For Some Russian Dissident Theatremakers, the Future Is Unclear
On the Georgian coast of the Black Sea, the resort town of Batumi finds itself awash with visitors from abroad this winter. The town is usually reduced to only the local population during the chillier months, but this year thousands of displaced Russian men, sometimes termed draft-dodgers, occupy the glittering hotels and high-rise condominiums that sprawl across the rocky coastline. While the fighting rages on just across the sea, these men are theoretically protected from the military mobilization and political tension. However, the uncertainty and fragility of their situation hovers over the city like a quiet fog, suspending these men in a complicated, angst-inducing limbo.
Most of these men are educated, single, and young. They work in fields like information technology or web design and can continue to support themselves by operating remotely. However, a number of them come from creative and cultural companies that have been dissolved or severely affected by the “special military operation.” For these men, abstaining from fighting and sharing political opinion is not only practical, but purposeful. Daniel Mesta, a Mexican American representative for the Center for International Theatre Development, based between Mexico City, Mexico and St. Petersburg, Russia, sat down with one of these men in Batumi, Vitaly Kogut, to discuss his thoughts on the current situation for Russian creatives, the effects of this conflict on artists, and the future of Russian theatre. A Russian theatre director with Ukrainian roots, Vitaly created work with some of Russia’s most embattled theatre companies, including a cancelled new work of documentary theatre at Moscow’s teatr.doc.
Daniel Mesta: What makes your theatre practice distinctively Russian?
Vitaly Kogut: Great question. I think the most Russian thing I do in my practice is that I’m trying to discover traumatized things, which happened not to the characters but happened to me, and uncover these in my work. And that actually became the concept behind my teatr.doc work.
Daniel: Do you consider the theatre that you make to be particularly subversive or loud?
Vitaly: In some parts, yes. At some point, I understood that when you go through the mastery of text—for example, pure Russian classics like Nikolai Gogol… I realized that you want to say more. My personality wants to say more. That’s why I turned to modern plays that help me say more. That’s why my play Russian Lullaby happened. It manifested my political views, my country, my identity as a Russian.
Daniel: I want to talk more later about Russian Lullaby, but first can you tell me about your piece at teatr.doc? I’m sorry that it was cancelled.
Vitaly: Me too. It was a technologically innovative devised documentary piece about my own growing up in the forests of Russia. The original concept was a self-reflection of the artist, me, that was really a commentary on the intersection of my Ukrainian heritage, sexuality, and childhood experiences.
Artists need to connect with their heritage and the world around them because it is what fuels us.
Daniel: If the conflict in Ukraine had never started in 2014, what do you think you would be doing right now?
Vitaly: I definitely would be in Kyiv. I had the plan to go to Kyiv and start working there after graduation. In 2012 I started short trips there, and I understood that I felt really good there as an artist. It collided with the history of my family. Somehow it inspires me a lot. In 2004 and 2014, we witnessed two orange revolutions in the Ukraine, and I felt like something was changing, changing dramatically.
For the artist, I feel that it is so important to connect with this. Artists need to connect with their heritage and the world around them because it is what fuels us. You see, the unique thing about western Ukraine, despite its Soviet heritage, is the freedom. I don’t know how it works, but as soon as I got to Kyiv, I felt like I was related to this place. Old people talk like my father talks. I felt at home. The striking thing, when you go to the Kyiv of 2012, 2013, 2014, you understand that here things are possible—people are talking about change.
Daniel: What are the most harmful things you see Russian artists doing right now?
Vitaly: To openly support propaganda in your work. To try to artistically convey an idea of Russian supremacy over Ukraine and other parts of the world, which is happening right now, actually. I think it is a betrayal of your profession, of the humanitarian ideal of art. I see art as a humanitarian, liberating process. And this is counterproductive to that.
Daniel: What do you think Russia’s artistic future looks like?
