‘When I Leave Russia for a Week, I Get Bored and Want to Go Back’

PHOTO by Andrei Stekachyov / Afisha.Daily
A Lithuanian actress shares her impressions of the Russian theatre, archaic attitudes and older women’s self-neglect

Greta Susceviciute, 26

Origin: Vilnius, Lithuania

Occupation: theatre director and actress

I was raised in an artistic family, my mom a writer and my stepdad an artist. Both are Lithuanian so my Russian was nonexistent. My parents did speak Russian and Mom showed me some movies. There was never a New Year’s Eve without “The Irony of Fate,” a classic Soviet film that takes place on New Year’s Eve, and from the age of five they always translated it for me. When I was a kid I could only swear in Russian or say “kolbasa,” which means sausage. When I was 12, I went to a theatre school and liked it so much that I practically lived there.

I knew that I wanted to become an actress and a director. When I graduated from school and it was time to go to college, I discovered that my only real option was the Russian Drama Theatre, but applicants had to speak Russian. I had no choice, so I learned by heart everything I needed for the entry exam. But I was not accepted, as they told me “Young woman, you don’t understand a word of what you’re saying! What would you do in the Russian theatre?” So I enrolled in a film direction programme. I studied there for six months, realised that it wasn’t my calling and decided to move to Russia.

There is no logical explanation for my decision. I could have chosen England or France – seeing as how I am a citizen of the EU, my education would have been free and I know many people who did just that. One of my friends had to learn Nina’s monologue from Chekhov’s “The Seagull” in English in order to apply for a London theatre school. I found this strange, off-putting even. Moreover, I thought Europe would be boring on top of everything else. I was right, actually. These days, when I leave Russia for a week or so, I get bored and want to go back. Europeans don’t have something that my Russian friends do. Sure, European states care for people and don’t sink in red tape but once you come to Russia you find yourself actively engaged in something.

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I applied for the Moscow Art Theatre and the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts. One day, my mom called and said that Sergei Solovyov accepted applicants at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography and I just had to try my luck there! My mother was a big fan of Solovyov’s work, such as “Assa.” Personally, I had no idea who he was. Turned out that it was the last day for applications but all auditions were already done. For some reason, they scheduled another one for me. I realised that there was no chance of being accepted and decided to perform something I personally liked, so I chose Anouilh’s “Médée.” Solovyov said, “Oh, a Nazi! We need to take her!” He’s weird like that.

Appearance is actually one thing that I find weird about Moscow. Girls are so pretty here, but pot-bellied men often accompany them. Some want to showcase their wealth, wearing dress shirts with golden cuff links that are absolutely tasteless but visibly expensive.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that Russian women age poorly. On a subway ride you can easily spot perfect examples. I call them “bulldog women” – they’re 50 to 55 years of age with grim faces and giant chins. An example of graceful aging would be French women. For example, a French woman can be 60 years old and have wrinkles, but she’s tastefully clothed, full of life, doing yoga and so on. I guess such disinterest in personal care and grooming is the heritage of the Soviet Union. Lithuania has its share of bulldog women as well but in much fewer numbers.

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When I came to Moscow in 2010, the city was covered in smog. I knew no one and had nothing to do so I just strolled along the city streets. Everyone looked like they were half-dead, yet I was constantly approached by some weird guys who wanted to get to know me. That’s when I really felt that Russia was truly gigantic. Lithuania is so small and cozy, but here you’re like a toddler and it’s kind of scary. When I came to the city via Rizhskaya railway station, I spent about an hour in fruitless attempts to enter the metro system. I went down the stairs with the large “M” letter, walked a bit and found myself on the other side. I almost burst into tears. I had no money for a taxi but I had to get downtown somehow. I eventually found the subway entrance, which was in another building! The metro was another shock.

When I took a look down the escalator I felt like I was about to fall from a high-rise building. I’m still afraid of escalators. Migrant workers are also scary but everything is relative. I was in Paris recently and I found myself near the Stalingrad metro station. They had a bunch of tents there and a lot of dark-skinned people; it smelled like crap and giant rats were scurrying about. Such a sight is impossible to even imagine in Moscow. For example, they’ve recently opened a bike sharing station in the Maryina Roshcha district, which is where I live. My husband and I regularly used the service throughout the summer – it felt like being in Europe.

After I left the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography, I found a job at Nikolai Roshchin's A.R.T.O Theatre. Stas Namin discovered me there and he invited me to the Zelyoniy Theatre with Mikhail Shemyakin. We staged a play based on his memoirs. In the 1980s, he moved to the United States, where he hung out with Limonov, a political dissident, and Nureyev, a ballet dancer. New York was home to a very diverse group of Soviets in the 1980s – dancers, writers, artists, actors. I’ve spent nights working with Shemyakin, writing the play and editing the script. It was so exciting – Shemyakin is a genius!

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Then I spent some time staging kids’ plays in the Funny Bell House. That’s where I played Vera in “A Hero of Our Time.” I recently staged plays in France. I’m currently working on the Malyshariki project at Crocus City Hall. However, I know very few Moscow actors who are happy in their theatres and most loathe them.

For instance, I know an actress who works at the Vakhtangov Theatre and they have best of the best there! But their troupe is immense – you can’t even hope for a supporting role, so you’re likely to be an extra! The best-case scenario is you earn 25,000 roubles there ($377). Even to earn this you have to spend every waking hour there just for a chance to sing in the choir’s last row. They won’t even let you leave for a commercial project. Of course, people there don’t work for the pay. They also have poor salaries at the Gogol Centre. Et Cetera and the Moscow Art Theatre are the only ones with good pay.

What they show on TV there is crazy. It’s like Lithuania expects Russia to gather an army and invade the Baltic countries. On the news they discuss things like which side they would attack, whether they would come through Latvia, through Belarus or some other way. I wouldn’t even think of that! What would Russia want in Lithuania anyway? Cheese? Russia learned to make its own cheese but I do miss the ones from Lithuania. Sure, if you come to Vilnius from Russia as a tourist they’ll be very courteous to you but only until you start talking politics.

I’ve tried to explain to my Lithuanian friends that Russia had a different historical path from the rest of Europe so it can’t be the same. Europe has reached postmodernism while Russia is yet to transition to modernity and is muddling in archaism. But who said everyone needs modernism? I’ve tried to explain why Russia needs Putin but the only reaction I get is that I have this opinion only because I live there and no longer understand anything.

Author: Marina Zenkina