Remember, remember… the first of July 2014…

Since the end of communism, Russian artists have only rarely faced restrictions and persecution by the state. A law banning censorship was enshrined in the Constitution in 1993. The 2000s saw a resurgent authoritarianism under President Putin. However, even during the bad phases, it was always possible to find some rays of hope. After Putin’s re-election as President in 2012, there was a succession of laws restricting the public space for dissent. But the arts were not affected in any direct way.

And the bad news wasn’t the only story. At the same time, some theatres were booming. A far-sighted Culture Minister in Moscow, Sergei Kapkov, was providing funding for a number of daring younger directors to create work in a handful of medium-sized repertory theatres. The increasing variety and richness of the theatre landscape was a beacon of hope. As long as progressive theatre-makers were able to work freely, there was at least some room for independent thought. This was a silver-lining against a backdrop of increasingly harsh government rhetoric about ‘enemies within’ and ‘foreign agents’ and so on.

The 1st of July 2014 seems to represent a sea change. It is hard to see it as anything else but a point of no return. A new law will come into force which bans swearing in films, TV, literature and in the theatre. This is a law censoring the arts – it is the first of its kind since 1991.

The theatres which will be punished by this law are the most progressive ones. Russia’s most famous political theatre, Teatr.doc, is the only theatre which has, as far as I am aware, publicly refused to adapt its repertoire to suit the impending law. It is able to take a stance because it is an independent theatre. The vast majority of theatres rely on state funding. But Teatr.doc does not have large resources – it is run on a shoe-string budget. It is hard to imagine that the most innovative theatres will survive. The new law imposes significant fines for organisations which do not conform – around 1000 pounds, seemingly, for each time they break the law, i.e. each performance of a play which contains swearing.

This fateful date – 1st of July 2014 – could see the heavy hand of state censorship closing several key new playwriting venues. For the larger, richer repertory theatres it acts as a strong disincentive to stage new plays – at least, those works which are innovative or experimental.

This law also opens the floodgates to all sorts of other damaging changes which impinge on artistic freedom. This month, a newer law about the arts is being discussed in the Russian Parliament. Not about swearing this time. This newer law would ban positive depictions of the mafia in the cinema. It hasn’t been approved – but it gives a sense of what the future might hold, with any number of new laws introduced to ban this or that type of play or film. The point is that only the most conservative cultural products will thrive in this restricted public sphere.
Luckily, as Russian playwrights and directors face a bleak future, British theatres are stepping up to support them. I welcome Theatre 503’s initiative to commission both Russian and British playwrights to engage with the realities of Russia today. It was a quick response to a fast-changing situation. My own company, Sputnik, has been dedicated to bringing contemporary Russian playwrights to the UK since 2005 and we will continue to offer opportunities to Russian playwrights to develop their work in London, for many years to come. We are currently sourcing five new plays to present to British audiences in 2015.

This seems to be one of the moments in history which will be remembered, for all the wrong reasons. I applaud the playwrights and artistic directors in Russia who continue to follow their consciences, in spite of the consequences.

Noah Birksted-Breen
Artistic director of Sputnik Theatre Company
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  • About Us

    Sputnik is a British theatre company dedicated to sourcing, translating and producing new Russian drama for British audiences.

    There are several strands to Sputnik's work including:
    - producing new Russian plays in the UK
    - programming and organising the Russian Theatre Festival in London
    - developing Russian playwriting through commissions and exchanges
    - outreach work bringing drama to disadvantaged young people
    - cultural events with Russian literature and music

    Why Russia?
    Russia has a history of theatrical innovation. Russian playwrights have played a significant role in shaping modern European theatre.

    Contemporary playwriting in Russia has been going through an important and innovative period since 1991 with a prolific output by predominantly young dramatists.

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