Belarus and Ukraine: No Longer Russia’s Hinterlands

John Freedman*


I am of a generation of scholars educated in a Russia-centric view of the Slavic world. My work curating an international project exploring drama in Belarus and Ukraine corrected this flaw. My views first began changing in 2000 as I observed Ukrainian-born playwright Maksym Kurochkin in Moscow. They continued evolving as I worked with Belarusian playwright Andrei Kureichik, author of two plays about the stalled 2020 revolution in Minsk. The 2022 war in Ukraine, reflected in texts by Ukrainian writers, clearly showed me a nation seeking to define itself and its basic myths fully independent of Russia.

Keywords: Independence, de-Russianization, cultural hegemony, cultural myths, Maksym Kurochkin, Andrei Kureichik

Since September 2020, I have curated something called the Worldwide Readings Project. It arose spontaneously as a reaction to the brutal crackdown against protesters in Minsk, Belarus, following the 10 August 2020 presidential election stolen by Alyaksandr Lukashenka. It renewed itself when Vladimir Putin sent the Russian army into Ukraine on February 24, 2022. In both cases I have recruited, encouraged and aided hundreds of theatres around the world to mount readings of Belarusian and Ukrainian plays.

The idealistic, perhaps even naive, philosophy behind the project is that art, theatre and literature, when mustered in a mass action, can serve, at the least, to raise awareness about important political events that might otherwise either go unnoticed or remain misunderstood.

These programs have given me insight into a historical process that has been unfolding for some time, but which is now gaining speed and momentum—the de-Russianization of our world view. What follows is a mix of macro and micro takes on historical events that reveal the evolution of my own experience with, and views on, de-Russianization.

Ukrainian or Russian? From Nikolai Gogol to Maksym Kurochkin

I belong to a generation of scholars that launched careers in Slavic studies in an atmosphere I do not believe we will ever encounter again. The first three universities I attended offered courses only in Russian language, literature, history and culture. This covered the period from 1976 to 1982.

When I entered the PhD program in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard University in 1983, the choices were greater. In my time there, the department offered courses in Polish, Ukrainian, Czech and Serbo-Croatian. Aside from minor exceptions, all grad students studied Russian language and literature as a major concentration, adding at least one of the other languages and literatures as a minor. Some of my colleagues went on to excel in non-Russian fields—especially Borys Gudziak, who was officially a student of the Divinity School, and who is currently the Archbishop-Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia. But, as the Russian saying goes, the exceptions proved the rule—even an institution as diverse as Harvard was deeply Russian-centric.

We came of age in an era—stretching back to the nineteenth century, actually—when the vast majority of us was perfectly comfortable calling Nikolai Gogol a Russian writer from the Ukraine. Even fewer would have given more than passing thought to the fact that Mikhail Bulgakov also hailed from the Ukraine—that is, a territory in the Russian empire—although he also chose to write in Russian. We had advanced sufficiently to react condescendingly to the condescending old Russian reference to Ukraine as “Little Russia” (Malaya Rossiya or Malorossiya) and to Ukrainians as “little Russians.” But how many of us studied the works of Ivan Kotliarevsky, Taras Shevchenko or Lesia Ukrainka? Those of us who studied theatre knew all the Stanislavskys and Meyerholds, but the name of Les Kurbas, arguably Ukraine’s greatest director of the twentieth century, was little more than that to us—a name.

We knew well of the Holodomor—Joseph Stalin’s enforced, genocidal famine in Ukrainian lands in 1932–33—but how many of us thought of it in equal terms with the Purges of 1937?

