“Yours and ours, Les Kurbas.” This is how the prominent Ukrainian director signed off on his letters 100 years ago.
I glimpse these words on the wall of a gallery in Lviv in 2023, and I have no doubt that he addresses me as well. Such is the nature of words: they address us, even if their authors can no longer speak them personally. Words from the past break through time here and now, using my voice and my eyes to make themselves felt.
“Poetry is what we do to break bread with the dead,” wrote the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The history of culture resembles not so much a chronological timeline of events as an ordered library where circles of people, united by something, gather together.
An artistic work is firmly intertwined with cultural history, much like the triggers on weapons that were pulled in November 1937, when hundreds of Ukrainian writers were executed. In other words, it cannot be done without a date, but if you limit yourself to just that, you find yourself in an impoverished space. In the summer of 2023, I cannot help but think about the names of artists who perished in this new Russian-Ukrainian war and what I say about them through their texts. There is a dark context behind their disappearance, yet the artistic voice, which remains the only one available to us — those who are still here, who remember — does not diminish. In this way, we give meaning to their existence.
I feel like I'm in a physics class, where the triangle of velocity, distance, and time is in constant movement, always yielding a specific number. But who can calculate the speed of a memory? And how far away is the prison camp in the part of the world I call “deep Russia,” where a Ukrainian artist from the past perished, or where a contemporary artist barely survived? Ultimately, how far am I, a young author, from those who recorded what happened to their — no, our — country one hundred years ago?
The history of culture negates the laws of physics, because I sometimes feel closer to like-minded individuals from past centuries than to the people I meet in our editorial office. It's not strange, as there were months when I spent more time with the texts of Yevhen Malaniuk or Yuri Shevelov than in conversations with living people.
In Plast, Ukraine's largest scouting organization founded in 1911, there's a song called “Go Away from Me, My Beloved.” It tells the story of a young boy joining the Ukrainian underground to fight for the country's independence from the Bolsheviks. He asks a girl to leave him because he is going to war and may not return:
“Today, the Carpathians welcome us, and tomorrow again, Volyn greets us. Then we will travel straight to Kyiv, Poltava, Kharkiv, our beloved Donbas,” proclaims the formula of unity in the words of this spirited wartime song.
I listened to many old songs of the Ukrainian military during the first months of the invasion because their march-like melodies lifted my spirits, and it was also a simple way to feel that many generations of Ukrainians fought for the same cause.
In 2023, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi said that archetypes emerge in the faces of Ukrainian soldiers. The Cossacks, the Sich Riflemen, Petliurists, and UPA fighters continue their existence in the faces of their contemporaries. I watch videos from the southern front with the now-deceased Dmytro “Harmash” Pashchuk, who, amidst the shelling, jokes with his brothers-in-arms that he has already become well-acquainted with the “distant sound of cannons” and, once again, sings a song from past times.
The feeling of support comes not only in the horizontal dimension of the here and now but also in the vertical, which constantly intersects with the past.
I recall childhood memories of songs about marksmen and insurgents, the music of which our school teacher played on the piano and accordion, and which I loved listening to in Taras Chubai's album Our Partisans.
Chubai's metaphor of “ours” works well even now because having something in our history is of little value if it is not claimed. Today, this process of reclaiming takes place at all levels, and it is challenging to choose the best or most prominent example of how figures from archives – or, at best, from school textbooks – transform into contemporaries within our symbolic reality. I want to begin with the word “reclaiming” rather than “decolonization,” which is evidently what this process entails; it is with the practical and familiar meaning of the first word that more people can associate their experiences. “Reclaiming” is a process of recovering what has been taken from you, but there is no physical formula or legal procedure for it. Names and their work cannot be returned by merely saying, “Yes, we're taking it back; it was taken from us and forbidden, but now it's ours again.” Their significance lies in reviving ideas and images that inevitably follow names and artifacts, offering fresh interpretations of novels, a novel perspective on avant-garde art, rediscovering classic authors after Soviet reinterpretations, and staging the revival of forgotten operas... Once reclaimed, they continue to speak with us and for us, becoming ours.
