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In praise of Ukrainian literature

Friday, 03 May 2024, 08:00

In February of last year, at an official lunch in Kyiv held for the ministers of culture of both Ukraine and France, the topic of Bulgakov’s house, now a well-known museum, came up for discussion. Several of the Ukrainian artists present thought it should be shut down, a position that had already taken on momentum in Ukrainian society. Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), the great author of The Master and Margarita, was born in this house (to an ethnically Russian family) and grew up there, attending an elite Kyiv gymnasium throughout his adolescence. He wrote about Kyiv: his first major work, the novel The White Guard, describes the dilemmas of members of the Kyivian intelligentsia caught up in the maelstrom of the Civil War, and is intimately grounded in the intricacies of post-Revolution Ukrainian politics, as the country declares independence only to see one regime after another take power and attempt to hold on to it. But he could not accept this idea of Ukrainian independence, and in his play The Days of the Turbins, referring to the Hetman Symon Petliura’s attempts to impose the Ukrainian language, he wrote: "Who terrorized the Russian population with this vile language, which does not even exist in the world?"

The question of who to consider an Ukrainian writer had imposed itself upon me some months earlier, after the start of the war, when I found myself gazing at my shelves of "Russian" literature and wondering if I should perhaps separate out the Ukrainians. I had conducted a similar process a few years earlier with the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians, and it had been rather enlightening: with the sole exception of von Kleist, all my most beloved German-language authors ended up on the Austro-Hungarian shelves, Kafka, of course, along with Rilke, Musil, and a few others. But if I were to do the same with the Russians, who exactly should I consider as an Ukrainian writer? What would the criteria be? Language alone would not suffice, nor pure geography, nor even, in some cases, the writer’s own opinion. Separating the Ukrainians from the Russians might not only prove a rather tricky process, I realized as I studied various biographies, but also a singularly political one. For the quest to untangle who might be considered an Ukrainian author quickly led me into a rabbit warren of personal histories that reveal much about the nature of empires and their multilingual denizens, of wars and shifting borders, of nation-building and its repression.

But you have to start somewhere, and I started sitting, staring at the spines of books. Novels and poems written in the Ukrainian language would have been the obvious place to begin. But to my great shame I realized I only owned one, a translated volume of collected poetry by Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), the founder of the modern Ukrainian literary language. There are so many more I have not yet read. Independent Ukraine has produced dozens of marvelous writers, such as Yurii Andrukhovych (b. 1960), whom my late Catalan-language publisher, Jaume Vallcorba, had known well and told me a great deal about; Serhii Zhadan (b. 1974), whose poetry reading I attended in Kharkiv in May of 2022, while the Russians were still bombing the city; or Victoria Amelina (1986-2023), murdered last year by a targeted Russian missile strike in Kramatorsk a few days after I shared a stage with her at a literary festival in Kyiv. As for earlier times, where to start? The most beloved XIXth century Ukrainian writers after Shevchenko are Ivan Franko (1856-1916) and Lesya Ukrainka, born Larysa Kosach (1871-1913). How is it that their books never came into my hands, either in the course of my studies or during my later life? Looked at from my current perspective, the bias against Ukrainian-language literature is obvious: Czech, Polish or Yugoslav writers (think of Kundera, Gombrowicz, Andrić) are more widely translated and taught than any Ukrainian. Universities, both back when I was a student and today still, teach Russian and perhaps East European literature, but how many departments in America or Europe put even one Ukrainian-language writer in their syllabus?


The lives and fates of the Ukrainian-language writers of the XXth century are intimately linked to the history of Soviet power. Many of them belonged to what is now known as the "Executed Renaissance": the great flowering of Ukrainian-language prose, poetry, and drama that occurred during the 1920s, as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was for a time granted broad political and linguistic autonomy, before it was brutally cut short by Stalin’s repressions. Some, like Pavlo Tychnya (1891-1967) or Maksym Rylsky (1895-1964) slipped through by controversially conforming to the social-realist mold imposed by the regime; others, like Ostap Vyshnya (1889-1956), the "Ukrainian Mark Twain," served many years of hard labor in the Gulag but survived. Still others were less lucky. Mykola Khvylovy (1893-1933), considered the most gifted writer of his generation, committed suicide as the repressions accelerated; Valerian Pidmohylny (1901-1937) was shot at the Karelian killing grounds of Sandarmokh, along with 300 other Ukrainian poets, novelists, playwrights, painters and other artists; the great poet Mykola Zerov (1890-1937), a leading light of the Neoclassical movement, was also shot. Their work was first collected in the late 1950s in Paris by the Polish emigré review Kultura, in a volume destined to give its name to this ill-fated generation: The Executed Renaissance, An Anthology 1917-1933. But how many of them are translated, published, and taught outside of their native country?

