Photo: Astakhova Aleksandra
By Artur Solomonov
Translated by John J. Hanlon
Volume 9, Issue 2 (Fall 2022)
Decades from now, no one will believe that Artur Solomonov wrote this astonishing play in December of 2018. A full year before Russia’s foreign agent law was expanded, requiring all individuals and organizations who receive any amount of funding from abroad to declare that they are “foreign agents” every time they report or post something publicly. Almost two years before anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny was poisoned, and before he returned to his beloved Russia, where he was immediately arrested. Before his sham trial and sentencing to a penal colony. More than three years before Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine and hurl us all into the largest armed conflict since World War II. And before the Russian state propaganda machine shifted into high gear, warping public opinion to support that decision – and compelling Russians of conscience, who dared to call it a war rather than a “special military operation,” to choose between silence and emigration.
Because the play, despite its humor and marvelous theatricality, is a prophetic warning that Russia was moving in exactly that direction.
When the online magazine Snob published Artur’s work in March of 2019, complete with archival photographs and film footage from the time of Stalin, it caused an enormous stir within the Russian émigré community. The first public reading occurred on the 4th of July that year at the renowned Teatr.Doc in Moscow, with the lead roles played by two famous Russian actors, Maksim Sukhanov and Yulia Aug (https://youtu.be/0soB4a_80Ps). That performance was covered by the journals Teatr, Sobesednik, Teatral and other media outlets. On the radio, Echo Moscow and Svoboda (Freedom) dedicated programs to the event. But since that time, only Teatr.Doc and one other courageous theatre company, in Chelyabinsk, have dared to stage the play in Russia.
Artur and his associates worked tirelessly to spread the news, even as the COVID-19 pandemic forced theatres to close their doors and, if they were fortunate, transition to online programming. It was under those conditions that I began my own multi-staged process for translating a new play. Finding my way through this script’s haunting historical references, obscure medical terms, subtle Shakespearean allusions, and countless gradations of tone, I began to develop both my own sense of the play’s genius and a feeling of urgency to bring it to the attention of English-speaking audiences.
With a solid draft in hand, I called upon my theatre colleagues around the San Francisco Bay Area to arrange a staged reading (conducted via Zoom), a chance for me to hear the English words in the mouths of talented actors and discover what worked and what did not. Under the direction of Mary Ann Rodgers, this brilliant reading was recorded and sent to a production team in Russia who turned it into an hour-long film that premiered on the YouTube channel of Ross Valley Players (http://www.rossvalleyplayers.com/how-we-buried-josef-stalin/). That experience gave me what I needed to put the finishing touches on my translation.
Many talented theatre workers contributed to the revised version of the play that appears here. In particular, I would like to thank Natasha Seyfi, for her help with some fine points in the Russian script, and Steve Price, who played Stalin and the theatre director in the RVP reading, for his steadfast support of my efforts to get this play out into the world.
Artur Solomonov graduated from the Russian University of Theatre Arts and then spent a year in Berlin studying German theatre. Taking up work as a theatre critic, he published over a thousand reviews and columns in Russian magazines and newspapers. He then became head of the Department of Culture at The New Times and Public Relations Manager at Culture TV. In 2010, he left both jobs, moved to India, and wrote his first novel, A Theatrical Story. A bestseller in Russia, it was adapted for the stage in 2015 and played to sold-out houses in Moscow. His first play, God’s Grace, won second prize in the 8th Biennale for Dramatic Art in London as the best political and social play. How We Buried Josef Stalin was published by the Russian online magazine Snob to great acclaim – and much controversy. Only two theatre companies in Russia have so far dared to stage it. At the celebrated Teatr.Doc in Moscow, it has had several SRO performances, and at the Chelyabinsk Chamber Theatre, the hugely successful production was met with mass protests by the local Communist Party. At last count, the play has been translated into seven different languages.
John J. Hanlon is an educator, actor, director, dramaturg, and translator. As an actor, his favorite roles include King Alonso in The Tempest (College of Marin, Kentfield, CA), Richard Hannay in The 39 Steps (Off Square Theatre, Jackson, WY), and Michael Evans in Dancing at Lughnasa (Novato Theater Company, Marin, CA). Professional directing credits include Ionesco’s The Lesson (Riot Act, Jackson, WY) and Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment (Off Square). Hanlon has translated numerous plays by Maksym Kurochkin, including Mooncrazed and the oft-produced Vodka, Fucking, and Television. For The Lark Theater in New York City, he translated Aleksey Scherbak’s Colonel Pilate, which won the 2014 Brave New Works Award from the Ensemble Theatre of Chattanooga; Kurochkin’s Fighter Class “Medea”, which was featured in the 2011 Soviet Arts Experience showcase, Chicago; and Yulia Tupikina’s Inhale-Exhale, scenes from which were published earlier this year in ASYMPTOTE. Currently, he teaches creative writing and various humanities courses at a private high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. He holds a B. A. in Russian Language and Literature from Swarthmore College and an M.F.A. in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama.
How We Buried Josef Stalin
A play about flexibility and immortality
By Artur Solomonov
Translated by John J. Hanlon
A major theatre company in Russia decides to stage a bold new play about Stalin. The roles are cast, the set is constructed, and a preview for the press is arranged. However, as it turns out, one of the viewers at the preview happens to be the President of the Russian Federation. He explains, “I’m curious to see how they’re planning to represent my predecessor.” Solomonov’s play is about the troubling plasticity of the human psyche, about its readiness, under certain conditions, to reproduce the most dangerous practices of the totalitarian past, which never disappeared. In fact, that past has seized the present moment and is about to become the future. The play shows how easily someone can turn into a tyrant and how readily his supporters allow him to become one. It allows us to investigate the paths by which Stalinism germinates in the souls of human beings today. In trying to answer that question, it is not possible to remain exclusively in the zone of high seriousness. So the play is not only relevant and terrifying, but also very funny.
Voldemar Arkadievich, the production’s director, who also plays the role of the older Stalin
Sergei Karyakin, who plays the role of Vladimir Lenin
Anna Krylataya, the personal assistant of Voldemar Arkadievich, who plays the role of Valentina, the nurse to the older Stalin, as well as the mother of the young Stalin
Terentii Gribs, the playwright, who plays the role of comrade Stalin’s doctor
Giya Rkatsiteli, who plays the role of Lavrentyi Beria and the primary guard of comrade Stalin
Aleksei Balabanov, who plays the role of Nikita Khrushchev and the secondary guard of comrade Stalin
Man from the Ministry, who is compelled to play the role of comrade Stalin’s second doctor
Vladimir Kudravtsev, who plays the role of the young Stalin
Members of the Politburo, journalists
The Minister of Culture, in the form of two telegrams
The President, in the form of a cough above the stage
A run-through begins, in front of the press, of a play about Josef Stalin.
In the roles of the first and second guards are Giya Rkatsiteli and Aleksei Balabanov.
Stalin’s dacha near Kuntsevo
First: That’s not possible.
Second: I swear it’s true.
First: It’s impossible!
Second: I swear! He said it himself.
First: To you?
Second: It’s as cold as January out here. Why’s it so cold? Seems to me the cold is coming from over there (he indicates the dacha).
First: So much “seems to you” over the past few days – it’s about time for you to be shot.
Second (suddenly speaking in a broken and agitated way): Well, you know how he doesn’t like it when people suddenly approach him? So, yesterday I was walking toward him, stomping my feet, like an elephant, booming like a whole herd of elephants…
First: You’ve lost it, you bloody idiot! You’ve really lost it!
Second: … like a herd of elephants, so he would know ahead of time that I was approaching, so he would hear me coming from a long way off, so he wouldn’t shout at me, like when…
First: When you got so scared you pissed yourself? Wow, did he laugh after that! Only he would laugh, the way you looked. Anyone else in his place would have shot a guard like that.
Second: What’s this “anyone else”?
First: Just for example. Of course there’s no one else.
Second: As an example of what? What’s the point of that kind of example?
First: I wasn’t saying anything like that. Are you slandering me? Me, a guard of comrade Stalin?
Second: So maybe I pissed myself…
Second: And do you know why? It wasn’t because he started to shout, that’s not why! When I approached him without any warning, he rose several meters above the table, and quietly, silently and gently, he started moving toward me…
First: What are you saying?! Provocateur!
