Rebel Moscow theatre closes doors with defiant last performance

Russian film director, who fled Russia after criticising the war in Ukraine, denounced the ‘murder’ of his former theatre.

The Gogol Centre theatre, one of the last bastions of artistic freedom in Russia, has shut its doors with a defiant final show called, I Don’t Take Part In War.

The emotional play on Thursday night, protesting against the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine, marked a dramatic end of an era for the Russian capital’s ever-shrinking opposition and intelligentsia circles.

Previously run by rebel director Kirill Serebrennikov, who left Russia after criticising Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine, the Gogol Centre staged daring plays for a decade, often testing increasingly strict laws and Moscow’s sharp conservative turn under President Vladimir Putin.

The final performance on Thursday night had some of the audience in tears when actors recited poems by Soviet poet and soldier Yuri Levitansky, who was born in what is now Ukraine.

The final play’s name was taken from one of Levitansky’s emblematic verses: “I don’t take part in war, it takes part in me”.

As the show ended, the theatre’s outgoing artistic director, Alexei Agranovich announced, “The Gogol Centre is closed. Forever.”

On Wednesday evening, Moscow authorities announced a change of management at several Moscow’s top theatres including Sovremennik and Gogol Centre. The Gogol Centre would get its old name back – The Nikolai Gogol Drama Theatre, the authorities said.

Serebrennikov, who was artistic director of the Gogol Centre between 2012 and 2021, accused the authorities of “murdering” his former theatre that he had built into a national cultural beacon.

“Yes. Gogol Centre has been shuttered. That’s it,” Serebrennikov wrote on the messaging app Telegram.

“From the point of view of art, this is not just sabotage – this is murder.”

He said the change of leadership was punishment for the venue’s “honesty” and an “attempt at freedom”, including efforts to protest Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

The 52-year-old director was caught up in a high-profile fraud case that his supporters say was punishment by the Kremlin for challenging the Russian authorities.

Another prominent Moscow theatre, the Sovremennik, will also have a change of management, authorities said.

These changes are seen as part of an increasing crackdown on any dissent since President Putin sent troops into Ukraine.

On Thursday, Serebrennikov addressed the audience via video link from Avignon in southeastern France.

“The Gogol Centre is an idea, the idea of freedom. Freedom is not dead. Freedom lives on as long as we live,” he said.

In his address, Serebrennikov pledged that, despite the closure in Moscow, the theatre’s mission would live on.

“There was this building. There will be another,” he said.

“I hope, someday, the war will end and the beautiful Russia of the future will emerge.”

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