1.3 There should be political art in modern Russia.

After explaining what being a political artist meant to me, I can now focus on how this understanding influenced the conception of my autobiographical play Neptune and this thesis as a whole. As with politization of my artistic practice, the idea of Neptune came to me as a response to an external factor, or, more precisely, another question from a foreign artist about the Russian art scene.


In 2020, through common acquaintances, I was approached by Noah Birksted-Breen, the artistic director of London-based Sputnik theatre and a researcher at the University of Oxford. Sputnik's website states that it "is a British theatre company dedicated to sourcing, translating and producing new Russian drama for British audiences" (Sputnik's website). In 2012, the theatre even published a book called New Russian Plays, edited by Birkstead-Breen himself (Birksted-Breen 2012). Birksted-Breen’s research at Oxford at the time of our meeting was revolved around new queer theatre and dramaturgy in Post-Soviet countries, including Russia. As far as I know, due to my involvement with St-Petersburg Coming Out LGBTQ+ organization and my past queer London performances, I was recommended to Birksted-Breen as an artist with potentially extensive knowledge on all-things-queer-art in Russia. So, the question I was asked was very straightforward: what were the most noteworthy queer plays in Russia in the last few years, and which ones could I personally recommend?


This is where I came to a standstill. The initial response that I felt was quite hopeful, though: I could only remember two or three plays in the last decade, however, I was sure that there must have been more. I agreed to collaborate on this part of research, and even write an article for Oxford University blog with my findings.


In 2020, I had not yet been appointed a curator of Queerfest (the biggest queer art festival in Russia) but I had been a volunteer on the festival team for years, which made me think that if there was indeed new queer art in Russia, it would be easy to find with all the connections that I had. It all started well – I almost immediately found out about three major things: there was a whole queer theatre in St-Petersburg, called Philomena, staging exclusively new plays and devised pieces on LGBTQ+ themes; there was a branch of Trans*mission (trans rights organization), focused solely on performance and poetry; and there was a whole book prepared for being published (albeit abroad) - Contemporary Queer Plays by Russian Playwrights, edited and translated by Tatiana Klepikova. However, by thinking that it was just a start, I was mistaken – it was the start and the end, there was seemingly nothing else, apart from an occasional queer reading of a classical production.


I felt strangely ashamed when bringing my findings to Birksted-Breen. I, of course, did not want to talk of a few famous things he was surely aware of – like some plays by Nikolai Kolyada (a rare queer playwright that was still allowed to be staged even after the ‘anti-gay propaganda’ law), and the infamous Coming Out of the Closet verbatim play by Nina Grinstein first produced by Theatre.doc in 2019. I knew that being a researcher of new Post-Soviet queer dramaturgy, Birksted-Breen was bound to know about the aforementioned things for two opposite reasons: Coming Out of the Closet (2018) found its international and Russian fame due to calling itself "the first Russian documentary gay play" – and, subsequently, having a lot of trouble with the police and ultra-right organizations; and Kolyada’s plays, including the amazing Slingshot (1989) - by actually being one of the first Russian gay plays, and being quietly and peacefully accepted for what it was without much trouble.


Due to scarcity of found material, Birksted-Breen instead suggested that I should write an article on my works and queer performances, which I eventually did (Boitcova 2020), but ever since that moment there has been a quiet lament growing in me – why are there so few queer plays in contemporary Russia? Where is our queer theatre and dramaturgy? Due to working with Coming Out organization, I was aware of how big and active Russian queer community was, so it pained me even more that with such a prominent community the art was sparse. I, of course, understood the reasons of legal issues, censorship, the inability to stage queer plays. However, all those things never stopped our community from fighting for their rights otherwise. Art might have seemed like more of an afterthought in a country where there was no safety or basic rights but I have always felt that it is precisely in those conditions that art should be extremely important – to give hope, to inspire, to produce a feeling of inclusion and recognition. I knew it since I had experienced it all myself.


I was reminded of myself as a young theatre director, aged 20, not even a graduate yet – still deeply in the closet, with inner homophobia and self-hatred issues, being on the verge of dropping out of Theatre Academy because nothing I saw or did there ever spoke to me or felt real. I was 20, and I already thought that Russian theatre was dead – devoid of real life, emotion, or meaning, just a constant mindless repetition of century-old classics. I remember being desperate and then accidently coming across the aforementioned Kolyada’s Slingshot play staged by a rare openly queer theatre director from a Post-Soviet country – Roman Viktuk. Slingshot is a story of two people unlikely to fall in love with each other – a war veteran Anton who lost his legs in military action and now lives in misery thinking about suicide, and a young carefree man Ilya, who accidently saved Anton from being hit by a track. Their love story is, of course, painful and full of self-deprecation and doubt, and it surely does not end well. However, when I read it and saw the production, the play filled me with never before known hope because for the first time I was in the presence of something that spoke of love in the language I understood, queer language – even though I did not even know the word ‘queer’ back then. It also showed that theatre could be accepting of all kinds of stories and people, even in Russia. I still think of Slingshot and Roman Viktuk’s theatre as an anchor that made me stay in this profession for over a decade more.


So, in late 2020, thinking of my almost failure to help Birksted-Breen in his research, of scarcity of Russian queer art, of hope that was given to me both personally and professionally by brave queer theatre-makers of the past, I realized that if I cannot find new queer Russian dramaturgy, I should produce it myself. Any new queer play makes it one queer play more than it was yesterday. It creates the opportunities for building a whole landscape. If I have to write a dozen queer plays, just so they at least exist, I will. That is how the urge to create Neptune was born.


Thinking back on the original question by Leonhard Müllner that I started this chapter with – is there political art in modern Russia? – I finally knew the answer I wanted to give: If there is not, there should be. Political art, queer art, feminist art. Art in Russia cannot afford to be apolitical at this time. Not to change or affect current regime, but to influence those who will come after. People like me, who would have dropped out of Theatre Academy if not for Slignshot, if not for Rent even. If there is no queer art now, there might not be more in the future, and then the part of uniqueness, of diversity of voices is lost – and it feels like losing the whole color out of a color spectrum, like losing blue or red entirely. No one would grieve its loss if they had not seen it before, but wouldn’t it be nice to keep them anyway?



1.4 Russian political art should exist at all costs - even if not in modern Russia.