Responding to Russian Aggression from the Stage
Ukrainian playwrights are cultural heroes of war. Beginning with the initial Russian incursions in 2014, authors across Ukraine began to set their experiences down in scripts and scenarios for the stage and, in some instances, film. Writers of all varieties—professional and amateur, established and new, Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, young and old, men and women—accelerated their efforts following the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022. We know this—as will our descendants—through the persistent efforts of Kyiv’s Les Kurbas Centre. It is collecting, cataloguing, and sharing scripts, from intimate one- or two-character single scenes through major stage productions (and even a film or two).
The Kurbas Centre, named after the innovative Ukrainian theater director killed in the gulag in 1937, opened in 1996, following a 1994 decree of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine. The center’s charter emphasized the interchangeability of research, theory, and theater practice, with the goals of nurturing a national artistic spirit and building a cultural bridge to the global theater world. Center leadership viewed the study and preservation of 20th and 21st century Ukrainian theatre as central to fulfilling this mission. Center staff began collecting works about the war as soon as hostilities began in 2014.
In recent months, prompted by a concept proposed and developed by playwrights Neda Nezhdanaya and Oleh Mykolaichuk, the center collected these works into a new electronic and print anthology entitled Unnamed War. Mykolaichuk and Nadiya Miroshnychenko, compilers of the collection, explain this title by noting that the current conflict has no name: “the word ‘war’ is avoided. The enemy calls it a ‘special operation,’ the international media often use the word ‘conflict,’ in Ukraine the period after February 24 is called an ‘invasion,’ and before that it was the ATO, then OOS. However, even calling the war a war, one gets lost in definitions.” What has become evident, regardless of terminology, is that the horrendous violence and brutality unleashed by Russia on Ukraine has released a surge of anger, hatred, sorrow, grief, love, heroism, and playwriting.
The plays presented in this anthology and, more broadly, collected by the Kurbas Centre, are as short as a single scene and as long as a multi-act extravaganza. They probe the most personal of experiences and the broadest of philosophical notions about the meaning of life. They are documentary, mystical, absurd, animalistic, rooted in history and place, and told through the prism of virtual reality. They have been featured in readings and in performances in every corner of the country, and on six continents. They are written in Ukrainian, but also in Russian, English, and other languages. Some are available online; others are not. These plays record how Ukrainians have responded to Russian aggression, and how they have nurtured shared values.
The sources of these works are as diverse as the authors. Some have emerged from the center’s own projects, and others from numerous ventures of the Ivan Mykolaichuk Center. Many works have been supported by various European initiatives and by the Worldwide Readings Project for Ukraine already featured here (May 16, 2022, August 4, 2022, March 17, 2023, June 9, 2023). A number of works simply emerged in Ukrainian provincial cities and towns. They share a deep need to understand, define, and refute the Russian effort to seize parts of Ukraine through violence. There is, as the title of Andy Iva’s play declares, No Sense to Be Afraid. Instead, the plays assert the continuing presence and humanity of Ukraine.
They establish a place for humanity, philosophy, poetry, gender equality, inclusion, faith and much more that turns into interesting theater, writes Olena Bondareva in the preface to the anthology. The playwrights demonstrate a belief in the victory of Ukrainians, even if distant: after all, by living through such an extreme communal trauma, Ukrainians have become a modern political nation. These plays show that theater has become central to how Ukrainians think and talk about who they are.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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About the Author
Blair A. Ruble
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more