The Formation of Yakut National Theatre:
The Soviet Period
Anna Lifirenko
Temporary establishment of Soviet power in Yakutia. Soldiers of the Yakut garrison. May 1917. Source
The next period in the development of the Yakut national theatre was directly related to the establishment of Soviet power in Yakutia. In March 1917, autocracy collapsed in Russia. In Yakutia, the Yakutsk Committee of Public Security (abbreviated YaKOB) was set up, subordinate to the Provisional Government in Petrograd. On the 2nd December 1917, Soviet power was established in Irkutsk and the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Siberia, or “Tsentrosibir”, was founded. However, the Regional Council of Yakutsk refused to recognise the authority of Tsentrosibir, and in May 1918 a detachment of Red Army soldiers was sent to the Yakut region to take Yakutsk by force. But due to the lack of support for the Soviet government among the local population, the Yakuts welcomed the White Guard detachment that soon arrived as saviours. The power of the Provisional Government of Alexander Kolchak spread throughout Yakutia. After his defeat on the 15th December 1919, Soviet power was re-established in Yakutsk, and expanded in the early part of 1920 throughout the entire territory of Yakutia.

On the 3rd March 1917, the revolutionary Yemelyan Yaroslavsky announced the February Revolution in Petrograd from the stage of the Clerks’ Club, the venue for the Russian Drama Theatre, during a performance of Henrik Ibsen‘s play An Enemy of the People (otherwise Doctor Stockmann). From that point on, for the duration of all the events associated with the Revolution and the entirety of the Civil War, theatrical activity in Yakutsk came to a virtual halt, as the policy of War Communism provoked a marked economic decline. From November 1917, the stage of the Russian Drama Theatre would become a venue for meetings and rallies, and was also the place in which Soviet power was proclaimed. In August 1918, a decree was issued in Petrograd declaring the nationalisation of all theatrical property. On the 10th June 1920, a decision was made at a meeting of the Yakut Regional Revolutionary Committee to nationalise the Russian Drama Theatre and the building of the Clerks’ Club, and all theatrical property was placed at the disposal of the Department of Public Education. The new cultural institution that emerged here was called the People’s Theatre, and was home to two troupes – Russian and Yakut, respectively. 1921 also saw the creation of the People’s House, in which a drama club was organised. Its repertoire was formed in accordance with current political campaigns and commemorative revolutionary dates, mostly involving agitational plays. Professional artists from the People’s Theatre helped the society, and their joint efforts led to the staging of a Revolution-themed play The Rays of the Sun, based on the verses of the workers’ poet Alexander Pomorsky.
The siege by junkers and Cossacks of the White House in Irkutsk, where the Central Executive Committee of the Soviets of Siberia, or Centrosibir, was located
A special director’s board was created, which set about assembling a new repertoire for the People’s Theatre. On the 15th September 1920, the People’s Theatre in Yakutsk was opened with the play The Lower Depths by Maxim Gorky. A new kind of spectator came to the theatre – soldiers and workers, and the first performances were free of charge. The repertoire included only seven plays that had already become classics, since no dramatic works had yet been penned that corresponded with the Bolshevik ideology. The repertoire of the People’s Theatre included Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, Lev Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness, Vladimir Trakhtenberg’s Fimka, and four plays by Alexander Ostrovsky – A Profitable Position, The Storm, Enough Stupidity in Every Wise Man, and Guilty Without Fault. In Ostrovsky’s dramas and comedies, the directors followed the spirit of the time in seeking to emphasise the characters’ protest against class inequality, but others called Ostrovsky’s dramaturgy out-dated and of little use to the new viewing public.

