Reading Ukrainian authors, thinking about Russia

Since the war began, and it’s been a month already, it became my main concern. I’m listening to the news more than it’s healthy, probably, but I also decided to go beyond the breaking news, and I reached for some recent Ukrainian literature. I have to admit I have not been keeping up, I’ve read some during my university days, but nothing recently. And a lot is going there, apparently, with much getting translated into Polish. Not as much into English, I’m afraid, but I found something that made huge impression on me that is available, so after a few more paragraphs of introduction I’ll review Serhiy Zhadan’s The Orphanage: A Novel. I wanted to write a quick review, but it turned out into quite a long text about history and politics…

What makes writing this post difficult is that I’m back to Polish sources, not so much when I’m looking for the news, here I have some excellent outlets and pages in English in my mix, but for the more in-depth cultural analysis. And this is a very interesting front. Ukraine is not only defending itself on the frontlines of this vicious war, but also re-defining its national identity, a process that started… well, back in the XIX century 😉 but in its current phase – after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. There was a referendum then, with over 90% of the voters supporting Ukraine’s independence, but in the 90ties it was independence of a weak state that tried to be equally close to Russia and to the West. Large part of its population considered Russian to be their native language, especially people in the East, but initially also in the central part that includes the capital, Kyiv. For many, a difference between being Ukrainian and Russian wasn’t clear. Whole regions were largely pro-Russian, and supported staying away from such institutions of Western imperialism as EU or NATO. Fierce nationalism dominated the West of the country, cities like Lviv. But it was a smaller, neglected part of the state.

Ukraine was a poor and corrupted country of great people that largely lost hope for things to get better – that is my own observation from the times when I used to visit more often. Then something changed, and it was a change many people missed, initially. A political one. Elections are not always fair in this part of the world, and often the population is powerless to do anything about that. Or doesn’t even care, convinced that all politicians are the same. Ukrainians refused to accept rigged elections, and more than once. They showed a love of liberty and democracy that was never really present in Russia, and that fact proved to be important. Russia, unable to manipulate Ukraine from the shadows, moved in forcefully, conquering Crimea and then parts of two of Ukraine’s easternmost regions – the former was incorporated into Russia after a referendum, the latter left as pseudo-states, ruled by Russian agents and constantly attacking Ukrainian army. After 8 years of a low-intensity (but quite bloody) conflict, Putin told his horde to attack with full force on multiple fronts and the results we see on the news since February 24.

Putin hoped that the people I mentioned a few paragraphs above, Russian-speaking centrists and ethnic Russians that are also quite numerous in Ukraine, will be supportive or at least apathetic. Putin’s subjects mostly are. Ukrainians are not like that, not any more. A nation has been forged in the fires of Orange Revolution, Euromaidan, and finally the long war in Donbas. A nation where you can be a Russian-speaker, or even an ethnic Russian, but you still fight the invaders. A commonwealth of people that want to have a say in how they are governed and what they see on TV. Mayors of some of the cities on our TV screens are not Ukrainian nationalists, these are cities of eastern half of the country. Mayor of Kharkiv, where one of the fiercest battles is taking place, started his political career in a pro-Russian party. So did the mayor of Odesa, city still defiantly waiting for attack. Odesa, city so important for Russian culture, where Anna Akhmatova was born, and Isaac Babel. It does not want to go back to Mother Russia, and is ready to fight.

Yaroslav Hrytsak, Ukrainian historian who just wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times (a great one, can be accessed for free, but you have to get an account or login with your Goggle/FB credentials), kindly says that the troubled neighbourhood with Poland was important here, giving Ukrainians the unknown in Russia ideas of plurality, civil society, freedom of assembly. I like this idea 🙂

So, I’ve read a few articles on why and how that happened, and then I decided to search for some novels that would explore this topic in depth. I believe it’s better to learn about cultures through novels, than non-fiction! So far I’ve read two that deal with the early phase of the current war, just after Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

The first one, The Longest Times by Volodymyr Rafeienko, was not translated into English, and that’s a pity, as it has strong genre elements that would make it a perfect choice for Re-Enchantment. Its central location is a magical bathhouse, where careless invaders might lose their life – or get transported half a country away. What Rafeienko shows us is how the protagonists find their Ukrainian identity in face of Russian aggression. Himself, he grew up speaking Russian, started his career writing in Russian, even this very book, and only published his first work in Ukrainian in 2019 at the age of 50. So he is an example of a trend I’m writing about.

Slightly younger Serhiy Zhadan, now in the besieged Kharkiv, has always been Ukraine’s partisan. The Orphanage tells a story of Pasza, a teacher whose job – performed without much enthusiasm – is to teach Ukrainian to young students in eastern Ukraine. He is very careful to tell everyone he’s does not care about politics and does not want to get involved in the civil war that is rapidly coming to destroy his world.

