Aleksey Yudnikov, Mihail (Misha) Durnenkov, Xenia Peretruhina, Maria (Masha) Sloeva and Uladzimir Ushakou

“I used to be an artist, now I’m a Russian artist” 

Mihail (Misha) Durnenkov, Aleksey Yudnikov, Xenia Peretruhina, Maria Sloeva and Uladzimir Ushakou have all recently relocated to Finland. In April, they gathered in Helsinki to discuss the current global situation. Since the start of the war, the stigma of being Russian has forced the artists to look in the mirror. The five-strong group has been convened by Helena Autio-Meloni, a translator who has spent many years creating links between Finnish and Russian theatre makers. 
My colleagues arrived in Finland in March following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as their work situations were becoming increasingly difficult. All five are scared and worried for their own futures and those of their families. They have all visited Finland in the past, with Xenia and Mihail also working here for short spells. Uladzimir Ushakou was the first to arrive in Finland in January 2022. 
The purpose of our gathering is to gain an insight into their current situation in Finland and their views on their native country and Russia’s war in Ukraine. I asked them how they see the future. 
Xenia says that they have already met other international artists who have settled in Finland, and their experience has been that it is hard to settle in here and get jobs. She adds that these comments were not intended as a criticism against Finland, it’s just that based on the discussions they’ve had, she expects not to have an easy time of it either. 
This made me wonder whether the Finnish theatre scene is ready to receive something it is not expecting or used to? And, conversely, is the onus on the new arrivals to learn how to make theatre in a new way? 
In recent years, new regional centres complete with theatres have begun to emerge in Russia. In Samara, Voronezh and Novosibirsk and in many smaller cities, people have begun creating their own distinctive brand of theatre. In a deft bit of colonial manoeuvring, the Siberian city of Perm was designated a “capital of culture” around 15 years ago. Moscow-based artists arrived in the city with their own creative visions and entrenched them in the local cultural institutions without mandate or endorsement from the local community. The current approach to theatre making has emerged spontaneously and independently in a series of regional centres across the country. Social and political forms of theatre have gained ground, in a direct challenge to a cultural sector that is growing ever narrower and more homogenous. 
And yet, everyone gathered around the table today has their roots in a capital city. Misha and Xenia are from Moscow, while Masha comes from St Petersburg. Although born in Russia, Uladzimir has spent the bulk of his career working in Minsk and Kyiv, and Aleksey has largely worked at the Teatr.doc in Moscow. Unlike smaller towns, large cities have the financial clout to maintain a vibrant cultural scene. Urbanisation has occurred rapidly in Russia, with young people being drawn to the country’s growth centres. Rural areas are losing out, both in economic and cultural terms. 
During our discussion, a consensus view emerged of Russia struggling under the weight of its imperial history. More and more generations of Russians are growing up, and being brought up, with a sense of superiority. What matters now, my five companions all agreed, is rejecting that imperialist mindset. “We need to experience how people live in Finland if we are to understand what the alternatives are. We need to understand what is being presented to audiences and also what is not being presented to them. This is the only way we can offer them something new and unexpected.” 
Uladzimir says he has recently spent a lot of time thinking about something he terms “a theatre of paradoxes”. In his theatre of paradoxes, everyone involved has agency, every participant’s perspective matters. Then the conversation moves on to a different tack. We spend a long time discussing how we have all been brought up in the Russian (or Soviet) theatre tradition where the director reigns supreme and everyone else is expected to submit and follow their lead. 
War is a powerful manifestation of patriarchal culture.
Everyone is surprised when I tell them about Finland’s thriving amateur dramatics tradition. There’s an am dram group in virtually every town and village here, I say. We also discuss Finland’s summer outdoor theatre tradition. So, is it fair to say that theatre defines Finnishness, they ask? The idea that there is an actor inside every Finn is an intriguing one, given our reputation for chilly stand-offishness. 