First: Well, how are the wife and kids?
Second: Same as usual. During the day my wife works, at night she’s with me. As for my kids… Ever since little Natasha started taking home economics classes, she’s had the same dream: a chef, she says, is what I’m going to be when I grown up. And little Peter wants to be an ethnographer.
First: What kind of child wants to be an ethnographer? Do you even know what that is?
Second: Peter explained it to me. I presented him my belt, this one, with the star, and he piped down. But now he’s at it again – “an ethnographer,” he says, “I’m a researcher. I worry about people in far off places. I love them, and that’s it.” Again I pulled out my belt with the star, but he held it together. Not even a whimper. And the five-pointed wounds – he hasn’t laid a finger on them. He’s turning into some kind of hero… Afterward I treated them with plantain leaves.
First: Did you take him to see a doctor?
Second: A doctor?! Comrade Stalin doesn’t trust doctors, and I don’t trust doctors. He ordered them to burn the history of his illnesses, and I burned the history of my illnesses, and my children’s, even though they were very brief, three paragraphs in all. And comrade Stalin ordered the arrest of his personal doctor, Vinogradov …
First: He’s going to tell me all about it!
Second: He had another demand: “You must absolutely put him in shackles! Immediately, in his office – in shackles!”
First: But I told you about all that myself!
Second: Exactly. And now you’re here saying – bring your son to a doctor. They’re all in shackles. I don’t trust those kinds of people.
Pause. Suddenly the second guard again starts speaking in an agitated way.
Second: But that phrase: “Protect and conquer”? Why did he say that to me? On that Thursday, when you were late for inspection…
First: On that Thursday when you were late for inspection! You! Why do they put up with you? Eh, why?
Second: He had summoned me. I went, stomping loudly again, like an elephant herd. But he called for me himself, because he went like this with his hand: silence, walk quietly. And that’s why I approached him so shamelessly.
First: Shamelessly? You’re such a freak.
Second: And a piece of paper was lying on the table, a tiiii-ny little list, and he showed it to me, and there in his own hand was written: “In the end, only death will win the day.”
First: Oh yeah. I remember, I saw it too. By chance.
Second: Then why are you surprised that he told me yesterday that he saw Lenin?
First: Well, because… You know yourself why!
Second: Because if comrade Stalin…
First: …is seeing ghosts…
Second: But is comrade Lenin really a ghost?
First: No, you really have lost it, you bloody idiot! Don’t tell me Lenin came to him alive?!
Second: So – it was a ghost?
First (almost weeping): I hope the devil takes you!
Second: So, according to you, comrade Stalin is lying?
First: It’s you who said that. And I didn’t hear it.
First: Come on, we saw Lenin in the Mausoleum. We went there together. He’s lying down. Because dead people can’t stand up.
Second: But he’s not lying underground. And he has… he has everything – hands, feet, everything…
First: Dead people cannot stand up and walk! Got it?!
Second: But for the benefit of comrade Stalin? If he was coming to him personally? What then?…
First: Well? And what did Lenin do?
Second: Comrade Stalin said that the ghost of Lenin swore terribly. And then he said, “Koba, I left you a magnificent state, but you pissed it all away.”
First: That’s it! I’m going to shoot you right now!
Second (in a state of half-crazed ecstasy): And comrade Stalin says, “How did I piss it all away? The borders are strong, the country is enormous, the people are obedient, the granaries are full, the buildings stretch into the sky, and everyone… believes in you the Father, in me the Son, and in a proletarian heaven – toward which hundreds of happy millions are walking in stride.”
Second: And what?
First: And what did Lenin say?
Second: You, he says, just like me, will soon turn into a corpse. And that means… you pissed it all away, everything that I left to you. Because when a sovereign turns into a piece of cold meat, a two-footed, two-handed, one-headed piece of meat… what kind of sovereign is that?
First (pointing his gun at the Second Guard): Are you ready? You’re about to turn into a piece of meat, and everyone will say, “What kind of guard is that?”
Second: Sure, and they’ll shoot you on the spot for killing a guard of comrade Stalin. Hold on, listen.
First: I can’t take it anymore.
Josef Stalin approaches them. It is the director, Voldemar Arkadievich, in make-up. Not paying them any attention, Stalin declaims these lines:
He walked from house to house,
Knocking on unknown doors,
With a lute of ancient oak,
Singing his simple song.
And in that song, that song of his –
like a brilliant beam of light,
Resounded a magnificent truth,
A dream of the sublime.
His heart, which had turned into stone,
He could compel to beat,
And many he roused to reason,
Who had drifted off to sleep.
But instead of giving him glory
The people of his land
A chalice of bitter poison
They placed into his hand.
They said to him: “Accurséd,
Drink, drain that cup…
Your song to us is foreign,
Your truth we do not want!”
Second: Shoot me now. How frightening!
First: Not a chance. What would I do, stay here by myself?
Second: You can transfer to the outer guard. They’ll treat you kindly.
First: Was that his poem?!
Second: Yeah, he wrote it when he was a child… Come on… You didn’t learn it in school? What kind of school is that?
An indistinct thump is heard.
First: Did he fall?
Second: Something fell.
First: Go. Go and check.
Another indistinct thump.
First: He couldn’t have fallen twice, right? If he’d already fallen?
Second: But if he was attacked by comrade… Lenin…
First: Shut up, you nitwit, Trotskyist, rabid dog, hydra…
Second: Get the doctor? Vinogradov? Out from prison?
First: You bloody idiot!
Second: Valentina then! We have to wake up Valya! If it’s a false alarm, he won’t hang her, he’ll forgive her…
They walk quickly to get Valya, and then, infected by one another with horror, they break into a run.
After a few seconds, the guards return, together with the director Voldemar Arkadievich, who was playing Stalin. Applause is heard, flashbulbs go off. The director gives his pipe to one of the guards/actors, who takes it from him with care; to the other one he gives the generalissimo’s single-breasted, high-collared military jacket. He is left wearing a black turtleneck and white pants. He approaches the microphone.
Stalin: We have just presented to you, dear journalists and assembled guests, the first scene from a new play about Josef Stalin. Our theatre understands the charged social atmosphere that we’re venturing into with this production. It might seem that it would be better to avoid this topic and not rush headlong into the fire, given that both the Stalinists and the anti-Stalinists, the conservatives and the liberals, are going to be disappointed… However, we have embraced the call of History. Understanding that… But better I hand the mic to the writer, Terentii Gribs. It’s his job to write the lines, ours to perform them.
Terentii emerges from the depths of the stage.
Terentii: I agree with Voldemar Arkadievich: everyone is going to be disappointed, and we are prepared for that. It’s totally clear now that no one understands what we believe in or where we’re headed, and therefore everything appears to be off limits: both the Soviet past and the imperial past, both the Tsar and the tsar-killers, both the Church and those who demolished the churches. However, this only appears to be a paradox, and we can explain it quite simply: power must be correct in all of its decisions and actions, and therefore it acted properly both in 1905 and in 1917, both in 1937 and in every year… Our country has been shaken by many crises, but chief among these is what I would call the “crisis of overproduction of sacred cows.” One of these sacred cows, alas, turns out to be Josef Stalin…
A noise is heard in the auditorium, and onto the stage walks The Man from the Ministry of Culture.
Man from the Ministry: The Minister of Culture regrets that he was not able to come to the performance. However, he did send a telegram with his greeting: (he pulls it out of his briefcase and begins to read) “We thank the theatre for applying to our traumatic history a poultice of truth.” (Applause) And, as per custom, here is a medal. (More applause as the director wearily offers his chest and the Man from the Ministry affixes the medal and leaves the stage.)
Stalin: I am grateful for the Minister’s support. The most important thing today is to put out works of art that are devoid of aspiration and holy trembling: I am glad that the Minister believes, together with us, in the cleansing power of laughter. Of course, our laughter will be profound and precise. It will be bitter. This is not the laughter of TV sitcoms. This is the laughter of tragi-farce, and it will help us to get out from underneath the shadow that has been hanging over our country for almost a century. To begin the healing process. To begin the liberation. I don’t like pathos. But I would like our production to become the beginning of a grand burial for Stalinism.
The Man from the Ministry bursts onto the stage again. He is agitated.
