Художники существуют только потому, что мир несовершенен.

An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. Artists exist only because the world is imperfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.

– Andrei Tarkovsky


EmbassadorsAndrei Tarkovsky is widely considered one of the greatest directors of all time. He made most of his films under the constraints of Soviet censorship, films that were considered “ideologically dangerous because of their free-thinking approach to the mysteries of human existence,” writes one reviewer.

His second film, “Andrei Rublev,” “was banned by the Soviet authorities until 1971. It was shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival at four o’clock in the morning on the last day, in order to prevent it from winning a prize – but it won one nonetheless, and was eventually distributed abroad partly to enable the authorities to save face.”

Less commonly known is that Tarkovsky also worked in theater. Spring of 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of his production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which ran in Moscow in 1977. My mother, Katya Kompaneyets, designed all 120 costumes for that play in collaboration with another artist.

She writes*:

In the winter of 1975, I got a grant from the Moscow Artists Union, which owned property outside Moscow where artists were provided with living quarters, a studio, printing presses and models for figure drawing. In Senezh, a village near the town of Solnechnogorsk, I shared a studio with Tengiz Mirzashvili, a celebrated artist from Tbilisi, Georgia. […] At that time, he was obsessed with the idea of organizing and designing a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

During our time together in Senezh, Mirzashvili went to Moscow […] and met Andrei Tarkovsky there. As was usual in those days, Mirzashvili was talking about “Macbeth” and Tarkovsky asked if he would like to work on a production of “Hamlet” with him instead. […] Mirzashvili asked me to collaborate with him on the costume design for the production—I had a background in textile and costume design. He couldn’t handle it alone since he lived in Tbilisi during the year. Excited by the project, I agreed even though I had two young children and knew it would put a lot of pressure on me.

But I couldn’t pass up working with Tarkovsky. Visually, his movies were stunning. I had seen his fascinating film “The Mirror” at a private screening and knew of his reputation as an independent-minded person and great director. Tarkovsky had his own views on the Soviet Union and on Russian history during a period when these ideas were strictly regulated and proscribed by the Soviet propaganda machine.

The strict regulation found its way to the production. My mother recalls that the year of rehearsals and preparation was “difficult and toxic due to Tarkovsky’s reputation as a dissident […] The theater administration was very opposed to our production and may have even gotten instructions from the Communist Party and the KGB to sabotage it.” In an email to me, my mother recalled that there were lines for blocks to get tickets to the premiere, but in the end, Tarkovsky’s “Hamlet” was only performed a few times. The official reason was that the lead actress fell ill, but it was never shown again. My mother added: “It wasn’t banned officially, just de facto. That’s how it often was in Soviet times.” She suspects that Party officials at the premiere didn’t like what they saw.

Among the few things remaining from the production are costume sketches painted in gouache by my mother. Instead of seeking historic accuracy to Shakespeare’s time, her drawings were inspired by Renaissance and early Renaissance paintings from Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger, some of my mother’s favorite artists. It turned out that Mirzashvili and Tarkovsvky had similar tastes, so my mother’s sketches were approved instantly.
Laertes

She writes:

We always made intentional choices about the color scheme, thinking about how the costumes would look together onstage. We wanted the stage to look like a painting. Tarkovsky was very happy with our ideas and signed the sketches after approval (his signature is visible on the sketches). The costumes were then accurately produced from these sketches by seamstresses under my supervision.

In an interview about “Hamlet,” Tarkovsky wrote:

Hamlet hesitates because he cannot triumph. How should he be? What can he do? He can’t do anything. This will always be the way. But he must still say his word… And the result is a pile of corpses. And four captains carry him out. This is the meaning of Hamlet, not ‘to be or not to be,’ ‘to live or die.’ Nonsense! It has nothing to do with life and death. It has to do with the life of the human spirit, about the ability or inability to become acclimatized, about the responsibility of a great man and intellect before society.

Through working with him, my mother came to understand why Tarkovsky was so drawn to this play:

Tarkovsky viewed the story of Hamlet as autobiographical since it paralleled his life story: a creative personality and member of the intelligentsia fights for truth and justice in the context of twisted times. Hamlet’s effort to speak the truth proved fatal. Working on the production with constant sabotage by the theater’s administration—they would refuse to give us a stage for rehearsals, a storage room that held our costumes burned down, etc.—proved to be suicidal, too. We were constantly stressed and strained, which we found an apt metaphor for the play we were working on.

The sketches are now on display at the Santa Monica College Emeritus Art Gallery in Santa Monica, CA alongside fifteen paintings my mother made during approximately the same time period. Many of these paintings I had never seen before — they had been stored in closets or under beds for the last thirty five+ years.

