In 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, the Russian satirist Vladimir Sorokin wrote about the reaction of his friends to the fighting that followed. “I can’t believe that Russia and Ukraine are fighting. It’s like a nightmare,” said one. Another added: “All of us Russians are sitting in a huge theatre, watching a play called Ukraine. And you can’t leave the theatre.
Now we are all watching, as transfixed and horrified as Sorokin and his friends. But what we are seeing, behind the news, is something more enduring: a representation of the character and qualities of Ukraine and its people. It is a place that, because of its unique geopolitical location and turbulent history, has been richly recorded in books and stories for many years, and continues to inspire writers today. BBC Culture set out to explore Ukraine’s literary history, and speak to writers who know it best.
Boris Dralyuk is a Ukraine-born writer and translator, now living in the US. When asked about how Ukraine is represented in writing, he identifies one of the fathers of its literature as Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), “the national poet of Ukraine, a sort of Pushkin-like figure who was born into serfdom, whose talent bought him his freedom.” One of Shevchenko’s poems is A Cherry Orchard by the House (1847): “A tiny little lyric,” says Dralyuk. “It won’t strike you as brilliant poetry, but for Ukrainians, it’s the very image of home. It just lodges in your heart and you can’t shake it.
He also names the poet Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913), who was influenced by Shevchenko and was, says Dralyuk, “a kind of proto-feminist figure [and] you can tell by her choice of pseudonym that she was very much, if not a nationalist then a patriot. Her image has been on Twitter frequently, because Ukrainian women have shown so much courage [recently], so she’s become a symbol of that kind of resistance.”
Neither Shevchenko nor Ukrainka, however, is well known outside Ukraine. It’s disappointing, if apt, that some of the best-known early portrayals of Ukraine in literature are by outsiders, particularly those depicting the Crimean War of the 1850s. This conflict between Russia and an alliance including Britain and France was described by commentators.
From the Russian side, the Crimean War produced probably the world’s first war correspondent, when a young officer in the Russian army with an interest in literature filed reports on the siege of the port of Sevastopol in 1854-55, and for the first time signed his full name to his writing: Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. His three “Sevastopol sketches” show Tolstoy’s qualities in an early form: a blend of politics and personalities, rigorous historical reconstruction, and an acute eye for larger-than-life characterisation.
The sketches read like fiction, full of life and death, but for Tolstoy “the hero of my story, whom I love with all my heart and soul,” was “the truth”. He didn’t care whether his sketches offended anyone – “all the characters are equally blameless and equally wicked” – and they made him into a literary celebrity. “I failed to become a general in the army,” he wrote, “but I became one in literature.
The examples of Tolstoy and Tennyson illustrate the enduring image of Ukraine as a place not just divided but torn by conflict. What we now call Ukraine – it has been an independent nation for only three decades – was historically a crossing point from West to East. In the 19th Century, western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the East was ruled by Russia. In the early 20th Century, it was briefly united as the Ukrainian People’s Republic, before once more being split between Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Romania, and then becoming part of the Soviet Union. One way of looking at its tempestuous history is that that western Ukrainian city now known as Lviv was known variously as Lvov, Lwów or Lemberg, depending on who was in charge at the time.
A melting pot of cultures
But we do Ukraine an injustice if we focus on its literature of conflict and ignore its other qualities. One of its most distinctive traits is that, because of the country’s status as an East-West meeting point, it is a melting pot of cultures, particularly in the western cities like Lviv and Odessa. Ukraine-born Jewish writer Isaac Babel (born 1894) made his name as one of the key figures in 20th-Century literature through a relatively sparse output before he was killed as part of Stalin’s terror campaign in 1940. Babel wrote that “no iron can pierce the heart with the force of a [full stop/period] put in just the right place,” and although he too wrote about war – in his Red Cavalry sequence – it’s his Odessa stories that conjure most beautifully the character of melting-pot Ukraine.
Dralyuk, who was born in Odessa, has translated Babel’s stories into English. The Odessa stories are mostly about the Jewish gangster community and capture its energy and unpredictability in a way that make them read like a European Damon Runyon. One passage, where the narrator falls foul of gang kingpin Benya Krik (who “got his way because he had passion, and passion rules the world”), could be straight out of Runyon’s Broadway stories:
“He kept on crying and stomping on me. My wife saw how much this upset me and commenced screaming. She started at half past four and didn’t finish till eight. And how she gave it to him, oy, how she gave it to him! You should have seen it!”
“Yes, yes, that’s what I was emulating for sure,” says Dralyuk. “Damon Runyon, Ring Lardner, and Jewish-American authors like Bernard Malamud.” One of the secondary losses arising from the Russian invasion, fears Dralyuk, is that “the Russian language you see in Babel’s stories, which is part of Ukrainian culture… will shrink inevitably, because those who speak both languages will probably make an effort to speak Ukrainian rather than Russian. And that forecloses a whole rich tradition that could have remained open. I would much rather Ukraine be allowed to develop as a multilingual, multicultural place, which is what it was for the last 30 years.