An adult fairy tale. A New Year’s comedic performance had serious real‑life consequences for people in this Russian village
Valeria Shustavel
An adult fairy tale. A New Year’s comedic performance had serious real‑life consequences for people in this Russian village

One of the cleaners on the stage of the Shabelsky Cultural Centre. Photo: New Tab

In January, residents of the Shabelsky village on the shores of Taganrog Bay, in the south-west of Russia, were surprised to discover that their fellow villagers were being actively discussed in regional and even federal news. The reason was a New Year’s comedic performance shown at the local Culture Centre. In the video from the show, Ded Moroz (Santa Claus) in underwear goes behind the screen with Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) and makes movements resembling sex, accompanied by loud sighs. Although there was a note on the poster indicating that this was an adult performance, it seems that no one paid attention to it—the scandal cost jobs of employees of the cultural centre and even of the head of the settlement. Journalist Valeria Shustval traveled to Shabelskoye for New Tab and Mediazona to talk to villagers about the play and its consequences.

“Our village is great”

The narrow road to Shabelsky cuts through a snowy field and reaches the Taganrog Bay. On the opposite shore there is Mariupol. A modest sign and a faded inscription on the fence greet the village visitors: “I love Shabelsky.”

Since the spring of 2022, when residents noticed a huge crater in one of the gardens in the centre of the village, it was hardly covered in the federal media—until January 2024, when Shabelsky became famous after the local House of Culture showcased the New Year’s play “Miracles Happen Where They Believe.” An episode from this performance triggered a chain of events, leading to the cultural centre losing its staff and the village losing its deputy head.

The play started at 8 p.m. on December 31st, so there were just a few spectators. The entrance fee was 150 rubles, and about 30 people came to watch the performance, which is a tenth of the hall capacity.

One scene of the play took place behind a white screen: Ded Moroz (Santa Claus) stood behind Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) and made movements that initially the audience, and later news outlets, interpreted as a simulation of sex. All of this was accompanied by loud moans and sighs. Without wasting time, audience members pulled out their phones. Judging by the videos published on social media, nobody was in a hurry to leave the room. After this scene, Ded Moroz in underwear came out to the centre of the stage and explained that behind the screen, he was trying to zip up the zipper on Snegurochka’s dress: “Well, you definitely need to lose weight, because I zip it up, it goes back down, I zip it up, it goes back down.”

Marina Yurchenko, the artistic director of the Shabelsky Culture Centre, says that this is a comedic play based on scenes from television shows. According to the plot, Zhenya Lukashin from “The Irony of Fate” rushes home to his family but gets into various ridiculous situations. Firstly, he traditionally goes to the bathhouse, where he slips unsuccessfully and wakes up in the forest. There, he has to escape from armed pensioners and the evil Baba Yaga, who couldn’t eat him because the man with a big belly wouldn’t fit into the stove. Later on comes the scandalous scene with Ded Moroz and Snegurochka. In the finale, the main character finally returns home and, along with his family, makes a wish for everything to be fine for everyone.

Concert hall at the Shabelsky Cultural Centre. Photo: New Tab

After the New Year holidays, someone posted a video of the scene behind the screen on the internet. On January 11, it appeared on the Telegram channel of a blogger called Olga Kolesnikova from Yeysk, and very soon the footage spread to many large public pages. The police began an investigation because allegedly there were children in the audience, and employees of the Cultural Centre who participated in the performance and its preparation were forced to resign. This affected almost the entire staff of the Cultural Centre—five people. They prepared all the performances themselves from start to finish: they devised the plot, manually made decorations and costumes, and also performed on stage themselves. The head of the village, Mikhail Ignatenko, also had to resign. The dismissed director of the Cultural Centre, Elena Aleynikova, explained that people misinterpreted the controversial scene because “the lighting was a bit off.”

“Oh, we've heard about it, but we weren’t there. Our village is great, and they've embarrassed us all across the country,” says an elderly woman, who is selling  pickle jars on the street despite the abnormal for the Krasnodar region, also known as Kuban, temperature of ten degrees Celsius.

“It was written everywhere that it’s an adult play”

In the emptied Cultural Centre there are only two cleaners remaining. Valentina, 56 years old, sweeps the floor with a broom non-stop while talking to the journalist, with her grandson running around nearby. Her colleague Alena, a petite woman in purple Crocs, is slightly younger.