"War is a powerful manifestation of patriarchal culture", Xenia says suddenly. "When it comes to the sort of methodologies they espoused, there wasn’t all that much to separate Meyerhold, Hitler and Stalin, she argues. Until now, directors have had the power to treat the other artists like playdough, to expect utter malleability".  
The talk moves on to the issue of collective responsibility. My fellow conversationalists have heard that Finnish theatre makers have made conscious efforts to move away from a director-centric approach and to place greater emphasis on collective responsibility. Everyone agrees that this an excellent development. 
Xenia is an established artist, well-known in Moscow and beyond. She says she has, in the past, also sought to consciously create a different kind of theatre that pushes against established boundaries. “We had this group of three artists and a producer. Everyone was very committed and enthusiastic, and we started working on a theatre production together,” she says. “Our approach was paradoxical, arrogant, and I really enjoyed that. It was very much ‘we’re just a bunch of artists, messing about together’. We had so much fun, it was like we were creating a big patchwork quilt together. But after about six months, it started to become clear where our individual strengths lay. The dynamic shifted, and we ended up focusing on our new areas of competence. A year later, I summed up the experience by saying that it probably wasn’t the quickest route to good theatre, but it did make our lives better. This is one possible way to approach theatre making, but it’s definitely a skill that you need to develop!” 
So, what you’re saying is that you’re up for experimentation?” Uladzimir asks. 
Oh absolutely, but the thing is that I’ve spent a lot of time working in a very director-centric theatre. I’m known for my work and my style, I have artistic autonomy, a narrative that I tell production after production that the critics are familiar with. In a director-centric theatre, I follow the director’s lead.” 
Thanks to their many visits to Finland, we’re familiar with Tovstonogov and his set designer Kotchergin, as well as Dodin and Kotchergin or Borovsky and Ginkas and Barhin, who worked together to develop an overall dramatic idea and stage aesthetic where the set design was inextricably linked to the director’s overarching creative vision.  
Yes, there was definitely a time during the Soviet era when this was how it was done,” Xenia says with a sigh. 
But she then revisits what she’s trying to say, explaining that it’s ultimately always about the moment that an idea comes into being, whether it’s three painters that decide to collaborate or any other group of people choosing to work together. Although everyone should be involved in generating the ideas, you still need someone that will bring those ideas together and assume overall responsibility for the joint effort. 
Uladzimir adds that, when he’s embarking on a new project, he always knows from the outset what it is he wants to achieve with it, but when he finds himself working with a new person, it’s vitally important to listen to them too.  It has to be a shared journey, he says. If an actor is blocked and unable to express themselves, the role of the director is to help them open up and find their own distinctive style. Otherwise, the entire production suffers. 
But, ultimately, it’s about talent. Xenia laughs as she describes Aleksey Yudnikov’s one-man show. Titled Nositel (Perfomer), it sees the director tearing his hair out as Aleksey refuses to stick to the script and keeps disappearing off on tangents of his own invention. A huge popular success, Nositel’s premise is that all films have disappeared from the world and the actor is retelling them to his audience. 
While the war is on, everything is in constant flux. We won’t be able to come to terms with our own new situation, until the war is over.
This inspires Misha to talk about Moltšanije na sadannyje temy (which could be translated as Silence As Directed), another audience favourite of Aleksey’s. Directed by Moscow-based avant-gardist Vsevolod Lisovsky, it invites the audience to contribute a theme or name for the play, and the actor then performs it for an hour and a half without using any words. “It is the ideal piece for Aleksey to perform in Finnish! Because I hear he’s on the lookout for new opportunities...”  
How do you see your futures in Finland?
Misha says the war must end. “While the war is on, everything is in constant flux. We won’t be able to come to terms with our own new situation, until the war is over.” 
I used to be an artist. Now, I’m a Russian artist,” Xenia says. 
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that the war will end any time soon. It could keep going, perhaps until 2035 or beyond. On the other hand, this is a war that has been ongoing since 2014 and is now merely gaining momentum. 
Self-flagellation and self-punishment are not the way forward.
Misha said: “I am first and foremost a Russian, then a playwright, artist, human, husband, father, dog owner, refugee, the son of two patriotic parents and so and so on.” 
