On the Rightlessness for Compassion or How to Redeem an Unredeemable Guilt
[Asya Voloshina]/Ester Bol and Yana Meerzon*: Dialogue
With the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, I have been holding many conversations with different Russian theatre artists and intellectuals who condemn the war. Some of them left Russia in protest, some were forced to exile for the reasons of safety or because of their personal and political dissent. Many of these artists continue being active in social sphere, politically, artistically and in practice helping the Ukrainian cause. This conversation focuses on the politics and aesthetics of Asya Voloshina’s work, the playwright from St. Petersburg, the ways she sees the place of the Russian artist today vis-à-vis their country and the notions of collective guilt and responsibility these artists often share.
Born in Rostov-on-Don in 1985, Asya Voloshina is a recipient of many prestigious literary and theatre awards, with more than thirty productions in Russia, Poland, France, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Czech Republic, and Uruguay. When Asya left Russia, she took a new pen-name, Ester Bol. After the victory of Ukraine Asya plans to keep only this name. In this interview, we use both names: Asya Voloshina and Ester Bol
Voloshina studied journalism at The Institute of Journalism and Literature in Moscow (2007) and later theatre history and dramaturgy at The Russian State Institute of Performing Arts in St Petersburg. She holds MA in Dramaturgy (2010-2013), the class of Natalia Skorokhod. Her book of four plays about Russia – its tyranny and lack of freedom – Gibnet khor. Chetyre piesy o Rossii / The Chorus Perishes. Four Plays about Russia (STP, Seans, 2018) – presents Voloshina as one of the most politically outspoken Russian playwrights, who finds it impossible to live in Russia today, in the atmosphere of fear and hatred that can be “nurturing for writing but sickening for people ” (Voloshina in Maslakov 2018).
In March 2022, Voloshina left Russia. During the summer of 2022, she wrote a new play Crime/#AlwaysArmUkraine, which takes place on the iPhone of the major character and is made up of the protagonist’s correspondence and the news feeds mostly posted on the Ukrainian telegram channels. This conversation zooms on the leading themes of Asya’s dramaturgy; it also demonstrates that for someone like Voloshina the antiwar effort, political resistance and criticism of the regime have been continuing focus points and reasons for doing theatre.
YANA: Asya, in one of your interviews, you said that you prefer not to write about love, art, the artist’s purpose or responsibility and powerlessness of the intellectual. You said that you would rather write about the will of humans, both in the sense of ‘freedom’ and in the sense of ‘daring’: “There is no daring without freedom. And no freedom without daring. But both daring and freedom are absolutely vital. The freedom to dare. “When they take away your will, they take away your freedom. And vice versa” (Voloshina qtd. in Ismailova 2020.) I think you see these two concepts – freedom and daring – closely related. Would you agree that this tension between personal freedom and free will has always been central for your work, starting from your early play Gibnet Khor/ The Chorus Perishes?
[Asya Voloshina]/Ester Bol: Yes. Unfortunately, the word play in Russian is lost in translation. I will try to clarify. The Russian word “volya“ is a homonym: it can mean freedom or daring, desire, motivation. So originally this slogan of my dramaturgy sounds like this “When they take away your volya they take away your volya. And vice versa.” When this “volya“ means “freedom,” it has an additional connotation: it is the word often used by prisoners. This is the word they often use to refer specifically to their life before and after prison, or even to the life outside prison in general. So everything that is outside of the prison walls is “volya.“ This linguistic distinction in Russian becomes symbolic.
My play, where one of the characters uses this formula, is called Denmark’s a Prison (the title is an homage to Hamlet who was the first to call his country a prison). “When they take away our will, they take away our freedom, and vice versa: when they take away our freedom, they take away our will.” This is what I wrote about for the 10 years that I was given to be a playwright in Russia. This is what they have done to my country. This is what has brought about the catastrophe we are witnessing right now. And this is what the free and daring Ukraine fell victim to. (But of course Ukraine did not fall — quite the opposite, she will be reborn in this flame like a Phoenix. It’s Russia who will fall. But it’s a bitter play on words – excuse me.)
