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Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles

Oleksandr Knyha

Director General and Artistic of Kherson Academic Music and Drama Theatre

On March 23, Oleksandr was arrested by the Russian troops. After he was released, he managed to move out to Lviv with his wife and five children. During this conversation, an air raid alarm went off. While Oleksandr’s wife with their little child in her arms went to the bathroom (the safest place in an apartment, as a rule), Oleksandr himself said he would continue the conversation for he didn’t want to let the enemy bring his life to a halt. 

How did the war start for you? What did you do when you got to know that it had begun? What did you think about? 

Just like other Ukrainians, I woke up to the sound of missile explosions followed by numerous phone calls from my friends with the same message: “War has started”. I instantly got up and went to buy some products in order to make food supplies. Then I filled a car and went to the theatre to open the bomb shelter and give instructions to the team.
On my way back home (I live in a small town called Oleshky, not far from Kherson), I received a call from a friend who warned me about Russian tanks approaching the area and recommended that I drive my car back to the city. That was when the hell began: helicopters were flying above our heads, one of them was hit and fell down in front of our eyes, tanks were approaching, and the shelling started. I rushed back to Kherson under the fire.
But my family (my wife and five children) were in Oleshky. I had to be with them. So, I called a friend, and he helped me get to the other bank of the river on his boat (in fact, we had to make a long 18-km way through several smaller rivers). We landed in Oleshky and witnessed a battle, heavy artillery shelling. It was petrifying. When I got home, we started equipping the basement of our house with mattresses and all the other necessary things. That very night, we were sleeping there under artillery fire.
On the next day, my neighbours and I decided to start patrolling the streets in order to prevent looting. We made a duty list. Before that, I only knew my next-door neighbours. Now, I know everyone in our neighbourhood. 

What was going on in the theatre? 

During the first month of the war, around 75 people were living in the theatre bomb shelter: those were actors and their families as well as other people from the areas that were under bomb attacks. We had equipped it with all necessary appliances for cooking and food supplies. Actors were performing functions of janitors and doorkeepers. But after Mariupol Theatre was bombed (it has an identical construction to ours), people got scared and left. 

Now, we have resumed the rehearsal process. Rehearsals are conducted online by Serhiy Pavliuk, the Chief Director of the theatre. We have a strong intention: we will perform a new show for our audience on the day following the de-occupation of Kherson. 

Did the occupants offer you an opportunity for the theatre to work?

Yes, they came several times with propositions to resume our work to entertain people. But they said they had to monitor the repertoire first. The occupants tried to engage our actors in celebrations of Victory Day on May 9. They offered me to organise the theatre orchestra to play music in the park. I said that most actors and musicians were not in the city, which was true, ‘cause we were not going to work under the occupation to serve the purposes of Russian propaganda. 

By the way, the conductor of our orchestra is a refugee (an internally displaced person) from Luhansk Music and Drama Theatre who fled from war in 2014. He found work here, settled down, built up a wonderful orchestra. And now, he is forced to abandon everything he has managed to accomplish for these eight years and flee from war - again, for the second time. 

One month after the war had started, you were arrested by the Russian troops. What were the charges against you? 

The occupation started on March 1. On March 2, people rallied on the main square against the Russian occupation. On March 8, the International Women’s Day, I bought flowers and planned to go to the theatre to congratulate women that were staying in the bomb shelter to hearten them a bit. I bought flowers, called the theatre, but they asked me not to come. Rumour had it that the Russians could come to arrest me. The day before, they came home to our Vice Manager, about 30 of them, conducted a search in her house, raked everything upside down, confiscated all gadgets. So, I went to the central square of Oleshky where there was a big rally - about 3 to 5 thousand people (the population of the town is about 24 thousand). And I handed out all the flowers I had bought to women at the rally. When the Russians came to arrest me, they charged me with organising the rally. They said I was handing out money to participants.  

Could you please tell us about your arrest?

On March 23, at 7 o’clock in the morning, we woke up to the sounds of engines behind our windows. I got up, pulled the window curtain aside and saw the barrel of a machine gun pointing straight at my window from an armoured fighting vehicle. There were the other three armoured vehicles and dozens of military men with assault rifles surrounding the perimeter of our house. I found out later that they had cordoned off the whole area. There even was a sniper on the top of a neighbouring half-constructed house. But it wasn’t scary to me. Actually, it was funny. It looked like a blockbuster. They were carrying shields in front of them, entering the house. 

