A summer day in August 1920, in the middle of the war, a group of Ukrainians Macbeth on. They had been in Kiev, but the city was ruined, dangerous and barely viable, let alone theater. They traveled through a war zone to Bila Tserkva, arriving there towards the end of the fighting between Poles and Bolsheviks (which was won by the Bolsheviks). They were not safe, not at all. Yet under these extreme conditions of war, they made a play about the assassination of a king and the ensuing chaos and destruction, painfully relevant to all spectators who had to endure not only World War I, but the fierce struggles for control of this region. the collapse of the tsardom. They knew the war, they knew the chaos, they knew the pain. So are the actors.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about this show from August 1920. I have written a book about these artists, but now the fresh images of the devastation in Kiev and the terror in Butsha and Irpin have shown me even more power in that moment: to make theater in such a moment! I also have to think about the fate of those actors. Some grew old with a Soviet pension. Some were arrested and sent to the Gulag; some never recovered, some left during World War II. The artistic director of this group, Les Kurbas, was arrested in 1933 and shot dead in 1937 by the Soviets in the far north, along with more than a hundred of the best of the Ukrainian cultural elite. Their house in Kharkiv, where many of them lived, was called Budynok Slovo, the Building of the Word, and the Russians shelled it in early March this year. I was supposed to stay there this summer to work on a book about the women of the theater in Les Koerbas. That project now seems even more shocking (who is writing books about actresses right now ?!), but also more urgent because the shelling of the Building of the Word is a literal manifestation of what the Russians are trying to do, which is to destroy Ukraine. If we do not take up arms, the only possible response is to proclaim the extraordinary culture of this region. But that task falls on the Empire.
Ukraine’s culture has very often been ignored by scientists and a public fascinated by “Russian” art. As a result, all Soviet art becomes “Russian”, all the avant-garde of the 1920s becomes the “Russian avant-garde” in Moscow, and performances in remote small towns in the former tsarist world have lost to “Russian” theater for more than a hundred years. . The war (or rather, this phase of the war, since the war started way back in 2014) challenges us to rethink these cultural hierarchies. Art historian Piotr Piotrowski has pointed out how certain places – Berlin, London, Paris, St. Petersburg – have become universal cities for modernism or the avant-garde, while places like Warsaw or Kiev have been referred to national, to “Polish” modernism or “Ukrainian modernism” . Not to mention Zaporizhzhya, now known as the site of a nuclear power plant; but did you know that it was a place of Bauhaus-inspired modernism in the 1920s? The mental maps that Western viewers and readers have in their minds see Western European capitals, New York or Washington, DC or Moscow as centers, and places like Kiev as secondary, peripheral. These cultural maps find a political translation – consider how the discussion in the tense prelude to February 24 was centered on NATO and Moscow, while there was little attention to the very country whose existence was at stake. The Ukrainian Institute, the cultural diplomatic wing of the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has launched a petition to boycott Russian culture, arguing that the Russian art that people love so much is intertwined with the Russian state and that the unconditional acceptance of Russian the culture actually dampens and ignores other cultures, cultures that the Russian state has often tried to suppress over the centuries. Culture has been a form of soft power to create mental maps, maps on which Ukraine does not exist, for example. No one but specialists in Ukrainian theater, or the Ukrainians themselves, know of the brave performance of 1920 in Bila Tserkva.
Culture shapes hierarchies, but can also challenge them. ‘Theater in Ukraine’ today perhaps means primarily the horrors of the Mariupol Theater, where rescuers are still unable to rescue people due to the ongoing Russian shelling. But theater in Ukraine means more than just bomb shelters; in fact, this region has a rich theater culture. You might think that theater does not matter, or rather hardly plays such a crucial role in understanding Ukraine as geopolitics, diplomacy or Putin. But in fact, the theater reflects society, especially a place like Eastern Europe, where the theater gained a special significance because for a long time there was no political nation, or a clear path to political expression. In these places, the theater reflected the values, dreams and imagination of society. The choice to focus on Ukrainian culture challenges the hierarchies, blurs the blur, and questions the representation that Russia sees as the center and best, and the periphery as the periphery. Perhaps theater can unravel the empire.
