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Russian theater stalwart sees little change

Yuri Lyubimov, now 93, was one of the early Soviet dissidents and ended up in exile, stripped of his citizenship. He returned just before the Soviet collapse, and he's dismayed by the scant progress since.

November 11, 2010|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Moscow — Legendary Russian stage director Yuri Lyubimov was born in 1917, the year of the Russian Revolution.

He became a theater actor, fought in World War II, then returned to acting and teaching at a theater school. In 1964, he became director of the famed Moscow Taganka Theater, whose productions were heavily censored, if not banned.

Along with authors such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lyubimov helped inspire the growing dissent against Soviet rule. In 1983, he was allowed to work in Britain; a year later, he was stripped of Soviet citizenship and fired. He staged numerous drama and opera productions all over the world.

Lyubimov returned to Moscow in 1988 at the height of former President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, regaining his citizenship and returning to his post at the theater. Today, the 93-year-old is still the theater's director.

What is the atmosphere like in Russia now?

Truth be told, our milk has gone sour and it will never be fresh again. The big problem is that our citizens are half-asleep; they are too lazy.... I think that a bigger part of our population still lives in the past and they are still missing the USSR. They say it was better then. But it is not true.

Why did you choose to perform the role of Josef Stalin in one of your productions?

They've begun to glorify comrade Stalin again, a bloodthirsty pervert who killed more of our people than German fascists did. Are they completely nuts? When I play Stalin … I lure the audience only to hit them with: [quotes Stalin with a heavy Georgian accent] "The crowd is like history's matter; the more it diminishes in one place the more it increases in another and we shouldn't be sorry for them."

Is it easier for you to work now than back in Soviet times?

It is of course better for me to work now because I am free. But financially it is much more difficult now. They promised me a new theater center and even allocated a land plot … but 13 years have passed since and nothing has been done. Last year I asked them for a possibility to hold an event celebrating the 45th anniversary of my theater. They said it is not the right kind of date and asked me to wait five more years for the 50th anniversary! Don't they know I am 93?

Do you come under pressure from the authorities about your work, the way it was back in the Soviet Union, when they mercilessly censored and banned your productions?

Never. But they often threaten to close down my theater for fire safety reasons and order me to improve the situation, but they don't give me a penny to do it. Thus they always have a pretext in store to fire me. At the same time, they built a Hollywood-like theater for themselves in just two years … in which a foreign pop star performs once in a while for 100 people in an 800-seat hall for a fee of around $2.5 million.

In the past you met with many Soviet leaders. Do you meet with Russian leaders?

I remember [former Soviet President Yuri] Andropov asking me, "Do you know what happened in Indonesia?" I said, "They hanged all the communists, didn't they?" "Yes, they did," he said. "Is that your prophesy for us?"

I have never met with [President Dmitry] Medvedev, but I have twice met with [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin.... I must admit he has some very curious traits. When he was here, he carefully looked for a place on the wall to leave his autograph [a tradition for all important guests] and found a suitable place under a portrait of Alexander Pushkin. Then he began to read other autographs and found one by [exiled oligarch and Putin's sworn enemy Boris] Berezovsky and he said, "How did he reach out so high?" "He stood on the back of a bench," I responded. Try to guess his next question. Well, he asked, "Who helped him do it, who supported him?" I said, "I did."

He looked at me as if he wanted to ask why but he didn't. Maybe I will be brought to account someday, who knows? I asked him then what kind of character [Berezovsky] is and he said, "He likes to stick his head out." Then he thought a little and added, "Well, let him."

What do you think will be the outcome of jailed oil tycoon and Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky's second trial?

I would like to be mistaken but I think he will get a guilty verdict. It is a test for our leaders. When you sit in prison for so long, you become a hero. People hated him at first as an oligarch and they initially hailed his imprisonment. Now many have changed their minds.... If it were up to me, I would let [Khodorkovsky] go free. It would be better for both of our leaders. It would be useful for them on all counts. They would display mercy. People are tired of hearing "Tighten the bolts!"

Do you see a significant change in the country since the Soviet period?

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