Five Minutes with Eleonory Gilburd

Eleonory Gilburd talks about her book 'To See Paris and Die', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

What is your connection to Russia?

I was born in the Soviet Union. My family left in 1989. When I was in college at the University of Chicago, I was interested in several disciplines, all of them having something to do with Russia. I decided to study history given my predilection for stories and a particular form of argumentation.

Why are there different variants of your name?

My name is part of the immigration story: I’m Eleonora in Russian, but when we arrived at JFK airport the border guards made a mistake and put a “y” at the end so I became Eleonory. I’ve kept it this spelling in official paperwork and it’s on the cover of my book. Sometimes I anglicise it to Eleanor. Part of the émigré identity is that others define you, and you find ways to describe yourself in the new circumstances.

Why did you decide to write this book?

When I was growing up in the Soviet Union there was so much that was non-Soviet or Soviet and non-Soviet at the same time. This is how some of my favourite childhood books were and the films we watched: hybrid products. I remember how, in the late 1980s, the first soap operas appeared. Cities emptied out to watch the Italian mafia series La Piovra. The courtyards were flooded by the blue light from all the televisions. I wanted to understand how this could have happened: when and why and by what channels all this came to the Soviet Union, what meanings Western imports accrued in the process of translation and adaptation – and how they were transformed into an inseparable part of Soviet lives.

Give some examples of cultural adaptation

One of my favourites is JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye: that book, in that moment in the early 1960s, responded to certain literary debates and linguistic needs to find a different, livelier, more colloquial language. The Russian translation was very unusual in the Russian-Soviet linguistic universe. Many critics took the translation’s language as the language of young west-loving people, as the language of the stiliagi subculture. But you can find all of the unusual words that the translator brought onto the printed page in Soviet normative dictionaries, where these words are usually marked as substandard. The Russian translation of Salinger inundated the page with colloquial substandard speech, which had been ousted from print in the early 1930s.

Another example is dubbed films. In order for the dubbers to catch up with the speech, to stall time, they added all sorts of texts in Russian which weren’t there in the original: street signs, posters. The result is a very subtle, unintentional repositioning: Russian texts appear briefly on the screen and you don’t realise what happened, but the film now looks like a Soviet film about a western country. And viewers were often confused and conflated what was Soviet and what wasn’t.

How did western culture impact the Soviet Union?

Part of the story westerners like to tell themselves is a triumphant one about how western imports changed the Soviet Union. I don’t think the changes in the Soviet Union were mono-causal, and this book doesn’t tell a story of western triumph. Still, western culture did have certain subtle effects. It introduced a language to express feelings of despair, darker sentiments specifically in translated texts. It introduced considerations of universal morality rather than class-based ethics. It’s not that the world changed suddenly and definitively but the intellectual and artistic field became more capacious. In the restricted Soviet information space, and with closed borders, the stories in Western paintings, books, and films that came in gained a monopoly on veracity.

Was censorship a big issue?

I didn’t find it nearly as important as we tend to think. Movies that were unacceptable were not purchased in the first place. The reels were expensive so when the authorities invested money, they were likely to show them. Sometimes subtitles were used as a mode of censorship: the authorities thought people would have a hard time reading text at the bottom of the screen, so they sub-titled rather than dubbed films they didn’t like but bought for diplomatic reasons. Sometimes the kinds of things that were supposed to be cut – undressing, for example – but accidently were not, created a hysteria about uncut copies in circulation. For literature, editors knew what should and shouldn’t be there. And it was often editors and translators, rather than censors, who carried out subtle censorship. One of the more interesting aspects about censorship was that Soviet readers and viewers expected it, they assumed that films were cut and texts were tampered with; sometimes, they even called on censors “to do their job.”

What most surprised you in your research?

What viewers saw in Soviet films after having watched Italian or French ones. They wrote letters to various film institutions complaining about “pornography”: it was not a reflection of what happened on the screen; it was a certain language of outrage. What viewers noticed is not something that our eyes would pick up. Soviet viewers were very sensitive to the tiniest baring of a shoulder or leg: a wife in a nightgown brushing her hair before bed whose shawl would fall, revealing her shoulders; a woman who would take off her stockings to run barefoot in the rain; a kiss in a film set in the virgin lands of Kazakhstan. These scenes elicited a storm of positive and negative reactions. From the perspective of our own sensibilities, a lot of it is so innocent that we would not even pause. These viewers letters forced me to look at Soviet films differently, to try to see what they had seen. For them, there were clear connections between Soviet and French and Italian films – the depiction of intimate life on the screen.

