MAGADAN, Russia — Like millions of others toiling in state jobs throughout the disintegrating Soviet Union, Igor Begov knows in his heart that when the country finally switches to the free-market system, the curtain will come down for good on his cushy lifestyle.
Begov is an actor who has never known unemployment. In fact, he has had the same job for 50 years.
"Is it the same for actors in America?" he asked curiously. "All of us in the theater are afraid for our future."
Begov was conversing backstage at the Gorky Drama Theater in this remote Siberian city with a long and tragic history associated less with culture than with the nearby labor camps built by the dictator Josef Stalin.
"Now, when we put on a play, it had better attract a lot of people because we have got to sell tickets," Begov said. "All the time, we are making a compromise between art and commerce."
Although live theater largely disappeared from the American small town when vaudeville headed West, virtually every city of the crumbling Soviet Union still boasts at least one dramatic troupe, often with its own orchestra. The Siberian city of Yakutsk, the Russian equivalent of Peoria, Ill., or maybe Nome, Alaska, has three full-time theaters.
Theater was once a charming emblem of the supposed superiority of revolutionary culture, bringing Chekhov and Socialist Realism to the masses.
But the provincial theater has come under assault not only from the country's cash crunch but from such Western-style competition as television and the ubiquitous \o7 videotek, \f7 where a family can now rent a thriller and watch it snugly at home.
"It seems like we cannot compete with video no matter what we do," said Boris Gunin, the theater director.
The theater has only 450 seats but employs a huge staff of 250 professionals, including two full-time troupes of 75 actors, in a town of 160,000. Its entire budget of 1.5 million rubles, about $900,000 at the commercial exchange rate, used to come from the national Culture Ministry in Moscow.
Gunin noted that with top ticket prices at 3.40 rubles, about $2 at the commercial exchange rate, the future of the theater looks grim if whoever now controls the purse strings decides to trim the subsidy. The central government ran out of money early this winter, and many of the state-subsidized arts have already felt the pinch.
"Either we cut the actors or we cut the plays," Gunin said, sounding eerily like an American producer. "Either way, the art gets hurt."
"The theater was not designed for the free market," said Yevgeny Yeltsov, an actor who has spent 27 years with the Magadan company. "When hairdressers raised their prices, nobody got a haircut. If we raise our ticket prices, everyone will stay home."
Not only has the state been subsidizing the Magadan theater, but as is the case in every other industry in remote areas, actors were actually paid more than in the big cities. The idea was to encourage talent to settle in small towns.
But Gunin said that the chaos caused by the economic restructuring inaugurated by former President Mikhail S. Gorbachev has meant that young actors now prefer to remain unemployed in Moscow rather than risk being left on the roadside in the boondocks.
Volodya Posdin, an actor who has spent 15 years in Magadan, said that most theaters are top-heavy with untalented actors who cannot be fired because they are guaranteed lifetime jobs by what has been the Soviet equivalent of Actors' Equity.
But a new contract plan being discussed might help trim the fat out of the system, he said.
"Those without talent, who got their jobs through connections, are worried about their future," Posdin said.
Gorbachev's policy of \o7 glasnost, \f7 or openness, should have made this a golden age for Soviet theater because there is no longer censorship, and the list of permitted plays is no longer dictated by an unseen bureaucrat in Moscow.
But the theater used to be popular precisely because under the former strict censorship laws, actors could still fling darts at the government with the nuance of a strategically raised eyebrow or stage laugh.
Now that Gorbachev is no longer leading the country--and, in fact, the country itself is being replaced by a commonwealth of republics--such subtleties are lost on most audiences.
The current year's playbill is mostly old standards with musicals such as "My Fair Lady," Strauss operettas and set-piece comedies.
"Most people who work in the theater are worried that there is a moral decline in society," Yeltsov said. "It's hard to find something that's interesting to everyone."
Magadan's theater, a piece of pseudo-classical architecture modeled on the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, is also crumbling, and the actors could become homeless if a new building is not constructed.
The original theater was built by forced labor with prisoners taken from the camps of the Gulag Archipelago, which sprawled north of Magadan from the 1930s until the facility was closed in the '50s.
Because many of the prisoners were intellectuals in exile, Magadan at the time boasted a first-rate theater on a par with the best Moscow had to offer.
"It was a great time for the theater in Magadan," recalled Galina Vetrova, a voice coach and pianist, who was sent to the labor camps in 1947. "We had a lot of wonderful actors, the best . . . ."
"They were the most famous people, but many of them died because there was no food," said Hertz Shlosmanetz, 86, a set painter who is still working at the theater 46 years after being released from prison.
Shlosmanetz, a Latvian Jew who has written seven books in Yiddish, said he was never rehabilitated after being released from the gulag, and now he refuses to ask for rehabilitation.
"They arrested me and they can rehabilitate me," Shlosmanetz said between daubs of paint on a huge backdrop. "I never let them scare me, and I still don't care what they think."