There is no greater prison than Russia, and I don’t mean just size-wise. Immense Russia’s eastern territories were being colonized hand in hand with the expansion of its prisons and camps. The prisoners were thrown into the taiga and the subarctic ice and snow, and they had to build the labour camps with their own hands. And then work in them logging or mining for precious metals. And then the labour camps turned into settlements and towns. And not just in the 20th century. Siberia was the land of penal labour back in the 19th and even 18th century. And instead of trying to shake off this “heritage” in the 21st century, Russia now calls it its “traditional values.”
And we now see how someone from Putin’s inner circle – someone named Prigozhin – tours prisons to recruit convicted murderers, rapists, and serial killers for the war in Ukraine. He is a former racketeer and pimp who had served time for involving minors in prostitution rings, who now owns the biggest dark PR agency called The Troll Factory and an illegal private paramilitary company.
This thug wields much more power than Minister of Defense. So, these “released” prisoners are the present war “heroes” sent to plunder Ukrainian cities… Prison is the image of Russia. Russia is a place where individual freedom and individual will were abandoned (if it ever had existed). Where your will gets taken away from you just like your personal belongings. Just like your freedom, your daring, your ability to think and make choices. What you get instead is an overpowering animal-like submission. All these years, decades, centuries they have been turning my people into scary, ignorant monsters-slaves. How can I write about anything else in my life?
The Chorus Perishes is of course a very symptomatic script. Your protagonist is a doctor haunted by the voices of soldiers who perished during the war. This Chorus connects your play back to Greek tragedy but also to Brecht’s theatre. How do you see contemporary tragedy dealing with this dialectic: Chorus character vs single protagonist?
I think I need to clarify the plot and structure of this play. There is a protagonist – a World War I military doctor from St. Petersburg, an ophthalmologist and intellectual before the war. He travels in a hospital train. And then there is the Chorus – the voices of the fallen illiterate soldiers who were peasants or workers. They had been deprived of civilization, they are absolutely uneducated, and so are their words, thoughts, actions, and worldview. They appear to him some sort of “revolt of the masses”. But who is to blame for the state they’re in? This is not a rhetorical question, but a question of meaning and genre; it is directly related to the genre of tragedy.
When Kierkegaard had signaled the decline of tragedy in the 19th century, he – obviously like Aristotle before him – was focusing on the tragic guilt. “Tragic guilt is immeasurably greater than subjective guilt because it is a hereditary, ancestral kind of guilt,” says Kierkegaard. He claims that this inherited basis of guilt is lost in contemporary tragedy. So, protagonists carry individual, subjective guilt. But this kind of guilt is incommensurate with the substantial, epic, inherited guilt of real classical tragedy. And this is what diminishes the genre of tragedy, emaciates it. (It is somewhat paradoxical that tragedy as a genre undergoes a final devaluation in the 19th century – on the eve the most tragic event in human history. And the shortage of artistic forms to depict the future disasters was acutely felt by philosophers exactly in that period.)
So, in the play The Chorus Perishes it was important for me to try to work specifically with the notion of guilt. This play was written in 2014, right after the annexation of Crimea (and the jubilation of the majority of Russians), and after the covert invasion of Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine.
But the action takes place in 1914. The protagonist has his own individual guilt: he shot a wounded soldier dead while performing a surgery because he could not stand anymore sawing flesh and bones without anesthesia. (He does not admit this guilt until the end of the play). But he also feels an inherent, collective, existential guilt – for the ignorance, backwardness of the soldiers. For their medieval barbarity. For this unrepairable rupture. Deep down he knows his individual guilt (although he hides it until the very end, pushing it out). As for the collective guilt, he totally refuses to see it. (And one might think: what can a humble doctor do with it? This is the way of the world.) Already gone insane, he despises this under-human mass of flesh and blood that obliterates itself in the meat grinder of war.
Unless as the war does not grind all the masses, it will not stop. And he will be prevented from enjoying the refined urbane lifestyle that he used to enjoy in his previous life. He does not realize that his privilege makes him inherentlly, ancestrally, patrimonially responsible for their barbarity… And that’s a kind of real tragic guilt.
