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Oksana Zabuzhko’s ‘The Longest Journey.’ An excerpt

by Book Excerpt and Kate Tsurkan November 11, 2023 4:52 PM 14 min read
Oksana Zabuzhko, author and poet, attends the 30th Lviv BookForum on Oct. 7, 2023, in Lviv, Ukraine. (Les Kasyanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)
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Russia's war against Ukraine did not start on Feb. 24, 2022.

The illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the invasion of Donbas in 2014 were also not isolated incidents and had many historical precedents: Russian Tsar Peter I ordered the Baturyn Massacre in 1708 as “revenge” against Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa for his perceived disloyalty, resulting in an estimated 11,000 to 14,000 deaths.

From 1932 to 1933, an estimated 3.5 to 5 million Ukrainians died during the Holodomor, a man-made famine that stemmed from Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization and grain requisition quotas; it is widely recognized today as a genocide against the Ukrainian people.

The deeper one delves into the crossroads of Ukraine and Russia’s histories, the more examples one can find.

In this context, the title of Oksana Zabuzhko's 2022 book, "The Longest Journey," a long-form essay on the Russian-Ukrainian war written specifically for a foreign audience, proves apt. The book has already been published in seven languages, and more translations are in the works.

In “The Longest Journey,” Zabuzhko addresses the historical backdrop of the Russian-Ukrainian war, examining not only its broader implications but also its profound effects on the lives of individual Ukrainians. The war has, time and time again, disrupted the ordinary courses of their lives, compelling them to defend not just their land but also their language, memories, and the core elements that define the Ukrainian nation.

Zabuzhko is one of Ukraine’s foremost novelists, poets, and essayists. Her breakout novel “Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex,” which deals with questions of national identity and gender, was hailed by some critics as “the most influential Ukrainian book since independence.”

Over the course of her career, she has authored more than 20 books in different genres. Her short story collection “Your Ad Could Go Here” and her novel “The Museum of Abandoned Secrets” are some of her other works already available in English translation.

The Kyiv Independent is proud to have been given the exclusive opportunity to present an excerpt from “The Longest Journey” to English-language readers.

Kate Tsurkan

The Longest Journey

...this, I have to say, is the most demoralizing thing: this constant sense of deja vu that's been welling up, like tears in my eyes, repeatedly over the last four months — I have been here before, I have written about this before. All of this (with the aerial bombs the only possible exception) already happened in 2014; Russia had given birth to its biggest war back then. It's only that, back then, the war was still young and small, and one could ignore it as one ignores someone else's child at a railway station: one could ask, in passing, “Whose are you, little girl?”, one could shake one's head ruefully when someone nearby shouted, “That's that Ukraine again, it just won't settle down!”, one could express “deep concern” and turn back to one's own affairs, because life is life, and business will not take care of itself (at the forum where I was scheduled right after Lady Ashton—and her last appearance as the chief of European security—she spoke not of the Dutch children who had been shot dead with a Russian rocket and whose remains still lay scattered on the Donetsk steppe, but of the mutually beneficial cooperation that needed to be restored as soon as possible, and the overall mood of the European elites was approximately the same.)

But over eight years the war has grown up — and now stands in the way even of those who were so keen on the beneficial cooperation. Still, there are among them people of yesteryear who continue to see this war as a little girl who could be talked into going away. And there are still surprisingly few among them who realize that, left alive, this war will grow and spread, and encroach on ever new territories because wars like this have no limits.

The Ukrainian language has this untranslatable concept — poluda. In our fairy tales, all kinds of wicked creatures love to draw poluda over someone's eyes; our fairy tales, I dare say, are a great guide to information warfare techniques. The one about the fiddler at the devil's wedding is still my favorite: The fiddler gets hired by a respectable-looking, well-dressed gentleman to play all night at his ball, for excellent pay, to which, of course, the fiddler happily agrees — and only when he accidentally washes his eyes with the water from a bowl he was not supposed to use, does the fiddler see that the place is not a splendid, luminous palace but impenetrable thickets in the dark woods, and the ladies and gentlemen swirling to his music in their festive finery are, in fact, a mischief of horned and tailed imps, who, on top of everything else, slipped him bits of broken crockery instead of gold coin.

