In November 2015, I met writer Yuri Andrukhovych in a downtown cafe in his hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. One of his country’s best-known authors, Andrukhovych writes in Ukrainian but is also fluent in several other languages, including Russian and English. Until the First World War, Ivano-Frankivsk was part of the Austro-Hungarian multinational empire. Andrukhovych explained that one of his ancestors came to Stanislaw, as Ivano-Frankivsk was then called, as an official of the railway, which connected the city with Vienna in 1892.
After starting by talking about translation and writing, we ended up talking about trains. Andrukhovich and I both remembered the epic journeys, measurable in days rather than hours, that could be made on the rail network of the former Soviet space.
At that time, in 2015, there were no more direct trains between Ukraine and Russia. The war in Donetsk and Luhansk had put an end to these links. We left the cafe and Andrukhovych took me to see the city’s newest monument – a memorial to the residents who had died in the Maidan uprising in kyiv and the then-recent war in Donbass.
For an Irishman, on the Atlantic fringes of Europe, Ukraine must seem peripheral, a place of indefinite borders – a border in every direction. But Ukraine’s openness to influences and its history under more than one empire put it at the heart of the European experience, as does its vulnerability to Europe’s historical traumas.
Europe may not have a great idea of what Ukraine is, but Ukraine knows all about Europe, and its literature from the last century – in half a dozen languages - is reflect. Most Ukrainians are at least bilingual, and many of the best contemporary Ukrainian writers are also translators, including Andrukhovych.
Vladimir Putin’s attempt to divide Ukrainian and Russian speakers has been largely unsuccessful. Ukraine has long been a bilingual society and most Ukrainians easily switch between languages depending on the situation. There are rough geographical divisions. The south and east tend to be Russian-speaking. kyiv is more Russian-speaking, but not the surrounding countryside. As a traveler, even in the heavily Ukrainian-speaking east of the country, I never had a problem addressing people in Russian and getting a response in the same language.
Over the past three decades, the use of Ukrainian has increased and in recent years it has also acquired a political dimension; President Zelensky, a native Russian speaker, delivers his defiant wartime speeches in Ukrainian.
In a part of rural eastern Ukraine, people don’t switch languages so much as speak a mix of what you might call – depending on your perspective – Russified Ukrainian or Ukrainianized Russian. Nikolai Gogol came from a bilingual aristocratic family in eastern Ukraine; his Dikanka Farm Evenings are narrated by a peasant who speaks this kind of Ukrainianized Russian. Russian short story and poetry traditions derive much of their vitality from this connection to non-standard speech patterns and their rooting in oral tradition.
Putin’s ethno-nationalist rhetoric against Ukraine attacks the idea that a place that allows for multiple identities has a right to be a country. This does not allow a Russian speaker in Ukraine to feel passionately Ukrainian – especially when bombarded by a deranged nationalist despot. “They don’t know anything about our history,” President Zelensky said following a Russian missile strike at Babyn Yar in the first week of the war. “But they have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all.”
Babyn Yar is the site of a Nazi massacre of at least 100,000 people, including most of kyiv’s pre-war Jewish population. Zelensky, whom Putin is so keen to “denazify,” happens to be Jewish.
The 19th-century Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem came from a shtetl near kyiv, in what was the Pale of Settlement, the region of the Russian Empire where Jews could legally reside. The Pale stretched between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea and was the heart of the Yiddish-speaking world.
Urban-educated Jews in Ukraine tended to learn Russian. Isaac Babel, whose stories were based on his experiences with the Red Army during the 1920 war between the Soviets and Poles, was an assimilated Jew from Odessa. Although Babel may have initially sympathized with the revolution, his histories and journals show his disillusionment with the military spreading it and how the poor Jewish shtetl of the western war zone of Ukraine were vulnerable to predation by anti-Semitic soldiers on both sides. .
Babel’s first language was Russian, but he understood his grandparents’ Yiddish. His collection of short stories, Red Cavalry, appeared in 1927, during a brief period of relative artistic freedom under Lenin, but was executed during Stalin’s great pre-war purge.
Vasily Grossman, another “Russian” Jewish writer and author of the World War II epic Life and Fate, was from Berdichev in west-central Ukraine. As a Red Army journalist, Grossman was among the first to write about the Holocaust on Soviet soil and he was with the Red Army when it liberated Treblinka. Its documentation of the Nazi genocide of Jews in Ukraine and beyond was eventually suppressed by Stalin, who did not want the simple story of Soviet bravery to be complicated by other stories about the extermination of entire peoples.
Grossman would likely have fallen victim to Stalin’s own anti-Semitic campaign if the dictator had managed to live just a little longer than him. The Holocaust remained a Soviet taboo and Babyn Yar did not get a memorial to its Jewish victims until the era of Ukrainian independence. And Grossman’s Life and Fate, which depicted the Holocaust in Ukraine and drew parallels between Nazism and Stalinism, didn’t appear in Russian until the fall of the Soviet Union. Neither does Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows, which provides the first fictional account of the Holodor, the man-made famine of 1932-33 that resulted from Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization and killed three million Ukrainian peasants.
As Ukraine and Russia emerged from censorship, fiction had a role to play in documenting what happened under Stalinism and Nazism, and documenting the real-life experiences of millions of ordinary people. (In Ukraine, the process would continue; in Putin’s Russia, the machinery of deception would enter the electronic age.)
The common history of Ukraine and Russia makes it difficult to talk about their literatures separately, just as it is impossible to draw a line – as Putin would like – between speakers of Russian and Ukrainian. But Ukraine’s linguistic fluidity goes far beyond these two languages, especially in the western region of Ukraine that was once part of the Habsburg Empire.
German was the language of urban elites in cities like Lemberg (Lviv) and Czernowitz (Cernivitsi). Poet Paul Celan and novelist Gregor von Rezzori both hailed from the Cernovitsi region and wrote in German during their post-war exiles.
Cernivitsi-born novelist Aharon Appelfeld in a 1980s interview with Philip Roth recounted how he spoke German with his parents, Yiddish with his grandparents, Ukrainian with country people and Romanian at school (Cernivitsi was Romanian between the world wars). Appelfeld was deported with the Jews of his town at the age of eight to a Romanian concentration camp. He escaped. He learned Hebrew when he arrived in Palestine in 1946, at the age of 14, and continued to write his books in this language.
Just as the Ukrainian language leans toward Russian in the east, it leans toward Polish in the west, a region of centuries of intermingling between the two peoples. The Polish population of western Ukraine was subject to mass deportations and purges during the Stalin years, and the survivors pushed west into Poland after the war.
The great Polish short-story writer of the interwar period Bruno Schulz was originally from Drohobycz, now in western Ukraine, formerly in eastern Poland, formerly in the province of the Habsburgs in Silesia. A Jew, he was killed during the Holocaust.
By its influences and its concerns, Ukrainian literature is a European literature. Ukraine is not peripheral. Western Europe has recently awakened to a realization of why this country sees its future as part of the modern European political order. Ukraine knows all too well the man-made disasters of the 20th century and desperately wishes they would not happen again.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh lives in Bucharest. His most recent book is Trouble (Stinging Fly Press)