Of the later Soviet Ukrainian writers, the most famous is Vasyl Stus (1938-1985), probably the foremost Ukrainian-language poet of the XXth century, who after several stints in various penal colonies finally died as the result of a hunger strike in the infamous Perm-36 camp. Leonid Kiselyov (1946-1968) might well have gone on to equal Stus had he not died prematurely of leukemia. Only in the last year of his brief life did he turn to the Ukrainian language; one of his most famous verses, however, was written, ironically enough, in Russian: "I stand on the edge of the abyss/And suddenly realize, broken by anguish/That everything in this world is but a song/In the Ukrainian language."

We in the West still need to discover these treasures; perhaps the war, and the spotlight it has shined on Ukraine, will foster their dissemination. Nonetheless, it was obvious to me, gazing at my shelves, that Ukrainian literature as a whole could not be reduced to literature written in the Ukrainian language. Ukraine, now as during the centuries of Mongol, Russian, Polish-Lithuanian and Austro-Hungarian domination, is a multi-national and multilingual country, and so is its literature. Among my Austro-Hungarians, for instance, sits the native of Lemberg (now Lviv) Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895), a writer whose work goes into arguably far more interesting territory than the pyschological condition sadly named after him. His mother was a shliakhta, a Ruthenian (ethnic Ukrainian) noblewoman; and many of his German-language novels and stories are inspired by the Ukrainian folk-tales the women servants of his household recited to him as a child, and by the popular culture of the Ukrainian peasantry surrounding him as he grew up. There are also Gregor von Rezzori (1914-1998) and Paul Celan (1920-1970), both born in today’s Chernivtsi, which was the Austrian Czernowitz when von Rezzori came into the world, and the Romanian Cernăuţi by the time Celan followed him. I don’t own any works by Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916), the great Yiddish-language writer, who came from the heart of Ukraine, from Pereyaslav to be precise, located on left bank of the Dnipro south of Kyiv. But if I look to my Polish shelf, there sits the marvelous Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), born (like Ivan Franko, who chose to write in Ukrainian) in Polish Drohobycz, today’s Ukrainian Drohobych, and murdered there under the German occupation. What to do with them? The places they lived did not belong to Ukraine at the time, but do now, and to a certain extent they too should be considered as part of its literary history.

Crimea belongs to Ukraine, and thus so does the Turkish-language literature of the Crimean Tatars. Its foundation was laid in 1883 by the Pan-Turkist politician and intellectual Ismail bey Gasprinsky (1851-1914) when he founded Terciman, a newspaper that fostered a generation of Crimean Tatar writers such as Şevqiy Bektöre (1888-1961), who created the first simplified Arabic script intended specifically for his mother tongue and spent most of his life in the Gulag, or Bekir Vaap oğlu Çoban-zade (1893-1937) and Abdulla Latif-zade (1890-1938), both of whom were shot during the Great Purges. In 1944 the entire Crimean Tatar people, accused of collective collaboration with the Nazis, was deported to Central Asia; the majority were only able to return to Crimea after Ukrainian independence in 1991. More modern writers such as Cengiz Dağcı (1919-2011) and Şakir Selim (1942-2008) belong to this generation that experienced both the deportation and the return to their homeland, though both died before the annexation of Crimea by Russia forced most Tatar intellectuals and writers to flee to mainland Ukraine.

A great many Ukrainian writers, of course, wrote in Russian. Andrii Kurkov (b.1961), the best-known and most-widely translated contemporary Ukrainian novelist, still does, in spite of the agony of the war and the backlash it has caused against the invaders’ language. So did most of the Ukrainian Jewish writers. The Jews, obviously, were never considered Russian (or Ukrainian, for that matter) in either the Tsarist or the Soviet empires. But just as with Sholem Aleichem, this does not prevent most encyclopedias and university curricula from labeling Isaac Babel (1894-1940), an Odessan Jew shot under Stalin, Moris Simashko (1924-2000), another Odesan Jew who spent most of his life in Kazakhstan, or Vasiliy Grossman (1905-1964), a Jew from Berdytchiv (where his mother was assassinated by the Nazis) whom I personally consider to be the single greatest writer produced by the Soviet Union, as "Russian" or "Russian-Jewish" writers, something they probably would have found quite strange. Soviet writers would be more accurate. They were all Ukrainian-born though, Ukraine in all her wild variety nourished their work, and in 2024 there is no reason not to call them Ukrainian writers.