And so, having spent years watching Western elites party and dance at the ball thrown by a Checkist Russia (I remember the shock of the first German interviewer to whom I said that having a KGB officer at the helm of Russia is the same as having a Gestapo officer lead Germany: what, he asked me, astounded, you want me to put it in those words? — and then did not, I checked), I cannot shake the feeling that in addition to all the causes of historical nearsightedness, familiar from previous wars, what prevented these elites from recognizing in the Russian regime the countenance of new Nazism (“rushism” as it's called in Ukraine) and missing the birth of a war was a very particular kind of Russian poluda, replicated intentionally, over generations, in the Western education system.

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Let me give you an example to illustrate this. Over the last twenty years, this is my third (sic!) time watching the West “discover Ukraine” as it did in 2004 after the Orange Revolution, in 2014 after the Euromaidan, and in 2022, after Feb. 24, when Ukraine, for the third time this century, ruined the Kremlin's scenario of its renewed enslavement (as a European Slavicist earnestly put it to me, “Who'd have known, we thought it would be over in three days!”). For the third time in one generation, each time on a grander scale, the scale — now — of the largest war in Europe since 1945, the same drama plays out — and every time, Western experts find themselves freshly astounded and express their astonishment in nearly the same words, as happens to people with short-term memory disorders: look, look, who could imagine — Ukrainians are a mature nation! They have a civil society! They are prepared to fight for their freedom! Look at them fight! Look, it's incredible, they are winning! — and even before the euphoria of this discovery can subside, the collective expert gaze turns, as if tethered, back to Moscow, and produces a new deluge of cheerful forecasts along the lines of “if Ukrainians could do it, then Russians will soon manage too” (!).  No one seemed to have noticed a possible error of logic here, neither in 2004, nor in 2014. Rather than helping the world see the threat of Russian Nazism for what it is, we in our struggle for freedom (see a line in the Ukrainian national anthem: “We will lay down soul and body for our freedom” — it's not an accident that millions on the various maidans sing these words), were, on the contrary, helping to ignore it as something insignificant and short-lived — how could it be anything else if even the small Ukraine could stand up to it? (By what measure, exactly, Ukraine might be considered “small” remains a mystery to me, but that's the way global media still refer to us, “a small nation”). For weeks after Feb. 24, until the Russian occupiers were forced out of Bucha and Irpin (it's true that none of the previous wars had the purely technical capacity to put genocide online — this is humanity's first opportunity to watch!), these same experts sincerely believed this was One Man's War, a dictator's whim that would finally provoke the Russian people to rise up in protest, and searched for signs of an emergent anti-war movement with the same energy they had previously invested in seeing Navalny as a democratic figure, unable to fathom, apparently, that Putin could be criticized not only from the Left, but also from the Right. This is precisely what I call the Russian poluda.

Essentially, this conceals a kind of subconscious latent racism (it was Edward Said who showed, using the example of the English and the Irish in the 18th century, that white skin does not protect against racism — in the Russia of the 21st century people from Africa and the Caucasus both are called “black-assed”). The foundational idea, so much so that it is left unspoken (people, except Putin, still feel uncomfortable putting it into words), is that Russia is important, and Ukraine is not; that the civilized world cannot hope to manage without Russia — the “great” and “invincible” (spoiler: not true) country, with its “second army in the world” (yes, yes, we can see it in action...), the leader of the global energy markets (as well as stock markets, real estate auctions, Atlantic Coast resorts, yacht clubs, the casinos of Monaco and California, etc., etc. — you can keep adding to this list) — while Ukraine, somewhere deep in the neural networks even of well-educated Europeans, is “basically the same” only smaller and weaker: a related tribe, practically indistinguishable from a distance — so why wouldn't they live in harmony with each other? In a single country, if it comes to that, what's the problem? They could fight for democracy together, why not?

