History or Narrative?
Erik Alstad reports on a new play in St Petersburg.
Spoiler warning: For those of you who may watch the play, this blog discusses its ending.
Among the theatre posters plastered all around the St Petersburg metro, one may have recently stuck out for you. There's nothing on it except the words Rozhdenie Stalina — ‘The Birth of Stalin’ (or his “genesis”, as the company's English translation would have it), set in stark white letters against a black background. It's not just the play's title but also an opening provocation.
For one, it causes double takes for not saying Smert’ Stalina. ‘The Death of Stalin’ is the ubiquitous phrase that signifies the turning point in every Russian's family and national history. Historically speaking, the birth of Stalin is virtually a non-event in comparison. At the same time, the title seems to be promising something impossible but tantalising. That is, an answer to the question of how Stalin was born out of the early years of Georgian revolutionary and gang leader Josef ‘Soso’ Dzhugashvili. Even if a comprehensive explanation could be provided within the confines of a two hour play, there may just not be enough biographical information out there, the details of his youth having been scrubbed relentlessly of anything his later paranoia couldn't tolerate.
The broadly simple plot on display here follows Soso Dzhugashvili and his gang throughout the planning stages and aftermath of the 1907 bank robbery at Erivan square in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), where 40 people were killed and the equivalent today of almost 4 million US dollars were stolen. We observe how Dzhugashvili gradually slides towards mistrust of his own associates and increasingly tyrannical leadership. The play's creator and artistic director at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, Valery Fokin, has said he drew on extensive research in writing the play, for example from the yet-partly-unpublished memoirs of Stalin's mother. But it becomes clear very early on in the production that Fokin is not in the business of providing any sensational historical revelations.
Poster and all, the play is part of a wider Petersburg-set spectacle. As part of a run up to the show, the Alexandrinsky held a series of lectures at its modern New Stage, among them one by Aleksandr Prokhanov, one of the head editors of the ultra-nationalist newspaper Zvezda and an outspoken Stalinist. The subject was bolshoi stil’ - the aesthetic shift under Stalinism away from the avant-garde of the early Soviet period back to a near-imperialist grandiosity. You might think it's too a bold choice to repurpose the aesthetic originally used for the adulation and consolidation of Stalinist power in a portrayal of the man himself, but that's exactly the choice Fokin and his team have made.
Under Nikolai Roshchin's scenography, small mini stages are lowered down from above or rolled on to the grand main stage of the Alexandrinsky, each in turn suggesting their own epic setting: a sprawling Tiflis; a mountainous Georgian landscape; a wooden hut engulfed in darkness. The characters making up Dzhugashvili's gang are mostly broadly played types, who freeze into stoic poses when the actions shifts away from them. Vladimir Koshevoy plays Dzhugashvili with a ferocious (and arguably ahistorical) charisma, often standing in profile to echo the future Stalin's all-pervasive iconography. At points, Dzhugashvili monologues in a faux-cinematic voice-over, his voice booming through speakers behind our heads whilst he stands brooding handsomely on stage.
The play appears to fall into the trap of making Stalin a basic anti-hero, a trope which more often than not tends to romanticize asocial psychologies despite whatever cruelty they display. But Fokin gradually allows almost literal cracks to show in his bolshoi stil’ facade. We start to notice the black-clad stage hands wheeling the little sets around. Instead of taking them offstage, they start just leaving them around in the background, like scattered fragments of an epic idea, cluttering the earlier scenes' evocative minimalism.
Then the final scene brings the kicker, and exposes Fokin's play as much more about provoking questions than providing explanations. The chronology skips ahead to Dzhugashvili's first beating in a prison cell, and as he lies there weakened, in rolls 1953 Stalin (Pyotr Semak), lying on his deathbed. The two islands connect, Stalin gets up, crosses over to the young Dzhugashvili and starts giving him life advice. He eventually steps out of the mise-en-scene toward the audience, as the first character to truly inhabit the stage. To a crescendo of voices chanting his name, a massive Stalin statue rises out of the ground in front of him. Then, in a terrific anti-climax, with Stalin half-erected, the show just ends.
The image of Stalin lecturing Dzhugashvili is the kind of concluding riddle that doesn't really say anything about the actual, historical formation of the figure of Stalin. But the power that the image elicits, and the through line with the grandiosity of the story that came before it, that perhaps suggests that it's the narrative we've been watching, and not Dzhugashvili himself, that gave birth to Stalin.
As for that ending, Russian critics have offered a plethora of interpretations. Is it asking us to decide whether or not Stalin can rise again? Or is it a phallic punchline, mocking our secret excitement for a big Stalin-themed climax?
70% of Russians now reportedly see Stalin's role in their history in a positive light, and so interrogating a modern public's relation to the figure is as valid as it's ever been. A collective gasp of shock came out of the audience when Stalin rose from his deathbed, and as his statue rose the auditorium lit up with phone screens. It's hard not to read into this audience reaction as something telling, but just as hard to ignore the sensationalisation of this material that prompted them. Putting on Stalin in bolshoi stil’ may well present the opportunity for a complex self-critique, but its also the kind of marketable spectacle that helps sell tickets. The final question 'Stalin. The Genesis' leaves you with, then, may be whether or not that's something you can stomach.
Erik Alstad is taking a BA in Russian Studies at UCL, specialising in literature and intellectual history. He is currently on a year abroad in Saint Petersburg, where he’s been exploring the contemporary arts scenes and travelling out deeper into Russia.