On Encounters and Bearing Witness

Ukraine in Focus

Bearing witness can give rise to possibly unexpected resonances, such as in a remarkable exchange between the American poet Reginald Dwayne Betts and Serhiy Zhadan, published in English in the New York Review of Books and in German in Die Zeit. Marci Shore, who brought them together, explains the pairing: “While they had no direct experience of each other’s worlds and no common language, I felt a strikingly shared sensibility between them, some ineffable affinity. Both are extraordinary lyrical poets of the tough places they come from, both write of those places with a love absent of illusions, and both have thought deeply about masculinity and its relationship to violence.” Betts tells Zhadan of reading Zhadan’s poetry aloud to friends and those friends thinking it was Betts’s own work – but also attests to having no idea what to say to someone living through a war of this kind.

Other encounters happen not via letter but situated in a place. For Eurozine, Uilleam Blacker reflects on the complex ways Vienna has served as a site of Ukrainian culture, from the 19th century to the present, and the particular valence taken on by the encounters between Ukrainian cultural figures and the city since February 2022. While the city’s residents are welcoming of Ukrainians arriving to the city, a tension can arise when those Ukrainians’ views and words do not conform with what is expected:

Vienna is a microcosm of what is happening throughout Europe. For all the faults and ambiguities around the reception of Ukrainians, the overall impression is certainly one of openness and generosity. Among the millions of grateful Ukrainian refugees are hundreds of Ukraine’s leading minds, from poets and artists to engineers and economists. Never before have Ukrainians have been so present and vocal in the intellectual and cultural forums of western Europe.
But in contrast to the days of Ivan Franko and Lesia Ukrainka, when Ukrainian writers sought to escape the cultural confines of Russia and sate their thirst for new ideas in the great cultural centres of Europe, today’s Ukrainian intellectuals in exile see themselves as teachers rather than students. The question is whether European audiences can put aside their egos and sensitivities for long enough to listen and learn. 

Alongside these cross-cultural encounters, the war has forced new sorts of encounters among Ukrainians themselves. Kateryna Iakovlenko tells art-agenda of one interaction between waiting customers and a baker which lent the title to the exhibition “Everyone is afraid of the baker, but I am grateful,” which she curated in her Irpin apartment that had been destroyed by Russian shelling. When asked what comes next, Iakovlenko’s answer is clear:

 “The answer is simple. We will continue our everyday work because, in fact, the most challenging job will start after the war. It will be difficult, especially in the arts and culture field, so we must be ready for it. We are waiting for the process of restitution from Russia to bring stolen art back home; for reparations, including for lost art objects, museums, and architecture; we are waiting for fair and respectful representation in the international context and solidarity from other cultures. So we have a very long to-do list, which is perhaps very difficult to manage for even one lifetime, but we have it for one day. But most importantly, we must survive, because the war is not over yet, and many Ukrainian artists and cultural workers are still at risk. Just a few days before I write this, a leading ballet artist died on the front line. Nothing is outside of politics and the war, especially arts and culture.”

As Iakovlenko observes, this is true in a very concrete, human sense, as the leading figures in the Ukrainian cultural scene have spent the past months fully immersed in defending Ukraine against Russian aggression. The project Words and Bullets, a partnership between Chytomo and PEN Ukraine, presents interviews with Ukrainian writers who became soldiers or volunteers after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February. They reflect on the ways the war has changed their understanding of culture, of the role writers and artists can play during and after the war, and what ideas are preoccupying them. For example, Artem Chapeye enlisted on the first day of the war and observed how differently he now sees his past published works: “Some things apply to a former reality. And it’s not that they’ll lose relevance, but they’ll already be historical events. That is, what was a realistic social novel has now become an historical social novel because it describes a reality that no longer exists. And not just in Ukraine – I think the whole world has changed.”

One theme that has become central to the Ukrainian cultural sphere is the notion of justice and accountability for Russia. Victoria Amelina, in an interview for Words and Bullets, identifies this as the most important concept for Ukraine after victory: “In Ukrainian there are two words [for justice]: spravedlyvist (justice, fairness) and pravosuddia (justice as the system of judgement), and this is a difference that gives food for thought. Quite often, these two notions would not correspond. Yet, in order to build the country we’re dreaming of after the victory, we need to reach the point where these two concepts would be the closest to each other, in terms of their meaning.” In the New Republic, Stanislav Aseyev draws on his personal experience of Russian captivity and torture to explain the importance of holding the perpetrators of atrocity to account.

An awareness of the vital stakes of this war motivates these cultural figures. As Sasha Dovzhyk writes in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “Our culture bears witness to our resistance beyond the present moment. It testifies that we prevail over those who want to silence us.” Dovzhyk reflects on her instinctual withdrawal from the cultural sphere after February 24, only to recognize that culture is in many ways at the heart of this war: as Russia actively targets Ukrainian culture, the resistance that sits at the core of that culture grows ever more steadfast. “Russia’s goal has been made clear: to silence Ukrainians forever, to leave no trace of our identity, our political and cultural traditions. An unreachable goal. With every Russian rocket strike, Ukrainians grow more determined to outlive the genocide, testify to every Russian war crime, and bury the abject empire that seeks our elimination. Of all Ukrainian cultural products for export, it is this determination that the outer world seems to need most.”

There are sparks of understanding of the Ukrainian experience to be found in the outer world, to be sure – as the exchange between Betts and Zhadan underscores. Responding to Betts’s assertion that he doesn’t know what to say to Zhadan, Zhadan closes his letter to Betts with a reflection on the potential of words, literature, culture to connect even those whose paths have never crossed: “Nevertheless it meant a lot to me to read your words—they were like a testament to a particular connection, a testament to the fact that the world of literature, the realm of poetry, is still capable of building corridors of communication and understanding. Even if these corridors are cramped and stuffy, they give us hope that we will eventually reach somewhere more serene.”