Ukrainian Poets Who Wrote of War and Suffered Suppression: From the Imperial Era to 2022 Invasion of Ukraine – Review article
Curated by Laura Murray
The unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24, 2022, has sparked efforts to highlight the works of Ukrainian writers, artists, and composers who used their creative talents to give voice to the suffering wrought by the political aggression of the Soviet and now the Russian regimes. The recent enactment of a “fake news” law by the Russian government, which imposes stiff penalties and jail terms of up to 15 years for anyone who publishes information that disparages the Russian military effort—even calling it a war or an invasion—is a continuation of tactics used in the Soviet era to drown out unfavorable press (Russian ‘fake news’ law could give offenders 15 years in prison – The Verge). In this article, continuing the work of the National Museum of Language in its newest exhibit, “The Power of Poetry: Resisting Injustice with Language”, we will provide an overview of several major Ukrainian poets who have written about war and political oppression from the 19th century to the present day. This is just a small sample of this genre. We will provide more detailed information, including the poems in their original language, as more sources become available.
The man acclaimed as the father of modern Ukrainian literature and an iconic originator of Ukrainian protest poetry is Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861 (Ukrainian: Тара́с Григо́рович Шевче́нко). Shevchenko was born into serfdom to an impoverished family in the village of Morynski, Ukraine, about 100 miles south of Kyiv. He had a very difficult childhood marked by poverty and brutality from his family and the family who owned him. Nevertheless, he was able to get an education and developed into an accomplished painter, poet, ethnographer, and political activist. Through his art, at a young age he gained wealthy patrons who brought him to St. Petersburg and eventually purchased his freedom in 1838. He made several trips back to Ukraine and became more aware of the difficult conditions there. As he began to write poetry and create art that reflected these conditions, he also became involved in a clandestine society dedicated to political liberalization of the Russian empire. In 1847 he, along with other members of this group were arrested. Shevchenko was convicted of slandering the royal house and sentenced to exile as a private in the Russian army. Over the next 14 years, his exile continued to a series of brutal sites, and lengthy forced marches. He died of illnesses contracted due to the conditions of his exile on the final forced march in 1861. His most famous poem, Testament (Zapovit), written in 1845, has been translated into more than 150 languages.
Recording by Evheniy Bulda
|Заповіт – Тара́с Григо́рович Шевче́нко|
Як умру, то поховайте
Мене на могилі,
Серед степу широкого,
На Вкраїні милій,
Щоб лани широкополі,
І Дніпро, і кручі
Було видно, було чути,
Як реве ревучий.
Як понесе з України
У синєє море
Кров ворожу… отоді я
І лани, і гори —
Все покину і полину
До самого Бога
Молитися… а до того
Я не знаю Бога.
Поховайте та вставайте,
І вражою злою кров’ю
І мене в сiм’ї великій,
В сiм’ї вольній, новій,
Не забудьте пом’янути
Незлим тихим словом.
25 December 1845, Pereiaslav
Testament, by Taras Shevchenko (English translation by John Weir, 1961)
When I am dead, bury me
In my beloved Ukraine,
My tomb upon a grave mound high
Amid the spreading plain,
So that the fields, the boundless steppes,
The Dnieper’s plunging shore
My eyes could see, my ears could hear
The mighty river roar.
When from Ukraine the Dnieper bears
Into the deep blue sea
The blood of foes … then will I leave
These hills and fertile fields—
I’ll leave them all and fly away
To the abode of God,
And then I’ll pray …. But until that day
I know nothing of God.
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.
(Source: Taras Shevchenko – Wikipedia, accessed on March 13, 2022)
Soviet Era Poets
Myroslav Laiuk, a young scholar and poet who teaches at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, provided a brief but vivid summary of the harsh treatment of the Ukrainian cultural elite by the Soviet regime from the 1920s to the 1980s, in his article published on March 1, 2022, On the Ukrainian Poets Who Lived and Died Under Soviet Suppression ‹ Literary Hub (lithub.com). Laiuk states that 80 percent of actively published Ukrainian writers disappeared during the 1930s. Of those whose fate is known, many were shot, committed suicide, or were arrested and put in camps. This purge resulted in a “cultural silence” that lasted until the 1960’s.
Those who attempted to publish during what first appeared might be a new, brighter, artistic era in the 1960’s, were also persecuted. One prominent poet, Vasil Symonenko, was beaten to death; others were jailed, forced into psychiatric hospitals, and forbidden to publish. The fate of many is unknown. This type of treatment lasted until the late 1980’s, with the demise of the Soviet Union.
Laiuk added detail by providing biographical sketches and samples of the writing of four prominent Ukrainian poets who were persecuted for their writings: Vasyl Stus, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Volodymyr Svidzinsky, and Pavlo Tychyna.