Stalin: What, another award? Isn’t that enough for today?
Man from the Ministry: Tremendous news! The Minister called! He told the President that you are currently showing the public scenes from… The President complained: what a pity that they didn’t invite me…
Stalin: We… We didn’t imagine… We wouldn’t have even presumed…
Man from the Ministry: The President completely understands! He said exactly that: I understand that they didn’t invite me out of humbleness; surely Voldemar Arkadievich wasn’t deliberately ignoring me.
Stalin (with a tight grin): Ignore the emperor on the stage of the imperial theatre? For the premiere, the tsar’s box, of course…
Man from the Ministry: He wants to watch it now!
Stalin: In what sense?
Man from the Ministry: Right now the President is having lunch with the Minister of Culture. The President knows that you have already performed the first scene, and he would be happy if you could somehow find a way to show him what comes next. While the lunch is going on. About thirty minutes’ worth, or even less. When the lunch is over, we’ll give a signal.
Stalin: But how will he see it…
Man from the Ministry: Oh, don’t worry about that. A live transmission has been rolling for five minutes already. The President said: I’ll be curious to see how they are planning to represent my predecessor.
Stalin (looking up above him): Bon appétit, mister President!
Man from the Ministry: He can’t respond, but he can see and hear.
Stalin: And that line about his “predecessor”… (Laughing carefully, he addresses the hall) Our president’s sense of humor is unsurpassed.
Man from the Ministry (pointing at his watch): Lunch is in full swing, go ahead.
Stalin: We’re flattered by the attention, but, you see, the play isn’t yet a finished product; it’s just half-baked, as they say. We would like –
Man from the Ministry: I don’t believe my ears. What, would you refuse the President? Voldemar Arkadievich. This level of interest. It’s awkward for me to even ask a second time…
Stalin: Who said we’re refusing him? What kind of word is that to use?! I only wanted to say, in our defense –
Man from the Ministry: He understands, he understands. He loves theatre, and he knows the difference between a rehearsal and a performance.
Stalin: We don’t even have enough actors for the second scene. We’d need two more!
Man from the Ministry: Are you testing the patience of the President?
Stalin: What am I to do – ask the make-up artists to perform? The stagehands?
Man from the Ministry (His mobile phone rings. He answers with fear and reverence.): They have served the first course. Voldemar Arkadievich, do you understand me? They have served. The First. Course.
Stalin: Got it! (addressing Terentii) You know the lines. I’m casting you as the doctor of comrade Stalin.
Terentii: But, but I…
Stalin: Terentii. Do you understand me?
Stalin: As for the second doctor… Who will play the second doctor?
The phone rings again.
Man from the Ministry (after a pause, sotto voce): Mister President. Yes… Oh, yes… Yes, yes… But how can I save the situation…? (with horror) The second course is on its way?! I am resourceful, yes… And enterprising… But I still don’t understand… Play it myself? But I’m not… even an actor. Me?
Stalin: Listen to the President.
Man from the Ministry (into the phone): Understood. (He puts the phone back in his pocket.) The artistic situation requires that…
Stalin: We understand what it requires. (He hands him a page from the script.) There a just a few lines. Your objective – to tremble. I’m sure you can manage that… Mister President, please don’t judge us.
The Pulse of Comrade Stalin
The Kremlin retinue, including members of the Politburo, and Valentina (a friend and nurse of “The Father of Nations”) are gathered around the body of Stalin, who is lying on a couch, staring at a fixed point in space.
Khrushchev (whispering): Where is he looking?
Beria: What does he see?
Khrushchev: What is he looking at?
(They look in that direction, up and to the left.)
Beria: Do you see anything?
Khrushchev: Nothing at all.
Beria: Me neither. Yet he – sees! And that’s the way it’s always been!
Beria and Khrushchev both throw themselves to their knees and crawl toward Stalin’s hand, but Beria gets their first and, in a frenzy, begins to kiss that hand.
Two doctors enter. It’s Terentii and the Man from the Ministry, both trembling. Their arrival has no effect on the behavior of Beria.
First Doctor: We have to change the clothes of ka– ka– ka–
Second Doctor: Comrade Stalin.
First Doctor: Another exam is e– e– e–
Second Doctor: …sential.
Khrushchev (looking at Beria, who has almost lost consciousness): I think it’s best to limit oneself to a comradely handshake.
Khrushchev approaches the other hand of the leader and with devotion, with a deep inhale, shakes it. Amongst the retinue, a schism develops: one half approaches the hand for a kiss, the other half lines up for a handshake. The only one not participating in the divided ritual is Valya – she is sobbing in a corner.
Khrushchev (to the doctors): How moist his palms are! What does that indicate?
First Doctor: There are several different causes of sweaty palms. The first one is…
Second Doctor: To begin with we have to undress and examine him. We’ve never even been here before! (To the first doctor, quietly) Let me do the talking, don’t even start, I’m ordering you, I’m begging you…
Khrushchev (to Beria, who, having finally walked away from Stalin’s hand, is slightly intoxicated from all the kissing): Do you think he liked that?
Beria: I couldn’t help myself.
Valya: He knew, he knew it all. Yesterday he says to me, “Do you see, Valentina, how the sun’s coming out? Here in Moscow, one rarely sees the sun so early in the spring.” (The members of the retinue exchange puzzled glances.) Oh, you don’t understand! (She continues sobbing.)
First Doctor: Could we take his pulse?
The first doctor approaches Stalin’s body and lifts up his right hand. But the doctor is shaking so much that he constantly drops the great leader’s hand and, in a deathly pallor, starts the count again and again. Stalin lifts up his left hand. It seems like he’s pointing at the same spot that he was so persistently staring at earlier. Everyone, as if a spell has been cast, looks into the emptiness, hoping to discern some sort of sign, or anything at all that could so capture the attention of the General Secretary. The whispering of the retinue is heard: “Where is he looking?” “What is he pointing at?” “I don’t see anything!” “I see it!” “What?” “Look for yourself.” “I don’t see it! I’m gonna kill my optometrist, the bastard.”
The whispering of the guards: “Doctors are scum, even eye doctors” – “Especially eye doctors, they can affect our vision.” “And that includes our political vision.”
Someone in the retinue: “Somebody shut up the guards!”
At this point, Stalin himself appears. No one notices him.
Stalin: Ha. I was pointing. I wasn’t pointing at anything. I wanted to grab them by the gullet – all of them, one by one; my heart was seizing with regret that I wasn’t able to drag – all of them, one after another – to their deaths. And then I didn’t give a damn (the arm of Stalin’s body comes down). My legs became cold, up to my knees, I wanted to order them to cover me with a blanket. But my tongue wasn’t listening to me. I couldn’t even open my mouth. Couldn’t. Even. Open. My mouth. What staggered me was that the first to get cold were the two knit-together toes on my right foot. It meant the miracle was coming to an end. Even in Siberia, in exile, in that terrible cold, when my whole body was struggling just to breathe, when it turned into a cube of ice that barely swayed in the wind, those two little heroes didn’t freeze. Never! But here, in my warm dacha – I have an excellent boiler man, I went through so many before I found him! – in my warm dacha, at the beginning of spring, those two toes were the first to give the treacherous signal: “We’re cold! Cover us!” It meant the miracle was coming to an end. (He starts to smoke, takes a seat, and with an evil smile looks at the retinue around his body. Then, with reference to his smoking…) It doesn’t matter anymore. (Pause.) And…there’s no one. Even Lenin, who had shown up in my visions regularly, didn’t want to come to my deathbed hallucinations…
From above the stage a grandiose, husky cough is heard.
Khrushchev: Gesundheit, Mister President!
The room comes to life again.
First doctor: We must…
Second doctor (interrupting the first): … put the leeches on Comrade Stalin.
First doctor: Eight of them…
Second doctor: … on each ear…
They get down to business. Valya sobs even harder.
Stalin: Eight of them on each ear… The leeches set about their work for the good of the party and the country. I didn’t get any better, but sixteen little monsters, eight on the left ear and eight on the right, filled themselves up with my blood before the eyes of those comrades-in-arms. And here I am with my comrades just looking at one another, and I pick up the scent of their fear – they fear me, each other, themselves. They’re bewildered, like actors who have been sent out on stage – but no one gave them the script. What should we do?! What if we stay silent for too long? And what if we start to speak too soon? It all could lead to death – uttering a single word, or remaining silent…
He suddenly stops himself. He firmly approaches the Man from the Ministry, who is playing a doctor.
