Former HURI Fellow Publishes Study of Soviet Ukrainian Theater

Fowler photo

Mayhill Fowler came to HURI in 2012 as a Mihaychuk Research Fellow, just having defended her PhD dissertation at Princeton University. “HURI was the first place I had to deeply reconsider my dissertation. It was instrumental in reshaping that chaotic manuscript into a concise book,” Fowler said. That work—both at HURI and beyond—has paid off: The book is now in print through the University of Toronto Press.

Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine (University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division; May 5, 2017) tells the tale of Les Kurbas and the Berezil Theater, as well as Kurbas’ circle, as they made art both Soviet and Ukrainian. It also examines how regions become peripheries and how cities become centers.

Following her fellowship at HURI, Fowler became the Jacyk postdoc at University of Toronto and then joined the faculty at Stetson University in Florida in 2013, where she teaches in the history department and directs the university’s regional studies program.

We were thrilled to hear of the publication of this unique scholarship and decided to ask Fowler a few questions about the book and her time at HURI.

Fowler book fullHURI: Your book is about theater in Soviet Ukraine, focusing on Les Kurbas, his circle, and Berezil Theater. What inspired the topic in the first place?

Fowler: I used to be an actress. I majored in Russian at Yale, but I always intended to be an actress---once I could read Chekhov in the original, you know. I did a study abroad program at the Moscow Art in 1995, which was crazy. So, I was acting---and I was acting; I got an MFA in Acting and I had an agent and worked quite a bit. But I spent more of my time cater-waitering, tutoring high school students, and being a temp secretary. I hated the insecurity, financial and existential. So, after what felt like my millionth audition for Proof, on a sunny day in a NYC spring, on the stairs to Shetler studios in the mid-50s, I quit. And then I had to figure out what to do with my life!

I was reading a lot about Russia-related stuff at the Performing Arts Library, and reading a lot about émigré ballerinas (I used to dance, even before acting), and then I would write stuff about them (Olga Spessivtseva, in particular) during my temp jobs. (Don't tell Credit Suisse!) And I was doing a lot of tutoring. Finally a friend's dad said, Figure out what you do anyways and how that is a job. So: research and teaching equals professor.

Somehow I got into Princeton, and I was sort of rooting around the New York Public Library thinking about dissertation topics before I got to campus and I happened on a book about theater in the gulag by Natalia Kuziakina. I was so moved. I hated acting at that point—the stage had betrayed me (let's remember I was like 30, and a recovering actor, so everything was very intense), and here was this guy making theater in the gulag. Now, of course, everyone remotely sane would want to make theater in the gulag because it means you aren't felling trees and batting away mosquitoes, but still. I was so humbled.

Anyways, I get to Princeton and have to write my first big research paper and I don't know what to write on—that theater-in-the-gulag epiphany was a bit vague, and I needed primary sources. I was reading Meyerhold's archive, because Princeton had a microfilm copy from RGALI [Russian State Archive of Literature and Art] in Moscow [Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold was Russian and Soviet theatre director, actor and theatrical producer]. I noticed the Meyerhold Theater toured a lot in the early 1920s, and a lot to Soviet Ukraine. I decided to write a paper on gastroli [tours], using this Meyerhold material. The next step was figuring out who was in Soviet Ukraine when Meyerhold toured there. Of course: Kurbas. There was very little written on Kurbas then—I read Irena Makaryk's wonderful book on Kurbas and Shakespeare, Myroslava Mudrak's wonderful book on Semenko and New Generation, and Myroslav Shkandrij, and I stumbled upon Virlana Tkacz's name and articles. I Googled her and there she was directing theater in NYC. So I emailed her, and she immediately responded that we should have lunch.

She talked Kurbas to me for several hours and gave me lots of sources. At this point, Kurbas was WAY more interesting than Meyerhold, and my paper—which became a summer grant proposal—became about making Soviet Ukrainian theater. I got funding to go to Ukraine in the summer of 2006, Virlana gave me a huge long list of contacts, all of whom I telephoned in my halting and awkward Ukrainian, and then I worked on Kurbas and Berezil. It became "my" topic.

After all, my own acting career unfolded not in NYC, but in the regions. I was a regional theater actress, and what was interesting to me about Soviet theater was that huge, monumental, extraordinary infrastructure. Who cares about the famous people in Moscow? What about the actors making a life and a living elsewhere? And why, if I knew so much about Soviet theater, which I really did, why had I not heard about Kurbas?!

And that is still true—I hope, hope, hope my book changes that and makes its way to Soviet theater people because it's crazy how centralized the very field of studying Soviet theater became.

Les KurbasHURI:  Why did you choose to study Ukrainian history?

