Thursday 25 January 2024

Volodymyr Zelensky’s Theatre of Nightmares

If you need to, then look up Andrey Kurkov:

The other night I found it hard to sleep. Not because the heating was turned off in our Kyiv apartment – we have plenty of warm blankets and the outside temperature had risen from -15°C to 0°C.

Of course, when you cover yourself with a layer cake of three to four blankets, their weight presses on you and it becomes difficult to turn from side to side – but you sleep warm! Yet that night, even the warmth from several blankets did not help me fall asleep. Earlier in the evening my wife and I went to the theatre to see a play based on Tennessee Williams’ novel The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone. I did not like the performance. But I watched it to the end, especially since we had bought the last two tickets the day before. The theatre was sold out and at the end of the performance the entire audience gave a standing ovation. Eventually, I had to get up too. I looked at the happy faces of the actors and felt the enthusiasm of the audience around me. As they continued to applaud, I tried to understand: what was happening? It was a tritely staged play about the love adventures of a rich American woman in Rome after the Second World War, about Italian aristocrats impoverished by the war, forced to become gigolos or beggars. At the end of the play, one of the heroines, an old Italian countess, utters an essentially anti-American monologue, from which it is clear that she is a supporter of Mussolini and cannot forgive the Americans for the defeat of fascist Italy.

The next morning started as usual. I checked the report of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on my phone. I read about 20 destroyed enemy tanks, 35 exploded infantry fighting vehicles, 19 artillery installations that will no longer fire at the positions of the Ukrainian army, and, of course, about 920 enemy soldiers killed on the front line during the past 24 hours – including the time I spent in the theatre. Then I drank coffee and watched several recent videos from the front in which Ukrainian drones blow up Russian fortifications and dugouts. Videos like this are like a second cup of coffee. They invigorate and inspire hope of better things. Do I believe these daily reports about the successes of the Ukrainian army? Yes and no. I want to believe them, but I understand that they are also propaganda. The purpose of these messages is to maintain the morale and the spirit of Ukrainian society. I cannot verify how many Russian tanks were actually destroyed by Ukrainian forces. Neither do I know how many Ukrainian soldiers died yesterday, nor how many tanks the Ukrainian army lost. All the Ukrainian army’s losses will remain a military secret until the end of the war. But the fact that the front line practically does not move suggests that the Ukrainian army is standing firm, defending the free territory of Ukraine.

After reading the latest statistics on enemy losses, my thoughts returned to the previous night’s performance, or rather to the theatre itself. I remembered how several famous actors from various Ukrainian theatres had been mobilised into the army and that, in recent months, they had died at the front. I remembered that due to the mobilisation of a leading actor, one theatre was forced to remove from its repertoire a play in which the actor had the starring role. I don’t think that play will be performed again for a long while – the lead actor has been killed. I remembered that in the credits of most new Ukrainian films certain names are surrounded by florid frames, indicating that they have died. These dead actors, directors and sound engineers must be counted on two lists of losses: to the Ukrainian army and to Ukrainian culture.

These thoughts provoked a feeling of guilt in me. I regretted that I did not join the applause of the audience. It was necessary to clap and shout “bravo”, if for no other reason than the fact that the theatres are still working, that the cultural life in a warring country continues and gives respite to those Ukrainians who are not at the front or under fire. On average, Kyiv is shelled once a week, although alarm sirens sound in the city every day. But when they don’t sound, city life seems normal. Theatres and cinemas are full of people. New art exhibitions are opening. Young people are rushing to rock concerts, often featuring militant and patriotic songs. Live jazz can be heard in Kyiv’s bars and restaurants and even on the street.

In the theatre that my wife and I saw the play in, there is a “theatre” bomb shelter – an underground hall with a stage in which you can watch performances even during an air raid. Probably, performances about the current Russian aggression are best suited for this underground hall. Quite a few such performances have already taken place, but I don’t want to go to them. I have enough of the real war in the reports from the general staff.

Events in the theatre of military operations are much more dramatic than any play about war. Ours is a front line more than 600 miles long. It is the whole of Ukraine, as Russian missiles and drones reach the western borders of the country and sometimes even fly into Polish territory.

The producer of this theatre is President Volodymyr Zelensky. The director is the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian army, General Valery Zaluzhny. From time to time, Ukrainians are troubled by rumours that these two do not get along, and then some politician or representative of the president’s office appears on TV to reassure the people, claiming that everything is in order, that everything is under control, that all branches of state and military authority are working together – together and in harmony.

