Ilnar Salakhiev / AP
Ilnar Salakhiev / AP

Blasphemy at the opera in Siberia: Kremlin opens new front in culture war

As Russia’s Culture Ministry fires Novosibirsk theater director, government backs conservative religious viewpoint

NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — Boris Mezdrich sits before a large desk in the spacious director’s office of the Opera and Ballet Theater. An unrelenting flow of calls to the two cellphones he rotates between his fingers interrupts the lawyers and journalists who have been visiting all day. Outside the office window, hundreds of people who spent the afternoon chanting for his resignation begin to disperse.

“You can derive your own conclusions,” Mezdrich says. “I have an inspection from the Culture Ministry arriving in a few minutes, this is not the time to discuss the politics of the decision.”

On Mezdrich’s desk lie printed copies of articles from the Russian press about the theater’s plight. Brushing them aside, he lifts up an official document in a light blue folder delivered moments prior from Moscow. Bearing the stamp of Russia’s Culture Ministry, the letter declares Mezdrich’s immediate dismissal from his post as the theater’s director. No reason is given.

“We are a federal theater. It’s written into my contract that the Culture Ministry can dismiss me without a motive,” he tells Al Jazeera, a clear tone of resignation in his voice.

By 11 p.m. the next evening, Mezdrich has cleared out all his documents and possessions and vacated the director’s office. The following day a new man sits in his chair, appointed by Russia’s Culture Minister to assume management of the state-owned institution.

Seventy years since it staged its first performance during the same week WWII ended, the famous Opera and Ballet Theater in Siberia’s capital is at the epicenter of a religious scandal that has split Russian society and provoked heated debates about freedom of artistic expression. With the Ukraine crisis and resulting standoff with the West accelerating the Kremlin-sponsored campaign against liberal values, the Russian Orthodox Church is emerging as a major ally to the large network of conservative movements whose expansion the state is going out of its way to facilitate.

Boris Mezdrich, who had spent 11 years at its helm, is the first victim in a feud likely to continue despite his public firing.

Offending religious feelings

The case dates to December 2014, when theater premiered an avant-garde production of Richard Wagner’s opera “Tannhäuser” directed by 30-year-old Timofey Kulyabin. In this adaptation, the play’s eponymous hero is reimagined as a movie director whose fictional story of Jesus’s decadent youth, “Venus’s Grotto,” is submitted for a film competition held in Germany’s Wartburg castle. The promotional poster for the fictional film depicts Jesus’s crucified figure between a naked woman’s legs.

Offended by the performance, several audience members wrote complaints to regional Russian Orthodox Church head Metropolitan Tikhon, who filed a case in the city court against Mezdrich and Kulyabin “for offending religious feelings.” The case was thrown out on March 10, but an appeal against the decision by the local Prosecutor General led to plans for a retrial.

In March the theater staged two more performances of “Tannhäuser,” this time replacing the offending image with a blank white poster.

But for religious leaders, the concession was too little, too late. On March 22, Tikhon used his Sunday sermon at Novosibirsk’s Voznesensky Cathedral to condemn the opera and encourage his congregation to attend a rally outside the theater the following weekend.

“The director and the theater’s director decided to denigrate and spit on sacred Christian objects in return for the thirty silver coins they got paid for the production,” Tikhon told the congregation, before suggesting those who don’t attend the rally are “together with the crucifiers and the vituperators.”

The following Sunday, Tikhon did not repeat the message. Instead flyers were distributed outside the church depicting a sword-wielding knight in armor and the words: “We will defend sanctity — we will save Russia!” Tikhon didn't attend the rally personally, either. The highest representative of the Orthodox Church at Novosibirsk’s Lenin Square was Alexander Novopashin, rector of the city’s Alexander Nevsky cathedral who has emerged as one of the key figures in the “Tannhäuser” case.

In his more than twenty years of service in Novosibirsk, Novopashin has made a name for himself fighting quasi-religious sects. In 1994 he opened the “Informational Consulting Center on Sectarianism” at the Alexander Nevsky cathedral, Novosibirsk’s oldest church, where he receives people who claim to have fallen under the influence of such groups. Earlier this month, he was awarded an Interior Ministry medal “for countering extremism.” In the days leading up to the “Tannhäuser” rally, although apparently unrelated to the case, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin bestowed another award upon the priest “for services to the country.”

