Giving Ukrainian Literature Its Due

by | December 13, 2022

As Ukraine faced renewed invasion by Russian forces in February 2022, the world’s gaze fixed on the nation with a new intensity. Swept into the spotlight amid a flood of battlefield reports, Ukrainian culture was recognised abroad in a way it had never been before. Exhibitions, concerts, bookshop shelves: each appeared in turn hoping to shed light on long-hidden Ukrainian culture – a culture which, for many, was previously unknown. Ukrainian art, which has been suppressed, undermined, and neglected for centuries, now has access to a global audience – possibly a more attentive one than it has ever had. Foreign consciousness is finally giving Ukrainian culture its due – but this impulse is more complicated than it seems.

To better understand this effort, I spoke with Kate Tsurkan, a translator and editor currently living in Ukraine. Tsurkan has published the work of several Ukrainian authors in her literary magazine, Apofenie, and seeks out a place for them in various Western publications. Her work has become both more pressing and more possible in light of the recent invasion. “My friends and I who are working as translators,” Tsurkan says, “started something we called Operation Ukraine. We try to get as many authors as possible published in Western publications, starting out with the war dispatches.” The fruits of their labour are beginning to ripen: Lyuba Yakimchuk has been published in The New Statesman, Elena Styazhkina has earned a place in Guernica, and Artem Chapeye has become the first Ukrainian author to be published in the print edition of The New Yorker. These successes could be the beginning of a seismic shift. “The foundation for Ukrainian literature on the world stage is being built right now,” Tsurkan says. “There’s interest, but it doesn’t mean that the foundation exists yet. But it’s being built and it’s very promising.”

The fact that this “foundation” is only now being built hints at the longer Western neglect of Ukraine’s literary tradition. Ultimately, it is this historical neglect which links two issues of literary representation that have arisen in the wake of the recent invasion: the impulse to read more Ukrainian literature and the more controversial push to put aside major Russian writers.

In the immediate wake of the invasion, the University of Milan withdrew a class on Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky, but the quickly-reversed decision was met with immediate backlash. Critics claimed that it rested upon misplaced blame: Dostoevsky lived and died centuries ago, and at times was himself a victim of repression by the Russian government. He could not reasonably be held responsible for the actions of Vladimir Putin or the Russian army in 2022. To limit student exposure to Dostoevsky simply by virtue of his Russian nationality would then be an irrational, unjust, and unproductive way to respond to the invasion. But this response misses the point. So long as responses assign praise or blame to individual authors – deciding whether or not to hold Dostoevsky or any other Russian literary figure responsible for the actions of Putin – they will continue to miss the point in the same way. Far more productive discussions centre on the questions of how and why the Russian literary tradition is as renowned as it is today, and how and why the Ukrainian literary tradition is not. The resulting answers are rooted in a long history of imperial oppression.

This history of empire is addressed by Emma Mateo, Secretary of Oxford’s Ukrainian Society. She explains how Ukrainian culture’s relative lack of representation is “largely due to the way in which Russian culture overshadowed Ukrainian culture” and even “actively suppressed or co-opted” it. “Many Ukrainian writers, poets and artists were arrested and sent to gulags just for working in their national language and supporting Ukrainian identity,” Mateo says. Tsurkan sheds light on this issue as well, lamenting the “great crime that Russian was favoured”. She explains how in the Russian Empire “you were supposed to aspire to speak Russian, to be Russian”.

This history of repression has had a powerful impact on the legacies of these literary traditions as Dr. Uilleam Blacker, Associate Professor in Ukrainian and East European Culture at University College London, explains: “Why do we know Dostoevsky? Well, it’s because Dostoevsky wrote in a language which was the language of a great empire […] which was considered important, which people thought we have to translate, we have to teach.” He points particularly to Vissarion Belinsky, a major Russian literary critic of the 19th century, who “refused to accept that modern Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian language was even possible, even though he was reading it”. Ukrainian literature was therefore regarded as the futile work of a people “fooling themselves” into thinking that their language could be the medium of a genuine literary canon. “In 19th century Russian cultural imagination, Ukrainian culture was seen as … peasant culture, not high culture,” Blacker tells me. “It’s something which has beautiful songs and … beautiful costumes. They dance well, but that’s where it stays. That’s their place. They’re not going to write serious novels, write symphonies and things like that. And [it was believed] they shouldn’t.”

It is this history that Ukrainian literature has endured, and it is this history which today’s conversations must address. Tsurkan insists that “very serious conversations need to go on in academia about how to teach Ukrainian history, language and culture outside of this Russian colonial grasp”. Although Ukrainian literature has found a way to flourish in spite of its circumstances, it has not had a sufficient audience to bring its beauty to the world – unlike the Russian canon which has forcibly overshadowed it. The war has at last produced that audience, and the literary response to the invasion now becomes an entirely different one. We are no longer asking whether we should ban long-dead Dostoevsky to punish Putin. Rather, we are acknowledging that the same history of empire which produced the current invasion is also responsible for a staggering literary imbalance, and that the present is a fertile opportunity to rebalance those scales. “It’s not saying that nobody should speak Russian ever again,” says Tsurkan. “It’s just that Ukrainian language should be allowed to thrive, to come into its own finally, that people who live in Ukraine can speak Ukrainian.”