This ignorance—for that is what it was—took on real-life implications for me around 1999. By then, I had lived in Moscow for eleven years, first, completing my PhD dissertation, later working as the theatre critic for The Moscow Times, an English-language newspaper. At that time, I was introduced to a polite young man who was helping out in the office of a short-lived theatre called the Debut Center. “This is Maksym Kurochkin,” I was told. “He’s a playwright from Kiev” (virtually no one in the 1990s would have thought of it in terms of “Kyiv”). A year or two later this young man exploded on the Russian theatre scene as the author of Kitchen, an audacious, epic, faux-historical drama that merged Shakespeare-like poetry and passions with quotes from Beavis and Butt-head. The critics were utterly baffled, and all but two (of which I was one) panned the piece for such sins as “the writer didn’t know what he wanted to say.” Audiences were more perceptive, packing the house with standing-room-only crowds for the two seasons of its run. Graffiti culled from the play’s witty text showed up scribbled in Moscow metro cars, and, on the internet, the nerdiest of fans compared the most recent night’s spoken dialogues with previous ones—was this a change in the text, or were actor’s ad-libbing their lines?

When the New York Times asked me to write a feature on a new wave of playwrights in Russia, I placed Kurochkin at the center. His reputation among the cognoscenti, if not the critics, had already solidified—he was a major new writer.

And when I interviewed Kurochkin for the piece in his furniture-less apartment in the Sokolniki region in Northwest Moscow, he said something about Russian icons Konstantin Stanislavsky and Anton Chekhov that struck me immediately, although its full significance did not sink in until many years later. Here is the quote as presented in the Times: ”I did not want to deny the importance of such figures,” the soft-spoken Mr. Kurochkin said. ”But I wanted to put them on an equal footing with others. For me, the murder of Siegfried in the ‘Nibelungenlied’ is more important than the fact that Stanislavsky once staged Chekhov’s plays” (“Where New Theatre”).

I may have read Kurochkin’s comment properly as an iconoclastic gesture, an attempt to clear his path of the weight that history and tradition place on any new artist. But I didn’t see the national, even political, aspect of his comment. Had I been asked to provide a cultural reference for Kurochkin’s comment, I surely would have said it was something akin to Mayakovsky’s mini-manifesto “A Slap in the Face of Public Taste,” wherein the poet encouraged throwing “Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.” And I would have been dead wrong. For I was seeing Kurochkin’s statement in the context specifically of Russian culture. In fact, he was leading us as far from the Russian context as he could.

Unlike Kurochkin, I was not thinking of Ukraine proclaiming independence from the former Soviet Union on August 24, 1991. I was not thinking of the first presidential election in Ukraine’s history on December 1 that same year. Kurochkin was.

I knew Kurochkin had written plays like Steel Will, which toyed with the creation of a general Slavic—that is, not Russian—mythology, and Fighter Class “Medea,” in which the ranking officer in a post-apocalyptic war between the sexes is a Ukrainian, his subordinates being American and Russian. I knew there was something very much “other” in Maksym Kurochkin’s writing, his worldview and his frames of reference. He was something quite “other” than Russian, although I often went through all kinds of intellectual gymnastics to explain why that was. The answer to the conundrum was tapping me on the shoulder, or even screaming in my ear, but, for the longest time, it did not occur to me in a full, proper manner that I was dealing with a Ukrainian, not a Russian writer. I went on translating his plays and writing about him in the press and the scholarly sphere as if he were a Russian writer. The leading Russian playwright, the influential Russian writer, Maksym Kurochkin. He wrote in Russian, didn’t he? He lived in Russia. Where was I going wrong?

To answer that rhetorical question, let’s go back to an unspecified day sometime around 2010. I had been presenting Kurochkin as Russian for a decade, but now he approached me and asked if I would stop doing that. “I am a Ukrainian playwright,” he said. “I don’t want to be identified as Russian.” With that request, “Maxim” became Maksym, and the world was introduced to a “new” Ukrainian playwright, even if the world did not yet fully understand what that meant.

It is worth noting that another Ukrainian-born playwright who wrote in Russian followed a similar path. Natalia Vorozhbyt, like Kurochkin, had studied at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, and she had stayed there to begin her career. Although her first major works were steeped in the Ukrainian mythos, she, too, gained fame and respect as a talented new Russian writer from Ukraine.

