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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Lifting The Curtain: Bolshoi Ballet Admits Pro-Putin Censorship

Censoring art because of creators' political views is nothing new in Russia — but it's rarely acknowledged. Now, the director of the Bolshoi ballet is saying the quiet part aloud.

image of a ballet performance

A production of War and Peace at the Bolshoi Theatre


MOSCOW — Vladimir Urin, the General Director of Russia's iconic Bolshoi Theater, has admitted to censoring the theater’s repertoire for political reasons.

In a rare revelation, Urin disclosed that creators of performances who publicly criticized the invasion of Ukraine had their names removed from the Bolshoi Theater's promotional materials. The admission marks a significant departure from the usual practice of Russian theaters, where such censorship is typically concealed.

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In an interview with the Russian state-published newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta, Urin stated, "When certain creators of performances spoke unequivocally against the special military operation, their names were omitted from the posters."

He further revealed that the Bolshoi Theater faced heightened scrutiny and occasional cancellations of performances in response to public outrage, including a surge in critical letters and statements. The expiration of licenses for certain productions was also cited as a reason for cancellations following the onset of the conflict.

Urin also acknowledged that Western theater stars have become increasingly hesitant to collaborate with the Bolshoi Theater. “Before the socio-political situation changed, we were used to the fact that almost half the world came to the Bolshoi Theater,” he said. “We had many guest soloists and important joint productions, which is largely the essence of musical art. But today, there are only isolated cases when our Western colleagues agree to work with the theater," he said. And even those few ask “not to make their names public until the very last moment,” Urin added.

image of Bolshoi Theatre General Director Vladimir Urin at the Bolshoi Theatre

In a file photo, Vladimir Urin speaks at the Bolshoi Theatre

Sergei Karpukhin/TASS/ZUMA

A history of censorship

The Bolshoi Theater's move towards censorship became apparent in the spring of 2022 when the name of Kirill Serebrennikov, an outspoken critic of the war in Ukraine, disappeared from promotional posters. Productions directed by Serebrennikov, such as the ballet "Nureyev" and the opera "Don Pasquale," were subsequently cancelled.

The theater later reinstated the ballet "A Hero of Our Time," without Serebrennikov's name, but it was eventually removed from the repertoire in March 2023, with no explanation.

Cultural figures who have abandoned the country should be removed from cultural institutions.

This practice of censoring anti-war creators is not unique to the Bolshoi Theater, as other Russian theaters have also removed the names of opposition artists from their promotional materials. But prior to Urin's statement, theater administrations had refrained from openly attributing such actions to the creators' political opinions.

In Oct. 2022, a representative from the Ministry of Culture said that it made sense for cultural figures who had "abandoned the country in this difficult time" to be removed from cultural institutions and their promotional materials.

Urin concluded the interview by urging theater staff to continue their work with integrity, emphasizing the importance of remaining "decent people" amid evolving circumstances.

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How War And Censorship Are Killing Russian Rap Culture, One Beat At A Time

Censorship in Russia has increased rapidly over the last couple of decades, especially since their invasion of Ukraine. Russian rap, which has often challenged the politics and society of Russia, has become even more censored than before, even causing some rappers to emigrate.

How War And Censorship Are Killing Russian Rap Culture, One Beat At A Time

Russian rapper Egor Krid performs during a concert in St Petersburg.

John Vandevert

In retrospect, rap in 1990s Russia was truly free. How so? Look around: the bright post-Soviet future of which Russians caught a glimpse during the 1990s has collapsed, replaced with something much darker, with one of its victims being rap.

In my PhD research on 1990s rap in Russia, I find the era allowed Soviet nostalgia, sexual promiscuity, and self-reflection to live alongside political cooptation, much like in the 1999/2000 song “Beat Battle”, a covert political message in support of centrist electoral candidate Grigory Yavlinsky. The 1996 track “Vote or Lose” by Bachelor Party (in Russian: Malchinik, Мальчишник) is yet another case:

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What you can’t find is censorship. Whatever one thinks of Boris Yeltsin’s embrace of the West, thanks to rap, a strong community was created. Come 2023, and censorship has changed that community’s fabric forever.

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