Vasil Stus (1938-1985) from Donetsk, began his career as a dissident in 1965 when he called to condemn mass political repressions in the Soviet Union and the arrests of Ukrainian cultural figures. After the 1972 publication of his book, Cheerful Cemetery, which was hailed even by Soviet critics as a cultural beacon, he was arrested. He was subsequently incarcerated multiple times and forbidden to see his family. His persecution continued until his death in 1985, under unclear circumstances, at the VS-389/36-1 camp in Perm, Russia.
Yevhen Pluzhnyk, who died of tuberculosis in 1936 at the brutal Solovky concentration camp in northwest Russia, was not an especially popular poet. However, he was one of the group of writers who attempted to keep silent on political themes, but in the end that did not save him. The regime still labeled him a terrorist because he did not praise the rulers and the communist party.
Pavlo Tychyna was born in 1891 in the Chernihiv area and died of natural causes in Kyiv in 1967. He has the reputation of one of the most important but controversial Ukrainian poets of the 20th century. His early poems, written before the mid-1920s, earned praise for their literary value. But by the late 1920’s his writings turned toward praise of Lenin and Stalin, and support of the savagery of tyrants. Tychyna yielded to political pressure to save his own life, while his friends chose suicide rather than suffer torture, imprisonment in camps, or execution. Vasil Stus wrote that the times transformed Tchyna from a genius into a buffoon.
Volodymyr Svidzinski (1885-1941) was not famous among Soviet readers during his lifetime. He was a quiet scholar who translated the ancient Greek poets and the comedies of Aristophanes. In his poetry, he dove into the diversity of the Ukrainian language, and discovered the unique vocabulary of many Ukrainian dialects. For his failure to write simple poetry for the proletarian masses, he was arrested and accused of anti-Soviet agitation in October 1941, when German troops were approaching Kharkiv. Along with other prisoners, he was locked in a barn in the steppes outside Kharkiv and burned to death.
In the 1990’s his poetry was rediscovered and recognized for its greatness, described as a unique synthesis of classical poetic tradition, Ukrainian modernism, folkloric elements, and mythopoetic way of thinking. A new bilingual edition of selected Svidzinski poems for English readers was published in 2017.
Ukrainian War Poetry in the 21st Century
The precursor to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity, also called the Maidan Revolution. During this conflict, protesters filled the streets of Kyiv to demonstrate anger against the Kremlin-backed Yanukovych regime, which attempted to thwart the will of the elected Ukrainian parliament by blocking a free trade agreement with the European Union. The protesters were met with armed resistance by police forces and more than 100 were killed. President Yanukovych resigned, a new elected President took office, and the EU agreement went into effect. Moscow responded with an armed incursion into Crimea and the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, launching an ongoing war between Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian defenders that was still ongoing at the time of the 2022 Russian invasion. This bloody conflict, although localized, caused the deaths of more than 13,000 Ukrainian forces.
The deaths in the Revolution of Dignity shocked Ukraine and stimulated the writing of poetry that reflects the mood of the country then, and still resonates under the current even more terrifying attacks by Russia.
An article by Heather Wake, posted on February 25, 2022, on the site upworthy.com (The beautiful, heartbreaking words of Ukrainian poet Borys Humenyuk still ring true today – Upworthy), focuses on Borys Humenyuk (born 1965), one of the most famous of these poets. Humenyuk, who had fought in the Revolution of Dignity, found therapy writing poetry on his tablet, and posting his poems on the internet. He has been nicknamed “The Ukrainian version of Ernest Hemingway.”
A popular poem by Humenyuk is “When You Clean Your Weapon,” which tells the story of a young soldier who treats his gun like a child but loses his humanity once he has fired it in combat. Violence as the solution perpetuates a cycle of violence. This poem, written in 2014, still rings true. See external article: “The beautiful, heartbreaking words of Ukrainian poet Borys Humenyuk still ring true today.”
Excerpt from “When You Clean Your Weapon” by Borys Humenyuk
When you clean your weapon
When time and again, you clean your weapon
When you rub strong-smelling oils into your weapon
And shield it from the rain with your own body
When you swaddle it like a baby
Even though you’ve never swaddled a baby before —
You’re only nineteen, no baby, no wife –
The weapon becomes your only kin
You and the weapon are one.
When you shoot
Even when it’s at night and you don’t see the enemy’s face
Even when night hides the enemy from you and you from the enemy
And embraces each of you as her own
You smell like gunpowder
Your hands, face, hair, clothing, shoes —
No matter how much you wash them — smell of gunpowder
They smell of war
You smell of war
You and war are one.
(Translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinksy)
The war in the Donbas also inspired rising poet Lyuba Yakimchuk (born 1985), whose best-known work is a long poem titled Apricots of Donbas. Yakimchuk was featured in an article by Pauline Holdsworth, posted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on February 25, 2022 (Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuk reflects on war and the burden of a motherland | CBC Radio).