The watershed in Kurochkin and Vorozhbyt fully embracing their status as Ukrainian writers came with the Maidan Uprising, which lasted from November 21, 2013, to February 22, 2014. This massive, ongoing series of protests on Kyiv’s main city square began peacefully as a plea for Ukrainian politicians to seek closer ties with Europe but ended as Russian-backed security forces violently drove protesters away. Moscow followed almost immediately with a rushed, corrupt referendum that was employed to annex the territory of Crimea. The thinking was that Moscow would install a regime friendly to Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Russia’s hegemony over Ukrainian politics, life and culture would return to the good old days of “Little Russia” looking up to its big Russian brother with love, affection and, most importantly, obedience.

It was not to be.

In Ukraine, a slow-moving war of attrition began in the east of the country. The cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, making up much of what is called the Donbas region, historically had a Russian-speaking, Moscow-friendly populace. Putin chose to exploit this by stirring up separatist sentiments and sending in mercenaries and military support. A hot war followed over the next year, during which large swaths of eastern Ukraine were laid to waste. Things cooled down to some extent after the second Minsk Agreement in February 2015, although the war still continued. Between March 2014 and February 2022 over 14,000 people died in this region.

Most people in Russia could ignore this war—it was not covered in the national news—while Ukrainians, again, as in the past, could not turn a blind eye to what Russia was forcing upon their country. Vorozhbyt returned to her home in Ukraine, Kurochkin pulled up stakes and moved his family back to Kyiv. The Russia experiment for these two major writers had ended.

I witnessed Kurochkin putting an exclamation point to his twenty years in Moscow in April 2018. It happened at the funeral of his great friend, the Russian playwright and director Mikhail Ugarov. At a post-burial gathering at Teatr.doc, of which Ugarov and Kurochkin were founding colleagues, Maksym stood to leave. He had a train to catch, he said. Someone shouted cheerily, “Visit us again soon, Max!” “Give back Crimea, and I’ll return!” Kurochkin snapped and left.

There was virtually no reaction to Kurochkin’s bitter quip. It was as though no one had heard him. To my astonishment, I later realized that the writers and actors and directors gathered there, indeed, had not heard him. I was told by more than one person present that day that they never heard Kurochkin say any such thing.

It began to sink into my consciousness: Russians, no matter how well-meaning, tend not to see or hear Ukrainians when they are thinking, writing or talking about Ukraine.

Well-known playwright and screenwriter Andrei Kureichik. Photo: Web/Wikipedia. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022
Revolution in Belarus, August 2020

Nothing terrified Belarus president Alyaksandr Lukashenka more than a Maidan-like uprising in his country. Whatever pains and disasters had followed Maidan in Ukraine, that nation had held together, electing one president and then another in free, fair elections. Russia was nipping at Ukraine’s borders; Ukraine stood its ground.

As usual, in the lead-up to the 10 August 2020 presidential election in Belarus, Lukashenka jailed his most popular opponents. It was a strategy that had kept him in power for twenty-six years. So certain was he of his grip on Belarus politics, that a surprise move by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, wife of imprisoned presidential candidate Siarhei Tsikhanouski, apparently didn’t concern him in the least. She applied to the election committee to be registered as a candidate in place of her husband, and her application was accepted on July 14, 2020. But, in less than a month, supported enthusiastically by charismatic advisors to other arrested candidates, Tsikhanouskaya captured the imagination of the Belarus electorate, and as estimated by Chatham House, probably won 52% of the vote, as opposed to the official count of 10%, while 80% supposedly voted for Lukashenka (Astapenia). Angry citizens poured onto the streets of Belarus’s major cities to protest the official outcome. But attempts by citizens to establish a state of semi-permanent protest, in the spirit of Maidan, soon failed. Lukashenka’s forces, reportedly backed by Moscow’s special services, cracked down violently on protesters, eventually squeezing the life out of the revolution.

I watched the violence in Belarus from afar. Aware that the political situation in Russia was deteriorating rapidly, I had left my Moscow home of 30 years and relocated to Greece in late 2018. But I continued to follow developments in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus closely. Much of the inside information I received about events in Minsk came from the well-known playwright and screenwriter Andrei Kureichik. I eagerly followed his frequent posts on Facebook. Responding to my own need to take part in the momentous events unfolding, I midwifed an article that Kureichik wrote for American Theatre magazine in late August 2022. There, Kureichik wrote, “It is now down to us, the people of culture, art, politics, economics and science, who together must establish a free Belarus on the ruins of Lukashenka’s dictatorship, much as the great founding fathers of the United States did at the First Continental Congress in 1774.”