Fowler: Yeah, so I didn't. Kurbas chose me! That first paper in graduate school was just so much more interesting to me than re-treading what people knew from the Moscow Art Theater, or Meyerhold….not that those aren't great topics, but this was more interesting to me, that theater under Stalin unfolded in different ways in different places. Homogenization—of repertory, of acting style—was a process. The terms and categories used to analyze Soviet theater, such as "socialist realism," carry different meanings in different places. Also, I love learning languages, and I had a reason to learn Ukrainian, Polish, and Yiddish. I spent a great summer learning Polish in Krakow, and a great summer in Vilne learning Yiddish, and had many great teachers for all those languages. I was never able to do HURI's language program, but I took Ukrainian at Columbia with Yuri Shevchuk, and I spoke a ton of Ukrainian in Ukraine.

What you choose to study—what you end up studying—shapes you. I was a regional theater actress who studied regional theater. And I think the regions tell you more about the center than the center itself.

Now I study Ukrainian history. I think it tells us about nations, about the Russian and Soviet and post-Soviet—and Habsburg—empires. I think Ukraine is experiencing incredible change right now: It's a country and culture at war, separating from the Soviet cultural infrastructure and creating something totally new, just as the guys I write about were doing in the 1920s. What is Ukraine, what is "Ukrainian" culture? Those questions are being negotiated and contested as we speak. My book is quite relevant!

HURI: Can you explain what you mean by regions becoming peripheries and cities becoming centers?

Fowler:  Just that when people generally talk about Soviet theater, they mean Meyerhold, or the Taganka, or the Moscow Art. Moscow was the center of Soviet theater, but it only became the center during those early Soviet decades. It became the center in the timeline of my book and during the early lives of the people I write about—they experienced that profound centralization. Moscow was important for theater in the Russian Empire, of course; there was tons of money there, but other cities—Kyiv, Tbilisi, Riga—were also important.

Cities are not born centers. Paris was not born Paris—it became Paris. Same with Moscow. So then the question becomes, how did that happen? The answer is in the incredible centralizing power of the party-state and the state's connection with cultural institutions, and internal dissent. In the Soviet system, there was one center (well, plus Leningrad, which is interesting, by the way—but there was a clear hierarchy). The center is Moscow and the "regions" or "peripheral regions" (that's how they called non-Moscow) were lesser.

Imagine what experiencing that process of "provincialization" was like—Kurbas has this one moment where he refuses to go to the Olympiad in Moscow in 1930. Of course he refuses. He knows he's just as good as those theater directors in Moscow, and yet he would be "competing" as a "regional"—that is "lesser"—theater, winning some ethnic prize. Of course he doesn't go—but then that is a terrible decision, politically.

A scene from Les Kurbas production of Mykola Kulishs Maklena Grasa (1933).When regional theaters toured Moscow they had to undergo a samokritika session with Moscow representatives. There's an amazing document where Marian Khrushelnytskyi, who took over the theater after Kurbas, is trying to delicately talk about their performances in the late 1930s in Moscow. These are great actors, but here they are having to justify themselves to the representatives from the center.

But there are consequences to this. The best generally went to Moscow: best actors, students, etc. The best teachers were there, the best students were there, and if you remove the best for several generations, you end up with less talented people in the regions. This is not to say there were not amazing artists in Soviet Ukraine, because there were. But the big coup, of course, was to get a job, or a theater school position, in Moscow. After 1991, Moscow ceased to be the "political" center, but in many ways it was still the artistic center. Now it is not. People use the methods of post-colonialism to analyze this (how do people decolonize their mentalities?), but Soviet Ukraine actually was not a colony; it was a hugely important republic in the Soviet Union. These artists I write about were not colonized; rather, they were deeply invested in and involved in the very building of socialism.

HURI: Was there anything in your research that surprised you, or that you found particularly interesting? Anything that didn’t make it into the book?

Fowler:  Of course, lots did not make it into the book. Much of that material has been or is being published elsewhere—on new patronage practices during the Civil War, on Ukrainian jazz in Lviv, for example. As soon as you start a full-time tenure-track job you have very little time for new research, so you have to make what you have work for you.

It has been surprising how my thinking has changed during the events in Ukraine since 2013. I went to Moscow in the summer of 2014 and listened to people on the bus talk about the fascists in Ukraine, heard about the fascists in Ukraine on the news, and got a few funny looks at the literature and art archive when I kept slipping up and saying "tak" instead of "da."

I also felt like I had a different perspective on the situation in Ukraine than my western colleagues whose work focuses on Russia. Your work changes you and your perspective. So—on some tiny level—I felt like I "got" my actors much more, what it would have been like for Kurbas and Kulish, et al, to come to Moscow and suddenly feel peripheral and like no one understood what was going on back home. That inspired me to really push this idea of cultural dynamics and "cultural topography," to really push the idea that this is a book about Soviet culture, and that part of Soviet culture is this deep centralization that provincialized the regions. Kurbas and Kulish and their circle have become much more prevalent in discourse in Ukraine now, but I do think they have been, excuse the term, de-communized. They were Soviet artists and that Soviet-ness to them, to their project, to the explosion of culture in the 1920s, is lost. Taking that Soviet context away lessens their achievements, I believe. They fundamentally believed theater could change the world.

