Thomas Mann’s literary masterpiece Doctor Faustus, which he wrote during his exile in America toward the end of the WWII, concludes with the following words about Germany: “Today, clung round by demons, a hand over one eye, with the other staring into horrors, down she flings from despair to despair. When will she reach the bottom of the abyss? When, out of uttermost hopelessness – a miracle beyond the power of belief – will the light of hope dawn?"
Today Russia, just as fascist Germany in its time, is tumbling into the abyss, and likewise “clung round by demons”. And the question “when, out of uttermost hopelessness – a miracle beyond the power of belief – will the light of hope dawn” touches every human being to the core, regardless of his/her nationality, political views and age.
Perhaps so much propagandist misinformation to justify mass murder and destruction has never been spouted out before. At the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine it seemed that the genetic memory of World War II would intensify the collective feeling of shame in ordinary Russians and would strengthen their resistance to state lies. Far from that! According to independent sociological polls, after twenty days of war as much as 70 percent of Russian population support the military action. Some insightful commentators have already dubbed this phenomenon a “reactive psychosis” and have compared it with the mass psychotic state experienced by German people on the eve of WWII. Even if a part of those polled support the war out of fear, as in fact is the case, this does not essentially change the diagnosis.
The fact of such mass psychosis first of all signifies a catastrophe in culture. In Russia’s case, in the culture the best historic examples of which are profoundly humanist. As one Russian culturologist notes, - “people do not own their words and conscience anymore, because these have long become the property of the state. And this is the finale of the cultural drama of the last three decades.” It is particularly painful for the brightest minds in Russia which, without exaggeration, are comparing their present with the darkest periods of the twentieth century. Ever since the shock of the start of this war they have been searching for answers to the classic questions – who is guilty and what to do? What is more important – truth or homeland?
Today Russian opposition is facing the war declared on “national traitors” by the majority of the people under the influence of the “reactive psychosis”. It is important to realize that this phrase, reminiscent of the ghosts of the past, was not spontaneously born in people‘s heads. It has been planted there like a seed into tilled soil by the dictator himself. State-sanctioned terror which transcends the boundaries of reason emerges out of the psychosis mixed with fear. The new Red Guards, who call themselves “national patriots”, can now exact “justice” under the “protection” of the state.
When the Black Spot – the new “Z” swastika – suddenly appears on your front door, when even for a slightest protest one may face up to 15 years in prison, and when a teen-ager holding up her little sign “The Fifth Commandment – Thou Shalt Not Kill” is apprehended with a tacit approval of religious people, the question “what to do?” becomes concrete: how to live in such a country? Numerous citizens leave Russia with it in mind. And those who stay and can not keep silent speak out as they can under the conditions of censorship well aware that they are risking long years of imprisonment. We should first of all understand these people and the despair, shame and horror they are going through before denouncing the ones who leave for defection and demanding more active protests from the ones who stay.
We hear that starting February 24, 2022, the world has come to face a blank page. But this page is not blank, it is filled with historical memory. And the future of the world greatly depends on how this memory is going to be read. On February 24, 1920, the National Socialist German Workers‘ Party was founded.
History also reminds us that there in no “art above politics”. Just like there was none in Germany described by Thomas Mann. Karl Jaspers, the German philosopher, the creator of Existentialism, who stayed in his motherland during the war and never renounced his Jewish wife, remembered in the course of the Nuremberg trials his country’s citizens – clergymen, scientists, researchers, artists – who had wished to remain apolitical. And he stated that all Germans should share the burden of responsibility, because “Every human being together with everyone else is responsible for those who lead them”. Therefore “we all are guilty that the spiritual conditions of the German people allowed such a regime to arise.” This responsibility is perceived not just by Russian intelligentsia but by all Russians protesting against the war. It is also felt by the majority of people in the civilized world who demand some real, non-hypocritical actions from their politicians.
However, it may be too simplistic to draw such historical parallels now - they might look like protective means. Perhaps the concept of a "blank page" is more honest, since it expresses namely what modern humans have not experienced yet, and what they are judging merely from their knowledge of history. We know the outcomes of those historic events, but we have no clue how the present-day events will unfold. And we should be aware of this ignorance. As the Russian film director Aleksandr Sakurov puts it, - “what is going on now is an event no less difficult, deadly and irreversible in terms of its consequences than what went on in Russia in 1917… Now again we’ve done something which just has no name.” And, having no name for it, we keep looking for basic means of safety in some simplest things.