He concluded his essay with the words, “Belarus will never be the same. Belarusian theatre will never be the same” (“Theatre in Belarus”).

It was impossible not to hear in this declaration echoes of words spoken in Ukraine during and after the Maidan Uprising. The Belarus Revolution, failed or not, was the time of a great national awakening. It was a time when Belarusians began in earnest to see themselves as citizens of a country that would be independent of Russia, politically and culturally. They were in search of their own particular history and traditions. President Lukashenka plainly stated, even before the election, that he would not tolerate any such change. “There will be no Maidans in Belarus,” Lukashenka declared in May 2020 (“Lukashenka Warns”).

Indeed, after a few weeks of heady, mass protests in which individual citizens bearing flowers and draped in white-red-white flags representing the opposition stood up to tanks, to heavily armed storm troopers and to Lukashenka himself, the repressive state machine slowly began filling prisons, especially the infamous Akrestsina detention center, with large numbers of defenseless protesters, and driving the remainder back into the relative safety of their homes.

It was at this retrograde moment that I received a missive from Kureichik via Facebook. The date was September 10, 2020, and he sent a note saying he was attaching a new play, Insulted. Belarus, written during the revolution, and about the revolution. He wondered might I translate it and arrange some readings in the West to raise awareness about the dire situation in Minsk.

It was a marvelous Don Quixote-like moment, Kureichik standing tall to tilt at the dictator by waving a newly written play in his face. I was taken by his idea immediately. The play was a creative construct that used bits and pieces of the historical record—interviews, and news reports—to tell the intertwining stories of seven people during the aftermath of the election. The characters included Lukashenka himself, as Old Man; a school teacher whose role in helping the state falsify the election brings her tragedy; a sadistic storm trooper who fought at Maidan and dreams of Putin sending in reinforcements to wipe out protesters in Minsk; an innocent young woman whose optimistic outlook runs up hard against the cynicism of the storm trooper; and a doomed, irrepressible athlete whose strivings for freedom sometimes make a hooligan of him, but always place him in opposition to Lukashenka.

The play employs humor and unvarnished honesty to tell a tale that Belarusians—and, ultimately, people all over the world—recognized as a courageous artistic attempt to lay out the truths of a new social order that, given the proper support, just might replace the old.

Insulted. Belarus gave rise to a rather astonishing international movement that, to my knowledge, has no precedent in the theatre world. By the time just eight months had passed, Andrei and I had curated over 130 readings of Insulted. Belarus in 30 countries.

Staged reading via Zoom/YouTube of Rogue Machine Theater presenting Andrei Kureichik’s play Insulted. Belarus, the U.S. premiere of this work, 20 Sept. 2020. In English

Moreover, the project, which quickly acquired the name of the Worldwide Readings Project, had a much greater impact than just the readings—we also fostered the organization of over 100 additional events, including seminars, lectures, exhibitions, installations and conferences. These actions of solidarity on the part of directors, actors, writers, academics and students generated over 130 reports in the print and electronic press of 18 countries.

Kureichik became something of a celebrity, spending months traveling back and forth across Europe to deliver lectures, attend readings and participate in colloquiums that not only brought his play to the public’s attention but expanded knowledge around the world about the political and social disaster in Belarus. As I write these lines, Kureichik is spending eight weeks at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the George A. Miller Visiting Artist residency, and was named a Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellow at Yale for Fall 2022, where he will continue taking the story of Belarus’s fight for independence to the academic world in the United States. These are direct results of Insulted. Belarus and the Worldwide Readings Project.

Televized version of Insulted. Belarus directed by Gabriele Tumanaite for the Vilnius State Small Theater of Lithuania. In Lithuanian

At one point in mid-2021, we determined that we had reached well over half a million people through our online and live readings, streams, Zooms, YouTube and Facebook videos. That would be the approximate equivalent of a sold-out, 400-day run on Broadway.

