Daniel Fulvio on what the Bard can still tell us about Putin’s Russia, and his new studio production of Richard III
by Daniel Fulvio
Friday 12th October 2012, 13:24 BST
Like many people in the West, I’ve become fascinated and appalled by the Russian president Vladimir Putin in much the same way that audiences of Shakespeare’s Richard III are both charmed and horrified by its iconic protagonist.
Like Richard, Putin emerged to seize the crown after a period of destructive instability caused (in Putin’s case) by his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s commitment to a classic ‘shock therapy’ transition to capitalism.
State privatisation and market reforms created some very wealthy winners (the oligarchs) and many impoverished losers, and the combination of rocketing price rises, government cutbacks and economic depression resulted in a standoff between the parliament and the president.
In an almost Shakespearean irony, Yeltsin ended up ordering the shelling of the very same parliament building from which he had led the resistance to the anti-Gorbachev plotters in 1991 (shades of Coriolanus marching on Rome at the head of the enemy Volscians?). By the end of Russia’s first decade as capitalist economy, the country was in the kind of political and economic disarray that was an open invitation to any opportunist politician who could present themselves as a strong man, capable of restoring national pride and power. Putin, recognising “the tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune,” seized his moment and, from the position of Yeltsin’s deputy, and then acting president, won his first election in 2000.
His time in office has provoked huge amounts of comment in the West. To some, he is an incarnation of neo-Stalinism, the kind of leader who crushes opposition wherever it raises its head – whether that’s in the form of Chechen separatists or punk performance artists Pussy Riot, currently appealing their two-year jail sentences for performing an anti-Putin ‘punk prayer’ inside a Moscow cathedral. To these commentators, he is the kind of whimsical autocrat who would turn on a political opponent for nothing more than insufficiently agreeing with him (as Shakespeare’s Richard orders Hastings’s death for saying “If”).
To others, he is the godfather at the top of a mafia state. In the same way that Shakespeare’s Richard hires various murderers to sub-contract the political assassinations that will help him secure the throne, in the eyes of commentators such as The Guardian’s former Moscow correspondent Luke Harding, Putin has eliminated and intimidated opponents using muscle supplied by the Federal Security Bureau (FSB), the new name for the KGB in which he spent 16 years climbing steadily to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, until he left on the second day of the ‘91 coup (by which time it was already clear it was doomed to failure).
Others still argue that the action-man image, regularly burnished by official photo portraits of him stripped to the waist, fishing and horse-riding, is all smoke and mirrors: this is a man who has resumed the presidency of a state which is politically, economically and militarily much weaker than it appears. Like Shakespeare’s Richard, Putin was hungry for power, but seems to lack any real idea of what to do with it now he has it. By staging Shakespeare’s Richard III in something like contemporary Russia, we are not suggesting that we have the answers to any of these questions about who Putin really is. Nor are we arguing that the Russia of today is precisely like the England of the Wars of the Roses, let alone like Shakespeare’s representation of that era.
However, the parallels are intriguing. The factional battles of the English court of the play are strikingly similar to the power struggles that gripped the post-Soviet Kremlin. Any number of the big players could have come out on top in either time or place. At the beginning of his post-KGB political career, Putin looked as unlikely as Richard of Gloucester to ascend the equivalent of the throne (although the crook-backed Richard, by his own admission “not shaped for sportive tricks,” is unlikely to have regularly posed topless in his pursuit of power). And both effectively crowned themselves –Putin in the recent disputed presidential elections that some have suggested were less than fair.
Both eras are steeped in blood. The brutal Chechen wars have caused the deaths of at least 25,000 Chechen civilians and 5,000 Russian soldiers, while the Wars of the Roses included the longest and bloodiest battle fought on English soil, the Battle of Towton in which 28,000 died so that Edward IV could claim the throne, until Richard plotted and murdered his way to the top. Beyond that, all we can do is raise some important questions about the nature of power, as seen through the double lens of Shakespeare’s verse and Putin’s court. And, with luck, shine a light on the oligarchs, many of whom have not only established homes and power bases for themselves in this country, but have also sent their children to be educated at elite universities such as ours.
● Richard III runs at the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio from 18-20 October