The Lubimovka Echo Festival and the Russian Language Anti-War Drama in Exile

Transcribed and edited by Anastasia Patlay and Liza Spivakovskaya
Translated by Yana Meerzon and Dmitri Priven
Introduction by Yana Meerzon

A Few Words of Introduction[1]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has become a new European tragedy that the continent has not experienced on such a scale since the military catastrophes of the twentieth century. In addition to the devastating losses on the war fronts, but also among the civilians in Ukraine, the war sent thousands of people into exile, both from Ukraine and Russia.

This publication is dedicated to the group of the Russian-speaking artists who openly and firmly position themselves against Russia’s war in Ukraine and who stand in solidarity with Ukrainian people. These artists fled Russia for different reasons: some left the country because of their anti-war and partisan position, some due to the loss of employment and overbearing censorship, because of the pressure from the authorities, and personal danger, which their anti-war work and public statements put them into. Today, many of them consider themselves political exiles. In exile, these artists rushed to document, share and reflect upon the impact of Putin’s regime on their country. Questions of solidarity, compassion, unredeemable guilt, loss and trauma of war filled the pages of their new plays and the stages of their new productions, often written in Russian and geared toward both the Russian speaking diasporic audiences and spectators in their host countries. A festival of the new anti-war drama written in Russian—The Lubimovka Echo Festival—is both an artistic movement and a pop-up festival. It has become a special place for these exilic artists to express their political stand vis-a-vis the war and to continue with the artistic experiment.

Created in the gesture of the anti-war protest, this festival is an offspring of The Lubimovka Festival, which was established in Russia in 1990 by several prominent playwrights and theatre critics. An independent, non-for-profit project, The Lubimovka Festival opened its doors to the emerging playwrights from Russia and the USSR republics (including Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan), who worked in Russian. At the time, the festival was not overtly political. It took place at Konstantin Stanislavsky’s estate—Lubimovka—near Moscow, and its objective was to provide space for artistic experiment and free expression in drama.

Crime by Esther Bol, The Lubimovka Echo. Belgrade, 2022. Photo: Natalia Korenovskaya 

After February 2022, the situation started to rapidly change. Due to increased censorship, newly minted laws on spreading “fake news” about the Russian army, which presupposed administrative fines and imprisonment as punishment, many playwrights found it impossible to participate in the festival, while others left the country. As the result, the festival decided not to hold its meetings in Russia, to not put its organizers and participants in danger. On July 22, 2022, the festival announced its anti-war position and a special call for new scripts “Dramaturgy Against War.” The call cited the festival’s pledge to support the anti-war work focused on the “basic humanistic values” and positioned itself “against war, propaganda of aggression and state censorship”:

We want to call things by their proper names and support authors who cannot and do not want to keep silent about the tragedy of war, who testify about its horrors and consequences, who reflect on the current situation and look for ways to oppose the rhetoric of hatred and justification of imperial ambitions.

The Lubimovka Festival, 11 Sept. 2022

In addition, the festival invited those theater artists and producers who left Russia to organize staged readings of the short-listed anti-war plays in the countries of their exile. ARTiSHOCK Theatre (Almaty, Kazakhstan) was among the first to take on this invitation. It hosted The Lubimovka Festival between September 29 and October 2, 2022, and it featured 16 plays from the 2022 short-list. Since that time, there have been over dozen gatherings of the festival in different countries, including Georgia, Armenia, Israel, Serbia, Germany and France, to name a few. For many Russian-speaking artists, these readings have come to serve as their personal expressions of protest to Putin’s regime and its war in Ukraine, as well as to function as gestures of solidarity with Ukraine. These gatherings are now called—The Lubimovka Echo.[2]

Circus performance by Tata Poldi, The Lubimovka Echo. Paris, 2022. Photo: être prod

The readings take place in person and online. They serve as intimate points of encounter for the exilic artists themselves, but also for their new hosts and for the colleagues who stayed behind. As a documentary theater director from Moscow who now resides in Granada, Anastasia Patlay, explains,

the spontaneous nature of The Lubimovka Echo is its most important quality. There is neither a designated producer nor a chair of the committee, who manages the festival or provides its funding and gives orders. The festival is a grass-root phenomenon that became widespread across Europe. By now it has outgrown its initial impulse and has become an actual gesture and statement of our anti-war protest.

Patlay, Private Correspondence

In addition, the festival raises money to help with Ukrainian aid. When it took place in Berlin, in April 2023, the funds raised from the ticket sales were donated to the Aid Pioneers, a charity organization in Germany, with such humanitarian programs as Medical Aid Ukraine and Emergency Response Ukraine (The Lubimovka Festival, 21 Apr. 2023).