Paradoxically, even the discovery, so unsettling to many, that “unimportant” Ukraine is one of the world's most important grain exporters and feeds nearly 400 million souls beyond its borders, that is, almost ten times more people than constitute its own population (and, to set the record straight, represents one of the historically most ancient agrarian civilizations which explains why our soldiers in the deserted villages in the hours of a lull between artillery barrages stake the tomato plants abandoned by their owners, “so they wouldn't perish” and water the orchards because not to do so would “break your heart”), and Russia's occupation of the steppe in Kherson region (from which Russians are removing entire elevators' worth of grain just as they stole toilets and washing machines from the villages around Kyiv) threatens, in the near future, hunger in several regions of the world, do not remove the poluda from people's eyes. The West does not seem able to discern in this a collision of two fundamentally different livelihoods: the predatory, resource empire, which is essentially very archaic, pre-modern (seize territory, pump out its resources, leave it a wasteland, move on...) and the modernized culture of the agrarian frontier that is “by several historical epochs” more sophisticated, more evolved in humanitarian terms and therefore more economically effective. None of those people who thought “it-would-all-be-over-in-three-days,” who felt quite safe in their belief that Russia, once it takes Kyiv and rules within the borders of Ukraine, will feed those 400 million souls just as “quietly” as Ukraine had been doing never paused to recall that Moscow had possessed these steppes once before — and not even that long ago, within the living generations' memory, in the 20th century, after the Holodomor of 1933 had, it seemed, pulled up the independent farming traditional to these lands by the root, broken its resistance and put millions under the yoke of kolkhoz slavery of the Russian serfdom variety — and during that time the yield of these lands (nota bene, the world's most fertile black earth!) was, at most, seven, underscore, seven times lower than the harvests of independent Ukraine. (Those interested are welcome to do the math themselves and compare the USSR's record, lauded with such zeal from anything plugged into an outlet that I still remember how we were forced, in school, to memorize “the Ukrainian billion poods” with the Ukrainian harvest in 2021: 107 million tons.) I suggest using this number as a metaphor (a useful, albeit approximate one) for assessing the effectiveness gap between the Russian and Ukrainian enterprises in every sphere, including, of course, the military one (and excluding the industries of lies and terror in which Russia is truly without peers — but these can hardly be called enterprises: they do not increase the nation's wealth and, on the contrary, morally ruin the human resource and ought to be considered suicidal for any country that bets on them).

These feel like such obvious, such painful things: over the last thirty years, the Ukrainians have proved, by their actions (if anyone had any doubts) that freedom is seven times more effective than slavery and now, once the irresponsible (slave-like, neglectful, “alienated” — Ukrainians would say, always with opprobrium, “owner-less”) management of natural resources has pushed our noses against climate changes that threaten the survival of the entire human race, this very threatened human race has not, over the last eight (eight, damn it!) years felt an inkling to wonder why it is exactly that Ukrainians so stubbornly refuse to let Russia back onto their steppes — might they know something our Russian professors had not told us?

And none of the international organizations that have traveled to Donbas since 2014 ever raised their hand to say, hey, why is it that on the Ukrainian side, Donbas' roads are everywhere lined with apricot trees, and, literally, a step further, on the Russian side, the very same earth turns — as if cut off along a ruler — into a wasteland?


“Russia has no history,” the American great-grandson of Pyotr Stolypin, one of the last failed reformers of the Russian Empire, said the other day in an interview with “Voice of America” — something that ought to have been said a lot sooner by professional Russianists and introduced into the political discourse in the last century. “Ukraine has a history, and Russia does not.”

