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Special Theatrical Operation: Pushback against Lenkom Theater Z-actors and other Russian performers in Israel

Scheduled performances by Mark Zakharov's Lenkom in Israel at the end of October have been called off. Over the past 18 months, artists such as Grigory Leps, Philipp Kirkorov, Aleksandr Rosenbaum, Elena Vaenga, Vyacheslav Butusov, Olga Buzova, and the RASA duo have faced cancellations due to public pressure in the country. All of these performers endorse the war in Ukraine. While they could have attracted full audiences in Israel, civil society has pushed back against Z-culture and questionable Russian funds.

  • The Final Tour

  • Lenkom's counteroffensive

  • Who got cancelled and who got to perform

  • Refusal to take Russian money

  • Public opinion

The Final Tour

At the end of October this year, four performances of the Moscow State Theater Mark Zakharov's Lenkom were scheduled to take place in Israel, featuring the play “Memorial Prayer” by Grigory Gorin. These shows were set to grace the stage of Israel's largest state theater, Gabima, promising to be a significant cultural and commercial event. Ticket sales began on August 25th. However, following the announcement of ticket sales and the launch of an advertising campaign on Israeli social media, a wave of outrage surged.

Users quickly discovered that active supporters of the war were coming to Israel. For instance, in January of this year, Lenkom actors performed in front of injured Russian soldiers at the Vishnevsky Scientific Center in Moscow. One of the participants in this performance, actress Olesya Zheleznyak, hosts a program on the propagandist channel Spas (Savior), and in October 2022, amid the ongoing war, she recorded a video congratulating Vladimir Putin on his birthday, expressing full support for his actions.

Actor Andrei Leonov, who inherited the leading role in “Memorial Prayer” from his father, Evgeny Leonov, handed over a vehicle with a “humanitarian cargo of necessary items and ammunition for the soldiers” to Russian military personnel on April 24, 2023. This was done “as part of the ongoing humanitarian and sponsorship work conducted by Lenkom.”

Actor Andrei Leonov and the vehicle he handed over to the Russian army, photographed near the Lenkom Theater building
Actor Andrei Leonov and the vehicle he handed over to the Russian army, photographed near the Lenkom Theater building

Lenkom actor Anton Shagin personally delivered bulletproof vests, drones, and other cargo to the “DNR” in March 2023. Russian media report that Shagin regularly performs in territories occupied by Russia. “I am proud of my country, the president, and the Russian army,” Shagin said in one of his interviews in October 2022.

It's worth noting that even the creator of the legendary Lenkom theater and the play “Memorial Prayer,” Mark Zakharov, in the last years of his life, supported the annexation of Crimea and Putin's aggressive policies in Ukraine. The consistent position of Mark Zakharov's students in supporting the war has been enough to provoke outrage among Russian-speaking Israelis.

The poster for Lenkom's tour in Israel
The poster for Lenkom's tour in Israel

Anatoly Bely, a former leading actor of the Moscow Art Theater who left Russia for Israel at the beginning of the war, referred to Lenkom as “Z-com” on his Facebook page, and the play as “speculation on Jewish themes” and “blasphemy.”

“Does Gabima not know that the Lenkom theater supports the war? Do the producers believe that money can't have blood on it? And most importantly, how can we prevent this disgrace from happening?”

Israeli actress Elena Yaralova wrote on her Facebook page:

“How can it happen that a theater troupe openly and actively supporting the Putin regime and the war is about to use a state theater's venue?! This is a disgrace to our country. This is a disgrace to our theater. We will make every effort to prevent this.”

Colleagues supported Yaralova, although in the comments to her post, one well-known figure in the Israeli theatrical community wrote that the murder of 1.5 million Jews by Ukrainians should not be forgotten. However, she quickly deleted this comment. Elena received a response from Noam Semel, the director of the Gabima theater: “Gabima has no relation to either to the production or the Lenkom theater. The stage has been rented by the Israeli producer Gadi Oron. All questions should be directed to him.”

“Can we rent the stage to a company of pedophiles?” Yaralova asks.

Israeli entrepreneur and the founder of the TV-2 channel in Tomsk, Arkadiy Mayofis, upon learning about the upcoming tour of Lenkom, posted the phone number of the Gabima management on Facebook and called for informing the theater employees about Lenkom's support of the war.

