For the last few years I’ve had an urge to write a musical. Perhaps inspired by the success of Hamilton, I, too, have pondered on a lyrical exploration of the life and times of a similar historical figure, whose story really must be told to a new generation before they sink, inevitably, into the dustbin of history.
I’ve never been the biggest fan of musicals. Whenever I’m watching them I think well, if you have something to say, just say it. No need to create a song and dance about it. I still have bad memories of the time a friend insisted we watch the classic animated film, that defining piece of art Yogi’s First Christmas. I had no idea it was a musical, and the whole thing could have been a good half an hour shorter if that characters didn’t burst into song every five minutes for no apparent reason, you know, just like people do in real life. And there was an amusing moment when the park rangers are stressing over how to get Yogi to go back to his cave and hibernate like bears are supposed to do, and I was scouting at the screen, ‘Just use a tranquilliser dart!’ Ok, so perhaps it’s wrong to diss an entire genre solely on the basis of Yogi’s First Christmas, but, unlike a lot of gay men, I’d never seen what all the fuss was about with musicals.
Until Hamilton came along. I just loved the idea of this historical biography being relayed in hip hop and rhythm, completely contemporarising the life and times of Alexander Hamilton. It made me look at the whole genre of musicals anew. And that’s when I saw how much of an exquisite art form this can be. Musicals are amazing! The songs form a bond between the subject matter and the audience, a harmony of rhythm and voice blended with words to create a shortcut to the depths of a characters soul, or merely to move the story along quickly when things get boring. And the songs, oh, the songs! Clever wordplay, sung conversations and interactions, glitz, glamour, sequins, feather boas, a celebration of choreographed movement, musicals, oh, musicals, suddenly appealed to the very depths of me!
In short, the vast majority of them are very camp.
And that’s when I decided to try and write a musical about the most un-camp person in the vast pantheon of historical figures, one of history’s losers whose story might now have been forgotten, overtaken by the urgency of current affairs.
Gennady Yanayev was the president of the Soviet Union. Yes, he was. You can look him up in the history books if you don’t believe me. He was the dictator of the largest country on the planet and one of the two big superpowers. Gennady Yanayev was he man on top. The big cheese. The head honcho of the Soviet Communist world. And like a titan, he stayed in that commanding role for almost three days. And then, just like that, he was gone.
1991. This was a time of glasnost and perestroika and the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. After decades of brutal rule and secrecy, paranoia and political persecution, subjugation, fierce control and the kind of mindset which meant that imminent nuclear annihilation was a normal fact of everyday life, so much so that it was factored in to making plans – ‘oh, were having a barbecue next Sunday, why don’t you come along? Unless the Russians obliterate Basingstoke in the mean time’ – the openness of Gorbachev was a refreshing breath of fresh air. He was affable and charismatic and media friendly, unlike Brezhnev, who always looked like a constipated badger, and his two immediate successors who both died within months of becoming leader. Gorbachev was smiley, open, breezy, and he saw that there was more to life than threatening to blow up the entire world.
But the hardliners didn’t like it. Well, they wouldn’t, would they. It’s what made them hard liners. They were hard to win over. They could see that Gorbachev’s policies might very well lead to the break up of the Soviet Union. Ha, as if that could ever happen! And OK, the Berlin Wall had come down a couple of years before leading to revolutions right across Eastern Europe, free movement of people and ideas, but Russia was still communist. They saw Gorbachev as dangerous. He had to go.
They waited until Gorbachev was on holiday. You can imagine the scene as he left the Kremlin. ‘Now you chaps behave yourself while I’m gone’. And off he went with his suitcase and trilby, probably whistling in a jaunty manner as he climbed aboard his limousine. And they watched as he left, running from window to window until his car was a dot in the distance.
The coup was led by the chairman of the KGB and the chief defence industry minister. They were the brains behind the operation. They thought that they had to take some kind of action to get the Soviet Union back on its true path. Hardliners both, but neither of them wanted to be the actual figurehead. So they chose the deputy president. They chose Gennady Yanayev.
Gennady was a grey, colourless bureaucrat with a stony face and thick glasses that magnified his slightly mad eyes. He had worked his way up through the party machine to be Gorbachev’s deputy. There was absolutely nothing remarkable about him. Just the sort of person who would make the excellent lead character of my hypothetical musical. He also had another quality which adds a certain depth and almost comedic bounty to his character, and that’s the fact that he was, most of time, hopelessly drunk.
So Yanayev was declared to be the acting president of the Soviet Union, in an announcement which shocked the world and plunged international politics into a frenzy of paranoia and bad karma. It seemed as if the old, bad days of the USSR were back, that the hardliners had won while Gorbachev was being held under house arrest at his holiday dacha. Indeed, the word dacha had never been heard so much on the news. The whole world was in shock, religious leaders offered prayers, strategists and defence analysts looked at their nuclear capabilities, everyone was aghast.
Until . . .
Until Gennady Yanayev hosted his first press conference.
