Fundraiser marks two years
of Russian invasion

The playwright and star of Marusya Nikiforova speak about the play and the conflict in Q&A

By Irwin Rapoport

February 15, 2024

It was two years ago, on February 24, 2022, that the Russian Federation (Russia) invaded Ukraine based on the flimsiest and most insane reason, the need to de-Nazify Ukraine. The conflict has the Ukrainian people fighting for their very lives and the literal survival of their country and has led to serious and horrible impacts on the nation itself and across the globe in terms of international relations, the economy, and the environment.

The first paragraph of Wikipedia’s Russian Invasion of Ukraine page tells a terrible story:

“On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that started in 2014. The invasion became the largest attack on a European country since World War II. It is estimated to have caused tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of military casualties. By June 2022, Russian troops occupied about 20% of Ukrainian territory. About 8 million Ukrainians had been internally displaced, and more than 8.2 million had fled the country by April 2023, creating Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. Extensive environmental damage caused by the war, widely described as ecocide, contributed to food crises worldwide.”

The Wikipedia page Casualties of the Russo-Ukrainian War provides grim statistics on the casualties of the war, which continues to rage on without any hope of a peaceful conclusion.

Norman Nawrocki, a well-known Montreal author, playwright, musician, and artist, is proud of his Ukrainian heritage and, like many other Canadians, be they of Ukrainian heritage or just concerned humanitarians, is doing what he can to help the people of the beleaguered country.

Between February 15 and 29, Nawrocki is holding a fundraiser film screening on YouTube for feminists, anarchists, environmentalists, and others fighting on the frontlines in Ukraine today. It is a film version of his play, Marusya Nikiforova: Ukraine’s Legendary Anarchist Warrior, starring the Ukrainian actress Mariya Hadubyak.

“This special event, marking the second year of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, is a fundraiser for modern-day Marusysas still fighting,” states the press release. The film can be seen on the playwright’s YouTube channel.

Marusya Nikiforova: Ukraine's Legendary Anarchist Warrior

Image: Ivan Arturo

The film documents the brilliant performance by Hadubyak at the play’s world premiere in 2023 at Montreal’s La Sala Rossa that brought the full house to tears and their feet. The play was part of the 16th annual Montreal International Anarchist Theatre Festival.

“Though anyone can watch the film for free on YouTube, viewers are encouraged to make a voluntary donation to Solidarity Collectives in Ukraine to support activists fighting on the frontlines today,” states the press release. “Solidarity Collectives is an anti-authoritarian volunteer network that unites several individual and organizational grassroots initiatives united to help the Ukrainian resistance movement and people affected by the Russian invasion.”

On stage, Hadubyak portrays the little-known, fearless and feared, badass Ukrainian anarchist, feminist and military leader, Marusya Nikiforova (1885–1919). In the play, Nikiforova relives key moments of her life while appearing before a final military tribunal.

“She demonstrates her incredible courage, her will to resist, and the love that sustained her during a too-short existence,” said Nawrecki, “She’s an extraordinary role model for those fighting on Ukraine’s front lines today.”

Nawrocki has written, directed and toured over twenty theatrical creations since 1986, including plays about immigrant women workers, anti-fascist women and a series recounting the history of Ukrainian-Canadians. He has Ukrainian/Polish family roots. His previous play was the acclaimed Run Nawrocki Run! Escape from Banff Prison (2021).

Mariya Hadubyak is a Ukrainian actress from Boryslav. She has been living in Montréal since 2022. In Ukraine, she performed in the Boryslav People’s Drama Theater for Children and Youth, named after Peter Telyuk. Since arriving in Canada, she has been performing with the Montreal Ukrainian theatre troupe Stozhary (Bad Roads) in the city and Ottawa. Vivian Nawrocki (Nawrocki’s sister) produced a compelling soundtrack.

Marusya Nikiforova: Ukraine's Legendary Anarchist Warrior

Image: Studio Rond Point

In this Q&A, Nawrocki and Hadubyak speak about the play and the ongoing war:

WM: What inspired you to write the play, and what are some of the themes that compelled you to tell the story?

