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Opera House: between ideology and culture

ID: 224
How did the rise of Ukrainian culture during the war look like? Is it possible in the occupation to create a culture that is free of ideology? The Opera House could be the case to raise those issues.

This story elaborates on the theme Collaboration, that was prepared as a part of the program The Complicated Pages of Common History: Telling About World War II in Lviv.

Theater in occupation: art, collaboration, anxiety

World War II and the Soviet and Nazi occupation radically changed the dynamics of power relations in the main theatrical institution of Lviv — the Opera Theater. During the Soviet and Nazi occupation, the theater, founded as a place of creation and representation of Polish high culture, became a leading Ukrainian cultural institution. For the first time, Ukrainian theater began to dominate the artistic landscape. Indeed, access to cultural infrastructure with its many resources gave a significant impetus to the development of Ukrainian theatrical art. Problematic, however, is the fact that the rise of Ukrainian theater was the result of interaction with the Soviet and Nazi occupation regimes. At a time when Ukrainians were celebrating the triumph of the first-ever production of Shakespeare's Hamlet in Ukrainian theater, persecution and murder of Jews took place nearby. However, the moral liminality of the Ukrainian artists’ experiences during the war was a typical rather than an exceptional characteristic of life in the conditions of changing hostile regimes.

The theater building: power, propaganda, and violence

The theater occupied an important place in the management of the region. It was not only a key cultural institution of the city but also a main architectural structure. It was the opera theater that was the starting point of the city center. Thus, the occupation regimes chose the theater and its architectural ensemble as a place of the manifestation of their power. The promenade, which began from the opera theater, was constantly renamed according to the new ideological fashion. During the Soviet occupation, the street was renamed in honour of the First of May feast, while during the Nazi occupation it was called Adolf Hitler Ring. The square in front of the theater was also the site of official monuments. In 1939, a monument to Stalin's constitution was erected near the theater. After the arrival of Nazi troops, it was destroyed. Instead, in front of the entrance to the theater, the new administration erected a memorial cube in honour of Adolf Hitler.

In addition, the theater building and the surrounding space became a central place for political performance. For example, after the entry of Soviet troops into the city, on October 26-28, 1939, the People's Assembly of Western Ukraine took place in the theater. The assembly voted for the "reunification" of the occupied territories with Soviet Ukraine [more about the People's Assembly can be found in the article "Political Performance in the Theater: People’s Assembly"]. However, in August 1942, the theater square was already owned by the Nazis, who celebrated the anniversary of the District of Galicia’s joining the General Government there. In 1944, the military roulette changed again. In July 1944, the Soviet authorities marked their triumphant return to the city with a mass demonstration in front of the theater. The presence of leading political leaders also added to the uniqueness of the events. Among the participants in the official ceremonies, there were, for example, Nikita Khrushchev and Hans Frank.

During the war, the theater square became not only a place of political rituals but also a space of violence. As early as the first days of the Nazis' entry into Lviv, thanks to their informal tolerance and ideological stimulation, one of the central locations of the pogrom was there. After dragging a group of Jews to the theater, the rioters forced Jewish men and women to clean the theater square on their knees.

The fact that Jews were abused in the central square gave the act an additional symbolic weight. The place did matter. The centrality of the event articulated new hierarchies of power, in which Ukrainians and Poles occupied a dominant position. In an effort to declare supremacy, the rioters not only did not hide their crimes, but, on the contrary, tried to draw the attention of the city's inhabitants to the persecution of Jews. In particular, the violence not only took place in the central part of the city, but was also documented in photos. Moreover, the pogrom and persecution of Jews in a place associated with entertainment and recreation transformed the population’s social experience. The idea of the limits of what was permissible expanded. Violence was made normal, becoming a socially acceptable practice.


Theater in occupation policies

Support for Ukrainian theater was part of the general policy of prioritizing Ukrainians in Lviv by the Soviet and Nazi occupation administrations. Through the Ukrainization of Lviv, the Soviet authorities sought to facilitate the incorporation of the occupied Western Ukrainian territories into the political body of Soviet Ukraine. In turn, manipulating Ukrainian state-focused ambitions, the Nazi regime used the Ukrainian community as a counterweight to Poles and Jews.

