More Reasons Why the War Affects us All, though Still Not Enough: Contemporary Ukrainian Literature

by Dana Kanafina

The copy of Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine, edited by Kateryna Kazimirova and Daryna Anastasieva, found its way to me on December 16th, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. I read it immediately – I was home all day anyway. After almost getting arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (post-Soviet jargon for  “being seen protesting or being mistaken for a protester”) a few times I try to play it safe. Either way, the matter of the fact is that at the end of 2022, bloody for most post-Soviet countries (Qandy Qantar, the war in Tajikistan, unrest in Kyrgyzstan, further escalation of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and, of course, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine), I was home reading through the literary collection of contemporary Ukrainian authors. And I was grieving. And I was furious.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shaken everyone in the former Soviet Union (except Russia, but it seems so desensitized to violence at this point that shaking doesn’t seem to be possible or preferred), and I speak for most Kazakhs when I say we felt it acutely. For most of colonial history, Ukraine and Kazakhstan unintentionally mirrored each other in suffering. The genocide attempt of the Stalinist period – known in Ukraine as Holodomor and in Kazakhstan as Asharshylyq –  took lives of 4 million on Ukrainians and 4 million Kazakh people. Both had their languages banned from public use, their celebration days outlawed. Many significant Kazakh authors – Akhmet Baitursynuly, Magzhan Zhumabai, Zhusypbek Aimauytov, Mirjaqip Dulatuli – were executed during the 1930s. In Ukraine, this period is known as Red Renaissance and has its own victims – Mykola Kulish, Mykhaylo Semenko, Les Kurbas, Klym Polishchuk, and others. Despite this, Kazakh and Ukrainian lands have been the largest source of income for Soviet Russia. The idea of brotherhood is overused as a part of the Soviet propaganda, but if there truly are twins within the former Soviet rule, Kazakhstan and Ukraine would be them.

In the still ongoing fight for national freedom, Ukraine made its way forward compared to us. Independence – something I fail to feel as I am writing this, switching between this google doc and news coverage of people detained for being involved in protests, including those detained from their own homes; something I fail to feel as my text freezes every other minute because the government is slowly shutting down the internet again – goes beyond the ability to speak one’s national language or eat one’s national food.It is its crucial first step, but it isn’t the end. In the context of decolonization, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o writes that the true freedom from the colonizer is the ability to think of oneself outside of colonial terms. In post-Soviet reality, this also means to have the ability to write without censoring oneself. We, post-Soviet writers, survived a state that normalized surveillance of  not just published works, but private literary meetings as well, even including book clubs. Rejecting this hyper-vigilance now means letting go of the inspectors we all have in our heads. Redefining what local politics is for us and us alone. In Kazakhstan, this has been achieved with varying levels of success, but it’s endlessly empowering to see how amazing it is going in Ukraine. This gives hope not just for our combined literary communities, but for us as a society. The society that spends its every day hoping for and contributing to Ukrainian victory in the war and patiently awaiting the collapse of the Russian empire.

Ihor Kalynets’ poem in which he urges the reader to think about whether apolitical poetry is poetry at all was a necessary start for this collection. It captures the frustration amassed after a century of censored poetry. The national voice in the form of “yearning […] beloved’s sleep [and] the baroque arsenal of journalism”, Kalynets writes, was “taken […] robbed [and] stolen”. The only way out of this is by starting over. “… [I]f you are not // a poet’s // denunciation // what are you then //” Kalynets asks.

Yuri Andrukhovich, the next poet in the collection, takes a more melancholic outlook on the issue of ancestral memory. In his Underground Zoo, he details all the wonders that inhabit the areas underneath the city – whales, newts, dolphins, “lampreys and moray eels, sirens, octopi. […] inflorescence of sponges and jellyfish – as well as the “pits of our souls”. The reader is tricked into thinking this is a sci-fi take on contemporary poetry, and yet it is apparent that Andrukhovich isn’t talking about nature at all. Petrified  oak trees, for example, “quiver because… they fled here from hunters” and the people of that underground reality attempt to maintain reality despite anxiety looming over their everyday life. Andrukhovich, ultimately, says that the place under the city is “long gone” – much like the carefree pre-war days. 