Mugallima by Dina Safina, The Lubimovka Echo. Berlin, 2023. Photo: Roman Yekimov

In its repertoire, The Lubimovka Echo features plays written by the Russian exilic playwrights who left Russia because of their anti-war position; writers from other countries, including Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus and Kazakhstan, who have decided to continue using Russian as their language of professional expression; and those who remain in Russia but hold an anti-war stand. By not disclosing the artists’ names, who still live in Russia but participate in the festival despite a danger of being silenced or sent to prison, The Lubimovka Echo not only protects their identity, it also provides them with a chance to express their political position and helps with artistic exchange.

The roundtable featured in this publication took place at The Lubimovka Echo in Granada, in June 2023. Its program included plays that have been previously read at the festival and new ones.

For example, Anastasia Patlay and Nana Grinstein’s play Descriditaciya/Discrediting (2023) was commissioned by the project Sąsiedzi.Сусіди.Суседзі.Соседи (Neighbours). Supported by the European Cultural Foundation, a not-for-profit Cultural Foundation Floating EKA (Poland), Ośrodek Teatralny Kana and European Humanities University, the project featured Polish, Belarusian, Ukrainian and Russian artists, who were to create theater works in response to the question “what does it mean to be a neighbour in the region consumed by the unlawful war?”

Discrediting by Nana Grinstein and Anastasia Patlay, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Patlay and Grinstein’s Discrediting documents a case of political persecution in the post-2022 Russia based on denunciation. Using interviews with the protagonist, her students and court materials, Discrediting tells a story of a university professor, who falls victim to social and systemic ostracism after she voices her anti-war protest on social media. “Denunciations, a ‘comradely court’ at the university, dismissal for ‘immoral behavior,’ threats of criminal prosecution, and, in the end, a trial under the article on ‘discrediting the army’” followed her Facebook posting, while friends and colleagues turned away, and the state declared her an “enemy of the people” (Floating EKA, “Sąsiedzi”). In March 2023, Patlay and Grinstein organized a zoom-reading of the script with carefully selected artists still residing in Russia. The in-person readings took place at The Lubimovka Echo, first in Berlin and then in Granada.

Another play, which was featured in Granda, was Voskhod bogov/Rise of the Gods by Marius Ivashkevičius. It recalls the horrifying death of the Lithuanian documentary filmmaker Mantas Kvedaravičius in Mariupol at the hands of the Russian military. The play is based on the interviews with the victims of the invasion, which Ivashkevičius conducted during the first months of the war. Anna Belobrova’s account of the death of Kvedaravičius, who was her partner, and the story of her search for his body on the occupied territories, as well as her attempts to bring the body home, serves as one of the dramaturgical through-lines in the play. To Liza Spivakovskaya, one of the festival’s curators in Granada, Ivashkevičius’s text presents a new type of tragedy: seven women—seven witnesses of this war—testify to its atrocities “before the ‘court of history,’” so in this courtroom drama, Ivashkevičius “rehearse[s] the future, in which the perpetrators stand on trial made to face thousands of their victims” (The Lubimovka Echo Festival, 15–17 June 2023).

Tatiana Lazareva performing Vanya Is Alive by Natalia Lizorkina, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Natalia Lizorkina’s play Vanya zhiv/Vanya is Alive has become the festival’s iconic symbol. Not only it has been read at its every gathering, but in the summer of 2023, it was presented at the Edinburgh Fringe, translated and directed by Ivanka Polchenko and performed by Nikolay Mulakov.

Vanya is Alive features a mother of the young soldier Vanya, Alya, who searches for her son. Subtitled “a text for singing or reading, but most importantly for speaking by one person” (Lizorkina 1), Vanya is Alive depicts a world of post-truth, in which nothing appears as it is named. Unable to figure out the truth, Alya begins telling white lies. They help Alya cope with the realization that her Vanya is not alive. Yet, as the play unfolds, Alya evolves from a grieving mother to an angry citizen ready to fight for freedom in her country. Alya organizes an individual protest, which gets her arrested and sentenced. The play ends with Alya in solitary confinement: she is “absolutely happy and absolutely free,” Lizorkina’s stage direction reads (22).

In their dramaturgical conflict, in other words, the conflict between an individual and the state, these plays gesture toward today’s Russia that grapples with the realities of the Ukrainian war and the newly mounted wave of state oppression against its citizens.

Zhenschiny v temnote/Women in the Dark written by the Ukrainian authors Irina Serebryakova and Masha Denisova (pen name), also featured at the Granada’s edition of the festival, serves as one more symbol of the festival’s anti-war position. It describes the life of a dozen Ukrainian women trapped in Kyiv during the blackouts of the Fall 2022. The text balances between self-irony, laughter and sadness, as it chronicles impossible-to-imagine consequences of this unlawful war, which the women of Kiev are forced to face. Serebryakova’s work is deeply marked by her pacifist feelings and beliefs; in this, she remains a true follower of Brecht and a disciple of his theatrical traditions.            