Stalin: Should we continue? Has the President not finished his lunch?
Man from the Ministry: According… According to my calculations… If, if I am to draw upon my past experience… They are now serving dessert. We must continue. They will give us a signal.
Stalin walks away from the Man from the Ministry.
“The mustache grows in order to bring us joy.”
Lenin: Ardent comrade! You marvelous Georgian!
Stalin: Vladimir Ilich! I was waiting! Good health to you?
Lenin: For us to wish one another good health is a bit stupid.
Stalin: Because it’s a bit too late?
Lenin: Definitely for me. But you are still…
Stalin (checking his own pulse): Apparently alive for now.
Lenin (indicating the group of comrades around the body of Stalin): When your pulse stops, they’ll put you under with me…
Stalin: Put me under?
Lenin: It will all be much more fun, because I’m bored to death down there… They come in, gawk and stand so quietly… It’s a terrible silence, inviolable; three years ago a fly flew in, it made me so happy! I would have stood up to greet it if I’d been able to. They killed it, but the mausoleum was closed during the hunt. A lieutenant and two majors chased the winged creature, like three acrobats from the circus; for nine whole days after that, I remembered this marvelous scene, and I chuckled – but secretly. That’s how it is… True, my mustache was pricking my lower lip, I mean they hardly ever shave me. Everyone’s delighted – ah, his mustache is growing, ah, dead for thirty years, yet the mustache grows in order to bring us joy, could it mean the resurrection of our favorite, our native son…?
A muffled sound is heard.
Beria (hissing, trembling with rage): What have you done? You’ve dropped the teeth of Comrade Stalin!
First Doctor: We had to clear the oral cavity…
Second Doctor: He didn’t do it on purpose, it was because of his tremendous awe…
First Doctor: What do you mean – he? It was you who dropped…
Second Doctor: What, did I push my own elbow?
First Doctor: I was never anywhere near your elbows…
Second Doctor: What are you saying? Ah!… You want to take over my department?
The first doctor drops to his knees.
First Doctor: He’s raving. We’ll atone for this.
The second doctor drops to his knees.
Second Doctor: I’m raving. We’ll atone for this.
Beria: To the tribunal with you. Both of you!
Stalin and Lenin start to laugh, though Stalin laughs with some bitterness.
Stalin: You dropped the teeth of Comrade Stalin… While attempting to clear the oral cavity… Yes, it’s the stuff of Faust…
Lenin: And had it not occurred to you that someday you would lie beside me? That what awaits us is an eternity together?
Stalin: It had… When I visited the Mausoleum… But is that immortality?
Lenin: Yes, it’s a lousy one… But it’s all we’ve got. And you won’t believe the lines they’ll form! Communists from Thailand, France, Bangladesh, Germany… From all over the world, a mighty communist torrent will flow toward us, and we’ll lie side by side, and quiiii-etly, quiiii-etly converse like this… I have some little games I play down there, I’ll show you…
Stalin: Little games?
Lenin: I’ll show you!
Stalin: And if death doesn’t take me? If it lets me lie here for years? Lets them become the laughingstock, lets them become accursed!…
Lenin: Don’t you worry about that. You’ll be dead before dawn. I guarantee it. (He hands him shaving equipment.) But for now… Can you… Sense what I want you to do? (Stalin takes the equipment and begins to trim Lenin’s mustache and beard.) Yes! Wonderful! Just like back then, in October of 1917!… So I can finally laugh without pricking myself! Yes! And on the sides, on the sides… Without broad gestures! Do it like you did back then…
Stalin: Before your brilliant, historic speech!
Lenin: Back then you trimmed my beard and mustache magnificently! I knew who to give that task to. (He looks askance at the excessively sweeping action of the straight razor.) Are you shaving or conducting?
Stalin: It was hard for us to reach the Smolnyi Institute that day, I barely managed to give you a shave and a haircut… Remember how they burst into the tsar’s wine cellars, and everyone started to get drunk, even the firemen? Then, following your order, all the bottles and casks were smashed, and people lapped up wine and vodka right out of the gutters… Before I undertook my historic shave of the leader of the worldwide proletariat, I rode past the Winter Palace and saw how peasant men and even their wives were drinking this new revolutionary beverage from puddles on the street…
Lenin (laughing): Dirt with alcohol? And why is it that these images have been preserved in your memory? From such an incredible time? Alcohol-infused dirt… Why that?
Stalin: What do you remember?
Lenin: Hey! Be careful, my little Georgian! Back then, in 1917, you were deferential… Don’t touch that vein! It hasn’t beat in thirty years, but all the same don’t you touch it!…
Khrushchev (to Beria): Did you bulk up the security? No outsiders can get in here, right?
Beria: You’re anxious, Nikita; that’s why you’re asking such stupid questions. Forget about it. At this point we can’t control everything ourselves.
Stalin: But, after all, wasn’t it one of them who murdered me? Which one managed to do it?
Beria (suddenly unable contain himself, he cries out): How on earth can we go on without him? Does anyone have a handkerchief… I was rushing and didn’t grab anything, anything at all…
Khrushchev approaches him, gives him a handkerchief and puts a hand on his shoulder. Suddenly he starts to weep, and Beria joins him. They share one handkerchief between them.
Lenin (directs the attention of the Stalin standing next to him to the Stalin lying on the couch): Can you hear it? Inhale-exhale, inhale-exhale – and a pause. It’s a portent of Cheyne-Stokes respiration. Of your last breath.
Suddenly the Man from the Ministry takes off his doctor’s smock and throws it on the floor.
Man from the Ministry: Dessert has ended!
Stalin: Which means the President…
Man from the Ministry: Is gone! Gone…
Stalin (uncertainly): Then we’re… Done?
Man from the Ministry: Of course! Of course, of course you can all… (He almost runs from the stage).
Stalin (into the auditorium): Thank you for your attention, thank you for coming… That concludes the preview… We’ll hope to see you at the premiere in three weeks…
“The dessert remained almost untouched…”
The audience disperses. Sitting at a table on the stage are Voldemar, in the clothes and makeup of Stalin, and, also still in makeup, the actors playing Lenin, Beria, and Khrushchev. Valentina stands nearby.
Lenin: The audience seemed to like it…
Khrushchev: And the most important viewer? (Beria shrugs his shoulders.) Whose censorious cough was that, eh? It rumbled above the stage and faded away…
Beria: That doesn’t happen, Nikita.
Valentina: Voldemar Arkadievich, they called from your museum…
Valentina: They are asking for the costume that you just performed in. They want to place it in a glass case and write: in this costume, in the role of Stalin for the first time…
Stalin: What’s the big rush? My museum hasn’t even opened yet. We’re opening it on my jubilee, which is still a year away. And look, with these nerves, I might not even make it…
Valentina (clasping her hands together): Don’t say that!
Lenin: There’s no need to get upset, citizen.
Valentina: Ah, you understand nothing, nothing…
Stalin: Stop playing your character. Stop it right now. Good. Now, in the museum, where they have my diplomas and prizes, you won’t forget to write, “Voldemar Arkadievich regarded awards with irony,” right?
Valentina: They’ve already got it down, I saw the placard. I do need to remind you about what’s happening today. We have a big schedule of events…
In the depths of the stage appears the Man from the Ministry. He is acting sorrowful. Valentina doesn’t notice him.
Valentina: In the Studio theater tonight there will be an artistic meeting with an actor who played under your direction twenty years ago; in the New theatre an artistic meeting with an actor who performed with you at the helm thirty years ago. You’ll have to move quickly from venue to venue, so we’ve purchased a vehicle, you know, those comfortable ones that go around at airports, indoors, we’ve decorated it with flowers and posters… You’ll have to make a stop along the way for the opening of a photo exhibition in the foyer, devoted to your creative output from your first steps in the theater up until that day when… (Voldemar Arkadievich raises a finger to his lips, Valentina stops talking.)
Stalin: Don’t torment us.
The Man from the Ministry silently hands a telegram to Voldemar Arkadievich, who passes it to Valentina. She begins to read it.
