Unlike Americans, who revel in the myth that only the future matters, Russians can’t seem to escape their past. To them, history is not merely a narrative of recorded events, but a series of grievous losses inscribed in the collective suffering. The happiest nations have no history, as George Eliot once observed—it’s the unhappiest nations that have more than they can handle. The irony, of course, is that American and Russian politics have been inextricably bound up with each other throughout the 20th century. Despite capitalism’s current triumph over communism, the story hasn’t conveniently stopped at the scripted Reagan-Bush conclusion. Dot-com dollars, after all, can’t entirely cover our increasing economic inequality and spiritual alienation—the counterpoint, perhaps, of Russia’s ethnic unrest and rampant corruption. The Cold War may be officially over, but our fates remain uncomfortably intertwined.
Our mutually fraught contemporary history is just one of the reasons it’s a shame more Americans didn’t get to see the State Academic Maly Theatre of St. Petersburg’s production of Brothers and Sisters during its brief run last week at Lincoln Center Festival 2000. This six-hour-plus epic tracing the life of a northern Russian village in the aftermath of the Second World War conveys in irreducibly human terms the early hope and brutal disappointment of the communist system. Despite the troupe’s name, there’s nothing academic about this survey of the latter Stalinist years. Historically sweeping though it is, the production remains faithful to the private suffering of individuals while tracking the vicissitudes of a community crushed by a corrupt Soviet government.
Based on a trilogy of novels written by Fyodor Alexandrovich Abramov in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Brothers and Sisters premiered 15 years ago in the heady glasnost days. So courageously prescient is the epic, it would be easy to assume that Abramov (who died in 1983) had written his works from the relatively safe vantage of perestroika. Director Lev Dodin (who wrote the adaptation with Sergey Bekhterev and Arkadiy Katsman) remains true to the story’s historical period, though the uncanny contemporary resonance can’t help but seep through.
The action begins with film footage of Soviet soldiers preparing for war. In a voice-over, Stalin enjoins his “brothers and sisters” to give their all in the fight against the Germans. This documentary moment from 1941 gives way to a sparsely decorated stage (a floating raft of wooden beams is all that’s used to demarcate the various interior settings) inhabited by a troop of peasant women awaiting the victorious return of their men. Harrowed by exhaustion, hunger, and deprivation, these mothers, wives, and daughters have managed to keep their collective farm running during the four years of war.
Though Anfisa (Tatyana Shestakova), the president of the kolkhoz, assures everyone that life will change for the better now that Russia has declared victory over the Germans, hope is hard to sustain once the extent of the casualties is revealed. Not only aren’t there any able-bodied men around, but the grain supply is low and the work unrelenting. It’s moving the way these beleaguered women rise repeatedly to the heroic occasion. Dodin not only conveys their overwhelming grief and fatigue, but he allows us to share in the communal bond and occasional reverie. In one memorable scene, the women break for a much-needed “tumble,” rolling playfully on top of each other to momentarily relieve their fear and loneliness.
Mikhail (Pyotr Semak), who was too young for the war, has returned with a boyhood friend from a winter logging camp to take his place as the head of his fatherless family. He brings back fabric and shoes for his barefoot siblings, as well as a rare loaf of bread, which his youngest sister can’t even identify. Not only are we made aware of the Pryaslin household’s lack of adequate food and shelter, but we see the psychological toll of their inability to provide for one other—a pain apparently more distressing than hunger itself.
The plot focuses on Mikhail’s coming of age and his acceptance of his kolkhoz responsibility, even as it conflicts with his own deepest impulses and desires. Falling in love with Varvara (Natalya Fomenko), a widow of irrepressible sensuality and bawdy humor, he encounters the disapproval of his mother, who fears the hussy will divert him from his family duty. After Varvara is sent packing from the village, Mikhail grows resigned to a loveless existence, where his only hope is for the common good.
Unlike his boyhood friend Yegorsha (Sergey Vlasov), who’s left the village and become involved in shady dealings with state officials, Mikhail has stayed faithful to the land and to the idea of the collective. As the state demands more extreme sacrifices from the poor villagers, however, the question arises as to whether the government’s policies are the result of the desperate postwar situation or merely mismanagement. Mikhail’s deeply held communist ideals, born out of his experiences of communal aid during the war, eventually run counter to the top-down policies of the state—a crisis of conscience that will ultimately jeopardize not only his own future but also his family’s.
For all the lengthy novelistic plotting, the production is remarkably light on its toes. Scenes effortlessly blur into one another, and though the storytelling has a few prosaic lulls, the cumulative effect of the deceptively simple staging is daunting. Dodin wants us to not only register the full historical trajectory of these people but to undergo it. He is ably assisted by a large cast, whose inspiration seems to come from some basic need to provide testimony to their characters’ lives.
Like the Sovremennik Theater of Moscow’s 1996 Broadway production of Into the Whirlwind (an adaptation of Eugenia Ginzburg’s more than thousand-page autobiography of her 18 years in a gulag), Brothers and Sisters is memorable less for its corpulent dramaturgy than the lean quality of its acting. The ensemble has maintained its vigor, and there’s a sharp subtlety to their interaction that attests to the company’s rich and influential history. Though a good portion of those in attendance were of Russian heritage, the purely human connection between actor and audience was irresistible, regardless of national origin. Compound this with the way the American identity in the 20th century has been fashioned in opposition to the Russian, and you have a recipe not only for a profoundly illuminating theatrical experience, but a potentially transfiguring one as well.