The obstruction of free speech, frequent and coming in many forms within the Soviet Union is a theme in Pavlo Korobchuk’s works too. “My voice, for a long time, in the sense of another listening, hasn’t had support. // All that was said rarely, swarmed in coarse strokes within,” he writes in the Letter From a Sailor To His Daughter. The inability to be heard also finds its trace in Halyna Kruk’s poetry: “Oh God, let the voice of anger not go quiet // the voice of those that sit in cellars, forgotten, // […] the voice of one woman that wails into nowhere, of one woman that calls, // that curses, that in grief buries her face…” This theme of abstract mourning, mourning for memory unpreserved due to the restrictions of the regime, is prominent in some of the contemporary Kazakh poetry, such as Ainur A.K.’s My Mosquito: “My nation has seen many sufferings // Felt oppressed by history itself // Knew its life without writing it down // And didn’t save it all”.

As in any decolonial body of work, criticism of communism plays a big role in the Voices of Freedom. In “Set Change”, Yuri Andrukhovich challenges the supposed good communism brought to the post-Soviet states. “Within the church they opened a train station: // waiting room, altar lamps, icons, and booths. // Within the circus they opened a factory: // there a proud people fly over the lathes // in gaudy clown makeup from ear to ear. // Within the sky they opened a prison. // Within the body they opened darkness.” Similar themes emerge in the works of recently deceased Kazakh writer Abduzhamil Nurpeisov, namely in Blood and Sweat where locals lose most of the fish to collectivization and are called ungrateful for rising against the authorities.

It is crucial to recognize how explicitly anti-Russian – and therefore, political – most of these works are. A great example here is Prunus Armeniaca by Donetsk-born Stanislav Aseyev. It starts off with a statement: “My Crimean diary. No mistakes, no revisions. If a diary is basically the past, then I would start mine with an apricot. Crimea preceded it all. It came before the French Foreign Legion and Marx, before the strange feelings toward women and the women themselves, even before the Russians…” Aseyev fills the essay with memories of his childhood, otherwise sweet and innocent, adding the critical outlook on the way Ukraine was affected by Russia and its way of living. He writes: “As my train approached the Sivash, I always worried that I’d fall asleep and ‘wouldn’t miss it.’ That’s how everyone used to speak back then—adding a negative where it wasn’t required. That’s exactly how the broken Russian of the grey mining districts infiltrated the Crimean steppes.” and “[…] we had to admit that the most important things had to remain unspoken.” All the while, many Kazakhstani literary magazines take a stance on avoiding political topics.

Ultimately, the collection examines and attempts to verbalize the distressing experience of displacement. Oksana Zabushko’s take on it in Deportation is perhaps the most exemplary. “This message can come—has come, countless times—in different versions.” she writes, “For example, You have two hours to pack (or half an hour, or twenty-four hours—a difference, in this case, nothing short of existential). Or, You are allowed two kilos of belongings per person, (or five, or as much as you can carry), and … of that entire inalienable life of yours, fed into your blood by several generations, and out of which you now must snatch, with great precision, a few essential elements so that it can stay intact—and it’s already fallen apart! You can throw together a new, portable, backpackable home for yourself… This is why it is in fact a very important question […]: How much time would you need to pack if you found men with machine guns on your doorstep and they told you, get out, the transport is waiting.” 

Volodymyr Rafeyenko shares the same sentiment in Harvest: “My forebears built this house, but very soon, in no time at all really, strangers will come and live here. They will live as if I was never here. […] They’ll come here as if I never ever had a Mama and a Papa. As if my long, enchanted childhood, the beginning of my life, had never happened.” Other authors, such as Tamara Duda and Lyuba Yakimchuk also draw inspiration from personal experiences, again reminding both post-Soviet and other readers that the political intertwines with the personal.

