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“I almost fell for krymnash.” Actor Anatoly Bely on why he will never return to Russia and why it has already lost the war

Oleg Pshenichny

By February 2022, Anatoly Bely was one of the most sought-after and famous Russian actors both at the Moscow Art Theater, where he had several major roles, and in film and television. But in the very first days of the war, he told the management of the Moscow Art Theater that he would finish several performances in order not to let his fellow actors down, and then leave Russia. In the summer he left for Israel. Almost a year has passed since the start of the war, and The Insider talked to Bely about his earlier misconceptions, about artistic people staying in Russia and about the possible outcome of the war.

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- Six months have passed since you emigrated to Israel. What do you think of the move now?

- I think it was the only right decision. I can't imagine my existence in the Russia we have today. I did everything right, and I have no regrets. My parents, brothers and sisters live here, so I had a place to go to. As for my profession and work, of course there was some uncertainty, although I knew there was the Gesher Theatre here. I hoped this theater would be interested in me, which it was.

When I left, I was so shattered by the whole disaster that I saw no point in my profession. I just had to leave, and I didn't care what happened next. What was the point of “stage playing or filmmaking” in the context of what was going on? But then the Gesher Theatre offered to collaborate and I'm now in a production based on Anouilh's Orpheus and Eurydice that we call “Don't Look Back”, a title that suits me well at this point.

Together with director Yegor Trukhin we co-authored a play called “I'm Here,” based on poems by Russian-speaking authors written after February 24. Since the beginning of the war, of all that horror, poets have spat out a huge number of terrific poems. If in the beginning it was an open bloody wound - blood and horrors - now it is an attempt at contemplation and detachment, a time for reflection has come. I've been following online Vadim Zhuk, Yuli Gugolev, Alla Bossart, Tatiana Voltskaya and other writers that reflect on today's events.

Since the beginning of the war and all this horror, poets have spat out a huge number of terrific poems

The play was well received, I didn't even expect it. For me it was a civic act - with my own weapon: onstage, with poems and prose that Yegor and I wrote together. It's not about me, but about the lost man, as we called him. It's about all of us, and about many people on the planet today who feel confused in the face of the catastrophe. We tried to find the answer in this play.

The play is going well. Producer Marina Axelrod initially suggested doing four or five shows in major cities. And today we have requests for 15 shows, and we are expected in several other countries. This is a hot topic, and it's like therapy - people watch the show and share their pain, by leaving us “personal messages.”

The play has changed a bit over time. One morning I was reading a book and came across a poem by Lena Berson:

Mama, don't let me go to war.
Remember how you wouldn't let me go to school,
You told me: stop it, don't whine, come on,
You'll skip a couple days, what's the big deal?
You covered the lamp with a frayed plaid,
You threw a pinch of baking soda in the milk.
I loved you, mama, and yet I betrayed you,
And, of course, I sold the apartment.
Mama don't let me go to war.
Remember, Kul and I broke the glass,
And you came out in a power-mother style,
And you said to Akulnikov: You're a pussy.
You poured iodine on his cuts,
He wailed and hid his hands behind his back.
Kul visited us afterwards, though rarely,
He said you were beautiful. It's true.
I remember now that it was comfortable,
Us sitting in the kitchen together, eating like.
Mama, don't let them find me,
Mama, make me invisible.
Now they've started playing marching songs in the square,
So that we won't hear those who cry.
Mama, I don't know what I believe in,
Because there is nothing left to hope for.

I said to Yegor: we need to put it in the play. The show is tonight, will we be able to do it? Yegor came up with the idea that my character would find a letter dropped by someone on stage...

- In several interviews I asked the same question: Evgeny Kisin and Boris Grebenshchikov, for example. Someone carelessly said that people who enjoy good theater plays can do no wrong, because they are into art, and the more theater shows people watch, the less evil things they do. But practice has shown that this is not so - half of the seats in Moscow theaters are now filled by ultra-patriots led by TV presenter Dmitry Kiselyov. Has art been defeated by evil in this war? Or can art change things?

