On Tuesday, October 17, a Moscow court extended the house arrest of Kirill Serebrennikov, a high-profile theater director at the center of a fraud scandal, until January next year. Serebrennikov was placed under house arrest in August on charges of embezzling 68 million rubles ($1.1 million) in government funds in a case widely seen as political.

Today we share a conversation between Serebrennikov and famed Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov about totalitarianism. This conversation is an excerpt, translated for the first time from Russian to English, of the forthcoming book Dialogues with Sokurov, which will be released in early November from the St. Petersburg bookstore Podpisnye izdaniya and the Open Library project

This excerpt was translated for PEN America by Anya Allen. You can find the excerpt in its original language here, published by Meduza.


ALEXANDER SOKUROV: Do nontotalitarian societies exist? When we had the collapse, upheaval, changes to our way of life and to all sorts of political institutions, it was somewhat alarming. But I never believed that the changes that began in the Soviet Union, and then in Russia, are irreversible. I’m certain that everything can still return. Absolutely everything that was can return—the totalitarian extermination of the people, and the camps, and so on. All of this can return. And that is what Boris Yeltsin once said.

And now, having traveled the world, having seen what is happening—not just in our country—I don’t see democratic governments, and I don’t see nontotalitarian systems. I don’t see them. I don’t know even one country where there are no signs of deep-seated totalitarianism. Recently, as I often meet with journalists in the west, I repeatedly encounter: “Oh, Alexander, we are not allowed to talk about this!” “Oh, talking about that is forbidden!” “Oh, here that cannot be printed.” This wasn’t the case five or six years ago—well, maybe eight. All that was said could be printed.

I do not know of even one government that at its core is without totalitarian tendencies or deep-seated totalitarian energy, which is always within a nation. In our nation it is prevalent. Among the French, a little less so. Among the Italians, there is also quite a lot. About the rest I will not even say—the Portuguese, etc. . . . All this is evident.

KIRILL SEREBRENNIKOV: I sort of agree, and disagree, because it is quite clear why this is happening, what thereasons are. We—Europe, Russia, and the whole world in general—already some time ago entered the period of militarization, of war. In Russia it is quite clear what the war is about . . . Or maybe, on the contrary, it is not quite clear—they talk about “enemies of the people” or about the “fifth column”—it is such a game . . .

In fact, we feel, we understand that violence is escalating, and this violence is determined by those challenges, problems, and tensions that exist now in world politics. We can analyze this endlessly. I’m not really a specialist here. I understand that terrorism and other problems, which all of civilization is suffering from, cannot just disappear; it cannot be a misunderstanding that tomorrow we will forget about. This has a very strong impact on all state institutions, and greatly affects the mobilization of coercive intentions, of coercive impulses.

In Russia this has been happening for a long time, because the terrorist attacks in Russia began to occur much earlier than in Europe. You recall, in the 15 years since 2000, we have not had a year without terrorist attacks, we have not had a year without casualties. Recently, somebody counted the number of casualties from these terrible events—nearly 3,000 people—and this is only the casualties, not to mention the wounded, maimed, those whose lives and destinies changed after this terrible event and will never be the same.

It stands to reason, therefore, that the trend is global. And I do not fully agree with you that today we see in Russia some kind of atomization, some kind of anarchy. It seems to me that what is happening today is a unification of the nation around the government, because people intuitively feel that at least something can protect them in a world where there are no walls, no ceiling, where anything can happen at any moment. We delayed our meeting for 10 minutes because we found some sort of package in the bathroom, and we didn’t know what kind of package it was. These simple things and these frightening things—they make us rush to someone for help. And we look for this assistance from the government. Where else can we go? Reason will not save us from the bomb. From the bomb that ticks in the bathroom in the package, the security officials will save us, the people who are trained will save us. And the person who is trained, the one with the shoulder straps, he works for the government, he is part of the government. Therefore we—not you and I, but the people—we all intuitively try to be closer to the source of strength and power. In Russia it is the government.

I’m talking about the fact that a government that has power has a definite responsibility. And when the authorities become aware of their own power, a great number of temptations begin to arise. Because this power and influence on society must be concerned with safety and infrastructure. But as soon as the authorities start to put their hands in my pants, or open the cupboards in my apartment, or want to control what I think, or don’t give me the chance to express what I want . . . here’s where the alarm goes off, the SOS . . . This is the beginning of totalitarianism.

Do we need a strong government? We do. Do we need people who can defend us from the frightening things which fill the world now? We do. But these people need not teach me what to say or not, what to think or not, which songs to sing, and which songs are prohibited. Here, I think, is the limit. At a certain point, these people start to say: We will not let you sing your songs, because these songs are a threat to security.

SOKUROV: I think that power and strength are not the same thing. One does not follow from the other. Sometimes power, as we know, is weak. Sometimes power is strong. I would prefer that it were reasonable. I would prefer it if in Russia we ceased to say that we need a strongman and strong power, and instead people said, finally: We need intelligent power. It seems to me that we’ve never had this.

