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Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary

Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary

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Theatre in Passing: A Moscow Photo-Diary

199 pagine
1 ora
Jan 1, 2011


Theatre in Passing explores spaces of performance in contemporary Moscow. Inspired by French philosopher Michel de Certeau’s model of a 'second, poetic geography' in which the walker - the everyday practitioner - invents the space observed by the voyeur, this book takes the reader on a tour of spaces of performance in contemporary Moscow. Through text and photography, the city’s 'theatrical geography' is uncovered, from the Bolshoi Theater in Theater Square to hidden gems like the recently restored Kuskovo estate. With additional sections on street theater and other public gatherings, Theatre in Passing is a must-read book for anyone curious about the theatrical architecture and geography of Russia’s capital.
Jan 1, 2011

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Theatre in Passing - Elena Siemens


Theatre in Passing

A Moscow Photo-Diary

Elena Siemens

First published in the UK in 2011 by

Intellect, The Mill, Parnall Road, Fishponds, Bristol, BS16 3JG, UK

First published in the USA in 2011 by

Intellect, The University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th Street,

Chicago, IL 60637, USA

Copyright © 2011 Intellect Ltd

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Cover designer: Holly Rose

Copy-editor: Rebecca Vaughan-Williams

Typesetting: Mac Style, Beverley, E. Yorkshire

ISBN 978-1-84150-374-5

Printed and bound by Gutenberg Press, Malta.


Destination Moscow

History as Carnival

Starting Over

The Hermitage: Proceed with Caution

Zhivago in the Suburbs

Scenes from the Putsch

Back to Versailles

The Jump

Theatre Goes to the Museum

The Big Picture

Dark Origins

The Last Mohican

From Meyerhold to Now

Shakespeare on Sretenka

Three Chekhovs

Is it Art?

Show Time

MXAT on the Rocks

Posing with Idols


Tverskoy Boulevard in Winter

Birthday in Moscow


Sentimental Favourite

Impossible is Nothing


Works Cited

Destination Moscow

View from sidewalk

Iphotographed St Basil’s from the sidewalk. It was a late afternoon. I was tired, annoyed by crowds, and anxious to return to my mother’s flat in a quiet Moscow suburb. Baudelaire was right: ‘It is not given to everyone to take a bath in the multitude; to enjoy the crowd is an art’ (Baudelaire 1988: 27). I was not looking forward to crossing Red Square, nor was I interested in taking pictures. I photographed it in passing, simply because it was there, directly on my way.

Photographed up-close, St Basil’s is not as impressive as when it is seen from a distance. It was constructed in the age of Ivan the Terrible to commemorate Russia’s victory over the Tatars, and was meant to project pride and glory. One victorious chapel for each victory, nine chapels in all. In close-up, it does not appear quite so glorious. Proximity fragments it, bringing attention to its blemishes, its old age. My shot also foregrounds the thick fence around the cathedral that obstructs the view. This is St Basil’s as seen by an ordinary passer-by. It has little in common with the official portraits reproduced on postcards and in travel guides.

Voyeurs and walkers

In The Practice of Everyday Life (1988), Michel De Certeau introduces an important distinction between the voyeur and the walker. He writes that walkers live ‘down below’, beneath ‘the thresholds at which visibility begins’ (De Certeau 1988: 93). They navigate ‘the thicks and thins of an urban text they write without being able to read it’. In contrast, the voyeur ‘disentangle[s] himself from the murky intertwining daily behaviours and make[s] himself alien to them’ (De Certeau 1988: 93). The voyeur inhabits the panorama-city, observing the world from an elevated position, the top of the Eiffel Tower for example, where he perceives the space below as a concept.

I do not have a choice in the matter. The moment I land at the Sheremetevo Airport, I recall at once Moscow’s ‘thicks and thins’, its shortcuts, back alleys, and back doors. And it makes no difference whether I have been away for one year or five. I walk outside; hire a taxi, instructing the driver to take the MKAD Highway, rather than the centre. Scenic routes are for tourists. As we approach my mother’s neighbourhood, I help the driver navigate the convoluted back alley leading to the high-rise itself. I do not need a map or street signs. I am a walker. Walkers do not read cities, they write them.

