The Sakharov Center, located in a small corner of wooded land just above the Yauza River in the teeming metropolis of Moscow, is a pretty amazing place. Its official address is 57 Zemlyanoi Val. Its main building (above, bearing a banner proclaiming “Freedom”) used to house a police precinct of some kind, while its second building, which hosts exhibits, conferences, theater performances, concerts and general town-hall-type meetings, was the garage. Andrei Sakharov, in case you’ve forgotten or are too young to know, was the great Soviet physicist, one of the creators of Russian nuclear weaapons, who became one of the most prominent and influential Soviet dissidents and spent most of his final years being harassed by the Soviet government as he defended human rights while being deprived of his own. Google him if you need information. He was one of the great citizens of the world of the last half of the 20th century.
In recent years these two small buildings have hosted countless cultural events. It is an amazing process how seemingly inanimate buildings take on the aura and the energy of the people who inhabit and/or use them. It’s a process that is evident at the Sakharov Center. Over the last few years I have attended more theatrical or theatricalized events there than I can count or remember. For awhile journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky teamed with Moscow-based, German theater director Georg Genoux’s Joseph Beuys Theater to present important theater-based performances that touched on difficult historical topics, such as Nazism in Germany, fascism in the Soviet Union, the problem of political prisoners in Russia, issues of free speech and more. Some of these events were (almost) straight-up theater, such Genoux’s production of I, Anna and Helga, which weaved the director’s own family story into the harrowing tales of Anne Frank and Helga Goebbels. Others, such as an evening discussion organized by Genoux and hosted by Kaluzhsky, brought in prominent artists to discuss the problem of collaborating with the government. Participants that night, in early Dec. 2011, included Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyoshina, whom, in a few months, the world would come to know as Pussy Riot.
Thanks to the efforts of the Center’s information director Yelena Kaluzhskaya, the Sakharov Center continues to host major cultural, political and social events, and to support politically oriented theater elsewhere. They host an internet discussion channel called Gogol.TV that provides provocative conversations on timely topics. I joined the actress Anastasia Patlay to discuss the importance of Teatr.doc’s production of One Hour, Eighteen Minutes last fall.
The photos you see here were taken yesterday, Aug. 30, 2014, after a benefit concert for political prisoners in Russia raised nearly $5,000. Performing at the event were the playwright and satirist Viktor Shenderovich, the poet, satirist and scholar Dmitry Bykov, the musician Alexei Paperny, the actress and singer Oksana Mysina (my wife, thank you), the poets Alexander Timofeevsky, Igor Irtenyev and many others. It’s all very much in the realm of activity of this vital organization which helps a culture continue to speak out in times of conflict, repression and war. The final picture below shows a banner that hangs on the “garage” segment of the Center. Here is what it proclaims in full: “Freedom says ‘Yes!’ in various languages. The Sakharov Center unites people who defend and bring about freedom and human rights in various languages: Law, Philosophy, Ethics, Poetry, Fine Arts, Politics, Education, Science, Theater, Architecture, Music, Business and many more. The Sakharov Center is a place where projects and programs are realized whose goal is to defend and support intellectual, creative, religious, political, civic and economic freedoms and human rights.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.