The drama behind the drama How a planned merger between Russia's two oldest theaters turned into a region-wide political scandal
In late March, Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky announced that two of Russia’s oldest and most respected theaters would merge. What had previously been the Volkov Theater in Yaroslavl and the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg would become a single national institution. The Culture Ministry noted that the initiative for the merger came from the artistic directors of the theaters themselves — Yevgeny Marchelli and Valery Fokin, respectively. Nonetheless, the idea did not sit well with the Union of Theater Workers or with local residents and politicians in Yaroslavl. Even Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev came out against the merger and ultimately suspended it.
Marchelli, who has continued to hope his theater will join the Alexandrinsky, now finds himself in conflict with the CEO of his own theater, and in May, local prosecutors began investigating the artistic director’s activities. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev asked why Yaroslavl’s renowned Volkov Theater wanted to merge with its St. Petersburg counterpart in the first place and why the resulting conflict crossed from the arts into the political sphere.
The proposal and its opponents
“My first meeting with [Alexandrinsky Theater artistic director] Valery Fokin was in March 2019 in [the chain restaurant] Yakitoria, and the second one was in a pizzeria. In those meetings, essentially, we almost decided the fate of Russian national theater. I mean, there really is something national to it! The Moscow Art Theater only showed up after we met in a restaurant called Slavic Bazaar,” laughs Yevgeny Marchelli, the artistic director of the Volkov Theater in Yaroslavl.
The idea of merging the theaters first came to the two artistic directors in 2014. Marchelli said it was Fokin who first proposed the merger. “He told me, let’s try to get a new status for the oldest Russian theaters. The Ministry wasn’t against it, but they warned us right away that there could be no additional spending for this,” Marchelli recalled. “But Yury Itin didn’t support the idea, and that’s understandable. He built everything at the Volkov.” Itin, who was then the theater’s CEO, was later arrested in the legally dubious Seventh Studio case. Marchelli concluded, “Back then, Fokin said, ‘If it’s a no, it’s a no.’”
Five years later, Marchelli and Fokin’s second attempt to bring their plan to life turned out to be more productive. They told Russia’s federal culture minister about the idea, and he gave it a green light. A source close to the Culture Ministry told Meduza that the initiative really did come from below, not from Moscow, but it appealed to the minister. “First of all, this would mean creating something new and big, plus the word ‘national’ sells well in the Kremlin,” the source said. “Second of all, there’s structural optimization involved, which is also good — you’re saving money in the budget.”
On March 27, Vladimir Medinsky announced the planned merger at a press conference, and it quickly became clear that many Yaroslavl residents were not at all happy with the idea. They believed the plan might threaten one of the city’s greatest points of pride.
Regional governor Dmitry Mironov came out in support of the city’s politicians and activists. “I share [their] frustration. Before making that kind of decision, they should have consulted with the residents of Yaroslavl Region, the local community, and the theater’s staff. Together, we will defend the status of our theater as the First Russian Theater. The Volkov Theater is the pride and the brand of Yaroslavl, and I believe this merger should not take place,” the governor wrote on Facebook.
The next day, March 28, news agencies began publishing stories about Medinsky’s order. The new institution was to be called “The First National Theater of Russia (Academic Alexandrinsky Theater —Fyodor Volkov Academic Theater).” The primary objectives of the merger were hefty: “A resurgence of historical continuity in the theatrical culture of the fatherland, a rise in the quality of the services provided, optimization and effective use of budgetary funds, the realization of creative exchange, and the planning of collaborative projects in the arts, culture, and education.” Before long, a scan of the order appeared on the Internet, and it brought a more fundamental aspect of the deal to light: the Volkov Theater might become a subdivision of the First National Theater, but its property would be attached to the Alexandrinsky.
As the scanned document made the rounds, regional government officials held meetings with the public and with leaders from the local theater community. “The Volkov Theater is a treasure for all of Yaroslavl Region, for all of its residents. They are practically all opposed to the unification plan. I support them. The Volkov Theater should preserve its brand and its independence,” Mironov, the regional governor, posted after the meetings.