Have you spoken about your situation with Russians who arrived in Finland before you?  
A little. But our situations are completely different,” Xenia explains. “They’ve never experienced this degree of escalation. We fled Russia, we don’t share the same sense of accountability. People have very different views on what we did. Some people blame us for having left, they call us traitors. We see it differently. We cannot and will not be part of what is happening in Russia right now. And yet we’re constantly dealing with this new reality. Today, for example, I finished a piece of work that required me to set out my views on what has been happening and to discuss the extent to which I myself felt culpable for them. This is a very complex situation..." 
"We have become like a homeless touring company, like Atlantis. It’s like in that film where people are running around trying to salvage bits of their lives that are blowing about in the wind... We’re rearranging our values. What’s important? Is this all just a nightmare? These are the questions that tear at my mind..."  
"People accuse us of being typical Russians, only promoting our own culture because we can’t see anything beyond it. It’s like judgement day is here and we’re being held accountable for our deeds. I used to be just an artist, now I’m a Russian artist. People ask us, how could you have allowed this to happen, what do you think about what’s happened, what are you planning to do to make things right?” 
I think I perhaps need to accept that I find myself in this situation because it is me that needs to change.
Uladzimir says that Misha had an apposite way of describing the situation they find themselves in. He said he feels he’s at once a German and a Jew, a pariah and a tyrant. “I left so I could just be the Jew. Because when I lived in Russia, I was both a German and a Jew in Nazi Germany. Xenia talks about judgement day, but I think I perhaps need to accept that I find myself in this situation because it is me that needs to change.” 
I’ve always been a democrat, but I think I now need to keep a close eye on myself to make sure that I’m not left with that sense of arrogance that comes from living in a country that is a superpower. I’ve created a lot of art, although actually this isn’t just about me, what I mean to say is that in Russia we have produced a lot of art, without sparing a thought for the audience, without seeking connection with the surrounding world.  But there are artists whose output is much more sociable and extroverted, like Boris Pavlovich who has worked with disabled children and adults. Whereas I have just..."  
"Maybe I need to look at myself more closely, because I’m certain that over the years I will have overlooked many of my compatriots who are now out there making war, shooting and raping,” Misha says. 
I’m certain that over the years I will have overlooked many of my compatriots who are now out there making war, shooting and raping.
Masha finally speaks: “I completely understand what you’re saying. All these years, I’ve been working in Ukrainian theatre, not just passively following what’s been going on. I’ve tried to help, I was a producer working with Ukrainian theatres. Take Rimini Protokoll as an example, they had Remote Moscow and Remote Helsinki. We ran Remote Kyiv as a German-Ukrainian collaboration. I’ve also run Ukrainian theatre projects in Germany, we’ve always had lots of shared projects and lectures going on. Now that I’m here in Finland, I keep thinking about what I could do. I’ve volunteered at a support hub set up to help Ukrainians but there must be more. I could give a talk on post-Maidan Ukrainian theatre, raise some funds and donate them to a charity. I can’t imagine there are many people in Finland who’ve seen Ukrainian theatre before. I could remind people about the Ukrainian Cultural Fund that was setup in 2017 to promote Ukrainian culture. It is funded by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and similar to the British Council. Now, with the war on, they’re very limited as to what they can do, and it just hurts me when I think about all this.” 
We all have our own traumas. We will need to demonstrate both patience and mental fortitude. Self-flagellation and self-punishment are not the way forward.” 
I haven’t come across any hostility here in Finland,” Xenia says. “The other day, when I was walking near Taivallahti Church I bumped into a Ukrainian woman completely by chance. When she heard that I was Russian, and spoke Russian, she started telling me about her situation and how she’d fled to Finland. I was very grateful to her, and we’ve agreed to meet again. I’m constantly living in this dual consciousness, and I’m really trying to just stay present in this moment.” 
Everyone says that they would love to explore Finland, see Finnish drama and meet local theatre makers. What matters to them more than anything is the opportunity to see, hear and develop new projects. 
