Ukraine in Print: Recent Books and Perspectives

Ukraine in Focus

Some of the first works to appear were diaries and chronicles from Ukraine’s most internationally renowned authors. Himmel über Charkiw: Nachrichten vom Überleben im Krieg collects Serhiy Zhadan’s social media posts, which chronicled the first six months of the full-scale war from Kharkiv. Its English counterpart, Sky above Kharkiv: Dispatches from the Ukrainian Front, will appear in May 2023. And in Diary of an Invasion Andrey Kurkov begins from his lengthy journey from Kyiv to western Ukraine, using his keen and often humorous observations to paint a picture of life amidst war.

Also of note are English translations of works written before the full-scale invasion that tell stories that are even more urgent in its wake. In The Torture Camp on Paradise Street, Stanislav Aseyev recounts his experiences of illegal captivity in a Donbas prison from 2015-2017. And Volodymyr Rafeyenko’s novel The Length of Days: An Urban Ballad is set in Z, a fictionalized Donbas city, after Russia’s 2014 invasion; it was written after Rafeyenko fled his native Donetsk because of that invasion. Rafeyenko brings together elements of magical realism, philosophical reflection, and wittiness in his depiction of the lives of the remaining residents of Z.

Not only Ukraine’s post-2014 history but also the longer past has been the subject of important works published recently. Andrii Portnov’s Dnipro: An Entangled History of a European City is essential reading to understand a city that has been at the heart of Ukrainian history yet largely understudied. Whereas Portnov takes a tight geographic focus and traces the many linkages that shaped it over the centuries, bringing together urban life and global processes, another recent book, In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s by Konstantin Akinsha with Katia Denysova and Olena Kashuba-Volvach, explores global entanglements in another domain: what did the Modernist movement look like in Ukraine and what role did artists from Ukraine play in it? The volume accompanies an exhibition at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, closing on 2 May 2023 but scheduled to appear in other major European museums in the coming year.

Alongside works that make sense of Ukraine’s past are those that directly consider the roots and course of the current war – none more highly anticipated than The Russo-Ukrainian War: The Return of History from Serhii Plokhy, appearing in May 2023.

Finally, writers have turned to creative non-fiction and essays to capture their own experiences and the experiences of their fellow Ukrainians over the past year. Ostap Slyvynsky’s Wörter im Krieg brings together voices in the form of monologues tied to a particular term, which has taken on new meaning in the face of war. The edited volume Aus dem Nebel des Krieges, edited by Kateryna Mishchenko and Katharina Raabe, features Ukraine’s leading intellectuals reflecting on the contradictions and contemporaneity of life at war: destruction and resilience, trauma and hope for the future. And “Alles ist teurer als ukrainischen Leben”, which takes its title from a poignant essay by Mishchenko featured in an earlier Ukraine in Focus post, offers a collection of texts that elucidate and call out the phenomenon of “Westsplaining” in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

One of the most extensive projects is Meridian Czernowitz’s Воєнний стан / State of War, which brings together 100 essays by Ukrainian intellectuals, many of whom are connected to the IWM; a selection of these essays curated by Andriy Lyubka and Evgenia Lopata has been published in Ukrainian and in English (as translated by Yulia Lyubka and Kate Tsurkan). Here Mariia Shynkarenko looks more closely at some of the contributions.


Reading, Speaking, and Silences in a State of War


Oleksandr Mykhed, who is now serving in Ukraine’s Armed Forces, contemplates on the role of literature in his essay – “If previous reading experiences did not protect my family or me, how can the knowledge gained through reading today protect us as a nation?” He traces back his attempts to start reading again  – “my journey back to reading was a conscious process of taking small, hesitant steps, one after another”. No literary classic brought solace to him until he turned to Stephen King, his teenage self’s favorite author. The book, dealing with the themes of trauma and struggle to rebuild one’s life, resonated deeply with his own state of mind. Reading, for Mykhed, is one of those daily habits that re-establish normality and security where it does not exist anymore. It is also a way to “relearn how to speak for trauma cannot remain silent”.

But before relearning to speak, noting silences is important. As Victoria Amelina contemplates in her essay in Apofenie, silences can be more formidable than words. They anticipate the loss of life, the most unspeakable experiences, the psychological wound that impairs physical ability to speak, or simply the end of conversation – when there is nothing left to say. 

For the poet Iya Kiva, silence becomes a metaphor for time as it witnesses silently “all our movements and choices”. In her article in Apofenie, she eloquently marks the changes in the perception of time, debating whether the time in war is considered lost. “Time has never felt as heavy as it does now”, she writes, comparing the passage of time to “carrying gravestone on your body”, “bottomless well of icy water”, “imbued with a weigth”.

The metaphors, however, serve not only Ukrainians as they grapple with the right words to describe their reality, but also to their European counterparts fatigued with the constant war news cycle. As the writer Natalka Sniadanko put it in New Eastern Europe, “Ukraine continues to be a white spot on the mental map of Europe, a blemish that continually generates negative news and danger, prompting us to want to protect ourselves instinctively”.

Still, for Kiva, the optimism is still there -- the “train of wartime ceaselessly continues onward, moving further from peace and closer to victory”. Ukrainians learnt to “swim” in this “river of war”, standing firm and resilient.

This resilience is a proof for historians that there is much to learn from the Ukrainian nation, which some claimed to be a “non-nation from nowhere”. The historian Yaroslav Hrytsak in his essay argues that Ukrainians “are a real force, which is able to defeat Russian threat for themselves and the entire world. With their struggle, Ukrainians are producing new meanings, which were not there before”. He goes as far as to suggest that Ukrainians are capable of stopping the “Russian pendulum”, which according to some historical theories, prevent Russia from turning on truly democratic path.

Yet, as the writer and Armed Forces defender Artem Chapeye graciously reminds us in his essay, the real change will happen on the shoulders not of the tiny yet visible minority – intellectuals, artists, journalists – but mostly invisible majority – peasants, construction workers, drivers, supermarket guards, waiters, miners, plumbers, most of whom will remain unknown, out of the a public eye, silent.