action if necessary (a practice I managed to talk him out of when we worked together in London), while at the Moscow Art Theatre's annual birthday celebrations this year he seemed to achieve a rare feat of prestidigitation: when he rose to pay tribute to "the two most important men in Russian theatre", the accompanying slides of the Moscow Art's two founder-directors, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko, mysteriously got stalled, and two pictures of Lyubimov himself came up instead.

The Moscow Art is now sponsored by Philip Morris, but continues on its unapologetically unprofitable way: a 20-play repertoire across two theatres dominated by Ostrovsky, Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, with Richard Nelson and Alexander Gellman's Misha's Party (1993) as contemporary as it gets. A loss of nerve in its writers being typical of a culture suddenly released into what is called freedom, the new agonies of Russian life have yet to find a voice, so that its theatre hangs in suspended animation.

But there still is an unapologetic sincerity in its making, both from the performers and from its expectant audience. In Moscow, drama is, bracingly, not just a means to pass the time; and an English professional worn down by the casual humiliations of our new Ministry of Culture should take a healing trip to Moscow, celebrating its artists even in post-Revolutionary trauma.

This trauma, however, is complex. Moscow, once perceived as the bleak, "real" Russia, is now seen as the glamourpuss, while St Petersburg, originally designed to be Russia's showcase city, sinks deeper into decay, violence and despair. Moscow's Mayor Luzhkov - known as "walrus" because of his taste for bathing through holes in the midwinter ice - is not only a great showman but a gifted entrepreneur. For a while, investment poured into the city. The Iversky Gates into the Kremlin, formerly taken down so that tanks could pass through, have been restored; what used to be Gorky Street (now Tverskaya), a dour highway of low-voltage streetlamps, little traffic and unadorned buildings, is now like Madison Avenue in the rush hour - with a Tiffany's, a Christian Lacroix, an Yves Rocher, a Pizza Hut, you name it, all blazing with confidence and neon.

The heart lifts and then drops again as you realise that nobody but a small, rising middle class, breasting the waves of corruption and graft, can afford any of this merchandise; and that, beneath the Mary Quant tulip- cuts and black lipstick, the salesgirls are the same angry, humiliated citizens as before.

But now you can smell the Mafia everywhere; the manager of the Rossya Hotel has just been murdered, that of the Radisson a year ago; I heard of the owner of a small bar who pays over $1,000 a day in protection. Muscovites in a body have always achieved almost unimaginable standards of boorish discourtesy - except that discourtesy is the wrong word, since it somehow implies the existence of its opposite, and there is little evidence of that. As, after a week, you shove in the Metro with the rest, you might reflect that the brutality of the 19th century has bled into the humiliations of the 20th, producing a truly barbaric brew beneath the "Marlborough Country" billboards.

The premiere of Lyubimov's Brothers Karamazov at the Bolshoi in St Petersburg is an emotional event, more or less coinciding with Lyubimov's 80th birthday. It is in his old gestural style, its jagged snatches of music, unpredictable lighting and his actors' typically casual-declamatory manner, competing and sometimes crystallising into brilliant single images. News reporters with video cameras charge down the aisle during the performance; there is a groaning buffet upstairs after the show, with speeches and banqueting. Groups from various Petersburg theatres sing new lyrics to old pop melodies along the lines of: "Oh, how good, Yuri Petrovich from Taganka..." The only people not listening are his actors, who are in a corner getting drunk fast.

Suddenly I lose my interpreter Marina, a statuesque journalist in a tweed twin-set and pearls, who had earlier confided, while rapidly downing four glasses of champagne as if they were an investment, that she earned only $10 per half-page article. Where is she? I finally see her up at the end of the table, scooping apples, bananas and oranges from the banquet and into her handbag.

Plus ca change, of course, and there's that question again; how do they manage? Visiting Russia from time to time makes up a rite of passage, and each time a layer of romanticism, of misplaced interpretation and false significance is likely to be knocked off, leaving you just more sincerely confused. It is an emerging truism that Russians may have lost as much as they've gained in this decade. Behind the fake-fur and mobile- phone ethos, the Austrian coffee-shops and the cashpoints - in fact the whole dispiriting evidence of an aping, borrowed culture rather reminiscent of Japan - the mystery of Russian survival remains, to an outsider, intact. Always, like Marina, they will shrug and say "Oh, we get by."

Most Russian friends, acutely sensitive to the probe, continue to carry their secrets away with them through crashing metal apartment-block doors into their stone hallways, up in their unconvincing lifts, across their cardboard-matted thresholds. And, with goodnights touched with both courtesy and shame, they firmly disappear behind front doors padded against the cold, into a secret life as unchangeable, harsh and enclosing as the Russian winter.

Michael Pennington appears in 'The Misanthrope' with the Peter Hall Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, Denman St, London W1 (0171-369 1734) from Fri 13 March

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