For all her life, Ukrainian theatre-maker and co-founder of the Ukrainian Physical Theatre School, Maria Koreneva was a pacifist and against war. As a Gestalt psychotherapist herself, she knew what collective trauma meant and hence she always argued against the need for aggression. She was the person who said, “the war should end, and then we’ll decide what to do”.
It was not until when a Russian land missile smashed into their house next door, and the house where she lived in Kharkiv, Ukraine shook while her family took shelter from artillery fire, that something changed in Maria. “All of a sudden, I understood that there are things that are so important. They are so important for everybody that yes, unless the war is fought to the end, it doesn’t make sense to stop,” she shares during a recent Unrehearsed Futures (Season 3) conversation. “I never knew that I would actually say the words that we have to continue fighting like this.”
Dramaturgical understandings of a war
In a world where information is never neutral and a war of propaganda going on, we paused to examine the dramaturgy around it, taking the ongoing war in Ukraine for context: Who is saying what? What is the message that people are trying to communicate with it? What does one’s spectatorship entail and what are its outcomes?
When this conversation took place, we were on Day 71 since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Maria, and her partner Sandro Garibashvili, an actor, teacher and filmmaker, had fled Ukraine in March and finally landed safely in Lithuania on the Baltic coast.
The narratives coming out of western media reporting on the war was such that it would make a non-Ukrainian reading the news feel depressed about the “sad reality”. In an interview earlier in the day, General Richard Dannatt, the former chief of the general staff of the British army in early 2000s, said, “This is a tragedy that’s unfolding in front of our eyes. […] The sad reality is that at some point, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, there will be some form of general ceasefire and the war will stop where it is. [The Russians] won’t leave of their own free accord. And no one is going to throw them out.”
From a dramaturgical point of view, this comes across as a dysfunctional tragic form where Ukraine is brave, but helpless. Russia is stronger, and the West is feckless. When the war began, Maria and Sandro were in Kharkiv, a cosmopolitan city that borders Russia. “Most of the city didn’t believe that the war was going to happen,” she shares. “And then during first week, when we were still there, we still expected very strong actions from the Western Allies. We thought the war would be over quickly, because the Western world will not allow that to continue for a long time.”
At some point, Maria recalls, they began realizing that Ukraine might be left alone, that help was not on its way. That’s when she and her partner Sandro decided to move out of the country with their children. They became spectators to the war happening in their own country. They chose to support, in any form, those who had stayed back to fight for their country.
Colliding with propaganda
What they also began observing the parallel realities that was being created with propaganda messages. “It’s a scary notion, but we don’t live in the same reality anymore,” she says. “Ukrainians live in the reality of the war, which is real and scary, and is killing tons of people. Russians are living in a reality where there is no war. It’s mind blowing, but they don’t think it’s a war. They think it’s a small military operation that is supported by the people from inside. Their reality is about scary Ukrainians who are Nazis, and our reality is about scary Russians who are Nazis.”
It is a strange collision. Countries with military might are not offering much military help, yet on the Ukrainian side, there is constantly a narration that they’re getting weapons. “Well, not now. Maybe not in a week. Well, maybe not next week, but in two weeks; we’re constantly ‘getting weapons’ but it’s not true. The weapons aren’t coming,” says Maria.
Going back to the ceasefire General Dannatt mentioned in his interview, Maria says that for Ukrainians who have been fighting the war for more than two months, a ceasefire is not a hopeful message. “A ceasefire means that we will be capitulating to Russia, and we’ll become a satellite of this huge state. We will just end as the country, as a democracy, as people. We won’t exist,” she adds. “A ceasefire means that humanitarian corridors will be open, and people will start to flee. Nobody talks about that.”
While dissecting the narrative around the war, Sandro adds that while negotiations are taking place between the two countries, “there’s less and less people that actually believe or support them, because at this point, we’re just dealing with a blatantly aggressive force whose purpose is very clear.” He believes the only fruitful outcome of this war would be to witness the collapse of the “Soviet monster” from inside. “That is the only real outcome that Ukraine will settle for: pushing them back to the boundaries of before their invasion of Donbass and Crimea.”
“We knew from the beginning that there was no outcome except Ukrainian victory for us. It never changed. We never thought about peace talks. We’re dealing with the enemy who never says anything straight,” Maria also asserts.
Being a spectator when her own country is at war, is tiring. Every morning she wakes up, Maria admits that she is afraid to ask, ‘What’s next?’ “That moment in the morning is so painful because you don’t know what has and will happen. You don’t know how many people, again, have been bombed the previous night and early in the morning. There is always a hope, you know, that maybe something has happened. Maybe the Kremlin is on fire. Maybe, we have constantly moved towards the Russian border.”
What saves her and Sandro from the anxiety of being a spectator is constant action; a spectator can participate in different ways, whether it is raising attention to the issue or donating directly to a cause, helping somebody get evacuated or helping someone to be fed or housed.
“By not doing anything, you’re probably contributing to the other side,” believes Sandro.
When the war began, the theatre-makers duo decided to write personal letters to Russian politicians, especially those who were more democratic than others. But they reached their breaking point when they saw the Bucha massacre, where Russian armed forces killed and abused Ukrainian civilians and buried them in mass graves.
“We realized that the Russians couldn’t do anything. We understood that the only thing they have is to run away,” says Maria, and acknowledges that there are many Russians who are being partisan in their own country, albeit clandestinely.
“We don’t think that Russia needs to be like bombed till its empty,” she explains. “We think that there are just like us. Even though we’re bombed and killed and tortured, we have it easier on the moral side, because we are in a clear place; we’re fighting with evil. They are haunted by guilt constantly. They talk about it; they write about it. They have this huge guilt and shame, because they are a part of the monster right now. So, that’s where it’s easier for Ukrainians than Russians. It’s true.”
We live in an era of fake news and deep fakes created by creative agencies who seek pure drama. In these murky waters, how does a spectator who is far removed from the reality of war know which parts of what is being shown on screen is true and which is false? “How do I judge what is really happening if I constantly being lied to?” asks Maria. “We have people who listen to Russian propaganda, the older generation. It’s the case that our parents, or at least my parents, listen to Russian propaganda. This is closer to them, to the structure. They are Soviet people. So, those, who supported the Soviet Union, still listen to Russian propaganda because Russia for them is a continuation of Soviet Union.”
As the conversation comes to an end, Sandro reiterates that the ongoing war is a “transpersonal aggression of an enormous proportion”, a dominating force that can torture and brainwash people for greed. “The intuitive feeling that you get from being in a war zone is that you don’t matter, as a human being. Nobody takes you into account. There are no regular laws or structures of society that work. It’s really moment to moment, person to person,” he describes. For spectators, a way to address such moral anguish would be to take some sort of action, take a position because there are powers at play.
Compiled and written by Phalguni Vittal Rao
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