Novopashin told Al Jazeera that staging the opera was a violation of Russia’s constitution, claiming Mezdrich and others involved in the production have intentionally refused to listen to the Orthodox community’s concerns. “We’ve been deliberately ignored. There is a constitution, according to which people cannot offend others on the basis of religion,” Novopashin said. “What is happening here is a violation of the constitution and existing laws.”

The March 29 rally on Lenin Square was the culmination of a protracted campaign Novopashin and conservative activists have waged against “Tannhäuser.” Since the court’s ruling in favor of Mezdrich, that campaign has gained pace, attracting support from federal politicians such as State Duma deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov and former heavyweight boxer turned politician Nikolai Valuev, whose 7-foot frame towered above the crowds on Lenin Square.

“I’ve come to give my support. If we let this go, these kinds of things will repeat themselves,” Valuev, a practicing Orthodox Christian and a deputy for the ruling United Russia party, told Al Jazeera. Those responsible should be fired and the play should cease showing, he added.

By the time those words were uttered on the sidelines of the rally, Mezdrich had already received his notice. A statement outlining the official reasons for the dismissal, published on the Culture Ministry’s website the following day, highlighted “unwillingness to consider prevalent values in society, lack of respect for citizens’ opinions and failure to execute the proprietor’s instructions.”

In an appearance on state-owned channel “Rossiya 24,” Deputy Culture Minister Vladimir Aristarkhov claimed Mezdrich had been asked by the ministry to fulfill a range of conditions following the Church’s complaint, of which only one was obeyed: removal of the offending image used in the December performances. The requested public apology was never issued, Aristarkhov said.

In this photo taken on Tuesday, March 31, 2015, former director of the Novosibirsk State Opera and Ballet Theater Boris Mezdrich speaks to the media in Novosibirsk.
Ilnar Salakhiev / AP

For his part, Mezdrich remains adamant that he has no reason to repent. “What should I say sorry for? Should I apologize to people who have not even seen the play? I see in this play something very different to them. I see four performances to a packed audience, and standing ovations every time,” he says.

The ousted theater director says the “Tannhäuser” case is an example of a newly intrusive policy by the Culture Ministry, which now reserves the right to cut funding for a play midway through its cycle.

“We had censorship in the Soviet Union, but this is even worse. It was never the case then that a play could be taken down or denied funding after it had been officially approved. This is a system that the Culture Ministry has only recently created,” he says.

The drama around Novosibirsk’s famous theater is the latest in a string of related incidents in Russia that have provoked warnings from some quarters of a broad suppression of artistic freedoms. After a 2012 performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior by anti-Putin punk band Pussy Riot, public acts offensive to religious feelings were made punishable by three years in prison.

Since then, several other vaguely worded laws against “extremism” have been introduced. Critics have denounced them as attempts to stifle expression and increase censorship. Religious leaders have demanded their feelings be respected.

“Art should be free, but it should not break laws and it should not offend that which is holy for other people. The Charlie Hebdo case is an example – why provoke people?” Novopashin said, referring to the terrorist attacks in Paris in January 2015 which claimed the lives of 17 people at the offices of the French satirical magazine as well as a kosher supermarket.

‘Art should be free, but it should not break laws and it should not offend that which is holy for other people. The Charlie Hebdo case is an example – why provoke people?’

Alexander Novopashin

rector, Alexander Nevsky cathedral


Mezdrich sees things very differently. In another interview two days after his dismissal, he accused Novosibirsk’s religious leaders of allowing the local Orthodox Church’s position to be influenced by radical politics. “I support the fact that, after years of suppression, the Orthodox Church has emerged in the last 20 years to become a noticeable part of our lives. But of late, a radical wing has formed around the Novosibirsk diocese, which is taking advantage of the respect the church and religion enjoy in Russian society. This is something new,” he said.

One such group he mentions is the pro-Kremlin “National Liberation Movement” (NOD) run by Fyodorov, whose orange and black striped logo utilizes a Soviet WWII victory symbol now increasingly donned to show Russian patriotism. At least thirty NOD flags were visible during the March 29 rally, alongside banners reading “No to Sodom on Russian soil” and “We demand a purge of the fifth column.”

Another similar group is the “People’s Council,” a movement focused around traditional values and Orthodox beliefs. Yuriy Zadoya, the 47-year-old leader of its Novosibirsk division who organized the March 29 rally, insists that despite Mezdrich’s firing, the “Tannhäuser” case is far from complete.

“In a government-owned institution, a deliberate provocation has been committed against believers. The Russian constitution considers that a crime, and all crimes should be punished,” he said.