HURI: Why did you pursue a fellowship at HURI? What was the value of having that time here?

Fowler:  I applied to HURI because it's a center of studying Ukraine and everyone applies to HURI who works on Ukraine. It seemed like everyone important had spent a semester there.

The value of HURI was two-fold—first, it struck me how separate the Davis Center, the Center for European Studies, and HURI are. They are in different spaces on campus. That geographic separation, actually, really helped me think about how that came to be, why studying Ukraine is different from studying "Russia and Eurasia,” why Ukraine topics were in the Seminar in Ukrainian Studies but never the Davis Seminar… and why Europe included none of them! There was something about walking from the Davis offices to HURI to CES in the snow that really activated my thinking on cultural topography.

Oh, and let's not forget Jewish Studies. One of the best things I did that semester was take Yiddish from Sunny Yudkoff, now at Chicago, who is an awesome teacher. So that piece---why are the Jews separated from the study of Ukraine?---that was a really provocative question, too.

But the second real value for me was people. I met Oleh Kotsyuba and Nadia Kravets on my first day and they just swooped me up with friendship and colleagueship and support. It was really the first time I talked about "Ukrainian Studies" as something I did, as something I wanted to change, and as something I was a part of, in an engaged way and not just as a graduate student who happened to be writing on Ukraine. I audited George Grabowicz's Shevchenko seminar and—I even mentioned this in my book acknowledgements!—finally got why people liked Shevchenko. It was really useful for me. And of course talking with Serhii Plokhii was incredibly useful as well.

Amvrosii Buchma as Jimmy Higgins in the Berezil production (1923).HURI: Aside from organization and concision, what changes did you make to your manuscript before publishing as a book?

Fowler: I went to Moscow.

Honestly, I had such a rich life doing research in Ukraine, in Kyiv, and then teaching in Lviv after my PhD. I was one of those graduate students who kind of settles in one place and does not want to leave. I should have gone to Moscow as a graduate student on Princeton's dime, but I did not. I don't regret that—it meant I read a ton of material in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Lviv, it meant I learned Ukrainian well, it meant I created a network of friends and colleagues, people I now have known for years and years.

But all of my advisors said I had to incorporate Moscow material into the book. So I did, the year after HURI. I thoroughly re-organized the manuscript by "pairing" each of the Soviet Ukrainians with a more famous theater artist who made it big in Moscow. So: Kulish, Bulgakov; Vyshnia, Ilf-Petrov; Kurbas, Mikhoels. The pairs then help me both "provincialize" Moscow, because it places these artists firmly in the pantheon of Soviet celebrities; but it also helps me make these Soviet Ukrainian artists Soviet. They were Soviet artists. Kulish, Kurbas, Vyshnia -- they were not separate from the Soviet project. They created the Soviet Ukrainian cultural infrastructure, for better and for worse.

I also got to read a lot of material that put my material from Ukraine in context, a larger context: all-Union meetings where the Soviet Ukrainian managers speak, the Khrushelnytskyi document I mentioned, the organizing of touring and who gets to go to Moscow and who has to go to Minsk, etc. Going to Moscow helped me see the larger cultural topography, how places get to be important, how people ascribe importance to certain cities and regions.

HURI: Can you share a memorable experience from your time at Harvard (doesn’t have to be about the book/work)?

Fowler:  I associate places with food: That sandwich with the apple---a sweet note in a savory sandwich—is delicious, at Darwin's. I managed to spend way too much money at Darwin's. I also really appreciated the cafeteria "Chauhaus" at the architecture school. I always chuckled when I went inside. I went to a really great hot yoga studio, which helped me mentally. When I finally got the Jacyk fellowship for the next year I felt like I could take the time to explore Boston itself, go to museums, explore the Freedom Trail, and walk around the Common.

HURI: Anything else you’d like us to know?

Fowler:  Buy my book. Go to the theater. Support the arts.

Book Description:

In Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge, Mayhill C. Fowler tells the story of the rise and fall of a group of men who created culture both Soviet and Ukrainian. This collective biography showcases new aspects of the politics of cultural production in the Soviet Union by focusing on theater and on the multi-ethnic borderlands. Unlike their contemporaries in Moscow or Leningrad, these artists from the regions have been all but forgotten despite the quality of their art. Beau Monde restores the periphery to the center of Soviet culture. Sources in Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Yiddish highlight the important multi-ethnic context and the challenges inherent in constructing Ukrainian culture in a place of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Jews. Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge traces the growing overlap between the arts and the state in the early Soviet years, and explains the intertwining of politics and culture in the region today.

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