How Are You? A Column About Love, Hate, Songs, and How Worldbuilding Is Falling Apart

Documenting Ukraine

"How are you?"

"Like a tree struck by lightning," the poet replied to the most chilling question of the year. A true poet, he spoke to me about myself.

"You can't imagine how much I hate them."

"I know how much you hate them," Lyuba replied.

Tomorrow she was going to Vienna and then to Kyiv. Back home.

"I'm afraid to go back, and I'm more afraid of mutilation than death."

"But I want to go to Ukraine, I need to feel it," the star said.

And both of us sounded normal. Despite the Parisian morning ringing around us.

"You have a song about how fifty kilograms of luggage is extremely little to fit the immigrant life into. I took five of those."

The musician remained silent. The calendar spring of 2022 was beginning.

His beloved city of Kharkiv was in pain.

The world was crumbling. They spoke of either the third or fourth world war. Explosions and gunfire echoed throughout Ukraine. Trains with refugees stitched together my country, but in a slightly different way than our president promised in the recent New Year's greeting.

During this time, I was allowed, even encouraged, creative expression. But can a tree struck by lightning be capable of creative expression? Perhaps.

And so we created the project of "Ukrainian Songs of Love and Hate," a concert and album consisting of ten songs in Ukrainian and English, accompanied by media art and subtitles. Grigory Semenchuk came up with the name. Yuriy Gurzhy called it "the most brutal soundtrack of the year." Lyuba Yakymchuk wrote the most wicked songs, although everyone is accustomed to Irena Karpa cursing on stage. Karpa sweetly sang of hatred and love.

My sweetest affection
Ukrainian army in action

Drones flying high
Sorry, Russia, bye!

And Oleh Kolesnikov and Anna Paschenko, renowned for their impressive Ukrainian dubbing of Tarantino films, created a free English translation.

I imagined them all together in this work and took upon myself the responsibility for how bitter laughter and pain would sound. The project was supported and sponsored by Ukrainian and British state cultural institutions. I'm not sure if they would want to be mentioned here, but the project was branded with their logos.

It should be noted that I loved my work in Ukraine very much. For almost six years, which is quite a long time in Ukrainian modern culture, I walked the same route to the Arsenal metro station, and a slightly longer one in the summer to the Pechersk metro station. I would have ice cream in the park on my way to work, knowing the potholes, drafts, history, and funny anecdotes there. But in the spring of 2022, I realized that I would never return there. It was abruptly severed.

It turns out that Russia took that away from me as well.

Since March 2022, I temporarily lived in Vienna and couldn't see anything in the future. Just nothing. No matter where I looked. And the past slowly faded into a fog and dimmed there forever. There was nowhere to go back to.

I was professional enough to anticipate how my perspective would gradually distort abroad and how my intuition would dull. To truly feel a culture, you need to live in it. And when you find yourself in a different environment, you start to sense its own waves. No conversations, newspapers, or even trips can replicate that finely honed precision I had developed over the years.

At this juncture, there was still a little room for a curatorial statement that would be heard both in Ukraine and where I found myself. I wanted to make my final project. "Final" sounded perfectly normal because too many things could have happened to me countless times.

I wanted to tell the whole world:

what my country is like,

how much love there is in it,

what the synergy of hatred is,

and how much passion resides there.

In the world of contemporary art, the work of a curator is not associated with ballet. It is called "the dance of a dervish." (Where I worked for six years, they understood contemporary art.) But in literature, such concluding steps are called "en pointe." In it, I sense the perfect beauty of the movement of deformed legs.

Among other things, I do indeed have deformed feet. In luxurious salons in Kyiv, they invariably ask if I am a professional dancer. But no, I have never tried it. I mutilated my own legs, and neither a job in culture nor even the Kremlin's hand had anything to do with it.

I used to be attracted to tall men and I would reach for them in heels, until I got tired of it.

The premiere of the project was supposed to take place in Britain in October. I knew the day and time in Gloucestershire, somewhere between Bristol and Oxford. And that a hundred Britons interested in literature and perhaps a little in Ukraine would come to the presentation. And that it would be one of the most important Ukrainian literary events of the year in the United Kingdom.

I had to put on a show.

A show about Ukraine, love, and hatred.

A bit audacious. Hooliganish. Funny.

With music.

Only Yuriy Gurzhy could write such music.