Valentina: It’s from the Minister. “Consider my previous telegram null and void. Do not deposit the telegram into the theatre’s archive. Destroy it in the presence of my colleague from the Culture Ministry.”
Khrushchev: My god…
Man from the Ministry: It must be destroyed right now.
Stalin: What? Burn it? And our production? Burn that too?
Man from the Ministry: I have no instructions on that subject. Where is…
Valentina locates the previous telegram, looks at the director, who nods; she places the paper in an ashtray and sets it aflame. The Man from the Ministry gathers up the ashes in an envelope and hides it in his pocket. He prepares to leave.
Stalin: Hold on. Are we to…?
Lenin: If the telegram has been retracted, how are we to understand the course of things to come…
Beria: We want to have clarity.
The Man from the Ministry comes near, whispers.
Man from the Ministry: What I said there, in front of everyone. I told you that the President had finished dessert. So I had mercy on you.
Khrushchev: My god…
Man from the Ministry: In point of fact, he didn’t come close to finishing it. A basket of sweets. With raspberries. It sat there almost untouched. (Pause.)
Lenin: What are we to make of that, comrade?
Man from the Ministry: Fine. I’ll clarify. Can I be certain that everything said here will also die here?
Valentina: Why use those words…
Stalin: It’ll die here.
Man from the Ministry: The Minister of Culture approached the President. Who was upset. (Pause.)
Stalin: And so?! (Beat.) Forgive me.
Man from the Ministry: It’s not good, said the President, that your hero dies. A death isn’t needed.
Stalin: Then what’s needed?!
Man from the Ministry: Yes, without any regard for himself, that’s exactly what the Minister asked.
Man from the Ministry: A birth is needed.
Beria: What, right in the maternity ward, with midwives all around? Little baby Sta –
Stalin: Save the jokes, Lavrentyi, for better times.
Man from the Ministry (imposingly): A death is not needed. The President got upset. And humor is not needed, farce. Now is not the time. He said, “Step into the depths.”
Khrushchev: My god…
Man from the Ministry: To be honest, I envy you.
Stalin: How’s that?
Man from the Ministry: Because usually the President is silent. Or he speaks so cryptically that it leaves you guessing, wracking your brain. But for your sake he spoke all those words, and everything is clear. All the other ministers became envious of us.
Stalin: What else did he say? Please tell us without anymore of these pauses. My actors are all about to have heart attacks.
Valentina: As is Voldemar Arkadievich…
Stalin: This isn’t about me.
Man from the Ministry (ceremoniously): Our minister, risking himself for your sake, said this to the President: In our society there’s no consensus about the Father of Nations. One man curses him, another man praises him. Our society is tense and divided. Mister President, we want to know: How do we feel about Stalin?
Stalin: And what did he say?
Khrushchev: My god, what did he say?
Man from the Ministry: For a long time he was silent.
Stalin: And then?
Man from the Ministry: And then he blew his nose.
Stalin: Well, then what?
Man from the Ministry: It’s not by chance, he said, that human beings have two eyes. Two, he said, and not one.
Stalin: So you’ve decided to go ahead and give my actors heart attacks?
Man from the Ministry: Because with one eye it’s necessary to see the tyrant and butcher, and with the other – the mighty builder of the state. Then the minister asked… My God, light a candle for his good health, how he fought for you today!
Stalin: We’ll do it! We’ll do it all! I’m begging you – continue!
Man from the Ministry: The minister asked, does that mean it’s best to remember Stalin as a butcher-hero? Once again, the President fell silent. Then the minister summed things up… You know, I’m describing this now, and I can’t believe it… Our minister is a man made from a heroic stamp, that’s what I have to tell you. He summed things up – does it mean that the societal consensus will be based on this principal: a tyrant-builder and a butcher-hero? And the President looked at him significantly. Using both of his eyes, Voldemar Arkadievich. Using both his eyes.
The Man from the Ministry withdraws.
Beria: If we’re following the rules of this conspiracy, we also need to burn the new telegram from the ministry. The one that directs us to burn the previous one.
Lenin: Why is that?
Beria: Otherwise there will be circumstantial elephants of his approval.
Stalin: What the hell are you talking about?! Circumstantial elephants?!
Beria: I said, circumstantial evidence revealing that the Minister approved, at first, that which the President later condemned.
Stalin: You’re a bootlicker, Lavrentyi… Burn it.
He passes the telegram to Valentina, and she burns it.
Stalin: They smell strange, these burned ministerial telegrams… They smell a little sad somehow…
Valentina (sobbing): It’s the smell of unfulfilled dreams…
Stalin: So then, a birth… And the humor has got to go… There’s no death in the Kremlin, of course… And there’s nothing funny there either, as we should have known… And the premiere is in three weeks.
Valentina: And how about we don’t change anything?
Everyone laughs, but Voldemar strokes her head in a fatherly way.
Stalin: We won’t change anything. We’ll simply shorten it.
Lenin: Yes, there really is stuff there that can be cut! We’ve got to make the idea crystal clear, and only then present it to the public.
Beria: To be honest, the irony made me uncomfortable inside. I really don’t understand – what were we laughing at?
Khrushchev: My bewilderment is more general: I can’t understand why we laugh.
Stalin (gets his pipe, lights it, takes a puff): So you’d hand me over just like that, eh? As soon as the wind blows in the other direction? (To Valentina) Human beings are the most abominable of God’s creations.
Valentina: Write it down?
Stalin: Don’t make a fuss. Just remember it.
“Farce is obsolete, Terentii.”
The artist Vladimir Kudravtsev runs in. He is dragging a resistant Terentii behind him.
Vladimir: Voldemar Arkadievich, this one wanted to run away from the theater.
Stalin: Don’t call the playwright “this one.” In case you didn’t know, he’s the most important person in the theater… Wanted to run away?
Vladimir: Uh-huh, to desert the territory.
Stalin: Run away from the theater? Terentii? There are only spectators out there. You’d just get depressed. (To the actors) Why did you stop him? Let this boring human being go. (Terentii heads for the exit.) But, Terentii, according to our contract the theater has the right to revise the script. And the scale of the revisions, alas, is not specified. But that’s nothing, you can take us to court. Though the case, alas, won’t be heard until after the premiere. Clear out, Terentii, until our day in court. I won’t be there; you won’t see me anymore. You’ll be met by my brilliant legal department.
Terentii: Why are you acting this way?
Stalin: And you, while you were running away, you didn’t think about how you’d offend me? Sit down. While you were playing the deserter, we had a meeting here. A serious one. Just don’t think, brother Terentii, that we succumbed to pressure. Or is there some suspicion lurking there in your liberal heart? It was just the first run-through: it uncovers the weak spots. It reveals abscesses, the artistic defects.
Beria: Defects there are.
Khrushchev: There are abscesses.
Stalin: You see. But all this is pointless… (He walks around Terentii, who is sitting in a chair.) It’s a brilliant play, Terentii! Magnificent! But you’ve got to cut it down to a third of its size and write a new beginning. That’s all! (Terentii endeavors to run, Khrushchev and Beria stop him.) There are three weeks before the premiere. But before that there were two years of work, anticipation, dreams… What, Terentii, would you throw away two years of your life? You are a rational human being. You’ll publish your play in its full form. I will write the introduction. You’ll stage it in its full form in a different theatre – I’ll help you. But here… I want to ask you as a gifted human being: why is there so much stuff in your play, yet not one scene with the mother?
Terentii: With whose mother?
Stalin: With Stalin’s mother. After all, we’re not going to just show this old man to the audience. (He points to himself, and Valentina cries out: “Don’t talk like that!”) We have to understand that horrific moment when the young Stalin turns into a monster. Let’s go deep. Are you capable of going deep? Straight into the soul of a monster, beneath the surface, into the underground! We’ll pose the questions – why did he turn out like this? He had been a splendid chap, he loved the Bible, honored his mother… We have to show the birth of Stalin. Yet you began with his death. Terentii! You violated the laws of nature! Everything that I’m saying – it’s a summons, Terentii. It is… How do they say it now…
Beria: A challenge!
Stalin: Exactly! Just now, we all saw the reaction of the audience. They don’t get the laughter. Satire is obsolete, Terentii. Farce is obsolete. Alas.
Terentii: When did it become obsolete? An hour and a half ago? (In horror, the actors cover their faces with their hands.)