The title of the play – “The Chorus Perishes” – is a paraphrase from the Nobel lecture by Joseph Brodsky (1987) where he talks at length about the 20th century and the global stand-off between totalitarian systems and other political systems. The line goes: “In a real tragedy, it is not the hero who perishes; it is the chorus.” In the play though, it is the hero who perishes. This is how I convey an impossibility to express the tragic content, and this impossibility is tragic in and of itself. Yes, I think that a quest for new forms of expressing tragedy as a genre today would be disingenuous without acknowledging the fact that as an effective device, tragedy has been lost. It would be naive not to acknowledge this. The hero dies in this play, but it’s the Chorus that’s dead right from the start. Perhaps after Auschwitz one would not only not be able to have tea (according to Adorno) but also create tragedies about an individual.
It seems to me that after all the human disasters and genocides, Chorus has to come back on stage. It’s only Chorus who can take on the role of all those who were tortured to death or murdered. In a certain way, this is the fate of chorus now.
But what is the equivalent of the tragic fate today? Could it be in the fact that the individual (especially one in a totalitarian society) becomes encrusted in a socially predetermined reality? (Without any freedom and without any will.) And is it possible that this tragic protagonist is forced to play the role of either the victim or the executioner and cannot not get out of either?
The role of an intellectual is one such role. One of its attributes in Russia today is the total rupture with the common people. A tragic lack of any kind of language that could be used to communicate with it. And the hereditary, ancestral, collective guilt for this rupture. Yes, a collective guilt.
And incidentally, it we consider the Brechtian element (not as apparent in this play as in my other plays, but still), the hero speaks with the audience. He deliberately constructs a connection with the audience and is aware of it. This connection works against the Chorus in a way, because both he and us (the audience) are educated, Europeanized people with a shared cultural background, regardless of the century that separates us. But the Chorus is some sort of a medieval, primordial mass.
Whether or not the tragic hero realizes his collective guilt or not – it will get to him. Nietzsche writes that classical tragedy presents “destruction of the individual and its convergence with the primordial being”. Evidently, this convergence takes place through the Chorus – what else? In my play, I treat this literally as part of the plot. At the end, the ruined hero, blinded, about to shoot himself in the head, suddenly longs to hear a letter. But what he craves is not an exquisitely written letter from his artistic wife. He craves to hear one of those letters that a soldier’s wife gets a literate neighbor to write to her husband for a dozen eggs. And her illiterate husband asks another soldier to read aloud for a cigarette… And that soldier only pretends he is literate because he needs a smoke, so he just improvises the letter… And now at the last moment of his life our refined intellectual savors these primitive words and dreams that one day he gets a love letter like this… Thus, the individual is completely swallowed and destroyed by Chorus. So, I describe this act as a symbol of our collective collapse. The collapse of those who play the role of Russian intellectual. The masses in Russia in 2014 rejoiced that our country stole a piece of land from its neighbor. Who bears the blame and responsibility for this? Who should feel the inherited, ancestral, patrimonial guilt? And do we?
…And now the masses in Russia rejoice that our country is bombing its neighbor…
In 2013, a year after Putin returned to power, you wrote another tragedy Antigona/Redukciya / Antigone/Reduction. Written in verse (Act One) and in prose (Act Two), this play mixes myth with contemporary reality. Your version somewhat follows Sophocles’ original but violates the main principle of the ancient myth – obedience to the gods. Subtitled “a political satire with the elements of poetry and reduction”, Antigona/Reduction recasts the play’s title character, Antigone, from an existentialist tragic figure to a political rebel, whose actions of protest become inevitably and ironically performative in the Debordian society of spectacle, in the time when the political white lies and the post-truth reign.
I assume this was your response to Putin’s course to conservative politics. In 2012 the country witnessed the pick of political protest and punishment, including silencing of the Bolotnaya Square rally and the trial, conviction, and imprisonment of three members of the feminist performance art group Pussy Riot after they staged a 40-second Punk-Prayer inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour on February 21, 2012. Can you talk a bit more about this play and why you wanted to work with the myth?