‘Theater in Ukraine’ today perhaps means primarily the horrors of the Mariupol Theater
If you googled Ukraine and theater before February 24, you came across Berezil. In the 1920s, this was the largest state-funded theater in Soviet Ukraine, in the capital Kharkiv, and it was extraordinary. But still it is almost exclusively known by Ukrainian specialists or the Ukrainians themselves, a footnote in a story of the ‘Soviet’ theater. Although Kurbas ‘work is similar to that of the famous Moscow director Vsevolod Meyerholds, the genealogy of his techniques is different, reflecting Kurbas’ youth in the Habsburg Empire: traveling Ukrainian-language theater groups, German-language theater in Vienna, and Polish modernism in Lviv (then). Lemberg). ), as well as several years of experiments with a brave group of actors in Kiev and its suburbs, including Bila Tserkva in 1920.
Koerbas himself tried to unravel the empire. In 1930, he refused to go to a theater “Olympiad” in Moscow, precisely because he felt that his theater was on a par with the best theaters in Moscow – even though they were the ones to judge in the competition between the peripheral non-Russian-speaking theaters . He rejected the Soviet imperial hierarchy. One of the most fascinating performances showing the creativity of his company was not directed by him, but by his three protégés, all of whom would become important figures in the theater after the assassination of Koerbas in 1937. Koerbas actually created a school, a legacy of practices, techniques and ideas of theater that would shape the theater of Ukraine through the twentieth century. The very first Ukrainian musical revue show ever, Hello from Radio 477! from 1929, was inspired by cabaret performances in Weimar-Berlin, which Koerbas and his colleagues had attended. It was a bizarre performance that was purely Soviet Ukraine: jokes about Moscow, jokes about the lack of products in the store, jokes about local literary celebrities, all accompanied by a jazzy soundtrack. In one scene, literary figures paraded in masks with dancing girls at a cafe called “Hell.” In 2018, Virlana Tkacz, Tetiana Roedenko and Waldemar Klyoezko curated an exhibition at the Art Arsenal Museum in Kiev about Kurbas and staged the music of Hello. I was so lucky to hear it, and I was amazed at how much it looked like Hollywood, how lavish, and how it filled the space of this former factory.
Nothing like this existed anywhere else in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. It is a typical moment that represents the creativity of Kharkiv from 1920. That creativity did not die with Koerbas, but the legacy is uncertain today. Not only Koerbas’ house, but also the beautiful square where he went to the theater every day, is ruined. I hesitate to ask about the theater archives.
There are new Kurbass in Ukraine today. Before February 24, the theater in Ukraine was a dynamic landscape. You could have seen a performance at Teatr Lesi in Lviv, a former Russian-language Soviet Army theater that survived and was transformed into a hip Ukrainian-language theater space run by a group of phenomenal artist-activists. Now they have turned their theater into a shelter and are working to support all the displaced who pass through the city. Their own lives are at stake. But soon they will – just like Kurbas with Macbeth Tell stories about this war. Their stories, and the Ukrainian culture in which they are told, should be at the center, not on the outskirts of Moscow or even Warsaw. Ukraine must be at the center of its own history.
The need to let cultural centers and peripheries change places is a political struggle. Recently, star dancer Olga Smirnova swapped the Bolshoi Ballet for the Dutch National Ballet; she could no longer dance for a state institution that waged war. While Smirnova was preparing to leave Russia, on March 17, the Russians murdered Ukrainian dancer Artem Datsyshyn and Ukrainian actress Oksana Shvets in Kiev. Smirnova’s actions show that culture and politics are deeply intertwined, and that dancing to the prestigious ballet of the Russian state implicitly means endorsing the war – the very war that killed Ukrainian artists. This war may force us to look behind the beautiful stage carpet to see how art is undeniably political. Unraveling the empire requires not only asserting political sovereignty, but also acknowledging your own cultural sovereignty.
Mayhill Fowler is a cultural historian and associate professor of history at Stetson University. She is the author of Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017). Translation: Menno Grootveld