Despite some of the grimmer messages, the love for Ukraine, the profound, sincere love, is a theme in almost all the works featured in the collection. Ivan Malkovych refers to Ukraine as his “dear homeland // [his] touching comedy” that “inspires [Ukrainians] // awakens [them]”. Svitlana Povalyaeva’s take on this feeling is ever more wholesome: “5 o’clock in the morning—in Kyiv, it’s a kind of enchanted time: // The time of garbage trucks. The time of hardcore urban freaks. // The time of spirits, ghosts, and protectors of this land. I stand on my balcony, as on the bow of a ship, and say to the fog: // ‘‘Glory to Ukraine!’ A deaf response: “Glory to the heroes!’” This, perhaps, is the main conclusion that should be drawn from Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing From Ukraine. The war, as well as turmoil preceding it, are more than Putin’s whim. Ukrainian people are fighting for their independence and everyone in post-USSR must stand to support it. Not just because it is the only humane and logical stance to take, but because Ukraine’s victory would be a step forward from the horrors of colonization for all of us.

Dana Kanafina is an author from Kazakhstan. She writes prose and essays and works part-time as a journalist. Dana is a graduate of the Summer School of Almaty Open Literature School for Young Writers (2017), Between The Lines of the International Writing Program (2019), Fem-Writing with Oksana Vasyakina and Galyna Rymbu (2020), Get Dusty Creative Writing Seminars with Anna Poloniy (2020), and Almaty Open Literature School (2021). Her works have been published in “Literatura” and “Daktil” online magazines, as well at the “MindMelt Worldwide” media space. The main themes in Dana’s works are alienation and trauma.

More Reasons Why the War Affects us All, though Still Not Enough: contemporary Ukrainian literature

by Dana Kanafina

The copy of Voices of Ukraine: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine, edited by Kateryna Kaziemirova and Daryna Anastasieva, found its way to me on December 16th, Kazakhstan’s Independence Day. I read it immediately – I was home all day anyway. After almost getting arrested for being in the wrong place at the wrong time (post-Soviet jargon for  “being seen protesting or being mistaken for a protester”) a few times I try to play it safe. Either way, the matter of the fact is that at the end of 2022, bloody for most post-Soviet countries (Qandy Qantar, the war in Tajikistan, unrest in Kyrgyzstan, further escalation of Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and, of course, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine), I was home reading through the literary collection of contemporary Ukrainian authors. And I was grieving. And I was furious.

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shaken everyone in the former Soviet Union (except Russia, but it seems so desensitized to violence at this point that shaking doesn’t seem to be possible or preferred), and I speak for most Kazakhs when I say we felt it acutely. For most of colonial history, Ukraine and Kazakhstan unintentionally mirrored each other in suffering. The genocide attempt of the Stalinist period – known in Ukraine as Holodomor and in Kazakhstan as Asharshylyq –  took lives of 4 million on Ukrainians and 4 million Kazakh people. Both had their languages banned from public use, their celebration days outlawed. Many significant Kazakh authors – Akhmet Baitursynuly, Magzhan Zhumabai, Zhusypbek Aimauytov, Mirjaqip Dulatuli – were executed during the 1930s. In Ukraine, this period is known as Red Renaissance and has its own victims – Mykola Kulish, Mykhaylo Semenko, Les Kurbas, Klym Polishchuk, and others. Despite this, Kazakh and Ukrainian lands have been the largest source of income for Soviet Russia. The idea of brotherhood is overused as a part of the Soviet propaganda, but if there truly are twins within the former Soviet rule, Kazakhstan and Ukraine would be them.

