Why Serebrennikov is not a Dissident
– our Protest Explained
On Saturday, 03.12, at the Thalia Theater Hamburg, the premiere of the “Viy” by Kirill Serebrennikov in co-production with Ukrainian Bohdan Pankrukhin took place. By the description, the play is inspired by the work of the same name by Ukrainian Mykola Gogol and tries to reveal the issues of war, propaganda, and suffering.
Together with Vilni_De_Ua and the Ukrainian community in Hamburg, Vitsche e.V. protested before the premiere, calling to stop the spreading of russian propaganda in Germany, to stop the appropriating of Ukrainian culture, and not to blur the lines between the victim and the aggressor.
Serebrennikov’s defenders, including Thalia’s intendant Joachim Lux, believe that the Ukrainian community did not understand the situation, did not watch the performance, and accused all russians just because they are russians. Is that so?
Even in the performance description, Serebrennikov states the questions around which his piece unfolds: a state that sends thousands of its citizens to death, an opportunity to take away the life from another person, justification of war. Already here, he outlines his primary motive, beloved by the German public: the anti-war performance. The russian dissident came to Germany to say that the war is terrible. Eureka!
Why the play should not be shown (from our perspective):
Giving space and voice to someone who supports Kremlin enablers
Is Serebrennikov a dissident?
Europeans who finance Serebrennikov’s performances and residencies or support his art usually believe he is a dissident. In particular, theater director Joachim Lux defends Serebrennikov and talks about German dissidents during the Second World War. He equates the director with Thomas Mann, appealing that good Germans rebelled against the regime even in those days and were accepted in other countries. But he forgets that Thomas Mann was not a friend of Goebbels and did not ask to lift sanctions from Hitler’s supporters. At the same time, Serebrennikov is a friend of “father of putinism” Surkov, and asks for the lifting of sanctions from Abramovich, who has many economic and friendly ties with the russian regime.
Furthermore, Serebrennikov was receiving money from the russian state till 2016 and was strangely released from house arrest a month after the full-scale invasion.
This year, Serebrennikov also announced the upcoming film “Limonov.” Eduard Limonow was a russian right radical who founded the National-Bolshevik Party with Dugin (an
ideologist of racism) in 1993. In an interview in 2014, when asked how he would act in putin’s place, Limonow answered the following:
“I would include in russia those regions that will surely take root there: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Mykolaiv, Odesa, and maybe I would consider whether to take Dnipropetrovsk or not. The fact is that you need to hurry and take everything you can before Ukraine joins NATO. And Ukraine will definitely join NATO. After the accession, to reunite the Ukrainian regions with russia, it will be necessary to fight with NATO specifically. Therefore, you need to hurry now.”
Why does Serebrennikov choose an openly imperialist like Limonov as his movie motive and calls him a dissident? What impression of Limonov does he want to convey to the world? In the newest publications about the movie and character, Limonov’s role as co-founder of a radical right-wing party is completely neglected and he is rather portrayed as a mysterious rebel. Yes, Limonov was against putin – as putin was not radical and imperialist enough for him. Does Serebrennikov want to create sympathy for one of russia’s leading anti-Ukrainians?
Cultural appropriation in “Viy”
The russian theater director uses works of Ukrainian culture to justify representatives of his culture, which developed by suppressing others. The use of Gogol as a representative of russian culture reinforces the idea of Gogol as russian created by the empire. Although he was simply a Ukrainian writer who lived under the conditions of the russian Empire.
He also appropriates the song Plyve Kacha – which is very important for Ukrainians: it is a song that became a symbol of the Revolution of Dignity and the Heavenly Hundred – those people who died during this revolution in 2013-2014. The use of this song in the scene with the russian soldier is completely cynical. At the time of genocide against Ukrainians, one must be an ardent imperialist to have the audacity to use the cultural heritage of the victim to justify the aggressor.
We want to emphasize that our position is not that no one except Ukrainians should be able to use Ukrainian culture for their creative works. Our point is that, especially in times of war, until justice prevails and the guilty are punished, citizens of the aggressor state should not have the right to appropriate Ukrainian culture to create empathy for russian soldiers.
The aestheticization of war, suffering, and death
The scenes of Viy’s stand-up during the play with a dramatic presentation of real war photos in a slideshow leads to an aestheticization of violence by presenting real war experiences while acting. The violence happens in real-time while the performance is going on. An example is the visual element of red nails throughout the play, which hints at the picture of a woman who russians killed in Bucha. Her nails were painted red.
