Through whose eyes? 

Ukraine in Focus

We could start with Ukrainian journalists who have been covering war in Ukraine since 2014, like Nataliya Gumenyuk. They have covered the reality of violence and destruction for eight years, and now they find themselves among more than 40 million “people of war,” whose lives are now totally consumed by coping with the horrors of war and stopping the Russian advance, as she writes for The Guardian. 

Every writer is now a chronicler and interpreter of the war. Yevgenia Belorusets is keeping a diary for Der Spiegel (in German), documenting how Kyiv changes from day to day in words and photographs. From her short vignettes of city life, we get a glimpse of the layers of communal and solitary existence and the decisions being made collectively and individually of how to act. One of those decisions, the agonizing decision over whether to go or to stay, is one of the themes of Olena Stiazhkina’s notes in Guernica, in the London Review of Books, and in Eurozine. Andrey Kurkov writes for The Guardian that he has “long since run out of words to describe the horror brought by Putin to Ukrainian soil.” He tells of bakeries bombed, animal shelter volunteers shot, postmen killed while delivering pensions – and the impossibility of making sense of where and when the atrocities will end. 

While the western media’s interest in giving a platform to Ukrainian voices has increased since the most recent Russian invasion, their insights have long impressed those who have sought them out. Ukrainian fiction in particular has elucidated universal themes through the specificity of the Ukrainian experience, and in recent years this has especially been the case in writing about the war that began in 2014 in eastern Ukraine. For example, Volodymyr Rafeyenko’s novel Mondegreen, just published in English translation, explores displacement, disorientation, and transformation through the story of a university lecturer who leaves his native war-ravaged Donbas for Kyiv.  

This recent fiction can be seen as part of a longer tradition. For The Atlantic, Uilliam Blacker argues that “[t]he story of Ukrainian literature is one of defiance in the face of imperial arrogance” and that Russian aggression over the centuries “only inspires Ukrainians to find ever more powerful, inventive, and irreverent ways of becoming Ukrainians.”  

Ukrainians’ close familiarity with Russia—Russian arrogance, Russian aggression—also means that we could do well to listen to them as we attempt to make sense of Russia. We should take seriously the notion that Ukrainians’ historical and present-day encounters with Russia might give them insight that those of us at greater remove lack. 

This might come in the form of reflection on what decolonization could mean for Russia: Oleksiy Radynskyi makes the case (for e-flux in English, for Krytyka Polityczna in Polish) for recognizing the ways in which “Russians are a little bit Ukrainian.” He sees the obsession with Kyiv as the heart of Russian civilization, demonstrated by Putin and Russian imperial nationalism more broadly, as a key to understanding the broader nature of Russian imperialism: the city was the place from which the Slavs expanded eastward, in an “early case of settler colonialism.” As Radynski writes, “The decolonial discourse that has been only nascent in the Russian Federation now has every opportunity to gain ground at an unprecedented pace – if successfully coupled with the antiwar movement.”  

It might also entail a re-evaluation of the nature of Russian culture: Serhiy Zhadan writes in a Facebook post translated for Eurozine of the "Grand Narrative" of Russian culture that was "always an excuse for violence and contempt for others." And responding to an open letter from PEN Germany, which criticized boycotts of Russian culture saying that the enemy is Putin, not Pushkin, Kurkov makes the case that the overemphasis on understanding Russia through culture leads to a blindness to the novel insights that Ukraine can provide: “If you want to read and know more about the ‘mysterious Russian soul’ — carry on! If I were you, I would be now reading books about Ukraine. Everyone already knows very much about Russia anyway. The time has come to find out about the history and culture of Ukraine, about life and thoughts of Ukrainian citizens of different nationalities, about their dreams, the realization of which also depends on you, citizens of the European Union, and the democratic world.” 

It might involve reconsidering the institutional structures that have allowed us to get to this point: Ukrainian scholars are convincingly making the argument that hierarchies of knowledge that are enshrined in the academy have consequences far beyond the ivory tower. In a discussion forum hosted by Slavic Review, Volodymyr Kulyk calls for the international scholarly community to “take this tragic opportunity to reconsider its priorities to make them adequate to understanding the causes of the present disaster and suggest ways to overcome its consequences and prevent its repetition.” In the same forum, Andrii Portnov writes (together with Tetiana Portnova) of the need for a “paradigm shift” as well as “a serious conversation about the responsibility of our discipline for the terrible events that we have all witnessed and participated in.” This entails acknowledging “the intellectual counterproductivity of the reduction of Ukrainian [history] to the nationalist aspect of its intellectual and political history.” 

As Ukrainians are dying, as the war goes on, it might not at first glance seem like the time to have these discussions. But in fact, there has never been a more urgent moment to have them. As Timothy Snyder observed in his recent conversation with Serhii Plokhii at the IWM, every day that Ukrainians fight is a gift to us: a gift of time to reflect on our values, to decide to act differently. Listening to them, hearing their experiences, taking seriously their insights—not only about Ukraine but about the world more broadly—is essential. It will help us all see the world more clearly, now and in the long run. 

Read: Marci Shore’s The Ukrainian Night, an account of the Maidan and the war in the Donbas that explores the existential questions and choices that faced Ukrainians in 2013-2014 and are still felt today, is currently available in a free e-book edition.   

Listen: Yuri Andrukhovych discusses the war as experienced from Ivano-Frankivsk, in a discussion for the Deutsches Schauspielhaus released as a podcast by Die Zeit

Watch: The staff of the Dovzhenko Center suggest 20 films that shed light on Ukrainian society since 1991, including several documentaries on the Maidan analyzed by Yustyna Kravchuk in a 2016 essay for Eurozine.