Nawrocki: I was inspired by the life of Marusya Nikiforova herself (1885–1919) in all her complexity and stories of brave Ukrainian women now resisting the Russian invasion on the battlefields. Underappreciated and neglected, it seemed to me that Nikiforova had something to offer women today in Ukraine and elsewhere as a role model. How many fearless and feared, badass anarchist women led their own army during the Russian Civil War and peasant rebellions in the early 20th century? And fed and nursed the poor? Yet few have heard about her either in Ukraine or abroad. Because she was a woman, she was mostly ignored in histories of the period, including anarchist ones.

Solidarity Collectives drone

Solidarity Collectives drone – Image: Solidarity Collectives

I was equally compelled to write about her when I read stories about contemporary Ukrainian feminists and anarchists fighting on the front lines today. Modern day Nikiforovas responsible for military decision-making, organizing and fighting. And this is in a society where women’s rights are still dismissed and where sexism is rampant in the army. Where women are expected to accept stereotypical traditional sexist roles and belittled. Where the levels of poverty, unemployment, violence and discrimination are shocking, and women, as always, suffer the most.

Nikiforova was an early Ukrainian feminist. So, the role of women on the frontlines is a recurring theme in the play. So is her denunciation of sexist attitudes and behaviour – 100 years ago! As is her advocacy of freedom for all Ukrainians from all masters, Russian, German or even Ukrainian. Her fights for the right of poor working men and women to a better life are themes echoed by Ukrainian feminists and anarchists today. It is what inspired me to help her lead her army once again across the Ukrainian steppes on stage and inspire others.

WM: Could you tell us about the character Marusya Nikiforova?

Nawrocki: An anarchist and a feminist, she was a fascinating woman who spent most of her life underground and only surfaced in the public eye as part of the widespread Makhnovist movement from 1917 to 1919. At 16, she worked in factories and joined an anarcho-communist group. She participated in bank robberies, was repeatedly arrested and jailed for her anarchist activity, escaped prison, went into exile, and was sentenced to death three times. She organized among the poor. Married her Polish anarchist lover, yet they were often apart. She attended military college in Paris, studied with the great sculptor Rodin, and organized and led her own army to defend the Revolution in Ukraine.

She often travelled with armed bodyguards on either heavily armed trains or by horseback. She also set up hospitals and schools, fed the poor and painted and planted gardens before she was captured and executed with her husband. Like many, she was working towards a common goal in Ukraine – the collapse of all authoritarian regimes and a free, just society.

Like many, she [Marusya Nikiforova] was working towards a common goal in Ukraine – the collapse of all authoritarian regimes and a free, just society.

– Norman Nawrocki

WM: How did you find the actor to portray Marusya Nikiforova?

Nawrocki: After posting on social media, I ended up fielding about two dozen applications. Many were recent arrivals who had left behind family, friends, homes, jobs, school – everything, fleeing the war. Some of the auditions were quite tearful because the script reminded them of what they had just fled. But many were determined to forge a new life here in Montreal and saw the play as a means to help them “fight” metaphorically for their homeland and convey the message that Ukrainians will not give up until Putin’s forces are driven out.

It was moving and inspirational to work with my incredibly talented and dynamic actor, Mariya Hadubyak. She had only been in Canada for ten months, struggling like all new immigrants to adjust to a new life but was already involved in the local Ukrainian theatre scene and eager to take on the role of reincarnating Nikiforova. It meant squeezing in rehearsals between her full-time French classes and a part-time weekend job. She devoted time to work on her English, a language she was not accustomed to.

Yet she pulled off the play in English – her first English production ever, without skipping lines, without hesitation! I am so proud of her. She’s a versatile and powerful actor, loaded with creativity, drive and vision – a true artist. She’s also highly motivated and dedicated. The audience gave her a well-deserved standing ovation. I look forward to working with her again.

‘We did not want to portray her [Marusya Nikiforova] only from the strong and invincible side. We also wanted to show her moments of excitement, her moments of despair and her moments of love.’