Before the full-scale invasion, this act of reclaiming was one of the main challenges when celebrating the anniversaries of Ukrainian writers. The most commonly-used metaphor was the bronzing of statues; cultural managers, activists, and anyone who cared spoke of erasing Soviet-era “bronze” from Ivan Franko, Taras Shevchenko, and others. At the same time, literary scholars fought for academic collections of their works. There were also readers who hadn't read their works and sometimes found themselves in funny situations where they were asked to name a few works by Lesya Ukrainka or were questioned about who was depicted on the two-hundred-hryvnia banknote. This year, a friend shared over coffee at Book Arsenal that he wanted to reread Dostoevsky but restrained himself from doing so. Instead, he chose to read Ivan Franko's prose and got everything he wanted from a potential rereading of Dostoevsky. He jokes, though, that he slightly regrets reading Franko only now.
The best metaphor for reclaiming is still the moment captured on video when Ukrainian soldiers in the liberated town of Balakliia in Kharkiv Oblast take down a billboard with the Russian tricolor only to reveal Taras Shevchenko with a quote from “The Caucasus” underneath. Shevchenko once again becomes an undisputed contemporary, and the soldiers rejoice — our Shevchenko is here, and you can't imagine anything better.
Creating a Ukrainian alternative is an approach that remains relevant to this day — opposition has become a sign of quality and genuinely free thought.
This was supposed to be a text about how our predecessors become our contemporaries through emotions, and as I write about my feelings on the past during wartime, I can't help but think of the journal Modernity (“Suchasnist”).
The poet Vasyl Herasymiuk recalls Modernity as a publication that allowed for a dignified conclusion to the literary 20th century. Founded abroad in 1965, the journal offered a non-Soviet interpretation of Ukrainian reality without censorship or conforming to socialist realism in writing. Literature, criticism, analysis, and translations — the editorial team and invited contributors tackled contemporary topics every month, situating Ukraine in a European context and providing Ukrainians access to alternative intellectual thought.
In the “large zone” of the USSR, the journal was criticized. Despite its principled focus on culture, it demonstrated the role of Ukrainian activists of the sixties, recorded the memory of political repressions, described life in democracies, and portrayed Ukrainians as full-fledged intellectuals expressing relevant ideas.
After the restoration of Ukrainian independence, the editorial office was moved to Kyiv in 1992. However, the journal ceased to exist in 2013, as its mission came to an end. I am thinking of a title that clearly conveys the approach to comprehending Ukrainian life through its intellectual thought in emigration, creating an alternative Ukrainian contemporaneity – in other words, reality. There was an alternative in Soviet Ukraine too, represented by dissidents; they typically had little chance of being published within the boundaries of the USSR, so their works were transmitted to Modernity. Creating a Ukrainian alternative is an approach that remains relevant to this day. Opposition has been a sign of quality and genuinely free thought, and during the Yanukovych era, it served as a lifeline. However, it is quite peculiar and symptomatic when, in an independent country, one’s own culture expressed in their native language and reflecting its people is viewed as a desirable alternative rather than the norm. Fortunately, this approach is finally becoming untenable.
The community that emerges among nations developing within an independent country defending its sovereignty is normative and foundational. Political scientist Benedict Anderson writes about how language, through poetry and song, creates a unique type of simultaneous inclusive community; through language, one can be part of this community. If we replay the video from Balakliia, Shevchenko's words "fight and you will win" resonate as a completely living theoretical formula. The choir of Ukrainian voices becomes increasingly polyphonic.
Shevchenko not only joins Ukrainian contemporaneity, but it would be impossible without him. Alongside him, there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other voices.
Text originally published (in Ukrainian) by Suspilne Kultura as part of a collaboration with Documenting Ukraine.
Translated by Kate Tsurkan