Economic devastation meant there was no possibility for the theatre to take on a full existence. There was a clear shortage of personnel in the field of culture, and so the theatre was sometimes run by people with little qualification for this role. An order issued by the Department of Public Education requested the population to “register all objects suitable for the stage”. There was no paper for posters, nor funds to provide for the normal functioning of the troupe, never mind invite other artists. The impoverished populace could not afford to buy theatre tickets. Performances were rare, and were usually timed to coincide with holidays or various gatherings. In order to support the collective during the NEP period, theatre actors had to organise dance evenings, hold political masquerades, and engage in assorted commercial activities.
Artists of the National troupe of the People's Theater, 1925. Source
Due to a lack of finances, the People’s Theatre was closed down in May 1922, and the building was transferred to the ownership of the City Soviet, to be returned to the theatre again in 1925. In the same year, the Yakut troupe of the People’s Theatre became a separate theatre in its own right, opened its first season with a production of the comedy Evil Spirit, based on a play by one of the founders of Yakut literature, Nikolai Neustroyev. In 1926, by decision of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Yakut ASSR, the People’s Theatre was liquidated and the State National Theatre was founded in its place. The first Yakut playwright, Anempodist Sofronov, was appointed head of the theatre, and Dmitry Bolshev, the organiser of an amateur theatre in the town of Vilyuisk, was appointed chief director. From the 1930s, the National Theatre began to pay great attention to the professionalisation of its actors, directors and leadership personnel. A two-year theatre studio was organised at the theatre, for young artists, and 1932 saw the first admission to the Yakut workshop of graduates of the acting department at the Lunacharsky State Institute of Theatrical Art in Moscow. The first professional Yakut directors then started out on their careers, such as People’s Artist of the RSFSR and YASSR Spiridon Grigoryev, who headed the Yakut National Theatre from 1933 to 1961. During his leadership in 1934, the Yakut National Drama Theatre was renamed in honour of Platon Oyunsky. Spiridon Grigoryev paid special attention to plays by Yakut authors: he staged The Wanted Child and The Decree of the Tsar by Oyunsky, The Blacksmith Kyukur, Ayaal and Saisaary by Suorun Omolloon, The Rupture of the Web by Nikolai Mordvinov (Amma Achchygyya), Golden Stream by Nikolai Yakutsky, and a host of other plays from the national dramaturgy. The director Vasily Mestnikov, who worked in collaboration with Grigoryev, staged the Yakut olonkho epics on the stage of the National Theatre: Nyurgun Bootur the Swift, the opera Nyurgun Bootur, and Tuyaaryma Kuo (a play by Platon Oyunsky), and others. Performances based on the works of Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Ostrovsky, Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky and Vsevolod Ivanov were also staged at this period. The prevailing tendency in directing and acting was set by the psychological, realistic direction of the Soviet school.
Grigoriev Spiridon Alekseevich, director of the State National (Yakut Drama) Theater.
Kelle-Pelle Valery Yakovlevich, Chief Director of the Russian Drama Theater
Yaroslavsky Emelyan Mikhailovich, revolutionary, after the February Revolution was a member of the Yakut Committee of Public Security, then the Yakut State Duma
A course was also taken for the professionalisation of the troupe at the Russian Drama Theatre, while travelling and invited troupes began to appear. In the autumn of 1928, a studio, or workers’ theatrical workshop, was opened – abbreviated “Rabtemas” from Rabochaya Teatralnaya Masterskaya. In the evenings, its students were taught the history of the theatre, along with make-up art, singing, and an introduction to the production side of things. In the 1929/1930 season, director Dmitry Khadkov, invited from Irkutsk, staged Alexander Afinogenov’s play The Wolf’s Path. The repertoire was dominated by contemporary Soviet dramaturgy, where performances glorifying everyday working life occupied an important place. An “(industrial) production” drama began to appear on the stage of the Russian Theatre, where the main theme was the reflection of proletarian feats: performances included Pace and Onslaught based on the play by Dmitry Kasyanov and Mark Triger, and The Rails Are Buzzing and Bread based on plays by Vladimir Kirshon. In the play Fear, based on a work by Afinogenov, the problems of the Soviet intelligentsia were touched upon. Various foreign classics were also staged: The Robbers and other plays by Schiller, Tartuffe and Georges Dandin, or The Thwarted Husband by Moliere, and plays by Balzac. Ostrovsky already running plays were accompanied by his It’s Not All Shrovetide for the Cat, It’s a Family Affair – We’ll Settle it Ourselves, The Storm, Guilty without Fault, A Profitable Position, and Without a Dowry. Vasilisa Melentyevna returned to the stage once more and Gogol’s The Inspector General was performed again. The play The Lower Depths never left the stage, being so ideologically relevant. In 1937, Dmitry Khadkov returned to Yakutsk with a large group of artists and took over the Russian Drama Theatre until 1939. Khadkov again turned to Gorky’s oeuvre, staging a second version of Vassa Zheleznova. Performances based on classical works were again staged: William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Friedrich Schiller’s Intrigue and Love, Félix Pyat’s The Ragpicker of Paris, Jean-Baptiste Molière’s Scapin’s Deceits, and Anna Karenina by Lev Tolstoy were also featured. After 1939, the theatre was headed by the director Vladimir Ivanov, who arrived from Makhachkala. New Soviet plays such as Tanya by Alexei Arbuzov, On the Steppes of Ukraine by Alexander Korneichuk, and Kremlin Chimes by Nikolai Pogodin appeared on the stage. Most of the performances bore something of a poster-like, social-political character. This phenomenon was most clearly manifest in the first decade after the Revolution.

