De-occupation in occupied Kherson: drama about himself by Artur Sumarokov

He recalls how he came to Ukraine: “Frankly speaking, 1995 was the starting point for me to gain a conscious understanding of the surrounding reality. Back then, I lived with my parents in Mytishchi, the suburbs of Moscow. At that time, my father Oleksandr had already been in business for six years, selling computers and related equipment. At that time, everything was moving to his company’s absorption of some firms outside the former USSR, in Spain, France and the USA, according to his parents. Of course, he regularly faced racketeering by various gangster groups, but at a certain point things got out of control and he was shot dead by a hit man outside his Moscow office, just before the 1995 putsch. The killer wasn’t found, the customer even more so – typical realities of those years. My mother, grandmother and I, with the help of my father’s brother, had to urgently fly to Ukraine. Fortunately, there was a place to live and work in Kherson, as my father’s old business partner lived there.”

These memories are a kind of reflection of the artistic nature of the Kherson playwright Artur Sumarokov. And an explanation why he is called a provocative artist, in whose works the main theme is violence in one form or another.

Public decolonization of himself at an international festival

The one-man show “Decolonize Yourself” told a story – private and global – with all the fullness of sincerity. The answers to the question of how he got out of the occupation and how this postmodern interactive provocative confessional one-man show in the genre of post-drama appeared to be closely related. Moreover, there is only one answer: UNBEARABLE! It just became absolutely unbearable to live and not create.

“My performance is a public, uneasy and uncomfortable reflection on the private and public, personal and political. And I want my voice to be heard,” Artur Sumarokov.

Photo by Marius Şumlea

First, the play “Decolonize Yourself” was written: for the author, this process was as important as anticipation of our Victory, which means hope for the liberation of Kherson. But even before writing the play about decolonization, the author did exactly that: before the war, he spoke only Russian, from then on – only Ukrainian, because he felt that Russian was the enemy’s weapon, and Ukrainian was the language of resistance, protection, defense. Language holds our sky as well as the soldiers of the AFU. The author’s sense of guilt and remorse is quite understandable: he spoke Russian, so the enemy used him as a weapon too. “Many of us have understood only now: if you speak Russian, the time of judgment will come, armed orcs will knock on your door to kind of liberate you, no matter how much you resist,” the actor reflects. “Bloodthirsty Russians have come to kill us,” I add.

Preparations for the first night as part of the Festivalul de Teatru Piatra Neamț 2022 – 146 KM in Romania this September began a day before in the theater’s courtyard. Workers dug a pit-grave, the actor-director-playwright (and it was all him, the only and the unique) prepared props: a Soviet red flag in order to burn it publicly in that grave, with the help of the audience, and himself along with it. But it didn’t go the way it was expected. It rained on the day of the performance, and rain washes away all traces. The stage had to be moved indoors and scenography and props had to changed too: instead of a pit, there was a coffin on the stage, a flag with a big sickle-hammer remained on the actor’s shoulders, and instead of burning it, there were books of Russian literature of the 19th and 20th centuries on the proscenium to tear and scatter scraps of those books on the actor’s head, like ashes… Which exactly? There was Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Prishvin, the Soviet Encyclopedia and a Romanian-Russian dictionary.

The coffin pit was the beginning and the end of the play, and the actor lay fearlessly in it. A symbol of the mass grave of all Soviet people covered with a shroud of red flag with a cutting sickle and a hammer on a bloody background. Having occupied Kherson, the invaders removed Ukrainian flags from everywhere and installed their red rags, which were later changed to tricolors. In that mass grave, the Executed Renaissance and the Silver Age are sprinkled with the same ashes.

But it’s a long way to the end of the play, let’s start from the beginning.

“Which of you knows what it’s like to be under occupation?” – was the first question from the stage from the very first minute of the performance

In response – the expected silence. Then one hand was raised timidly, and the spectator remembered that his grandfather had been under occupation in Romania and described it in a very figurative way: “It’s like you live in a cage and eat only nettles.”

Photo by Marius Şumlea

Then the actor started his 45-minute monologue, namely: the transformation of the posed question into the author’s narrative of affirmative and then exclamatory sentences. The war found him in Kherson, where he spent 45 days under occupation. What did he feel? No one can guarantee anything, the more so safety. Queues are like in the USSR. Red Soviet flags fly everywhere. They try to re-erect monuments to Lenin. Monuments of Ukrainian heroes are destroyed. There are “black cars” near the entrances 24 hours a day, waiting for someone. Fear. No one can be sure that they will not be a new target of the occupiers and local collaborators “to the basement”.

Life under occupation means you don’t know whether you will live to see tomorrow. It means realizing that in war you are nobody. It means fearing that at any moment you may disappear forever. It means feeling a complete loss of control over reality. This means losing the greatest value – freedom. The occupation turned out to be a 45-day nightmare for the author.

Let my people go

It was not an easy decision to evacuate, though at the risk of life, but still… He left on the third attempt, joining a large evacuation convoy that people formed by themselves, helping each other. He was lucky. He recalls that on that day the sky was overcast, the horizon was foggy, but as soon as the convoy crossed the border line between the ruscists and free Ukraine, the sun smiled at him from the sky. He took with him a chip torn from his door as a memory of his home, and now his house, though in such a miserable shape, is always with him.

So far he has been out of touch with his relatives, who remained there, for two weeks. Every morning he checks the news feed and calls his family and friends in the occupation. Every day he learns about the kidnapping and torture of Kherson activists.

