The greatest writer you have never heard of might be a lesbian ex-nun from Russia. This statement could seem odd, considering Russia’s recent turn toward ultraconservatism and the various censorship scandals that have inevitably followed. But playwright Natalya Milanteva does not exactly thirst for fame. And this is one of the many reasons why she deserves it.
I first became aware of Milanteva’s work a few years ago, when she debuted at Moscow’s Lyubimovka Festival for Young Playwrights, arguably the most important festival of new plays in Russia. Milanteva’s play, The Basement, tells the story of a group of nuns who have been sent to work in a dank basement as a disciplinary measure. Trying to cope with their circumstances and constantly making fun of each other, the women of The Basement are portals into the real life of the Church—raw, unmediated, and spiritually and artistically alluring.
It seems that in Russia today, there are two default settings for dealing with the Orthodox Church, a powerful religious institution almost totally aligned with the Kremlin on all matters domestic and foreign. You either breathlessly romanticize the Church, which is acceptable, or you criticize it, which can get you censored, or even attacked by ultra-religious activists.
The Moscow Chekhov Art Theater found this out the hard way. Its adaptation of An Ideal Husband, which poked fun at the Church’s close ties to the state, and dared to feature a homosexual priest, enraged activists to the point of hijacking a performance and, in a disturbingly Godfather-like turn of events, leaving a dead pig’s head on the steps of the theater.
The name of the theater’s artistic director, Oleg Tabakov, was scrawled on the pig’s head for good measure. Tabakov is seen as someone who has the approval of the Kremlin—he even signed a controversial open letter in support of Russia’s annexation of Crimea—but the fanatics the Kremlin has been known to coddle do not care for high status.
Prominent Church representatives can also easily shut down performances they find offensive. This famously happened in Novosibirsk, when an adaptation of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhauser was shut down after complaints from Metropolitan Tikhon. The director was fired for good measure, perhaps to further please the local religious authorities.
In this atmosphere of fear and loathing, Milanteva stands apart as an unusual, profound, and perhaps even bridge-building figure. She spent eighteen years as a nun, and all of her writing on the Church comes from direct experience. She has no hatred for the Church, an institution she knows intimately, after joining it at the age of nineteen as a passionate believer. “I left the nunnery because it became obvious that it was not my path, that I was not advancing spiritually, but degrading,” she tells me.
Milanteva remains a devout Christian—as well as a lesbian who no longer feels she has to conceal that aspect of herself.
She told me that according to Church rules, people like her are not allowed to take communion, which is a situation she has accepted.
“The Church’s position is that if you are celibate, then you are allowed to be part of the Church. But that means no love, nothing,” she said. “Right now I’m not in a relationship, but what am I going to do? Quickly run along to get communion while I’m technically allowed to? That’s silly. I just accepted the situation for what it is. I can’t change myself. And the Church won’t change either.”
Milanteva’s compromise is to visit church when she can, and to pray. She says that in spite of negative attitudes and public anti-LGBT hysteria in Russia, she can still find support within church walls. “There are priests who are sympathetic, they say things like, ‘If God made you this way, how can we chase you away’,” she says. “But there are still rules to uphold.”
The same sense of compromise, rather that defeat, and the belief that you can only ever be yourself, permeates Milanteva’s work, such as The Basement, and her most recent play, A Child for Olya, which debuted at the 2016 Lyubimovka Festival, and quickly sparked furious discussion.
Departing from religious themes, A Child For Olya tackles another subject familiar to Milanteva, and in the process creates a tale that is paradoxically unique and universal, a tale of two Moscow lesbians trying to start a family; a tale that many people outside Moscow and the LGBT community can relate to.
Olya wants a kid. Zhenya, her girlfriend, does not. But staying with Olya means everything to Zhenya. The problem is, when Olya gets what she thinks she wants, she is no longer sure. Every single faltering couple that ever thought to themselves that, “It’s OK, a kid will keep us together,” every single person who has ever thought that “It’s OK, if I give my loved one what they want, they will surely stay,” will nod with recognition at what happens next.
Milanteva’s characters are painfully—and, what is even more important, effortlessly—real. Zhenya’s mother may be the sort of willfully obtuse, even emotionally abusive parent who cannot accept their child’s sexual orientation, but you still feel for the older woman whenever Zhenya’s temper gets the better of her. Olya initially appears as a kind of ultra-feminine aspiring housewife, the woman who gladly receives financial support from her girlfriend, who coos and cuddles, who desires nothing more than to devote herself to her family. But the reality of family life is different from the fantasy, and Olya’s desire to dote on someone else is ultimately revealed in part to be selfishness, the desire for possession.
As a writer, Milanteva is unassuming and unselfconscious. She is not interested in writing a kind of pamphlet “On Lesbian Life in Putin’s Homophobic Russia.” The heartbreak at the center of the play cannot be the fault of one person or one social phenomenon, be it intolerance or apathy. It is rather like an investigation into a plane crash, where a host of overlapping factors spelled the ultimate doom.
Today, the Lyubimovka Festival is one of the few cultural outlets in Russia where such a play can even get read—and noticed. At the packed reading, the play divided the audience. Some thought the events described could not have been real. Others related to them. Some accused Milanteva’s writing of being too abrupt. Others pointed out that life itself is abrupt.
There is indeed an austerity to Milanteva’s style, but it is the good kind. This is the kind of tough, brutal writing that male writers get lionized for, for example.
If it were not for Russian legislation on “homosexual propaganda to minors” and (anti-constitutional) censorship of obscene language, Milanteva’s play could very well be staged right now. Certainly some theaters do get around both official and societal homophobia in the country. Moscow’s famous Satirikon Theater is home to All Shades of Blue, for example, a large-format, searing production about a gay teenager, which regularly causes audience members to break down and cry.
But Milanteva works in a different genre altogether, her style closer to that of documentary theater, to ordinariness, to little triumphs and humiliations of daily life, to the dirty emotional laundry of so-called little people. It is a style she honed with The Basement and perfected with A Child for Olya. And it can be much harder to successfully adapt to the stage, especially if you are already dealing with an audience that has been trained to be hostile to the subject matter.
A Child For Olya was based on Milanteva’s own experiences, much like The Basement. Like Zhenya, Milanteva has a mother who cannot deal with the fact that her daughter is a lesbian. “My mom is too religious, she loathes everything that has to do with the LGBT community,” Milanteva tells me. “We have a silent agreement to never discuss this in our house. Still, there is tension. And it’s only through love that my mother accepts me.”
Just like Zhenya, Milanteva makes a living by fixing up other people’s houses, which pays good money and allows her room to write. Like any other city, Moscow is the sort of place that expects its writers to have ‘intellectual’ day jobs, but Milanteva could clearly not care less about that, especially since she does not get discriminated against at work. “Nobody’s interested in me being a lesbian, what they’re interested in is whether or not I do a good job,” she says.
At a time of great conservative backlash, a backlash that seems to have now overtaken the West as well (what with the election of Donald J. Trump to the office of American president, presiding over a Republican Congress and everything), Milanteva’s life and work are especially important, perhaps precisely because she transcends identity politics by sticking to her guns and being almost unbearably emotionally honest.
As writers, we are all used to jumping through hoops. To making ourselves palatable. But in the strange days that have found us all, maybe the strongest of us will be the ones who do not play these games. The ones who quietly install new electric sockets in dilapidated apartments and just as quietly write their masterpieces. The ones who do not seek validation, who cherish their strangeness—and know it to be another word for freedom.