Boris Yukhananov: “Dostoevsky exists in culture as a mirage”
22 November 2021
Photo by Olympia Orlova

Polka (Shelf), November 12, 2021

The Dostoevsky and Theatre conference, curated by Polka, was held in May 2021 in the New Space of the Theater of Nations as part of the Golden Mask festival. Honoring the 200th anniversary of Dostoevsky's birth, we now publish a conversation between Yury Saprykin and Boris Yukhananov: the director spoke about his big Demons project, which he mounted in the German city of Cottbus. In this conversation Yukhananov tells why a new reading of Dostoevsky is necessary and inevitable today, how to separate his dialogues from his narrative, how to look at Demons through the prism of an object-oriented ontology, and why his own project required a neural network.


How did you come to Demons — or how did Demons come to you? What's the backstory? Is this the first time you have worked with Dostoevsky?

Basically, yes. You know, any project emerges from some very intimate depths of your life. At least, that’s true of me. When a German theatre asked me to mount a project based on the Russian classics, I quickly realized it would be Dostoevsky's Demons. I understood that from the sound of it. I wasn’t rereading it every week.

For me, the accumulated context determined my choice. I understood that if there were a novel that European civilization was constantly dealing with — in productions, various adaptations, and in the form of philosophical speculations — then it was Demons. But this novel also had a great affect on the Silver Age and Russian philosophy. I think all the main figures [of that time] expressed their opinion of it. That is why I immediately named this text, even before I truly wanted to do the production.

Then the pandemic hit and I was sitting in my house near Moscow. Suddenly, at one point after Orthodox Easter or somewhere thereabouts, I began to receive... This is what poets call it, you know, “receiving.” I began receiving as a graphic artist. I suddenly began “receiving” graphics. That is, I felt like my soul went on a journey — a journey that had certain features. And I understood what was happening. This is the traditional journey associated with the Greek word catabasis, meaning descent. To Hades or to hell. There are important differences between the two. But that’s irrelevant here.

I had some very good Chinese ink. And brushes. And paper that I once bought in Florence. From Milan. Moreover, it was stationery, but it took ink beautifully. And suddenly I realized: in order to express what was coming to me, I had to invent a special technique. It invented itself. I began making blots, which I then turned into figurative stories. At the same time, I remembered — this was the essence of this «receiving» — a concept from my childhood: the thread of the Mother of God. This is the name we gave a cobweb that has come free of the spider, and is flying on the wind. I remember how tenderly they would come to rest on my face. I suddenly felt this cobweb. Here the key feeling is internal. Yes, this is important: the key point is the cobweb.

And so I, with this cobweb as my main character, journeyed into these graphics and made 86 blob-like graphic paintings — which, of course, then became figurative. I just observed what was happening to me. I saw what mutations this web went through. At the same time, the presence of the cobweb, which is cast over our life in the form of the Internet, has become aggravated. There, on my journey, this web mutated into incredible distortions, monsters, arboreal nets, and so on.

This is how I entered the Demons project — through catabasis. And I sent my graphics to my colleagues with whom I was doing this project. I said I would have two sources for my production: the graphics and Dostoevsky's text.

That’s how the project was born. But it come together in a very ambitious form. Because it involved opera, drama, and physical theatre, plus we invited students from various German schools — from architecture to film schools. They all came together in the fall. And my plan was, simultaneously with the production, to do a whole series of actions in connection with Fyodor Mikhailovich and his text. This was all to be connected into a single network. But the pandemic dictated the circumstances, and now it was impossible to do anything on the street.

Demons has been interpreted hundreds of times, many people have thought and written about what the novel’s title means. Is it a temptation to overturn all social hierarchies? Is it the damaging of the soul? Is it an infernal whirling that draws characters into its whirlpool? Your Demons, represented in graphic form, are very dark protuberances. How do you decode this for yourself?

I primarily think of the text itself as an object. It is a very dense object, which I hear from where I am located as a single entity. As a result of working with this text, I have evolved a number of internal taboos. The first is the psychological, mental, and spiritual perception of the text. That doesn’t exist, at least in my hearing of the text. Wherever history has made this text timely, its timeliness has been exhausted. Everything came to be that Fyodor Mikhailovich prophesied with this tale.

The prophecies came true and that is that.

Well, it withdrew into a shell, it came to an end. And in this sense, the text became an object. Further, I can say it is arranged amazingly. Dostoevsky himself is as alienated as possible, his voice, in fact, is absent there. Thus, he creates this very detailed novelistic flow acquiring certain guises, that is, types of distances shaped in a certain way. The structure of this object, its layering is, of course, remarkable, that’s to put it mildly. At the same time, when you look from the point of view of theatre, you see dialogues. Plus incredible descriptions, details of material realities and things like that. It is clear that the one and the other — despite the fact that everything is structured amazingly and appears to be an integral whole – in fact, are quite different.

I don't know if anyone has tried to isolate the entire epic layer — in the sense of the epic perspective of the story, the narrative. It is clear that, leaving aside the dialogues and the whole musicality of these subtle connections, it turns into something completely different. But the dialogues exist in exactly the same way. For example, it quickly became clear to me that in no case should I attempt to create a montage. That is, to create a stage version. If you go into dramatization, you become a playwright – and at that moment you lose contact with the intricately arranged, in fact, spiderweb-like, network-like fabric of this novel.