Are there any parallels with Russian cultural practices today?

I think the story of Russia’s engagement with the west is a pendulum-like relationship. There are moments of isolationism, then openness. Each time the pendulum swings, there is already a treasure trove of cultural knowledge and imagery on which the relationship gets rebuilt. Western imports of the late Soviet decades became a part of the Soviet past, integrated with other Soviet things that are inseparable from the lives of at least two generations. This cultural knowledge does not get erased even in moments of isolationism.

What is your next book?

It’s a history of tango in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. The Stalinist 1930s was not the right time and place for this music but astonishingly it arrived - from the newly independent states formed on the borders of the Soviet Union after the collapse of the Russian empire. Russian tangos were created by White émigré communities and other Russian speakers in Warsaw and Riga. In this project, I look at their lives and at the music they wrote and performed. And I follow this music back to the Soviet Union, where tangos circulated on the radio, on gramophones playing in courtyards and in Stalinist parks of rest and culture. 

Eleonory Gilburd was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.

Five Minutes with Mark Galeotti

Mark Galeotti talks about his experiences researching and writing 'The Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

What is your connection to Russia?

There is pretty much none in my family. But I’m by training a historian: it’s all about the stories and as far as I am concerned, Russia has all the best stories: the blood is more sanguine, the miseries darker, the heroism greater. As long as I can remember, I have found Russia fascinating.

Why your interest in the criminal world?

Let’s not pretend otherwise: it’s intrinsically cool. For someone at least partially morally bankrupt like me, gangsters, wars and spooks are all very appealing topics to study. When I first became interested in this field, at the end of the Soviet era, it was one that western scholarship had totally ignored, so this was a fascinating opportunity to be in on the ground-floor of something. Beyond that, the underworld is the dark shadow of the upper-world, and this was a time when Russia’s future was up for grabs, defined by those with the will and power to take it. It was thus a prism through which to look at the evolution of the country.

How would you compare the Vory with the Mafia?

I sometimes light-heartedly say Italians are Russian who have had a lot more luck – better climate, soil, food, not at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and invaded by every imperial power. One could point to similarities – the machismo, codes, brotherhood – but that reflects every organised crime group the world over. The real parallel is the way in which each society and state shape their own underworld: Russia and Italy for much of their recent history were dominated by one-party states, leading to a lack of legitimacy in the central government, so family, friends, clan and region were most important.

What were the Vory’s historical roots in Russia?

As society gets more organised, so too do its gangsters. One can see big gangs of brigands after the Napoleonic wars, but the beginnings of a coherent criminal culture were in the later 19th century, at the time of urbanisation and industrialisation, in the miserable slums of the cities. When I was doing my PhD on the Afghanistan veterans, I looked at their connection with criminals, and the Afgantsy gave me my initial contacts I could parlay upwards. They were characterised as a criminalised generation, but in reality their role was pretty minimal. Rather, it was the Gulag experience and the whole Stalinist terror state that was fundamental in shaping the 20th century underworld. It reshaped organised crime and brought it into contact with wider society. Those who spent 10-25 years in the gulags were never going to reintegrate fully or forget that contact. It’s fascinating today that in a Moscow that is worlds apart in many ways from those days, you still hear criminal slang in non-criminal contexts and people listen to Radio Shanson, which reflects that sub-culture.

What is the greatest insight in your book?

Amidst all the lovingly described gore, it is that extent to which the state and society define their own underworlds. Between the blunders made by governments and the aspirations of ordinary people, organised crime essentially fills the vacuum. I was surprised how, in the late 1980s when Soviet society came into contact with its gangsters because of various by-products of perestroika, just how positively they were regarded. They were seen not as predatory thugs, but as the people who would get you the goods and service the state was denying you. I’m fascinated by this dichotomy between the notion of the “good” and “bad” thieves: the Vory were honest about what they were; the bad thieves were those in the suits, judges’ robes and uniforms, who were meant to be on our side but were predatory.

What is their influence today?

