It sounds like a bunch of crap at this point, that nonsense about the new, evolving country. Of course, it wasn’t crap at the point that I wrote it. I was speaking, like Maksym Kurochkin was writing in his own particular way, about a place that could be, could have been. Max and I were taking at face value an opportunity that history had offered. We were looking toward a place that could be reached, could be achieved, could be found with a bit of effort, some proper thoughts and some hard work. I’m not going to speak for Max here – he can do that perfectly well on his own – but my mistake was underestimating the pull of the past. I had this thing in my head that the pull of the future ought to be greater (and, I still cling to that belief today as the U.S. prepares to go the polls and lurch forward or fall back miserably). My experience in Russia was not a good one. The past won.
The piece below floats a notion that was extremely important to me for many years – that by focusing on language and avoiding stereotypes in our thinking and writing, we can actually help push historical processes forward. It was more than just important, it was a credo. As a critic and journalist I was always adamant about avoiding the knee-jerk language that the vast majority of Western journalists and editors used freely because it was easy to understand. I’m talking about phrases like “post-Soviet.” It was a phrase that immediately put the picture of Russia “today” (whenever that might have been – the 1990s or the 2000s) in the context of a past it was trying to free itself of. I actually wrote a pretty big essay about that once: “The Search for What Might be True: Thoughts From Inside an Era of Change,” in The Russian Experience: Americans Encountering the Enigma, 1917 to the Present, ed. by Choi Chatterjee and Beth Holmgren. (Routledge, 2013). In fact, that essay clearly began with the little blog offered below.
I don’t admit to being wrong in principle, although I have no choice but to admit I was wrong in this particular instance. Try as I might, try as Maksym Kurochkin might have, neither one of us could help Russia find its way out of Russia and the Soviet Union’s tragic past. I’ve often heard Max say something to the effect of, “I expect every one of my plays to change the world. If they don’t, they are failures.” It’s a high bar to set. But I know what he’s talking about. If you don’t have big plans for what you’re doing, why are you doing it? It makes failures of us, and pushes what we think and have created into the realm of Utopian fantasy. I’m not so sure I like that, but one must look the truth straight on. Max has moved back to Kiev, virtually cutting all ties with Russia. I’m on the verge of something similar. We put up the fight. It was a good one, a worthy one. I still buy every word I wrote in this tiny piece, if that makes me a loser, so be it.
Maksym Kurochkin, Russian Drama and the New and Evolving Country of Russia
By John Freedman, posted on the the site of the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center March 23, 2010
Moments before I got up to introduce Maksym Kurochkin at the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center on Monday, March 22, I had no idea what I was going to say. How do you distill an entire era into a three-minute intro? Because Kurochkin is not only a fine playwright, one who has helped to reshape a culture (the theater culture so far, although plans are big for the future…), but he is an emblem of his age of transformation. And then Philip Arnoult gave me an idea.
On stage first, Philip was speaking about a program called New Russian Drama: Voices in a Shifting Age, which his Center for International Theater Development has organized and conducted in tandem with the Department of Theater Arts at Towson University. Over the last three years Philip, I and many others have worked to bring Russian drama to the United States in a major way. That is, we have developed American idiom translations of ten plays by six major Russian writers. We have traveled the United States, lecturing and speaking. We have brought Russian writers and critics to American theaters and universities. Last weekend Philip, Maksym, the respected Russian critic Yelena Kovalskaya and I spoke at the University of Michigan and the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville. We have published articles and play translations in numerous publications, including TheatreForum, Theatre Journal, Yale’s Theater magazine and many others. As a tangible sign of all this activity, Philip and CITD just published a CD containing 26 recent Russian plays in eminently performable English.
When Philip wrote to me a few weeks ago asking for my comments on his intro for the CD, my antennae went up at a phrase he used in his first draft: “post-Soviet.”
I believe strongly that one of the ways people and life change is through language. More than defining our experience, language shapes it. As such I have spent 20 years seeking ways to write about Russia and Russian drama and theater using a new vocabulary. By finding words that are not tied to the past, that are not loaded with knee-jerk reactions among readers and listeners, I hope that I have helped convey in a tangible, visceral way the change that has taken, and is still taking, place in Russia. And so I said to Philip, how about if we junk this “post-Soviet” stuff and find something else to say? He was thrilled. I tossed off a rather clumsy phrase that I thought was just a raw idea, but Philip picked up on it and ran with it: “…the new and evolving country we now know as Russia.”
Yes, it’s clumsy, but so is the country it describes. Most important, however, is that it focuses on the present and allows for a new approach to the future. The past is past, folks. Let’s get on with the present and the future.
And that is where Maksym Kurochkin comes in. He is an artist devoted wholly to transformation. He breaks down cultural barriers in his work. He rubs out limitations of time. Almost all of his plays take place in the future, or in a past that is linked directly to the future. His language is both hip and intellectual. This is not a writer who writes plays according to manuals! He does not fear to throw challenges at his audience. On the contrary, he seeks every opportunity to toss gauntlets at their feet.
During the discussion at the Segal Center, Maksym was asked what he attempts to do with his plays. After searching a moment for an answer, he said, “I want to deprive my audience of tranquility.” (I’m using this opportunity to correct the lousy on-the-spot live translation I offered at the discussion.)
This is not the place to go into a discussion about the art of Maksym Kurochkin. His art is out there for anyone to discover. I encourage you to do so if you are interested in a changing Russia and a changing world. Maksym in his works is telling us what the world may soon be like. His words not only describe a new era, they are helping it to come into being.