The fire alarm at the entrance of the Cultural Centre is constantly beeping, but no one is paying attention. By the end of January, the New Year decorations and the Christmas tree in the foyer have already been removed, and the space is filled with potted plants. About six years ago, the building underwent renovations: the stage was updated, new seats were installed, and the floors were refurbished, although they now look a bit worn out. The cleaners complain that the workers “messed up.”

Alena and Valentina didn’t see the scandalous play: when it was being shown, they were cleaning the premises of the centre after the morning children’s Christmas tree event. According to the cleaners, they only found out about what happened from the news on January 11.

Props and set at the Cultural Centre. Photo: New Tab

Valentina is surprised that some villagers brought children to the evening play, as there was a note on the poster published on the Cultural Centre’s Telegram channel and VKontakte indicating an age restriction: “If someone came with a child, well, excuse me, it was written everywhere that it’s an adult play. We had a disco after the performance. Of course, this whole situation that happened is unpleasant. I think if you saw something there, you should have stood up, left with the children, right? You should have said something right away instead of waiting for ten days. Because, you know, everyone was caught up in the emotions, thinking it’s kind of funny.”

According to Alena and Valentina, they also helped with preparations for the plays at the Cultural Centre. Two weeks before New Year’s, they worked without days off: they cut out stars, reindeer, and the moon from cardboard, decorated the windows, and put up the Christmas tree. The Christmas tree was real—every year someone from the villagers brings a tree from their yard to the House of Culture. There is hardly any money allocated from the local budget for productions; sometimes, the settlement administration only funds costumes and garlands.

“We’ve always had it like this; they [the Cultural Centre workers] write the script themselves, they stage it themselves. They put a lot of effort into making sure everyone is having fun, enjoying themselves,” Valentina recalls.

“The Cultural Centre isn’t working, there’s no head”

Behind the counter at the pharmacy opposite the Cultural Centre, visitors are greeted by a young dark-haired woman. She hasn’t seen the play—there were a lot of household chores on New Year’s Eve. She learned about the performance from social media and believes that it’s not so straightforward: “We've seen the videos, we know what they showed there. We treat people normally; we live in the same village. Who knows what they show on the internet, maybe it’s edited, or maybe it’s true, we need to figure it out.”

The shop assistant from the neighbouring store also hasn’t watched the performance. In her opinion, someone from out of town filmed the video: during the holidays in Shabelsky, many people stayed with relatives and friends. The woman herself often attended performances at the Cultural centre with her children, and she liked everything very much. “It’s a pity that everyone was dispersed. Everyone suffered, including the residents, because the Cultural Centre isn’t working, there’s no head. It’s all rather sad and unpleasant,” she concludes.

According to the cleaners of the venue, when the video from the performance appeared online, the entire team was forced to resign: the director, the artistic director, the sound operator, the heads of the cultural and children’s sectors. Some of them worked part-time. For example, the sound operator also worked as a boiler operator, and one of the department heads worked as a clerk. Their salary was at the level of the minimum wage, about 16,000 rubles. Some local residents believe that the employees there received money “for nothing,” but there are still no queues of people wanting to work at the Centre.

The head of the Shabelsky rural settlement, 28-year-old United Russia member Mikhail Ignatenko, resigned voluntarily after the scandal. Local deputies unanimously accepted his resignation. It was not possible to contact Ignatenko. The previous head of the settlement from United Russia, teacher Zinaida Butko, also left her position prematurely when she became a suspect in a case of misappropriation and embezzlement.

The Shabelsky village administrative building. Photo: New Tab

Mikhail Ignatenko had been serving as the deputy head since 2020. Local residents say that the elections were held at the Cultural Centre —with security and “everything was as it should be.” “He was very well-off economically, he has a higher education. He was a good leader, he coped well with his duties. He has two young children,” says Valentina.

Both the cleaners and local residents do not consider the dismissals to be the right decision, stating that a warning to all participants of the play would have been sufficient.

The administration of the village refused to communicate with journalists: the employee who met them hurriedly went to another office and asked to be left alone from there.

“We will not tally with you. What is there to talk about? Everyone has been dismissed. It has already been published everywhere, it is enough already. Enough, you know, it’s time to put an end to it,” the official snapped. It was not possible to determine her name or position.

