Lenkom Theater: From Soviet utopia to post-modern dystopia

Lenkom was supposed to stage contemporary plays that accorded with Soviet propaganda, but the theater tried to step out of ideological boundaries. Besides Soviet authors, it staged Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dickens and Rostand, which communist officials were not particularly happy about. Photo: Mark Zakharov, 1987.

Lenkom was supposed to stage contemporary plays that accorded with Soviet propaganda, but the theater tried to step out of ideological boundaries. Besides Soviet authors, it staged Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dickens and Rostand, which communist officials were not particularly happy about. Photo: Mark Zakharov, 1987.

Andrey Soloviev/TASS
In February one of Moscow's most celebrated theaters marks 90 years of bringing some of the finest works to the stage. Lenkom’s performances are almost always sold out, and it was here that the world-famous rock opera, Juno and Avos, was first staged.

Besides Soviet authors, Lenkom staged Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dickens and Rostand, which communist officials were not particularly happy about. Photo: Mark Zakharov, 1987. Source: Andrey Soloviev/TASSBesides Soviet authors, Lenkom staged Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dickens and Rostand, which communist officials were not particularly happy about. Photo: Mark Zakharov, 1987. Source: Andrey Soloviev/TASS

The Theater for the Working Youth was established in the USSR in 1927, riding the wave of leftist ideas and universal access to art. In the evenings after work, young men and women could stage plays here. This was a socialist utopia, which soon ended. The theater then became professional and received a new name: Lenin's Komsomol Theatre (Komsomol was the Communist Youth Organization), or Lenkom for short.

Lenkom was supposed to stage contemporary plays that accorded with Soviet propaganda, but the theater tried to step out of ideological boundaries. Besides Soviet authors, it staged Ibsen, Tolstoy, Dickens and Rostand, which communist officials were not particularly happy about.

The young theater director, Anatoly Efros, came to Lenkom in 1963 and raised particular concern among authorities. His poetical, frank and profound direction stood out from Soviet clichés, and clashed with the socialist realist mold, and so in 1967 he was dismissed. However, he went on to even greater success, in another Moscow theater - Malaya Bronnaya. Efros’ productions are now classics of Russian art. After Efros' departure, Lenkom went through a period of decline.

The sound and the fury

A new golden era began with the arrival of director Mark Zakharov. In 1974 he staged Till, a rollicking musical comedy about the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, but which really meant about something else. The audience understood the Aesopian language it used.

Soviet censorship did not at first understand his pungent and subtle play, initially not picking up on the obvious allusions to the country's horrid state of affairs. After the premiere, however, officials were shocked and wanted to shut down the production and fire the director, but it was too late. The news of the brazen play had spread throughout Moscow, and the lead actor, Nikolai Karachentsov, woke up famous the following morning.

Two years later the theater staged The Star and Death of Joaquin Murrieta, one of the first rock operas in the USSR. Even though it was based on a work by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet and communist, the Soviet authorities didn’t like the play’s format. They thought the genre of a rock opera was strange and dangerous.

At this time, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar was rocking the world, and Zakharov and composer Alexei Rybnikov clearly drew inspiration from it. The sympho-rock music and half-naked girls of The Star and Death of Joaquin Murrieta shocked Soviet censors. The production was banned but nevertheless the premiere took place, having the impact of a bomb going off. The first viewers thought, "That's it. Now they're going to arrest us all."

Soviet actor Nikolai Karachentsov (L) as Till Eulenspiegel and actress Inna Churikova as Nele perform in the play Till based on Belgian playwright Charles de Coster's 1867 novel and staged by Mark Zakharov at the Lenkom Theatre in 1983. Source: Yuri Lizunov/TASSSoviet actor Nikolai Karachentsov (L) as Till Eulenspiegel and actress Inna Churikova as Nele perform in the play Till based on Belgian playwright Charles de Coster's 1867 novel and staged by Mark Zakharov at the Lenkom Theatre in 1983. Source: Yuri Lizunov/TASS

The hallelujah of love

World fame came with Rybnikov's next rock opera, Juno and Avos, based on poems by Andrei Voznesensky, and which premiered in 1981. The sad love story between a Russian count and a young Spanish lady in California touched the hearts of people from various countries. Fashion designer Pierre Cardin fell in love with the play and brought it to Paris and then New York, where the theater had to remain for two months, so great was its success.

Zakharov remembers that, "Pierre Cardin did a courageous thing. He had received threats over the phone, letters saying that he should not get involved with Russians! But he wasn't afraid. I thought that going on tour in Paris was utopic. The play was considered anti-Soviet, shaking our moral and artistic foundations. We were allowed to stage it no more than once a month and in no way during communist party holidays."

The play toured half the globe, had more than 1,000 performances, and is still being staged. It became the theater's calling card, with its snappy, vivid, and audacious style.

World fame came with Rybnikov's next rock opera, Juno and Avos, based on poems by Andrei Voznesensky, and which premiered in 1981. Photo: Yelena Shanina as Konchita and Nikolai Karachentsov as Count Rezanov in Alexei Rybnikov's rock opera "Juno and Avos", Lenkom Theater. Source: Rybchinskiy/RIA NovostiWorld fame came with Rybnikov's next rock opera, Juno and Avos, based on poems by Andrei Voznesensky, and which premiered in 1981. Photo: Yelena Shanina as Konchita and Nikolai Karachentsov as Count Rezanov in Alexei Rybnikov's rock opera "Juno and Avos", Lenkom Theater. Source: Rybchinskiy/RIA Novosti

Coming full circle

Zakharov was able to assemble an incredible troupe of stage and film stars - Alexander Abdulov, Oleg Yankovsky, Inna Churikova, and others. It was often impossible to get a ticket to Lenkom’s plays.

In the early 1990s, the theater officially changed its name to Lenkom, as it had long been informally known among the public. The name of Lenkom sounded like an expensive cosmetics brand, which suited the theater very well. While the Taganka Theater was an open political party, and the Sovremennik Theater impressed audiences with its honest depiction of modernity, Lenkom enticed with the lights of Broadway, promising a show and a celebration.

In recent years the theater has suffered many losses, especially as many stars passed away, but Zakharov is still at the helm. He sometimes invites one of Russia's most radical young directors, Konstantin Bogomolov, and occasionally he himself stages The Day of the Oprichnik, based on the novel by Vladimir Sorokin. This modern-day masterpiece describes a dystopia that is a veiled criticism of today's political establishment. Once again Lenkom is pushing the boundaries of what is possible and causing a stir.

In recent years the theater has suffered many losses, especially as many stars passed away, but Zakharov is still at the helm. Source: Sergei Fadeichev/TASSIn recent years the theater has suffered many losses, especially as many stars passed away, but Zakharov is still at the helm. Source: Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Read more: Yury Grigorovich, a living symbol of the Bolshoi>>>

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