The Russian Centre for Science and Culture – also known to Phnom Penh as Russian House – sponsored an evening of musical and theatrical performance titled Dostoevsky and Us on December 3 for the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the iconic Russian novelist Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky.
The evening was also held to celebrate and support the Cambodian government’s decision to fully reopen the country and allow events like festivals, exhibitions and theatrical performances once again because they constitute an important element of the cultural life of the Kingdom.
Dostoevsky and Us is a theatrical production based on Dostoevsky’s 1859 novel The Village of Stepanchikovo – also known as The Friend of the Family – with a mix of actors dramatising scenes excerpted from the book as well as music, dance and video.
“The production uses Dostoevsky’s story of the good-natured landowner Nastasya who is visited by her nephew Sergei, a recent graduate from St Petersburg University. But the abusive Foma reigns in the house of Nastasya, oppressing all of the family members and not tolerating any dissent. A severe conflict ensues with an unexpected resolution,” says Russian playwright Vitaly Smyshlyaev.
Smyshlyaev tells The Post that the cast had a great time rehearsing and being back on stage performing after almost a year of inactivity due to pandemic related restrictions. He said it was difficult at first to tune back into their creative energies but everyone really missed the connection with the audience created by live performances.
“We are very glad that in spite of this being a Friday evening with traffic jams, a lot of people came to the show. The audience’s reaction to the performance was very warm and sympathetic and that really made it easy for the performers up on stage.
“Considering that our performers are not professionals, the reaction of the audience is especially important. When the audience is receptive and attentive it gives them the confidence needed to do their best. Also, we had many young people and children participating, and their emotional state is even more highly dependent on feedback from the audience,” says Smyshlyaev.
Smyshlyaev says the energy of the audience of approximately 140 people from countries around the globe was great and helped make the performance that evening a success. He also gave thanks to Irina Tsatsulina, who runs the Russian House cultural centre at the Russian embassy.
The audience gave the performers a lengthy ovation at the conclusion of the show and the actors were presented with bouquets of flowers. They then stuck around in costume afterwards, taking pictures full of smiling faces with members of the audience.
The literary world has been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dostoevsky throughout 2021. The novelist is perhaps best known for authoring Crime and Punishment, a tale of murder and the dread of being caught experienced by the guilty protagonist in its aftermath – considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest works of fiction ever written in any language – but he actually had quite a dramatic life himself, experiencing imprisonment and exile for political reasons where he was forced to do hard labor as punishment in a prison camp in Siberia.
Dostoevsky’s biography full of hardships that he experienced firsthand gave him insight into human suffering and his works have helped readers understand the complexity of the human experience across a wide range of emotional states as embodied by his richly conceived characters.
“Dostoevsky wrote his books 150 years ago, but all the questions he posed in his novels are still relevant today. In our personal and social lives we constantly collide with and search for answers to the eternal questions posed by Dostoevsky,” says Smyshlyaev, explaining why he chose Dostoevsky and Us as his title.
Smyshlyaev says that staging a play was a way to remind people that the Kingdom of Cambodia is open once again and moving into a post-pandemic period. He says Dostoevsky fit that theme perfectly because although his books can be very dark and filled with suffering at times they always contain a spark of hope and faith in the possibility of a better future.
“We included a lot of video elements in the production, because multimedia is an essential part of today’s youth culture. At the same time, we hope that our production will encourage young people to read books. At the very least the participants in the production have already turned to Dostoevsky’s books,” he says.
The production is interspersed with video reports from the Russian cities of Moscow and St Petersburg as well as Kazakhstan – all locations associated with Dostoevsky’s life story. The show also has a lot of music – both traditional and modern – and there is a children’s dance number.
There were 27 people in the cast – both adults and students in elementary and middle school – who hailed from Russia, Kazakhstan and Cambodia. Fourteen more people were directly involved in staging the production with additional collaborators helping to create the video segments in Russia and Kazakhstan.
The video segments were subtitled in English and the foreword to the play was translated into Khmer. Attendees who didn’t speak Russian were given a translation and summary of the performance in English as they entered.
“I think the show was well understood as we used a mixture of different art forms and themes – tragedy and comedy, dance and music, video and live theater. The performance itself was about family relationships, which is understandable to any person, regardless of nationality,” says Smyshlyaev.
Dostoevsky spent a lot of time in Central Asia and one of the literary themes he often explored was bringing European and Asian cultures closer together says Smyshlyaev, adding that they tried to express this aspect of his work in the production.
By way of example, Smyshlyaev says that in western or European culture the scenarios being depictred often boil down to the main character taking the side of good in order to fight those who are doing evil in a very black and white moral universe.
However, he says, the influence of Asian culture on Dostoevsky’s work is best expressed in the video message by a Khmer student studying in Russia who intones that “every person has good and evil within them and Dostoevsky depicts these inner struggles.”
An example of this duality within human beings is present in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as well. The protagonist Raskolnikov commits a terrible crime – murder – but he does so in part because he is driven to it by poverty and he deeply regrets it afterwards.
One of the main themes of Dostoevsky’s novels can be expressed in the words of Gautama Buddha who said that “hatred is never appeased by hatred … it can only be stopped by hatred’s absence.”
“The theme of this event was best expressed by the writer Dostoevsky himself in his famous quote: ‘Beauty will save the world’. Our purpose here is only to repeat this message on his behalf,” Smyshlyaev says.
The Russian House in Phnom Penh – the cultural institute attached to the Russian embassy – supported the event and did a great deal of organisational work preparing the production for the stage. Volunteers from the art community “Phnom Рaint” also pitched in.
As head of the Russian House, Tsatsulina did everything possible to please the performers and audience with this production despite the difficulties of preparing for the show under the Covid-restricted conditions and not knowing how long they might last for or if they would become even more stringent.
“Audiences have lost the habit of gathering together and seeing shows and it was difficult for the artists to tune in to working on the stage. Also, unfortunately, a group of Khmer students from Russian universities who were supposed to participate in the production ended up having to leave to return to school literally ten days before the premiere.
“That was why they had to participate online. Everyone is a little frozen and we hope that the Russian House helped people to ‘warm up’ the crowd for the reopening of the Kingdom,” he says.
Smyshlyaev is exploring the idea of doing a film version of Dostoevsky and Us and he says that interested theatre-goers should keep their eyes on the events calendar because in the near future the Russian House will be inviting audiences to a staging of a New Year’s fairy tale performed by Russian and Khmer children.