Vitaly: I think that because of COVID and the practice of creating theatre works distantly—and now so with many great Russian theatremakers are abroad—Russian artists will get support from around the world to present their production in Paris, New York, Amsterdam, and other places. They are getting the floor right now—not after the war, right now. We will witness something new. This whole wave of Russian theatre is like the Russian soul that is infiltrating theatre life all around the world. I think Russian theatremakers have more to say right now. We are all wounded, injured, by this situation.
Daniel: And where do you fit into this?
Vitaly: When I’m not thinking about the things that are happening in the Ukraine, when I find a few minutes not to do this, I think that I need to preserve myself as an artist first. But then I need to preserve the Russian view on theatre in the place where I’m going to live and work, and try to broaden it. To try to shed some light on the Russian soul, which is still not understood at all by the West. This can lead to some other problems and conflicts.
Daniel: What’s something about the Russian soul that non-Russians have a hard time understanding?
Vitaly: I would be so happy to answer this simply! But that’s why I am doing my art. It’s impossible to explain. I could say it’s brave, sincere, good for people, loving God, but it’s not enough. I try to exemplify this through my life, my art, everything. But the thing that is really important is that the Russian soul wants to be heard. Now. Right now. It craves it, to be heard.
Daniel: Which of your works gets closest to your idea of the Russian soul?
Vitaly: Probably Land of Liza by Yaroslava Pulinovich. It’s a beautiful text about Russian women, about a woman born in Germany, abused by a Ukrainian, and loved by a Russian. She could understand the Russian soul like nobody else, even though she was German. Like Catherine the Great.
I also created a piece called Elza’s Land, which was censored in Nizhny Novgorod in 2021. I received a phone call two days after the premiere from the producer of the laboratory. He told me they were canceling the piece, and that it couldn’t be quoted anywhere. I got huge support from my actors. They told me that if I went public, they would support me. But this was the week that Alexey Navalny was coming back to Russia. I was ready. I had the video recording so that we could restage it. But the actors were very vulnerable. They could lose their jobs in a single minute, and nobody would know about it. So I waited a bit, and nothing happened. All of the staging assets were owned by the union, so we couldn’t just take them. Finally, it was all just cancelled.
The thing that is really important is that the Russian soul wants to be heard. Now. Right now.
Also, Russian Lullaby. Just imagine a country where you have never witnessed democracy or liberal values be appreciated at all. It can be a kind of toy—a kind of “Peter the Great present” from Europe. Peter the Great promised to modernize and westernize Russia by building St. Petersburg, but it came at a huge cost to both the peasantry and the aristocracy. Now these values are like a fun present, something new, like the building of St. Petersburg. Everybody thinks it will be great, but thousands of people die making the vision happen.
Daniel: Worth it.
Vitaly: Petersburg? Of course, worth it! But just imagine this country that has Alexander Pushkin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, but it has never experienced any sort of liberal turn. It is mighty, but a slave. About this idea, I made Russian Lullaby.
Daniel: And Russian Lullaby was performed in 2020 in Nizhny Novgorod, correct?
Daniel: And why does Russian Lullaby specifically capture your idea of the Russian soul?
Vitaly: Because it depicts the soul of a broken boy who was raised in the characteristic poverty, crime, and homophobia of the nineties. This character witnesses how certain Russians move from the criminal classes to the government. The big sort of pivotal moment in the play is where these criminal men rip off the stripes of the Adidas logo on their tracksuits and pin them back on themselves. But now, they’re like stripes on a police badge.
Daniel: You’re dealing with a lot, being displaced here in Georgia. What is your biggest barrier right now, in this moment?
Vitaly: I think the biggest barrier might be inside of me. I don’t have a choice, I need to somehow start talking with my identity. This identity wants to be heard. I need to free it. I need to articulate it artistically. With big consonants and vowels. I used to have to work through it with hidden things in my works. But now I want to say more. I have something to say more. Even now, talking to you for this interview, I’m subconsciously censoring myself. I need to stop this.
Daniel: Thanks for sharing your thoughts today. That was very personal, and I think people need to hear about what you’re thinking and going through.
Vitaly: Thank you. Maybe more than people reading this, I think I needed to say it.