In the still ongoing fight for national freedom, Ukraine made its way forward compared to us. Independence – something I fail to feel as I am writing this, switching between this google doc and news coverage of people detained for being involved in protests, including those detained from their own homes; something I fail to feel as my text freezes every other minute because the government is slowly shutting down the internet again – goes beyond the ability to speak one’s national language or eat one’s national food.It is its crucial first step, but it isn’t the end. In the context of decolonization, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o writes that the true freedom from the colonizer is the ability to think of oneself outside of colonial terms. In post-Soviet reality, this also means to have the ability to write without censoring oneself. We, post-Soviet writers, survived a state that normalized surveillance of  not just published works, but private literary meetings as well, even including book clubs. Rejecting this hyper-vigilance now means letting go of the inspectors we all have in our heads. Redefining what local politics is for us and us alone. In Kazakhstan, this has been achieved with varying levels of success, but it’s endlessly empowering to see how amazing it is going in Ukraine. This gives hope not just for our combined literary communities, but for us as a society. The society that spends its every day hoping for and contributing to Ukrainian victory in the war and patiently awaiting the collapse of the Russian empire.

Ihor Kalynets’ poem in which he urges the reader to think about whether apolitical poetry is poetry at all was a necessary start for this collection. It captures the frustration amassed after a century of censored poetry. The national voice in the form of “yearning […] beloved’s sleep [and] the baroque arsenal of journalism”, Kalynets writes, was “taken […] robbed [and] stolen”. The only way out of this is by starting over. “… [I]f you are not // a poet’s // denunciation // what are you then //” Kalynets Kalunets asks.

Yuri Andrukhovich, the next poet in the collection, takes a more melancholic outlook on the issue of ancestral memory. In his Underground Zoo, he details all the wonders that inhabit the areas underneath the city – whales, newts, dolphins, “lampreys and moray eels, sirens, octopi. […] inflorescence of sponges and jellyfish – as well as the “pits of our souls”. The reader is tricked into thinking this is a sci-fi take on contemporary poetry, and yet it is apparent that Andrukhovich isn’t talking about nature at all. Petrified  oak trees, for example, “quiver because… they fled here from hunters” and the people of that underground reality attempt to maintain reality despite anxiety looming over their everyday life. Andrukhovich, ultimately, says that the place under the city is “long gone” – much like the carefree pre-war days. 

The obstruction of free speech, frequent and coming in many forms within the Soviet Union is a theme in Pavlo Korobchuk’s works too. “My voice, for a long time, in the sense of another listening, hasn’t had support. // All that was said rarely, swarmed in coarse strokes within,” he writes in the Letter From a Sailor To His Daughter. The inability to be heard also finds its trace in Halyna Kruk’s poetry: “Oh God, let the voice of anger not go quiet // the voice of those that sit in cellars, forgotten, // […] the voice of one woman that wails into nowhere, of one woman that calls, // that curses, that in grief buries her face…” This theme of abstract mourning, mourning for memory unpreserved due to the restrictions of the regime, is prominent in some of the contemporary Kazakh poetry, such as Ainur A.K.’s My Mosquito: “My nation has seen many sufferings // Felt oppressed by history itself // Knew its life without writing it down // And didn’t save it all”.

As in any decolonial body of work, criticism of communism plays a big role in the Voices of Ukraine Freedom. In “Set Change”, Yuri Andrukhovich challenges the supposed good communism brought to the post-Soviet states. “Within the church they opened a train station: // waiting room, altar lamps, icons, and booths. // Within the circus they opened a factory: // there a proud people fly over the lathes // in gaudy clown makeup from ear to ear. // Within the sky they opened a prison. // Within the body they opened darkness.” Similar themes emerge in the works of recently deceased Kazakh writer Abduzhamil Nurpeisov, namely in Blood and Sweat where locals lose most of the fish to collectivization and are called ungrateful for rising against the authorities.

