Vakhtangov Theatre of Moscow

at the Civic Theatre

I was pretty sure going in that the Vakhtangov Theatre production of The Peace of Brest-Litovsk would be a drag. The ads are damning. There’s this portrait of Vladimir Lenin, looking like one of the faces on Mount Rushmore, with drawings of Stalin, Trotsky, and a hammer and sickle superimposed over his left ear. The copy touted “a compelling account of power struggles on the Bolshevik Central Committee before and after the negotiations at Brest-Litovsk in 1917.”

I didn’t trust the word “compelling”–not in the same sentence as “Central Committee” and “negotiations,” anyway–and I’d never heard of Brest-Litovsk. I was leery of the heroic imagery, too. I pictured a long, pious, deadly authentic recapitulation of debates remembered today only by Russian grammar school students, who probably get tested on them every year in civics class.

Well, it turns out that Brest-Litovsk is a city on the Bug River, at the border between the USSR and Poland, where the newly ensconced Bolshevik regime worked out what for them were the humiliating terms of a separate peace with Germany, ending Russian involvement in World War I.

It also turns out that “compelling” and “Central Committee” aren’t necessarily contradictory concepts. The Peace of Brest-Litovsk is your basic back room political drama–made all the more intriguing by the fact that this back room is in Moscow and filled with all the putative demigods and devils of Soviet history.

My first inkling that the play might be better than expected came when Mikhail Ulyanov appeared onstage as Lenin, wearing neither a goatee nor a baldcap. Clearly, director Robert Sturua wasn’t interested in simply re-posing old photographs. No socialist docudrama here. No plodding literalism. No impersonations a la Hal Holbrook done up as Mark Twain. Trotsky was clean-shaven, too. And George Meskhishvili’s set–with its enormous, half-shattered grid of windows and its lonely classical column–looked like something George Tsypin might design for Chicago’s own eclecticist, Robert Falls.

Then Lenin’s mistress, Inessa Armand, showed up and I was sure everything was going to be fine: there’d be no socialist sanctimony, either. No wartless–or cockless–saints. This demigod would be anatomically correct.

Of course, if The Peace of Brest-Litovsk had been written by an American, it would have been entirely about Lenin and Armand. But Soviet playwright Mikhail Shatrov has more serious intentions than merely showing us Lenin the lover. He’s out to show us Lenin as a man in the world; a political combatant, deeply and passionately involved in a struggle that he’s by no means assured of winning. When Shatrov’s Lenin meets with Armand, they exchange caresses but talk strategy.

The situation’s like this: Czar Nicholas is dead, Kerensky’s out, it’s Christmastime, and the Bolsheviks have held power for a measly two months. They promised the people bread and peace, but the Germans are demanding a disgracefully high price for that peace. Agreeing to their conditions would mean huge losses of land and money–as well as a betrayal of German, French, and English workers, who expect Moscow to lead them in a war against European imperialism. Rejecting their conditions, on the other hand, would most probably mean the collapse of the infant Bolshevik state.

A Central Committee faction led by Nikolay Ivanovich Bukharin urges “revolutionary war” against the Germans. A clownish, arrogant Trotsky pushes his own absurd formula for “neither peace nor war.” Lenin alone–or rather, Lenin dubiously supported by the likes of Stalin–argues that the Bolsheviks must avoid a fight that can only strip them of what they’ve gained and subject the people to more suffering.

There’s all kinds of energetic wrangling over the question, with Alexander Philipenko’s frenetic Bukharin exhorting Lenin, Vasily Lanovoy’s suave Trotsky evading him, and Vladimir Koval’s coolly brutal Stalin simply waiting his turn. Short, thick, and determined, Ulyanov’s Lenin brings all his formidable will to bear on his comrade adversaries: scolding and cajoling, threatening and begging, schmoozing and–in one delightful passage–regaling them with a short course in dialectics. It’s a revelation to see the man whose image floats over Kremlin convocations–like the Wizard’s head in the throne room at Oz–falling to his knees in supplication before Trotsky, or lying belly-up on the floor, utterly exhausted.

Lenin exhausted, however, isn’t quite the same thing as Lenin humanized. For all that Shatrov demystifies the father of the Soviet Union, he can’t bring himself to toss the halo completely. Lenin may not be a proletarian saint here, but he’s not quite a proletarian man either. Shatrov allows his Lenin the sort of prescience, devotion, disinterest, invincibility, and perfect common sense you don’t find among mere mortals. Shatrov also refuses to entertain the demeaning but thoroughly obvious possibility that the Soviet response to German peace terms wasn’t a response at all, but the tragic result of a comic inability to act: you realize, watching The Peace of Brest-Litovsk, that the Central Committee debates would play disturbingly well as political slapstick.

More profoundly, from an American point of view, Shatrov never questions the ethics, much less the legitimacy of the coup that brought Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power in the first place. To ignore this essential–this literally fundamental–fact of history seems a little like Sophocles forgetting to mention that Oedipus had a run-in with Laius on the road to Thebes.

Still, that’s part of the excitement of the play from an American point of view: the chance to watch a nation redefine itself in art, with all the insight and blindness that entails. What we’re seeing here isn’t just an interesting and well-performed bit of revisionism. We’re seeing a synthesis in the ongoing dialectic of Soviet identity.