– Mariya Hadubyak

WM: What are some of the challenges for you to portray this character, Marusya Nikiforova?

Hadubyak: Marusya Nikiforova is one of the great figures of the Ukrainian anarchist movement. The difficulty of recreating her and showing her on stage was precisely that she is a very versatile and multifaceted character. She is also a remarkable human full of strength and, at the same time, feminine tenderness. We did not want to portray her only from the strong and invincible side. We also wanted to show her moments of excitement, her moments of despair and her moments of love.

WM: You have family and friends in Ukraine. How is the war impacting them?

Nawrocki: I last saw our relatives and friends in western Ukraine in 2018. For all of them, it has been very trying. They live in constant fear of bombings and death. One cousin is very involved through her church group, helping resettle internal war refugees or cooking meals to send to soldiers on the front. It’s an ongoing search for funds and supplies. And she fears for her only son, a former student now part of the local armed defence forces. I saw video clips of her praying with her church group outside by candlelight as air raid sirens go off and enemy jets streak overhead.

Ukrainian artwork by David Chichkan

Ukrainian artwork by David Chichkan

When I ask what we can do to help other than send money, she says, “Pray for us.” My Ukrainian friends also help resettle adolescent refugees displaced internally by the war. Others contribute artwork to raise money to buy equipment for soldiers or paint murals commemorating those who died fighting. Still, others organize food and medical supply deliveries in devastated areas. It’s dangerous work.

One friend wanted to ditch her social work job and “grab a gun and kill as many of the enemy as she can.” Another edits a literary journal publishing contemporary Ukrainian writers who write about living with the fear of a Russian takeover. They all long for peace, but none of them are leaving. They are courageous and tenacious, determined to stay because “this is our home.”

WM: Why is it important to support Ukraine?

Nawrocki: To show that any government anywhere cannot get away with invading, occupying and destroying the homeland of others and committing genocide. To let Ukrainians know that we care, that we value their lives and their culture and will not abandon them. That we will help them resist the imperial onslaught of the Russians and expel them. We need to help them affirm their right to live without fear of violence and the right to defend and protect their freedom, their lives, and those of their loved ones.

In so doing, we affirm and demonstrate our own humanity for the world and Ukrainians. Because, like other world powers that get away with invasions, Putin will not stop. As elsewhere, we must show our solidarity against the aggressor, that we don’t support a colonial imperial policy where the world order is dictated by whoever has more weapons and oil deposits. In simple terms, they need our help.

‘… we must show our solidarity against the aggressor, that we don’t support a colonial imperial policy where the world order is dictated by whoever has more weapons and oil deposits.’

– Norman Nawrocki

WM: What is the impact of the war on the environment in Ukraine?

Nawrocki: Because of Russia’s aggression, Ukraine now has to contend with far greater poisoned land, air and water. Its agricultural production is severely restricted by the number of chemicals and toxins contaminating once-arable fields. No one knows how severe the damage is. Nor how many unexploded land mines and ordnance, toxic munitions and military scrap are buried in the ground. Who can farm this land? Some estimates say that over 30 percent of the country’s protected areas, covering three million acres, have been bombed, polluted, burned, or devastated. Intense fighting in forests has destroyed them.

Other natural ecosystems have been ruined. Rivers and lakes are being polluted by wrecked industrial facilities and sewage works. Damaged pipelines are spewing oil into wetlands. Hazardous chemicals are released by overflowing coal mines. It’s shocking to imagine the potential for radiological hazards and the catastrophic damage of nuclear power plants. In short, they live with an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

WM: What other charities besides Solidarity Collectives can people explore if they want to help?

Other options for donating money to earmark for Ukraine: The UN Refugee Agency; The Folkowisko Foundation (helping on the Ukrainian-Polish border); Doctors Without Borders in Ukraine; and The Aid for Artists Fund of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation.

Feature image: Studio Rond PointBouton S'inscrire à l'infolettre –

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Irwin RapoportIrwin Rapoport is a freelance journalist with Bachelor’s degrees in History and Political Science from Concordia University.



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