The second aspect is related to the fact that if we perceive the text as an object endowed with certain properties, I understand these properties as catabasis. That is, I see a city captured entirely, thoroughly, from head to toe, by a kind of special net of devilry, a special act of hell. Once Efros, my teacher, very accurately, although very generally, said about Gorky's The Lower Depths: the lower depths are raised to the top. That was his whole solution of the play. Beautiful, in my opinion. How he put this together with the bandits at the Taganka is a different story. But the lower depths that rise upward is an excellent solution to a work.

But in the case of Demons we are not dealing with the lower depths. We are dealing with an abyss. And this abyss rose from the depths. From the first lines of the novel to the last, everything exists inside this abyss that has acquired the features and properties of a network, because the internal communications that permeate the novel are very similar to a network.

One way or another, the present is a time when the personal as such must be pacified, like a pacer, like a dangerous stallion. It is not so much that it is impossible today, but you simply do not want to awaken your personality to do violence against the text. I would like somehow to remove my personality and allow the text to be present in my work as an object — with my own efforts, with my own activity. Perhaps this is not a trend of the past, but of the future.

This is how I hear the need to work with the field of the novel, as expressed, in particular, in the novel called Demons. Therefore, I, in fact, carry out my project in collaboration with a neural network. These days, it seems to me, every artist who enters the dangerous path of interacting with the contemporary is seeking these manners of objectification. In philosophy, it is called an object-oriented ontology. In no case does it affect the work itself, it's just that these LLCs are present somewhere nearby — that's how the current perspective of relations with the world is expressed these days.

Dostoevsky, as you know, responded to requests to dramatize his novels: pardon me, but the novel is a novel, you cannot touch it, its properties cannot be conveyed without loss. If you want, take the general idea and write a different text.

Right. Despite the fact he was not a theatrical person. I agree with that. The experience of objectification — these are the steps that need to be taken. Therefore, we turned to what is commonly called a «wikiquote.» The novel has already existed over a hundred years — and, naturally, in a certain way, it has settled into the collective unconscious of the worldwide web. We researched all languages and chose wikiquotes. This was the first act of depersonalization that we performed. The second act was that I inserted these wikiquotes into a neural network, that is, artificial intelligence. And it began taking Dostoevsky further. In a sense, it imbibed Dostoevsky then wrote its own fragments. As such, I achieved a dialogue between impersonal traces of communication with this text in different languages, expressed in the form of wikiquotes — and the continuation of these wikiquotes already in the form of neural network actions. This is how a body of texts emerged, the fundamental flesh of this project.

But that's not all. Mitya Kourliandski and I worked the same way with music. A neural network was also involved in the creation of the music. Meanwhile, I took some important scenes and separated them. That is, I did something that seems necessary in order to discover the surreal properties that exist in the interaction of epic, «explicative» prose and dialogue. The main tension of my current work implies an understanding of how Dostoevsky's dialogue might appear on stage today. It is absolutely obvious to me that it must be boiled off, cleansed of all those moments that serve to provide narrative.

That is, it must not be a means of plot development, a mechanism for plot movement? It must be suspended in space, alone by itself?

Yes. I would say so. I don’t want to offend anyone in any way, but ideas do not have gender. All of Dostoevsky's dialogues, from beginning to end, are woven not of the matter of dreams, but of the matter of ideas. They continuously move alongside this text. The descriptions that he hides under the guise of certain characters are arranged like a stunning objective, materialized world. They are detailed and remarkably pronounced. The combination of the two provides an absolutely surreal effect. Magritte, do you understand?

Then the whole technique of working with this text in the theatre — where ideas predominate — is, in fact, the Shakespearean open space. Neither interior, nor exterior... I don't know how to say it. Let's call it the street. There's a special kind of distance that must be set initially and then you try to implement it. This distance is called paradise. In order to play hell, you must build heaven. This is a paradox.

Catabasis necessarily also implies anabasis, that is, an ascent. And not of demons, but of angels. That is, only angels, if we speak in the language of metaphors, can play demons. Only an extreme distance of that kind. It is something that needs to be built so that ideas, freed from the narrative sacrificial slaughter, torn out of the so-called actual context, begin to sparkle in freedom where they actually live. That is, in paradise.

That is, these are ideas not in the sense of a dispute between Westernizers and Slavophiles or Kireevsky and Aksakov, but in the Platonic sense? Ideas as entities in some kind of intelligible space?

Yes. The fact is that Plato knows the truth, you understand?

And we don't.

Right. Then the Sophists defeated Plato. I have just laid out before you the technological problems of this project. Two points remain. One — which in the near future will no longer work. I wanted to cast this text as a network over today's lively provincial German city of Cottbus. And I wanted to create this network with the help of a number of acts that would strictly preserve Dostoevsky's text (fragmented, of course). I wanted to implement it everywhere: in stores, here, there, in various forms. Like that cobweb that has come free of the spider. The thread of the Virgin Mary launched over Cottbus. The second point was the epic perspective of the narrator, which in no case should be correlated with dialogue. The paradox is that the connection must be severed.