In Antigone/Reduction the artistic vision was subordinate to a sociopolitical imperative. In 2012, Putin was re-elected President yet again, and this was the start of a new lap that’s culminating right now, and hopefully we’ll soon see its inglorious finale. The start of Putin’s new term coincided with the rise of the great Teatr.doc – the famous Moscow basement that housed a theatre that told the truth in the language of the street. But it was rather preaching to the converted. As a young and naïve graduate of the St. Petersburg Theatre Academy, I wanted to do something radically different. To write an anti-tyranny play meant for a wider audience, not just the intellectuals. Without the post-dramatic experimentation, with an accessible, engaging compassionate plot… And to depict, a bit metaphorically but absolutely recognizably, Putin the tyrant and his greedy cronies. At the time, staging a play like this in a large state-run theatre would have been still theoretically possible. But the progressive critics and theatre scholars and the innovative theatre directors kept asking me: why the allegorical language and the old-fashioned techniques when I could tell everything straight in the new direct theatre style? This was one of the most uneasy situations in my career. It’s hard to say if I realized at the time that pretty soon I would not be able to talk about these things with this degree of directness. But I definitely realized that it’s important to talk politics not with a handful of intellectual theatregoers in a basement, but with the hundreds and thousands who enjoy spending an evening in a posh bourgeois theatre. And to speak in a theatrical language they understand. This was my only attempt at a theatre of this kind.
Should we say than, that your version of Sophocles’ play produces several reductions at once: it interprets the tragic conflict of Sophocles’ Antigone not as existential but as pragmatic, and so it gestures toward Brecht’s adaptation; and it changes the fate of the title character. In your version, Antigone is not simply killed by Creon’s assistants, she is cancelled out from the history and from the myth. Media plays the most significant role in this act of reduction, because it is the energy of a televised transmission and populist propaganda that helps making the presence of the state omnipotent.
My Antigone is all about the idea of personal responsibility, but she understands at first that she is not ready to sacrifice her life for this idea. She would have loved to but is not ready. When Antibunt (Creon’s press secretary) informs her that no one would know what she did, she understands that she would not be able to do this just for the sake of existential truth. And this is why she is a reduced, this contemporary Antigone. The heroine by Anouilh would have reflected and would have decided to do it, not even wondering what the impact would be. The heroine by Sophocles wouldn’t have even reflected and decided. She would have just done it because she is Antigone. She has her destiny, her duty, and her Fate.
Antigona-Reduction chooses to sacrifice herself only when she realizes that this action would be mediatized, and thus would have an effect. If Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov wanted to repent on Sennaya Square today, he would immediately be filmed by strangers; the video would go viral, and his act of repentance would assume an entirely different meaning. He could become a star, for example, or a meme. My Antigone decides to sacrifice her life and fulfill her duty only when she realizes that there will be an effect. (Actually, it’s still brave.) At the moment when Tiresias becomes the broadcaster, she weighs in and understands that she will do it. I think she would have loved to be an existential heroine and prioritize personal responsibility. But she can’t. She knows she can’t.
About Creon: the play offers a range of interpretations of the relationship between Creon and Antibunt, who is a puppet of whom. In the end it turns out that it was all because of big money, but even that is just one of the possible versions. You know, in 2022 a member of the opposition analysts put forward this interesting idea: we were mistaken about Putin thinking that he is just a crook, interested in the billions, palaces, stealing from his own people, that he is all about money. But no, apparently, he is a maniacal murderer. And if one were to try to predict his next move, one would have to interpret him like this. Back in 2013 we had thought that the only motive of the political establishment was grand larceny and robbing their citizens. But one way or another, I am more interested in the two other characters: Demoses (the symbol of the masses) – how they are steeped in powerlessness, in a learned defenselessness, how they sniff out an agenda in the air. How they learn to behave properly as they go. It’s not about the air between Creon and Antibunt, but the air between them and the Demos. The air of the state.
In your next play Podtverdite chto vy chelovek/Confirm You Are Human, there is a character Providnik (guide, in Ukranian), who at first seems to be a commentator of the action, but then becomes its main character. Can you talk more about this play, the ways it also presents your critique of Putin’s regime and your position vis-à-vis the annexation of Crimea?
With its focus on Ukraine, its pre-war period, however, Confirm You Are Human attempts to keep the balance of its internally opposed forces. My objective, at the time, was to make the conflict not look just black and white, but with shades. Although my heart was always with Ukraine. But a full-scale war began, and it turned out that everything is black and white. Exactly black and white.