The first interrogation was conducted in my study room. Then, they interrogated my wife. Meanwhile, others were searching the house from top to bottom: the kid’s rooms, my elderly mother’s room... They checked my phone and saw photos from the local military commissariat where I had gone to get recruited to the Armed Forces. But I received a rejection due to my age. Then, the occupants brought me to Kherson - with a beanie hat on my head covering the eyes - where they “had talks” with me the following day. 

I think I was released so quickly, because the international theatre community and the Eurasian Theatre Association in particular got involved. They dropped me off somewhere in the city late in the evening. I had to find where to stay for the night and get there before the curfew that was going to start in 40 minutes. So, it was an adventure to get to my friends’ place running in shoes without laces (the Russians had taken them before bringing me to a cell). 

As a deputy of Kherson Regional Council, did you receive any proposition from the occupants to collaborate?

Yes, they proposed that I take power in one of the region areas to maintain order there. And I replied, “You’re military people, and you have made an oath for service, right? So, I have made an oath for service as well, an oath for serving the people of Ukraine. And it’s only the people of Ukraine that can tell me what to do.” 

Now, you and your family are in a relatively safe place in Lviv. When did you move out? And how was your journey?

My family and I decided to move out. I have a big family, five children. I was anxious that the occupants could use my family to push on me.
We managed to move out to Lviv on April 6 or 7. We set out with a piece of white cloth on a car (to mark that we were civilians). It took us 6 hours to make a 30-km way through 9 checkpoints of the occupants.
But when we finally got to the first checkpoint of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, we heard from them, ”Now, you may take away this cloth. You don’t need any markers, you are free people on a free land.” That was when we finally could breathe out in relief. And at the next Ukrainian checkpoint, when a military officer saw a baby in our car, he brought us a carton of juice for infants. And I burst out in tears. 

And what are you working on now?

We are organising The Melpomene of Tavria International Theatre Festival. We’ve made a critical decision: despite Russia's full-scale invasion and temporary occupation of Kherson, the Melpomene of Tavria 2022 will not be cancelled. The festival will be held on June 10-19, as announced, come what may! This is a message to people staying in Kherson under occupation that no one’s evil intentions can ruin our life, we keep living and working regardless. We have developed two scenarios of the festival: if we free Kherson from the occupants by then, it will be held in its original format, otherwise, all participants will perform on their stages, delivering messages in support of Kherson and all temporarily occupied Ukrainian territories. We have already received about 30 applications from Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Portugal and other countries. 

You premiered a new show on February 23, the very night before the war. 

It was our first immersive show on the theatre premises - ‘Eternity and A Day’ by Milorad Pavić directed by Serhiy Pavliuk. During the show, the audience takes a tour through all four stages of the theatre. And we offer the spectators an opportunity to choose one of three possible scenarios of the denouement of the show. The show was well-received. We planned three premiere nights: February 23, 24, and 25. The war ruined our plans for those nights, but we have promised our audience to perform the show on the following day after Kherson is freed from the occupants. 

What were your plans for the season?

On World Theatre Day, March 27, a Turkish director Kubilay Erdelikara had to premiere Caligula. In April we had to premiere a show directed by Rui Madeira from Portugal. In June, Andriy Bilous had to stage a musical based on Viy by Gogol. But we do not cancel anything, we’ve just postponed these things. And we hope we will implement them soon. 

What makes Ukrainians fight back so dauntlessly? Where do you get the strength?

In our unity, in mutual support. I realised it on the second day of the war, when people instantly organised themselves. Nobody gave orders. We just assembled, distributed duties and started doing something. This is an inborn trait of Ukrainians. And this is what the Russian officers that were interrogating me couldn’t understand. They were asking, “Who organised the rallies?” I said, “Nobody.” 

What is the first thing you will do after the victory?

Firstly, I will water my trees. You know, I constantly see them in my dreams. I have planted them by myself and I worry about them. This year, magnolia trees started blooming for the first time. And I worry so much that they may die. I’m constantly thinking, “Who will water them now, when my sons and I are away?”
Secondly, I will go to the theatre, tidy it up and wait for our audience and the day I will greet and smile at them again.

ВОЛЯ / The Free Will: Ukrainian Theatre People in War is a Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles project, conducted by Yulia Ostrohliad.

© Théâtre National Wallonie-Bruxelles