In the 1990s, the worlds of business, crime and politics became dangerously overlapped in an unholy trinity. They have moved apart again now. The gangsters are strong, but the state is the strongest gang in town. It gets to set the rules. The day to day life of the vorovskoi mir, the “thieves’ world,” is receding and mythologised. The real issue today is this tacit alliance between underworld and upper-world, gangsters and the state: today’s social contract between the government and gangsters, which is in its own way a perverse legacy of the 1930s. But Russia is changing.

What will happen in the future?

I put my faith in very different kinds of people who want reform. On the one hand, anti-corruption campaigners, and many people in law enforcement who are chafing at the bit, held back by politics. On the other hand, there are the pragmatic kleptocrats who stole with both hands in the 1990s. Russia is now on the cusp of one of the largest inter-generational transfers of wealth the world has ever seen. Those who prospered then through the alliance with organised crime now want their kids to be secure, to have rule of law to protect their inheritances, and the capacity to travel abroad. The irony is the idealists and the most ruthless pragmatists agree.

What is Vladimir Putin’s position?

He wants this issue off his desk for as long as he can. He is clearly a man who doesn’t see an intrinsic problem in organised crime – he had to deal with it in St Petersburg and it is hard to imagine that after two decades of benign neglect he would launch state-wide campaign against them. Nor is he a gangster himself. For him, this is a war not worth fighting if he can avoid it. If the state turns against organised crime, as we’ve seen elsewhere such as in Italy, it will fight back. But we are seeing a pragmatic technocratic elite building up its arsenal for when it breaks with the gangsters who were once its allies. This is part of the preparations for a post-Putin era, as we have moved into the fin de siècle era.

Were you ever afraid during your interviews?

There were times when I thought maybe I shouldn’t have done things in this way, but I was younger and thus more intrinsically stupid. In the modern age of research ethics and risk assessment processes, it would have been rather different. At one point I was shot at, admittedly, but it later transpired that was meant to be a warning shot. Not that this was much of a consolation at the time! I was often in deeply dodgy late Soviet housing estates on the outskirts of Moscow and elsewhere, where I felt very exposed. But the people I was talking to had already self-selected – if they don’t want to talk to you, they won’t. I never just wandered into a mafia hangout to say hello, after all. I did have always to avoid a sense I was on anyone’s side: a different gang, the police, whomever. The real concerns were much more of being sucked into their world – some were ghastly creatures, but others were fascinating and charismatic. I was an impoverished British academic and someone once said “Do you have a car? Would you like a jeep?” It was more of a moral temptation than a physical one.

What is your next book?

I have several projects on the go, but the next big comparable book is provisionally called “Spook Country”. I’m trying to do the same thing as Vory for the intelligence and security community. Their impact on the rest of Russian society, politics and business is amazing and worrying: the terms, the sharp-end tactics, all has seeped into politics and business. Once upon a time we were worried about the colonisation of power structures by the so-called siloviki, these “men of force.” If anything, their density has diminished. But that’s not the point: we have instead seen a cultural colonisation by them of wider society. 

Mark Galeotti was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.

Five Minutes with Ben Macintyre

Ben Macintyre talks about his experiences researching and writing 'The Spy and the Traitor', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

Where does your interest in Russia come from?

I studied Russian to O level rather ineffectively and read a lot of Russian literature. I loved the country and was always fascinated by it. I didn’t keep up my Russian but in the world of spies I inhabit, Russia was pre-eminent and is looming ever larger. My book before last was on Kim Philby, which was the first that took me deep into the Russian story. But the Russian element played a big part in quite a lot of my books.  

Why did you chose to write on Oleg Gordievsky?

He came in very briefly to my research on Kim Philby. I ran him to ask about Nicholas Elliott, Philby’s friend. At that point I wasn’t thinking of writing about Oleg. As time went on and I got to know him a bit better, it seemed to me there were very few stories from the later Cold War that came close to his in importance. Most spies don’t make a whole lot of difference. They make us a bit safer and oil the wheels of diplomacy but don’t affect strategic thinking by states. Oleg is the exception. He materially influenced the way the West perceived the Soviet Union. He’s a toweringly important historical figure. The more I dug in, the more it seemed the next logical book after Philby.

Did you get much cooperation from the intelligence services?