Earlier, the employees of the settlement administration, commenting on the scandal, told journalists that the script project had been coordinated with the cultural department, and such an “action” as shown in the video was not part of it. They shifted the responsibility onto the Cultural Centre workers, claiming that the “collective acted on its own discretion.”

“Everything is closed now, all that’s left is to sit at home”

Many of the elderly people encountered on the streets of Shabelsky speak “balachka"—a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian languages, as it’s called in the Kuban region. According to official data, there are 2106 residents in the village, but locals just laugh when they hear this number, saying that there are already half as many people here, and there is no youth at all.

"Where, dear God? So I went to school, I graduated, there were 440 of us. Now there are 120 students there, we barely managed to fill the first grade, with 10–15 students in the first grade,” says a middle-aged man who is picking up his child from school.

The busiest place in the village is on the central street near the church and some shops. At the end of January, the road there was covered with ice, so the “Gazelle” van that came for unloading slipped a little. Two elderly men with cigarettes in their hands and in work clothes are watching the scene; they are waiting for their wives outside the store.

“We don’t have any youngsters here anymore, everyone’s gone, goodbye. They don’t stay, everyone leaves. There used to be a casino, people stayed for the casino. They come back to their parents on weekends. The casino was 12 kilometers away, but it’s gone now. And people had more work, there was a market, but now there’s nothing anywhere, everything is closed now, all that’s left is to sit at home nowadays,” says an elderly man named Leha, who has lived in Shabelsky since birth.

Abandoned casino in the “Azov-City” gambling zone. Photo: New Tab

Previously, the first gambling zone in Russia, Azov-City, was located a 15-minute drive from Shabelsky. Two casinos operated there since 2010, and plans were made to build a Russian Las Vegas in the area. However, in January 2019, the gambling zone was closed due to problems with tax legislation, and the casinos were relocated to Sochi.

All residents of Shabelsky, including the cleaners from the Cultural Centre, who we managed to talk to, used to work at the casino. Locals say that in the gambling zone, there were “decent salaries for its time,” and even pensioners earned extra income by renting rooms to players. With the opening of the casino, holidaymakers with money flocked to the forgotten outskirts of the Kuban region. Azov-City created two thousand jobs, and many bought cars via credits and worked as taxi drivers, taking clients there. “So, a person loses, he has money at home, but his home is in Krasnodar. The casino would call the taxi drivers, and they would take them,” said one of the local residents.

During the casino times, buses from Rostov and Krasnodar to Shabelsky used to run approximately every two hours, but now they may not come for several days. The schedule constantly changes, and old buses often break down and fail to arrive. Because of this, almost all residents of the village have to own a personal car, even if it’s the cheapest one. The majority of those living in Shabelsky are pensioners, and it’s about 50 kilometres to the nearest hospital in the district centre, the Stanitsa Staroshcherbinovskaya.

Currently, there are several grocery stores, a school, a kindergarten, and a boarding school for children with disabilities in the village. Besides the Cultural Centre, there is nothing else for entertainment in Shabelsky. The only cafe, “Volna,” has been long closed, with only the old sign on the shabby building reminding of its existence.

The men near the store mentioned that they work in a collective farm, but the team has dwindled in recent years, with only about 30 people working there now, and salaries are small. There used to be a fish farm on the shore, but all that remains now are semi-destroyed brick buildings without windows. A pile of stones, an overturned wooden boat, and garbage lie on the territory. Through holes in the crooked fence, locals approach the water, and even in ten-degree frost, people walk along the sandy beach.

“A God forgotten city, there’s nothing left here. The Muscovites are seizing power, soon there won’t be any villagers left. Dachas are being bought up, houses are being sold off, there’s no youth, no jobs. Everything is more expensive than in Moscow, come and see, compare the prices,” complains Leha, as he bids farewell to his friend and heads to the store to find his wife.

Near the Cultural Centre, a young, slender man wearing jeans and a light jacket strolled into the square, talking loudly on his phone. After a couple of minutes, he reappeared on the path, picking up his younger sister from school. Sergey is 35 years old, born in Shabelsky, but in recent years, he has had to travel to Moscow for work, only coming home to visit his family. He didn’t watch the play but saw the discussed scene on social media. To Sergey, it seems unacceptable. He’s the only villager among those encountered who believes that the dismissal of people was fair. “It’s not heartfelt, it’s just a way to show off,” he comments on the New Year’s performance at the Cultural Centre.