The interviewer expressed shock at this, and the scion of the imperial elites elaborated: The entire so-called Russian history is the history of his ancestors' class, the very small group of people associated with the court — that is to say nothing more than a window display, a facade (as Eva Thompson also noted when she wrote that there were only about 500 families that lived the lives Leo Tolstoy's characters lived in the Russian Empire, and for this reason the Russian novel of the 19th century cannot, strictly speaking, be considered a European novel being a phenomenon of a completely different origin, a sort of a wholesale trans-location of European models, just as St. Petersburg is a trans-location of Venice, and the Russian matryoshka — a trans-location of the Japanese daruma doll onto the 1891 Russian factory conveyor belt). And behind that brightly lit facade lie waste and darkness: the enormous, sparsely populated, still uncultivated space of a country ill with gigantism where even in the 21st century many villages can only be reached by boat because roads, despite centuries of slave labor, had not been built — 60 million of Russia's population live in only 20 cities, plus the Moscow and Leningrad regions. This fact ought to shed new light on the Russian army’s practice of kidnapping and forcibly relocating Ukrainians, including children separated from their parents, from the occupied territories into the depths of Russia. (The Kremlin, it must be said, never really hid its interest in the Ukrainian human resource, and Putin's entire mantra about “one people” must be seen not only as a historical chimera but also as a very practical statement of policy designed to replenish one's dying labor pool with millions of hard-working and healthy white people — Russia has learned much from the handbooks of the Third Reich, merely replacing the opposition of “Aryan” and “not Aryan” with “Russian” and “not Russian,” the latter, by the way, a swear-word, a commonplace pejorative, and the fact that this topic, at the moment, is barely being discussed outside of Ukraine might well prompt one to make, again, the regrettable conclusion that we still have not properly absorbed all the lessons of World War II.)

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Equating a history of a people with the history of its elites is, obviously, a pre-modern approach. And Russia, I shall repeat, beyond its “facade” never did modernize because every attempt to modernize it (liberalize it, democratize it, etc.) immediately caused it to begin to fall apart, which is only natural: A feudal empire cannot modernize without going through the phase of a nation-state, and each time things reached that point it was revealed that Russians are not a nation, but, as Marquis de Custine so aptly put it, the prison of nations: a country-as-a-garrison, where military service has never been much different from a prison sentence and the only authentic form of folklore (one not “relocated” from subjugated tribes or invented artificially by the 19th century elites to be placed in the window display next to the matryoshka) comes from the penitentiary system, from the convicts. (And the fact that the entire audience in the Kremlin's Assembly Palace enthusiastically rises to their feet and has done so over the last twenty years whenever prison songs were played at that Russian equivalent of Carnegie Hall — the way people in other countries stand up at the sound of the national anthem, because Russia does not have its own national anthem which is the first sign that the modern event of nation-making has failed to occur! — ought to have prompted the experts to be, at the very least, a bit more cautious in their predictions of the Russian democracy's future. But everyone, as if caught under a spell, kept looking at the window display where the Bolshoi ballet danced Swan Lake and believed that this was, in fact, “the real Russia”).

And as soon as the prison of nations began to teeter at every attempt to modernize it, there were those who rushed to its rescue: the very same pre-modern elites preserved in their courtly status despite all the historical changes and rotations, be those wrought by Catherine II, Nicholas II, Stalin or Putin — desperately frightened, like children in the dark, by the specter of the Russian void they were plugging with their own bodies.

It is this fear (as the few Slavicists — Andrzej Walicki, Yuri Shevelyov — who did not have the Russian poluda over their eyes demonstrated in the last century) that gave birth, in the 19th century, to the Russian narodniks who, in turn, brought forth Russian Bolshevism (which was willing to sacrifice its queen, meaning the Tsar and the royal dynasty, but held that “to lose Ukraine is to lose our head” as Lenin warned), and it is this same fear I hear in the speeches of the Russian political emigrants on whom the West so willingly pins its hopes for liberal reforms in “Russia after Putin,” not understanding that it might as well pin them on the Bolshoi ballet: all of this is the same window-display poluda, a history without a people, as Nikolai Sluchevsky, Stolypin's great-grandson put it so honestly.

Someone finally had to say it. Someone who knows what he is saying.

Because up until now, Ukrainians had been the only ones saying it. And who would listen to us, such a neglectably “small nation”?

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