In the 14 years since he became director of the Taganka Theatre here, Yuri Lyubimov - sometime actor, unrivaled theatrical innovator, Communist party member - has been a contradictory and sensational figure on the stultified Moscow cultural scene.
Through cleverness, cajolery and courage, Lyubimov has been able to stage provocative plays that others here have only dreamed about. Season after season, his productions have titillated and stirred the intelligentsia of a capital whose government regards artistic experimentation of any sort with suspicion bordering on fear.
Lyubimov's standing with his comrades has fluctuated wildly from production to production. He has been applauded and then denounced in the official press and then applauded again. In the process he has gained an international reputation as a creative force in Soviet theater, an art form with a potent heritage.
But never has this lively figure had so hard a jolt as in recent weeks, when the cultural commissars suddenly harshly criticized him and followed it up with a ban on his plans to produce a new version of a famous Russian opera in Paris, Europe's undisputed cultural capital.
The controvery is important for what it tells of the Kremlin's worries about freedom of expression in its 60th year of power, and of the currents of ethnic and cultural conservatism that have always flowed deep in this nation's hidden heart. And it demonstrates anew that the Kremlin will not. count the cost to its image in the West when it comes to matters of internal politics, dogma and discipline. The leadership had no compunctions about dealing itself a public blow while offending the sensitive and powerful web of interests and feelings of the international cultural complex from San Francisco to Moscow.
The specific bone o f contention is a classic Russian opera, Pyotr Tchaikovsky's "Queen of Spades," considered along with "Eugene Onegin" and "Boris Gudenov" as one of the three most important Russian classical operas. "Queen of Spades" was derived from a story by Alexander Pushkin, the 19th-century black man whose writings are considered a national treasure by Russians for their genius in describing the interiors as well as exterior perspectives of Russian soul and character.
In the 83 years since its debut, Russians have enjoyed debating how and why Tchaikovsky and his younger brother, Modest (author of the Liberetto), diverged from the Pushkin story "The Gambler" to create "Queen of Spades."
To Russophiles, the classic music and stories hava a mystique that makes contemporary efforts to modify them close to sacrilege. In the Stalinist era, this Russophile debate took on sinister political and anti-Semitic meanings and was frequently used as an excuse to purge Jews and Stalinist artistic foes.
In an ideological state such as the Soviet Union, virtually every act of the authorities can be cast in a political context. Nowhere is there wider lattitude for political meddling than in art, where volatile creativity of individual artist collides with conservative party orthodoxy.
Lyubimov, who is not a Jew, has never shied from a fight, but he has carefully spread his controversial productions among more conventional and acceptable fare. This theater's repertoire includes, for example, "Ten Days that Shook the World," an old-fashioned paean to the revolution from John Reed's famous book; and "The Master and Margarita," a complex fantasy first produced last year to wildly enthusiastic crowds that presents hypocrisy, fear and avarice in Russian of a contemporary time, daring to draw the play from a book that had been suppressed for more than 30 years.
Sometimes, Lyubimov's plays have been barred by cultural authorities, but he has bounced back and continued his adventuresome ways. Officialdom has had to recognize his genius. Last fall, "Sovietskaya kultura," the ham-handed magazine of the ministry of culture, eulogized him on his 60th birthday despite the fact that it had frequently criticized him. Then, he was allowed to accept an invitation from the director of the prestigious Paris opera, Rolf Liebermann, to help produce a new version of "Queen of Spades."
Lyubimov began collaborating with two other well-known cultural figures, Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a top conductor, and composer Alfred Schnitke. They kept to themselves the nature of the production they planned.
Work progressed, but the authorities clearly were nervous. In December, Sovietskay Kultura, in a review of a completely different version of the opera by another theater, panned it, saying the modernists had failed to improve it and made unwarranted changes. Some Moscovities now say in retrospect that this was in fact the opening attack on Lyubimov.
That same month, the critics branch of the official Moscow writers union was the scene of an emotional and ultimately chilling argument between some critics and a play director friend of Lyubimov's that included thinly veiled anti-Semitic slurs. The debate had been intended to discuss the need for maintaining the purity of uniquely Russian works.
In early March, "Literary Gazette," politically potent magazine of the official writers union, denounced Lyubimov for remarks he made while abroad about lack of support from the state for his theater.
And three days later, on March 11, Pravda, the party newspaper, bitterly attacked Lyubimov's proposed opera production as "a monstrous action." The attack in the form of a letter from Latvian composer Algis Juraitis, declared that to allow the Lyubimov production "means to give indulgence for destruction of a great heritage of the Russian culture . . . to bless the crusade against what is sacred to us. Eugene Onegin must become the next victim . . ."
Juraitis, himself a Bolshoi conductor but less well known than Rozhdestvensky, accused the three of being "lovers of foreign sensations," adding, "it is characteristic that everything connected with Russian folklore and poetry of the people's daily life, glorified by Pushkin, has been thrown out . . . is it decent to betray our holy thing for the sake of petty interests of cheap foreign advertisment?"
He had put the issue squarely in Russophile terms, but once again, as so often in the past, the target was a person who had caused worries because of his politically potent innovations.
Toward the end of March, deputy culture minister Vladimir Popov announce that Lyubimov's "Queen" could not be produced in Paris. His offer to substitute other Soviet artists was promptly refused by Liebermann, who declared, "I do not want to put the knife in Lyubimov's back." Liebermann then canceled all ties between his opera house and the Soviet Union, denying the cultural commissars a stage they enjoyed touting as proof of the acceptance by the sophisticated west of Soviet culture.
This week, the Soviets postponed the visit here of some American theater leaders who had invited Lyubimov to San Francisco this fall. Whether he will be allowed to go is unclear.
Mindful of the recent banishment of virtuoso cellist Mstislav Rostropovich and his wife, soprano Galina Vishnevskaya, many intellectuals here are worried what the future may hold for the resilient Lyubimov. He has told reporters he considers the attack and the ban unwarranted and unfair. Meanwhile, "The Master and Margarita" continues playing to a packed house.