Women in the Dark by Irina Serebryakova and Masha Denisova, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

University of Granada and its Center for Slavic Cultures participated as a co-organizer of the 2023 The Lubimovka Echo. Granada festival provided translations of the selected plays into Spanish, with the readings taking place either in Russian with Spanish subtitles or in Spanish with Russian subtitles. Recognizing that the festival in Granada has become a part of the larger anti-war movement, Liza Spivakovskaya explained the purpose of the roundtable “Playwright During the War” featured here:

We invited the playwrights whose work was featured at the festival in Granada to talk not so much about these specific plays, but about broader topics of censorship, war, exile and doing theater today, which concern all of us. The Roundtable included Nana Grinstein, who moved from Russia to Germany as the war began, Mikhail Durnenkov, who is now in Finland, Marius Ivashkevičius, who lives in Lithuania and writes in Lithuanian but also in Russian, and Irina Serebryakova, who used to live in Ukraine, but lost her home because of the war. Although we brought together very different artists, they all have been forced to face the war. Their experiences might have been different—depending on how close to the warfront they happened to live, what citizenship and passports they carried, and what experiences of migration they went through—but they all have been affected by this war and hence had urgent ideas to share.

Spivakovskaya, Private Correspondence

Anastasia Patlay offered similar reflections on “an emigrant festival”: organized by the artists in political exile but also “citizens of the country aggressor, trying, to the best of [their] ability, to raise their voices against the war,” this festival “helped us and many of our colleagues in different cities, who [left Russia] consciously or accidentally, to overcome our mutiny” and to “persevere during the war” (Patlay, “прошёл месяц”). Patlay also pointed at the history of this festival, which ignites its energy. Created by the “enthusiasts and developed thanks to the energy of its artistic directors, participants, volunteers and spectators,” The Lubimovka Echo “stands on the three major pillars—trust, friendship and professionalism” (Patlay, “прошёл месяц”). Most importantly, it provides space for the Russian-speaking theatre artists in exile to express their anger with Putin’s government and their solidarity with Ukraine; and to acknowledge their collective guilt and responsibility, to ask for forgiveness and to start seeking reconciliation. 

***

“Playwright During the War” Roundtable (16 June 2023).
The Lubimovka Echo. Granada. 15–17 June 2023.

Moderator: Tatiana Lazareva
Participants: Nana Grinstein (Germany), Mikhail Durnenkov (Finland), Marius Ivashkevičius (Lithuania), Irina Serebryakova (Ukraine).

Tatiana Lazareva

The focus of today’s discussion is a contemporary playwright working in Russian, who expressed their anti-war position after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. My first question is: When the war started, did you notice any correspondence between how a playwright assessed what had happened and how a human being did that? Who became silent—an individual or a playwright? Who stayed alive? And would you say that your own selves—as a playwright and as a human being—have been separated?

Marius Ivashkevičius

When the war started, both the person and the writer in me fell silent. As a playwright (and I’m also a prose writer and essayist), I didn’t know what to say at all. . . . In the first week of the war, several German newspapers asked me to write something. And I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to put it in words . . .” As a person, I tried to find a way out. I tried to get to Ukraine as a journalist of a European newspaper. This shock lasted for two months, both at the existential and personal levels. But, apparently, it cannot last for too long. What shocked me the most was that the world had suddenly changed so much. It was very strange—we all knew that there was going to be a war. But knowing is one thing, and when it actually begins, that’s a different story. It seemed to me that after the war has begun, the world turned into something completely different, and everything that I wrote, thought, or tried to convey to my audiences before the war was no longer valid. It was suddenly clear: we needed new tools, but we had none.

Nana Grinstein

It’s hard for me to separate the playwright from the individual in me, I have never identified myself this way. When the war began, from its very first day, very first moment, it had become clear to me that the old world had collapsed. The old world had ceased to exist, and with it I ceased to exist in the ways I had seen myself until then. That is why I find it very difficult to determine who had disappeared and fell silent, the playwright or the individual in me. But if we focus just on the playwright, then, yes, for a very long time right after the war started, I realized that I, as a playwright, could not do anything meaningful, because the habitual laws of drama had stopped working. When I write a play, I work with the story, I follow its developments and its endings. This war has no ending—it’s been a year and a half since it began and there is no end in sight, and so it is very difficult for me to think of a play (or a kind of dramaturgy) as completed action. In that sense, as a playwright, I am still in the state of great confusion; it is very hard for me to think about how to get back to work. The mechanisms have lost their meaning.

So, when the war started, the first thing I started doing was to record as many events as possible. I work exclusively in documentary theatre, so to me it was very normal just to record everything what was happening. Because my family and I had to rapidly leave Russia, first for Armenia and then for Germany, I started recording people I encountered. I tried to record their voices, and I realized that perhaps my mission today is to capture what I encounter along the way. We must remember though that this war has been going on since 2014.[3] All these years, we have been living with this war; we were very aware that it was happening. And yet, it still seemed to us that a full-scale invasion would not take place. We truly lived inside this illusion; we could not believe that something like this could happen. And when it turned out that what we had only read about in our history books did happen, all the mechanisms, all the ways of existence that we knew, instantly got devalued. My artistic work got devalued too. I could not understand the reason for making art anymore when people are suffering and dying. Perhaps, my way out now is a personal quest how and for what reason one can continue doing what we used to do. For me, this question is still open.