During the Great Patriotic War, the Yakut and Russian Drama Theatres were merged. By October 1941, a new building had been built for the Russian Drama Theatre, which was formally opened and on the 6th November 1941. On the 13th April 1942, one of the first plays written about the war was shown on its stage – On the Eve by Alexander Afinogenov. The next performance, Russian People by Konstantin Simonov, directed by Vladimir Ivanov, was a great success. The directors V. Buturlin and P. Urbanovich came to Yakutsk from Moscow and staged the plays Wait For Me by Simonov and A Long Time Ago by Alexander Gladkov, which likewise met with the audience’s approval. Also in the first months of the war, the theatre organised small brigades to serve at the military training centres, offering a concert programme – the so-called Boyevye Teasborniki or “Fighting Theatrical Collectives”. By the end of the War, many theatrical figures from Yakutsk had been awarded the title of Honoured Artist of the YaASSR.
The house of the Cossack of the Yakut Cossack regiment Innokenty Zhirkov in Yakutsk, which was visited by Alexander Kolchak. Source
The building of the Russian Drama Theater in the year of construction, 1941. Source
In the first months of the post-war era, productions of classical plays predominated on the stage of the Russian Drama Theatre (modern plays making up only 3 out of its 12 strong repertoire in the first half of 1946). The situation regarding theatre repertoires did not suit the central authorities, who demanded radical change on this score. Playwrights and theatres were called to reflect the life of “conflict-free” Soviet society and its continuous progress. In essence, this boiled down to showing the leading role of the Party. The 1946 Decree of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks “On the repertoire of drama theatres and measures for its improvement” determined the subsequent direction of development for repertoire policy and indicated that the theme of reconstruction and further development of the national economy of the USSR should be uppermost in dramaturgy. Plays began to be staged that illuminated the life of the rural kolkhoz (City Girl by Semyon Yefremov, Golden Grain and Young Hearts by Vasily Protodyakonov), while dramas about industrial production continued to be shown. This lack of organic development in the dramatic and theatrical process gave rise to the so-called “conflict-free theory”. On the stage, audiences watched a “varnished” reality, while insistent demands were being voiced elsewhere to bring the theatre closer to real life.

The short period of the “Thaw” then dawned in the USSR. The mid-1950s witnessed the a beginning made in updating dramaturgical language, and the Russian Drama Theatre began to stage plays on previously taboo topics such as Alexander Shtein’s Personal File and Alexander Korneichuk’s Wings. Viktor Rozov was also taken up, whose plays Safe Journey! and In Search of Joy uncovered the theme of the social and moral problems facing the contemporary man. After the sending of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia, the Thaw was replaced by a new “freeze”, where progress in cultural life lapsed into stagnation. The theatre once more fell back into the publicistic and schematic approach, experiencing a shortage of acutely problematic works, and a return to popularity of industrial drama (We, the undersigned... by Alexander Gelman, etc.), in which the personal relationships of people was left to one side. In contrast with such plays, works began to appear on the stage that raised socio-political and socio-moral issues, for example Last Summer in Chulimsk and Provincial Anecdotes by Alexander Vampilov, Retro by Alexander Galin, or Ivan and the Madonna by Alexander Kudryavtsev. The heroes of industrial plays were transformed into “anti-heroes”, “former people” or un-needed characters who seemed as if suspended between heaven and earth, unable to finding a worthy use for themselves. From time to time, domestic and foreign classics appeared on the stage. The most significant productions here were Ostrovsky’s The Storm and Forest, Sukhovo-Kobylin’s The Case, Maxim Gorky’s The Last Ones, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and Orpheus Descending, and Euripides’ Medea.
The building of the Russian Drama Theater, 1954-1957.
The building of the Yakut Drama Theater, 1950s.
In 1948, the Yakut Drama Theatre was merged with a musical theatre-studio. From 1961 to 1983, its artistic director was Fyodor Potapov, a graduate of the Shchepkin Theatre School at the Maly Theatre and an Honoured Artist of the RSFSR and YaASSR. In his work, he continued to develop his contemporaries’ interest in the epic tradition of the Yakut people: in collaboration with the national poet of Yakutia Ivan Gogolev, he staged performances of Naara Suokh, Morning of the Lena, Taas Taba, and The Stone Deer. Potapov also worked on original implementations of the classics: performances of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don, and others were staged at this time. In 1971, the musical and drama troupes were divided into two independent groups: the Platon Oyunsky Yakut State Drama Theatre and the Yakut Musical Theatre.

Perestroika first made itself felt at the Russian Drama Theatre with the arrival of director Valery Kelle-Pelle to the team, with whom he staged over twenty productions. One of the early performances of Perestroika was of Yuri Makarov’s play I Was Not... Did Not... Never Participated and Mikhail Shatrov’s Dictatorship of Conscience. Kelle-Pelle’s work is characterised by a charged social and civic stance, which manifested itself in the production of Children of the Arbat, based on the novel of the same name by Anatoly Rybakov. Kelle-Pelle does not shy away from the staging of complex prose: the play Three Conversations, based on the eponymous philosophical work by Vladimir Solovyov turned out to be highly unusual in this regard, while his production of Alexander Kudryavtsev’s Ivan and the Madonna became one of his most successful performances.

Thus, the Yakut National Theatre (represented primarily by the Russian Drama Theatre and the Yakut Drama Theatre) entered the new era of the 1990s on something of a high note. The onset of Perestroika and the growth of public consciousness allowed the theatre to translate deep philosophical messages to the stage and move away from banal everyday themes. The opportunity was there to frankly discuss the issues of humanity’s spiritual yearnings and the revival of faith.