Moscow’s Teatr.doc Raided By Police For Screening Ukraine Documentary (Updated)

Teatr.doc's offices following a police search for "subversive materials" following a "bomb threat" during the theater's screening of a documentary about the conflict in Ukraine. Photo from co-founder Elena Gremina's Facebook page

Teatr.doc’s offices following a police search for “subversive materials” following a “bomb threat” during the theater’s screening of a documentary about the conflict in Ukraine. Photo from co-founder Elena Gremina’s Facebook page

Update 1 (Jan 5): Some additional information has been translated from Russian news reports over the weekend by our friend Graham Schmidt. First, the film in question was produced by Ukrainian collective Babylon’13, called Stronger Than Arms (clips on YouTube with English subtitles here and here). Here’s more from the RUssian news service Interfax:

A search of Moscow’s Theater.Doc was completed, the theater’s former home [the Ukranian film screening was the final event at the old venue, which had terminated its rental agreement several months ago] has been sealed, said the theater’s Artistic Director, Yelena Gremina, to Interfax.

In her words, the police seized the projector, computer and screen on which the film was shown.

As was reported, on Tuesday in Moscow’s Theater.Doc a screening of the Ukranian documentary “Stronger than Arms” was cut short due to the supposed phone call placed to law-enforcement officials about the placement of a bomb in the theater. Gremina said that at the time of the screening in the theater representatives of law enforcement agencies announced that the bomb could explode at any moment and evacuated the audience members.

The Ukranian documentary “Stronger than Weapons” tells about the events at Kiev’s Maidan and other political events in Ukraine. The film screening was to be the final event in the old site of Theater.Doc at Trekhprudniy Pereulok [“Three-pond Avenue”] in Moscow – the theater, at present, has been deprived of a venue due to problems with rental agreements.

Gremina was also compelled to present documents to representatives of the Ministry of Culture, showing permission to screen a foreign film without a screening license.

Law-enforcement agencies sent playwright Maksym Kurochkin, director Vsevolod Lisovsky and techincal director of Theater.Doc Stanislav Gubina to the Presnensky police station. According to Gremina, Kurochkin and Lisovsky had been released.

In the first half of December it was reported that the theatrical project “Theater.Doc” had its rental agreement terminated in connection with un-approved changes to the structure of the theater-space [it’s located in a basement; the changes were to enhance fire safety; the notice was given in September, and Theater.doc was told that the rental agreement had been terminated in May, although rental payments were accepted and deposited throughout the summer; it was a complete shit-show, and that’s why they’ve been kicked out of their current space. John has some good background on this].

On the 5th of December the site of the theater of documentary plays [this is the style of play Gremina and Ugarov really made into an art form and caused to be quite popular; they stage all sorts of plays, though] reported that it was compelled to leave the premises in which it had operated for 13 years. At the end of November the theater received a letter from the Property [housing?] department of Moscow, in which it was stated that Theater.Doc must vacate the premises.

Theater.Doc was founded in 2002 by several playwrights, and positions itself as a non-governmental, non-commercial, independent collective project.

Original Article

Teatr.doc (Russian language website), an independent theater and art space in Moscow that’s long been a center of new Russian theater, was raided in a heavy-handed police action on December 30, in response to the showing of a documentary about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

While details remain somewhat murky–due to distance and language barriers–a rough outline can be formed that will be amended as more information becomes available. On December 30, Teatr.doc was host to a screening of a documentary about the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine–which Russia has been accused of exacerbating through material (and potentially personnel) support of pro-Russian separatists revolting against the government in Kiev. I am still working on finding out more details about the film, but Graham Schmidt (an Austin based translator and director) has provided (via Facebook) the following translation of Maxim Pavolv’s account of the events that unfolded at Teatr.doc, where Pavlov was a speaker in advance of the screening:

As many are already aware, a real commedia dell’arte took place today in the basement of Theater.Doc. As an eyewitness, I will try to recount everything that happened as accurately as possible.

The screening began with a small delay, in the hall about 15-20 people were gathered, 3 or 4 of whom were very strange figures, not very similar in appearance to regular audience members at the theater.

Maksym Kuruchkin spoke first, then I spoke a few words about documentary filmmakers in war zones, about the large quantity of video footage, as compared to the first and second world wars, about working with this kind of material as a documentary filmmaker, about the complexities with gathering and cataloguing such footage, about non-professional film-shoots, about the process of working with these materials as a documentary filmmaker and an historian. I said that film that we’ll be watching is a classic example of montage-informed chronological-documentary filmmaking, discussed a bit about the position of any artist, which comes through even in spite of the intention to remain objective.

Then the screening began. The film begins with footage of Yanukovych’s legendary press-conference, where he breaks a pen. Literally seconds later, special agents [police] appeared, the lights were turned on, and they announced that there was information suggesting a bomb had been planted, and requested that we immediately evacuate the premises. While this was happening, the special agents who’d been impersonating audience members, and those who’d entered when the screening had been halted, demanded that the proceedings not be photographed or filmed in any way. It got to the point where cameras were being openly knocked out of [audience members’] hands. In the basement’s exit, those who were being “rescued” from an explosion were stopped by at least 5 special agents, who’d organized a check of documents and a search of possessions. We requested that they explain whether their operation was to save us, or to detain us.

Once on the street, we were met by a television crew from NTV, which requested that all of us talk about what had happened, and most of us addressed to them [the filmcrew] the very same question.

