Not much poetry is being written in Ukraine these days – the country known for its melodic, “nightingale” language is now faced with its most intense battle yet. Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February and more than a hundred days later there is no end in sight to the conflict. Many Ukrainian writers, including former political prisoners Oleg Sentsov and Stanislav Aseyev, have enlisted in the armed forces. Others, such as Serhiy Zhadan and Khrystia Vengryniuk, have become full-time volunteers, raising funds to purchase much-needed supplies for the Ukrainian army. Those who are able to write – such as Myroslav Laiuk, Lyuba Yakimchuk, Yuri Andrukhovych, or Olena Stiazhkina – have taken on the role of war correspondents, bearing witness toRussian war crimes, and explaining the history of Russian aggression against Ukraine over hundreds of years.
Most Ukrainian literature has been irrevocably tied to this fight since Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. With Russian propagandists speaking openly on state television about committing genocide against the Ukrainian people, and Russian forces in occupied territories trying to impose Russification through terror on the population they did not manage to kill, the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture itself are at stake.
Perhaps the writers most well-known for exploring the topic of war are those directly affected by it. For example, the poets Lyuba Yakimchuk and Serhiy Zhadan both come from the Luhansk region of Ukraine, most of which is now under Russian occupation. Much of their work from the past eight years has been dedicated to how the war has completely devastated ordinary Ukrainians’ lives.
Ukrainian writers from the east who wrote in Russian before 2014, such as Volodymyr Rafeenko, have decided they can no longer write in that language. His experimental novel Mondegreen, which charts the arrival in Kyiv of a refugee from Donbas who then leaves the Russian language behind, is the first he has written entirely in Ukrainian – Mark Andryczyk’s piercing translation was published by Harvard University Press in February. After Rafeenko and his wife survived the siege of Bucha, he swore not only to stop writing in Russian but to stop communicating in the language altogether.
It’s not only male writers who have gone to the front. Women make up more than 22% of the Ukrainian military – an astounding number compared to neighbouring countries. Much of the poet Yaryna Chornohuz’s work is centred around her experience of serving as a combat medic in the marines. Although there is a strong focus in her verse on feminine strength and perseverance, she says she wants people to view her contribution to Ukrainian society as little different to that of her male comrades in arms, and has even refused interviews focusing on her role as a female soldier.
Following February’s invasion, Ukrainian artists and cultural institutions issued a worldwide call to suspend cooperation with Russian artists and even refused to participate in literary festivals alongside them, calling it a matter of self-respect and dignity. Westerners might assume that Ukrainians and Russian dissidents are natural allies – sharing a common enemy in Vladimir Putin – yet the sad truth is that even many Russian liberals fail to respect Ukrainian sovereignty, as we have seen in their lacklustre pushback against the annexation of Crimea. Who knows what the future will bring for Ukrainian writers? With shells still falling on Sievierodonetsk and air raid sirens raging throughout the country, for now Ukrainian writers – and all of us – are taking life day by day.
27 June 2022