In addition to social media, Mironov often turns to more traditional modes of communication. He formerly worked in two federal security agencies, and to this day, rumor has it that the Yaroslavl governor is a man Vladimir Putin likes and respects. A source close to the regional government said that on March 28, Mironov called Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev himself, tried to persuade him to stop the theaters’ unification, and succeeded. After Medvedev’s announcement, even the Culture Ministry’s view on the matter shifted: Deputy Culture Minister Pavel Stepanov went so far as to claim that there was never an order from the ministry at all, just a preamble to a document that “legally did not exist.”
In May, the journal Theater discovered that prosecutors had opened an investigation into the professional activities of Yevgeny Marchelli, one of the merger’s initiators. The investigation encompasses all of the contracts the theater has made since the spring of 2017. It was then that the artistic director also became the theater’s acting CEO, a role he held until December 2018.
Why Yaroslavl remains on edge
The Volkov was the first professional theater in Russian history. Fyodor Volkov, born into a merchant family, staged its first performance in a tannery storage room in 1750, and before long, the space had everything a full-fledged theater needed: full-time salaried actors, a repertoire, lighting, a stage (even if it was in a tannery), and a box office. In 1756, the actors and their props traveled to St. Petersburg, where the Empress Elizabeth had decreed that a state theater (later to be named the Alexandrinsky) would be formed. She had summoned the Yaroslavl troupe to the capital. The Alexandrinsky Theater’s website calls the institution “the first public state theater” in Russia and Volkov its first director. Fokin and Marchelli themselves pointed to the historical connection between their theaters in March of 2019 when they proposed merging the two historic institutions into one.
The Volkov is one of the best-known Russian theaters outside Moscow and St. Petersburg. From 2008 to 2011, its CEO was Boris Mezdrich, who now leads the Praktika Theater in Moscow. Then, the mantle went to Yury Itin. The theater’s artistic director was Sergey Puskepalis in 2009 and 2010, and then Marchelli took the job. The Volkov Theater’s troupe has received the Golden Mask, Russia’s most prestigious theatrical prize, four times.
Much of the theater community continues to see a possible alliance between the Volkov and a heavy-hitter like the Alexandrinsky as a bad move.
The Union of Theater Workers expressed its concerns in a collective letter to the prime minister: “The unification would cause fundamental changes in the country’s theatrical landscape and have an enormous effect on the cultural environment in Yaroslavl. It would impact the interests of the professional theater community as well as broad swaths of the population. The reorganization of these theaters cannot be treated as an internal matter between their troupes, let alone as an agreement between their artistic directors with support from Russia’s Culture Ministry.” The Culture Ministry staged a discussion with the union after the scandal became public.
During an April 17 State Duma hearing, Dmitry Medvedev responded to a question from Yaroslavl Region deputy Valentina Tereshkova by repeating that he had suspended the unification plan. In Yaroslavl, cautious theatergoers took note of his wording: “suspended” does not mean “canceled.” For that reason, many of the merger’s opponents still talk about the deal in a way that assumes it will ultimately come to fruition.
“For now, the theater directors are delighted with one another, and they want to unify, but once they unify and get back to the daily grind, the delight will be over,” predicted Yury Vaksman, the founding director of Yaroslavl’s private Chamber Theater. He continued, “And the Yaroslavl actors would do well to think about how this might end. Instead of leading roles, they’ll be extras on the Petersburg stage. Their lines will be ‘Dinner is served.’”
“The Volkov Theater would live by the Alexandrinsky Theater’s rules,” former Volkov director Boris Mezdrich told Meduza when asked to explain his suspicions of the merger. “In Russia, there’s an unwritten rule: if you decrease the status [of an institution], there’s no way to get it back. The Volkov Theater is being given over to the service of the Alexandrinsky, and that’s a decrease in status. Instead of working with the Culture Ministry, they’ll be working with the Alexandrinsky’s directors, and they’ll be subordinate to them. All property questions, all transactions, all the financing, all the casting would go through the Alexandrinsky. What next? Even if Fokin and Marchelli make everything come together beautifully, they won’t be there forever.”
