MOSCOW — Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin made a cameo appearance Friday in the tragicomedy that has been playing at the famed Bolshoi Theater: He fired the unpopular general director to the cheers of disgruntled performers.
But the latest scene of a drama that has transformed Moscow's premier artistic venue into a theater of the absurd was not expected to soothe the frayed egos of the dancers and musicians for long.
A presidential edict dismissed general director Vladimir Kokonin "in connection with his transfer to another job," the Itar-TASS news agency reported.
But a leading theater critic and sources within the Bolshoi management said Kokonin's new position would be as executive director of the theater--a mostly cosmetic revision of the post from which he was fired.
Kokonin's sweeping restructuring of the Bolshoi management prompted performers to stage the first strike in the theater's 219-year history a week ago. Dancers milled about the stage in street clothes after the curtain went up March 10 for an expected performance of "Romeo and Juliet," shattering a full house of spectators who had arrived unaware of the backstage commotion.
The work stoppage was a show of sympathy for choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, who had resigned a day earlier in protest of Kokonin's attempts to replace the lifetime positions enjoyed by theater employees with short-term contracts more in keeping with capitalist cultural practice.
Kokonin suspended 18 Bolshoi artists for instigating the strike.
Yeltsin's intervention to sack Kokonin was greeted with glee by those artists who led the revolt against the general manager.
"It is a victory of common sense! If the president hadn't intervened, it would have been almost impossible to bring the theater and especially its ballet company out of its dangerous tailspin," said Vladimir Nikonov, deputy chief of the ballet department.
But those outside the cloistered Bolshoi company warned that the artists were celebrating prematurely.
"I am amazed at how naive artists and especially ballet dancers can really be," said Anatoly Agamirov, cultural affairs critic for the popular Echo of Moscow radio program. "They are rejoicing now, but they don't know what unpleasant surprise awaits them come Monday."
On that day, Agamirov said he had been told by reliable sources, the government intends to appoint Kokonin as executive director and reiterate support for Vladimir Vasiliev as artistic director.
A source in the Culture Ministry confirmed the government had already prepared the announcements.
Even Grigorovich, the recently resigned ballet master, was quoted by Itar-TASS from Paris as saying Kokonin would "simply be changing the title on his office door."
"If this is what the president had in mind with this 'transfer,' then it will be of no use to the Bolshoi Theater," Grigorovich complained to the official news agency.
Agamirov and other critics have accused Grigorovich of overseeing the decline of the Bolshoi, which has lost many of its leading lights to Western companies that can offer dramatically higher salaries.
The Bolshoi's most prominent artists currently earn little more than $100 per month and have depended on the old Soviet-style system of privileges and foreign travel to eke out a living.
Although Bolshoi performances resumed without incident after the one-night strike, employees warn that a damaging rift within the company persists.
"The theater is very deeply split into groups that can hardly coexist and there is very little chance that it will change in the future," said Igor Lifanovsky, a French horn player. "The presidential decree will not boost our salaries, either."