Book review by Dana Rufolo
(The book has been translated into English by John Freedman, Natalia Bratus, John Farndon, and Evgenia Kovryga.)
The plays in A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War: 20 Short Works by Ukrainian Playwrights (published in 2023 by Laertes Press) have been penned by members of the newly created Theater of Playwrights in Kiev; these plays, most of them monologues, were written quickly in the months following Russia’s attack, in part with the aid of grants from the Philip Arnoult’s Center for International Theatre Development in the USA. The artistic director of Kiev’s new Theater of Playwrights, Maksym Kurochkin, realized that the pre-invasion plays intended for the theatre’s March 12, 2022 debut were inappropriate to the new reality of war, and so he asked the playwrights to write works which could be – and have been – staged in Kiev (three of them, on 24 June 2022) and around the world while the war rages. Directly, spontaneously, 20 playwrights delved into their patriotic emotional responses, going into the past to relive Ukrainian history or remaining in the present to focus on the phantasmagoria of trauma, brutality, and the insanity of bloodlust. Beneath the surface, and grouping all of these plays into a coherent whole, is the authors’ conviction that ever since 24 August 1991 Ukraine has been an independent country with its own legal system, geographical borders, language, traditions, economy, citizens, values – and its own internal issues and problems to solve.
Freedman points out in his introduction that the playwrights represented in this volume are unapologetic in claiming their right to a national literary heritage: “There is no timidity in the writers collected here, no sense of trepidation before a powerful geopolitical neighbor that, for the last 500 years or so, has rarely hesitated to suppress and repress the smaller nation on its western border. The Russian aggression of 2022 unleashed a nearly unbounded fury in Ukrainians. Hundreds of years of Ukrainians seeking more or less quietly, unobtrusively, and diplomatically to find common ground with the dominant Russian culture hit the equivalent of a brick wall when the Russian military breached the Ukrainian border.”
This collection of plays is likely to interest potential directors, actors, performers and researchers. Because many readers of this book review are eager to participate in staging readings of these plays in conjunction with the Worldwide Ukrainian Readings Project – see the database at
– the publisher at Laertes Press, Nina Kamberos, has issued this first 2023 edition of A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War as an acting version, to be followed with a second edition which will be smaller and aimed at readers. Although they are an American publishing house, Laertes Press will mail the acting version to anyone who purchases it regardless of where they live, and the later second edition will be available on Amazon and through other booksellers as well as from bookshops which can order a copy from the international book distributor Gazelle. Each play is copyrighted and requires the permission of Laertes Press to be produced in any form; royalties paid to the publisher will be passed on to the individual playwrights.
In my opinion, these two English language versions – or “iterations” to use the publisher’s term – are not enough: A third iteration is urgently needed, and that one in Russian! All the plays originally written in Russian ought to be left in their original language, and the plays written in Ukrainian ought to be translated into Russian. The first run should number in the tens of thousands, and those volumes ought to be smuggled into Russia and distributed far and wide as a wakeup call to the lot of citizens besotted by fake news.
It is important to read these plays and important to stage these plays in the here and now, not only because they portray ghastly suffering amongt a people who had relaxed into the sense of security and independence that those in the West are wont to feel, but above all because by reading behind the lines on the page into the unsaid, we comprehend that these playwrights have diminished the significance of the personal and the private so as to declare their patriotism. If anything speaks for the genuine national identity of the Ukrainian citizens, it is this rallying around the cause of independence that proves beyond a doubt that Ukrainians are distinct from, if in ways culturally related to, Russia.
Freedman has provided a superb summary and interpretation of each of the plays in this volume; there is no need for me to mirror what he has written. So, I am now going to provide you with occasional comments and particularly poignant quotes from several of these dramas. Since this book review is of the acting version (the first iteration), I can’t discuss the writing of one of the listed playwrights: Yevhen Markovskiy. As Freedman explains, “Markovskiy was in the city of Kherson when it was overrun and occupied by the Russian army in March 2022 ”, and he was out of contact for several long months. Therefore, a blank page in the acting edition signals his missing contribution and the hope for a long- awaited return, which happily has occurred. In February 2023, Freedman heard from Markovskiy; three of his poems will appear in the reader’s edition, iteration two.
In the title play A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War by Olena Astaseva, there are many ironic lines and powerful observations that bring us into a closer understanding of what it means to be caught in war. This quote describes how the narrator, obliged to emigrate, views her new place of residence: “In Europe, everything has a doll-like sensation. As though I have found my way into a fake world filled with toys. The streets, paved with stones, are too clean. The houses are too small, and too beautiful. I stare at these sweet little houses with their panoramic windows. I imagine bombs falling on them, their glass shattering. In Europe, everyone is too relaxed, too carefree. I somehow want to shake them up, make them understand . . . That we Ukrainians are not just some special people you can bomb. This might happen to you, too, one day.”