Why the Volkov director still wants a merger
In a conversation with Meduza, Yevgeny Marchelli argued that the primary advantage of unification would be a heightened status for the Volkov and a chance to solve some of the theater’s current problems. “We have a thousand seats, and Yaroslavl’s population is 600,000. Statistically, two to four percent of Russians go to the theater,” Marchelli said. “Omsk has a million people, and they have a 600-person theater. That’s a good ratio. And here, we have to put on these incredibly shallow comedies to sell tickets. If we had the status of a national theater, we would be able to stretch into new, European horizons instead of churning out regional tours. A new status would mean a new reputation.” Marchelli believes that vaudevilles and “shallow comedies” would have no place on the stage of a First National Theater.
Another motivation for the merger would be an increase in the standard of living of Marchelli’s cast. Many of the Volkov’s actors are not from Yaroslavl and need housing provided by the theater. “Even though we report to the Ministry, we couldn’t get an audience with the minister once. I understand that there are theaters whose circumstances are more complicated, and they require the minister’s attention. The Volkov is more successful. With a unified leadership, it would be easier for me to communicate,” Marchelli explained.
Most of the theater’s troupe supports its artistic director, but some actors have come out against the merger between the Volkov and Alexandrinsky Theaters. Those actors are the oldest in the troupe. Marchelli acknowledged that he cannot find roles for them in his productions, but legally, he also cannot fire them: “They don’t act, but they get a salary. The new collective leadership would be able to part ways with them during the reorganization process.” The theater’s former CEO, Boris Mezdrich, confirmed that the Volkov’s cast includes these non-active employees. “I put them on a shoestring salary [in my time]. They’re always against anything new,” Mezdrich said.
One source in the theater community suggested that most of the Volkov troupe’s actors may have been compelled to support the unification plan because of Alexey Turkalov’s December 2018 appointment as the CEO of the theater. Turkalov, who previously led the Khabarovsk Drama Theater and the Vladivostok Circus, has clashed with other members of the team, including Marchelli. Some actors, the source said, call Turkalov “a circus man” who “wants to lean on commercialized performances.” While Turkalov himself was still working in Khabarovsk, he said that “if a show brings in losses, that’s not normal.” At the end of April, Yevgeny Marchelli wrote a letter to the Culture Minister asking for support in his conflict with the CEO. The artistic director claimed in the message that Alexey Turkalov had forbidden the theater’s employees from using their personal email accounts on the theater’s computers and that Turkalov had blackmailed his subordinates or had them followed.
“When two leaders have different views, you get a schism and an unhealthy theater,” Marchelli explained to Meduza. “Actors and other employees start leaning toward different leaders. My model of a theater and [Turkalov’s] aren’t even tangential to one another. Right now, the repertoire of the oldest theater in Russia is 80 percent classics, which is natural; it makes sense. The CEO is convinced that it all needs to be replaced with lighter commercial fare, with big profits. That’s our main disagreement.” Marchelli said he “tried to coexist” with Alexey Turkalov but did not succeed. “I worked with Itin for 10 years, and everything worked out. There were moments of conflict, but we always found a compromise,” the director said. He added that “the ministry can solve the conflict in the theater in one of two ways: either take out the director or take out the artist.”
The tensions between the Volkov’s leaders were quick to manifest in the discussion over unification. Immediately after the merger plan was announced, Alexey Turkalov argued publicly that “all of us, including the regional governor, the culture minister, the deputy culture minister, the artistic director of the Alexandrinsky Theater, have become hostages of one man’s ‘desire for unification,’ and that man has strong ties in the theater world and the world of politics.” The CEO clearly had Marchelli in mind. Turkalov said he saw the merger as Marchelli’s initiative alone and considered the supportive council of actors the artistic director had organized to be illegitimate. Turkalov closed his declaration with a message to Yaroslavl residents who had already come out against the plan: “Yaroslavlites, you inspire me!” Meduza was unable to make contact with Alexey Turkalov; he did not respond to calls or text messages.