Even with a camera in my hand I remain a walker. I take pleasure in looking at things, but unlike the voyeur, I tend to follow the less prominent routes. When I take a chance shot of St Basil’s, I take it up-close, the way passers-by see it. Only passers-by do not normally take pictures, and that is what sets me apart from the ordinary walker. In the end, it does matter how long I have been living away from Moscow – one year is not five. While living away from it, I have learned to pause and acknowledge the insignificant – a mailbox, a trash bin overflowing with banana peels. There is no sense in denying it, I have become a bit of both: a walker and a voyeur. Contrary to popular belief, walking is not entirely a matter of choice. It too is controlled by various factors – traffic lights, weather conditions, as well as one’s own fate.

Private geography

Lubyanka, short for Lubyanskaya Square, is known around the world as the site of KGB (now FSB) headquarters. During the Soviet period, a giant statue of Dzerzhinsky dominated the square’s elevated centre. The statue was removed during the 1991 coup, but the memory of it continues to haunt the space. Personally, I associate Lubyanka with neither of these official landmarks. De Certeau argues that street names, like old coins which no longer show their original value, can ‘detach themselves from the places they were supposed to define’. Their ‘rich indetermination’ gives proper names ‘the function of articulating a second, poetic geography on top of the geography of the literal, forbidden or permitted meaning’ (De Certeau 1988: 104).

In my own private geography, the name Lubyanka stands above all for the local metro station, an old-fashioned edifice adorned with two oversized arches. This station is on my radial line and it is where I get off when I travel to the centre of Moscow. It is a busy spot, with people rushing in and out of the metro, lining up at the kiosks, meeting friends in the shade of its two arches. I took some of my most nostalgic pictures here, one of them showing a trash bin heaped with banana peels. Following the advent of perestroika, the space around the station was transformed into a lively market offering various imported goods, as well as fresh produce – bananas above all. During the Soviet period, bananas appeared in Moscow only sporadically, maybe once or twice a year.

Another photograph I took here depicts a mailbox with an empty beer bottle on top of it. At the time I had just completed my Ph.D. thesis dealing with the correspondence between Russian authors from Pushkin to Pasternak. That mailbox on Lubyanka reminded me of a passage from Marina Tsvetaeva’s letter to Rainer Maria Rilke:

I wonder if you received my letter. I am asking you because I threw it onto a departing train. The mailbox looked sinister enough: dust three fingers thick and sporting a huge prison lock. My toss was already completed when I noticed this, my hand was too fast; the letter will lie there, I suppose – until doomsday. (Tsvetaeva 1985: 198)


Just behind the metro station is a maze of back alleys that in the 1990s were still populated by crumbling tenements. The one I photographed resembled Eugene Atget’s people-less images of old Paris. Unlike Atget, who went on his shoots in the early morning hours so as to produce a more authentic record of pre-Haussmann Paris, I took my pictures when the city was wide awake. The metro station was its usual bustling self, but here, just around the corner, time stood still. A solitary car was parked in the far distance, and in the foreground – a monstrous stone, a souvenir from some Soviet-era construction site. Near it, a ferocious pigeon circled in search of crumbs.


I also associate Lubyanka with the spectacular Mayakovsky Museum that occupies a formidable tenement located just a short walk away from the former KGB building. Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893−1930), Russia’s foremost Futurist poet, once rented a small room here which served as his home away from home, a place where he could devote himself entirely to his craft. It was in this very room that he committed suicide, leaving behind an unfinished poem: ‘And as they say, the incident is closed / The daily grind has wrecked the love boat’ (Mayakovsky 1987: 450).

The ‘daily grind’, to which the poem refers, was Mayakovsky’s mortal enemy. Roman Jakobson, his contemporary and famous Formalist scholar, writes that Mayakovsky fought vehemently against his ‘conventional and commonplace’ second self, the one who enjoyed card games, high tea, soft furniture (Jakobson 1985: 116). His sparse room on Lubyansky Passage was yet another tool, or weapon, he set against the enemy. He did not succeed, or, at least, he felt he did not.

In the late Soviet era, on the cusp of perestroika, this historical tenement was gutted, except for Mayakovsky’s tiny room, preserved as a memorial space. The rest was converted into a giant exhibit dedicated to the early Russian avant-garde. It sports striking installations, photomontages, and puzzling Futuristic objects, among them a row of leaning chairs like props from some science-fiction

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