Mikhail Durnenkov

I agree with most of what Nana just said, specifically about our need to re-evaluate ourselves and the world around us in light of the current situation. On the questions of the divide between the playwright and the individual in me, I’ve never been aware of where one ends and the other begins. Moreover, I’ve always thought that my strength lies with my intuitive response to rapid changes in the society. I could always sense this change with my skin, and I wrote plays in response to it. So, for me the question of emigration is first of all existential, the same as our need for food, water, our ability to speak or write plays. To me, all these phenomena are on the same level. If I found myself in a situation when I could not speak out, it would somehow be tantamount to physical death for me. There was no question for me whether to stay in Russia and remain silent, or to leave but maintain this right to speak.

Another question—and I fully agree with Nana here—is that when the war started, everything that I believed in in terms of art had instantly lost its value. For example, for years I firmly believed that my writing was making a difference; I thought that my plays served as a warning against what would and did happen. When it happened, when the full-scale invasion began, it had immediately become clear to me that everything I’d done was simply pointless. And once you recognize this feeling, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to write anything at all.

But our teachers, and in particular Elena Gremina at Teatr.doc, used to say quoting Fassbinder that “if you cannot change [history], you must become its witness.” This saying keeps me afloat, because at least I still can serve as a witness to the changes in the world. I no longer believe that art can change anything or save anyone. But I do believe that it is important to capture our moment of history; because if we keep this record (this reminder) somewhere nearby, we might realize, sometime in the future, that we do not want anything like this to repeat again and again—and so, this faith keeps me going. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on the 24th of February, I felt that I lost all my tools; and then, I realized that if I keep a diary or a kind of autofiction, I might be able to protect my inspiration, to keep my artistic spring going, and so I would keep talking and writing plays.

Irina Serebryakova, Mikhail Durnenkov, Playwright During the War (roundtable), The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Natan Shmelev

Irina Serebryakova

I would like to get back to Nana’s point (it truly resonated with me) that there is no ending in this war, so it is difficult to put a full stop at the end of a play, because this play is not ending, and neither is the war. As for my personal experience, if I attempt to separate the person from the writer in me, the individual from the artist, I can only say that this individual has been mostly engaged in physical survival, just like so many others. A very sad thing about this is that we have been living in this physical survival mode for so long that we stopped noticing it. We describe our problems as something self-evident. But, in reality, the situation is very painful. It really hurts to try to survive. Tens, hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people are trying to survive, but they don’t even notice themselves how much it hurts. They don’t see survival as a kind of heroic act, and they don’t notice their pain. Often, they describe their survival like this: “Well, yes, I left, I had to leave.” What it really means is that one has lost their home, their life’s work, loved ones, possessions and connections. But we learned how to live with these losses a long time ago, and we don’t even describe or think about them, which is very sad for me.

About the idea that art does not save anyone: to me, if one’s super-objective is to save everyone, this is of course an impossible task, something that nobody can do. But if making art can save at least me, it is already a good enough reason to do it, because I cannot help anyone if I do not exist myself. And I must exist. For me, therefore, the way to exist is to write. Maybe this feeling is similar to what Misha (Durnenkov) described. If playwriting can save me, my voice, then, perhaps, it can be the beginning of a path along which we can start moving forward. That is why I cannot agree that art is meaningless, that plays have not saved anyone, that these festival’s staged readings cannot help anybody, that people do not need theatre at all because theatre cannot stop the war. That’s not true.

Tatiana Lazareva. Discussion after the reading of Women in the Dark by Irina Serebryakova and Masha Denisova, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Tatiana Lazareva

I think my first question revealed the obvious: as an artist, as a playwright, one cannot separate oneself from their profession, because artists create with their hearts, they write what they feel. So, my second question is: Can you draw on the experience of those artists who survived World War Two? Can their experience help you now? In what ways was it similar and different?

Mikhail Durnenkov 

The experience of writers, playwrights and artists before us, who lived during the war, is the voice of reason that I draw from. Due to these unbearably complex ethical traps in which we have all found ourselves today—these complexities include nationalities, conflicts, wars, freedoms and so on—you realize that there are certain principles that one must stand by at all times. One must remain a human being, say what you think and what you believe in, and do what you can.

Nana Grinstein

Right before the war broke out, Nastya Patlay and I produced a play called Memoria. It opened on the 9th of February 2022, at the Meyerhold Centre in Moscow. The play interwove two important themes: one was about the creation, work, defeat and trial of the Russian Human Rights Society, Memorial, winner of the Peace Nobel Prize in 2022. The second story focused on the life and death of the famous German actress Carola Neer, who was Brecht’s favorite, and who fled to the Soviet Union from the Nazi Germany to die in the Gulag. And so, when this new war started, the first thing that popped into my head was those poems of Brecht which we used in this play.