Natalia Blok’s drama Our Children bubbles over into one of the greatest social conundrums facing us today: who has rights to our bodies? Not yet legally recognized is the right of the mother to experience the future through her child. In countries that wage war, in countries that persecute women, the matriarchal legacy has been denied, but if you think about it, why should any woman experience the nine months of pregnancy and the years of devotion and care and love of her child to then sacrifice that child to become meat or to make other sons meat on the battlefield for the sake of a murderous, pugilistic – and indeed dysfunctional – world order? Of course, loving fathers have that same right. It is the absolute right of the human race to sustain the future and provide for the ‘unborn generations’ of our genotype. Blok has condensed this philosophy into the dramatized true story of her three sons’ escape from the maw of war.
“Our life now is a graveyard of all the plans, desires, and aspirations that we had before February 24, in the year of 2022. We now live in a world in which our world no longer exists. How can that be? It just is. That happens too. Forests through which we used to wander are mined, and devastated by tanks. Bridges we used to take to visit relatives are destroyed. Our relatives are dead or gone crazy. Friends are held captive in captured cities, or have left for where they never had any intention of going. Theaters are bombed to dust. Theater actors guard checkpoints with machine guns in hand. What kind of world is this? This is a world of war. And what is war? It is something that cannot be. Ever. But it is. How can that be? It cannot be. We live in a world that cannot be.” This extract is from Survivor’s Syndrome by Andriy Bondarenko (See https://playsinternational.org.uk/cluj-napoca-at-the-11th-international-meetings-at-the-national-theatre-teatrul-national/ for a discussion of a reading of this play in Cluj, Romania in 2022.)
The following tongue-in-cheek quote comes from Call Things by Their Names by Tetiana Kytsenko: “In 2017, Marshal Zhukov Street, where I lived in Kyiv, was renamed Kuban of Ukraine. Around this same time, the street named for the January Uprising of 1918 was renamed in honor of Ivan Mazepa, while Moscow Prospect was renamed after Stepan Bandera. In those years, there were still many renamings going on within the framework of decommunization — villages, streets, metro stations — and at first it was confusing and annoying. But the new names took root: because they are OURS. Honestly, I would rename many other things: “Soviet champagne”; “Zhiguli” Russian beer; “Russian” cheese. Being a rational person, I would advise these manufacturers to change their names urgently: otherwise their products will just spoil in warehouses because those names will get stuck in everyone’s throat. (As I have been writing this text, “Russian” cheese was renamed “anti-Russian.”)”
The Peed-Upon Armored Personnel Carrier by Oksana Grytsenko is a far lighter piece; the narrator tells how villagers in a sleepy Ukrainian town “where nothing ever happens” are invaded by Russian soldiers (“Goats”) and eventually decide to protest: “There were several hundred villagers, and about a dozen Goats. Both sides were a little scared. But the villagers took the upper hand with their daring, their shouts, and their numbers. They shouted “Putin’s a Zero! Zelenskiy’s our Hero!” and demanded that the Goats leave. The villagers translated “Dodómu” — “Go home!” in Ukrainian — into “Domói” — “Go home!” in the language of the Goats. The Goats refused to come out of the bushes. So the activists climbed up on an armored personnel carrier. They jumped on it, shouted, and waved a flag, trying to break it. But nothing would break. Eventually, two brave souls solemnly peed all over it.”
Other Ukrainian playwrights have not gone as gently into that dark night.
Anger and disbelief are palpable in I Want to Go Home by Oksana Savchenko: “War is when you can’t breathe. Out of hatred. War is when your body is convulsed with pain out of fear for your relatives. It is when you escape abroad with your child and spend all your time scrolling through the news. When you can’t admire the sights of Europe’s beautiful streets. Your heart is at home. You live at home. You learn what to do in the event there is a chemical attack on your family. You run to them. You cry. You can’t cry. It was easier in Kyiv. It was easier on your own home ground. You are ashamed that you left.”
The narrator in My Tara by Liudmyla Tymoshenko says the term “unauthorized behavior” was used in her childhood to describe when either guards or the ballistic system itself would initiate an unwarranted nuclear attack. Now, “I now am afraid of nuclear war. Because the president of Russia, the country that attacked my Ukraine, shows all signs of that “unauthorized behavior.” I am afraid of falling asleep and never waking up.”
Russians as inhumane even towards each other is the theme of Ihor Bilyts’ drama A Russian Soldier about a dead Russian soldier who returns to his wife and son as a phantasmagoria.
The great cultural and emotional distance between Ukraine and the European countries to which Ukrainian women have been obliged to emigrate is the theme of Three Rendezvous by Natalka Vorozhbyt.
Some playwrights are clearsighted enough to sometimes rage against the all-too-human selfishness of their own fellow citizens.