Blacker makes a similar point. “We hear a lot about cancelling Russia: we should cancel Russia, we shouldn’t cancel Russia. [Those who] use the ‘cancel culture’ complaint often tend to be those who are in positions of power, and historically have been in positions of power, whose power is threatened in some way… [those whose power] might be shaken and chipped away a little bit by having more marginalized voices come in and take up a little bit of their space. I think it’s much better to think of it in terms of just rebalancing.” He offers an example which might prove relevant here in Oxford: “Modern languages departments often have Russian. They almost never have Ukrainian. If we appoint a few new people to teach Ukrainian … instead of appointing more people to teach Russian, is that cancelling Russia? Or is that maybe just balancing out the way that we teach and research and understand this part of the world?”

The proper literary response to the crisis in Ukraine is one which sees it as an opportunity to shed light on an underappreciated tradition, even if this is at the expense of a historically dominant one. As Blacker points out, Russian culture is not going to go away anytime soon: “there is room for bringing in the previously unknown and marginalized cultures a little bit.” Says Tsurkan: “Pushkin is part of the canon – he’s not going anywhere. Dostoevsky is not going anywhere.” The resulting task, in her words, is to show foreign readers that Ukrainian authors are “just as interesting as [their] American or French” counterparts, and that they’re “all on the same talented playing field”.

Yet bringing Ukrainian literature to global attention is only the beginning. The literary response is valuable and long overdue – but how can it be sustained? News about the invasion no longer covers front pages as it did several months ago. The initial flurry of attention paid to Ukrainian culture is already fading. “It happens whenever and wherever there’s a war,” says Blacker. “Attention gets focused on those places, and publishers want to publish the books, … write about them, review them. But it does pass.” For Blacker, the answer is to “seize the moment” as best we can – “to establish connections which can then be used in future” and to build lasting legacies as we do so. “Maybe not all of these writers … will still be prominent outside of Ukraine in, let’s say, in 10, 20 years. But some of them will … and the basic level of knowledge and awareness and consciousness of Ukrainian culture and literature will have been raised up a little.” Likewise, Tsurkan considers exposing these writers to be the crucial effort. For her, the task is giving foreign readers access to Ukrainian writers whose work is powerful enough to endure on its own. “Keep trying to get … writers with such talent out there to editors, and slowly build,” Tsurkan says. “That’s the true test of time.”

Another element of this effort seeks recognition of Ukrainian literature as a tradition that extends beyond accounts of the nation’s conflict. “Ukrainian culture is not just about war,” Tsurkan tells us. “It is a huge topic in literature today – a lot of writers are writing poetry or even novels about the war. But, eventually, someday – let it be sooner [rather] than later – the war will end. And we want people to still be interested in Ukrainian culture and literature once that conflict has, thankfully, moved on.” Blacker likewise warns against taking such a limited view of Ukraine. “People are very, very impressed by Ukrainian society’s ability to resist the Russian invasion,” he says. “And there’s a bit of a danger, I suppose, that [this] can become a rather simplistic and romanticized way to see Ukrainian culture: as something that’s always attached to a kind of national struggle. It often is, but not always. There’s plenty of Ukrainian culture which is not about the national struggle, but rather the kind of things that all literature is about.”

As readers choose where to start, it’s crucial to consider the breadth of available options; to treat Ukraine’s literature as a rich and deserving tradition, rather than as an object of pity, consumed by struggle. After all, as Mateo emphasizes, to engage with Ukrainian culture as an outsider “is a way of upholding Ukrainian sovereignty and celebrating all facets of the country, rather than just seeing Ukraine and Ukrainians as victims”.

Ultimately, the stories of Ukrainian literature have long been told. The world has simply not listened. Those interested might begin by considering the following authors, artists, and works recommended by Tsurkan, Blacker, and Mateo:

From Kate Tsurkan:

  • Lyuba Yakimchuk – “A very feminine playful voice which remains resilient in the face of tragedy…her own family was displaced because of the war.” Particularly her recent poetry collection, Apricots of Donbass.
  • Mykhaylo Semenko: “Part of what is known today as the ‘executed Renaissance’ – […] nearly an entire generation of poets, artists, directors, who were either persecuted, forced to censor themselves, or killed by the NKVD.”
  • Taras Shevchenko: “The 19th century national poet of Ukraine…the Tsar specifically forbade him to write to paint. Of course, he continued to do it because he is Ukrainian.”

From Dr. Uilleam Blacker:

  • Lesya Ukrainka: “Global in its imaginative reach…a big theme of unrequited love for Europe.”
  • Iryna Shuvalova: “One of the best poets around anywhere at the moment.”
  • Serhiy Zhadan: “He’s a novelist. He’s a poet. He’s also a rock star … He is super, super popular in Ukraine.”

From Emma Mateo:

  • The anthology Writing from Ukraine: Fiction, Poetry and Essays since 1965, which includes the work of fifteen Ukrainian authors.
  • Okean Elzy: “Iconic Ukrainian rock band.”
  • The Ukrainian Spaces podcast. ∎


Words by Wyatt Radzin. Art by Matthew Kurnia.