It is crucial to recognize how explicitly anti-Russian – and therefore, political – most of these works are. A great example here is Prunus Armeniaca by Donetsk-born Stanislav Aseyev. It starts off with a statement: “My Crimean diary. No mistakes, no revisions. If a diary is basically the past, then I would start mine with an apricot. Crimea preceded it all. It came before the French Foreign Legion and Marx, before the strange feelings toward women and the women themselves, even before the Russians…” Aseyev fills the essay with memories of his childhood, otherwise sweet and innocent, adding the critical outlook on the way Ukraine was affected by Russia and its way of living. He writes: “As my train approached the Sivash, I always worried that I’d fall asleep and ‘wouldn’t miss it.’ That’s how everyone used to speak back then—adding a negative where it wasn’t required. That’s exactly how the broken Russian of the grey mining districts infiltrated the Crimean steppes.” and “[…] we had to admit that the most important things had to remain unspoken.” All the while, many Kazakhstani literary magazines take a stance on avoiding political topics.

Ultimately, the collection examines and attempts to verbalize the distressing experience of displacement. Oksana Zabushko’s take on it in Deportation is perhaps the most exemplary. “This message can come—has come, countless times—in different versions.” she writes, “For example, You have two hours to pack (or half an hour, or twenty-four hours—a difference, in this case, nothing short of existential). Or, You are allowed two kilos of belongings per person, (or five, or as much as you can carry), and … of that entire inalienable life of yours, fed into your blood by several generations, and out of which you now must snatch, with great precision, a few essential elements so that it can stay intact—and it’s already fallen apart! You can throw together a new, portable, backpackable home for yourself… This is why it is in fact a very important question […]: How much time would you need to pack if you found men with machine guns on your doorstep and they told you, get out, the transport is waiting.” 

Volodymyr Rafeyenko shares the same sentiment in Harvest: “My forebears built this house, but very soon, in no time at all really, strangers will come and live here. They will live as if I was never here. […] They’ll come here as if I never ever had a Mama and a Papa. As if my long, enchanted childhood, the beginning of my life, had never happened.” Other authors, such as Tamara Duda and Lyuba Yakimchuk also draw inspiration from personal experiences, again reminding both post-Soviet and other readers that the political intertwines with the personal.

Despite some of the grimmer messages, the love for Ukraine, the profound, sincere love, is a theme in almost all the works featured in the collection. Ivan Malkovych refers to Ukraine as his “dear homeland // [his] touching comedy” that “inspires [Ukrainians] // awakens [them]”. Svitlana Povalyaeva’s take on this feeling is ever more wholesome: “5 o’clock in the morning—in Kyiv, it’s a kind of enchanted time: // The time of garbage trucks. The time of hardcore urban freaks. // The time of spirits, ghosts, and protectors of this land. I stand on my balcony, as on the bow of a ship, and say to the fog: // ‘‘Glory to Ukraine!’ A deaf response: “Glory to the heroes!’” This, perhaps, is the main conclusion that should be drawn from Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing From Ukraine. The war, as well as turmoil preceding it, are more than Putin’s whim. Ukrainian people are fighting for their independence and everyone in post-USSR must stand to support it. Not just because it is the only humane and logical stance to take, but because Ukraine’s victory would be a step forward from the horrors of colonization for all of us.

Dana Kanafina is an author from Kazakhstan. She writes prose and essays and works part-time as a journalist. Dana is a graduate of the Summer School of Almaty Open Literature School for Young Writers (2017), Between The Lines of the International Writing Program (2019), Fem-Writing with Oksana Vasyakina and Galyna Rymbu (2020), Get Dusty Creative Writing Seminars with Anna Poloniy (2020), and Almaty Open Literature School (2021). Her works have been published in “Literatura” and “Daktil” online magazines, as well at the “MindMelt Worldwide” media space. The main themes in Dana’s works are alienation and trauma.

Author: dana kanafina

Dana Kanafina is an author from Almaty, Kazakhstan. She writer prose and essays, as well as works as a journalist part-time. Dana is a graduate of the Summer School of Almaty Open Literature School for Young Writers (2017), Between The Lines of the International Writing Program (2019), Fem-Writing with Oksana Vasyakina and Galyna Rymbu (2020), Get Dusty Creative Writing Seminars with Anna Poloniy (2020) and Almaty Open Literature School, faculty of prose (2021). When Dana isn't writing, she speands her time reading, socializing, and cuddling her cat.

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