A petition calling for the cancellation of the tour appeared online:

“We, opponents of Russian terrorism and supporters of Ukraine, vehemently oppose the tour of the Lenkom theater and appeal to the management of Gabima to prevent the staging of their play in Israel. These are actors and directors who promote fascism and support the Russian government and the war in Ukraine. People who have often publicly supported Putin, taxpayers in Russia, and sponsors of weapons and equipment for the Russian army.”

At the time of this writing, the petition has gathered 8394 signatures.

Since Gabima is a state, or more precisely, municipal theater, opponents of Lenkom's tour have not only addressed the theater itself but also its formal leadership in the Tel Aviv Municipality. However, the officials also declined to take responsibility for inviting the Russian theater. “The Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality does not interfere in matters of artistic content of cultural institutions in the city, unless it contradicts the law, even if we do not agree with such content,” the mayor's statement says.

Russian-speaking media have become interested in the story of Lenkom's tour. The online publication Detali (Details) tried to find out who initiated the tour and who was financing it. Producer Gadi Oron told Detali that he only performs technical functions and “receives money for services related to hosting the acting troupe and organizing the process.” Gadi Oron refused to disclose the name of the person who had invited the troupe. However, Detali managed to find out that it was producer Alexander Chernin, an Israeli citizen living in Moscow, who had collaborated with Lenkom for many years and had been bringing Russian actors to Israel since the 1990s. Detali contacted Chernin but was unable to obtain information about the tour's sponsor.

On August 28, Gadi Oron canceled the performances. “We did not foresee such an uproar arising from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. We all believe that there is no need to further ignite disagreements in our society. Therefore, after consulting with the management of the Gabima theater, we decided to postpone the visit of the Lenkom theatrical troupe to Israel until... 'six in the evening after the war,'“ according to the official press release from Gadi Oron.

The announcement of the cancellation of Lenkom's tour in Israel
The announcement of the cancellation of Lenkom's tour in Israel

Lenkom's counteroffensive

On the next day, August 29, Lenkom published a letter in Rossiyskaya Gazeta, written in a style reminiscent of Soviet propaganda and posts by Dmitry Medvedev:

“...The enthusiasm of the Lenkom troupe and the expectations of thousands of Israelis were immediately smothered by the dirty hands of those for whom the absence of memory, tried-and-true methods of threats with a nationalist aroma, and shrill cries have unfortunately become a destructive norm...
Lenkom and its employees were bombarded with a flurry of low-level verbal diarrhea interspersed with threats from “local communal kitchens”...
Writhing in impotent rage and feigning triumphant jubilation, Ivans of Israel who don't remember their kin, simply demonstrated once again the unsightly appearance of “defenders of Ukraine,” comfortably mooching off the state budgets of various countries...”

And finally:

“Such naive blindness has already led to the Holocaust and the Second World War.”

As Victor Vakhshtain, former dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninka), and now a fresh repatriate and visiting researcher at Ariel University, put it in a conversation with The Insider, Lenkom's letter written in the style of the Soviet anti-Zionist committee has definitively deprived the theater of the Israeli audience.

“Theater is an ideological front,” says Elena Yaralova. “No theater in the world will accept Lenkom or the Moscow Art Theatre (MHAT)”. In her opinion, the Jewish theme is a 'clever manipulation.' She reconstructs the logic of the tour organizers, saying, “Jews will fall for it.” Yaralova speculates that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is interested in Lenkom's tour in Israel. “It's very important for them that Israel accept a Russian theater because no one else will,” the actress is convinced.

Former Russian theater critic and now a fresh repatriate, Alexey Krizhevsky, doubts that anyone had political goals for the theater. “It was a blatant cash grab,” says Krizhevsky. “A way to strip non-Russian money, which, as a rule, is more significant than Russian money, by taking advantage of the cultural thirst of the Russian-speaking Israeli audience. And when they were turned away at the gate, that's when the letter about 'Ivans who don't remember their kin' was handed down to them from up high.”

Who got cancelled and who got to perform

Cancellation of Russian artists' performances has started shortly after the commencement of full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. In April 2022, concerts by Philipp Kirkorov and Grigory Leps, who had publicly supported the “SMO,” were canceled. Leps had participated in a concert alongside Vladimir Putin in Luzhniki on March 18, 2022. Soon after, a planned concert by Aleksandr Rosenbaum in June 2022 was also canceled, with Rosenbaum prudently deciding that “now is not the right time for concerts.” In May, concerts by Elena Vaenga were canceled due to public protests. In August 2022, a concert by Vyacheslav Butusov scheduled for October 13 of the same year was canceled. Stardust Entertainment, the company organizing the concert, stated, “Unfortunately, due to the increasing madness in the minds of the Russian leadership and their partial mobilization, as well as the unfortunate fact of joint singing by Mr. Butusov and Mr. Kostin, we have no moral right to hold Vyacheslav Butusov's concert in Israel.”

