Glasnost Theater

Tak pobedim! (shest' p'es o Lenine) (That's How We'll Win! [Six Plays About Lenin])

by M.F. Shatrov
Moscow, 333 pp., 2.30 roubles

'Brestskii mir' (The Brest Peace)

by M.F. Shatrov
Novyi mir, No. 4 pp.

'Diktatura sovesti' (The Dictatorship of the Conscience)

by M.F. Shatrov
Teatr, No. 6 pp.

'Dal'she…Dal'she…Dal'she!' (Further…Further…Further!)

by M.F. Shatrov
Znamia, No. 1 pp.

M. F. Shatrov
M. F. Shatrov; drawing by David Levine

These nights in Moscow Peter Verkhovensky climbs out of a coffin-shaped trapdoor, comes down to the footlights, a greenish white face glistening against a darkened background, and harshly declaims the message of Dostoevsky’s Devils. For the intensely silent Soviet audience it is closer to lived experience than to literary fantasy: revolutionary socialism achieves equality for nine tenths of the population by enslaving them to one tenth. Outstanding individual talents destroyed, obedience exalted above all other virtues, guilt shared in the denunciation and removal of suspect people—that is what makes everyone equal, ashamed to have his own belief. Conscience withers away.

The play is defiantly entitled The Dictatorship of the Conscience. The author, Mikhail Shatrov, wants to persuade the audience that conscience was sovereign in Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat,” that it has never been lost in the hearts of good Soviet people, and will win its ultimate triumph over the monstrous values of Verkhovensky that Stalin built into the system. Shatrov has put that message not only in two controversial plays of the glasnost period but also in six earlier plays about Lenin. He began to write them after the Twentieth Party Congress of 1956, at which Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a bloody tyrant and called for “the restoration of Leninist norms.” And he kept on writing them during “the period of stagnation,” when the Brezhnev generation stopped the process of de-Stalinization but kept up the worship of Lenin.

Shatrov’s personal history taught him that love of Lenin requires denunciation of Stalin. In 1937, when he was five, his Communist father was arrested, secretly condemned, and shot; his uncle, A.I. Rykov, who had been premier of the Republic, was forced to revile himself at a show trial before he was taken back to prison and shot in the back of the head; his mother was arrested when Mikhail was seventeen and beginning to sense his vocation as a playwright. Stalinist mores permitted the offspring of such stock to train for nothing more than engineering, but he persevered and is now, at fifty-six, a major official of the Union of Theatrical Workers as well as the most influential and controversial playwright of the Gorbachev era.

A short, round man, with horn-rimmed glasses usually jammed up into his white hair, Shatrov delights some and alarms others by the increasingly radical bent of his historical dramas, and by the modernist theatrical devices that point up the link between then and now, between the past reality enacted on stage and the present reality of the audience out front. As the first act of The Dictatorship of the Conscience draws to a close a charming actor steps out of his role to carry a microphone into the audience for a little talk show on the issues that have been raised. He doesn’t ask the most obvious question about the play, whether the fire-and-brimstone speeches…

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