But in any case, this play has a character who comments on the current event. He speaks to the audience in a Brechtian way. And at the same time, he performs one of the auxiliary functions of chorus: commenting on the current events. He also partners off with the main characters, he takes on the roles of quite a few supporting characters. But gradually he ends up with just one role: that of a boy called Vasilyok, a mysterious orphan, the spirit of the Ukrainian village where the action unfolds. Providnik is quite absorbed in this role, it sorts of sucks him in. Towards the end of the play, he is not interested in anything except what happens to Vasilyok. And it turns out that it is Vasilyok’s fate that the play is all about. Not the fate of the symbolic three Ukrainian sisters, one of whom left for Moscow as a young woman and became a Russian public servant, the second became a medical doctor in Ukraine, and the third decided to try her luck in Europe. It’s not what happens to them but to Vasilyok — the Ukrainian orphan. At the end of the play, the elder sister takes him to Moscow (I did not know then just how tragic this ending would be). But during the applause Providnik (or the actor who plays him) revolts and demands that the audience weigh in. To weigh in on this outcome. And then he presents his own view: this is the worst possible outcome. In essence, this is the play where, more so than in any other play, the chorus truly perishes – while Vasilyok flies with his new adopted mother business class, to Russia over Ukraine.
In your most recent play Crime/#AlwaysArmUkraine (2022), we see a very similar tension between the Chorus character (collective self – constructed of news, social media posts, your personal correspondence with different people), and individual tragic figure. Today, this play is one of the first and perhaps most urgent texts written by a Russian author about this war. It brings the questions of guilt and responsibility to its forefront. Can you tell us a bit more about this work?
The play Crime is comprised of the female protagonist’s correspondence since the start or the war. (This character has no name; she is designated as YOU.) And from newsfeeds – mostly from Ukrainian Telegram channels – read by the protagonist. She is in safety or relative safety, but is totally immersed in the war through her phone. She is in Russia, but her beloved is Ukrainian… And there are plenty of fragmentary storylines taken from her correspondence in messengers. They range from a broken relationship with her Putin-supporting grandma to a chat group of former classmates who… are Putin’s supporters as well; from Ukrainian friends who thank her for her anti-war posts to Ukrainian friends who ridicule her for her anti-war posts (anti-war posts, that’s all you got?); from Russian friend fleeing the country to a Ukrainian friend becoming a sniper and vividly describes how his shot makes Russian brains go splattering around… These are snippets of voices in a chorus. But it’s the newsfeeds that create the constant hum of the chorus.
At the end of the play your title character commits a symbolic suicide by writing a new post in her account, and thus discrediting and canceling herself through this gesture. She fakes her deliberate coming out as “one of them”, to shift the focus away from her suffering and emphatic self of a Russian intellectual on Ukraine. And before she does that, she – literally – leaves the space of the play and engages in a Brechtian dialogue with the author. The irony of course is in the fact that your tragic character does feel sympathy for Ukraine, but because she is from Russia (a representative of an imperial culture, the culture of the aggressor) in the eyes of Ukrainians she has no right for feeling this sympathy or expressing it. The outcome you propose is the most hopeless one can imagine – both in terms of the dramatic logic of your play and in terms of the historical situation, in which we live.
I think it was important to show that it is not the heroine in the play who changes her point of view. She comes out of the play to help the author reach their objectives. What she does to herself is something the author would not have dared do to her. That’s a quasi-Brechtian device: the heroine addresses the author by breaking the confines of the screen of her iPhone or computer, which acts here as a proverbial ‘fourth wall’. The boundaries are quite subtle, but I would have liked for the debate between the character and the author to take place beyond the space of the play. Not behind the fourth wall, but just like that, “in yer face.“
My personal position is absolutely pro-Ukrainian, and so is the protagonist’s. Yes, the play has maybe even too many “good Russians” (I really hate this expression). They deeply empathize with Ukraine, but that’s my subjective position or, as we say, a “Facebook bubble” – a convenient virtual group of like-minded friends that is occasionally disturbed by a few haters. And we all know that Ukraine doesn’t need our deep empathy at all.