MI6 didn’t actively help me in any material way. I didn’t have access to the files. But they didn’t stop me. They could have told the case officers not to speak to me – it would have been absolutely within their traditions. In fact, I’m quite sure they allowed it to be told, with a nod and a wink. His minders were willing, able and incredibly helpful. Most of my work is in archives using written records. This case was fascinating because I had more than a dozen different intelligence officers telling me what had happened. Dealing with memory is so fallible, but it was so interesting to have this whole set of different recollections and to be able to work out what the reality was.

How about the Russians?

The Russians were surprisingly helpful. You would have thought they wouldn’t talk at all. But spies love talking about their history. The former KGB officers must have been given authorisation to speak. Far from trying to spin a propaganda line, they were pretty straight. They seemed to want to tell their side of it. Oleg betrayed them, breaking a sacred bond. But they liked him, and said they were against the Soviet regime and knew it was coming down. They saw I was not writing some piece of one sided western propaganda but trying to get a much more rounded view. The same is true of the CIA. It makes them extremely uncomfortable. But it was amazingly open. It didn’t give me the files but everything but.

Why didn’t the KGB decide to arrest and kill Gordievsky?

They had good reasons, including complacency – they never really thought someone under KGB surveillance could get out. They wanted to arrest him, put him on trial and find out what happened. There was a certain due process. He was astonishingly lucky. It was not about MI5’s capabilities. The truth is he was incredibly lucky. If his train had not been ten minutes late during his escape, he would have been finished.

What was the biggest revelation during your research?

The most astonishing is the planning and execution of Operation Pimlico to exfiltrate him from Moscow. It was such an extraordinary thing to attempt, it seemed absolutely outlandish. I didn’t really believe it. But the more I dug in, the more sense it made. The use of a Safeway bag as a signal, for example: it was like out of a third -rate spy book. But Gordievsky had come from the West and plastic bags were very prized in the Soviet Union. MI5 stuck at the rehearsals, jumping in and out of cars in Guildford over years. It was a pretty amazing level of spycraft. On a less detailed scale, I was very struck by just how close we were to a proper full-on nuclear confrontation based on mutual misunderstanding – it was Mutually Assured Incomprehension. I was amazed that during the meeting of Gorbachev and Thatcher, Gordievsky was in the background briefing both sides: telling the Soviets what Gorbachev should say to Thatcher and – via MI5 - what Thatcher should say to Gorbachev.

What has been the reaction in Russia to your book?

There is talk of a Russian translation. I’ve heard there’s a certain amount of pique about the book. After Litvinenko’s assassination, Lugovoi said if there was anyone we would kill it would be Gordievsky. But Putin’s no fool. To take a pop at an 82 year old man would be strange. It did give me pause when writing, at the time Skripal was poisoned. I wondered if I was endangering him by drawing attention to him. But he’s a tough cookie. He just shrugged and said “I don’t know and don’t care.”

What do you think of Gordievsky?

He’s a complicated figure: honourable, funny, fantastically rude and quite difficult to deal with at times. He’s also very lonely. There is almost no contact between him and his daughters.  But I never heard him express a single word of regret. He feels he did the right thing. We look at spy stories as producing moral lessons, goodies and baddies, winners and losers. Oleg is not a winner. He has really paid a huge price.

What’s your next book?

There is a very big Russian quotient. It’s the story of Ursula Kuczynski, a female intelligence officer who spied for Soviet Union for 40 years in Shanghai, occupied Manchuria, Poland, Switzerland and the Cotswolds, and "ran" Klaus Fuchs. I had a very lucky bonanza with documents, and her story is absolutely extraordinary. Her life spans the story of Communism, and she escaped from Britain in 1949 just before MI5 were about to get her. 

Ben Macintyre was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.

Five Minutes with Katja Petrowskaja

Katja Petrowskaja talks about her book 'Maybe Esther', shortlisted for the 2019 Pushkin House Prize.

What is your nationality?

I find questions on identity completely over-estimated. I am from beautiful Kiev. I am Jewish, have a Ukrainian passport, am Soviet born, live in Germany. But it’s better to tell stories, to describe what I love. The shortest answer on the question about identity is my book. One of the 1,001 reasons to write it was to avoid the short answer to “who are you?” Automatically you start to tell your story. Maybe it’s the Soviet syndrome: if you grow up in a system which always tries to describe you, one of your main impulses to resist is just to tell stories – a narrative which cannot be reduced to any kind of statement.

What is your background?

