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Yelena Astasyeva’s namesake character Yelena in her new play “A Dictionary of Emotions in War Time” muses that “it’s like finding myself in a film about war, it’s a nightmare. You go to bed, and you fear your home will be bombed that night. There’s nowhere to buy food or medicine. And when you write about all of this, your Russian friends answer that it’s fake news. What do you think, how do I feel?”

Astasyeva is one of more than three dozen Ukrainian writers and playwrights participating in an international initiative to bear witness to the horrors of Putin’s war on Ukraine through theater. Originating with the Ukrainian component of the Worldwide Readings Project, which began in 2020 in solidarity with the beleaguered Belarus theater community, the project presents works which bring to light the corruption and brutality of authoritarian regimes.

Theater critic John Freedman, curator of the Ukrainian component, moved quickly at the onset of the Russian invasion to bring new Ukrainian dramatic works to global audiences. Working with Philip Arnoult at Baltimore’s Center for International Theater Development, Maksym Kurochkin at Kyiv’s Theater of Playwrights, Noah Birksted-Breen at London’s Sputnik Theatre, and others, the project has arranged for 70 pledged readings and fundraisers in 15 countries and in 12 languages. Events already have taken place in Hong Kong, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Germany, and Austria.

Like Astasyeva, several of the authors express an initial disbelief that war is really happening.

Many of the writers try to capture the unreality of the war by exploring an initial search for safe food and shelter. Oksana Gritsenko recalls in “The Peed-Upon Armored Personnel Carrier”: “The first thing to disappear in the village was bread, followed by medicines in pharmacies, and then Ukrainian national television. After that, the Russians (in this village they were always informally called Goats or Butchers) stripped the mobile communication wires off the TV tower and set up tension wires around it. The villagers felt as though they were on an island, cut off from the world.”

Writing about the war’s first days in Kherson, Natasha Blok, in “Our Children,” described reaching a temporary shelter for Ukrainians. “There were mothers with their children,” she writes. “The children asked questions, like ‘Why is Putin bombing us? That’s not fair, Mom. His country is bigger. What does he want from us? Why are they killing us?’”

Others—such as Natal’ya Vorozhbit in “Bad Roads”—explore the long-term degradation of the human spirit resulting from eight years of war against separatist regions in Donetsk and Luhansk. “The separatists wanted to take the airport in time for Putin’s birthday as a present for him,” she writes.

“They were going to use this rocket launcher, Buratino; it’s like a weapon of mass destruction, it destroys every living thing within a radius of three k[ilometers]. Our commanding officers weren’t confirming this openly, but they weren’t denying it either. But we were pretty convinced by the way the separatists were evacuating weapons and people away from the airport. In just a few hours the airport, which had been under fire and siege for months, was no longer surrounded. It’s like, there’s this terrible silence all round. The first silence in that airport. All night we were preparing for the end. I rang my daughter. I helped her do her homework over the phone….But actually no basement would have saved us from Buratino and that kind of consoled us. At dawn they began storming the building with tanks. You cannot imagine how ecstatic we were. It meant they weren’t going to use Buratino.”

Hanging over most is the agonizing decision of staying or leaving. In a “farewell monologue to the Donbass,” Neda Nezhdana—in her play “Pussycat for Memories about Darkness”—recounts a final night before departure:

 “I came home and told my husband: ‘Myhas, let’s collect our bags and run away.’ He persisted at the beginning, but I prated and shouted and cried—and he retreated; for [our] daughter he was ready to go through water and fire. I began to gather, threw some things, took them out, put others in, suitcases could not be closed, tears flowed….And then our pussy started to give birth. The whole night we were giving birth to three kittens, one was grey, the second was white, and one more was black, pretty small. Wallydrag, as my mother said. In the morning I fell asleep. I wake up at seven, kittens were squealing under my side—she entrusted them to me. Now I had understood—I’m not going anywhere. ‘Myhas, go alone, save [our] daughter.’ I persuaded him.”

Once fondly recalled, relations with Russian relatives, friends, and colleagues are gone forever, often replaced by pure hatred. For one of Julia Gonchar’s characters in “A Foretaste of War”: “My family got broken by all this Russian aggression and no one is left in Moscow really; only my aunt and she has cancer.”

Some authors—such as Vitaly Chensky in his play “Robinson”—detect opportunities for innovative stage work. Trying to remove himself from the new realities of war, Robinson turns to a book of Dostoevsky tales. “The general,” Robinson reads, “when he didn’t like something, was not shy before anyone: he squeaked like a woman, cursed like a coachman, and sometimes, ripping and scattering cards on the floor while driving his partners away from him, he even wept with annoyance and anger.” But “at that very moment,” Robinson records, “a Russian rocket flew in my apartment window….Not the most subtle plot twist, of course. Rather mediocre dramaturgy. But, in general, there will be nothing better in the coming years.”

In the end, the weight of history seems inescapable. As Andriy Bondarenko’s chief protagonist in “Peace and Tranquility” understands, “I grew up with a sense of peace and tranquility. I saw it as an inalienable right. I was a child of the ‘80s….Now I understand how naïve this feeling was. A mistake from being born in a short period of peace and tranquility. In the area where I was born, no one ever gave anyone the right to peace and quiet. And we, the Ukrainian children of the 1980s, had no privileges or rights. None. Who gave them to us? No one.”

The stage holds up a mirror to life around it, at times revealing truths which cut closer to the bone than everyday reality. This is a moment to say, “What are your values? What is it you value above all? Is it freedom? Is it democracy, justice, human life, dignity….If you have values, are you ready to pay for it? With what? Money? Work? Freedom? Health? Life? The life of the people close to you? This is the most terrible. I’m definitely not ready for that,” as Ania says in Neda Nezhdana’s “Maidan Inferno, or The Other Side of Hell.”

Living through the hell of Putin’s war, Ukraine’s writers are demanding that we weigh such questions. Should a reading take place near you, go hear how Ukrainians are answering.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
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)
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on 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 South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more