Despite the fact that both regimes supported Ukrainian theater, they had different ideas about its role and significance. For the Soviet government, the theater was to become one of the mouthpieces of Ukrainian Soviet culture, and Lviv was to become an outpost of "Soviet musical and theatrical culture in the western regions of the republic." However, during the Soviet occupation, privileges for Ukrainian culture did not mean a ban on other theaters. Polish and Jewish artists continued to work in the city. Moreover, for some time actors from different national theaters worked on the same stage. This voluntary or forced communication between artists during the Soviet occupation was typical of Soviet policy. Therefore, in the Soviet pantheon of Western Ukraine’s national cultures, Ukrainian theater was to become not the only one but "the first among equals."

Importantly, the Soviet idea of national cultures differed significantly from that of the national communities themselves. In an attempt to depoliticize the "national," the Soviet regime promoted "national" cultures in their ethnographic variants. Thus, for example, Mykola Lysenko's Ukrainian classical opera "Natalka Poltavka" was successfully performed on the stage. At the same time, the theater was to become a platform for the promotion of Soviet theatrical art. It is not surprising that Oleksandr Korniychuk's plays appeared on its stage immediately after the theater forma ion. At that time, Korniychuk was not just a successful Soviet playwright, he was the personification of the new Soviet theater. According to researcher Mayhill Fowler:

Korniychuk not only dominated the culture of Soviet Ukraine […], he was rather a Soviet Ukrainian culture himself.

In general, the theater in Lviv was to represent a new culture that was a hybrid combination of Ukrainian ethnographic and Soviet ideological culture. However, the Soviet authorities failed to fully implement these plans due to the invasion of German troops in the summer of 1941.

Unlike the Soviet authorities, the Nazi administration did not try to incorporate Ukrainian theater into the German cultural space. According to researcher Svitlana Maksymenko, the theater was chiefly intended to perform an entertaining function for the German military. Although most performances were staged in Ukrainian, the Germans were considered priority spectators who received priority access to the performances. It is noteworthy that the ballet department was created specifically for the German public, which did not understand the Ukrainian language.

The Nazi administration was interested in high-quality and diverse productions. Therefore, the theater received constant funding. Actors and directors also got more space for creative initiative. In turn, the presence of four departments, those of drama, opera, operetta and ballet, posed new challenges to the troupe, stimulating their development. In fact, most of the actors performed on the big stage for the first time. In addition, due to lack of staff, many young Ukrainian artists got jobs in the theater. In spite of military censorship, the dramatic part, which staged exclusively Ukrainian-language plays, developed in relative autonomy. Not surprisingly, many artists recalled the period of German occupation as the golden age of Ukrainian theater. The further romanticization of the German period of occupation by Ukrainian artists also took place in view of the post-war persecution by the Soviet regime of artists who had survived the Nazi occupation. At the same time, working mainly as low-skilled workers in North America, immigrant actors also treated the wartime theatrical life in Lviv as the peak of their careers.


Creation of the Ukrainian National Theater

What was special about Lviv’s Ukrainian theater during the war? First of all, for the first time in the history of Galician theater, Ukrainians gained access to the main stage of the city. While during the Soviet occupation Ukrainians shared the stage with Polish and Jewish actors, during the Nazi period the city’s central theatrical institution became exclusively Ukrainian. It was a dramatic change. After all, neither in the Austro-Hungarian, nor, moreover, in the Polish period, Ukrainian theater did not have even partial access to the largest city theater.

The formation of the Ukrainian theater was important not only symbolically but also practically. About 600 people were employed on the stage. The financial situation and social status of artists changed radically. In the end, before the war most Ukrainian actors performed either on small rented stages in the city or constantly toured the province. Instead, during the war, they got stable jobs in the leading theater of Galicia.

However, the theater’s greatest achievement during the occupation was the possibility of creative activity. While during the Soviet occupation the theater was ideologically limited, during the Nazi occupation the younger generation of Ukrainian artists got opportunities and resources for development. Interestingly, the occupation regime change also became a time of theatrical generation change. While during the Soviet occupation the dominant place in the theater was occupied by the director Stadnyk, formed in the traditional environment of the Ruska Besida theater, the Nazi period marked the arrival of a new generation that developed under the influence of Les Kurbas’s experimental ideas.

