October 7, 2022

Opinion: What centuries-old poets got right about Ukraine

6 min read

Widely unknown outside the country, Ukrainian literature is full of demands to fight against imperialist rule. In 2022, these words are finding new resonance.

My generation – the first to grow up in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union – had to rediscover the messages that were hidden from us through a different tradition, which was the Russian Censorship, distortion and contempt. And Soviet ideology.

I was born and raised in Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine. In a very Russian-speaking city, I went to a school in Ukraine. It is a shame for a literary expert to admit that Ukrainian literature was one of the subjects I hated the most.

In this newly independent country of the 1990s, the school curriculum was rooted in the Soviet narrative of the oppression of the Ukrainian people by the ruling classes. And when you are a teenager, there is only so much cruelty that you can beat.

For example, Taras Shevchenko – a former slave widely regarded as the father of the nation – often wrote about the crucifixion of his “poor” and “unfortunate” Ukraine at the hands of Zoroastrian Russia. The fate of this 19th-century romantic poet has become the practice of the Ukrainian martyrs themselves.

For his revolutionary poetry, Shevchenko was sentenced to exile in the Russian army as a private. The sentence damaged his health and shortened his life. The school curriculum emphasized the personal tragedy as well as the suffering of the Ukrainian nation that Shevchenko had so powerfully portrayed – but not the nation’s struggle for independence, which was the focus of his poetry.

Moving into the 20th century, there was a renaissance – a generation of Soviet Ukrainian writers and intellectuals who were assassinated by the government in the 1920s and 1930s. This pattern of anti-Ukrainian violence continued with the deviant Ukrainian poet Vasil Stos, who died in a Russian prison just six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The focus on martyrdom and national suffering was a sign of colonial trauma and learned the helplessness of the colonists. The story of the Ukrainian hunt left no room for agency – and was totally debilitating to me as a child.

The tide began to turn in 2014, during the so-called Dignity Revolution – or Revolution fieldNamed after the square in central Kyiv where Ukrainian citizens gathered, they lived and fought for three winter months.
Poetic, crude and dark humor.  A Ukrainian writer shares her war diary.

The revolution began as a protest against the government’s decision to reunite the country’s fortunes with Russia and reject its affiliation with the European Union. National martyr Shevchenko was shown on the barricades.

Excerpts from his poems appeared on the wooden shields of protesters protesting against armed riot police. Shevchenko’s line, “Fight – and you will prevail” became the motto of the Ukrainian resistance.

It was also the field that taught my Ukrainian race to organize themselves. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, many workers who built self-defense or medical units and ran logistics or field kitchens on the ground went straight to the front line.

For the past eight years the field race has been fighting a forgotten war in Europe. While much of the world seemed to be busy pleasing Putin, the Ukrainians were busy defending their country against his army. Unlike the West, which fell asleep in this catastrophe, the Ukrainians were ready to resist.

In fact, Ukraine’s fierce resistance to Russia’s invasion has taken many in the West by surprise. The Kremlin expected Ukraine to be defeated in a few days, and Western pundits largely agreed. After decades of Kremlin propaganda, they too bought the imperialist narrative of Russia’s domination of the region and Ukraine’s tragic but inevitable surrender.

The surrendering Ukrainians did not. And it wasn’t just Ukraine’s armed forces. Civilians have also volunteered to support the war effort. In doing so, he turned Ukraine’s national narrative into a deviation from hunting.

The readiness to fight the invaders I saw in Ukraine during the first weeks of the Russian war was both shocking, because of its sheer breadth and strength, and in the national tradition of anti-colonial resistance. It wasn’t surprising to be connected.

Overnight, the country’s economy changed to support the war effort. In Lviv, a popular bar began filling the bottles with Molotov cocktails instead of beer. A youth library hosted thousands of volunteers weaving masking nets for the military. A shop that sold children’s slings was transformed into a manufacture of tactical war jackets. Queues of volunteers are scattered throughout the city to enlist in the defense forces, cook in the field kitchens, or donate blood.

In these lines, people will recite unconventional Ukrainian classic lines. On the door of the bomb shelter in my building were engraved the famous lines of Shevchenko:

Oh bury me, then get up

And break your heavy chains.

And water from the blood of the wrongdoers

The freedom you have gained.

(Translated by John Weir)

The author who dispelled my own prejudiced view of Ukrainian culture was Lysia Ukraine. Her nickname literally means “Ukrainian woman” and her destiny is similar to that of her nation.

This symbolic feminist and anti-colonial thinker was also presented to me as a victim: not of the oppression of the Russian Tsar, but of his ill health, as is appropriate for a female writer. Ukraine had tuberculosis of the bones, and it was her physical pain that became the focus of the school curriculum.

The line of his 1897 poem, “Not to Cry, I Laughed,” about his experience with the disease, indicates his attitude towards Ukraine’s condition. Most Ukrainians will remember the school program line.

Nevertheless, it gained momentum after the Russian military began bombing Ukrainian cities. A friend who works as a fixer for foreign journalists told me the story of a woman from Bocha who was shot in the bed while she was feeding her dogs in the next room. “To cry, I laughed,” said the woman.

Ukraine insisted that her spirit was stronger than her body and that her willpower was stronger than physical pain. The heroine of her most famous poetic play, The Forest Song (1911), sacrifices her earthly body and declares:

Ah, don’t sigh for this body!

“It is now affected and the fire is shining with divine fire.

(Translated by Vera Rich)

These days, the famous line – “Don’t breathe for this body” – is quoted by Ukrainian rap artist Freil in his recent wartime song. “Explosion.” It is arranged as a letter to his mother’s son from the front lines of the war.

To me, Ukraine’s most symbolic text that challenges the story of oppression, based on both her personal story and her country, is a short poem from 1911:

Who told you I was weak?

Will I believe in that fate?

Who told you that my hand could move?

Are these words and ideas weak?

You heard me sing a sad song,

Lamentation, –

But it was just a hot spring storm,

And not the autumn wind.

(Translation of Olesya Khromeychuk)

The people of Ukraine are not known for their obedience to destiny. In 1991, he voted for the abolition of the Soviet Union. In 2013, he stood up against his corrupt pro-Russian government and confirmed his choice of independence. In 2022, they are once again resisting Russia’s colonial expansion, this time fighting for their right to exist.

“Fight – and you will prevail” is a lesson that Ukrainians have learned from their literature. They are now building a shield for the European continent, and the urgency to learn the lessons of the Ukrainian resistance is more important than ever.

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