Bolshoi leader toppled

Thursday, August 31st 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MOSCOW – President Vladimir Putin has shaken up the leadership of the troubled Bolshoi Theatre, dismissing its director and asserting tighter government control over one of Russia's most renowned cultural institutions.

Mr. Putin's order, published Wednesday, puts the 224-year-old ballet and opera theater under direct control of the Ministry of Culture as it struggles to finish a long-delayed renovation of its landmark building in central Moscow.

"As minister, I have the task of putting in order the work of the Bolshoi Theatre and the financing of the reconstruction," Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi was quoted as saying by the Kommersant newspaper Wednesday. "How can I answer for financial flows if they don't go through my hands?"

Though it is a state institution, the Bolshoi had a substantial degree of autonomy after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was not under the control of any ministry and reported directly to the Russian president.

But the theater fell on hard times. Government funding dried up, an autocratic director was dismissed in 1995 after the ballet company's dancers rebelled and foreign tours brought poor or mixed reviews. Critics flayed Bolshoi head Vladimir Vasiliev for his production of the classic ballet Swan Lake, in which he changed the story by eliminating the part of Odile, the Black Swan.

The Bolshoi recently appeared to be recovering from its troubles, receiving good reviews from a U.S. tour this summer and winning several prizes in Russia.

Mr. Vasiliev's job of artistic and general director was eliminated by the order, which was signed Monday. It didn't specifically say he was fired, but news reports said he was out and Mr. Shvydkoi was quoted as saying he had chosen Anatoly Iksanov, former head of St. Petersburg's Bolshoi Drama Theatre, as the new executive director.

In addition, the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper quoted Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a world-famous orchestral conductor who formerly worked at the Bolshoi, as saying he was in negotiations for the job of artistic director.

Mr. Shvydkoi said the changes were made to streamline the stalled effort to renovate the Bolshoi building. The work can't proceed until the government comes up with the money to finish a second structure next door, which is to provide a place for performances while the original building is closed for renovation.

The theater, built in 1825, had its interior reconstructed after an 1856 fire. Backstage areas are cramped and dark. The electrical wiring, some of which hangs in bundles tacked on the walls, has not been replaced since the 1940s – an invitation to another disaster like the fire that shut down Moscow's television tower Sunday.

Many saw the shake-up as a move by Mr. Shvydkoi to expand his ministry's authority. It also was seen as a general tightening of control by Putin's government over institutions that went their own way under former President Boris Yeltsin, who resigned Dec. 31.

"It reflects a general trend of the government establishing more central control over every sphere, including culture," said Yevgeny Volk, a political analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Moscow.

Since taking office, Mr. Putin has won legal curbs on the powers of Russia's regions and established stronger Kremlin control over the parliament, which is dominated by a pro-Putin party.

In the cultural sphere, Mr. Shvydkoi recently expanded his authority by taking control of Goskino, the state filmmaking company. He fired leading conductor Yevgeny Svetlanov from a government orchestra for spending too much time conducting overseas.