In an end-of-year “trust-rating” poll, Zelensky took first place among Ukrainian politicians with 77 per cent. In 2022, his rating was even higher at 90 per cent. Zaluzhny’s name was not included in the survey as he is not a politician. But in another trust-rating survey, he received 88 per cent, while the Ukrainian armed forces reached 96 per cent.

While the popularity of the commander-in-chief may be irksome for Zelensky, it does not pose a political danger to the president. Since it was decided that it would be impossible to hold previously scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine during the war, support for Zelensky as president remains fairly stable. Indeed, there is no real alternative to him in Ukrainian politics today. He is criticised by the same 20-25 per cent of the population that did not vote for him in 2019. The rest of the voters are more likely to express support for the president and ignore the mistakes he might make.

The word that has dominated our lives over the past two months is “mobilisation”. For most people, this word triggers terrible fear and anxiety and is heard hundreds of times a day.

Ukrainian generals say that 500,000 people must be urgently drafted into the army to replace the wounded and killed. The Ministry of Finance complains that there is no money in the budget to dress, equip and arm that number of new soldiers. Parliament has been struggling to formulate a new law on mobilisation that they can all agree on, and which would ensure that the mobilisation procedure occurs in a more civilised way. But there is no law yet. And therefore, mobilisation continues to be carried out using “Soviet methods”. Highway checkpoints are used to hand out military registration and enlistment papers to drivers and passengers in their cars. Sometimes, restaurants and fitness clubs are blocked and all male clients between the ages of 27 and 60 are checked to see if they have already registered for military service. If they have not, they get a summons.

The men who receive this will not necessarily go to the military registration and enlistment office the next day like obedient subjects. Some of them may rush to the western borders of Ukraine and try to leave the country by whatever means they can: swimming across the river, walking through the Carpathian Mountains, by train with false documents. Border guards catch people doing this every day. Already, about 20 Ukrainian men have drowned attempting to swim across the Tisza river, which separates Ukraine from Hungary and Romania. Tens of others have frozen to death in the Carpathians while trying to get into Romania. Over the past two years, border guards have prevented more than 15,000 men of military age from leaving. But still, a much larger number of Ukrainians have managed to escape from the warring country. They knew who to pay and they had enough money.

Around 700,000 Ukrainians liable for military service have crossed the border since the war began on 24 February 2022. This is more than the number of Ukrainian soldiers at the front. These male refugees are not coming home any time soon. Germany, Poland, Estonia and other countries have stated that they will not deport them back to Ukraine. Moreover, many of these men have been able to reunite with wives and children who left their country at the very beginning of the war. “We can’t force them to come back,” Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, admitted to the press.

This means that those who remain in the country will be asked to fight instead of those who left. Many firms and factories are now complaining about a shortage of employees. “There is no one to work in our printing house,” my Ukrainian publisher Olexander Krasovitsky said recently. “Almost everyone has been drafted into the army. This makes it almost impossible to plan a book release date right now.”

Some business owners hide their employees from military registration and enlistment offices and allow them to sleep at their workplace. This ploy may work in cities, but in rural areas, where communities are smaller, all those eligible for military service are in plain sight. There, hiding from military service is considered a shameful activity. For the most part the men don’t hide, and when they are given summonses, they obediently go. They are first taken to training camps, and then along bad, broken roads to the front line.

In all regions where there are military operations, roads are high-risk areas. They are often set with explosives. Russian special-force units are mining roads in territories controlled by the Ukrainian army; Ukrainian military are mining roads in territories controlled by the enemy. Explosions occur all over the place. As a result, there are hundreds of burned-out vehicles on the roadsides, military and civilian.

In 2017 these roads in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine attracted the attention of one of Ukraine’s foremost playwrights, Natalia Vorozhbit. She wrote the play Bad Roads, which is now performed around the world, including at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I have not yet seen this play. But I will go as soon as a performance of it is on in Kyiv. And, even if I don’t really like the production, I promise to join a standing ovation.


  1. There are fighting age Ukrainian men all over Britain.

  2. The New Statesman turning into Counterfire or the Morning Star.

    1. It has more left-wing roots, and even ongoing connections, than would ordinarily be observable at first glance.