Theatre as activism. Drama as politics. Thanks to the quality of Kureichik’s play, the interest in the Worldwide Readings Project was high. Throughout the project, one felt that Kureichik’s aim of people of culture and art coming together to “establish a free Belarus” was not just an idealistic fantasy. Thousands of Belarusians, following the readings online all over the world commented in chats and on social media how much these acts of solidarity meant to them. As Lukashenka’s crackdown on all levels of society grew ever more heavy-handed, people using VPNs to get around internet bans watched the readings—occasionally in languages they didn’t know—and reconnected with their aspirations for a different, and better, future. Non-Belarusians were moved to learn of the courage, wits and endurance of the people who lived in a country few had ever thought about. 

Ten months after completing Insulted. Belarus, Kureichik wrote a second play, Voices of the New Belarus, this time a true verbatim work consisting of 14 monologues and one dialogue.

Oksana Mysina’s Russian-language film, with English subtitles, of Voices of the New Belarus

“This is the first time I have written a play in which I totally rejected both any authorial text,” Kureichik wrote, “and any attempt to stylize or interpret facts underlying the text. Sometimes the truth requires nothing more than to be told. Sometimes no one can express something better and more accurately than the prototypes themselves, those who have gone through experiences that no imagination can conjure” (“About Voices”).

Many of the individuals included in Voices were already national heroes by the time the play reached the public. Some, like Maria Kalesnikava, were famous in their own right, Kalesnikava being one of Tsikhouskaya’s right-hand women during the election campaign. Others, like Vitold Ashurok, who was killed in prison, and Stepan Latypov, who dramatically attempted to commit suicide in the courtroom, gained national adulation due to the tragedies they endured.

As in Insulted. Belarus, one sees in Voices of the New Belarus a strong attempt to create a new national mythos for the people, and the nation of Belarus. It points to a post-dictatorial world, a society that looks into itself and its own experiences for self-definition, bypassing entirely old ties to the Russian empire, the Soviet Union, or contemporary Russia. Here, everything to do with Russia, including anything involving the autocracy of Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is something to be overcome and left behind.

The Russian War Against Ukraine, February 2022

Vladimir Putin amazed many in 2021 when he stepped out in the guise of a philosophical historian, or a philosopher-head of state. He published a pseudo-scholarly excursus on the history of Ukraine, Russia and, to a lesser extent, the territory north of Ukraine that has historically been called Belorussia, and to which we now usually refer as Belarus. Titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” Putin frequently referred to Ukrainians using that old phrase of “Little Russian,” or “Malorussian,” arguing at length that the notion of an independent Ukraine was bogus and was foisted on the world, historically, by Poland, and, more recently, the West.

“. . . The idea of Ukrainian people as a nation separate from the Russians started to form and gain ground among the Polish elite and a part of the Malorussian intelligentsia,” Putin wrote.

Since there was no historical basis—and could not have been any—conclusions were substantiated by all sorts of concoctions, which went as far as to claim that the Ukrainians are the true Slavs and the Russians, the Muscovites, are not. Such “hypotheses” became increasingly used for political purposes as a tool of rivalry between European states.[1]

On the Historical Unity

But, as Uilleam Blacker writes in The Atlantic,

Ukrainian national identity is not an accident, nor was it invented by the West. But for centuries, Ukrainians have struggled to fend off attempts to erase their culture. In the early 19th century, Russian publishers accepted Ukrainian literature only if it was ethnographic, comedic, or apolitical. (Serious literature had to be in Russian.) Successive laws in 1863 and 1876 led to the effective banning of all works in the Ukrainian language, as well as their near-complete prohibition in public settings. In the 1930s, Stalin executed a whole generation of writers who had been rebuilding Ukrainian literary culture in the decade prior, brutally cutting short the growth of the country’s vibrant avant-garde.