Ukrainian artists were aware of the exceptional opportunities they gained during the Nazi occupation and actively used them. The theater operation was really very productive. In 1942 alone, 305 performances were staged. The theater’s work culminated in the production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The premiere of Hamlet, which took place on September 21, 1943, became the first production of this Shakespearean play on the Ukrainian stage. The director of the production was Yosyp Hirniak, a former Berezol theater actor; the role of Hamlet was played by the head of the theater Volodymyr Blavatsky. He later recalled:

I put all my soul, all my acting skills and experience and many months of hard, ant-like work into my role.

Both Blavatsky's performance and the play itself became a real theatrical success. Hamlet got positive reviews from the Ukrainian and foreign press, and all 25 shows were constantly sold out. Theater critic Ivan Nimchuk wrote in the Nashi Dni newspaper:

Yesterday's performance of Hamlet had all the features of a great premiere: the theater was full, the mood was that of anticipation. […] After the performance, everyone generally acknowledged that the Lviv Theater, considering its capabilities, made every effort to produce such a performance of Hamlet, which brings it a truly great honour and glory.

Undoubtedly, the production of Hamlet became a milestone not only in the history of Lviv theater but also in the history of Ukrainian theater in general.


Interaction with the regime: enthusiasm, cooperation, exclusion

Soviet occupation

Soviet support for Ukrainian theater posed many dilemmas for Galician artists. On the one hand, having one's own theater brought a lot of advantages: working in the theater opened new career opportunities, allowed to realize creative ambitions on the big stage, and also provided materially in difficult wartime circumstances. On the other hand, the theater set up by the Soviet authorities did not fully meet local expectations. Ukrainian artists had to compete with local Polish and Jewish actors, while adapting to actors coming from the Soviet Union. It was necessary to adapt not only to new people but also to new Soviet cultural values.

Lviv artists reacted to the advent of the Soviet regime in different ways. Some zealously helped create a new Soviet cultural hierarchy, hoping to gain high positions. Yosyp Stadnyk, an actor and director, was one of the first to join the development of a new Soviet Ukrainian theater. Stadnyk, whose name was associated primarily with the only professional Ukrainian theater in Galicia, Ruska Besida, became an active apologist for the new regime. He was not only appointed art director of the newly established Lesia Ukrainka Lviv Drama Theater (the official name of the opera theater), but also started an active party career. In 1940 he was elected a deputy of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. It is difficult, however, to assess Stadnyk's real attitude to the Soviet regime. It seems that his support for the Soviet rule was due to his career ambitions, and the lobbying on the part of his friends, influential actors from Soviet Ukraine, helped him realize them.

However, even if the actors did not seek promotion or privileges, contact with the Soviet authorities could not be avoided. As Blavatsky recalled, the theater was shrouded in a network of NKVD agents and "party comrades" who reported at the first opportunity. Some actors, seeking to join the system, became informers. Liudmyla Serdiuk, an actress, who had been the victim of slander several times, recalled her fear of speaking out not only to newcomers from the USSR but also to her old fellow actors.

No wonder that in an atmosphere of total control, many artists expressed, with varying degrees of sincerity, public support for the new rule. It seems, for example, that Blavatsky's pro-Soviet rhetoric was an attempt to avoid potential persecution. Blavatsky feared that his German origins and former collaboration with Les Kurbas could lead to his arrest. Like Blavatsky, some actors did not miss the opportunity to actively glorify the achievements of Soviet theater in the press or at official meetings. Despite its far-fetchedness or authenticity, the support of the Soviet regime's cultural elites helped legitimize it in Galicia.

However, most actors avoided public statements for fear of distortions and denunciations. In general, waiting and avoiding any contact with the administration was the main characteristic of the theatrical community's attitude to the Soviet rule. One example of the escapism of artists was the transition to neutral and safe activities. Ostap Tarnavsky, a poet and critic, mentioned that football competitions between actors and writers became one of the most popular things during the occupation. Actually, "silence" was an important survival tactic.