Another question on many Yaroslavl residents’ minds concerns the benefit Alexandrinsky Theater director Valery Fokin sees in a potential merger. Boris Mezdrich believes the answer is tied to plans for a theater building near Moscow’s Kolomenskoye metro station. The building was originally planned as a subsidiary of the Moscow Art Theater, but that theater is no longer interested in the facility, and it may be transferred to the First National Theater if the institution ever comes into being. “Fokin is a muscovite, and he would get a performance space in his home city,” the Praktika director reasoned.
Yury Vaksman of Yaroslavl’s Chamber Theater disagreed. “Fokin has status, and he could get that building to be an Alexandrinsky subsidiary without any merger.” Vaksman’s hypothesis is that “After deunification, which is inevitable, in my view, within a few years, the Alexandrinsky would remain the first Russian theater, and the Volkov would become a simple regional theater. The brand would transfer to Fokin.”
Valery Fokin’s own public arguments have differed from the predictions of his colleagues. He has said Russia needs its own national theater, and it’s “essential to formulate criteria for the national stage” by building on the experience of the country’s two oldest theaters in staging dramatic classics. The Alexandrinsky, Fokin has argued, also needs a space in Moscow for tours because the Petersburg stage’s infrastructure can currently only be replicated in the Moscow Art Theater, which often leads to scheduling issues. Fokin also believes that unification will allow the Yaroslavl theater to rise to a new level in Russia’s capitals both artistically and financially. Fokin declined to speak with Meduza.
How theater bled into politics
In Yaroslavl, the theater merger quickly transformed from an artistic issue into a political one. Local politicians and activists couldn’t stop talking about the importance of the oldest Russian theater to the city’s brand. “We live with the knowledge that we have the oldest Russian theater, and we take that for granted. They want to steal that name. It’s not even about the financial side, though the financial side is important too — the Culture Ministry wants to optimize and save,” said Alexander Vorobyov, who leads the local branch of the Russian Communist Party.
Communist activists had planned a demonstration in front of the Volkov’s building for April 15, but Yaroslavl’s government did not approve the protest’s proposed location and suggested moving the event to the city’s railroad station instead. “It’s strange — protesting for a theater by a train station,” Vorobyov said. Ultimately, communist activists passed out flyers that noted the demonstration’s unsanctioned status, and a few dozen people came to the theater at the appointed time. Presumably to avoid police suspicion, they acted as though they were there to volunteer.
Yaroslavl City Duma deputy Dmitry Petrovsky is known for a video he made last year in which he stomped on his iPad and invited viewers to destroy their American gadgets as well. During the March 27 meeting between regional governor Dmitry Mironov and Yaroslavl residents concerned about the theater, Petrovsky demanded Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s resignation.
In an interview with Meduza, the local deputy had harsh words for the members of the Volkov troupe who favor unification with the Alexandrinsky: “The actors support unification. They’re selling out to whoever pays more — that’s how it is. In terms of artistry, the merger certainly has a number of potential benefits. Housing, health insurance… Many of the actors are not from Yaroslavl. But the camp of people who are from here is more representative: you can’t have a theater without an audience. Their opinion should come out on top,” the politician said. Yevgeny Marchelli’s contemporary stagings don’t appeal to Petrovsky: “Nowadays, they’re doing something strange, something hard to understand, and calling it art. You can interpret strange things any way you want, I suppose. Even [the 1999 underground film] The Green Chair is supposed to be a cult classic now,” the City Duma member said. The communist politician Vorobyov also admitted that he does not go to the Volkov Theater: “I prefer to see Vaksman’s classics.”
Both politicians share the opinions of many Yaroslavl residents who believe the theaters’ merger represents yet another attempt by Moscow to encroach on the region. Many count Governor Dmitry Mironov and his Moscow-bred aides among those forms of influence. Even Yaroslavl’s new mayor, Vladimir Volkov, formerly led the municipal government of a Moscow suburb. “Yaroslavl is a city that leans against anything that comes in from the outside,” Petrovsky said. “The governor came in from outside, same with all the regional bureaucrats, and the mayor’s office is imported too. Naturally, people weren’t happy when they found out that people want to take another institution away from us. [Moscow] would even take our Church of Elijah the Prophet away. It seizes and expropriates everything we have,” he argued.