Secondly, what supports me the most today is the fight of the German anti-fascists. I often think of myself in relation to them. I try to look for points of reference in their experiences, in what they described, and how they lived their lives. The parallels might not be direct, but they are certainly there. I live today with the lines from their plays or just images of these playwrights, directors, poets in exile who fled Nazi Germany.

Discussion after Discrediting by Nana Grinstein and Anastasia Patlay, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Speaking of the history of the Second World War in general, we now can observe all these intertwining lines between then and now. They appear in the most incredible, unimaginable ways. Besides the horrors of the war, we can now also see how multiple layers of human relationships interact and mix with each other, how they collide and conflict and how they get deformed, transformed and torn apart. This is a kind of experience that we are living through for the first time in our lives. No literature or history could convey to us this sense of living in the moment: of being alive inside the war. Everything we learn post-factum, we can learn only at the end of the play, in its finale. Today, we have lost this sense of finale. We live without an ending, within a kind of extended time, the time of the present. Such existence is very painful, as we have just learned.

Irina Serebyrakova

I often think about Stefan Chwin’s book Hanemann (1995) dedicated to his beloved Gdansk. Before the war, it was a German city and the central character—Hanemann—is a German city-dweller who managed to keep his human face and human dignity, and so he survived the war. Maybe what saves us now is our baggage of memories, maybe even our pain, or something that impedes our success. But if this “something” helps us stay true to ourselves, it might be key to our physical survival and survival as artists. When I think about the experience of the Second World War, I think of it as something illogical, idealist.

Tatiana Lazareva

It seems to me that all your responses point at the question of freedom, which is very important to all of us. But can freedom be censored? And how? And is there such thing as internal or self-censorship? How do you see it? Does it scare you or does it make you uneasy?

Marius Ivashkevičius

I think that yes, it is there, but probably not on a professional level—as a playwright, I don’t censor myself; I just don’t pick themes which I cannot be honest or sincere about. Well, it’s not that I “do not pick them” —you don’t pick themes, they either come or do not come to you. But for the themes that resonate with you, there are no limits. But as a human being, yes. And in truth, it is not the first time in my life that this has happened. I can recognize now that some limits, some fences have started to appear. You don’t necessarily censor yourself, but as you reach some kind of barrier, you know that you have to make a decision—do you take this step, or do you hold back? Sometimes, you do it one way, sometimes the other way. Before there were no such barriers. I think it is us reacting to the war. But it’s a minor thing; you don’t need to read too much into it. I think these barriers will disappear just as they appeared as soon as this war is over.

Marius Ivashkevičius, Nana Grinstein, Playwright During the War (roundtable), The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Natan Shmelev

Nana Grinstein

I would not call this experience “censorship”; to me, we should be talking within the categories of rights—personal rights. After the war began, I realized that there are topics that I do not think I should be touching on. This year, together with Nastya Patlay, we participated in the project Neighbours, which included four teams from four countries—Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. We represented Russia. Nastya and I worked on a documentary play called Discrediting. It is about Russian citizens today who, because of their anti-war position, are publicly persecuted. Our protagonist is a real person who faced this persecution. This is the topic that I feel I have the right to talk about. But I could not write a documentary play about refugees from Mariupol because I still hold a Russian passport, I’m a Russian, and I don’t feel that writing a play like this is the right thing for me to do. Maybe such a position is wrong from an artistic point of view, but from my personal position, ethically speaking, it is the right one.

Mikhail Durnenkov leading the discussion after the reading of Vanya is Alive by Natalia Lizorkina, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Mikhail Durnenkov 

War is certainly never a good time for a playwright. It turns the world into a black and white binary. The job of a playwright is to show the world in its complexity, which does not fit into this black and white picture of the world. It comes into conflict with it. And so, when you try to focus on this complexity during the time of war, you feel like you deny the world at war its quality of a black/and/white binary. And that is where the conflict begins: the conflict between what you can do, what you should do, what you want to do and what the situation dictates you to do. For me, Russia’s aggressive attack on Ukraine is undeniable. Which entails that Ukraine must defend its territories, fight the enemy and win this war. The undeniable fact is if you continue along this train of thought, the world will be reduced to this black/and/white binary; and I see no space there for me to do what I can do as a playwright—that is, to present human beings in all their complexity. Today, I do not know how to reconcile these pictures: the picture of this military world with its unambiguous polarity and the complexity of the human subject.

Irina Serebyrakova

I, too, have been thinking about what topics we can write about and what topics are taboo, who has the right to testify and about what. I think these questions are part of a larger theme. Let’s imagine there was no war, that it had never happened. We live in peace, and we can write about anything that we find important to us. But even then, I think, there is no escape from these questions: What can we write about, who has the right to write and for whom? War makes these questions more obvious and tangible. Yet, whatever we write about, whatever our identity, whatever language we use, whoever we write for, there is no escape from these ethical questions.

