ON SEPTEMBER 9th 1944, not long after the siege of Leningrad was lifted, a regional committee of Soviet deputies issued an order establishing a theatre, “to raise the spirits of the people and the army” and “inspire confidence in the future”. The result was the Maly Drama Theatre of what is now St Petersburg. In the same week Vasily Grossman, a Soviet war correspondent, entered the Nazi extermination camp of Treblinka with the Red Army.

Grossman meticulously documented what he saw, down to the colour of children’s discarded shoes. “How can all this have happened?” he asked in his article, “The hell called Treblinka”. “Was it a matter of heredity, upbringing, environment or external conditions?” In his magnificent novel “Life and Fate”, Grossman pursued that inquiry into both the gas chambers and the gulag, bravely setting out the kinship between Hitler’s totalitarianism and Stalin’s. In 1961 Soviet censors not only banned the book but seized the manuscript and all Grossman’s drafts.

By coincidence, Lev Dodin, the Maly’s artistic director, was also born in 1944, to a Jewish family which had been evacuated from Leningrad to Siberia. He and Grossman never met in life, but they have been united on stage. His searing adaptation of “Life and Fate”, first produced in 2007, is on tour in London (see picture). The questions that haunted the writer exercise the director, too—above all, as Mr Dodin puts it, the recurrence in history of “destruction and ultimately self-destruction…in the name of a great idea.”

Mr Dodin’s work is deeply Russian in its roots and themes, yet resonates around the world as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and indeed Grossman do. His ability to transform questions of life and death into space and movement—to visualise the past and make it present—has made him one of his country’s, and the world’s, most important directors.

The future of the past

Wary of ideas and utopias in politics, Mr Dodin has himself adhered to a great, utopian idea that he inherited from Konstantin Stanislavsky, the legendary co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre (Mr Dodin studied under one of his pupils). In Stanislavsky’s conception of theatre, aesthetics and ethics are inseparable. The goal is not merely to imitate reality but to create an independent version, at once recognisable and autonomous; to develop a theatre that is more than a theatre, just as Tolstoy insisted that “War and Peace” was not a novel but something else.

Central to this project is the compassion experienced by an actor for his character. “I can’t get away from myself when I am on stage. But I can co-suffer, or co-experience something with my character,” says Sergei Kuryshev, one of Mr Dodin’s principal actors. For that, the character’s life has to be as real as the actor’s.

Working on “Life and Fate”, Mr Dodin took his company first to Norilsk, the site of one of Stalin’s harshest camps, where they rehearsed in an abandoned barracks built on permafrost, and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were allowed to stay the night. As with similar expeditions led by Stanislavsky 120 years ago, the aim was to plunge through the text and ignite the actors’ imaginations, reaching across time to establish a personal connection to the past, making it part of their lives and ultimately the lives of the audience.

Along with compassion, this distinct philosophy of time—compressing it and expanding it—is at the heart of Mr Dodin’s work. In the case of “Life and Fate”, Grossman’s panorama of Nazism, Stalinism and the war is condensed into three and a half hours of drama. Different aspects of that history unfold simultaneously in one communal space. A volleyball net that divides the stage morphs into a prison fence; inmates march along it, singing Schubert’s “Serenade” in German or Russian, according to which camp they are in. The bowl of soup that Viktor Shtrum, a nuclear physicist (played by Mr Kuryshev), leaves in his Moscow flat is finished by a prisoner in the gulag. Onstage the novel’s different plot lines become one life and one fate.

Just as lives intertwine in Mr Dodin’s plays, so his oeuvre is designed to form a single canvas of Russian history and culture. His productions remain in repertory for years or decades, subtly interacting with one another. Rehearsals do not end on opening night but continue throughout the life of a show.

Each production is firmly grounded in the period in which it is set: Mr Dodin has no truck with anachronistic costumes or gimmicks. But each, for him, represents a point in a broader historical arc. “The present”, he observes, “is the future of the past and the past of the future.” Perhaps it is this long perspective that makes Mr Dodin such a successful director of Chekhov, whose plays always unfold in double time—the time of their characters’ lives but also a kind of cosmic time, the eternity in which they are suspended. The “distant sound of a breaking string” that rings out plaintively in “The Cherry Orchard” reverberates in Mr Dodin’s work, too.

The band plays on

Mr Dodin does not engage directly with contemporary politics; he sticks to the worlds he creates on stage. But in a country that is often said to have dodged a reckoning with its past—in which history is by turns manipulated, airbrushed, mythologised and idealised—his honest treatment of it is courageous. In “The Old Man”, a novel by Yuri Trifonov that Mr Dodin adapted in 1988, the main character describes memory as “old bloodstained bandages on a wound”. In the director’s view, “the task of art is to disentangle those bandages, getting to the wound.”

Throughout his career, he has been preoccupied by the issue at the core of “Life and Fate”: the terrible human price that creeds and ideology can exact. His first production as the Maly’s director, in 1983, was “Brothers and Sisters”. Based on a novel by Fyodor Abramov and performed over two evenings, it depicted the life—or rather death—of a Russian village after the second world war, and the corrosion of its soil and soul by Stalinism. In the late 1980s, as the arts became fixated on the news, Mr Dodin immersed himself for three and a half years in “The Devils”, Dostoyevsky’s prophetic novel of nihilistic revolutionaries.

His dark, ten-hour adaptation opened in December 1991, on the eve of the Soviet collapse, a stark counterpoint to the short-termism of the era. In the programme he prefaced the play with a quote from Dostoyevsky: “God and the devil are fighting there, and the battlefield is the heart of man.” In this case the devil took the form of Petr Verkhovensky, a pseudo-revolutionary and provocateur. As Kirillov, his suggestible victim, paced the stage, preparing to commit suicide as the ultimate proof of his free will, Verkhovensky slowly and deliberately devoured a chicken, diligently sucking on every wing and bone.

These are sombre visions. Yet as with all great tragedians, a sense of hope emanates from the daring and integrity of the art itself. “I used to think theatre can change life,” Mr Dodin confides. “It can’t. But it should try. All the music, all the poetry, all the theatre did not prevent Auschwitz. But then again, I often think that if it had not been for all this music, all this poetry, all this theatre—perhaps Auschwitz would not have been defeated.”

Life is tragic, Mr Dodin’s work suggests, but it must go on. At the close of “Life and Fate”, actors strip naked and play the “Serenade” on brass instruments, evoking the spirits of those who died in the death camps and the gulag—“the naked people”, as Grossman described them, “people who had lost everything but who obstinately persisted in remaining human.” Perhaps there is a distant echo of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters”, at the end of which a band is heard offstage. “Oh, but listen to the band!” one of the sisters exclaims. “We have to live…we have to live…”