On October 1, 2022, Russian opera singer Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov performed in Tel Aviv. Netrebko had been Putin's trusted representative in the Russian presidential elections and had supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukrainian Donbas. However, on March 30, a month after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Netrebko “categorically condemned” the war and distanced herself from Putin. On her Facebook page, she assured that her thoughts were with the victims of this war and their families. Nevertheless, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which had previously terminated its contract with Netrebko, has not changed its decision.

On December 5, 2022, the Turetsky Choir held a concert at the Palace of the Nation in Jerusalem, organized by the Russian Embassy in Israel with the support of the Moscow government, the Moscow Center for International Cooperation, and the organization “Russian House.” The choir openly supports the “SMO” and Vladimir Putin. The Russian Embassy not only distributed tickets but also provided transportation for concertgoers from various cities in Israel. The choir performed songs from the Soviet era for them. Activists from the organization Israel Friends of Ukraine rallied outside the venue. During the concert, one of the activists, Mikhail Birman, unfurled a Ukrainian flag in the hall and shouted, “Thousands of people are dying in Ukraine right now, and you are supporting these fascists!” Security personnel immediately removed Mikhail from the hall and confiscated the Ukrainian flag.

In June 2023, several concerts by Olga Buzova were scheduled to take place in Be'er Sheva, Haifa, and Tel Aviv. The organization Israeli Friends of Ukraine launched a campaign to cancel the singer's concerts because she had supported Russian aggression in Ukraine. As a result, the official representative of Buzova's company, Archer Music, canceled the concerts “due to non-compliance with the technical rider, as well as due to the incompetence of the organizer.”

In July 2023, a touring performance of the play “Late Love” starring Klara Novikova, Leonid Kanevsky, and Daniil Spivakovskiy took place in five cities in Israel, including Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Haifa, Be'er Sheva, and Nof HaGalil. In an interview with propagandist Vyacheslav Manucharov in April 2022, when the war had been ongoing for two months, former Kyiv resident Novikova mentioned that she preferred Russia to Ukraine, claimed that the Maidan had been paid for, and asserted that Ukraine and Russia were one country. Nevertheless, this did not deter Israel from allowing her tour to proceed.

Finally, immediately following the cancellation of the Lenkom performances in August 2023, it was announced that the concert of the Russian duo RASA in Tel Aviv was also canceled. For Israeli organizers based their decision on the fact that the group had previously performed at the “Russian Summer. For Russia” festival in Podolsk and at other patriotic events. Whilliam Rise, the project marketer for EUPHORIA, who had invited the Russian duo, explained on his Facebook page that he was unaware of RASA's political stance. However, as soon as he learned about it, he canceled everything, “despite having already paid part of the fee, having paid for the venue, and having had a lot of money invested.”

Therefore, the overall count of canceled and held performances by Z-artists in Israel (counting collectives as a unit) stands at 8:2. The Netrebko case is not included here, as the singer cannot be definitively categorized as a supporter of the war.

If we attempt to count Russian artists who do not support the war with Ukraine and who performed in Israel during the war, the count in their favor would be overwhelming. Here are some of the prominent names: Zemfira, Aquarium, Mashina Vremeni, BI-2, Nogu Svelo, Bravo, Oxxximiron, Noise MC, Maxim Leonidov, Leonid Fedorov, Splin. Tequilajazzz, Kasta, Vasya Oblomov, DDT, Ksenia Rappoport and Alexey Serebryakov (with the play “Einstein and Margarita”), and Andrei Zvyagintsev will be performing in Israel in the next two months. And this list only includes Russian artists, not to mention Ukrainian ones.

Boris Grebenshchikov at a concert in Israel
Boris Grebenshchikov at a concert in Israel

Refusal to take Russian money

The refusal to collaborate with Russians is not limited to the theatrical and concert spheres. On September 1, 2023, the major Russian clothing and footwear brand, Gloria Jeans, owned by entrepreneur Vladimir Melnikov, abruptly canceled the opening of its first store in Israel. The store was supposed to open in Azrieli, one of the most prestigious shopping centers in Tel Aviv. The reason for the company's withdrawal from entering the Israeli market was not disclosed.

