Staging (In)Justice. World Premiere of Nikolai Evreinov's "Steps of Nemesis"

When it comes to theatricality of law and justice, there is a thin line between upholding and undermining the rule of law. A trial in court, with its ceremonial elements, is not only aimed at establishing justice, but also at performing and thus reaffirming it. When the rule of law, however, is endangered or abolished, the trial becomes mere show, and the mantle of legality is used by politics to pursue covert goals. This tilting moment becomes particularly visible in both authoritarian persecution against artists and artistic reflection of such persecution, and both are subject of the proposed project.

Persecution and trials against practitioners of arts and defenders of human rights in authoritarian regimes are neither a new phenomenon, nor have they ceased after the downfall of communism in 1990/1991. To the contrary, they have experienced an increase in the previous two decades. A new trend, however, is that such protagonists are increasingly accused of crimes that have nothing in common with the activity they are actually persecuted for: in the eyes of the state authorities and the judicial apparatus under their control, human rights organisations become foreign agents, theatre directors become thieves and embezzlers, or, even worse, activists and artists become traitors and terrorists. For scholars of 20th century history and arts, this kind of instrumentalisation of criminal law is not new: Its most prominent manifestation to date was the Stalin Terror in the Soviet Union. The three show trials against former high-ranking Bolsheviks between 1936 and 1938 went hand in hand with the “Great Terror” – the mass arrests, imprisonments and executions that affected over 1,5 million of ordinary citizens. The sentences passed on the masses of victims were based on trumped-up charges that had no relation either to reality nor to actual political opposition.

How have artists and writers reacted to such perversions of justice? While reactions to the show trials and the Great Terror both from within Soviet society and from commentators abroad have been a prominent topic of research, one particularly interesting response had been forgotten until today – the response of an exiled theatrical thinker to the theatricality of Stalin’s trials. “Shagi Nemezidy” (“Schritte der Nemesis / The Steps of the Nemesis”), written in the late 1930s and published posthumously in 1956, was written by the visionary Russian playwright, theoretician and theatre director Nikolai Evreinov (1879-1953) in Paris exile in parallel to the events. With the means of theatre, he revealed the theatricality of the Stalinist show trials. The play, published posthumously in 1956, was quickly forgotten and was neither staged nor translated into any foreign language from the original Russian.

The proposed project, building on the year-long research of the applicant, aims at rediscovering Evreinov’s play in order to introduce the topic of artistic repercussions of political repression to wider audiences, and to draw parallels between the repressions of the 1930s and the ongoing attacks on the rule of law in various countries, including Russia. The aims are to devise a performance of the play that has never been performed before, to facilitate a translation and publication of the play in German and English, and to accompany the rediscovery of Evreinov’s text with a series of public events presenting both scholarly and artistic responses to the topic to wider audiences.

These activities will help to implement the state of research on historic political repressions and its artistic repercussions into the public discourse on artistic freedom and the fragility of the rule of law, as the threat to both increasingly shapes the contemporary world.

Mitarbeitende: Prof. Dr. Sylvia Sasse, Yuri Birte Anderson