The apartment-building-courtyard’s exit was fully blocked by MVD (Interior Ministry) personnel and the rescuees were told to enter an armored vehicle [a paddy wagon]. Naturally, we asked, are we being detained? Someone incomprehensibly explained that no, we were simply being transported to the police station. After some time, about 15 men crowded into the courtyard, after which appeared an explosives expert, firemen, E.M.T.’s, personnel from the ministry of culture, and soon after, the deputy-head and the head of the “Presnya” council. It was suggested that we warm ourselves in the armored vehicles, and for about 30 minutes it was actually possible to leave, without anyone stopping us, but then the most interesting part started, because the Ministry of Culture personnel produced an order that Yelena Gemina appear at the Ministry of Culture for an explanation the next day at 12:30 PM. The commanding officers along with interior ministry personnel began to evacuate the apartment building. That process began no less than 45 minutes after we were kicked out of the basement, and during that entire time, interior ministry personnel and personnel from other government agencies were located within the supposedly booby-trapped premises of Theater.Doc.

The crowd of government personnel comprised special agents, personnel from the ministry of culture (ranking as high as departmental director), medical staff, firemen, bomb defusing experts, municipal employees, including leaders of various departments – at least 50 people (and 8-10 vehicles, at minimum, including the NTV television news vehicle).

The evacuation of the apartment building began. Elderly people with their pets began to exit through the main doors, and they were told to enter the school-building [on an adjacent street], where a command-post had already been established.

Municipal personnel and commanding officers were evidently disappointed, having come to realize that they would be up all night, that an evacuation of the building was starting, and that over our objections, they would become participants in a grand spectacle, attempting to respond by convincing us that “everything is serious,” but literally to that point, not a single police officer had announced that any suspicious object had been removed, or that the residents of the building could return inside.

It needs to be said that despite the fact that we entered the armored vehicles three times to warm up, which the whole time stood without even any drivers (that is, we entered without being forced and exited three times without being detained), the cold forced the majority of us to [go home], while Maksym Kurochkin stayed to wait for Yelena Gremina, who was traveling to the theater. The operation inside the theater continued.

P.S. – Yes, I almost forgot the most important part, about the movie. Everything that happened was captured on at least 4 different cameras, so the film continues!

Maksym Kurochkin (apologies for divergences in the Anglicization of his name) is a leading contemporary Russian playwright whose work has increasingly made its way to the US. He was briefly detained, along with several other organizers, by the authorities for a document review at the police station, but has subsequently been released, as demonstrated by this image, shared on Facebook by John Freedman, the theater critic for the English-language Moscow Times, and a leading translator of contemporary Russian theater. The below image is a selfie taken by Elena Gremina, one of Teatr.doc’s co-founders, with Kurochkin following his brief detention.


First, the basics. Teatr.doc is an independent performance space in Moscow (read: not funded by Culture Ministry, and therefore unaffected by its political machinations) that’s known as a home for challenging, new Russian theater. Graham Schmidt compared it to a basement version of New York’s Chocolate Factory Theater. In other words, an indie art space. In any event, on December 30, they were scheduled to screen a documentary film about the events unfolding in Ukraine. The quick backstory there is that over the past decade, Ukraine has been politically conflicted over whether to move toward European integration or to remain a western bulwark of Russian influence which came to a head this year with protests against President Viktor Yanukovych.

The pro-Russian Yanokovych first ran for president in 2004, where he entered a run-off election against the European oriented candidate Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko, among other things, was the victim of an assassination attempt during the campaign. Despite polling suggesting he’d easily bested Yanukovych, Yushchenko was deemed the loser of the run-off (after widespread accusations of vote-rigging), which precipitated the Orange Revolution, and ultimately a third round of voting that put Yushchenko in office. Infighting between Yanukovych and Yuliya Tymoshenko, however (an erstwhile fellow opposition leader with close ties to the post-Soviet oligarchy who controlled a crucial parliamentary bloc during her term as Prime Minister) squandered the promise of the Orange Revolution, paving the way for Yanukovych’s eventual comeback in 2012, when he took the presidency from Yushchenko, and Tymoshenko was subsequently jailed in what was broadly seen as an act of political retribution (despite her ties to a corrupt elite). Yanukovych was ousted from the presidency earlier this year following widespread protests in Kiev when he abruptly declined to sign a long-sought trade agreement with the EU, birthing the Euromaidan movement.

Yanukovych’s ouster precipitated a broader crisis, however. Almost immediately following his flight from Kiev, pro-Russian dissidents, primarily in Eastern Ukraine, produced a separatist movement. Russian quickly annexed the Crimean peninsula, which has strong ties to Russia as Russian’s Black Sea fleet is hosted in the city of Sevastopol (itself the sight of a crucial 19th century Russian military campaign). A more entrenched conflict developed further north, however, in the region around Donetsk, which has become a quagmire with no end in sight, and was the primary subject of the documentary shown at Teatr.doc.

Domestically, the Ukraine conflict has weakened Russia’s international standing and the position of President Vladimir Putin particularly, leading to increased internal nervousness. Multiple rounds of Western economic sanctions against Russia, couple with the collapse of the price of oil (Russia is highly dependent on energy exports), is pushing Russian toward recession. These tensions seem to have come to a head on Tuesday (the day of Teatr.doc’s screening), particularly with a spontaneous protest action inspired by prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. Navalny, long a thorn in Putin’s side, was just that day given a suspended prison sentence in a controversial (and likely politically motivated) legal case against him, in which he and his brother Oleg were accused of various frauds. While Alexei was given a suspended sentence, his brother received prison time, leading to protests in Moscow and Alexei’s arrest when he broke his house-arrest to attempt to join them (see the Guardian‘s article).

While the events at Teatr.doc are specifically unrelated, it seems clear that the heavy-handed response (initial details suggest the police outnumbered the roughly 20 spectators of the film by two-or-more-to-one) is a clear sign of the authorities’ nervousness in Moscow.

This story will be updated as more details and information can be confirmed.

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