Stalin: A creative human being has got to be a daredevil. (To the actors) Learn from his example!
Valentina (to Terentii): In case you’d like to know, mister daredevil, for his eighty-year anniversary Voldemar Arkadievich has planned such an audacious action that you couldn’t even dream it up!
Stalin: Enough, Valya! … But as regards obsolescence. You’re in the theatre, Terentii. Here anything can become obsolete in an instant. Chin up! If we see that it’s gone poorly, I’ll be the first to announce: put it all back in! Well, Terentii? (To Beria and Khrushchev) I refuse to accept it. A creative human being, a young man – avoiding experimentation? Averse to risk?
Beria: He adores his comfort zone. It’s his cradle.
Khrushchev: His cloister.
Stalin: That’s it. I’m worn out. Open the doors. Wide open. I’m not going to hold back or try to convince anyone. Does anyone else want to leave? Does psychological realism disturb you? An attempt to climb into the abyss of a monster’s soul? Who wants to put on airs, to giggle and jump around the stage, ignoring the life of the human spirit? I’m not holding you here. And I’m especially not holding you here, Terentii. (He approaches him, extends his hand in parting.) This task is not for you, my dear humorist. So what, it happens. No hard feelings.
Terentii: Give me a moment to adjust, you’re like an avalanche…
Stalin: Adjust at home with some chicken noodle soup. Right not you’ve got to concentrate and – soar! Just fly in a completely different direction, Terentii, than we were flying in before! Turn from the West to the East, Terentii! Do you hear that? It’s not the sound of banknotes, though there is that, of course. It’s the sound of a new dream spreading its wings!
Beria: Nikita and I can hear it.
Khrushchev: What’s wrong with Terentii?
Beria: Deafness is setting in…
Khrushchev: He’ll cure himself – we believe!
Stalin: And our little Volodya (pointing to Vladimir, he addresses Terentii) displayed magnificent artistry when he seized you, isn’t that so? Do you appreciate it? And what flair? Eh?
Beria: Marvelous flair!
Khrushchev: And marvelous artistry!
Stalin (to Vladimir): I’ll reward you! In the new production you will play the young Stalin! Young Joey!
Vladimir (suffocating with joy): I… I will justify! All the faith you’ve placed in me… Wholly! … Completely! … All the hopes…
Stalin: Easy, easy, Volodya. Get into character already. Little Joey doesn’t rush. His words are weighty, his movements aren’t in vain. This is a future ruler, Volodya. There’s no need to squeal. Are we agreed? (Vladimir nods. He attempts to transform himself. Voldemar addresses Terentii.) Inspire him! Inspire us and return to the script! I await the results tonight.
Beria: We all await them.
Khrushchev: And we believe.
Beria: He’s a first-rate talent – he’ll figure it out.
Khrushchev: It’ll be a cinch for him.
Stalin: Our faith is absolute.
The birth of a monster from the spirit of a chicken
Rehearsal of the first scene of the revised play. Anna Krylataya is now playing Stalin’s mother; Vladimir Kudravtsev is playing the Young Stalin. The other actors are observing.
Young Stalin: How is your health, Mom?
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken more slowly…
Stalin (to Terentii): It’s a brilliant script. Simply brilliant.
Terentii: Why are you…
Stalin: You’re not a theater worker. You’re a writer. You have no clue how much there is in those phrases. But you’ve got us. Give thanks that you’ve got us.
Stalin: You see, right there. It’s just a single ‘thanks’ – but it’s got irony and hopelessness, bright faith in me and a deep lack of faith in me as well… And that’s just one word, Terentii. What’s that look? Oh, these authors… They don’t understand anything. They write ingenious stuff, like these phrases here, and don’t even realize it. They write a bunch of crap and make a big fuss about it… Just like you were making a fuss about the scenes that we performed yesterday. What was in them, really? A lot of giggles and winks. You just watch, how we flesh out your script right now. Watch the magic happen, Terentii. (To the Young Stalin) Eat the chicken, but eat it like the monster who will devour people in the future… Yes! It’s already better! Imaginary fangs! I don’t see the imaginary fangs, Volodya! Yes… Yes… They’re growing… Oh my god… Incomparable…
Young Stalin (to Valentina): How is your health?
Stalin: No! No! My dear Volodya… Deliver it, so that we hear something entirely different in that question… This creature is dreaming about plunging everyone into the flames of hell, my dear Volodya! Even his mother, especially his mother, we know this from the archival material that Terentii obtained…
Terentii: I didn’t obtain –
Stalin (he blows smoke into Terentii’s face and addresses Volodya): Say, “How is your health?” – so that underneath it we hear: “When, oh when, are you going to die, you old hag?”
Young Stalin: When, oh when, are you going to… Oy, forgive me… How is your health?
Stalin: That’s better. But do it like this: “How is” – that’s the first lick of the flame, and “your health” – that’s already a roar, the roar of hell fires… Try it, Volodya…
Young Stalin: How is your health?
Beria and Khrushchev applaud.
Stalin (to Terentii): And that’s just the beginning. In a week’s time he’ll be saying that line in such a way that they’ll put it in textbooks on the history of theatre. Valentina. Let’s go.
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken more slowly…
Stalin: Valentina! Are you forgetting that we’re working with a mystical script? (To Terentii) Yes, yes, mystical. (To Valentina) That’s not simply a phrase – “eat the chicken”… You’ve already realized that a demon has implanted itself in your son…
Valentina: But, Voldemar Arkadievich, when did I realize that?
Stalin: A magnificent actor’s question! Your lessons in audacity, Terentii! You realized it this morning. And now you regard that little chicken like a magic potion… No, not ‘potion’… Like magical food. Because you poured into that little chicken all of your love, all of your hope, Valentina! And you are presenting this food to your son with the hope that he will eat it, and the demon will hurl itself out! And you will see your little Joey, your beloved little Joey, as he was before!
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken –
Stalin: A mother’s despair! Invest it with more motherly despair, Valentina!
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken more slowly…
Stalin: Break the line into two parts. “Joey, eat the chicken” – that’s full of despair. “More slowly” – that’s full of hope. That your son will be cured, Valentina.
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken more slowly…
Stalin: You need to practice it more.
Valentina: While for him (pointing at the Young Stalin) it’s immediately “incomparable”… (she is on the verge of tears).
Stalin: Your task is more complicated, Valentina. And it’s about to get even more complicated. Are you ready for it to get even more complicated?
Valentina: I’m ready.
Stalin: Deliver that “More slowly” part with the opposite intention. Do you see? In point of fact, you want him to oust the demon more quickly… So, deep down “more slowly” to you means “faster, I beg you, faster”! Do you see? Infuse that phrase with the dialectic, Valentina! With the dialectic!
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken more slowly…
Beria: Isn’t all this too daring, Voldemar Arkadievich?
Stalin: You’ve decided to start joking again, Lavrentyi? You know I’ve got a big joke ready for you.
Beria: I’m not joking at all. I fear they may suspect that this chicken is actually an eagle…
Stalin: That’s bullshit! And even if they do, so what?
Beria: The symbol of our state… Stalin, it turns out, is gorging on the symbol of… Voldemar Arkadievich, I’m glad that you’re smiling. But we have to be aware of the risks.
Stalin: You know what, Lavrentyi. I won’t allow anyone! Anyone! To interfere with my self-expression. You may be right. But this scene determines everything; it shows the beginning; here we see how, from out of a young man, a beast begins to hatch, a monster… I will not back away from this scene. Not for anything. Even if the police come.
Valentina (to Beria): I understand perfectly well how much you’d like it if I had no role in this production at all.
Khrushchev: There’s no need to treat Lavrentyi like this. His suspiciousness is an asset. And if he becomes completely rabid – we’ll shoot him! (Everyone laughs, except Stalin and Terentii.)
Valentina: I know why he’s taking vengeance on me. Voldemar Arkadievich, he solicited me. Drunk, filthy, and depraved – he solicited me.
Beria: It’s slander!
Valentina: Prove it!
Beria: How in the world can I prove that I didn’t do something?!