The massacres in Bucha happened in March and April this year, and witnesses may very well be sitting in the audience. This aestheticization blurs the boundaries between good and evil, between acceptable and forbidden.
Blurring the boundaries between the victim and the aggressor
From the very beginning of the play, when Ukrainian brothers beat a russian prisoner and contemplate how best to mock and kill him, the distortion of the victims and aggressors of this war begins. The Ukrainian military appears with the characteristics of the russian occupiers because they are ascribed thoughts and behavior that are usually embodied by the russian military in this war.
So we see how in the play, the Ukrainian family takes the place of the aggressor and decides the fate of the russian soldier. Although, in fact, now russians and russian soldiers are destroying the destinies of Ukrainians because they are the aggressors of this war, and they have every opportunity to stop it.
This story develops even further. This constant silence, intimidation, and trauma of the russian soldier provoke sympathy throughout the play. There are monologues of his mother and wife, which show an absence of sympathy towards the soldier and the will only to use him for money. Serebrennikov finds an excuse for the mother and the wife: they are unhappy and partially washed by propaganda, but most importantly – poor, from terrible living conditions, they had no other hope and opportunity. The regime is to blame for everything.
The equating of aggressor and victim reaches its peak in the scene with Viy. According to Serebrennikov, Viy is the personification of war itself, the cause of all the suffering and desolation it carries with it. Of course, Viy appears to be a Ukrainian father who has lost everything. When Viy opens his eyes, representing the eyes of war – the Ukrainian family and the russian soldier are united by common sadness. This is how the victim and the aggressor are brought together, combined.
The play ends with a monologue by the russian soldier who realizes what he has done, cries, and repents, inserting sentences that justify him in the eyes of the often “pacifist” Germans.
It is easy to read the main idea of the play: war is bad, bad for everyone. Ukrainians and russians are just fraternal peoples who clashed in this war, which has no meaning and destroys everything. This is all putin’s war, and the russians are not to blame. russian soldiers are poor silent victims about whom no one speaks.
We fully disagree with this depiction: the aggressor is not the victim.
Advancing the narrative of brotherly nations
The reading of Romeo and Juliet – and the courtship game from the Ukrainian girl to the russian soldier – is a direct reproduction of the narrative about loved ones who are now at loggerheads. In the end, when Viy takes off his glasses and they all stand together – the russian soldier seems to be accepted back into the family, and the Ukrainian woman in the play kisses him, as well as the other family members.
Manipulation of words and good intentions
After the performance, the following phrase is heard in three languages: “Refrain from the applause in memory of all those who suffered from this war.” What war? It is not specified. But it definitely indicates that “all” suffer from the war, including russian soldiers. Victims and aggressors are not specified, and one leaves with the impression: all of them are victims, while the aggressor is not named directly.
So why is this play spreading propaganda in Germany:
Under the guise of an anti-war play that condemns war as a phenomenon, Serebrennikov sold the European public the idea that everyone is a victim of this war. This is one of the narratives of russian propaganda, the purpose of which is to remove responsibility from russian society and soldiers, lead to the simplification of sanctions and the opening of visas for russians, increase the financing of their projects, and continue cooperation.
We remind you that this is not putin’s war. putin is supported by about 79% of russian residents, and it is not yet known how many russians abroad support him. These residents work, pay taxes, drop bombs on residential areas of Ukrainian cities, plan attacks on infrastructure, rape, and torture local residents in the occupied territories. They go abroad, and some of them attack Ukrainians in the streets or paint walls with Z graffiti. Of course, war does not make anyone happy, but this does not mean that the victims should stand on an equal footing with the aggressors. After all, it is in the hands of the aggressor and those who support his activities with their actions – to stop the war at any moment.
In the play, the russian soldier is an unhappy person, from a terrible family, from poverty. Therefore, one should feel sorry or understanding for him and his family. Moreover, since the Ukrainian brothers in the play were even more actively aggressive than the captured soldier, and their father was the evil Viy, the image conveys that Ukrainians are those who want war and are the aggressors. The ice on which Serebrennikov walks in the play is rather thin.
Of course, it is beneficial for russia if its European partners put pressure on Ukraine and it starts negotiations on favorable terms for russia. And precisely for this reason, the narrative of the innocence of all but the regime and the commonality of russians and Ukrainians is spread in various ways. Serebrennikov’s performance is just part of this line of argumentation.
And the last:
Another remark about the Ukrainian community by defenders of the russian director: “Ukrainians do not understand, are too emotional, and confuse emotions with politics.”
We will ask these people who are not from Ukraine to stop patronizing Ukrainians and learn to listen to and speak with us, not about us.
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