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New Ukrainian anthology underscores Russian culture's influence on war

by Kate Tsurkan October 20, 2023 10:57 PM 9 min read
A view of the damaged monument to Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko on April 5, 2022, in Borodianka, Ukraine. (Photo by Anastasia Vlasova/Getty Images)
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At a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, amidst the joyous remarks of the other presenters on the unification of the European continent, Ukrainian writer Yuri Andrukhovych conveyed his skepticism about the success of the “New Europe.”

For Andrukhoych, 2009 was marked by the waning of any remaining fervor surrounding Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004-2005, the pro-democracy protests that preceded the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2013-2014.

Then Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko also signed a gas deal with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that was detrimental to Ukraine, while Russia was “ forgiven for everything,” including its war with Georgia just one year prior.

Knowing that the proverbial wall had not yet fallen in his home country, Andrukhovych told his audience that “Europe will have to open itself to Ukraine.” It’s a bittersweet declaration nearly 15 years later when one considers that some are framing Ukraine’s struggle against Russian aggression as having consequences for the future of democracy in Europe and beyond.

"Ukraine 22: Ukrainian Writers Respond to War," now available from most major booksellers.

Such unapologetic insights and bold reflections define the collection of texts in the newly-released “Ukraine 22: Ukrainian Writers Respond to War,” edited by Mark Andryczyk. The collection bears witness to the devastating consequences of Russian aggression on Ukrainian society since Feb. 24, 2022, but also carves a path toward understanding what led up to it and what lies ahead.

In addition to Yuri Andrukhovych, it features essays from Taras Prokhasko, Sofia Andrukhovych, Andriy Bondar, Oleksandr Boichenko, Olena Huseinova, Volodymyr Rafeyenko, Iryna Tsilyk, and Olena Stiazhkina written during the first months of the all-out war.

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Ukrainians have spoken the truth about Russian aggression for years, but the world didn’t listen. As a result, Ukrainians have had to flee their homes that fell under Russian occupation, pick up arms to defend their country, and see loved ones off to war, but that hasn’t stopped Ukraine’s writers from continuing their work to the best of their ability.

The essays in “Ukraine 2022” are a mix of personal testimonies and cultural and historical commentaries. In many respects, the latter are the ones that stand out due to the much-needed context they provide to English-language readers.

More than 100,000 alleged war crimes have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine since Feb. 24, 2022, according to the Prosecutor General’s Office. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established that more than 9,600 civilians have been killed. The numbers will be much higher once more territory has been liberated and new horrors of occupation are unearthed. But how much worse will it get before the world stops struggling to reconcile fears of Russian “escalation” with promises to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes”?

To the surprise of many, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the “artificial borders” imposed on the European continent by the former Soviet Union during this year’s GLOBSEC security conference in Slovakia.

He concluded his speech with the promise that “we will not let the western world be kidnapped a second time,” an apparent nod to Czech writer Milan Kundera’s famous essay about how former communist countries like Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary had always had more in common culturally with the rest of Europe than Russia.

Arguably, this is why countries like Poland have been more or less steadfast in supporting Ukraine from the start of the full-scale invasion. Poland, too, understands Russian aggression very well.

In his “Ukraine 22” essay “From Vladivostok to Lisbon” – a reference to former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s envisioned scope of Russia’s “united Eurasia” – literary critic and translator Oleksandr Boichenko quotes a conversation between Polish writer Marek Hlasko and French journalists in 1958.

The journalists asked Hlasko, “Is there a way in which we can understand one another better?” to which the Polish writer replied, “Soviet tanks on the streets of Paris would bring mutual understanding and lots of time to discuss things.”

Boichenko conveys his doubts that Europe is finally beginning to understand the threat of Russian aggression all these years later: “When I look at the billions that Europe continues to pour into the Russian economy daily and the Russophilia printed by the French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese press, my skepticism increases.”

That enduring worldwide presence of Russophilia is showcased in the continued adoration of certain Russian cultural figures who may have been talented but believed in and even promoted imperialist narratives. For example, Boichenko highlights in his essay "A Hysterical Imperial Louse" how the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, renowned as a Soviet dissident in the West, referred to Kundera as "a foolish Czech louse" because of what he wrote about Russian imperialism.

Ukrainians mostly remember Brodsky for his 1991 poem "On the Independence of Ukraine," where he mocks Ukrainian independence. Brodsky concludes the poem by declaring that on their deathbeds, Ukrainians will renounce Taras Shevchenko, the 19th-century poet and father of Ukrainian literature, in favor of the Russian poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

“No, we won’t mutter your Aleksandr Pushkin,” Boichenko retorts. “When Kalibr and Iskander missiles shoot out of a clear sky onto residential dis­tricts, people seldom have time to pick which poem to read. But hopefully you were able to, and hopefully with your final breath you were able to recite ‘To the Slanderers of Russia’ or some other drivel.” The ending is a reference to the title of Pushkin's 1831 poem, a patriotic rallying cry against those who "malign" the "great Russian culture."