Nana Grinstein, Irina Serebryakova, Playwright During the War (roundtable), The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Natan Shmelev

Tatiana Lazareva

I would like to turn now to the questions of your audience. Who is your target reader or spectator today?   

Mikhail Durnenkov 

The audience question is a question of self-identification. Of course, each of us writes for themselves. This would be an obvious response, because when you write a play, you know that there is always someone who listens to what you’re writing—it is you, yourself. It’s such a weird phenomenon, a kind of schizophrenia, but many playwrights can identify with that. One writes, another one watches, the third one listens, the fourth one runs around the stage—and all this takes place in the playwright’s head. And as a writer you always think—this is something the director might not understand, this is something that should be changed for the benefit of the actor. And so on. But the audience question is still a matter of self-identification. These days my identity is in a state of transformation, so I do not know who my audience is.

Nana Grinstein

I don’t know who my audience is. . . . But it is important to me that people from Russia could hear our play [Discrediting]. If there is an opportunity to do online readings, I will support this idea. I do realize that participating in these readings could be dangerous for those who stayed behind, but, at the same time, I think it is our chance to support those people who are against the war, but who, for different reasons, could not or did not want to leave; those who stayed and continued opposing the regime. I think it’s important to do something for this audience as long as there is a possibility, even if only a hypothetical one.

But going back to your question, for me “audience” is whoever wants to listen and watch my work. I am happy to see anyone who would want to do that.

Coordinator of the Center for Slavic Cultures at Granada University Nina Kressova, program curator Anastasia Patlay, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Anastasia Patlay

After the war began, my understanding of who my audience is has crystallized. When I lived and worked in Moscow, I knew my audience—they were very specific people whom I knew personally. I was this crazy director who went every night to watch my productions and to meet with the actors and the audience. It was always very important for me to get their feedback, to look into their eyes, to rub shoulders with them, to eavesdrop, if you wish. And to organize talkbacks. When I lost all that, I realized that my audiences were those very specific people: today, some of them left, but some of them stayed. Now, I am trying to preserve my “audience circle.” I invite them to our Zoom readings because it is impossible to even imagine presenting these plays in Moscow today.

Tatiana Lazareva

Today Russian people are divided into two groups—those who do not support the war and those who do. Do you ever think about this second group?

Marius Ivashkevičius

For me, with the outbreak of the war the Russian audience stopped existing together with the entire country. My plays are still being performed in Russia; I cannot cancel them, even though I seem to have done everything I could. And it’s very strange. Imagine this: Somebody went to theatre because of your play, a production based on your work toured in some Russian city, and then somebody writes: “Wow, it was so good!” And this “wow” is like from another life and world, not from this planet. . . . This country—Russia—has ceased to exist for me. I realize now that during my lifetime it will never start existing again. Maybe, if I was 25, I would believe that in about 25–30 years something would change. . . . Alas, this is not the case for me today.

Mikhail Durnenkov

When you say that today Russian people are clearly divided into two groups—those who support the war and those who do not—to me this is not true. There are a million variations within each group. There are people who consciously support the war, those who honestly believe in it. Nothing—neither discussions, nor theatre productions or art in general—can change their minds. Supporting the war is a kind of a psychological tactic for them, a survival strategy, if you want. But then there are other people, the so-called “grey zone,” and this group is important. This grey zone fills a giant space “in-between,” between the pro-war and anti-war groups, to which we have no access. I would like to think that theatre can make a difference in this grey zone.

Irina Serebyrakova

I agree that there are many nuances; and I do have a feeling that if someone likes Putin and fully agrees with everything he does, it absolutely does not mean that they would necessarily not go to see an anti-war play. The same way, if someone does not agree with Putin’s politics, they can watch plays and films, read books and articles by those who defend Putin. I can even say that a very large part of these readers, visitors to the exhibits and theatre and filmgoers are precisely those people who disagree with Putin’s war. But the truth is that they all are involved in this, they all consume this propaganda content, even if they disagree with it.

Discussion with Irina Serebryakova after Women in the Dark reading, The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Tatiana Lazareva

The war has been raging for 15 months now. We all started to think about it as our new “normal.” How do you cope with this new reality? Can you make any plans for your future, and for your writing projects?

Mikhail Durnenkov

My plan is not to get used to all this; at the end of the day, it is our profession to be the exposed nerve, without any skin. 

