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Human Most of All: In Moscow, a Theater Stages ‘Gorbachev’

MOSCOW — In August 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, returned to Moscow with his family from house arrest in Crimea …

Human Most of All: In Moscow, a Theater Stages ‘Gorbachev’

MOSCOW — In August 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, returned to Moscow with his family from house arrest in Crimea after a K.G.B.-managed anti-democracy coup had failed to depose him.

Instead of joining hundreds of thousands of ecstatic Muscovites, who had gathered on the city’s squares to celebrate his victory and theirs, Gorbachev went to a hospital with his wife, Raisa, who had suffered a stroke.

This scene was pivotal for Russia’s recent history, and it is also central to “Gorbachev,” the latest hit production from the State Theater of Nations in Moscow, where despite the pandemic shows continued to be performed live, though at limited capacity.

“I was not married to the country — Russia or the Soviet Union,” Gorbachev, who is now 90 and still lives in Moscow, wrote in his memoirs.

“I was married to my wife, and that night I went with her to hospital,” his character, masterly played by Yevgeny Mironov, said from the stage. “Perhaps it was the most crucial decision of my political life.”

“Gorbachev,” which premiered last October, is an ode to the love story of the Gorbachevs. By putting their relationship at its center, the play does something extraordinary for the Russian performing arts culture. It portrays the country’s leader as a human being instead of a grand demiurge, responsible for its future. It shows Gorbachev as someone for whom sentiments and moral obligations, to his wife, friends and citizens, reigned supreme over political expediency.

In a country where autocrats, including the current one, carefully protect their image and personal life, “Gorbachev” is a breath of fresh air. It celebrates the humanity of a person who is almost universally celebrated as a liberator and equally despised by many in Russia as the butcher of the country’s superpower status.

Alvis Hermanis, the acclaimed Latvian director who wrote and staged the play, tried to show how political matters appear secondary in the presence of true love. In the tradition of Russian classics, Hermanis makes the theme of love primary to historical events, which serve only as background. He makes the story universal, applicable not only to the leader of a vast nation but also to all of us.

To achieve this result, Hermanis uses the tools of Russia’s psychological realism tradition. The only two actors onstage, Chulpan Khamatova as Raisa Gorbacheva and Mironov as the last Soviet president, play impeccably with eerie precision, creating an atmosphere of timelessness, and melancholia. Under Hermanis’s direction, the play’s pacing gives the viewer enough space to reflect on the characters.

The whole production takes place in a dressing room with two makeup stations and two mirrors. There is a rack of dresses, and wigs are scattered around the space. This is a work in progress. A large sign on the entrance door reads: “Silence! Performance is ongoing.”

Khamatova and Mironov enter in what could easily be their usual street clothes: a hoodie, jeans, an unpretentious black shirt. Over the course of the performance, they will transform onstage, change their attire and looks as they age.

The two actors start by reading their lines out loud, discussing how to impersonate their characters. Slowly, through discussion, they adopt their roles, most visibly by imitating accents: Mikhail’s southern Cossack-derived pronunciation with elongated vowels and Raisa’s highly pitched chirping of an enthusiastic philosophy major in a country where the only accepted philosophical school was Marxism.

Khamatova and Mironov, who are among the finest drama theater actors of their generation, leave the stage only once, for the intermission in this three-hour performance. Slowly and seamlessly, they read out and play out their lives: The story of Stalin’s purges is followed by the gruesome war with Germany. Then their lives get consumedby their university love affair and, finally, by Gorbachev’s rise to the top through the ranks of party nomenklatura.

The story of Gorbachev at the helm of one of the world’s two superpowers is treated as background noise: “It was just one, six-year-long working day,” Raisa says from the stage. In the end, by the time the actors are already fully immersed in their characters, we only see a 90-year-old Mikhail. (At this point, Mironov is wearing a mask that covers his entire head, with Gorbachev’s port-wine birthmark on full display.) For the last few minutes, Mikhail is by himself, mourning his wife’s death in 1999 from leukemia, remembering her last words: “Do you remember if we returned the white shoes that we borrowed from Nina for our wedding?”

The play’s success, and the insatiabledemand for tickets that sell out in a half-hour and cost up to $250, can be attributed to the fact that its creators had something personal at stake.

For Hermanis, Gorbachev, who liberated his native Latvia from the Soviet yoke, was the third person “who changed his life the most after his father and mother,” he said in an interview with a Russian state-run broadcaster.

For Khamatova, Gorbachev gave hope for “a different life with the freedom of speech and sexual orientation,” she said in an interview with the Russian GQ.

For Mironov, who, as manager of the Theater of Nations, turned it into Moscow’s premier cultural institution over the past decade, Gorbachev provided artistic freedom at the time when he was just starting his career in the late 1980s.

“After getting into Gorbachev’s skin, I realized that he wasn’t a politician,” Mironov said in an interview recorded during rehearsals last year.

“That’s why he did what he did — that’s why he is so interesting and valuable to me as a person,” he said. “Because he behaved like a human being.”

The sense of care oozes through every pore of the acting and directing. That wouldn’t be enough, however, without the mastery that is also on full display here, which only testifies to the fact that it is time for Russian theater to cultivate more new territories, including the country’s most recent history.

In that vein, the authors could have gone farther along their path. For instance, the production could have put more emphasis on the role of Raisa. The production could have been called Raisa, after all. With her independence and carefully crafted looks, she was among the most hated figures in late Soviet times. (My grandfather called her nothing but “rat” because her name rhymes with the word for rat in Russian.)

It is time to do her justice.

In the end, Gorbachev, who attended one of the final rehearsals, and stood up to a standing ovation from a box, did not ask for a single change.

“This is freedom,” he said, according to Mironov. “Get used to it.”

At the State Theater of Nations, Moscow; Running time: 3 hours.


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