You spoke of a certain act connected with Dostoevsky himself, with the figure of Dostoevsky, which is included in this large project.

As such, I do not present a model of Dostoevsky at all. That is impossible for me. To do so, I would need to do a great deal of research, personal research, do a careful reading of his journals, of everything-everything-everything. Then at least some model might emerge.

Dostoevsky does not exist for me. What exists is a kind of scarecrow that is groped on all sides, for different purposes. I don't engage in such operations, at all. I would not speculate about Dostoevsky. I can only talk about the properties of the text from the point of view of theatre. For me, this is the more or less proper view — strongly defined by my sense that the living action of this text has reached its end. If we trust this text, we will constantly find ourselves sharing time with the past tense. But that's good. That means we can hope for a new type of distance. We are dealing with a ruin, or stone. He became some thing, an object. He became an object. He ceased to be something that does not yet know its boundaries. This text is a prophecy that has already established its boundaries — that is how I hear it.

But then it has properties. Shatov and Maria. Do you remember this scene? It's amazing what is written there. At what point does this pregnant woman appear? During the finale. She's not there before that. There you have it.

She appears before the murder.

No,  a scene is underway. There is no pregnant woman in this scene. Dostoevsky wrote no such thing. Do you understand? This is something else. Then she is described as pregnant. That's what he writes.

What does this say about him? Or about the nature of his texts?

Well, it's quite strange.


If this is a realistic scene, realistic writing, then a third individual is constantly present — a child. The pregnant woman is the main figure of the dialogue. If none of this were true, we would have another scene. Does she get pregnant during this dialogue, or is she just assigned as pregnant in the finale? The reality of this text is presented, represented in a different way. In this sense, using this scene as an example, I try to say that Dostoevsky is unknown to us. We must read him carefully again. Because we cannot hope that what we consider a realistic description of a certain situation or a certain interior will turn out, in principle, to be a reality. Then a completely different law opens up. This entire entity must be understood according to other laws. We must understand it anew, doing it slowly, having provided ourselves with the tools that our hermeneutic possibilities, the general humanitarian situation, have achieved today.

What does this mean? Why does he create the scene like that? It seems to me that this confirms that the system of his dialogue, and the scene based on it, is bifurcated into a tangible, but surrealistic description. Imagine that Mary in this dialogue is a round sculpture and that a camera flies around her in a spiral. It flies by time and again. We do not see any belly. The camera continues to fly in a continuous frame. Suddenly we see, at some point in the finale, that a belly has formed there. That is, the dialogue has given rise to this belly.

Again, a story from the Gospels.

Well, I don't want any associations. Or, moreover, to affect someone's feelings. My assertion is that the totality of Dostoevsky's writing — in Demons certainly, but I suspect it's true in all of his main novels — is arranged according to just such an underlying method. The text, the way it unfolds in the territory of one or another scene, unleashes hidden surrealistic miracles on us. In this sense, I think Dostoevsky has not been read yet. All of those narrative, montage, psychoid, philosophical-transcendental attachments with which we are accustomed to perceive Dostoevsky — all of this is a consequence of reading him in time. Now, when time has changed so much in the reality of our reading — it doesn't matter if we read slowly or quickly, that's not what we're talking about — Dostoevsky must be read anew. To do so, we must at least take one more lap, which I call object-oriented.

We are taking a cliff and trying to drag it, as an object, to another place — from a place called «novel» to a place called «stage.» If we are going to weep over this...

But, there is a huge tradition of sobbing over Dostoevsky's texts, using them as fuel for excess, ecstasy, exceeding one's limits. On stage as well.

Yes, and in film. But then we are dealing with some kind of ersatz, we don't meet Dostoevsky there. This is a way to organize a non-meeting. There is, if you will, a completely different picture. A mirage. It exists in a desert. But if we build it up, translate it into the language of cinema or something else — there will be no mirage, it will become a reality. But it was a mirage. That's Dostoevsky for you. He exists in culture as a mirage. And this presents a challenge.

Why is a neural network important, and how does it help to work with this mirage?

It doesn't. At all. It simply is sensitive to mirages, it creates its own mirages. But since this happens on our own initiative, we have the opportunity not only to encounter the past, but to carry out an act that is obvious in its performativity, and to install it on stage in the form of processuality: the meeting of Dostoevsky's finished text and an object that is just now becoming, is being born... Because if you send the text to a neural network a second time, another variation will appear. That is, you can «uncork» this mirage and find enormous, incredible variability in it. You can enter into dialogue with a non-human consciousness. Thanks to this, it is possible to see all the mirage-like properties of the reality that Dostoevsky's text seems to us to be. In this territory you can exaggerate its focus and engage with his dialogues, which are very real. Not where the flesh of the material world (which appears to us and exists in the form of a text) is, but where the world of ideas exists, coiled in a special way into a spring for action. This is something theatre can deal with.


Catabasis. Demons, an exhibit dedicated to the production of the same name by Boris Yukhananov, runs in the foyer of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre from November 14 to December 19, 2021.