Russian-language, Ukrainian Playwrights Cope with the Ukraine-Russia Conflict

by John Freedman

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich. Pictured: Maksym Kurochkin speaking at an anti-war rally in Moscow on April 13, 2014. Photo: John Freedman.)

There is a phrase in Russian that declares “the muses are silent when tanks are thundering.” Fortunately it’s not always true. As the Ukraine-Russian conflict escalated into a shooting war in the first half of 2014, two Ukrainian playwrights spoke out against the violence in their art.

Natalya Vorozhbyt (whose name, like other proper and place names in this article, I transliterate from Ukrainian, rather than from Russian as is often done) spent three months interviewing students, Cossacks, doctors and other volunteers on Maidan, the central square in Kyiv, where the now-famous protests were taking place. The result was a verbatim play, Maidan: Voices from the Uprising, which was performed May 22 to 24 in London at Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Maksym Kurochkin, working on a commission from Breaking String Theater in Austin, TX, wrote a piece called Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall, a bitter, fantastic comedy that refracted in strange and unexpected ways the distraught state of mind of an individual haunted by thoughts and fears of corruption, violence and ambush. Dulcey and Roxy ran from May 2 to 17.

Both Vorozhbyt and Kurochkin are unique witnesses to recent historic events. Born in Ukraine in 1975 and 1970, respectively, they chose at the beginning of their careers to write in Russian. Vorozhbyt lived in Moscow from 1995 to 2004, but has been a resident of Kyiv again ever since the 2004 revolution. Kurochkin has lived in Moscow, retaining his Ukrainian citizenship, since the mid-1990s.

The conflict that arose between Russia and Ukraine hit both writers hard. I was present at the moment in November 2013 when Kurochkin, long considered one of the most important contemporary Russian playwrights, declared to Graham Schmidt, who was producing and directing Dulcey and Roxy, “Please make it clear in all materials that I am a Ukrainian playwright.”

So, what is it like for a self-identified Ukrainian writer to express herself in Russian at this point in time? Surely, this must be the ultimate in border-crossing, to hear one’s own art in the language of – and pardon me for putting it in such a sensationalist way, but… – in the language of the enemy?

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(Natalya Vorozhbyt attending an event at Teatr.doc in Moscow in 2012. Photo: John Freedman.)

Answering questions I sent by email, Vorozhbyt said this about her identity as a writer: “Even if I were to write in English (which I won’t, of course), I would still be a Ukrainian writer. Nabokov never ceased to be Russian and Gogol is Ukrainian. What is important are your roots, your self-identification.”

“Russian is a marvelous language,” Kurochkin emailed me, “the language is not to blame.”

And yet, it’s not as easy as that. Kurochkin admits he has become “thin-skinned” about automatically being included among the ranks of Russian playwrights. “This basically honorable status does not describe my reality precisely. And I am for being precise,” he noted.

Explaining why Russian emerged as the dominant language in her work, Vorozhbyt wrote that Ukrainian culture and language were being forced into the margins when she was growing up in the 1980s. “It was shameful to speak Ukrainian in the capitol,” she declared. “Consequently, many spoke Ukrainian at home and Russian in public. Ukrainian began to be forgotten, it did not develop. You didn’t need to know it perfectly to use it at home. Russian was more important. It was natural, automatic, that I began writing my first poems, stories and, later, plays, in Russian. I didn’t think about language then.”

Kurochkin

(Maksym Kurochkin, with director Graham Schmidt and actor Judd Farris, during developmental work on Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall in Austin, TX, on November 3, 2013. Photo: John Freedman.)

Kurochkin explained that he showed his early texts to the respected poet and writer Roman Kukharuk. “He said my Ukrainian texts were constrained,” Kurochkin wrote. “And he was right. I had very little living oral practice. I took as my model literary Ukrainian, the norms of which were actively beginning to change in the early 1990s. The language was throwing off Russian influence and beginning to develop. My “Soviet” Ukrainian lagged behind reality. I had to catch up. But I understood the limits of my linguistic abilities.”

Of course what one sees in retrospect is that Ukraine was already beginning to distance itself from Russia twenty years before the 2004 revolution, and, consequently, thirty years before the revolution of 2014. The deep fissures of change were felt in language first, then in society at large. Vorozhbyt saw this period of change come to maturation.

After returning to Ukraine in 2004, she continued speaking Ukrainian at home, while writing in Russian and speaking it in public. She took note that an advanced, richer Ukrainian had appeared in literature, and that, importantly, Ukrainian writers were looking toward, and achieving reputations in, the West, while remaining unknown in Russia. Still this cultural bifurcation didn’t raise issues until she chose to send her daughter to a Ukrainian school.

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(Natalya Vorozhbyt in Moscow, 2011. Photo: John Freedman)

“That is when I first began seriously to think about language,” she states. “Quite simply, I had to choose what language I would speak with her at home. And I chose Ukrainian. It was more natural. Together we learned to speak Ukrainian. To speak it properly. We continue to correct Russianisms in each other’s speech, and we thank each other for that. I think it was one of the best decisions I made in my life. There is an indescribable magic in returning to one’s native language. It bonds you with your roots. It unleashes certain codes.”

As a result of that learning experience, as well as of the course of current events, Vorozhbyt has written two plays in Ukrainian on commission from Kyiv theaters and she is considering writing a novella in Ukrainian. It is no easy choice for artistic, personal and political reasons. She understands that the language she chooses will determine the work’s shape and content. And the idea that she purposefully speaks Ukrainian at home with her daughter makes her wonder why she would choose to create literature in Russian.

“In connection with the anti-Russian mood, many of my Ukrainian friends have purposefully switched to Ukrainian exclusively,” Vorozhbyt informed me. “The pain and hurt and protest that I feel make me want to do the same. I very much feel that moment has arrived. Then I think, damn it, Russian is my language, too. Why should I have to give it up? I love it. I write in it. Protest against myself? I won’t do that.”

It is a path, not surprisingly, that Kurochkin has traversed as well. Pointing out his satisfaction that Ukrainian drama and theater have begun a process of renewal and growth, he states, “I am a Ukrainian playwright. But I am connected to the processes that are occurring in Russian theater. And it’s honorable to have a relationship with the best of Russian drama. Russian new drama for me is undoubtedly a progressive force.”

Does the split in cultural allegiances cause pain or difficulty, I ask. And what can be done about it?

“I don’t know what to do about it, John,” Kurochkin answers bluntly, briefly baring the genuine angst that a writer feels when his chosen artistic language becomes a battleground on which people, in fact, are dying. “It is a nightmare and it is hell. And something in me has been irreparably broken.”

For more information on Vorozhbyt’s Maidan: Voices from the Uprising, see Molly Flynn’s interview with Vorozhbyt at CEEL.org.uk, and Vorozhbyt’s own blog on the website of The Guardian. For more on Kurochkin’s Dulcey and Roxy, see a review by David Glen Robinson, and Aaron Sander’s emotional response on the blog page of the Fusebox festival website.