Author: Serhiy Zhadan

Title: The Orphanage

Format: Kindle

Print Length: 388 pages

So, Pasza is a nobody leaving his meaningless life in a provincial city somewhere in the east of a country that is not really explicitly named in the book – but it’s quite clear it’s Ukraine, and the city is Donetsk. Languages are mentioned, Ukrainian, Russian and Surzhyk, a dialect that combines the two. The importance of languages is something I already mentioned.

Our Pasza is unmoved by the coming war, refuses to engage in politics, and is similarly inactive in his personal life. He lets his romantic relationship wither and collapse, he loves his nephew, but doesn’t interfere when his sister puts him in the institution (the orphanage). When the war finally comes, and the orphanage with young Sasza is suddenly in a war zone, on the other side of the frontline, Pasza finally moves, for a limited, personal, but quite noble reason – to save his family.

What follows is a journey to hell and back, a journey that will test his indifference and his lack of convictions. Pasza will see the cruelties of war, but not much of the war itself. There will be no heroism, only destruction and suffering. All this delivered in masterful (in Polish translation, and Polish is in some ways quite close to Ukrainian, I can’t vouch for the English translation) prose. Quite blunt, but that fits the tragic topic. This novel should join the pantheon of important books dedicated to showing the ugliness of war.

It’s also a bit more. Zhadan does not lead the reader towards some simple answers, Pasza is not suddenly turned into Ukrainian turbo-patriot. I was actually expecting Orphanage to be more straight forward. There are clues, as when Pasza tries to dismiss a question with another non-committal statement, and in response he hears but you can see, what direction is the bombardment coming from. Indeed that is clear, and Pasza finds it more and more difficult to deny it.

He clearly stands in for the entire Ukrainian society, caught in crossfire and realizing the moment comes where commitment cannot be avoided. Eight years later we know where the majority of Ukrainians went from this place.

If you want to read one contemporary novel to understand the current situation better – not the fact about the war, but the people fighting it – this might be a good choice!

But I also have three further suggestions for other media.

(1) Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors. Soviet-era movie that is actually a great, surreal story woven around myths and traditions of Hutsuls, an ethnic group of Ukrainian highlanders. With strong genre elements! My sister had to watch it multiple times when she was getting her Ukrainian Studies degree, so that’s a recommendation from professionals. Apparently it’s available on Amazon Video (but you have to pay extra to see it).

(2) People behind my favourite WWI and WWII YouTube documentaries created a short series about Ukraine’s history. Won’t take you much time, and it’s very nicely done and informative.

(3) If you’re on Facebook there’s a well run page War. Stories from Ukraine that gives you short, moving stories about specific people. In Poland you here stories like that daily, from people that lived through them. In my nieces’ school and kindergarten they have new friends, just arrived from the war zone, and I have to tell you in many cases it’s only women and children who got to safety. Men mostly stayed in Ukraine, many are fighting, some of the fathers have already fallen.

And some final thoughts about Russia, its people and its culture. I’ve read some interesting articles from Ukrainian historians and writers about their perspective, and I’ve chosen to listen to them first and foremost, and Polish or Western ones only later. Of course, some great pieces of world’s culture came from Russia. Personally, I’m a fan of Isaaac Babel, some of Gogol’s work, I like to see a new adaptation of Chekhov every now and then, I tried to listen to Shostakovich not so long ago, while reading Europe Central. There is a huge book by Vasily Grossman on my bookshelf waiting for its turn. But! My favourite book about Russia is Astolphe de Custine’s Letters from Russia, picturing Russian Empire in mid-XIX century as something quite similar to Soviet Russia, and Putin’s Russia – aggressive empire, with rich elites, subjected populations, a veneer of culture and ubiquitous violence beneath. Even now, look at the map, Russia is a big colonial empire that kept most of what it conquered, and there are Russian populations in most neighbouring nations, leftovers of the colonisation that took place in Tsarist Russia and in the Soviet Union. How do you think that many Russians got to Estonia or Kazakhstan? How any got to Koenigsberg/Kaliningrad?

I’ve read much more from contemporary Ukraine than Russia, but what I read shows people who, even when opposing Putin, quite often look at the world from nationalistic, imperialistic perspective (and it’s debatable what is left of Russian nationalism if we take away their imperialism). They may not want to kill Ukrainians, but they are still hurt the Ukrainians do not want to accept Russian superiority, if not political, than at least cultural. Even friendly Russians often can’t let go of the Empire. Current conflict goes beyond evil Putin, a long term solution must include Russians, as a nation, accepting that their empire is no more and the smaller nations around them are sovereign and can decide their future. And that requires for the Russians to re-define themselves. Simply removing Putin and even having genuine elections in Russia would not be enough – that might stop this war, but not the long term imperial ambitions of that country.

Russians need to let Ukrainians go, and Russians need to work through their imperialism, and colonialism, just as the other great powers. Some deal with the issue better, some worse, but there is a need to self-analyse what aspects of your culture led to the atrocities committed in its name.

Most of all – please remember that Ukraine is a real country, with real people, and it’s their choice to determine their fate.

Слава Україні! / Slava Ukraini!