This question is much more significant: In Russia, why has there been a lack of energy, a lack of intellect, a lack of some kind of procedure that would lead reasonable people to power? As the Japanese say: What do we need to ask of God? Nothing; ask reason. If we begin to say that power is reason, then government will correctly understand what is happening in the world in the context of the relationship between the Christian and Muslim worlds, then it will correctly analyze the processes within the Muslim world and will understand what needs to be done. And it will acknowledge that the Islamic world revolution is coming. But there is no such analysis, there is no open intellectual process in which a significant number of people would participate. After all, we educate power, and power educates us through our own institutions. If we do not trust, precisely from this point of view, our parliamentarians, our politicians, and some of our economists—the alarm begins, the negotiations begin: Well, give us strong power; it will drown out both our protests and this process of destroying power itself. Power is strong—at the same time it is a synonym for destruction. Strong power destroys, it does not give birth to a harmonious state, a just and beloved state, a beloved country. Strong power does not allow the country to become a beloved country.

I, of course, in this case appeal to the mood of young people, who want to love Russia, who want to love St. Petersburg, who want to love the time that we live in. But they do not want to see an unreasonable, unruly government; they do not want to see the problems with pensioners; they do not want to see the destruction in the development of cities; they do not want to see a collapsing educational system, and the lack of self-education and enlightenment. They do not articulate this precisely, definitively, but intuitively that is how they feel. Therefore, for me, the question can only be put this way—not even a question, but a thesis: Power must be reasonable. This seems to me very important.

SEREBRENNIKOV: I will tell a story that illustrates an example of a reasonable government, because I like the idea that we came to in our conversation. In Stuttgart, I staged the opera Salome. And I proposed a rather edgy interpretation: The prophet Iokanaan will be Muslim—a Muslim prophet, who in Arabic says that the world will be destroyed.

The singer sang the music of Strauss . . . And next to him was an artist who read the text of Oscar Wilde, translated into Arabic. And then I find out the following: Someone in the orchestra wrote a letter to the police, claiming that a provocation is being prepared on the stage, and that both we and the audience are not safe, because at any moment fundamentalists or people with hurt feelings may arrive and blow everything up, and we are afraid, we sit in the pit and are afraid. And I learn about this after the premiere. It’s an important moment.

Then the following happens. The police arrive and say: Please, we need a video recording of the rehearsal or run-through. The management of the theater says: Of course, here’s the video. They watch it and send for some experts. The experts sit down, listen, watch, and say, “We see no signs of mockery of Islam, we do not see any provocative moment.” And the police say, “That means we’ll go with plan A.” The theater management asks: “What is Plan A?” “Plan A is when one disguised policeman will be present at each performance and keep watch.” They say, “And what is plan B?” “Plan B means three disguised police officers.” Okay.

And indeed, at every performance, one disguised policeman is present in the hall. I find out about this only after the premiere and say, “Why didn’t you tell me?” And the theater management responds, “Our job is to ensure you can put on the kind of play that you want, and that is written in our Constitution. We are here to safeguard the artist’s right to express himself to the fullest extent, just as he sees fit. And the government also guarantees this right. We are here for this reason. Therefore, work in peace. . . . This is plan A.”

This is a question of the reasonableness of the government. We all live under the same threat of a bomb. But in our case, probably, the police would arrive and say, “That’s it, shut it down, cancel it, clean it up—what were you thinking, don’t you know where you live? Don’t you read the news? You can’t do this.” In the other case, it was done incredibly delicately, subtly, while Stuttgart is a city in which the number of refugees and ethnic minorities immediately strikes the eye. This is a question of the reasonableness of the government.

Regarding communism with a human face or a nonhuman face . . . Everything that I know about communism is terrible and disgusting. The perversion of the main idea that was once uttered by someone, that all people are brothers . . . This idea has mutated into something that causes in me loathing, horror, and sympathy for those people who have become victims of this communist idea. The people who were the torchbearers of this idea are incredibly interesting, as interesting as any maniacs, murderers, and fanatics . . .

My family did not suffer in all the terrible years of the Stalinist regime because my ancestors were Cheka members. They brought communism to Western Ukraine. Streets were named after them, their hands were covered in blood. . . . That is, my ancestors were all connected with the state security apparatus. Our family was in clover under all of those regimes.

For some reason it happened that we broke away from all of that. My grandfather, a film director, who graduated from GIK [the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography] (it was still GIK, not VGIK) and was a student of Dovzhenko and Eisenstein, said about Eisenstein: “This is contra. Contra is alien to us. And Dovzhenko is one of us.” And when in Moldova the perestroika began, he said: “Hand out pistols to the communists, we will defend ourselves from this contra.” And we fought with him to the death and didn’t talk for years, because he hated Tarkovsky, simply ontologically. And I loved Tarkovsky. . . . And here we couldn’t agree on anything. I have aesthetic disagreements with this idea.