It is interesting how the value of that which is real has grown in the changing world. It is evidenced by spontaneous anti-war demonstrations in different countries and the enormous support for Ukrainian war refugees. People of various nationalities get united by their simple wish to reach out and help as much as possible the victims of this criminal war. Again, as erstwhile, people must look for answers to the basic questions of life and survival in a painfully serious and conscientious way. Maybe this will also somehow influence art in which the post-modernist “brave new world” mentality has established the fashion of total relativity and elitist kitsch? As the world gets united, an enlightening mission directed at the human essence is reborn.
So how should art speak now? Probably quite a few, if not everyone, creating it come to reflect on this. There are no universal prescriptions. However, in the whirlwind of extreme emotions it is important to listen to one‘s sense and conscience.
Everybody’s mind is poisoned by the venom of Russia’s inhuman war against Ukraine. And the first thing theatre should not do is to attempt to imitate images of this war. Bombardments of unarmed Ukrainian civilians, sights of women with children running away from cruise missiles and cluster bombs, footage of families dying next to their homes or in the street because they could not manage to escape, – all this, captured by cameras of reporters risking their own lives and by smartphones of ordinary people, leaves one speechless. These images get etched in our minds and make our hatred for the invaders grow. Hatred impels one to act but it does not enrich artistic creativity.
Also, the reality of people experiencing a humanitarian catastrophe and escaping a war should not be reenacted onstage because that would be a falsehood under the guise of empathy. I have always been against productions about refugees, when actors try to represent their experiences. And the war in Ukraine only underscores the erroneousness of such an approach. We have no idea how to express not just the horror of this war but – most importantly – the genocide of Ukrainians perpetrated by the brotherly Russian nation which is hard to convey in words. Yet we should look for ways to do it. Perhaps they are very simple? And, on the whole, maybe it is time for the twenty-first century theatre that reaches for technological heights to start re-learning some simplicity? To get back to its basics.
Humanist art is a trite concept. In the Soviet era it had an irritating ideological implication. In general, art tends to represent the struggle between good and evil. White against black. No doubt, such are the colours of the war which Russia is now conducting in Ukraine. However, real humanist art uses substantially more colours and hues to express the value of bonds between human beings.
We do not have to look far. Take intonation. It either contains the truth or a lie. Propaganda is always pathetic. Let us listen in how ordinary people in Ukrainian war epicentres relate their experiences. Subduing their emotions and pain. People in arts should hear them. To avoid falsehood. This is not just an issue of aesthetics but of professional ethics too.
One of the greatest theatre visionaries of the twentieth century Antonin Artaud thought that those doing theatre should be similar “to martyrs sending signs from their burning pyres”. Actually, this thought occurs to me as I see the Ukrainian people, together with their president in the front, fighting for their homeland and their liberty. They are sending to the whole world “signs from their burning pyres”. And the fact that the world is changing as it sees this is the source of great inspiration.
But what causes alarm is that along with patriotism, which grows with the heroic Ukrainian resistance to the aggressor, accusations of cosmopolitism are being pulled out of the drawers of memory and hurled at artists. For instance, director Sergei Loznitsa has been expelled from the Ukrainian Film Academy for “considering himself a cosmopolitan, a “citizen of the world”, and this was deemed incompatible with his “national identity”. And there “should be no room for any compromises and half-tones”. For this reason global society “should not regard Sergei Loznitsa as a representative of the Ukrainian sphere of culture”…
Anyone acquainted with Loznitsa’s films, can form his/her own opinion on this artist’s views. To my mind, they are based on his knowledge of history and on his patriotism with humanist ideals. Presently, this one of the most prominent contemporary artists of Ukraine uses of his international connections and, during his various interviews and public speeches, explains to the world the struggle of his motherland and supports it by donating to it the proceeds from his films.
History demonstrates that in extreme situations it is the understanding of patriotism and national identity that causes conflicts first and foremost among people involved in culture. Of course, in time of war anything can be justified for the sake of victory, but it is neither right, nor farsighted to wield the concept of “national identity” as a sword to chop off the heads of those who understand it in a wider sense and act as their conscience tells them to. Because the next stop is the label of a “national traitor”. And no matter how naïve this may sound, but the sense of a common humanitarian cultural field is the only thing that can protect us from this danger.
A. Sokurov: “We know that an army may suffer defeat, a state may suffer defeat. Only culture remains. It will not abandon humans, be it in trenches, or in dungeons, or in bunkers, as long as these humans retain the basic traits of being civilized. Women will stay faithful to culture to the very end. To the very end. They will fight for it we all they‘ve got. Maybe not directly, but intuitively it is culture they will defend. From men, from the state, from idiot politicians. From obtuseness, stupidity, from obtuseness that just has no bounds...“
A quixotic thought, but we may surely try to rely on it.