I have finally seen Alexei Borodin‘s and Russian Youth Theater‘s production of Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. The work consists of three full-scale plays so the show lasted for 10 hours gross and eight hours net of intermissions. Yet, to my surprise, it was never boring, even though during the last hour or two, both actors and spectators had to fight off fatigue.

Much has been written in praise of both Stoppard’s play and its productions in London, NYC, and Moscow. Russian theater is going through yet another revival but Borodin is neither young nor newly famous: he started directing in the late 1960s and has led Youth Theater since 1980. He is highly respected but hardly fashionable and seldom en vogue. At the start of his directing career, Borodin was fired from Smolensk Drama Theater for a too-innovative staging of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. That was 1968, twenty-three years after the play was published – almost as recent then as Stoppard’s Arcadia is now. In 2006, Youth Theater staged The Coast of Utopia, published in 2002; in 2011, another work by Stoppard, Rock’n’Roll, staged by another distinguished director, Adolf Shapiro.

Stoppard’s trilogy, in two words, is about the Bakunin family in its ancestral mansion in the 1830s-1840s, and the Herzen and Ogarev families in France, London and Switzerland. Belinsky and Turgenev are major characters, too, but the home bases are undoubtedly the Bakunin estate and Herzen’s evolving household. Home and home away from home; philosophy and politics shaping the lives of those who care (too) much about them, and of those around them who don’t. Home away from home: this what what Arkady Ostrovsky, a co-translator of the play and the Moscow bureau chief of The Economist, says about Alexei Borodin:

Borodin was born and grew up in China, in a good, ordinary family that preserved the ethos and instincts of Russia’s pre-revolutionary middle class. When he was 14 years old, he was “replanted” into native Russian soil–and took roots…

The Borodins could have bought a flat in the centre of Moscow, but instead they moved into a wooden house with a mezzanine and two large stoves in Pushkino, a few miles from Moscow on the banks of the quiet Klyazma river. (The area was once popular with rich Russian capitalists.) It was a substitute for the Shanghai mansion.

The Russian language does not distinguish between a house and a home, but the Borodins definitely had a home, full of the rituals that are the pulse of daily life. All three sisters joined in Alexei’s home-theatre (their grandmother made the costumes). There were still the family meals at the oval table, the cakes for Easter; the white, starched tablecloth; the floor-polishing every Sunday

“Never, never pull the shade off a lamp! The lampshade is sacred.” (Bulgakov, The White Guard.)  I had no idea until yesterday that Borodin had a completely un-Soviet childhood: he was born in 1941 in a family of pre-1917 Russian immigrants in China and moved to the USSR at 14. Khruschev’s Russia was preferable to Mao’s China, especially as the family was nostalgically attached to the ancestral country.


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