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Sasha Dovzhyk on Depicting Donbas: Creative and Critical Responses to the War in Ukraine

Sasha Dovzhyk recently completed her PhD in English and Comparative Literature. She is now a Wellcome Trust-funded postdoctoral researcher at Birkbeck School of Arts exploring the tropes of disease in the arts of Decadence. 

Poets and writers, theatre directors and performers, documentary photographers, historians, and literary scholars: the participants of the symposium Depicting Donbas (25–26 April) represented a truly cross-disciplinary congregation. What united them was the recognition of the ongoing war in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine, essential for their creative practice and academic work. They were invited to London by the symposium’s organisers, Molly Flynn (Birkbeck) and Uilleam Blacker (UCL SSEES), to advance our understanding of the European war which has already taken 13,000 lives. As we mark five years since the annexation of Crimea and the launch of Russian military campaign in Donbas, this symposium could not but be more urgent.

The programme of the symposium reflected the breadth of the participants’ backgrounds. It comprised three events: a reading by three award-winning Ukrainian writers Iryna Shuvalova, Olena Stiazkhkina, and Iryna Starovoyt on 25 April at UCL’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies; daytime panel discussions at Birkbeck School of Arts and evening performances from the Theatre of Displaced People on 26 April at the Birkbeck’s Centre for Contemporary Theatre.

The first panel examined theatrical and cinematic representations of the war. Georg Genoux, the co-founder of the Theatre of Displaced People and one of the filmmakers behind the Berlinale award-winning School #3, discussed his experience of volunteering and engaging with children in war-torn territories. Playwright and screenwriter Natalia Vorozhbyt and the military medic turned theatre maker Alik Sardarian both spoke about their involvement in documentary theatre forms and changing perceptions of society at war. Olesya Khromeychuk (Kings College), a historian researching the participation of women in military formations during the Second World War and in the ongoing conflict in Donbas, gave a paper on the current militarisation of Ukrainian society. With remarkable candour about her personal investment in the topic, Khromeychuk also talked about putting her experience of war and loss into her play All That Remains which she staged with Molodyi Teatr London in 2018.

From left to right: interpreter Olena Mankovska, writer and historian Olena Stiazhkina, and literature scholar Uilleam Blacker

Two middle panels of the day were dedicated to the literary echoes of the Donbas war. The historian and writer Olena Stiazhkina (History Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) is one of the most powerful Ukrainian voices speaking for the displaced people. Stiazhkina talked about those forced to leave the Russia-occupied region, as well as those who had no choice but to remain in Donbas. The theme of remembrance links her work with Uilleam Blacker’s research which is centred on the questions of cultural memory in Ukraine. Currently a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Iryna Shuvalova spoke about the issues of identity and othering as seen through the prism of war songs spread via social media. Such material, valuable through its wide and immediate distribution, demonstrates how certain vocabulary, images, and memes are used to signify different values by people on different sides of the front line. Iryna Starovoyt (Ukrainian Catholic University) sought to situate the war within Ukraine’s late-20th and early-21st century history and reflect on how the war would impact future historical developments in the country.

I was honoured to chair the final panel of the day which brought together visual narratives from Crimea and Donbas. Emine Ziyatdinova, the documentary photographer now based in London, has captured the annexation of Crimea through the lenses of her family history. Born in Uzbekistan, where her family was deported from Crimea in 1944 by Stalin’s regime, she grew up as a part of the Crimean Tatar indigenous minority in post-Soviet Ukraine. Today, Crimean Tatars are forced to relive their people’s history of repressions as they are subjected to arrests and persecutions by the occupying Russian authorities. Anastasia Vlasova is a Ukrainian documentary photographer living in Kyiv who has covered the EuroMaidan Revolution, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 near Donetsk. Within her striking photographs from Donbas, raw images of war sit next to gentle depictions of teenagers living in the grey zone near the front line. Vlasova and Ziyatdinova’s projects give visibility to vulnerable and often marginalised characters whose stories would otherwise be lost within the larger picture of Europe’s forgotten war.

In the evening, an audience of more than fifty viewers watched two documentary theatre pieces performed by the Theatre of Displaced People. Natalia Vorozhbyt, whose plays have been staged across Europe and the US including several commissions from both the RSC and the Royal Court Theatre, brought out the story of a Kyiv playwright’s research trip to the front line, painful entanglement with her heroic military consultant, and ‘all the love a sly writer’s heart can muster’. The videos of everyday life in the war zone punctuated her Monologue No. 1 as piercing reminders that the sore stage piece was, indeed, a document, and Vorozhbyt was living through it again for our benefit.

Alik Sardarian performing his autobiographical monologue Product with Christopher Wray

‘The work of a military medic isn’t really how people think it is’, claimed the military medic Alik Sardarian in his piece Product. ‘It’s more just hard work, physically and morally. You carry things, move people around, take their clothes off, wash them. Probably the most difficult to imagine in this kind of work is calling the relatives of someone who’s died’. Standing in front of foreign academics and theatre goers most of whom hadn’t heard about the war in Ukraine for years, Sardarian was recalling and showing recordings of the scared people who carried their wounds to his medical unit, praying, crying, and struggling to survive.

The Depicting Donbas symposium accommodated a polyphony of voices and ideas, stimulating a fruitful exchange across languages, geographies, cultural forms, and genres. The accomplishment of the organisers who have conceived and stitched together such a diverse programme should become a new bench mark for this kind of event.

Depicting Donbas was made possible with support from Birkbeck Research Centres Collaboration Fund, UCL Octagon Small Grants, Birkbeck School of Arts Strategic Research Fund, Birkbeck Centre for Contemporary Theatre, Birkbeck Research in Aesthetics of Kinship and Community, and Birkbeck Institute for Gender and Sexuality.

We will carry on the conversation of the Russo-Ukrainian war, annexation of Crimea, and human rights in the region on 21 May. Join us for the screening of The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov, followed by a panel discussion with Molly Flynn (Birkbeck), Olesya Khromeychuk (Kings), Rory Finnin and Josephine von Zitzewitz (Cambridge).

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