Nana Grinstein

I agree with Misha, but I would say it’s not because of what we do. My life has become split in two, where in one reality I live in the peaceful city of Hamburg, in Germany, and my future there is more or less clear. So, this means that I’m going to stay there, I am going to build my life and my theatre career there, and I’m taking pragmatic steps to make that happen. But through this main reality runs an undercurrent of what’s happening in Ukraine, the political persecution my friends and colleagues are experiencing in Russia, the bombings, the war, people dying. This is something I can’t get used to. What I am used to is this double reality, double exposure. I don’t know if this double exposure is related to my work as a playwright, or if this is simply the way I am. As for what I’m going to do professionally, as a professional who works with language, has always worked with language and now finds herself in a different language environment, my main objective is to continue, whatever it takes, my theatre career in a different country where a different language is used. I also understand that this is the first professional decision I make as an adult, because back home I did not make a conscious choice to become a playwright or a scriptwriter. It was happening on its own. And now I am faced with this choice. I am at a point in my life where I could choose another path; all paths are open. But I’ve decided to keep doing what I was doing, even though I don’t even speak German that well. I will keep writing, and not necessarily only in Russian; I will work with a translator I trust, to reach out to a wider, not just the Russian-speaking audience, and to the country where I now live.            

Marius Ivashkevičius

This war has done so much damage for me professionally that I started thinking that the play I’m writing now might be my last one. Over this year, eight of my productions have been cancelled: four of them in Russia, one of them in Ukraine; and this was understandable. But then, my Icelandic production was shut down, and then in Germany—blow after blow—so you begin to realise that all these rejections and cancellations were somehow connected to the war. And then, you start wondering: what am I doing, who needs my writing? 

Mikhail Durnenkov

I also don’t know whether I will be able to keep my theatre career, whether it is even possible. Marius lost eight productions; I lost everything, my entire life. And from this ground zero, every small step I take seems like a huge victory. It really is. A small project in Finland, somewhere on the border in a small village, and something that we created together with a Finnish artist in English, for the opening of which only seven people signed up, is already a huge victory for me. I have never been so excited, not even when my plays were produced by the Moscow Art Theatre. This production gives me hope for the way ahead.

Coordinator Nina Kressova, Director of the Center for Slavic Cultures at Granada University Enrique Quero Gervilla, program curator Anastasia Patlay, closing of the festival The Lubimovka Echo. Granada, 2023. Photo: Irina Dyudenko

Question from the audience 

Yesterday, Elena Gordienko, in her lecture “Lubimovka and its ‘Echo.’ A History of a Nomadic Festival,” spoke about the breakdown of language—that we don’t have enough words to describe our experience. We seem to be able to create and understand single passages, but the rest we simply do not understand. Do you agree that we do not have enough words; that is, we cannot explain the emotions or feelings of ourselves and our characters?

Nana Grinstein

Yes, I find this observation very accurate. Because our world collapsed, the words that used to have definite meanings have become devalued. Today, I feel more connected to, or rather, I can better understand choreography and paintings than I can understand words because words can get fossilized. Sometimes, it is very difficult for me to speak because to speak one must be very precise, but I’m not always capable of being precise.

Mikhail Durnenkov

And you know what else is interesting; we speak the same language but have such different emotional and pain-related experiences that even if we say the same words and sentences, we might mean something very different. Here, of course, language fails. Last summer, I participated in a theatre workshop in Berlin; it was called “Understanding Pain.” There were Ukrainian, Syrian, Belarusian and Russian participants. And what I learned there is that it is impossible to understand the pain of another if you have not experienced this pain yourself. We speak the same language, but we mean different things. The war has fully exposed this difference. So, when Irina describes her experiences of the war, I do not fully understand her. I do not share her experiences, and so I cannot really grasp what she went through. I try to do my best to listen to her, I try to understand what she is really saying, but in the end, I do not think I can; and I’m fully aware of my limitations.

Irina Serebyrakova

I will try to respond to whether we have enough words to describe our feelings, whether I will be understood in English or in Swedish; and how I should express myself for my words to touch everyone in the audience. But, as humans, we do not have this communicative burden. Humans just communicate to the best of their abilities. I try to record them. There is inherent richness in human communication. So, if it’s a documentary play, I have enough language at my disposal. However, if I try to create fiction, I may not have enough words, I may be constrained in my expressive means. I think this is because since the war started, we do not have the means to fully describe our experience—and not only in our plays. We do not have the expressive means to describe our forced migration, flight, death, broken relationships with the people close to us. We lack the experience of describing this. And so now, at this roundtable, what we’re trying to do is find ways to discuss and describe this experience. I understand the ethical dilemma though. I get it, I find it unethical to say that even though I am safe here I am still unhappy. Or that I am happy. This sounds even worse. But the thing is, if we can’t find a way to express our feelings, if we can’t find people to explain how we feel to, this inability will seep into our plays. Because if we can’t explain to ourselves, our neighbors, our loved ones who we are, how we feel, how can we convey this to random audiences? For me, being at this roundtable is an attempt to find ways to describe our experience.


Endnotes

[1] I would like to express my special gratitude to Anastasia Patlay and Liza Spivakovskaya for providing generous assistance in writing this introduction.