Yuriy's undeniable talent lay in the fact that his music was danced to by schoolteachers and fans of Zhadan, Jewish immigrants, and Balkan refugees. Not long before that, he had taken up Ukrainian poetry and created the album Fokstroty based on motifs from the Executed Renaissance. The innocent murdered artists from the Slovo (“Word”) House in Kharkiv came back to life so effortlessly, as if they hadn't been mourned by literature lovers for decades. Zhadan called them from the stage into the microphone, and they came, as if they had been waiting for that moment – Sosiura, Tychyna, Bazhan, Shkurupiĭ, Semenko…

I have to constantly explain what my role was in this project if Zhadan was singing and Gurzhy was singing and playing. So, I imagined it. I also ironed the shirts for the artists; I must say that the artists resisted fiercely. 

And when it came to making a sequel to Fokstroty, something equally stylish and accessible was expected from us. We went honestly through classical poetry, and from that, a song was born based on the 1941 poem by Mykola Bazhan:

We have one oath
(Sweet Home Ukraine!)
And one freedom
Our only call and impulse
(Ukraine relieve!)
Never, never will Ukraine
Be enslaved by fascist executioners.

Then we looked through the newest poems by living Ukrainian poets. It became clear that nothing from the existing works suited our needs, and we had to commission original texts.

We needed spoken poetry, a genre that in Ukraine develops through marginal paths. It is a thorny path from school ranks to rap. Stepping onto it is not that easy. One can veer towards the school anthem and end up in amateur artistry.

We are losing everything
Our native home
Ruined streets
And lifeless bodies
Over my cities
Black smoke hangs
A flower of death

That has bloomed

I remember the day of the presentation very well. October. A massive attack of Iranian drones over Kyiv. The first attack where it suddenly became clear that the city center was just as vulnerable as the residential areas. Although I had many friends and relatives in the capital, having spent seventeen years of my life there, I shouldn't have been nervous. My home remained there. But it was an empty home. Russian rockets occasionally hit near it. They killed my neighbors. Meanwhile, in safety, in the gardens of Vienna, Paris, Prague, I cowered in a corner and trembled as if all those explosions were happening above my head. Almost as if they were reverberating in my mind. But no one sympathized with me. There was nothing to sympathize with. And this time was no different.

Because even though I seemingly had nowhere to return to, there was somewhere, in reality. My home, almost undamaged, stood on the hills of Kyiv. It still stands.

The next morning, I received an email from Kyiv. "Congratulations on a successful project. If your plans regarding your return haven't changed, then in the attached file..."

I went down to the hotel breakfast.

"Happy birthday!" Karpa was the first to say.

"Also congratulate me on being free now."

In the evening, I flew to Berlin.

Something completely new was beginning.

Ukrainian state institutions and donors no longer placed orders with me. I took on too much responsibility, and perhaps they could sense my personal animosity. As if it was me who was singing, playing the guitar, and laughing with wicked laughter. As if this entire concert was solely fueled by hatred, not pain and drama, which ended in a chorus:

A new Ukrainian iconostasis:
Saint Javelina, venerable Himars
Blessed Harpoon and martyr Switchblade
Our fashionable upgraded protectors

But socially engaged poetry suddenly caught the attention of the Germans. When on May 6, 2023, this concert opened the Asphalt literary festival in Düsseldorf, it appeared as a bold, almost political, and yet refined curatorial gesture from the organizers.

After some time, I sent this album to the man I wanted to fall in love with.

We last saw each other in June 2022, in one of the European capitals. He was old and wise, already a historical figure who had experienced much. I was no longer reaching for heels, but he still said that I was beautiful and wouldn't be lost in this storm. And that hatred is unproductive. That one cannot run like a pack of mad dogs after anyone worthy of hatred. That hatred consumes and cannot last. I disagreed but couldn't put it into words. Throughout the year, I would experience this silent impossibility a few more times, mostly with older, wise men. They would be right, and I wouldn't be able to agree or refute it. Time will show what the right balanced things are, and why people tend to act differently. As if there is something more important than the logic of history and the voice of reason.

In addition to the link, I wrote: Besides hatred, there is also love here. These are songs of love and hatred. He replied: Then I will listen in the evening, with some wine.

The next day, I received a response:

"You succeeded.

There was enough love."

Text originally published (in Ukrainian) by Suspilne Kultura as part of a collaboration with Documenting Ukraine. 

Translated by Kate Tsurkan