Getting these works out of the Soviet Union was a feat in itself. My mother writes:

I applied for an exit visa in 1979 and was faced with the problem of getting permission to take the works out of the country and the inevitable need to pay to do so (as was Soviet regulation). […] The Soviet government felt they owned my works created within their borders and made me pay for each piece. I could only afford to pay for some since I also had to buy the plane tickets for myself and my two kids to leave the Soviet Union. In order to take these sketches and my own paintings out of the country, I had to go through two state-run committees. […] I had to bribe them with some pricey paintings from my collection, which I knew I couldn’t get out of the country anyway.

After they gave me the list of prices for my own works, I had to approve this with Ministry of Culture. These people were bureaucrats and very vicious. They were not happy with the prices and wanted me to pay more. I had to fight them, but they finally put the stamps of approval and visas on the backs of each piece. You can still see them on the backs of the sketches.

The show will be up until November 4 (details here). For more on my mother, visit her website or Houzz page. And if you read Russian, here’s her short essay reflecting on the collaboration with Tarkovsky.

* quotes from my mother come from the exhibition text, edited by me

all paintings are copyright Katya Kompaneyets and may not be reproduced without permission

On August 31, 1999, a handmade bomb exploded in a popular Moscow shopping mall. I was there, and watched rubble, dust, and screaming erupt around me.

Read more about the event and my changing understanding of this experience in an essay over at Pacific Standard.

Two important things I’ve learned since the piece was published:

  • Leaflets from a radical anti-consumerist organization were discovered near the site of the explosion. They read: “A hamburger not eaten to the end by the dead consumer is a revolutionary hamburger. Consumers: We don’t like your life style. And it is not safe for you.” (Any links to that organization have since been refuted.)
  • The video arcade where the bomb went off was called дунамитor “Dynamite.” Oof.

Police detain an activist during a protest rally by opposition group "Another Russia" in central Moscow Sunday. (Reuters)

For the last two days, Muscovites have been taking to the streets to protest the recent (and rigged) Russian parliamentary election results. They have been joined by many people from other Russian cities who have dropped everything to join these unprecedented protests.

For a summary of the activities that took place on Monday and Tuesday, click here and here. The WaPo also has some good photos. You can also see my Twitter feed, where I’ve been re-tweeting the live tweets directly from the streets.

Here are a few important takeaways:

  1. Many of the participants are first-time protestors. Before this, they considered themselves too cynical to participate in oppositional activism, let alone vote in elections they knew to be rigged. Thousands upon thousands are meeting in the streets despite the heavy (and predictably violent) presence of police and special forces.
  2. People are very active online, on Facebook for events, and on Twitter (the hashtag for Monday was #5dec or #5дек, but I’m not sure what they are using now). Some are drawing comparisons to Tahrir Square.
  3. There are widespread (and deeply-held) rumors that Americans and other foreigners are paying Russians $$ to participate in such protests in order to tarnish Russia’s image. Putin has said things to spread this type of belief in the past. Even activists are wary of American support (as evidence by the tone when I wrote an English-language message of support on Facebook).
  4. Putin’s response has been to organize massive rallies of supporters for the “United Russia” party. People are being bused to Moscow, and one woman, when asked why she was joining, replied: “I don’t know–they just put us on a bus.”

This LiveJournal user (reminder: LiveJournal or Живо́й Журна́л is a serious blogging platform in Russia) posted some great photos. I’ve translated some of the signs in the images:

  • Photo #3: Police attempted to keep #s low by using metal detectors. So many people showed up that they spilled onto neighboring boulevards.
  • Photo #5: “These elections are a farce” and “UnitedRussia in the trash” (except the Russian has great word play that I can’t translate).
  • Photo #4: “Russia Will Be Free” and “We’ll Return Power to the People.”
  • Photo #6: “Gays and Lesbians Against Crooks and Thieves.”
  • Last photo reads “United Russia is the party of crooks and thieves.”

Let’s see what comes of all this. And don’t forget that the presidential elections are coming up in March, when Putin is expected to take back his old job (how convenient).

I was going to continue my new weekly Russia Roundup of Humor tradition, but the biggest piece of Russian news isn’t really funny.  So I’m posting on a Monday to differentiate from Friday’s theme:

UPDATE (5/19): Check out these highly inflammatory remarks from the Moscow mayor’s press secretary.

This past Saturday, Moscow police violently broke up a gay rights parade that was set to coincide with the Eurovision finale.  See video footage and a full roundup here. My favorite blog has a ton of photos of the arrests, and they highlight the irony that the Cyrillic lettering on the police uniform reads backwards as ‘Homo’ in English…


As many as 40 people were arrested, though most seem to have been released already.  One of the charges for arrest was for “walking with a transvestite” (you can see the transvestite in these photos). Mayor Luzhkov has repeatedly referred to these gay activists as “satanists” and allowed a simultaneous anti-gay protest to go on uninterrupted on that same day.