My first language is Russian. I grew up in Kiev learning  Ukrainian at school. If I had stayed there I would have been completely bilingual. But I left when I was 16 for Moscow, after Chernobyl. I later moved to Estonia to study. I lived many years in Moscow and I still love this place, but I moved to Berlin, because I just fell in love with the city. It was absolutely normal, peaceful city in comparison to the pretty aggressive style of Moscow. At the same time, it was a recognisable place, the reverse side of the second world war. I thought as a Soviet person and a Russian I knew everything about the war. But I saw all the scars the Wall, which conserved the remnants of the war. You could understand where the Soviet army entered. I was so moved. The topography and size were very similar to Kiev. There was something incredibly intimate.

Why is your book called Maybe Esther?

One young British scholar found a beautiful term for my “syndrome“. She explained it as "subjunctive remembering". The story is that my father told me the story of his grandmother, who was killed next to her house on a street in Kiev, on the road to my school. I crossed the place twice a day. That’s something that links the past to the present. I tried to reconstruct that day, and read two kilometres of books in order to see how it happened. I wondered what was the name of his grandmother and he replied “maybe Esther". He did not know! This was the moment I realised what I was doing. I’m looking for truth and the truth stays uncertain. We know almost everything about the circumstances of her death. But we do not know her name. That uncertainty was the most important revelation: there are moments one has not a right to be certain, it is not given to us. Maybe Esther is the mode, the main modality of the book.

Would you describe your book as a memoir?

No way, it was one of the reasons why I wrote this book in German, which I learned very late. In Russian it would have been much more a memoir, but I wanted a stereoscopic view, writing about Jewish, Soviet history in the language of the “enemy“. So the whole story is not my own, but rather anthropology. In a way, German is the main hero of my book and the main fictional element. While writing I tried to make it innocent for me. To call it a memoir is an incredible error. In German, I called it geschichten – history or stories. My stories are fragment, small parts of something. I’m not describing the whole world as a novel tries to do but a small part that I can enter – the cracks. It’s a mix of what could be historically true and of perceptions, which are already fictional. I always wanted to write something like The 1,001 nights: the idea of telling a story with another story inside it. Beyond all the uncertainties, I know it sounds very ambitious,  but I certainly have a Scheherazade syndrome: talking against time and death.

What language did you write it in?

I started to write in German just because I was seeking to describe loss, and I wanted to create the most difficult way for me write about it. In order to talk about losses, you have to lose something, to create the greatest resistance. So I lost my mother tongue in order to talk about loss. The whole endeavour is to try make the German language innocent. I grew up with this massive second world war myth. We’re really saturated with the war: it’s in our blood, our language. I tried to write between two languages. It’s so irritating that Russia monopolises the Russian language. This is the expropriation of language. The terms Russia and Russian have to be rethought.

Has your book been translated into Russian?

Not yet.  I thought it was impossible just to translate, because it is a journey into the German language so in Russian it has to be another journey, another story. The English version is a very good translation. It was a serious task to translate a book which is written in “unsettled“ German. It is still my book, but very different. In a way I had to write different books based on the same material in different languages. I am happy that I am not a polyglot. Somehow my book is already a translation in German but it doesn’t have any original version.

What is your next book?

I'm trying to write in Russian now. It was easier for me to become a German writer than to become a writer. I had never written anything before this book. It was an answer to “what I’m doing here“ as Chatwin would say. Now I can move in any direction. I have two simultaneous book ideas. One is a story of a set designer named Cordelia and another one, a sort of picaresque. It’s nice to dream about them, but very hard to write. They behave as unreliable friends.

Katja Petrowskaja was in conversation with Andrew Jack, chair of the Pushkin House Book Prize Advisory Committee, former co-chairman of Pushkin House trustees, and a journalist at the Financial Times.

History or narrative? 'Stalin. The Genesis' at the Alexandrinsky Theatre

Erik Alstad reports on a new play in St Petersburg.

Spoiler warning for those of you who may watch the play: this blog post discusses its ending

Vladimir Koshevoy in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

Vladimir Koshevoy in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

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.

Pyotr Semak in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

Pyotr Semak in 'Stalin. The Genesis'. Image © Vladimir Postnov

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.

'Stalin. The Genesis' will be performed next on the 6th of June at the Alexandrinsky Theatre, St Petersburg

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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.