On February 23, 2022, just on the eve of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center announced that Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich had donated a significant sum to the center as part of a new multi-year strategic partnership program. The press service of Yad Vashem did not disclose the exact amount of the donation but noted that it was in the “eight-figure range” (at least 10 million shekels or $3.1 million). Yad Vashem expressed deep gratitude to Abramovich for his generous contribution and announced that Abramovich became the second-largest donor to the center after Las Vegas billionaires Sheldon and Miriam Adelson.

Abramovich became the second-largest donor to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Center

On the next day, Russia invaded Ukraine. Just two weeks later, on March 10, the press service of Yad Vashem announced that cooperation with Abramovich was suspended “in light of recent developments.”

In January 2018, it was reported that Abramovich donated $30 million to Tel Aviv University. These funds were intended to be used for the construction of a new Nanotechnology Center by 2020. In mid-February 2022, the newspaper Haaretz reported that “the construction of Roman Abramovich's new building should be completed by the summer of 2023.”

During the war, a banner like the one shown above was displayed at the construction site on Tel Aviv University's campus
During the war, a banner like the one shown above was displayed at the construction site on Tel Aviv University's campus

Immediately after the start of the war in Ukraine, the President of Tel Aviv University, Professor Ariel Porat, and six other university presidents who had also received donations from Abramovich signed a letter to the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, requesting that sanctions not be imposed on Abramovich. “When a person donates $50 million (!) to an institution and asks you, along with others, to sign a letter... I can't imagine a decent person who wouldn't sign that letter,” Professor Porat explained his decision.

The new Nanotechnology Center building was completed, but Abramovich's name is not mentioned on the Center's website.

Public opinion

The Israeli concert and theater schedule reflects public opinion only partially. According to Victor Vakhshtain, cultural preferences, especially among fresh immigrants, are not directly related to the political stance of the artists. The sociologist believes that attitudes towards the war and towards Lenkom can be different among the same people. “Do not think that everyone who does not support Putin and the war is ready to pelt Lenkom with rotten tomatoes. The majority of the audience who bought tickets for the Lenkom production are opponents of the war. But 'Putin is one thing, and art, culture, theater, are another.' Such an attitude has developed in the Moscow-St. Petersburg community over the past fifteen years, although a significant part of the old immigrants find it unacceptable,” Vakhshtain told The Insider.

As for attitudes towards the war in Israeli society as a whole, sociological research reveals if not a consensus, then a clear dominance of pro-Ukrainian sentiments and a low level of support for Russia. According to the results of a study conducted in June 2022 by the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, three-quarters of respondents demanded that the government provide “all possible support” to Ukraine and condemn the Russian invasion. Less than a quarter of those surveyed believed that the Russia-Ukraine war was “none of their business,” and Israel should not support either of the conflict parties. Almost no respondents agreed with the statement that “Israel should support Russia” in this conflict. However, at the same time, more than half of the respondents agreed that Israel could not afford a direct confrontation with Moscow.

According to a survey conducted by The Geocartography Knowledge Group in June 2023 on behalf of the Ukrainian Embassy, more than 50% of respondents believed that Israel was more supportive of Ukraine, 43.5% believed that it maintained a neutral position, and slightly more than 6% believed it was more supportive of Russia. However, according to the study, 76% of Israel's Jewish population believes that Israel should supply Ukraine with air defense systems.

Nevertheless, the official position of the Israeli government on the war in Ukraine remains extremely restrained. Israel has condemned the aggression, expressed support for Ukraine, provided humanitarian aid, established an early warning system for rocket attacks; Israeli volunteers, including military consultants, are working in Ukraine. However, Israel does not supply weapons and ammunition to Ukraine. One of the main reasons for this position of Jerusalem is that Israel does not need another strong enemy in the Middle East. Russia still maintains influence in the region, primarily in Syria, which Iran is trying to turn into a base for attacks against Israel. According to Zeev Khanin, a political scientist and professor at Ariel University and Bar-Ilan University, based on national security priorities and the protection of its citizens, Israel is interested in maintaining previously agreed arrangements, in which Russia restrains Iran and does not create obstacles to the Israel Defense Forces' actions against Iranian and pro-Iranian proxies in Syria.

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