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While these historical and cultural reflections are particularly compelling, this is not to suggest that the personal testimonies included in the anthology are not without merit.

Volodymyr Rafeyenko and Olena Stiazhkina had to leave their lives in Donetsk behind once the city fell under Russian occupation in 2014. For many years, the literary output of both writers was predominantly in Russian until they switched to writing exclusively in Ukrainian.

Rafeyenko portrays the cognitive dissonance and disorientation that comes with learning a new language and being an internally displaced person in his novel “Mondegreen: Songs About Death and Love,” the first novel he wrote in Ukrainian. It was published by Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) in English translation in 2019.

Stiazhkina's novel, "Cecil the Lion Had to Die," is set to be released in English translation by HURI in early 2024. The novel stands out for its unique narrative approach, starting in Russian and transitioning into Ukrainian. It chronicles the profound shifts in the lives of several families in Donbas, spanning from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the onset of Russian aggression in 2014.

By choosing to write in Ukrainian, writers like Rafeyenko and Stiazhkina recognized that even though they were not interested in the so-called Russian world, it was interested in them.

Stiazhkina responds to the “stupid” Russian question, “Where have you been for eight years?” (a reference to the Russian rallying cry to “save” the people of Donbas in the aftermath of the EuroMaidan Revolution) by explaining that being “in Donetsk since 2014 meant to turn into a ‘victim of the Kyiv Nazis’ at any moment, being shelled by the ‘liberators’ them­selves to create a convincing picture for Rusofascist TV.”  

For most Ukrainians, especially those from occupied territories, it is impossible to separate Russian culture from the crimes committed by the Russian military on Ukrainian soil. In his essays, Rafeyenko recounts how he and his wife were in Kyiv Oblast at the start of the full-scale invasion, faced with the threat of imminent death once Russian forces laid siege and occupation upon it.

Rafeyenko and his wife were able to escape with the help of volunteers, but he takes a moment to express his relief that “the representatives of Russian ballet and exceptional Russian spir­ituality didn’t end up taking Kyiv.”

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There are moments of tenderness to be found in some of the personal testimonies despite the hardships of war. Filmmaker and writer Iryna Tsilyk reflects on when her husband, the writer Artem Chekh, returned to military service.

Chekh originally served in the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) after the invasion of Donbas in 2014. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, he has fought in some of the most dangerous areas of the front line, which he recounted in his New York Times op-ed “I Spent Five Days in a Trench Waiting for Death. It Was Pure Hell” back in August.

Tsilyk doesn’t shy away from addressing the difficulties of wartime couples who reunite after long periods of separation. She describes how, during the early days of Chekh’s military service, they “tried to remember how to have a conversation and how it used to be to have one another close by.” Despite this difficulty, “time passed, I cried and cried, and my husband’s heart thawed. He became warm, familiar, and alive once again.”

In the weeks leading up to Feb. 24, 2022, a blend of apprehension, readiness, and disbelief marked the atmosphere as people grappled with the U.S. intelligence warnings of an imminent Russian invasion.

Tsilyk mourns “the sadness of our youth, which is being stolen from us by the enemy” and plans for the future that were postponed indefinitely. Yet there is no choice but to push forward to victory, and she concludes with the thought, “It’s supposed to get warmer soon, much warmer. It must, right?”

Numerous anthologies have been released in the past year and a half. However, "Ukraine 22: Ukrainian Writers Respond to War" distinguishes itself with its cultural and historical insights that ultimately lend depth to personal testimonies. Readers will not only empathize with Ukraine’s struggle but gain a better understanding of how far back it goes.

With each new English translation, there's also a glimmer of hope that the world will finally embrace and understand what Ukrainians have been saying for so long.

However, as Andrukhovych notes, an outpouring of empathy is no longer enough: “Now we need something much larger than prayers and tears. Kindness and generosity are not enough, nor are warmth or words of support. We need fearless action.”

“Ukraine 22: Ukrainian Writers Respond to War” is now available to purchase from most major booksellers.

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, thanks for reading this book review. There is an ever-increasing amount of books about Ukraine available to English-language readers, and I hope my recommendations prove useful when it comes to your next trip to the bookstore. Ukrainian culture has taken on an even more important meaning during wartime, so if you like reading about this sort of thing, please consider supporting The Kyiv Independent.

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