20 thoughts on “Reading Ukrainian authors, thinking about Russia

    1. piotrek

      Thanks. It sucks, it’s terrible, but there’s also hope, and it’s thanks to Ukrainians standing their ground, which they do because they know what they fight for. History is happening right now!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Good to see you still posting. I was kind of afraid this was going to push you out of blogging all together.

    Our church has been sending donations to Samaritans Purse earmarked for Ukraine. I know SP has some logistical teams in Poland as well as support teams in Ukraine itself. Are you part of any group or organization directly helping out?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. piotrek

      Thanks, I wanted to write something less emotional then my previous post, and more about, well, books, this is a book review blog, after all 😉
      I’m mostly donating, myself, and most of it goes towards equipment for territorial defence units on Ukraine.
      My sister, who speaks Ukrainian, is doing volunteer work with refugee children, she has some sad stories to tell…

      Liked by 1 person

        1. piotrek

          Well, there is this great, small NGO that uses money very effectively, finding stuff like medicines, bulletproof vests or night vision equipment all around Europe and beyond, and delivering to Ukrainian fighters: (link to their page on a Polish version of GoFundMe). Not much staff, significant results.

          Alternatively, we have a catholic institution nearby that usually helps single mothers in need. Now they have around 50 women from Ukraine living on their premises, and they need help, so we could buy food or whatever they need and get it there directly.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this heartfelt and very informative post. It’s true, we watch the news (and these days it’s a compulsive activity…) but we don’t know much about the background on which the present situation rests, so I was glad to learn more, and to be able to place current events into a more detailed context.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thanks. That’s my personal take on it all, but I stand by it. The way I feel about Russia might be the last bit of traditional Polish world-view left in me, but I believe it’s justified by this ugly war.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. I’ve been reading Kolyma Stories by Varlam Shalamov off and on for more than 3 years now. It’s fantastic, and if you don’t know about it, I urge you to check it out. Reading it some more this last month made me realize how utterly traumatized Russian society must have been because of the camps and the overal regime, to the point it must still contribute to political dysfunction generations later.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thank you. Well, I haven’t read Shalamov, I’ve read most of Solzhenitsyn (including his late, nationalistic works), Ivan Solonevich, and a few Polish GULAG prisoners.
      I agree there’s generations of trauma, from the Soviet era, and earlier, of the brutal tsarist regime. Soviets did not invent Siberia…
      I had a discussion with Ola before I published this piece, and she insisted I’m generalizing, and assigning some collective guilt to poor, brutalized nation that never had any real power over its overlords.
      Well, the question of collective guilt was widely analysed after WWII and I do not mean guilt in criminal sense, this is reserved to pilots bombing hospitals and artillerymen levelling civilian apartments. And their criminal-in-chief hiding in his bunker.
      I think that Russians will at some point need to work their issues through, just like Germans did, and a large military defeat might help them get there.
      Meanwhile, I’m listening to Russian mothers and wives advising their uniformed men to steal a phone, or get them a nice TV from Ukraine, and it reminds me of an old song:


  4. Great post Piotrek. I’m following this war closely and I’m really upset with what the Russians are trying to do.
    In 2017 I was in Kyiv for a day and a pro Russian taxi driver drove me around and insisted on speaking politics with me. At this time Crimea was just taken over and Euromaidan had happened. He told me that Russia and Ukraine were all one people and that the nationalists were appropriating Russian culture for their nationalist narrative. My impression was that it was a very divided country. But now in 2022 perhaps not so divided anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thanks! A bit more on Ukraine’s internal divisions… of course, some are still there, just muted in the time of national emergency. But there’s been a great change, or rather an acceleration of a process that started at least 20 years ago. In the 90-ties, I remember reading a lot about “two Ukraines”, a nationalistic one and a pro-Russian one, and it was backed by solid science, multiple polls and in-depth sociological studies. Since then, more and more people switched to a fully Ukrainian identity, and on the other hand – many Russian speakers fully embraced their political, civic identity as Ukrainians, without changing their preferred language and often they remain culturally Russian. By 2017 your taxi driver would be in minority, but it’s still an ongoing process. The nation as a whole, it’s widely believed the war moved them irrevocably away from Russia, politically, but also culturally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, what we see right now is going to be a forming event in the Ukrainian identity. I assume there will still be a Ukrainian state after all this is done. I don’t think Russia’s plan will lead to a sustainable outcome in any shape that the Russians will be happy with. Not a part of Russia, nor a Russian puppet state. Maybe we are looking at a longer period of occupation and guerrilla war, but the Ukrainian identity is becoming more distinct because of this.

        Liked by 1 person

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  6. Thank you for this post. It’s given me more of an insight into what is happening and why than I’ve gleaned from the news.
    We’ve mostly been collecting donations and money for refugees, but I’ve made a note of the link you provided above to give more effectively. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. piotrek

      Thanks. I wanted to provide a bit of an extra context, I might follow up at some point. I’m so shocked right now, when I thought things cannot get any worse, reports came about the Bucha massacre, probably worst atrocity committed in Europe since Srebrenica.

      Liked by 1 person

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