Nazi occupation

The arrival of Nazi troops once again changed the hierarchies of power in the city. Artists who had played minor roles during the Soviet occupation were given new opportunities. For example, Volodymyr Blavatsky, who felt uncomfortable under the Soviet rule, headed the theater during the Nazi occupation, removing Yosyp Stadnyk, the "pro-Soviet" art director. Stadnyk remained in the theater for several more months as an actor and then moved to Drohobych, where he headed the local theater. Blavatsky, who belonged to the new "Kurbas" generation, was critical of Stadnyk's traditional approach. Therefore, the arrival of the Nazis was a favourable opportunity for Blavatsky to resolve his long-standing creative conflict with Stadnyk.

With the establishment of the Nazi rule, not only personnel but also approaches to theater management changed. Interested in a quality theatrical product, the Nazis gave more space for creative experiments. In addition, there was less ideological pressure in the theater. No surprise that, for example, actor Yosyp Hirniak, exhausted by a Gulag imprisonment, persecution of friends, and the threat of re-imprisonment, felt much more comfortable in Nazi Lviv.

While for Blavatsky and Hirniak the Nazi occupation meant, first of all, the possibility of creating a new Ukrainian theater, more radical actors joined the armed struggle. For example, actor Yevhen Levytsky actively supported Ukrainian nationalists and volunteered for the Division SS "Galizien". However, most of the troupe's actors tried, as it had been during the Soviet occupation, to adapt in order to survive. As the war dragged on, the actors’ financial situation deteriorated. Levytsky's wife, Vira Levytska, recalled that artistic success was measured by foodstuffs brought by sympathetic German soldiers and officials. Not surprisingly, the actors later spoke neutrally or even approvingly about individual Nazis who helped the theater financially.

In spite of some cases of isolated positive interaction, the German occupation put Ukrainian artists in a morally difficult position. In times of total Nazi racial violence, even outright distancing from the occupation regime was ethically problematic. The repressive policy of the Nazi regime was no secret to the Ukrainian community. Although Ukrainian artists were not directly involved in the crimes committed by the Nazis, the theater's activities were a consolation and emotional support to the Nazi troops and administration. Moreover, the Ukrainian theater was one of the places of racial and ethnic discrimination. Not only Jewish and Polish actors but also spectators were removed from it. Jews were completely forbidden to attend the theater. At the same time, after the ban on their own national theater, Lviv’s Polish residents began to visit a theater underground. As being close to the Nazis at cultural events was equated with collaboration in the Polish community, underground activities were the only acceptable form of theatrical life under occupation. Unlike Poles and Jews, Ukrainians were privileged and could visit the theater four times a week thanks to an identity card (Kennkarte) with the letter "U". Unlike Poles, Ukrainians considered going to the theater as support for their own national culture and the restoration of historical justice. Finally, the oppressed Ukrainian culture got a chance to develop. Instead, Jews and Poles interpreted the constant presence of Ukrainians alongside the Nazis on the stage, in the lobby and in the auditorium as cooperation with the Nazi regime. Different interpretations of interaction with the Germans deepened the cultural gap between the national communities. Mutual interethnic differentiation intensified, thus lubricating the mechanisms of violence.


Anxiety: instead of a conclusion

While the activities of the Ukrainian theater during the war were an artistic success, the experiences of the actors were complex and contradictory. Everyday life was permeated with anxiety. The occupation meant uncertainty and temporality. It was difficult for the artists to navigate the new taxonomies of the occupation administrations. There were no instructions on proper behaviour. In addition, the hierarchies were constantly changing. Those who had supported the Soviet rule were targeted by the Nazis. In turn, after the war, the Soviet authorities labeled collaborators and persecuted all those who had remained in the Nazi-occupied territory. The situation, however, also changed within one occupation regime. Even a "shade in performance", as Blavatsky put it, could change a favourable attitude into a disfavour. Moreover, the lack of direct contact with the authorities also did not reduce tensions. What especially undermined the sense of security was distrust of one’s colleagues. In conditions of constant anxiety, moral insensitivity to all those who were not in the immediate circle was not something exceptional. "Silence" was not only a survival strategy in the theater but also a way of life under the occupation in general.

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Oksana Dudko
Translated by Andriy Masliukh

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Prosp. Svobody, 28 – Lviv Opera house

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