Never had a man looked less like a leader. He sat before the reporters and the television cameras in his brown suit and thick glasses, his hands shaking uncontrollably. He was blind drunk, and he slurred his words, his voice quavering, and when a young reporter pointed out that he had staged a coup, he was unable to reply, stumbling and bumbling over an incomprehensible answer. The next day the coup was over and Gorbachev was back in power.
And what of Gennady? Sentenced to treason, he was placed in prison but within a few years he was let out again, only to become employed by the Moscow Tourist Board. The rest of his life was conducted in relative obscurity, this rather bland individual who had once, for three days, been the president of Russia.
I envisage the musical beginning in an unglamorous office. Gennady is sitting at a desk stamping documents. There’s a bank of filing cabinets behind him. And as he stamps, in a humourless manner, he’s singing a song in a throaty, guttural fashion about how he likes paperwork. There’s truth in paperwork. There’s no wrong answer. And on the wall there are posters advertising various districts of Moscow. The scene ends when one of his bosses comes in, a young lady, who’s very sharp with him. ‘Your work is awful’, she says. ‘Just what has become of you? Have you always been this shoddy?’ Gennady looks, sadly, out the window.
The next scene goes back in time, and it’s here that I might use a bit of artistic freedom. Gennady is a young man, making his way up through the ranks. Each verse details a different rank, he’s twirling and dancing as soldiers and office workers detail the meagre ranks that he passes through. And then there’s a stirring scene where he’s asked by his wife, ‘Are you blind to our love?’, and he replies, ‘No, I’m just blind drunk’.
Next comes a scene where grey, stony faced men with deep voices invite him to join the Politburo. And then a bit of fun as we are introduced to the leaders of the Soviet Union, who One by one die off on stage, collapsing on to the floor. Brezhnev! (Dead). Andropov! (Dead). Cherenyenko! (Dead). They’re all dead, they’re all dead, and who oh who oh who is this?
A young, vibrant figure leaps on to the stage, ‘I’m Gorbachev!’
Naturally, what follows will be a joyful dance routine about how much everyone loves Mikhail. ‘Glasnost! Perestroika! Glasnost! Perestroika! We are aboard the Gorbachev train! Nothing on earth will ever be the same! Glasnost! Perestroika! Glasnost! Perestroika! We all love Comrade Gorbachev! Let’s hope he sticks around and he doesn’t bugger off’.
From here on the musical will become somewhat formulaic. There will be a soulful slow number about Yanayev’s love life, his drinking, the sadness at the heart of him and possibly a song about how he wishes he were more popular. And then the showpiece of the musical, just before the break. A riproaring smash hit of a song about the coup itself, called ‘Dacha coming atcha! We are the Gorby snatchers!’ followed by a scene in which Yanayev is pressured into becoming the new president.
Oh, I can just see it now!
After the interval, we see Yanayev in his office with a bottle of vodka, too afraid to go anywhere, looking out the window and checking for bugs. He’s lonely and he’s scared. Perhaps we might concentrate on this part of the show on his drinking problem. And next must come the press conference scene. Naturally, everything here will be exaggerated for comic effect. The press make him a laughing stock, there’s lots of rhythmical laughter and pointing and things build up into a kind of maelstrom, he finally admits that he doesn’t want to be the president. The scene will end with him being arrested.
And that’s more or less how the musical will end, with his release from prison and his interview with the Moscow tourist board being told through song. But at one stage near the end he might have the chance to put down his pen and dream.
For thirty hours, the world was his, from the frozen pines of Siberia to the heat on the coast of the Crimea, from Saint Petersburg to Vladivostok, this immense nation, trans continental railways and factories, farms and roads, cities and tower blocks, airports and shops, and people, millions of people, workers, students, soldiers, families, they were all his playthings while he drinker vodka in an anonymous Kremlin office. Did he have a chance to look out of the window and see the stars in all their timeless omniscience, in the grave and cold constellations reaching down with their ancient light, that he might dare to imagine himself in league with their firmament, dizzy with the promise of political power and the aims of a just, new world, or was he absolutely blotto? And later on, in his cold prison cell, or in his drab wood panelled office with its functional decor, did he ever have cause to let his mind wander and think, for just a moment or two, I was once in charge of all this? Or again, was he absolutely blotto? And on his death bed, did he once again recall that press conference in which he was exposed to the world, a simple man, an individual representative of a bigger entity, seeing his future undone before it could even begin, or was he so blotto at he time that he remembered nothing of it? All I know is that is a story which must be retold, a stirring reminder that even the most frightening moments of international chaos have a human story at the heart of them.
You see, I recognise myself in certain aspects of Yanayevs character. I have had plenty of moments in which fortune, luck and hard work have paid off, and each time the results have been far, far less than is ever envisaged. I’ve seen my own triumphs simultaneously exciting and blurred not by alcohol, but by self doubt, fear, and good old fashioned sloppiness. I’ve felt myself surrounded by stars and high achievers only to look in the mirror and see a bland nobody staring back. And I, too, have been placed in positions of power and influence of which I was qualified not in the slightest.
I would dare to say that the story of Gennady Yanayev is a story for us all, a modern parable, and a caution from history. For no matter how much a person might achieve in life, they will always be forgotten very, very quickly.