Yakimchuk was born in the Luhansk region, and as a child she could see the wild apricots in bloom. After a time, the apricot trees disappeared from the Russian side of the border, marking the border between the two countries. Yakimchuk’s family was forced to flee Luhansk after the fighting started in 2014 and made a new home in Kyiv. Although she and her husband planned to stay in Kyiv after the fighting started in 2022, no information is available on their current status.
A major theme of Yakimchuk’s poetry is what happens to language in wartime, the deconstruction of language, such as when different sides develop different narratives about the conflict.
Excerpts from the poem “prayer” by Lyuba Yakimchuk:
Our Father, who are in heaven
of the full moon
and the hollow sun
shield from death my parents
whose house stands in the line of fire
and who won’t abandon it
like a tomb
I carry within me a Motherland
and cannot puke it out
for it circulates like blood
through my heart
our daily bread give to the hungry
and let them stop devouring one another
our light give to the deceived
and let them gain clarity
and forgive us our destroyed cities
even though we do not forgive for them our enemies
Translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
and lead us not into temptation
to go down with this rotting world
but deliver us from evil
to get rid of this burden of a Motherland
heavy and hardly useful
shield from me
my husband, my parents
my child, and my Motherland
On February 27, 2022, the Los Angeles Review of Books published an article “Bleed — My Heart — Bleed”: Ukrainian Poems of War by Boris Khersonsky, Iya Kiva, and Vasyl Makhno (lareviewofbooks.org) featuring the war poems of three Ukrainian poets. Two of the featured poems were written originally in reaction to the 2014 wars in the Donbas and Crimea, but most certainly still resonate in the wider invasion launched by Russia in 2022. The third poem was written immediately after the 2022 invasion. Boris Khersonsky (born 1950), who is based in Odessa, has written primarily in Russian, and is considered one of Ukraine’s most prominent Russian language poets. Iya Kiva (born 1984), is from Donetsk, also writes in Russian. Vasily Makhno (born in 1964), lived in the city of Chortkiv, in western Ukraine, but he has lived in New York for more than twenty years. He writes in Ukrainian.
Khersonsky was trained as a medical doctor and neurologist, later specializing in clinical psychology. He chairs the Department of Clinical Psychology at Odessa National University. He is also one of Ukraine’s most prominent writers. During the Soviet period, he was active in underground activities and his writings were published throughout the USSR in samizdat (unofficial works distributed through networks of acquaintances). His lengthy poem, “Missa in tempore belli”, combines Russian with Latin. The author attempts to combine solace in difficult times with questions that cannot be answered, such as how do we survive the legacies of empires?
Excerpt from “Missa in tempore belli” by Boris Khersonsky:
We praise you, soldier, slender of neck, sharp of throat
We bless you, soldier, who on bayonet raise up the foe
We lift on high your long dying groan
God is cruel at times, but still better than earthly thrones,We bless you, Mr. General,
we glorify you, mister President,
you who have robbed us blind
did the Lord trample down death with death for your kind?
“Yes, sir!” says the General, hand to visor
He’s taken an oath to submit to his own dear tsar.
But his own dear tsar has flown up on a branch and cries, “Cocka-doodle-doo!”
Be glorified in the highest, God, behold not what’s going on down here.
Introduction and translation from Russian by Martha M. F. Kelly
Kiva’s hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine became a battlefield in the 2014 war. Several of Kiva’s friends perished, and she was forced to flee her home after being threatened for speaking out. She has been a war refugee for the last eight years. Her poetry, originally formal verse, changed to include free verse, collage, and without most punctuation. Her poem, “The Year of Ukraine, seeks to contextualize war as broader than one person’s experience.
Except from “The Year of Ukraine” by Iva Kiva:
see here we got what we wanted
it’s a house it’s a boy with a rifle in his hands
if they tell him to shoot he surely will shoot
eff your mother our common motherland
at the store folks load whole sacks with macaroni
and afterwards bury the boxes somewhere
what’s that what crawls down that distant slope
it’s your coffin carried by security troops
we were here you’ll say no we haven’t been here
someone else was killed by sniper fire here
Introduction and translation from Russian by Katherine E. Young
Even though he lives in New York City, Makhno has remained closely connected to Ukraine and was deeply affected by the events of February 24, 2022. He immediately wrote an original poem, which he purposely titled “War,” to express his reaction of shock and pain. He includes references to historical heroes and past patriotic poets to show the strength of Ukrainian tradition. One of the poets he cites is Pavlo Tychyna, from a patriotic poem written in 1919, prior to Tchyna transforming into an apologist for the Soviet regime.
Excerpt from “War” by Vasyl Makhno
Lord, the way Tchyna writes
About Kyiv –the Messiah—about the country
Why didn’t we learn these poems by heart?
Introduction and translation from Ukrainian by Olena Jennings