[2] Historically, The Lubimovka Echo was established before the war in Ukraine. It was a sister-event to The Lubimovka Festival and took place every year after the main event was over. The Lubimovka Echo invited theatre artists across Russia to choose from the already selected plays (Lubimovka’s short-list) to hold their own staged readings of these texts.

[3] On February 22, 2014, Viktor Yanukovych, the President of Ukraine at the time, sought safety in Russia. On the pretext of helping his ally, Putin ordered Russian Special Forces into Crimea. As the result, Crimea has been seized by the Russian forces and military operations in the Donbass region began.

Bibliography

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Yana Meerzon is Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Ottawa and the editor of the “Essays Section” of Critical Stages/Scènes critiques. She is the author of three books, most recently Performance, Subjectivity, Cosmopolitanism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). She co-edited nine collections of articles, including The Handbook on Theatre and Migration (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023; with Steve Wilmer).

Mikhail Durnenkov is a Russian playwright, screenwriter and teacher, with over thirty plays, which were translated into many languages and produced in more than 15 countries. Durnenkov is a recipient of such awards as “Eurasia,” “New Play” and “Golden Mask.” In 2011-2016 he was a curator at the festival “New Plays from Europe” in Germany, in 2013-2019 he served as an Art Director of The Lubimovka Festival and of the foreign drama festival “Perepost.” He taught drama classes at Moscow Art Theatre School and dramaturgy course at Konstantin Raikin Higher School of Stage Arts in Moscow. In 2022, Durnenkov left Russia due to his active anti-war position. Today, he lives in Finland.

Nana Grinstein is a screenwriter and playwright of documentary theatre. As an author of documentary plays and in collaboration with director Anastasia Patlay, she has been working in Moscow with Teatr.doc, Meyerhold Center, Sakharov Center, Memorial International and others. As a researcher/playwright/performer, she initiated and participated in the collective project Chelovek Rasseyanny/Scattered Man in 2022, in Yerevan, Armenia. In 2023, together with Anastasia Patlay, created the play Discreditatsiya/Discrediting as part of the international project Sąsiedzi. Sąsiedzi. Sąsiedzi. Neighbors, initiated by the Polish foundation Floating EKA. Today she lives in Germany.

Marius Ivashkevičius is a Lithuanian writer, playwright, screenwriter, theatre and film director. Ivashkevičius is a recipient of the first place in the 1998 competition of contemporary Lithuanian dramaturgy, the Best Play Award at the Baltic Theatre Festival in 2010, the Best Production of the Year Award in 2011 and Golden Mask Award 2017 in the category Best Work by a Playwright. Ivaškevičius’ plays are translated into many languages and were directed by very acclaimed directors in Lithuania, Latvia, Russia and other countries. His play Rise of the Gods premiered at Avignon Festival in 2022.   

Irina Serebryakova is a Ukrainian writer, translator, and playwright. She translated more than 30 books from English and French into Ukrainian and Russian. She is a recipient of the main prize of the competition “Transmission. UA: Drama on the Move” organized by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute in 2021. Her plays testifying the war in Ukraine have been translated into many languages and produced in many countries. Women in the Dark co-authored with Masha Denisova was written with the support of Italienska Palatset and Bild och Form foundations Kronoberg, Sweden. It was shortlisted by The Lubimovka Festival in 2022. She holds no permanent place of residence due to the war in Ukraine.

Tatiana Lazareva is a Russian TV anchor and activist. She is the creator and the host of the YouTube channel Lazarevatut. She is a two-times recipient of the TEFI television award. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Lazareva publicly denounced the war and the actions of the Russian government. She was declared a “foreign agent” in Russia, and today lives in Spain.

Anastasia Patlay is a director, playwright, educator and a festival curator, who specializes in documentary theatre. Her productions were featured at Teatr.doc, Meyerhold Center, Sakharov Center, Museum of Architecture in Moscow, and by Novosibirsk Globe Theatre. She served as a curator of a theatre program “Archaeology of Memory” at the Sakharov Center and was one of the curators of the festival “Hunting for Reality” at Teatr.doc. Since February 2023, Patlay has been a resident of the Brecht House Museum in Augsburg. In June 2023 she organized The Lubimovka Echo. Granada. Since February 2022 she has been living in Spain.

Elizaveta (Liza) Spivakovskaya is a theatre scholar and curator. She has been engaged as a “reader,” and as a co-curator of the fringe program at the Lubimovka Festival for Young Dramaturgy. As a researcher and curator she participated in several theatre and museum projects at the Taganka Theatre, Sovremennik Theatre, and the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. She also served as a curator of educational art projects at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Sakharov Center, and Meyerhold Center in Moscow. Together with Anastasia Patlay, she curated The Lubimovka Echo in Granada.

Copyright © 2023 Anastasia Patlay, Liza Spivakovskaya, Yana Meerzon, Dmitri Priven
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN:2409-7411

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