Protest as Performance: The Moscow Theatre Siege

by Angel Viator Smith

When studying performance theory, we learn that everyday actions can be seen as performance. They can range from very ancient actions such as religious ritual to very modern actions such as raves. Both of these and everything in between contain similar elements of performers and spectators, a set order of events, and a distinct beginning and ending. As well,they generally take place within a given space. This space can be anything from a cathedral or mosque to an out of the way warehouse. The important aspect is that both spectator and performer recognize the confines of the performance space.Even protests can be seen as performance. All protests, from picket lines to peace rallies and sit-ins are performative. People that have a point to get across will gather together to draw attention to their cause. While they are protesting they are the performers. The bystanders, the media, and the people watching it on television or reading about it in the news become the spectators. Wherever they have congregated becomes the space. Sometimes it exists as a very specific and respected space, such as a picket line, which should not be crossed. Other times the space can be more vague, such as a peace rally, where the area of the space fluxes with the amount of people in attendance, and with spectators occasionally joining in. Both rallies and picket lines have a set beginning and ending, and generally what occurs during the activity has been organized by the leaders of the event.
If protests can be seem as performance, then so can even the protests most people would not immediately call such. After all, a protest can be defined as when a person or group of people do not agree with something and attempt to instigate change by drawing attention to the matter at hand in the hopes that others will agree with them and join in the attempt to bring about change. By this reasoning, terrorists are essentially protesters. The difference between them and those organizing sit-ins is that they have decided that peaceful protest will not work, and therefore they feel that they must take more drastic measures.

The word terrorist has been tossed around quite a bit lately. In this paper, it is intended only to mean those who protest in such a way as to threaten to, intend to or actually cause harm to other people. When a person or group of people gathers to bring attention to their cause and feel it necessary to do so by using violence, they are protesting, but they are also terrorists. Actions such as bomb threats, bombs, threats of attack, and hostage situations are all, in essence, forms of protest.

Recently a very traditional performance, a musical, and a protest that can be seen as performance, a hostage situation, were tensely combined. On 23 October 2002, the performance of Nord Ost, a new Russian musical, was interrupted by Chechen rebels. Just after the beginning of the second act, approximately forty Chechen rebels took the Palace of Culture hostage. Several of the rebels stormed the stage while others had posed as theatre patrons and were among the audience. About seven hundred people were held captive within the theatre. The rebels had planted bombs throughout the theatre building and many of them had explosives strapped to their waist. The siege lasted several days. It only ended when the Moscow government decided to use gas to subdue the hostage-takers in order to reclaim the theatre. Unexpectedly, over a hundred of the hostages were killed by the gas. Since they were suffering from exhaustion and hunger, the gas had unintended results on the innocent. However, the majority of the hostages survived and the building was not blown up, which would have caused even more casualties.

To explore the Moscow theatre siege as performance, let us first outline the definitions of performance. Richard Schechner states in his book Performance Studies, “A performance is whatever takes place between a marked beginning and a marked end (205).” He also goes on to say that the context defines the limits of a performance. Schechner adds, “it may not be easy to say exactly when or where a given larger event or context ends and ordinary life begins (209).”

Nord Ost has a marked beginning and end. It lasts just as long as any other musical might last. It begins with curtain up and ends with curtain down. It was intended to bring to musical life the popular Russian novel of The Two Captains by Veniamin Kaverin. Unfortunately, the performance of the musical on the evening of 23 October 2002 was cut short and ended just after the beginning of the second act.

Now let us move on to the second performance that occurred that evening. The musical ended just as the new performance of the Chechen rebels began. At the onset, no one was certain of when the siege would end, but now we can look back and see that it possessed a marked beginning and, with the Russian military’s actions, a marked end.

Schechner claims that “no performance is an island…the event-in-itself is largely linked to a complex panoply of larger events (210).” To explore this idea further, first let us look at the musical itself. Before the tickets were even sold, the production team had devised a concept. They worked together to create the set, costumes, lights and sound designs. As Schechner states, “long before the spectator arrives, the technical staff has prepared the theatre… At home also preparations are being made by those who will attend the performance. For some it is a ‘time out’ … [or] part of a larger social occasion (209).” Nord Ost was to be an ordinary public performance with people attending wanting a night out and to be entertained.

We can also look at Schechner’s idea that “every performance is nested in one or more larger events or contexts (209).” Governmental backing and the promise of tourist money furnished the production with a sizeable budget. The result of such endowments was that state of the art equipment was secured for the entire production. The team also had the distinct advantage of working with the team that had produced Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera [1]. All of these benefits ensured that many people were employed in bringing everything together neatly and that even each night’s performance was part of a larger context.

