Propaganda is anti-art
Mikhail Durnenkov is a playwright and screenwriter, art director of the Lubimovka festival, winner of the Golden Mask Award. He is the author of the plays "The War Has Not Begun Yet", "Utopia", "Victory Day" and others. After February 24, 2022 Durnenkov publicly opposed the war. All contracts with him in Russia were terminated. His plays disappeared from the repertoires of Russian theaters, and even references to Durnenkov's plays were erased from their official websites. In early March 2022, the playwright emigrated to Finland. In September 2022, a case was brought against him for discrediting the Russian army under part 1, article 20.3.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences. Mikhail Durnenkov reflects on the nature of war and the incompatibility of art and propaganda in an interview with Eyewitness February 24.
Tell us about yourself.
- My name is Mikhail Durnenkov, I am a playwright, screenwriter and teacher. I left Moscow with my family for Finland a year ago, and I've been living in Helsinki for a year now.
Did you have a premonition of a full-scale war?
- There was a strong feeling that a real war was coming very close and that it had never been so close. And it was not just mine, but the general feeling that we were about to enter into something so terrible that it would be impossible to rewind. Like "before" and "after." And we're here somewhere, already very close, and it's scary. I remember this feeling: "Have I really lived up to what I've only read about in books all my life" - this thought relentlessly pursued me from '10 to '14, '15, and then the events from the books simply began.
Do you remember what your day was like on February 24, '22?
- I remember that I wanted to get some sleep, because it had been a tough day. I took sleeping pills and had a hard time getting up at 10 a.m. I woke up hard, took my phone, opened my Facebook feed automatically, and there's a friend from Kiev filming some vegetable garden, and something else - driving the phone around. I can't figure out what's interesting there. Some kind of spring dirt. I turn on the sound, and there's a siren. In the evening we went into town. Someone gave me a sign saying "No to War", we walked along the boulevard and people who were 100 meters away started running towards us. It became clear that the boulevard was a very stupid place, because they clamped you on all sides, and that's it, then they just put you in a van. The OMON riot police came, and we moved into the streets, where they were already screwing around in a terrible way. All the streets in Moscow were crammed with trolleys. They took my friend away. It immediately became clear to me that I wasn't going to keep quiet - they were going to lock me up and that was it.
How has your life changed this year?
- Rather, on a personal level, I became more aware of who I was. I had a complete loss of self-identity after the move. Who am I? I was a Russian playwright, and now who am I? And I'm beginning to feel that I can cope. I can manage without the state, I can manage without my country, I can manage without my language. I have the hands, I can do it. This is a new feeling that came after a year.
Why do many Russians support the war?
- They don't support the war, they support a way of life. They support it so that nothing changes. And everyone is different. Someone supports Ukraine with this war, firmly believing that Russian troops are liberating someone there. And some just want nothing to change. Somebody has a mortgage. The main thing is stability, everything else is for later. A man stands on the seabed on his tiptoes, while the water reaches his mouth - this is how 80% of the population of Russia lives. The main thing is that nothing changes, as long as people are happy with everything. Their way of life hasn't changed so much that they start to feel it. There's a war going on out there somewhere. "How did you feel about Finland joining NATO?" "Well, how - we read it in the newspaper." And it's the same with the war. "I want to continue to live the way I lived before. It's at my limit, and I don't want anything to change"-that's the social contract. And if you stretch this process out over many years, you can gradually make life worse. And then he will say: "Oh yes, of course, 20 years ago I agreed that a loaf of bread on Mondays is what I need. And 20 years ago he had a different agreement, it's just that this has gradually changed. Why has some Iran for 30 years been living worse and worse? Because it all happens slowly.
In 2014 you wrote a play called "The War Hasn't Started Yet. Was it inspired by the events in Ukraine?
- In today's Russia, "war" is a figure of reticence. Eight years ago there was no war, and now no one is bombing Ukrainians. There is no war. Therefore the title "War has not yet begun" is ironic. You could have called it "The war has not yet begun. Ha ha." There were a lot of meanings associated with that title at the time. I wrote it in '15, after the annexation of Crimea. And I wrote not only about that war, but also about "war" as a phenomenon of life: between children and parents, between men and women, between passers-by on the street. How it gradually germinates in this reality, becomes real, turns from an inconspicuous war into a real war. Which it did. Now the play's title doesn't work at all anymore. There are other reasons for this war, besides the fact that one man in power has lost his mind. Such phenomena are not so easily explained. It is not only the will of one man that starts a war, it is also supported or silenced by society, passively or actively. This is why I am not interested in one person-it is not interesting for an artist, unlike a social phenomenon, which is interesting to consider, because it is part of me.