But where should we put our deep empathy? Does your compassion change anything? Can this compassion become an alibi? I want to say no, but on the other hand I’m the one who wrote this play: the play about the pain of a Russian. I’d like for it to be read and staged (and for the donations and ticket proceeds to go to Ukraine). So, I don’t just allow myself to broadcast this compassion, I also justify my right to existence by it. And that’s a dead end which I’m trying to get out of with the help of a heroine, who exposes herself to hatred and scorn by her deliberate shift towards evil in the finale. Probably it’s my kind of perverse attempt at redemption. I don’t know. This is a symbolic death. It signifies acceptance of the collective inherent, ancestral, tragic guilt.
For eight years (starting from 2014, annexation of Crimea), we did not scream in horror, we just lived. But now we must ask ourselves again and again: how to redeem an unredeemable guilt? how to redeem an unredeemable guilt? This is precisely why I sacrifice my heroine in the finale. I spray her with sewage and ask the audience not to look at her, not to sympathize with her, but to look at the war, to sympathize with Ukraine. And so, as long as the war is raging, I am no longer interested in me, I don’t want to have the right for compassion. In fact, with this text I declare a rightlessness for compassion. It might be a tragic rightlessness, but who am I to judge?
Does it mean that you also take away the right to feel empathy from your character? Do you consider it – one’s ability to feel empathy – a special privilege of the traditional tragic hero?
I do not take away the right to feel empathy from my character. On the contrary, I give her the opportunity to turn empathy into action. In fact, she does what my Antigone could not do. Antigone decides on a sacrificial act only when she is convinced that she will look good in the media mirror, in the eyes of others. The protagonist of Crime chooses an act of self-sacrifice: she kills her social media presence and thus she contaminates her reflection in the media mirror, in the eyes of others. She sacrifices to Ukraine the most important thing that she has: her image.
Crime/#AlwaysArmUkraine premiered in Tel Aviv on October 9, 2022. It was directed by Semyon Alexanderovsky, a Russian theatre director, who also left the country as his antiwar protest. The opening took place in the form of a play staged-reading within the framework of the New Drama festival – Ekho Lubimovki.
The Lubimovka Festival – the Alma Mater of Ekho Lubimovki – is an independent, non-for-profit project of Russian playwrights, which was created to showcase the work of the emerging theatre writers working in Russian. Originally, the festival run at Konstantin Stanislavsky’s estate – Lubimovka – near Moscow. In 2022, because of the war in Ukraine and due to increased censorship in Russia, many artists and writers left the country. Others stayed but found it impossible to participate in the major festival program. And, thus a new branch of this festival – Ekho Lubimovki/The Lubimovka Echoing – was established. It invited independent producers, artists, and organizations worldwide to hold readings of the shortlisted plays in their own cities. In the summer and fall of 2022, such readings took place in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Tbilisi, Tel Aviv, Narva, and Paris (https://lubimovka.art/about-us).
These readings took place in Russian. Critical Stages publishes the first, authorized translation of the play Crime/#AlwaysArmUkraine in English.
Translated by Dmitri Priven
 Teatr Fulcro used this translation of the play’s title for their staging, hence there is this discrepancy.
 An English neologism invented by Voloshina.
Ismailova, Alina. 2020. Как Аsya Voloshina stala glavnym rossijskim dramaturgom novoj shkoly. Sobaka.Ru, 2020.
Maslakov, Denis. 2018 Asya Voloshina: ‘Dramaturgiya – eto oprokinutyj psychoanalysis’ Mnogobukv. Vse o creative writing, October 9, 2018.
*Yana Meerzon is Professor at the University of Ottawa and Past President of Canadian Association for Theatre Research. Trained as a professional theatre critic in Moscow, Russia (GITIS), she also holds a PHD from University of Toronto, Canada. Yana is the author of three books, with the latest volume Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism published by Palgrave in August 2020. She co-edited seven collections of articles, including Migration and Stereotypes in Performance and Culture with David Dean and Daniel McNeil (Palgrave 2020). Her current research project is entitled “Between Migration and Neo-Nationalism(s): Performing the European Nation — Playing a Foreigner”; and it has been funded by The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Yana is the editor of the “Essays Section” of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques.
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