- Today it has once again become clear that art cannot prevent catastrophe. The energy of absolute evil that caused the war is very strong, there is nothing we can do about it. What can stand against this evil? I don't know. Wars do happen on our planet periodically, people can't live without them. There is always something (that cannot be called a human being) that starts the war. It's an irresistible force.

The energy of absolute evil that caused the war is very strong, and there's nothing we can do about it

- So far, we've seen that absolute evil can be countered by HIMARS and Patriot systems.

- But there is a deeper meaning. People who come to a foreign land will never be at peace there and will not conquer it in any way. Their heels will burn all the time, so it's clear it won't hold, but such things still happen. I don't have an answer to that.

April 23, 2022. Written by Alya Heitlina

- What do you think of people who say, “I'm doing creative work, I'm not doing anything wrong, I'm keeping my theater in St. Petersburg safe. Politics doesn't concern me, we play Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage here”? You were in the Moscow Art Theater troupe, and you could “covey beauty” from stage in Moscow too.

- No, I couldn't convey any “beauty” anymore. I do my best to keep myself from judging...

- You said kind words about Konstantin Khabensky, head of the Moscow Art Theater. I'm not trying to provoke you into condemning anyone. But there are different approaches: some sincerely continue to do good, and others only say they want to do good while staging Shakespeare's and Chekhov's plays in the capital of the Fourth Reich.

- Outright ultra-patriots are non-existent for me. As far as I'm concerned, they do not exist either in life or in art. At the same time, people somehow survived 70 years of Soviet power, they played in theaters, and I caught that in my youth. When I was 16 or 17 years old, I could have already joined the fight against that rotten regime. At that time, people were put in loony bins, kicked out of the country or killed in prisons. While other people were living their lives and playing in theaters.

Outright ultra-patriots are non-existent for me. As far as I'm concerned, they do not exist either in life or in art

Now the same thing is happening - a rollback to the totalitarian system in the country, and not everyone has the opportunity to leave. People are choosing internal emigration – staying put and doing something. Maybe that's the water that flows and washes in and can at least do something to people. Perhaps these shows rekindle doubts or, conversely, perhaps people who know things are bad watch them and draw strength from them? From Chekhov and Shakespeare? Honest people who went into internal exile in Russia are, for me, bigger heroes than I am. I couldn't live there, I would have gone mad. But they stayed, and with their art they are slowly undermining the rotten propaganda machine.

- You've probably been in touch with your colleagues. You were at the heart of theater and film community in Russia, and you know the professionals who stayed. What do those people say? Are they talking about the New Year?

- You'll be surprised, but there are very few people left worth staying in touch with. And I don't try to contact them either. There were a few people from the Moscow Art Theater who wished me a happy New Year, but no one's told me anything about their inner life.

- You nobly defended Yevgeny Mironov, head of the Theater of Nations, People's Artist of the Russian Federation, who had traveled to Mariupol to visit the site of the Drama Theater destroyed by bombs. What do you think of a person who travels to the site of a destroyed theater in Mariupol?

- I didn't nobly defend him, not exactly. I asked him a question assuming that there had been pressure from the authorities and that Zhenya had taken this step because of the pressure. That was my assumption.

- You said he was a decent man and it's amazing that this was happening.

- It's a mystery to me. I assume there was pressure, because Mironov had defended Kirill Serebrennikov, he had always been on the side of people who oppose injustice, and that seemed amazing to me. I really want to hope there was strong pressure.

- Now for the delicate questions about you. In the early 2000s, you thought that the country was developing, films were being made, plays were being staged - everything was fine! But gradually you began viewing the situation in a different way. The second question is harder: in 2014, you almost fell for the Krymnash sentiment, but your “older comrades” set you straight.