“People like Mezdrich and Kulyabin, people who stage such provocations, are aiming for a Charlie Hebdo scenario or a Euromaidan in Russia,” Zadoya added, citing the 2014 revolution in Kiev which sparked a pro-Russian uprising that has claimed some 5,000 lives in Ukraine’s east.

According to Zadoya, participants of the March 29 rally signed a letter with demands to Vladimir Putin that Valuev has taken upon himself to personally deliver.  

Cultural liberals respond

In parallel to conservative actions, the city’s artistic community has been devoting its efforts to defend those involved in the production. “Tannhäuser” supporters held a small picket in the city on Sunday, but a much larger rally is occurring Sunday. The organizer is a group called “For Tannhäuser,” whose profile on Russian social network VKontakte has several thousand members.

The group has called for an organized action against the “radical movement of so-called Orthodox activists that is breaking up concerts, persecuting theaters and blackmailing the authorities.” Irina Fomina, one of the three event organizers, says conservative activists such as Zadoya succeeded in canceling recent concerts in Novosibirsk by Marylin Manson and Cradle of Filth, and have more recently been pressuring a ban on Halloween celebrations in the city. She sees the “Tannhäuser” case as their boldest action thus far.

“When the concerts were canceled, few people were interested in these Orthodox activists. No one protested. No one paid attention. And now, having felt their impunity, they’ve been expanding their activities all the way up to the main theater,” she said.

Fomina’s rally was approved by the authorities for 2,500 people, but she said that number is likely to be exceeded, as around 800 people have been joining the online group each day. “Now we don’t know what to expect come April 5,” she said.

In recent days, several prominent Russian cultural figures have spoken out in support of Mezdrich and Kulyabin. Filmmakers’ society Kinosoyuz has called for the dismissal of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and has begun collecting signatures in support of the demand. According to Russian media, several dozen film industry figures are on board. Another online petition launched on April 1 appeals to Russia’s senior Orthodox figure, Patriarch Kirill, to remove Metropolitan Tikhon from his post as the Church’s regional representative for “offensive comments directed at Novosibirsk residents” during his March 22 sermon.

When the concerts were cancelled, few people were interested in these [Russian] Orthodox activists. No one protested. No one paid attention. And now, having felt their impunity, they’ve been expanding their activities all the way up to the main theater.

Irina Fomina

organizer, Pro-Tannhäuser rally

In the meantime, the Opera and Ballet Theater is moving on. A section of its website which had been compiling reports on the “Tannhäuser” affair was promptly removed after Mezdrich’s dismissal, and the performance schedule is proceeding without a hitch. The man selected to replace Mezdrich is 47-year-old Vladimir Kekhman, a businessman who has received several honors for charitable activity from the Russian Orthodox Church. Kekhman filed for bankruptcy in 2012, and according to Russian media was charged last year with embezzlement in a fraud case involving Russian state lender Sberbank.

Kekhman is set to combine his new post with his directorship of St. Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky theater, which since his arrival in 2007 has undergone a $40 million overhaul that he claims to have personally bankrolled.

But one of his first directorial moves was the termination of the “Tannhäuser” run in Novosibirsk. As the principal reason behind the decision he named Timofey Kulyabin’s refusal to meet and discuss the situation. “I’ve been trying to meet with [Kulyabin] for the past two days, but the young man has not shown,” Kekhman told Russian daily Izvestiya on March 31.

However, Kekhman had already made his views on “Tannhäuser” clear more than two weeks prior at a public meeting at the Culture Ministry on March 13. According to a statement on the ministry’s website, he described the performance as “a demonstration of internal profanity in the style and spirit of militant atheists,” calling for Mezdrich’s resignation and removal of the play from the theater’s repertoire.

Mezdrich had never met Kekhman until he moved in to assume management on March 30. The exchange was completely professional, he says. For the moment, Mezdrich says he is focusing his attention on the federal investigation into the theater’s finances that commenced on the day of his dismissal.

On April 2, the day before the retrial was due to take place, the case against the former theater director was unexpectedly canceled. Mezdrich was still required to appear in court on April 3, when the earlier decision from March 10 was officially upheld. Nevertheless, he is wary about celebrating prematurely.

“In Russia, you never know with these things,” he says.

Deprived of his long-time position as head of Siberia’s most prominent cultural institution and potentially subject to further punitive measures, he insists he is right about “Tannhäuser.”

“It was and is a great play. I believe it should and will live,” he said. “I have no regrets about putting it on.”

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