What Ukrainian Literature

Literally hours before Putin sent his army into Ukraine in the early morning hours of February 24, 2022, he conducted a protracted press conference during which, again, he suggested that Ukrainians and Russians had never had any interest in being separated:

Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia. This process started practically right after the 1917 revolution, and Lenin and his associates did it in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia—by separating, severing what is historically Russian land. Nobody asked the millions of people living there what they thought.

Modern Ukraine

The days and weeks following this nocturnal rant from the Russian president made mincemeat of the hifalutin ideas he expressed in his writing and speeches. As hundreds of tanks moved on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Russian bombs rained down on apartment buildings in the primarily ethnic Russian cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv in the north of Ukraine, killing hundreds of civilians. After nearly two months of war that included the bombings of a theatre and hospitals in Marioupol, as well as massacres in the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Borodianka, few could doubt that Putin’s purpose in invading Ukraine was not to reunite two brotherly peoples but to crush and subjugate a Ukrainian populace that had dared, over the last thirty years, to redefine itself in its own terms, outside of Russian influence.

The war had barely started when I received an email from William Wong in Hong Kong. Wong had mounted numerous important readings of Insulted. Belarus in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and now he wanted to know what we were going to do about Ukraine. I said I would reach out to colleagues. Four days later, forty theatres in 14 countries had pledged to join the newest incarnation of the Worldwide Readings Project, now called the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings. Significantly, our offerings this time would be far more numerous. Instead of readings of one, then a second, play by a single author, this time we would offer the works of dozens of Ukrainian playwrights. By the end of April 2022, we had distributed translations of 70 plays by 30 writers to over 110 theatres in 18 countries.

At first, most theatres chose works by established writers with known track records. They included Maidan Inferno by Neda Nejdana, a powerful study of the Maidan Uprising; Return to Sender by Oksana Braga, a tale of the tragic breakdown in trust and communication among Russians and Ukrainians; and Natalia Vorozhbyt’s Bad Roads, a four-pronged account of the war in the east of Ukraine after the hot spots shifted from Maidan in Kyiv to the Donbas region.

But another source of texts, the Theatre of Playwrights (ToP) in Kyiv, began paying dividends quickly. This actually was an as-yet unborn theatre whose grand opening was scheduled for March 11. Writers had been submitting short texts that were to be evaluated and culled, after which the winners would be given staged readings at the festive inaugural event. But when war was declared, ToP’s artistic director, Maksym Kurochkin, announced that the opening would be postponed until after Ukraine’s victory over the invader. Kurochkin, then, more or less put his theatre out of mind and, like tens of thousands of Ukrainian men under the age of 60, donned khakis, picked up a machine gun and joined the territorial defense; that is, the volunteer militia that patrolled the streets of Ukraine from the earliest days of the war.

I pestered Kurochkin for days, asking how I could get hold of some of these freshly written short texts to use in the burgeoning Ukrainian Play Readings. He replied that anything written before February 24, the first day of the war, had lost its value, at least for now. He tossed off a comment that if someone wanted to commission new texts, that might be a possibility. I immediately turned to my longtime partner Philip Arnoult of the Center for International Theatre Development (CITD) in Baltimore and asked if he saw a role he could play in this situation. “Yes,” he said. And he wired a substantial grant to the theatre to facilitate the writing of new texts. For good measure, Noah Birksted-Breen of the Sputnik Theatre in London also commissioned a new text, and as a result, just days later, even before any of the money had arrived in Ukraine, I began receiving new texts reflecting the experience of life in the conditions of the now ongoing war.

Video production of Andrii Bondarenko’s Peace and Tranquility commissioned and produced by Noah Birksted-Breen and the Sputnik Theatre, London. In English (and Ukrainian)

Working with John Farndon, a British writer, poet and translator, we began turning out translations almost as fast as the short plays were being written. Farndon and I—along with directors, actors and audiences around the world—were taken aback by the powerful, fearless, visceral nature of the texts. Most, though not all, were monologues, so they expressed unadulterated personal pain, confusion, alienation and anger. Many of the texts gave full freedom to the hostility, even hatred, that Ukrainians now bore towards Russians. Or, as Oliena Hapiejeva writes in In the Bowels of the Earth, an unflinching play about the chaos of life in a bomb shelter:

CHILD. Then who wants to kill us?
LENA. Evil people, son.
CHILD. Who are these Russians?
LENA. They are people from a neighboring country that hate us.
LENA. Because we are free, son.

