In Memoriam Victoria Amelina (1986-2023)

Portrait of Victoria Amelina

We are profoundly saddened by the death of Ukrainian writer and human rights activist Victoria Amelina on 1 July 2023. She died of injuries sustained in a Russian missile attack on Ria Lounge, a restaurant in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, on 27 June. At least 12 other people were killed in the attack, including three children, and 60 were wounded.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Victoria Amelina had been working with the organization Truth Hounds to document war crimes. As part of this work, she traveled to Izium immediately after the territory had been liberated in September 2022. It was she who found the buried diary of children's author Volodymyr Vakulenko, unlawfully detained and killed by Russian soldiers in Spring 2022, whose body was found in a mass grave after the liberation of Izium.

Just days before the Kramatorsk attack, on 22 June, Victoria presented a newly-published book version of Vakulenko's diary and war poetry at Book Arsenal in Kyiv. In her foreword, she wrote of the preciousness of his words and of the great responsibility she felt upon finding the text. She described sending photos of every page to the Kharkiv Literary Museum as soon as she could, to ensure the text's safety: “It was then that I felt a little easier: Volodymyr’s message was saved, even if the next day I [stepped] on some anti-infantry mine. As long as a writer is read, he’s alive.”

Victoria Amelina received a Documenting Ukraine grant in 2022 for her project “War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War,” a nonfiction book that interwove her own story of documenting war crimes with those of many other female civil society leaders who have dedicated themselves to the same task. The book is expected to be published in English.

Her clear and compelling ability to articulate the nature of the atrocities Russian aggression has inflicted on Ukraine made Victoria one of the strongest Ukrainian voices on the international stage. She took part in countless public events, always seeking to build understanding. In January 2023 she spoke at the Hay Festival in Cartagena, including on a panel with Ivan Krastev.

Victoria was in Kramatorsk at the time of the attack with the founders of ¡AguantaUcraina!, a campaign to garner support for Ukraine in Latin America that arose out of the Hay Festival. They had all traveled to Kramatorsk to speak to survivors of Russian war crimes.

Before the full-scale invasion, in addition to her award-winning writing, Victoria Amelina worked tirelessly to promote Ukrainian culture, and literature in particular. She founded the New York Literature Festival, held in a small town in Donetsk region called New Yorka down-on-its-luck town that from 2014 on was surrounded on three sides by occupied territories. She saw the festival as a slightly self-ironic way to assert the unifying strength of Ukrainian culture and to remind participants, attendees, and the wider Ukrainian society of the culture they shared. As she told Zaborona in a 2021 interview, “All of us – whether we’re in the west or the east [of Ukraine] – lack the ability to see and love ourselves. You need the right mirror. With this festival, I wanted to say that the real Donetsk region is very beautiful, delicate, touching and stubborn, vulnerable and strong simultaneously."

Russian bombs destroyed the cultural center in New York where the festival was held in May 2023. As PEN Ukraine and Truth Hounds remind us in their statement on the Kramatorsk attack, "Russia has proven once again that it does not care about civilians or international law. Every day this aggressor country continues to attack civilians in Ukraine. There are so many other stories, every day, every night, stories of people whose lives end, who will have no tomorrow, who will never respond."

In a March 2022 essay for Eurozine, "Cancel Culture vs. Execute Culture," Victoria reflected on the so-called Executed Renaissance, the generation of Ukrainian writers and artists who were killed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s, and the rich culture that was destroyed or never had the chance to be made. “Now there is a real threat that Russians will successfully execute another generation of Ukrainian culture – this time by missiles and bombs. For me, it would mean the majority of my friends get killed. For an average westerner, it would only mean never seeing their paintings, never hearing them read their poems, or never reading the novels that they have yet to write.” Victoria Amelina's death brings the loss of brilliant future work and of a remarkable person whom we were honored to know.