Stalin: Brilliant. Stalinism is in the air, just as we wanted! All right, Lavrentyi, prove you’re innocent! Quickly! Quickly, while I still have faith in you. Well, come on… Well…? That’s it. My faith is gone. You’re a traitor, Lavrentyi. You are an enemy. Oh, I’m joking, come on, my god. I have news for you, Lavrentyi and Nikita. There’s nothing bad about it. Artistic news, and it doesn’t have anything to do with morality. Accept it with an open, actorly heart. Khrushchev and Beria will not be in the new production.
Valentina: So sad.
Beria: Josef! I don’t believe…
Khrushchev: Voldemar Arkadievich, this is a tragedy.
Stalin: I understand.
Khrushchev: How we dreamed about these roles…
Stalin (with a heightened intonation): A theatre is an empire. What is one little actor’s fate in comparison to the fate of a whole theatre? The decision has been made. Your talents will be needed in the future. Now is not the time. (To the Young Stalin and Valentina) And so, young Josef, my dear Keke, let’s not be distracted, we’re moving on (to Khrushchev and Beria), and you two go out into the auditorium…
Young Stalin: How is your health, Mom?
Valentina: Joey, eat the chicken more slowly…
Beria and Khrushchev exit.
The kites of Stalinism and the falcons of liberalism
Beria and Khrushchev.
Beria: Try to eat the chicken…
Khrushchev: How is your health?
(They laugh somberly.)
Beria (mimicking Voldemar Arkadievich): The empire doesn’t need you, the theatre’s fate is more important than your fates… Does he think that he’s an empire? That he’s the theatre?
Khrushchev: It’s a tragedy, a tragedy…
Beria: The theatre is dying, Nikita. Now this is clear, as well as the fact we will not be in the new production.
Khrushchev: It’s so painful… I can’t believe it.
Beria: And now what? Are we going to sit amongst the audience at the premiere? Applaud and swallow our tears? Is that what we worked two years for? I’m terrified.
Khrushchev: Of what?
Beria: I’m afraid of my own thoughts, Nikita.
Khrushchev: Let them out.
Beria: Voldemar is pushing the empire into an abyss.
Khrushchev: It’s a tragedy.
Beria: You and I, Nikita, are the Himalayas… And all these little actors… They fawn over him, if only to save their little roles.
Khrushchev: It’s disgusting to watch.
Beria: You know what I call the style that Voldemar is prepared to work in? And, by the way, he’s been working like this for a long time. Out of fear. “Not-a-candle-for-God-not-a-deal-for-the-devil.” Or – “no-way-ism.” It’s a very contemporary style, by the way, for those who want to save themselves. Voldemar has already directed productions like that, where he kept himself aloof. But this one is especially dangerous, Nikita.
Khrushchev: Especially dangerous, Lavrentyi.
Beria: You know what this premiere is going to be? It’ll be the premiere of the outstanding instinct for self-preservation of Voldemar Arkadievich. To participate in all of that – it’s disgusting. It’s vile.
Beria: Our emperor has lost his senses. I was seeing it already yesterday, when the shocks from the telegrams began. The illness spread more quickly than I thought it would. But not more quickly than I can write. I foresaw it all. (He pulls out of his pocket two sheets of paper.) Here we’ll have your signature too, Nikita. And when Voldemar falls, he won’t drag you and me into the abyss with him! Here are two… denunciations. One – to the organization of anti-Stalinists. And the other – to the place where Stalin is revered and adored. Our local Stalin thinks that he’s outsmarted everyone. Thinks that he’ll run between the streams of Stalinism and Anti-Stalinism, to oblige both our people and their people! To pass off silence as opinion, alarm as objectivity, terror as neutrality, and a creative impasse as deep thought! But these little denunciations… They will change the optics, bring things into sharper focus. Reveal the weak spots – for both the Stalinists and the liberals. (In ecstasy) The kites of Stalinism and the falcons of liberalism will descend upon Voldemar! And we will stand aside, while they gnaw on his little bones. Stand there and whisper in his ears: Are you in pain, Voldemar Arkadievich? It looks like they’re pecking out your eyes? Ah, already? And what now (shaking his head) Your spleen… So sad… Well? Are you with me?
Khrushchev: Unh-uh. I’m outta here.
Beria: After all that we’ve said?
Khrushchev: I was only listening, Lavrentyi.
Beria: But your signature? Your signature? You will perish! Alongside him! You fool, with what they did to your role… You fool!
Khrushchev exits. Beria rushes after him.
Or maybe I’ll shoot you all in the dining hall?
Voldemar Arkadievich and Terentii.
Terentii: I understand that theatre involves compromise. I’m not proposing that we stage the whole play, in full, I’m not stupid, and I understand that they’re pressuring you –
Stalin: You are mistaken, Terentii. You’re just like a child. Pressuring… Who can put pressure on Voldemar? Do you know what principle should be adhered to? Think before you speak. Those who do the opposite have lives that are troubled, short, and sad.
Terentii: Okay! They’re not pressuring you.
Stalin: That’s right, Terentii.
Terentii: But to not stage even twenty percent of the script?! At least do half of it. Otherwise, the tone is lost, the whole idea is lost, and I don’t understand anymore who the play is about, who exactly is your… our Stalin, what we came together for, I don’t understand… To tremble with fear and show everyone how scared we are? Of a ruler who died long ago?
Stalin: You’re still like a child. That’s bad. Because you are not a child.
Stalin: Do you know how much our Nikita is suffering? Just now, he was hitting his head on the board with the cast list. Didn’t see his name there and started to hit it. He broke the board. He broke his head. (He pulls out a piece of paper and shows it to Terentii.) The cast list. With Nikita’s blood. Take it.
Terentii: What for?
Stalin: So that you experience drama. Real, not imaginary, drama. Nikita had a seizure; they called an ambulance. They suspect he had a stroke. But all the same he stayed in the theatre. Tied a shawl around his head and stayed. I hope, he says, to fulfill my obligation as an actor and a citizen. It’s like that, Terentii. Have you heard how he sings? Write him a tiny little role, so that our injured man can sing from the stage.
Terentii: What kind of role could he sing…
Stalin: Suddenly, somewhere in a forest glen, an unexpected singer delights the ear of the future dictator… You can dream up better than I can where he could sing; I’m not your advisor on this one, you have complete control. Just save Nikita.
Terentii (shrugging his shoulders): Then we’ll have to save Beria too.
Stalin: Oh, no! He’s a traitor. (Quietly) He’s in a cell now.
Terentii: Wh- what?!
Stalin: Nikita suggested it! As a joke at first, but then everyone got carried away… Nikita most of all: Absolutely, he shouted, lock him up in chains (he laughs). We have a little room here, the dressing room of an actor who died long ago, there’s no heat. Lavrentyi is cooling off there now. Howling. But what’s to be done? Otherwise, God only knows what he’d spread around the city before the premiere. So Nikita must be rewarded. Let him sing. He has served us well.
Terentii: But the cell – is that a joke?
Stalin: You don’t need anything on the fifth floor, do you?
Terentii: What would I need there?
Stalin: Then it’s a joke. (Terentii rises up to leave.) Think about Nikita, think about our singer. About the actor and the citizen! (Terentii exits, Voldemar Arkadievich sings with a slight Georgian accent) Where are you, my Suliko… (He puts on the white jacket of the generalissimo, starts to smoke his pipe.) Around me are don-keys, goats, and shrews, And no one at all – to talk to. (Getting into character, he speaks in a heightened tone.) Around me are donkeys, goats, and shrews. And no one at all to talk to. I am alone, like the Lord himself. Surrounded by traitors. Each with a knife behind his back. Do they know how hard it is to be an emperor? And how sad it is to see only snouts around you. Not a single face. (Lenin appears.) Oh, you are heavy, Lenin’s cap… (He laughs).
Lenin: Josef, I can’t believe it.
Stalin: That I poisoned you once? Believe it. Beyond any doubt.
Lenin: And you cut me out? My role! You cut out…
Stalin: Your historical role?
Lenin: I’m leaving.
Stalin: Unfortunately, exiting the theatre before the premiere is impossible. For the next three weeks we are all – one big, terrible family.
Lenin: If I don’t have a role, what am I here for?
Stalin: To cement us. To strengthen us. To shut up.
Lenin: I’ll leave!
Stalin: My doubts concerning your departure are equal to my sadness.
Lenin: What sadness? What’s gotten into you?!