Yevgeny Marchelli remains unconvinced by arguments of a muscovite invasion. “They say we won’t give away our own. But what are we giving away? And where is it going? The theater building isn’t going anywhere — it’ll still be standing there. We’re a federal theater — neither the city nor the region nor the governor does anything to help us. They have nothing to do with our finances, our casting, or our leadership hires. They don’t give us support, and then — ‘we won’t give away our own.’ The conflicts and misunderstandings here have reached a new level. Everyone’s gotten a taste of blood, and now they want more.” The Volkov’s artistic director called his theater’s home city “complex and rigid.” He admits that “there’s a suspicion that outsiders are in control of the region. People have even threatened me for having a non-Russian name.”
“Even if you assume the worst, the Volkov will be a subsidiary, but the sign will still say ‘Volkov Theater,’ and every day, there will be a show of extraordinary artistic quality playing onstage. Will the Alexandrinsky have a chance to influence us? All right then! Will they kick me out? Let them kick me out! The theater will be better off regardless,” Marchelli argued.
While the unification project remains suspended, all parties involved have been waiting anxiously to see what happens next. Petrovsky, the local deputy, believes “the bureaucrats are putting this on the back burner, and then they’ll get back to it when people’s emotions die down.” Yevgeny Marchelli already doubts that the merger will succeed: he acknowledged that he should have discussed the idea in detail with Volkov actors and with Yaroslavl locals before going to the Culture Ministry.
“Why didn’t we discuss it?” Marchelli asked himself. “The advantages were so obvious: going out to the city and saying you’ll be the audience for the first Russian national theater, it seemed like nobody would turn that down. Everything was done so wrong that we may have ruined a beautiful idea. But we tried, time passes, and maybe in a few years or in a few decades, someone will come along and say, ‘Let’s try again.’ It’s just a shame that Valery Fokin and I will not be alive when that time comes. He’s 73 years old already, and I’m 62.”
Even many of the merger’s opponents realize that the central motivation behind the plan was likely financial rather than artistic or logistical. Petrovsky suggested allocating more funds from the regional budget for the actors’ housing and health insurance. “Right now, the Actors’ House is being built in the city. We would do better to use that money to build a house for every actor who needs one,” he asserted.
The Union of Theater Workers also suggested a compromise after the initial discussion of the merger in April. Union representatives would like the government to recognize the Volkov as a cultural heritage site and increase its funding as a result. The Culture Ministry never responded to that proposal, and many of Meduza’s sources in Yaroslavl believe that conflict remains in play. Chamber Theater director Yury Vaksman fears that the scandal could lead to extreme measures. “Marchelli can’t go now. Yaroslavl can’t lose him,” Vaksman said.
Meanwhile, the tensions surrounding the Volkov Theater have continued to grow. May 8 was the deadline for Alexey Turkalov to submit information to prosecutors about all of the theater’s contracts and state-funded purchases since 2017. Meduza was unable to determine which if any documents were ultimately submitted. Yevgeny Marchelli took the prosecutors’ request to be directed against him. “This man — that is, me — has to go to jail somehow. The first thing they’re trying to do is find some kind of kompromat,” he said. However, the artistic director expressed confidence in the integrity of the theater’s attorneys and accountants. He does not believe the Seventh Studio case could repeat itself in Yaroslavl.
A source close to the government of Yaroslavl Region said he could not rule out that the prosecutors’ interest in Marchelli was more than a simple coincidence. He said, “Governor Mironov was very dissatisfied with the scandal around the theater, and he was upset with Marchelli and Fokin for refusing to publicly denounce the merger idea.”
A facility for the Actors’ House was found quickly, but for actor Valery Kirillov, that wasn’t the end of the story. Meduza’s source said that “he used to run all the city’s public ceremonies; he was the face of those events. But after the governor had to blush in front of the president, they stopped inviting Kirillov to run our holidays.”
Translation by Hilah Kohen