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

peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
Robyn Lawley
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

    £600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

    Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star