Second, let us look at the rebel siege. One question that should be addressed is why the rebels chose to take hostage a musical production. There are several reasons that can be considered, even though the world may never know the exact calculations made by the rebels. First, the central location of the physical theatre made it an ideal target. It is situated very near to the heart of Moscow. Also, undoubtedly the theatre’s large capacity of over 1,000 and the fact that management of the production reported that attendance had been near capacity since the opening of the musical[2] made it an appealing target for the rebels. The governmental support that the production received might have been another reason that the play was targeted. Nord Ost was supported by the Ministry of Culture of Russia and survives under the patronage of the Moscow Government. It was given a budget large enough to outfit it with the most advanced equipment for both lighting and sound, as well as a computerized set changing mechanism. The musical also included a life size World War II bomber “landing” on stage. Not only did the production have such immense backing, it was also expected to become an attraction event for tourists, intended to be as popular as the Moscow Circus [3]. With all of these things combined, it becomes clear why the production of this musical was such a prime target for people wanting to make a statement to or about the Russian government.

Schechner states that the context defines the limits of a performance. Had the siege not occurred, ordinary life would have resumed after the curtain fell. Ordinary life, however, can be relative. In light of the siege, ordinary life was actually occurring during the theatrical performance and suspended during the siege. Nord Ost ended when the hostage takers stormed the stage, but so did “ordinary” life. Even though the siege has ended and “ordinary” life is presumed to have been restored, one wonders if “ordinary” life has resumed for those who were taken hostage.

Schechner believes that a focused performance has an identifiable beginning and end. However, the larger contexts do not. The larger contexts channel people, resources, and energies towards and away from the performance. Such contexts may be ritual, political, commercial, or social, or any combination of these (209). In an increasingly globalized world this concept becomes more evident as well as more important. Schechner goes on to state that:

From AIDS activists and Greenpeace staging guerrilla theatre to Palestinians mounting a drama about the destruction of their village by the Israeli army to Northern Irish parading for or against the British presence, performance is a way to embody concerns, express opinions, and forge solidarity. How the environment is managed, wars prevented, occupying armies expelled,or pandemics treated are questions inextricably enmeshed in the globalization process (265).The important phrase here is “how…occupying armies expelled.” The entire drive behind the rebels’ actions, and the larger context behind their performance, is the Russian occupation of Chechnya. When they took the theatre hostage, their demands were simple: Russia had one week to discontinue occupying Chechnya or the building would be blown up, along with everyone in it. They were prepared to die for their cause, and the explosives around their waists were there to illustrate that fact.

Neal Gabler notes that, “No doubt it is easier to mobilize popular support … on Main Street American and on the streets of the Third World … by means of theatre than by employing nuanced analyses (Schechner 269).” In other words, actions speak louder than words. Unfortunately, the rebels felt violent actions would prove more successful than non-violent ones. They wanted to bring their cause to the attention of the international media. They succeeded and in turn illustrated the greater context that their performance was a part of.

The question that now needs to be addressed is whether either performance was successful. Success or failure can be defined in two ways: “if it does not please its public or if it does not accomplish most of what those making the performance intend (Schechner 208).” In one sense, the musical was not successful, since it was cut short. However, the cast, crew, and orchestra reconvened to perform it as a memorial tribute to those who lost their lives in the siege. As well, the official Nord Ost website notes that the production is scheduled to resume performances in its original space in February [4]. In this sense, the performance of the musical was greatly successful. By continuing the production, the musical has both pleased its public and will accomplish what those making the performance intended … a daily running musical in Moscow that represents the best of Russian culture.

It can be argued that the siege was also successful in that the Chechen rebel supporters can be seen as the public needing to be pleased. It was reported on BBC Online that “there’s no doubt …this issue is firmly back on the agenda internationally [5].” The rebels intended to bring their plight to the attention of the international media, and with their siege they succeeded,if only temporarily.

Conversely the siege performance can be seen as unsuccessful, since it did not accomplish most of what the rebels intended -mainly ensuring that Russian forces would pull out of Chechnya. As well, it was also reported on BBC Online that “the Russians claim to have killed 30 Chechen fighters. I think [Putin’s] view is that there is no point in having political dialogue, we have to be tough and that’s what we’re going to see from now on. So one reaction is rather than making life easier in Chechnya, as this group of Chechens wanted, their actions may well have worsened them [6].” Not only did the rebels not succeed in coercing Russia to pull out of Chechnya, but they may have made the situation worse for those remaining in the region.

In studying performance, the situation that occurred in Moscow is perhaps one of the most interesting, if terrible, happenings to explore. There are many dynamics to what occurred, and not all of them can be addressed in this paper. The mere fact that two utterly opposite performances overlapped each other is intriguing. That one unwittingly created the perfect opportunity for the other, and that the other, without realizing it, became a performance in its own right, makes the study of the Moscow theatre siege fascinating. Perhaps with time, as more facts become known, scholars will be able to unpack even more of the larger contexts surrounding this event.

Works Cited 1, 3, 4 Information gained from the official Nord Ost website, Statistic quoted from article found at

5, 6 Taken from the transcript of the BBC News Online interactive forum with Paul Reynolds hosting and Moscow correspondent Jonathan Charles. The transcript can be located at

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London, New York: Routledge, 2002.

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