Komunka was the brainchild of Yury Ruzhyev. Yuri is a Russian actor and performer and writer who moved to Canada six years ago from Russia. He approached me about a year ago with the idea for a play about four families living in a communal apartment in Moscow. This is the way many Moscovites live, to this day — in five rooms that share a common kitchen.
I would never have written a show about Russia, because I have never lived there — but with Yury’s collaboration, I was able to develop a series of scenarios that we used to help actors devise improvised scenes.
Komunka is very much a play about people, but it also deals with several topical issues,: sexism, racism, homosexuality, and nationalism.
The issue of nationalism is an important one, especially since we tend to view Vladimir Putin as having spearheaded what many see as Russian imperialism, by ‘taking over’ the Crimea, and perhaps attempting to annex the Ukraine.
But the starting point for our play is people and their personalities, and one of the things we try to do is to show that Russians are not that different from us. Americans accuse Putin of imperialism, but I think most people are aware of the fact that Americans have quite a history of imperialism themselves.
What is the cause of imperialism? Certainly it’s one thing for a country to be proud of its identity. (We’re, most of us, proud to be Canadian, aren’t we?) It’s something else to decide that your country is the best country — and the rest of the world should be invaded, or at least annexed.
Komunka posits that the root cause of nationalist imperialism can be found in the patriarchy. In other words; cultures led by men have a tendency to be racist, sexist, and homophobic — and linked to fundamentalism.
One simple way to understand this comes at a key moment in Komunka. One of the characters in the play — Max (a corrupt Russian businessman) — finds a picture of Rob Ford in the newspaper. Max says “I love him! he’s the Mayor of Canada! And he doesn’t take any shit from anybody. He’s like a Russian bear, he does whatever he wants!”
We put this line in the play because we wanted people to realize that cultures that oppress women and homosexuals tend to be nationalistic and imperialistic.
It’s very interesting that Russia’s recent laws against homosexuality find their root in Russia’s contention that their values are not ‘western’ values, but eastern ones. In February Russia banned women’s lacy underwear! The idea for Putin is to link Russian values with conservative eastern values (even Muslim values) rather than ‘decadent’ western values. Similarly, we find conservative politicians in the USA and Canada allying themselves with Christian religious fundamentalism against The East (and Muslim fundamentalism).
What I’m trying to say is that if Russia is sexist and homophobic, and if Putin is imperialist — well there is sexism and homophobia and imperialism in North America too — and all too often it’s rooted in east versus west polarization, and in links to fundamentalist rhetoric.
So where does the Ukraine fit into all this?
It seems to me that the Ukraine has been caught up in the midst of this larger political dilemma and many people living there have become tragic casualties.
This is represented in Komunka by the ‘Man in the Box’ — a Russian from Lviv (in the Ukraine) who lives in a box in the communal apartment in Moscow. He can’t get work in the Ukraine — because Russians are unable to find work in certain parts of the Ukraine — so he works in Moscow and sends money back to his family.
Here is a man who is a victim of imperialist, nationalist and capitalist (there is much capitalist corruption in Russia today) machinations.
There are parts of the Ukraine that feel allied with Russia and seek to ally with Russia and separate from the Ukraine (the way some Quebeckers would like to separate from Canada and ally with France). Then there are other parts of the Ukraine that prefer to remain purely Ukrainian.
It’s all very complicated, but the thread that runs through Komunka is a thread of humanity. Our play is about people, and about how perhaps a kinder culture — one that is not based in the patriarchy — might be one that does not make victims of its own people or, for that matter, anyone else.