“We have no jobs, no future”

While villagers worry about the empty Cultural Centre, unemployment, and the lack of prospects for youth in Shabelsky, officials remind them of the war. Governor Veniamin Kondratyev spoke out against entertainment events on January 15: “We cannot organise thoughtless parties while someone on the front line waits for dawn in a trench. We must remember and respect those who defend us, our country. This is a civic position, it cannot be otherwise. Youth must know the value of peace over their heads.”

Memorial to the villagers who died in wars. Photo: New Tab

The villagers themselves prefer not to talk about the war and only share what they witnessed. In the spring of 2022, during the battles for Mariupol, they constantly heard explosions and saw flashes and columns of smoke over the city at night. On April 11, 2022, messages began to appear on social media about explosions in the Shcherbinovsky district of the Krasnodar Territory, where Shabelsky is located. Residents noticed a deep ten-metre crater on one of the central streets of the village, with nearby houses having broken windows and damaged roofs.

What exactly happened remains unknown to this day. Some residents heard the roar of an airplane before the explosion, and fragments were found in the crater, quickly taken away. According to one version from locals, something fell from an aircraft onto the gardens, while another suggests a shell came from the direction of the bay.

At the requests to share some details, the residents of Shabelsky fall silent and start asking suspiciously where such interest comes from. Otherwise, their lives seem unchanged. According to villagers, everything is “quiet and peaceful.”

Sergey, who supported the decision to dismiss the Cultural Centre employees, was the only one to speak openly. He was already heading home – it was his sister’s birthday that day – but suddenly stopped and got out of his car again.

“Let’s be honest, who needs this war? What do you think? What are we fighting for? Okay, let’s say we conquer Ukraine, and then what?” Sergey wonders. “There are 20 million people there who don’t want to live with us. There will always be resistance. We have no jobs, no future, and a salary of 30,000 rubles.”

According to locals, 15 people were mobilised from the village, but nobody knows how many left on military contract. People say that in Shabelsky, many conscripts used to stay in the army after their service because there was nothing else to do in the village, and education wasn’t accessible to everyone.

“Such fame for what?”

Finding participants of the New Year’s play in Shabelskoye is pretty difficult nowadays. According to the locals, they are either staying at home or have scattered. Victoria, the wife of a sound engineer who works as a saleswoman at a store, said that her husband went away to work: after being fired, he couldn’t find another job in the village. Victoria wasn’t ready to discuss the details of what happened, she only said that her husband received a call on January 10 around midnight and was asked to write a resignation letter in the morning. The same thing happened with other employees of the Cultural Centre.

Фото: Новая вкладка

Former deputy head of the Shabelsky settlement Mikhail Ignatenko hasn’t been seen by locals for a long time, although his car sometimes comes to the administration, say the saleswomen from the store across the street.

Former Centre employee Ekaterina told the “New Tab” journalist that she was forced to resign, although she wasn’t involved in the scandalous episode. Now she is forced to stay at home with her two children because there are no other jobs in the village. According to her, the Centre employees filed a complaint with the prosecutor’s office because of the dismissal, but it was redirected to the labour inspectorate, and there is still no response. Ekaterina doesn’t understand why the deputy head of the village, Ignatenko, also got caught up in this. “As for me, it was deliberate, they specifically removed this piece to spite the director [of the Cultural Centre], and all employees went [under dismissal],” Ekaterina believes.

Former art director Marina Yurchenko agrees with her. In her opinion, someone really wanted the head of the Cultural Centre, Elena Aleynikova, to “make a mistake.” Who could’ve needed this, she doesn’t know.

Aleynikova has been the head of the Cultural Centrw for 37 years and was supposed to retire in October 2024. She also runs the local TOS (territorial public self-government) by the way. According to her former colleagues, Aleynikova is sometimes “too” principled, but under her leadership, creative teams from Shabelskoye often brought prize places from regional and district competitions.

Cleaner Valentina, marking the obvious - why bring children to an adult play, is not inclined to complicate everything. “Such fame for what? It seems to me, you know, that after the scandal [with Ivleeva’s party] they just became a bone of contention,” she says, saddened. She is referring to the “almost naked” party held by internet celebrity Anastasia Ivleeva in Moscow on December 20, which stirred nationalist uproar.

Edited by New Tab and Maria Klimova

Translator: Anna-Maria Tesfaye

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