- Yeah, that's right. In the 2000s I was an infantile person politically and didn't look at the heart of things. I was 30 years old, the country's artistic scene was developing – open borders, festivals, actors going to America and coming back with skills. Everybody knew there was a huge surge in development - Zvyagintsev, Serebrennikov. Everything was great. We didn't realize who came to power until the end.

In the 2000s there were open borders, festivals, actors went to America and come back with skills

- Did you think something was wrong with Surkov?

- I did. We flirted with power. At that time, I was an actor with hot stuff in his hands. We showed his play “NearZero”, , directed by Kirill Serebrennikov, on the small stage of the Moscow Art Theater; it was about the establishment of statehood based on blood. We uncovered some hidden spots with it.

- He justified Putinism as an opposition to Yeltsin's 90s...

- No he didn't, because the play ended with the degradation of the main character and his soul. We wanted to say that a person who takes a murderous path, even out of good intentions, is going nowhere. At the end of the play the main character broke down and died.

- After which Surkov himself supervised the occupation of Donbass.

- I was apolitical, and I didn't really understand everything that was going on. There were smart people who just packed their bags and left when the man came to power in 1999. And I was perplexed because of this, “it's not so bad after all.” And as time went by, my eyes opened. When I played in “NearZero,” I didn't think about Surkov. Yes, I understood he held an important post and was in charge of something, but this play of ours had been staged way before that. Kirill suffered in part because of his involvement with Surkov. This is a kind of conspiracy theory I don't need and don't want to discuss.

- What do you mean by saying you “almost fell for krymnash”?

- Yes, at some point due to my political blindness I almost fell for it. People voted “for” it there, there are a lot of Russians there, and they want to be part of Russia. For me it was a possibility - a lot of people who voted to be part of Russia. Other countries might have built their military bases in Crimea, and that could be bad for Russia. Ksenia Larina was the first person who set me straight. We met and she said: “Tolya, are you completely stupid or what? Don't you understand at all what's going on?”

At one point, due to my political blindness, I almost fell for krymnash

There were a lot of people in my circle who thought the same way I did, and today these creative people find themselves on the other side of the barricades, and they are now justifying this war.

- Back then Putin pulled off a “bloodless invasion,” but now everyone can see how the cities, where no “referendums” could take place, are being wiped off the face of the earth.

- It's hard to win people back now, because propaganda is very powerful, and it's a kind of weapon that greatly changes the chemistry of the brain. It is impossible to win people back from where they are. Telling a person that something is wrong is impossible. I cross out people like that.

- It is interesting that such big actors as Alexander Georgievich Filippenko or Veniamin Borisovich Smekhov haven't fallen for the propaganda for decades.

- Yes, they have developed immunity under the Soviet regime. Propaganda is a terrible weapon that brainwashes people into believing that everything is right.

May 11, 2022. Written by Zhenya Berkovich

- Is it possible to imagine, even theoretically, any circumstances that would have to come into existence for you to want to return to Russia?

- Speaking of abstract fantasies and dreams, the only reason for me to return to Russia would of course be a complete change of power and mentality. I could return to Russia if it became democratic. I understand that there is no perfect state system anywhere, and that man has not yet invented anything but money. In all countries, to a greater or lesser extent, everything moves around money, but even Israel has democratic foundations and freedom of expression. If such powerful democratic institutions appeared in Russia, if it were possible to speak freely, if the authorities cared about people and not about thermselves, I would probably go back. But this is in the realm of fantasy.

- Is Russia's defeat in the war a fantasy?

- It is a reality. Russia has already lost this war spiritually, not at the level of territorial gains, although they have already lost that too. Unfortunately, I do not know how this war will end. I understand that, cynically, the world is ruled by some things unrelated to the freedom of nations, but I think there will be a compromise. I would like to see the war end with the complete expulsion of Russian troops from Ukraine. Spiritually, the war has already been lost. After the war, Russia will not collapse, but the screws will be tightened, the country will probably close itself off from the world even more and launch internal repression. The energy of power will flow to the inside of the country.

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