“I do not want Russian cats to suffer,” Liena Liahušonkova wrote in Topol-M. That’s the limit of my sympathy.”

Readings of Ukrainian works at School of Theatre and Dance at Northern Illinois University. A Dictionary of Emotions in Wartime by Elena Astaseva; In Darkness by Natalia Blok; Our Children by Natalia Blok; Peace and Tranquility by Andrii Bondarenko; A Sense of War by Julia Gonchar; and Pussycat for Memories about Darkness by Neda Nejdan

In Call Things by their Names, Tetiana Kytsenko asks, “How did it happen that calling things by their proper names became a civic feat in Russia, Belarus and a few countries in the West? Why such inflated criteria for the truth?” The rest of Kytsenko’s short monologue uses anecdotal material eloquently to set Ukraine and Ukrainians apart as a nation and people for whom honesty and truth are innate building blocks of their character.

I am compelled to declare it plainly: In thirty years of observing and writing about Russian drama, I never once encountered a Russian playwright who could possibly have made any such claim about the nation in which they live.

Kytsenko’s text, as well as those of many other Ukrainian writers, demonstrates an attempt to lay out the framework of a new national ethos. Ukraine, like Belarus, for that matter, is in the process of defining itself, and its writers are playing a crucial role in that. This will not be an identity defined by the relationship between “Little Russia” versus “Great Russia.” It will be something else entirely, and it will be something entirely independent.

Vladimir Putin would impose upon Ukraine, Belarus and Russia a very old, haggard and flawed national myth that would subordinate Ukraine and Belarus to Russia. He would build a world looking backward in history. The writers of Ukraine and Belarus are telling us there is another narrative, one that rejects violence, intimidation, humiliation and the hegemony of one national myth over another. These writers, like the nations whose views they reflect and define, look forward to a way of life founded in the particulars of their own cultures, customs and heritage. As I understand it, that is an exemplary definition of “progress.”


[1] Full English translation available on Wikisource.


About Voices of the New Belarus.” Voices of the New Belarus. Accessed 20 Apr. 2022.

Astapenia, Ryhor, “What Belarusians Think About their Country’s Crisis.” Chatham House, 21 Oct. 2020. Accessed 20 Apr. 2022.

Lukashenka Warns No Maidan Following Mass Rallies Supporting Opposition.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1 June 2020. Accessed 20 Apr. 2022.

“’Modern Ukraine Entirely Created by Russia’—Read Full Text of Vladimir Putin’s Speech.” The Print, 23 Feb. 2022. Accessed 20 Apr. 2022.

On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” Official Kremlin website, 12 July 2021. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020.

Theatre in Belarus: We Will Never be the Same.” American Theatre, 24 Aug. 2020. Accessed 20 April 2022.

What Ukrainian Literature Has Always Understood About Russia.” The Atlantic, 10 Mar. 2022. Accessed 23 Apr. 2022.

Where New Theatre is Coming in from the Cold; Daring New Plays Find an Eager New Audience.” The New York Times, 10 June 2001. Accessed 18 Apr.  2022. 

*John Freedman is an American writer and translator who lived in Russia from 1988 to 2018 when he relocated to Greece. He has translated over 100 plays that have been performed in England, the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Belgium and Russia. His play Dancing, Not Dead won The Internationalists new play competition in 2011, and his short play Five Funny Tales from Buenos Aires was performed in the U.S. and U.K. in 2013–14. He has written and/or edited 11 books on Russian themes and is the founder-curator of the Worldwide Readings Project which has championed Belarusian and Ukrainian drama in times of revolution and war. For U.S. publisher Laertes Books, he is currently editing a collection of wartime texts written by Ukrainian playwrights.

Copyright © 2022 John Freedman
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