Helena Autio-Meloni 
In the photo from left to right: 
Aleksey Yudnikov, Mihail (Misha) Durnenkov, Xenia Peretruhina, Maria (Masha) Sloeva and Uladzimir Ushakou 

Introducing Mihail Durnenkov, Aleksey Yudnikov, Xenia Peretruhina, Maria Sloeva and Uladzimir Ushakou 

Mihail (Misha) Durnenkov, playwright from Moscow 
Durnenkov (b. 1978) is a playwright, scriptwriter and drama writing tutor. He has written a large number of plays during his career. All of them have been staged in Russia both by independent and state-funded theatres (Moscow Art Theatre, Alexandrinskiy National Theatre, Sovremennik, Satirikon, Taganka Theatre, Gogol Center, Theater.doc, Theater of Mutual Action, Tatar Theatre «Angle») in large cities and small regional towns. 
His plays have also been translated into many languages and performed in England, Scotland, United States, Estonia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, Germany, Finland, Turkey, Ukraine, Sweden, Belarus and Kazakhstan. 
Most of these were based on The War Hasn’t Yet Started, which explores Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 
Xenia Peretruhina (b. 1972), set designer and artist from Moscow  
Peretruhina studied contemporary art and cinema and has worked as a set and visual designer and video artist. As a theatre artist, she has worked in independent and state-funded theatres as well as opera houses. She works actively with festivals supporting the development of contemporary art in Russia, such as the NET festival, Territoria and BRUSFEST. As an artist she has exhibited in Russia and internationally.  
She has received numerous contemporary art awards and been repeatedly nominated for the Golden Mask national theatre prize, winning it in 2013. Her theoretical work encompasses contemporary theatre, and she is the author of a masterclass series and a series of lectures on theatre as an effective tool for improving society. She continues to actively pursue work in this area.  
Peretruhina has also written about theatre and contemporary art, with articles and interviews published in Theatre Magazine, Moscow Art Magazine, Film Studies Notes, colta.ru and many others. 
Uladzimir Ushakou, actor, theatre director and artistic director from Kyiv 
Uladzimir Ushakou is a Belarussian artistic director and founder of the private Modern Art Theater in Minsk, where he served as director for 17 years. 
In 2016, the Belarusian Modern Art Theater began staging performances centered on social and political themes in modern Belarus. In 2018, these performances were designated as undesirable by the Belarussian authorities, who moved to stop performances and close the theatre.  
On January 5, 2021, the theatre was finally shut down by the authorities. Uladzimir Ushakou was forced to leave the country in April 2021. 
Ushakou fled to Kyiv in Ukraine where he has continued his work in the theatre. In January 2022, he became an Artists at Risk (AR)-Resident at AR-Safe Haven Helsinki. 
Maria (Masha) Sloeva, producer and curator, St Petersburg 
A theatre producer, curator and cultural administrator, Maria Sloeva has collaborated extensively with German-speaking and Ukrainian theatres. She produced Rimini Protokoll’s Remote Kyiv and Uzahvati and curated SchAG-6, the latest anthology of modern German-speaking plays published by the Goethe-Institut. 
She has also worked with Access Point, a site-specific theatre festival in St Petersburg and the Vakhtangov Festival for Theatre Managers in Moscow, the largest gathering of theatre producers in Russia. Sloeva is also co-founder of the Xronotope independent theatre company and an ex-resident of the Meyerhold Theatre Centre in Moscow. 
Aleksey Yudnikov, actor, Moscow 
Aleksey Yudnikov (b. 1973) hails from Kyiv. He is a Russian stage and film actor, director and scriptwriter. He graduated from the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS), where he studied acting under Mark Zaharov. Yudnikov’s credits include several “new dramas”, including Lyubov Mulmenko’s Alkonovelly and Maxim Isayev’s Sadovody. 
He has also acted in Sasha Denisova’s Light My Fire at Teatr.doc and was nominated for a Golden Mask prize in 2012. 

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