Pavel Yurov’s Sloviansk Captivity – “The Theatre of the Absurd”

Larysa Zariczniak, Kyiv

This past year, national identity for millions in Ukraine has been transported into the forefront of their personal understandings. It is also the paramount theme in the interview with Pavel Yurov which I recorded on February 2, 2015 in Kyiv, before the upcoming premier of his “Novorossiya: No One’s Land” workshop in Toronto on February 14.

Yurov was an actor and director before the Maidan and he admits that he did not fully understand the details of Ukrainian politics, in particular the Association Agreement with the EU that Yanukovych was supposed to sign in November 2013. He did not know why all of this was happening. He heard about the Agreement but he didn’t think it could make any radical changes to society. During the peaceful period of the protest he began to understand the implications of the Maidan: the main consumer of art is the middle class. The middle class’ survival meant his survival as an artist. He either had to try to change this dilemma or move.

It was during the violent stages of the Maidan in February 2014 that his own personal identity was challenged. He called himself a “universalist” before the killings but he now understands that this was impossible since one first has to acknowledge their national identity before evolving into a universalist. “If you don’t have your own identity, you can’t have a universal identity…I now identify myself as a nationally conscious Ukrainian although I’m actually ¾ Russian.” By February, he became emotionally involved with the Maidan.

In April 2014, he went to Donetsk to see for himself what was happening there because he did not believe the media coverage of it. On the way back to Kyiv, he and Denis Hrishchuk stopped in Sloviansk, waiting for a connecting train. They decided to walk around the occupied city. While in a café having lunch, they got into an argument with a local woman over who exactly the ‘occupants’ were: Russians or Ukrainians. At that point in the interview the issue of identity was presented again. How did the locals see themselves?

He admits that the argument was a heated one because he and Denis were on the Maidan and saw the protest. He was angry because “our local, native region is not aware of that nor are they sharing this revolution even though everyone there didn’t even like Yanukovych.” He explains that the people there were particularly against the February political takeover and wanted to wait until the 2015 elections to oust him from power (not understanding that a fair election was probably not going to happen). When they left the café, they were taken to the Sloviansk SBU building and then to the local police station.

While in prison, he and Denis shared the cell with two other people. One of those was a local student studying in Kyiv who was taken only because he passed by the SBU building. The other one was from Vinnytsia and was a member of the Maidan Self-Defence (he came to Sloviansk with two members of Pravyj Sektor who were murdered). This example shows the chaos of the situation on the ground which persists in the Donbas even today.

The separatists’ own identity was also based more on fear of the Pravyj Sektor and the “fascist junta” in Kyiv rather than any national identification. Yurov, for example, states that there was one guard who was trying to persuade him toward that there is no Ukrainian, Belorussian or Russian identity but rather only the Slavic one – there could not be a national identification but rather a pan-Slavism that would then be able to liberate other Slavic nations from the liberal, democratic and capitalist ideology. Another guard was “a complete Nazi.” Yurov also indicates that the guards used drugs which amplified their phobias and illusions (many of which often were in opposition with their previous ones). Yurov describes this experience as the “theatre of the absurd and cruel”.

Yurov escaped on July 4 which makes him laugh since it’s so symbolic to Americans. When the Ukrainian army surrounded Sloviansk, the separatists fled and during the night he was released from his cell by his neighbour in captivity (when the separatists left the building, they left his door open). Yurov’s friend Denis then opened the rest of the cells. His escape is another example of the surreal experience of the pro-Russians: the same key was used for each cell while the copies of this key were kept in the cell doors.

The reading that Yurov is presenting in Toronto does not focus on his own experience however but rather on the contradictions and absurdities of the “Novorossiya” idea. The reading will explore the separatists and the reality on the streets. He also incorporates Alexander Dugin’s “fascist poetry – it has the structure and text but is purely white race and Russian superiority.” For Yurov, it is scary that this artificial idea has gained such momentum and is killing real people. The reading too revolves around the identification of individuals to a particular ideology.

He admits that he has yet to resolve his own future in the Ukraine-Russian war and that is why he has not been able to incorporate his own experiences into the play: “I have taken some military courses but I don’t know…” Like the rest of the art community in Kyiv, the possibility of going to war hovers over Yurov. He himself knows of many artists that have either joined the army or are active volunteers. However, he does admit that the people have changed after the Maidan – even if it sometimes hard to see in the centre of Kyiv. “The changes that we’re talking about are changes that can’t take place in a short period of time. For me the basic and biggest change is the appearance of being a Ukrainian and being more demanding for oneself and others…And of course, the appearance of the huge volunteer movement.”

“Novorossiya: No One’s Land” will be performed once in Toronto during the Progress International Festival of Performance and Ideas on February 14, 2015. Novorossiya is curated and presented by SummerWorks, created by Pavel Yurov and Anastasiya Kasilova and dramatized by Jonathan Garfinkel. It will premiere at the BMO Incubator on February 14, 2015 at 3:00pm. To get tickets, visit thisisprogress.ca.