The narrator in Kateryna Penkova’s TDP (Temporarily Displaced Persons) takes the curiously bitter perspective of one wounded by the indifference of those she has befriended. She runs hostels for displaced persons in Kiev and Warsaw, a humanitarian gesture. And yet: “Tomorrow my parents will be leaving Kyiv. My father had a stroke and practically cannot walk. My mother has a bad back. We have no relatives left in Kyiv. Their son, my brother, died in April. I had just one request for everyone presently living in the hostel — to help my parents catch the train … And not one person stepped up to make themselves useful …”
Similarly, in Diary of Survival of a Civilian Urbanite in Conditions of War, Pavlo Arie feels the ambiguity of relationships in a time of war – he questions who is the enemy and whether anyone can be trusted – when neighbours turn against him after he opens his windows during a spring cleaning: “A neighbor from our block has called … complaining that I had opened the windows and was making loud banging noises. Another neighbor who is in the territorial defense wants me to approach my window carefully. I approach the window and show myself to a group of people with yellow armbands. I say I’m not making any noise. The owner says the neighbour wants to come in and see, to check things out. Of course, I agree. ‘Let him come’, I say. I’ve been living in this apartment for almost a year, and I recognize the neighbor’s face. The owner knows who I am and what I do. At my invitation, he and his wife went with me to my theater to see one of my productions. They were all full of trust and love. The doorbell rings. I open up to see the muzzle of a submachine gun pointed at me, and three armed men in civilian clothes led by my neighbor who lied about my making noise. They point their weapons at me and run around my apartment, looking for saboteurs, whom they do not find. They remark that I should never have opened the window, because in this way I might send signals to someone (Putin I guess). I close the doors after these visitors leave. I close the windows, and, for the first time in this entire war, I feel fear, animal fear. I vomit. My day died at that moment … I know that these people I invited into my apartment did everything right. There is a war on in this city. Everyone is actively looking for the enemy.”
Olena Hapieieva’s In the Bowels of the Earth is a striking muti-charactered piece set in an underground shelter during a bomb alert. Frank and satirical, the play shows parents fed up with their restless toddlers and adults who hitherto were strangers fairly unsympathetic to one another. One thing is certain however: Russians invaded their free country:
Sviatomyr [a child]. Who are these Russians?
Olena. They are people from a neighboring country that hate us.
Olena. Because we are free, son.
Sviatomyr. What’s that?
Olena. Well, we have our own opinion, our own land, and we love and defend it.
Iryna Harets combines personal narrative with instructions on how to plant and tend apple trees so they grow strong and produce plenty of fruit in Planting an Apple Tree. She reveals one of the hidden sides of war: the lack of medicines for people (like her narrator) who depend on them to remain alive. “I try not to think about those who need insulin. Their situation is much worse than mine. They don’t have three months left.” The monologue concludes with this thought: “I think, could it be my fault that the war started? Maybe my thoughts about the new apple orchard reflected some absolutely evil universe, a kind of Mordor that rejects everyone who loves, creates, and generates something.”
Two voices take opposing stands in Flowering by Olha Maciupa; one is the “voice of a plant that doesn’t want to be uprooted from the earth” i.e., Ukraine, and the other is “The Choir of Death of Russian Imperial Structures”. The plant’s voice is the personal voice of the author, and she confesses her love for her country by stating, “Writing this text, I realized that I have a new dream — to go to the Donets and look at the water lilies at Saltiv, instead of going to Prague, to Chuhuiv not Oslo, through ruined Izium not California, to Rubizhne not Barcelona, to Lysychansk not Nancy, and to Sievierodonetsk and Luhansk and Donetsk, not Berlin.”
Three Attempts to Improve Daily Life by Maksym Kurochkin is the final play in this volume. In keeping with the preferred format of the Ukrainian playwrights, it is a monologue in the first person. The narrator is a Ukrainian soldier defending positions in enemy territory. His best friend in the company has just been killed. But they will never surrender: “I am asleep, but my eyes are open. I peer into the woods on the other side of a small clearing. Three days have passed, but it will take the rest of my life to tell about them without resorting to lies … I crouch under a tree, snapping off acacia twigs that I can reach with my free hand, and I plant them in the ground. It’s judicious. It is camouflage. It increases my chances of being the first to shoot. This now is the height of my ambitions.”
These plays reflect the shock of a peaceful people who were invaded and relentlessly attacked, destroying all the cornerstones of daily life they had known. We read these plays as sympathetic bystanders; they open our eyes to pain, suffering, injustice, war, tragedy where all of humanity is the loser, and ethical foul play. But also let us read these plays as kindly-meant warnings. One year ago, a vortex of irrationality overwhelmed a sovereign people who were nearly as confident of their peacetime security as those of us living in western Europe, America, and the free world still are.
A Dictionary of Emotions in a Time of War can be ordered through the website: https://www.laertesbooks.org/a-dictionary-of-emotions-in-a-time-of-war
To participate in the Worldwide Ukrainian Play Readings, contact John Freedman at: firstname.lastname@example.org