(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/14/2023; Photo: Dark and surreal … Inga Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov in The Last of the Soviets. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian.)

Zoo Playground, Edinburgh

Inspired by the work of Nobel-winning Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, this is a disturbing but blackly funny piece

Every performance of The Last of the Soviets by the Czech company Spitfire is dedicated to Belarusian political prisoner Palina Sharenda Panasyuk, an activist detained in 2021 for her opposition to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. “We want to support people who are not afraid to speak out loud,” says actor Inga Mikshina-Zotova at the end of the show.

That seems only appropriate after a performance all about what can and cannot be said in a totalitarian regime. Petr Boháč’s unsettling production is inspired by the work of Nobel prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian investigative journalist who has specialised in first-hand testimonies about key moments in Soviet history. In its allusions to the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s and other military conflicts, the show paints an image of a culture, whether in Russia or Belarus, debilitated by cognitive dissonance, unable to square the circle between national myth and actual experience.

Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov – Russian actors currently living in Prague – play stony-faced newsreaders navigating truth and propaganda from behind a TV studio desk. It does not take long for their facade to crack, or their boosterism to give way to deathly dry gallows humour and violent outbursts. The more their jokes about Chernobyl victims get lost in translation, the more disturbing the reality seems. Mikshin-Zotov decides one joke simply cannot be translated at all and stops trying, leaving only bleakness.

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