What can creative people do to make the war end sooner?
- A Russian artist can, on the one hand, help Ukrainians and, on the other hand, help his fellow countrymen avoid the terror of the police state. There are many things he can fight with his works, such as inhumanization. Let them write about love. In times of peace write about war, and in times of war write about love.
In your opinion, are art and propaganda compatible?
- The artist constructs a world with a variety of colors. Propaganda removes all colors and leaves only two. This is anti-art. So with art you fight against anti-art. What I see, I sing about. That's my enemy number one because art shows that the world is different, that people are different. You can't make everyone into one basket, you can get through to everyone, you can talk to everyone, you can cure everyone or at least lessen their pain. And propaganda simply divides people into ours and yours. Do Ukrainians use propaganda? Yes, very much. You have to draw your strength from somewhere to defend your country. Propaganda is not evil - it's a tool, but also anti-art. When the war is over, when we return to normal human existence, we will have to heal all this, because all the patterns will remain: ours, yours, evil, alien.
Can art change attitudes in Russia?
- Art only heals. And it's a slow process. You can't watch an opera and change your mind about capturing someone or killing someone. It just makes society a fraction of a degree kinder, more tolerant, more human. It's a slow-slow change in society year after year. And the longer there is no war, the more civilized and humane humanity becomes thanks to art, which gradually, gradually changes and teaches to be more tolerant and kinder. And then war suddenly vomits it all out, and we go back a couple of hundred years, and art begins to heal those terrible wounds again. Just as nature overgrows after a bombing, so does art.
Those who left and those who stayed sometimes argue heatedly and blame each other. What's the problem?
- This resentment arises only where there is rebuke. "I dropped everything and left, and you chose comfort and stayed." "Are we comfortable? We can get locked up. You went away to safety, you sit around eating European sausage, and you reproach me for something?" You have to accept people and their choices. I'm unconscionable - I left my parents and someone else couldn't. And I feel my guilt. So it's easy for me to be blamed. What you gain there is incomparable to what you gain here. And the losses are incomparable, too. Here you lose everything - your environment, your homeland, your career, your life. You start from scratch in a country where you will be a stranger for the rest of your life. What's so great about it? Well, you're safe here. And there you're in danger, not feeling the country beneath you, you can't hear it from 10 paces away... But you can in the kitchen with your friends, you can hear it. But you're in an environment, you can fulfill yourself. I don't know how.
Do you long for your homeland in exile?
- Homesickness is like grieving for the dead. Is it even possible to realize in this year that you have lost your homeland? Maybe it's too soon? I'm still, as my mother says, grieving. Longing strikes hard and with a long lash. This kind of conflict will arise when you feel like you belong, but you realize you don't belong. That you will never be your own. The realization that you can spend another 20 years, learn a language, speak with practically no accent, and still not be your own, comes on the long haul. On the other hand, we don't live 100 years ago. It doesn't matter as much where you are anymore, and it doesn't matter as much in what language, because in modern times it's all solved very easily - 100 euros for a plane ticket or Zoom will connect you to anyone in your language.
Why does Putin need this war?
- War is savage, barbaric. No one benefits from it. And the world lives with benefits in mind. Nor does Putin benefit from it. It is barbarism with a touch of stupidity. In the past, war was probably a means of profit, someone could politically make money or something, but that's not how the modern world works. War overthrows and ruins whoever started it, and it has no benefits. It seems to me that those who start a war today are living in the past and trying to bring that past back. This war is a war from the past. The warlords cannot pick up the reasons - every decade the meanings are updated and told to the people, and they are all unconvincing.
Who can influence the end of the war?
- Only people in Russia can affect the end of the war. The Ukrainians can inflict a military defeat, but that does not mean that the war will end. Because Russia can respond with repeated attacks in 5-10 years, for example. And attack every 10 years until the end of time, or until something changes inside.
Will Russia change if Putin is suddenly gone?
- If it becomes possible to change, that's already a cool thing. Right now there is no possibility, but afterwards there will be. Purely theoretically - and that's already great. When was the last time we had the opportunity to change something? I can't even remember. And even if a really scary man in a cap comes along - Pinochet, for example - even then there will be an opportunity. My whole life is connected to Putin, and I really want to see what life is like after Putin. I'm very interested in that.