Performing Memory

Mikhail Kaluzshky, curator of the theater program at Sakharov Center in Moscow, writes about his experience in using theater as a tool for individuals in divided or repressive societies to gain independence from collectivized forms of commemoration. (Note: For those interested to learn more, a link list to the art projects mentioned in the text follows below.)

Four years ago I made my directorial debut with a performance called “Legacy of Silence”. It was a scenic version of a book with the same title, written in 1989 by Israeli psychologist Dan Bar-On (1). In the mid-1980s, Bar-On went to Germany to talk to the middle-aged children of Nazis. His interlocutors ranged from minor functionaries of the Holocaust and soldiers to mass murderers and close Hitler collaborators. The book is a record of interviews with those who experience Nazi Germany as a legacy that shapes their reminiscences of childhood. That work, along with the spectators’ reception, brought me to the understanding that this method of playwriting is essential for Russian theatre, and I dare say, for post-Soviet societies more generally. I do not mean just interviewing: documentary theater is flourishing in Russia, and it is based mainly on the “verbatim”(2) (in other words, interviewing) technique. Rather, I am talking about the idea to ask questions to “the other side.”

"Legacy of Silence" performance. Photo courtesy of the author.

“Legacy of Silence” performance. Photo courtesy of the author.

I strongly believe that the unhealed traumata in post-Soviet societies are deeply rooted in our collective memories. They preserve stereotyped, even hostile perception of others – the idea of a “natural/historical enemy” is an integral part of post-Soviet mentality. Our governments do a lot to preserve this state of mind. In the case of my country, the Kremlin effectively plays with post-Empire collective memory/ identity and converts symbolical wars into real warfare.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned from the work on “Legacy of Silence” was a comparison between Russian and German memory practices.  In Germany, remembrance is widely represented in public, but war and the Nazi epoch experience are rarely discussed in private. In Russia, on the contrary, it’s difficult to find public signs of remembrance, but people talk about it within their families. And the reason of that is, in particular, the dramatic deficit of media capable to maintain this conversation: mass media, public institutions, think tanks etc.

Memory is a difficult issue to work with critically and rationally. But it’s a perfect playground for the arts, and collective memory can be opposed by an individual, or private memory.

Poster of the performance "Act 2. Grandchildren." Photo courtesy of the author

Poster of the performance “Act 2. Grandchildren.” Photo courtesy of the author

Theater in a way is a contradiction to a memory. Unlike movie it lives only now and once. Theater doesn’t keep or preserve memory. It resembles more an archaeological excavation than a museum. It’s an active process of uncovering the hidden and forgotten. But if history lives because of facts, memory exists and lasts only due to the affect that art creates.

And that’s what makes performing memory productive. It’s also what provides a basis – or at least a possibility – for dialogue. We have to remember, though, that this work with (collective) memory issues cannot substitute the work of a historian. As Timothy Snyder recently pointed out, “commemoration requires no adequate explanation of the catastrophe, only an aesthetically realizable image of its victims. As cultures of memory supplant concern for history, the danger is that historians will find themselves drawn to explanations that are the simplest to convey”.[ Timothy Snyder, Commemorative Causality.

Despite working with historical accounts I do not pretend to historical accuracy. The sincerity and strength of recollection is much more important. It is a tool, being put under the public scrutiny with the means of theater, that makes an individual memory really unique. A person who has taken liberty to tell her/ his own story makes a step aside from collective memory. It’s a process of gaining independence. He or she is no longer an object of history, but a subject, and is able to treat others not as a group, but as individuals. These individuals are more likely to discuss common issues and be self-critical. They even are able to admit mutual claims and recognize their share of responsibility. That’s what governments still are not able do.

Theater cannot do the job of a government or an NGO, but it has certain strengths. Nikolay Gladkeeh, philologist and film critic, wrote: “The intention of the documentary theater is to abandon the traditional scene canons, genres, and techniques for the sake of search for new forms… Documentary theater is a theater of an open emotional experience by the techniques of its interaction with a spectator. In that regard documentary theatre is similar to the avant-garde, but there is an important difference. Unlike many avant-garde projects a documentary theater seeks to convert awakened thought and energy into a conscious social action.”

The “Other”, even our inner “Other,” is the main subject of all the projects I have created or participated in: Anna Frank and Helga Goebbels in “Me Anna and Helga,” migrants and locals in “Krisis,” grandchildren of Soviet perpetrators in “Act 2. Grandchildren,” contemporary artists and conservative religious activists in “Moscow Trials,” a musician turning into a soldier in the most recent “My Granddad’s 90 Bullets.” This summer I am going to interview Turks raised and educated in Europe, and I will ask them about their perspective on the events of 1915.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky at the reading of “A Few Ways to Lose A Friendship.” (Photo credits:

In that regard my experience with the Tekali festival was really striking. (Editor: The Tekali process is a civil-society led effort to bring together in regular intervals people from the grassroots, citizens of all regions of the South Caucasus, in the village Tekali located in Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli region. The region abuts the borders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and it’s population is mixed, consisting of ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Georgians. The Tekali process aims at providing a platform for dialogue, with a particular view – but not exclusively – on the Armenia-Azerbaijan-Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Within its framework, art festivals also have taken place.)

That was a gathering of “others” who were eager to talk, to listen and to understand. In Tekali, I conducted a workshop on documentary theatre, which resulted in a play called “A Few Ways to Lose a Friendship.” The play has several authors: Georgians, Armenians, Azeri, Russians, Germans who interviewed each other asking about friendships that were lost because of wars or ideological conflicts. It was obvious that the participants of the workshop took this opportunity to speak with those whom they met for the first time in their life. It was a chance to speak up. Needless to say, several stories were told for the very first time ever. The play was performed in a form of a staged reading twice, first during the festival, and later on in Moscow. The audience warmly received it, but I don’t feel fully satisfied. I have a strong feeling that Southern Caucasus people have got more stories to tell and to share, and I would love to listen to them.

Mikhail Kaluzhsky is Moscow-based playwright and journalist. He is curator of theater program at Sakharov Centre and participated in the Tekali Arts Festival in April 2014.

Link list:
“Legacy of Silence”  — “Me Anna and Helga”  — “Krisis” “Act 2. Grandchildren”  — “Moscow Trials” — “A Few Ways to Lose a Friendship”: stage readings in Tekali and Moscow



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