Russian theatre director: ‘We are used to violence’

KnAM Theatre. Tatiana Frolova second left. (Credit: courtesy Tatiana Frolova)

For the last 30 years, Tatiana Frolova’s Russian theatre group KnAM have been creating controversial works demonstrating their opposition to the Russian regime and Soviet totalitarianism. Banned from stages in their own country, they are a big success in Europe. The company and its five performers have toured in France, Switzerland, and Germany, performing at festivals including Sens Interdits in Lyon, part of the Festival International de Théâtre. Experimental, multimedia, collective and – for the last dozen years – focused on documentary theatre, KnAM’s work is based on the collection of life stories.

In an article published in Liberation in 1998 Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, then correspondent in Moscow, described Tatiana Frolova as an “electric battery”. Who better to give their impression of Russia and its current frame of mind?

13 May, 2022, Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia

I've always been a scared little thing. A frightened little girl, a shrunken lump of nerves. Probably it came from my silent mother, a speechless grandmother and a long line of dead ancestors, about whom I know nothing – the memory of them is carved out of the public field of memory, as if my ancestors never existed. Only fear remains. It is this invisible substance that is transmitted and treacherously stiffens people's bodies. Therefore, the bodies of Russians can be identified immediately – we are always awkward, we are defensive and tense, we move to the other side of the street when hearing Russian speech in any other part of the world. We are comfortable only in Russia.

We are a specially “grown” nation.  We are from the USSR - Ukrainians, Kyrgyz, Chechens, Belarusians, Moldovans. We, accustomed to violence, able to live in it, evade and avoid it, have grown into it. Violence is our foundation, our glue and air. Violation is like breathing: it's nothing for us, it's just survival, nothing personal. After the collapse of the USSR, many managed to escape, but the poison of red violence cannot leave our bodies so quickly. It takes time. Russia did not escape. It caught its breath for a moment before plunging again into the stinking swamp of hatred and terror.

Le Bonheur © Hervé Bellamy8.jpg
KnAM Theatre. (Credit: Herve Bellamy, courtesy Tatiana Frolova)

We established KnAM Theatre in 1985, the first independent theatre in the USSR since 1927, in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. I don't know why we were the first. Maybe because in the far east of Russia there has always been more freedom, much more than in the central region, in the south or the north.

KnAM is a child of freedom; we did only what we wanted, we did not depend on state money, we did not pay ourselves salaries, (because there was nothing, the hall was only 26 seats), and all these years we felt happy.

We were somehow among the first in the Russian theatrical environment to realise that the country was beginning to move in a completely different direction from the one announced in grand stage-managed speeches, and in 2008, after the war broke out in Georgia – everything became so obvious that our hair stood on end.

We created the play “Kill Shakespeare” - a documentary about our theatre, without a single word spoken by the actors. They were silent and just silently looked at pictures from their old plays. Then, still in silence, they smash the table at which they had been sitting, leaving a ruined world behind. In the background “Artist – security alarm of society” was projected on a screen, along with moving tanks and the houses of civilians burning in Georgia. When the artist leaves society, in their place comes the military, and they just butcher you because you somehow look wrong or think something wrong.

KnAM Theatre. (Credit: Simon Borasci, courtesy Tatiana Frolova)

Our last play “Happiness” in 2021, was held in Komsomolsk only for friends – those who, in theory, would not denounce us. Now we can't even perform in front of friends. They are scared: once we heard after the performance that an elderly woman asked her companion: “Aren't we going to be imprisoned for what we just saw?”

And I thought then. “Yes, you never left this prison, the ball is still chained to your legs, but you have adapted to walk with it, eat and even sleep peacefully with it.”

Violence has become the norm, inhabited and comforted in a single person, it has escaped millions of bodies and materialized in destroyed cities, killing hundreds.

Before the war, I did a series of interviews with Komsomolsk-on-Amur residents. I was interested to understand why people are so busy that they do not have time for politics. What is so important for the young and old? And it turned out to be just life, or rather, the “arrangement” of it, (that's what one person said to me) – a mortgage, buying furniture, the solarium, gym, pumping up muscles, consuming a mountain of health pills, unloved work and family,  cultivating their tiny beautiful garden called “we are OUT of politics”. Well, this is society’s choice. The “security alarm” in the form of free media and artists is destroyed.

Now it is the turn of “ordinary” citizens to plant potatoes and stock up on firewood – “nuclear winter will be long, and from the sky for a thousand years will fall not snow but ash”, (from the monologue of the heroine of our play “My Little Antarctica”).