It is when we get to the heart of the "Russian" canon that things get the most complicated. For indeed, in the complex web of identity of the Russian empire, both before and after the Revolution, a great many Russian-language writers born in Ukraine, in spite of their heritage — whether pure Ukrainian or Cossack, or highly mixed as was so common — often chose, when they could, to see and present themselves as Russians, and as Russian writers. The mauvaise conscience of the colonized intellectual? A desire to rise above a provincial status by identifying with the dominant group? This is certainly the case, among many others, of Nikolai Gogol (or, in the Ukrainian spelling, Mykola Hohol, 1809-1852), by far the most famous and beloved writer to have come out of Ukraine. His father wrote amateur poetry in both Russian and Ukrainian, and at home, in a small Cossack town in the Poltava gubernia, the family spoke both languages equally. But young Gogol’s desire for literary fame made him choose Russian as his writing language. His early Ukrainian tales such as Evenings on a Farm near Didanka are not nearly as well-known as his later Petersburg tales such as The Nose or The Overcoat, or his masterpiece Dead Souls; for a time, they led his peers to dismiss him as a regional writer, a Maloross or "Little-Russian" as Ukrainians were then called, albeit a highly talented one. Gogol, though, soon grew into an ardent Slavophile, obsessed with the divine mission of the Tsar and the Russian Orthodox Church; and Russia, in turn, embraced him as one of her own. Yet this is no reason to leave him on the Russian side of the shelf, and Ukrainians should unequivocally claim him back.

There are many others. Anatolii Kuznetsov (1929-1979), of course, the Kyiv-born author of Baby Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, is without a doubt a Ukranian writer. But who even knows that the poetess Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), whose father Andrii Horenko was descended from the Ukrainian Cossack nobility, was born in Odesa, schooled in Kyiv, and studied law at Kyiv university? And why should Vladimir Mayakovskiy (1893-1930), born near Kutaisi in Georgia to a father of both Russian and Zaporozhian Cossack descent and a mother originally named Pavlenko, be considered "Russian"? It was Empire, people were mixed, people moved a great deal. But even if they did not put forward their roots, or sing of them openly, they did not forget them, as complex as they were.

A case in point is Konstantin Paustovsky (1892-1968), who would probably have won the Nobel prize in 1965 had it not been for official Soviet opposition, which ensured the prize went to the far more compliant Mikhail Sholokhov. In his memoirs Story of a Life, Paustovsky extols the beauty of the great Russian forests and describes his deep emotional affinity for Russia, especially the southern regions near Bryansk where he spent part of his childhood. Like so many children of the empire, he too had a mix of origins: his paternal grandfather was a Zaporizhian Cossack cart-driver plying the trade roads between the Dnipro and the south, who brought back a Turkish wife from the Ottoman wars in Bulgaria; and his maternal grandmother was Polish. Though born in Moscow where his father, a railways engineer, had been posted at the time, he grew up in Kyiv and spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Polish equally fluently. When Tsar Nikolai II visited the First Kyiv Gymnasium (the same one Bulgakov attended) in September 1911, two days after the murder of his Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin at the Kyiv Opera (which Paustovsky witnessed and describes), he held the following brief dialogue with the future author: "Are you Maloross?" — "Yes, your Majesty," answered young Konstantin. On my shelves, no matter what he himself may have thought later in life, Paustovsky would also go to the Ukrainian side.

After the lunch I described at the beginning of this essay, I discussed (in Russian) the matter of Bulgakov’s museum with Myroslav Layuk, a young Ukrainian writer who has already published several novels and volumes of poetry. He too believed that the museum should be closed. "Bulgakov was a Russian imperialist," he argued. "His work is full of contempt for Ukrainians, for the Maloross." — "It doesn’t matter what he thought," I answered, "it doesn’t matter if he was an imperialist bastard. He’s yours. In France, we also have a lot of bastards in our literature, racist imperialists, anti-Semites, Nazi collaborators. Céline was a total bastard, but no one would argue that he is not a French writer."

Layuk admitted he saw my point: "But we’ll have to wait till after the war to have this discussion about Bulgakov." Fair enough. This is no one’s priority right now. But Russia’s war against Ukraine is also, as we know from the ransacking of museums and the wholesale destruction of Ukraine’s heritage, a war against Ukrainian culture. And when a new Ukraine emerges from this conflict, its identity both challenged and strengthened by the years of war, the question of what sort of Ukraine Ukrainians want — and thus, of its cultural and literary history — will be a crucial one. Russia claims to have annexed large swathes of Ukrainian territory, claims we all hope will not hold. Why shouldn’t Ukraine, in return, annex large swathes of "Russian literature?"

Jonathan Littell

Disclaimer: Articles reflect their author’s point of view and do not claim to be objective or to explore every aspect of the issues they discuss. The Ukrainska Pravda editorial board does not bear any responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided, or its interpretation, and acts solely as a publisher. The point of view of the Ukrainska Pravda editorial board may not coincide with the point of view of the article’s author.

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