The Bolshoi Theater is highly significant to the development of the concept of “Russianness” due to the fact that it has served as both a site through which to experience many key figures and events in Russian history as well as a site through which to understand the evolving concept of “Russianness” in its own structural changes. Thus, this historical object is not only rooted in key moments in Russian history and in the Russian sociopolitical landscape, but also provides a manner through which to understand Russian history and track the development of “Russianness” in every major internal site change over time.
The Bolshoi Theater (“Big” Theater, in Russian), has the illustrious history of the serving as the site of critical moments in Russian history.[i] It is no surprise that such key figures in Russian music and art history have had their premieres at this site. Such figures include Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and many more.[ii] Other key moments that have taken place here have included the declaration of the founding of the Soviet Union and the announcement of Lenin’s death.[iii]
Experts agree that the decisions to use the Bolshoi Theater as the strategically-chosen site of such announcements and historical events is no coincidence. In fact, the symbolic value of the theater in the past 238 years has seen not only the direct usage of the theater as a site with which to announce important government events, but also the slightly more indirect usage of the theater in pushing government agenda through area (see the explanation of “dramballet” below). Perhaps nobody used it in this dual context more than the Soviets, as explained in a recent, reflective Op-Ed in the New York Times:
Since its founding in 1776, the government has regarded it as an emblem of power, whether ideological or commercial or both. There has been as much politics on its stage as art. Stalin delivered speeches at the Bolshoi before cowed Communist Party officials who dreaded being the first to stop applauding. Competing bureaucracies supervised the repertoire, censoring scenarios and sponsoring the invention of a genre of dance (known as dramballet) to convey Marxist-Leninist content. In true Socialist-Realist spirit, bulldozers lumbered from the wings before audiences of peasants and workers. At the same time, the Bolshoi was called upon to preserve the Russian tradition, to hold up the beautiful past as testament to the glorious Soviet future.[iv]
With the many subsequent, post-Soviet era issues that have plagued that the Bolshoi Theater, it may appear difficult to trace the history of Russianness as symbolized through this site and through the different historical usages of this site. How exactly could one explain a concept as complex as “Russianness” as told a series of events each used to further the political and power agenda of whatever administration is in power at the time?
It can be argued that the “Russianness” encompassed by the Bolshoi Theater’s sociopolitical event history in combination with its drama/artistic history is just as international in its purpose and understanding as it is domestic. Furthermore, it could be argued that this international and domestic account of “Russianness” simply reflects a nation of constantly shifting power and ideas, always fluid and never exactly static (perhaps to the dismay of the figures in power at any given time). This could be because of the fact that some of the time, the dramatic historical importance of a lot of these events that are more immediately observable and digestible to the outside world and foreign audiences than the more material drama that will be discussed later on.
In post-Soviet history, the Bolshoi Theater has had a slightly different fate. This fate is directly linked to the modern material changes to the Theater and how it relates to the aforementioned concept of Russianness inherently reflected in the ever-present changes taking place at the site. The material changes and history to the theater offers an alternative view on “Russianness.” This particular view on “Russianness” is just as fluid and changing over time as its sociopolitical counterpart view, but the interpretation is much more ambiguous.
In that sense, the definition I draw from the material history of the Theater is one of rebirth and repair. Every time the Theater was damaged in a fire or damaged by a bomb in World War II, it was still repaired and rebuilt.[v] In fact, after it was damaged in World War II, the Theater was repaired in full within a year. Again, this speaks simply to the importance of this site throughout Russian history, both as a symbol and as an important actual site of sociopolitical drama, artistic development, and sometimes a mix between the two. Additionally, material repair and recovery speaks to the theme of repair and rebirth, no matter the circumstances.
However, even small things like the Soviets adding a few hundred extra seats to the theater (supposedly to make it more accessible to the public audience) reflects a lot more than just the material, internal changes to the site.[vi] It would seem to reflect minutiae in Russian history that is curious to reflect upon. These tiny material changes to the Theater, consequentially, reflect the ever-changing ideological and political landscape of “Russianness.”
In the modern-era Putin Administration, the Bolshoi Theater’s material history reflects rebirth once more, if not more problematic and troubled. Most importantly, the Bolshoi Theater’s fate in the last decade has reflected a lot of modern Russia and the Putin administration biggest criticisms. Accusations of inferior workmanship, corruption, and more seemed to plague the reconstruction of the theater.[vii] Even the Putin-era artistic development of the Theater is riddled in economic and political difficulties.
One of the best examples of this is the unfortunate story of the artistic director at the Bolshoi, Sergei Filin, who was “almost blinded when distilled car battery acid was thrown at his face outside of his apartment.”[viii] Although the criminal has been found to be a soloist who had personal issues with Filin, this adds to the dramatic and concerning set of recents events involving the Theater and shed an ambiguous light on the post-Soviet era concept of “Russianness,” at least in the political sense.
That is to say, what does it mean that it has taken half a billion dollars and six years to repair one Theater?[ix] What does it mean that there have been so many repeated accusations of corruption and bad workmanship plaguing this most recent instance of repair and rebirth at the Bolshoi? What does it say about the current state of nation that the artistic director had car battery acid thrown on him in revenge for someone else’s grudges?
Unfortunately, there is no easy resolution to these questions, despite their gravity and obvious importance. My best guess is that this reflects yet another undercurrent of repair and rebirth in the Russian state, but only the sociopolitical and material changes at the site during the next several years will tell. Until then, the Bolshoi will dance another day.
"Bolshoi Theatre." Bolshoi Theatre. Credit Suisse, n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <https://www.credit-suisse.com/us/en/about-us/sponsorship/classical-music/our-commitment/bolshoi-theatre.html>.
Elder, Miriam. "Tsar quality: Bolshoi theatre reopens after six-year overhaul." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 28 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/oct/27/bolshoi-theatre-reopens-overhaul-russia>.
"History." Bolshoi Theatre Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <http://www.bolshoi.ru/en/about/history/>.
Morrison, Simon. "The Bolshoi’s Spinning Dance of Power." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/opinion/the-bolshois-spinning-dance-of-power.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.Osborn, Andrew. "The Bolshoi Theatre: a rich history." The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 27 Oct. 2011. Web. 30 Mar. 2014. <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/theatre/theatre-news/8853787/The-Bolshoi-Theatre-a-rich-history.html>.