‘They spat into the souls of veterans’ Russian authorities launch probe into Moscow play after veterans’ rights groups say it offends them

A scene from “First Bread.” July 23, 2021Sergey Karpukhin / TASS

Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin has ordered a probe into Moscow’s Sovremennik Theater for staging a play that allegedly “offended veterans.” The play, which is called “First Bread” and stars actress Liya Akhedzhakova, has been the target of complaints from several veterans’ organizations that say it contains “same-sex love propaganda” and “incites ethnic hatred,” in addition to offending veterans. Meduza takes a look at the controversy.

Is the play as wild as it sounds?

Sovremmenik’s production of “First Bread” opened to the public on July 19. It was the final play of the company’s 65th year running, and its three performances were only open to people eighteen and older.

“First Bread” was written by Ural playwright Rinat Tashimov and staged by Polish director Benjamin Koc. This was Koc’s first project in Moscow.

Koc had, however, staged a smaller-scale production of the play at St. Petersburg’s Theater on Vasilevsky Island, where he was noticed by Sovremmenik’s artist director Viktor Ryzhakov, who invited him to bring the show to Moscow. Ryzhakov, who previously directed the Vsevolod Meyerhold Center, became Sovremennik’s artistic director in early 2020, after the previous director, Galina Volchek, died in December 2019.

Sovremmenik’s production of “First Bread” starred actress Liya Akhedzhakova. She said the play was important to her because “it brought my people to the theater, the kind of people it’s easy for me to be around.”

In the play, Akhedzhakova plays Nuria, a gray-haired grandmother who wears an oversized Eminem t-shirt. Her grandson goes off to war, and she doesn’t expect him to return.

Liya Akhedzhakova in “First Bread.” Sign reads, “[Money needed] for ransom from Chechen captivity.”Liya Akhedzhakova in “First Bread.” Sign reads, “[Money needed] for ransom from Chechen captivity.”Sergey Karpukhin / TASS

In the play, Nuria goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her husband, who died in the war in Afghanistan. The grave next to his belongs to a World War II veteran with the last name Fumkin. Upset that her grandson is going off to war, Nuria directs her anger at Fumkin: “Look at you now, you big hero. They just rolled you on out here. Did you fight your heart out? Protect our peace? Did you, you shithead? Where is it, then, our peace? Did you wear yourself out with your fucking war, protecting us? Did you? Am I missing something? Are you a fucking moron?»

The theater explains the play’s main idea as follows:

The characters in “First Bread” are normal people living in a small town on a very big river. They’re caught outside of time — between the past and the present, between civilization and social vestiges. The play centers on a generation of young people who don’t have any ground to stand on. They’re lost, and they don’t know what to do with their lives. They’re unable simply to live and love, so they go to war — to one of the dozens of wars raging on the planet right now.

Why are federal investigators involved?

Immediately after the play’s premiere, the radical conservative group Officers of Russia, led by decorated veteran Sergey Lipov, filed complaints with the Attorney General’s Office and the Moscow Mayor’s Office. They sent a copy of the complaint to Sovremennik’s artistic director, Viktor Ryzhakov.

According to the complaints’ authors, the play also contained “blatant same-sex love propaganda.” There is indeed an LGBTQ+ character in the play. But the authors were most offended by Akhedzhakova’s character’s monologue at the cemetery. According to the Officers of Russia, the character’s words “literally spat into the souls of all generations of Russian veterans.”

Sergey Lipov, chairman of the Presidium of the Officers of Russia, emphasized to Meduza that his organization was simply conveying the veterans’ outrage to the authorities. “People started sending each other excerpts and lines from the script, and it led to a flurry of outrage, and veterans and heroes started reaching out to the organization.”

Sovremennik’s production of “First Bread”Sovremennik’s production of “First Bread”Sergey Karpukhin / TASS

The group wasn’t the only veterans’ organization to complain about “First Bread.” Ildar Rezyapov, chairman of the organization Veterans of Russia, demanded that creative director Victor Ryzhakov and director Benjamin Koc publicly apologize for the production and that Liya Akhedzhakova be stripped of the title People’s Actress of Russia. Additionally, Veterans of Russia accused Ryzhakov of deliberately provoking the public “for the sake of theatrical hype.”

Rezyapov also issued complaints to Attorney General Igor Krasnov and Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin, demanding that the agencies inspect “First Bread” for any of the following:

Public insults to the “memory of the defenders of the Fatherland,”Material promoting “nontraditional sexual orientations,”“Incitement of ethnic hatred,”“Material that insults religious feelings,” and“Public dissemination of information expressing obvious disrespect for commemorative dates in Russia.”

The group directly asked Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin to pay attention to “the offensive amateur performance taking place on the stage of a theater with a great history.” They also asked the authorities to audit Sovremennik’s expenditures.

The pro-Kremlin SERB movement, whose activists have tried multiple times to disrupt cultural events (and even attacked participants), joined in, as well. In their complaint, they referred to both director Benjamin Koc and playwright Rinat Tashimov as “talentless,” and claimed that artistic director Viktor Ryzhakov does everything he can “to destroy the memory of the Great Patriotic War and does it with particular nastiness.”

SERB activists announced that they planned to disrupt the play’s July 23 performance, and they really did come to the theater before the show that day and left funeral wreaths outside of the entrance. Ultimately, though, they didn’t interrupt the show. That day’s performance was also free of obscenities — the words were edited out after the veterans’ groups complained. Director Benjamin Koc later clarified that this was actually a return to the original script: “Everything was like that in the play [without obscenities], but we changed it for the original performance.”

“Take my awards as souvenirs”

On July 29, Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin ordered a probe into Moscow’s Sovremennik Theater for staging a play that allegedly “offended veterans.” The order was given “in connection with complaints filed by members of the public and media publications.”

Representatives of the Investigative Committee added that “issues related to protecting veterans’ rights, as well as the memory of the generation who fought in the Great Patriotic War, are an important part of the Investigative Committee’s work.” This is why the Committee responds promptly to such issues. So far, they haven’t reported the results of the investigation.

Veterans of Russia also reported, among other things, that they still demand that Viktor Ryzhakov resign as the theater’s artistic director and personally “be punished in accordance with the current criminal legislation.”

Viktor Ryzhakov, artistic director of Sovremennik theater, before a performance of “First Bread.” July 23, 2021.Viktor Ryzhakov, artistic director of Sovremennik theater, before a performance of “First Bread.” July 23, 2021.Sergey Karpukhin / TASS

Liya Akhedzhakova suggested that Ryzhakov’s appointment as Sovremennik’s artistic director may be the real reason for the entire scandal. She emphasized that “there are people who didn’t want” this to happen, and that the whole story with “First Bread” stems from that. But Akhedzhakova hasn’t named a specific party responsible for launching the campaign. She also told Meduza that neither she nor anybody who worked on the play ever insulted any veterans. “They claim that I insulted them. But on the contrary, [in the play] I complained about my grandson going to war as a contractor,” she said.

The actress also offered to let any offended veterans take away her awards: “Take them! Take my Nikas, take my State Award! Guys, take them as souvenirs. I’ll survive without you and without my awards.”

“First Bread” author Rinat Tashimov and Sovremennik artist director Viktor Ryzhakov did not respond to Meduza’s requests for comment.

* * *

Sovremennik’s next season begins in mid-September. The theater doesn’t have “First Bread” scheduled for the beginning of the season. Liya Akhedzhakova told Meduza that the show’s team is on vacation until October. “But I don’t know whether [the production] will be back in October or not. I might be sitting in a jail cell then.”

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Story by Alexandra Sivtsova

Translation by Sam Breazeale


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