His name is Artur Sumarokov. Yes, for him the personal is political, the Ukrainian is global, but now Ukraine looks at the world both together and differently at the same time: the bloodshot eyes of Mariupol, razed to the ground, the closed eyes of those shot in the back of the head and raped in the northern regions, the stern gaze of mighty Kyiv under siege, the courageous look of the bombed-out Kharkiv, the sheltered look of Western Ukraine. And the catastrophic gaze of stalwart Kherson from behind the bars of occupation, which captures the daily horrors, the hope for “green corridors”, which never existed, not a single one…

“I want the Ukrainian voice from Kherson to be heard, that’s why EVERY Ukrainian voice is important now for the sake of victory in this anti-colonial war,” said Artur Sumarokov.

“How do you understand decommunization and how would you decommunize yourself?”- was the second question from the stage.

This time, the audience was much more active and gave predictable answers: we have to abandon colonial thinking and move away from stereotypes, break a vicious circle of cultural single-mindedness.

Photo by Marius Şumlea

And the third appeal to the audience: “I can’t do this without you”

In apparent innocence and naivety, the actor turns to the audience for help. Artur asked them to put him into a coffin, cover him with a red flag as if with a shroud and scatter scraps of torn books on his head, like ashes. By the way, the books were displayed on the stage in the shape of the letter Z. Out of fifty spectators, only three agreed to do that – they tore the books and scattered the scraps on the author, who skillfully got into the coffin by himself. During this co-created final scene of the performance, a sweet song “Ukrainian cherry tree” was played:

Ой, струится дорога

В гайдамацкой крови.

Наши хаты не трогай,

Наших вишен не рви!..

Клич в Богунии слышен,

Мчится к Киеву Щорс,

И черешен, и вишен

Рвёт он полную горсть!..

Разгромила банды белые

Наша сила исполинская.

Ой, ты, вишня скороспелая,

Эх, черешня украинская!

Listen to it: 

Photo Marius Şumlea

After thunderous applause and lying a few minutes in the coffin, the author got up and began a full-scale dialogue with the audience, discussing the play.

The play for me alone

Actually, I was not in Romania at this performance, but I saw it. The author-actor, due to our tender creative friendship, played it from Romania, where he is currently at a theater festival, for me in Italy, where I am now. It was indeed a one-man one-spectator show – one actor for one spectator. Artur for Halyna. From Romania to Italy. He played it for me on his cell phone. And isn’t it a miracle created by himself? And I also participated in the interactive final scene as effectively as those three girls who had agreed to tear up the books. But I did not agree. I created a different ending.


Photo by Olya Koval

If it had been the first version of the performance, in the theater’s courtyard and with matches, I would have been the first to burn the bloody red flag of the cannibalistic empire of world evil and scatter its ashes in the wind. In the second version with books, I really tore that letter Z with my teeth. Because my closest men – in the occupation and at the front, hold the Ukrainian sky above us. While we are playing at festivals. I did crush the letter Z those books formed, but I did NOT tear the books themselves. I rearranged them alphabetically by author’s names, like on a library shelf.  

Different final. Why so? I can give you an answer

My life experience, soul and mind cannot allow me to tear books.

First, the brilliant cultural scientist Toynbee (and the entire world literature) made it clear to me, while I was teaching culturology at university, that the concept of “challenge-response” is not just words! All human civilization was a response of Reason, Conscience and Spirit to the challenges of social and natural environment. It was this response that moved us “a quarter-circle against the beast.”

Second, Jorge Luis Borges’s “Babylonian Library” revealed that a book is not just a source of knowledge, but actually an eternal library of the universe, boundless and periodic, like the creation of God.

Third, the cultural philosophy of Umberto Eco made me fall in love with the symbol and metaphor (bricks of literature) as a means of expanding the content of words and deepening their meaning, as a textual modality, as a possibility of an infinite depth of interpretations of texts opened by semiotic movement in search of eternal values. Umberto Eco’s concept of the cultural code actually proves the unpredictability of the cultural message: “God did not let us second-guess. How one’d react to words we uttered,” the poet understood 100 years before. The phenomenon of intertextuality provides a sweet freedom of verbal play thanks to the openness of cultural messages.

Fourth, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” philosopher Theodor Adorno said. “But then Auschwitz will remain, and there will be no more poetry,” writer Dmytro Bykov answered him half a century later.

And here is the clincher: brilliantly gifted Kherson poet Viktoria Kontseva (she is a modest school teacher of Ukrainian and world literature) read her brilliant poem at a literary party in the Freedom cafe in Kherson before the war, which ends with the line: “And while I put these 32 letters into words – I’m alive!”

My paraphrase: “And as long as you – writers of all times and peoples – put these 32, or 26, or however many there are in your language, letters into words, and I read them – I’M ALIVE!!!”

Photo by Marin German


The author of “Decolonize Yourself”, Artur Sumarokov, states such obvious things in his theses to the interactive post-drama that I just can’t help ending this art review of mine with them:

  • The declaration of the Act of Independence of my country in 1991 can be considered the starting point for decommunization in Ukraine. After this key event for the country, which finally broke away from the rotting corpse of the USSR, Ukraine went through a series of brutal historical upheavals that affected the new self-identification of Ukraine and every conscious citizen. But true decommunization came only after the second victorious Maidan. Decommunization is only a small part of decolonization.
  • I am a person who was born in Moscow and had lived there for five years of my life before my father was shot dead by killers. Neither the killers nor the customers were found.
  • I am a person whose family is one way or another related to the horror of the “russian world” in the global historical context, since part of my family disappeared in the GULAG. No one was punished for it. I don’t even know the names of my relatives. But I want to know the names of those who repressed them.
  • I am a person for whom the process of internal decolonization is as important as waiting for the Victory of Ukraine in the war and the de-occupation of my native city of Kherson, from where I fled, having lost my home and in some ways the meaning of my life.

Halyna Bakhmatova