Stalin: Take off the bald cap already. What kind of Lenin are you? You’re a two-faced turncoat, and there’s no need to pretend…
Lenin: What kind of Lenin am I? No kind at all.
Stalin: Exactly right. Exactly right. Not one of you here has really become your character. For now I’m still deciding about the production. It’s possible that we’ll find a spot for you. But for now get out. Everyone is spending the night in the restaurant.
Lenin: What? Come on, are you serious? In the restaurant on the fifth floor?
Stalin: No. Don’t go to the fifth floor, the howling there is unpleasant. And you’re a sensitive one. Our restaurant is on the sixth floor. (Turning toward an icon, he crosses himself.) My Lord! These people have worked in the theatre for decades, yet they haven’t found the time to learn what’s on what floor. And with those kinds of people, Lord, you’re suggesting that I create a great production? With those kinds of people, you’re suggesting that I build the greatest theatre in the world? Oh, wouldn’t it be better to shoot them all in the dining hall? And choose new people? People who are clean? (He turns back to Lenin.) To the restaurant. I’ve ordered them to warm up a free dinner for you all.
“Don’t believe it, Voldemar! They’re fake!”
At the restaurant. A fully set table. The actors and Terentii are eating in silence. From time to time the screams of Beria are heard.
Terentii: I tried to free him.
Terentii: You mean how?
Khrushchev: Aw, he’s ecstatic that they’ve locked him up. Otherwise he’d be getting up to no good, and then he’d come crying, begging forgiveness.
Terentii: How is he ecstatic – he’s howling.
Valentina: A person ought to maintain his dignity.
Lenin: And he’s doing that splendidly.
Beria: Oh, guiltlessly I suffer, guiltlessly!
Terentii: I think I’m going to leave.
Valentina: But all the doors are locked.
Terentii: Did you try to open them?
Valentina: We know that they’re locked.
Khrushchev: The order is posted.
Valentina: I helped write it.
Terentii: What’s going on?
Khrushchev: A normal artistic process – why are you getting so exasperated? These authors… Have you written a scene for me? Did Voldemar Arkadievich tell you that I am to sing? A whole lot? Then write it. You’ve got loads of time. Voldemar Arkadievich decreed that you are to sleep in the kitchen, separately, not like us, between the tables.
Terentii: Take any role you like and sing.
Terentii: Do what you want. I don’t care anymore.
Beria (from offstage): Voldemar Arkadievich! I’m begging you! Even a tiny role… I ask forgiveness for my stupidity… Thank you for incarcerating me…
Valentina: There’s that voice.
Beria: I understand now! I’ll make amends!
Khrushchev: That’s a real gift. To penetrate walls like these!
Voldemar enters dressed in the complete regalia of Stalin. Next to him is Beria.
Stalin: I have forgiven him. He’s promised me that he’ll establish order here.
Beria: And I will.
Stalin: I know.
Beria: For my first act of devotion: here is Valentina.
Valentina: What about Valentina?
Beria: We all were so sure that she loved only you. We thought that we all loved only you. Yet it turns out… (He reveals a file.) I have just received some photos taken from the second floor. These boys are great, they’d been wanting to do some work for a long time. I suggest we open a prison up there; the guards are already in place. It’s comfortable, with all the amenities, there’s no need to panic. And so: here’s our Valya with the make-up man. You see… He’s making up, as they say, her face… And here she is with the clarinet player… You see… She’s trying to pull a melody out of him… Ekh, Valya, Valya…
Valentina: Don’t believe it, Voldemar! They’re fake! It’s only you I –
Stalin (examining the photos in the file): The role of the mother has been removed from the play. At the top of the show, Young Stalin has a scene with his father.
Young Stalin: It will be better with the Father. That way it takes on a religious significance, in my view. The revolt against the Father in the highest sense. Not only the Freudian one.
Stalin (embracing Beria): And here before you is the father. Don’t lose heart, Terentii, you won’t really have to make any changes. Just switch the pronouns from female to male…
Beria: I’ll change them. It’s not a problem.
Stalin: And that’s because the script is universal. It’s a magnificent script. I read it and weep. Does everyone have wine in their glasses?
Valentina: Voldemar? Are you joking about my role?
Stalin: There is no more Voldemar. You’ve all come unraveled. Make-up men, clarinet players… How did she find a clarinet player here? Which of you plays clarinet?
Beria: We’ll figure it out right away.
Terentii (rising): That’s it! That’s it! Remove my name from the posters! Perform the whole script or remove my name from the posters… (He runs off.)
Stalin: Does anyone even know what his name is? I can’t recall it. That would be quite a feat. To remove what doesn’t exist. (He shouts) We’ll remove it, we’ll remove it, go to hell, you idiot. A complete lack of talent. Any one of us could write that kind of script. Yes, even you, Nikita.
Khrushchev: Maybe I could…
Stalin: You really could. The song you’re going to sing – sit down and write it, you’ve got the whole night.
Beria: But how is Terentii going to leave if the doors are locked?
Stalin: I don’t care. He’s a dead man. He has defected. He’s betrayed us. (Beria whispers something in his ear.) No, I don’t believe… (threatening him with his finger) Lavrentyi! You want to play all the roles yourself? Greed – that’s bad. Come on, ask forgiveness from everyone. That’s not good what you were whispering to me.
Beria: Forgive me, friends. It wasn’t out of greed, but out of a kind of ecstasy. I can feel it now – it’s rising, rising, rising… (Suddenly he starts to sing a Bolshevik song. Nikita joins in, and religious tones can be heard in his singing. Suddenly, in devout glorification, arises the name Voldemar, then Josef, and then Voldemar again. The director stands on the table. All of the actors sing an actual ecclesiastical prayer in praise of Josef.)
Stalin: And there was! There was something beautiful in that idiot’s play! Right there, in the finale… Remember… When you ask one another to shoot… Well come on!
The actors begin to shout, in turn:
Raise the quota of those to be shot!
In Kirov – by 800 people!
In Novosibirsk – by two thousand!
In Leningrad, by a thousand five hundred!
It’s a state necessity!
A state necessity!
The state is in need of corpses!
It needs more prisoners.
And dead people.
In Khabarovsk – up by five hundred!
In Gorky – by a thousand!
Raise the quotas!
Millions, plunged into coldness.
Millions, mixed together with snow.
Millions, swallowed by darkness.
Repression is essential! The times require it!
And what about this increase of interest in the repression?
There’s no need to get hysterical!
Our politics won’t tolerate that!
After all, didn’t we win the war?
After all, didn’t we win new land?
Didn’t we settle people on territory that was unfit for life?
And didn’t we build roads to places where earlier there had only been forests?
Where earlier there had only lived beasts?
After all, did we not create before the eyes of a dumbfounded world a fearsome and magnificent state?
Millions, plunged into coldness.
Millions, mixed together with snow.
Millions, swallowed by darkness.
There’s no need to get hysterical!
Shut up their mouths with the greatness of the state!
A person is nothing – the state is all.
A person is nothing – the state is all.
A person is nothing – the state is all.
Stalin: For our theatre!
Everyone: For our theatre!
“There’s no need to groan, gentlemen.”
The Man from the Ministry appears.
Man from the Ministry: They wouldn’t let me in! I had to summon my guards. And even my guards needed help. You’ve got a regular fortress here.
Stalin: Will you have a drink, my friend?
Man from the Ministry: Of course – why not? (He drinks.) You know… It turns out they didn’t convey the words of the President to me very accurately. It happens sometimes. There’s no need to groan, gentlemen. Everyone has suffered from this; you aren’t the first, and you won’t be the last.
Stalin: Good Lord…
Man from the Ministry: I asked you! You’ve got to understand, our President has already piloted a supersonic jet, soared into the heavens, descended into the gloomy depths of the ocean on a bathyscaphe…
Valentina: I saw that. Incomparable.
Man from the Ministry: … played the piano on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre.
Khrushchev: He played brilliantly. We gathered around the TV and sang along with him.
Beria: I remember that like it was yesterday!
Man from the Ministry: But yesterday, in the morning, he was speaking in such a dreamy way: it would be so wonderful if Voldemar Arkadievich called and asked me to direct that production. I have invaluable experience: Who else, if not me? (Pause.) Pour me another? Voldemar Arkadievich? Pour me another?