Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine

Tr@nsit Online

Kharkiv-based translator Zaven Babloyan is executive director of the Oko publishing house. He was born in Moscow and spent his childhood and teenage years in Luhansk and in Shchastia, a town in the Luhansk region that has recently featured prominently in news bulletins from the war zone. He studied physics at the University of Kharkiv, but turned to the humanities while he was still a student. Babloyan has been a translator, literary editor and publisher for over twenty years.


Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine

He has translated books by Serhii Zhadan, Natalka Sniadanko, Taras Prokhasko, Lubko Deresh and other contemporary Ukrainian writers into Russian. He has also translated the works of western psychoanalysts – including Robert Hinshelwood, John Steiner and Ronald Britton – from English into Russian. Babloyan was an active participant in the Kharkiv Maidan protests from the day they began. His regular commentaries have made him popular in the Ukrainian Facebook community. In September 2014, he was a guest of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. He was interviewed by IWM Fellow Tatiana Zhurzhenko, who was born and lived in Kharkiv before moving to Vienna in 2002.

Tatiana Zhurzhenko: You live in Kharkiv, where you not only witnessed the dramatic events of 2013-14, but also actively took part in them. What forced you to go out and participate in the Kharkiv Maidan, to go there again and again during this dramatic winter? What was your personal experience of the Maidan protests and the wave of unprecedented mass violence that followed? What prevails in your experience – empowerment or trauma?

Zaven Babloyan: I think that, for me, just as for the other protesters, it was a classic case of moral imperative. This was true from 1 December 2013, if not earlier. However, on each occasion, I sensed that my personal efforts were insufficient, and this feeling has remained with me ever since. Many people from Kharkiv travelled to Kyiv to participate in the ‘main Maidan’. But my own level of protest never reached beyond Kharkiv. Our Maidan was not permanent like in the one in Kyiv; nor was it as confrontational and bloody. The violence against us broke out only after the victory of the Revolution in Kyiv. Moreover, our Maidan was on a smaller scale, with only a few instances of mass political action – the most impressive of which was the demonstration against the separatist congress organized by the Party of Regions on 22 February 2014, and the march to the Lenin monument on Independence Square (a combination of incompatible symbols which is typical for Kharkiv). This provoked a night-time attack by the ‘Oplot’ (a paramilitary organisation of the pro-Russian separatists – T.Z.) against a small group of Euromaidan supporters, mostly organised local football fans (or ‘Ultras’)… And so it went on.

Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine
Pro-Ukrainian march in Kharkiv, Sumska Street, March 9, 2014


That was my experience: building up a personal and collective link with the country and its future, creating not an abstract or ‘historical’, but a performative and self-validating Ukrainian identity. By the latter, I mean a collective sense of self in which symbols and names may be inherited, but the essence appears through our actions. The escalation of violence in Kharkiv was a reaction to this emerging new Ukrainian identity. In our city, violence did not take the most lethal of forms, like in Kyiv, but it was nevertheless frightening and ugly. One need only bring to mind the public humiliation and violent beating of hundreds of Euromaidan demonstrators by separatists – some of them local, others imported from Donbas or Russia. Or think of that nurse from Chuhuiv kicking a man lying on the steps of the metro with his head split open.

This is my Maidan experience – it is directed to the future and, in that sense, it qualifies as ‘empowerment’. My trauma, on the other hand, is related to the inescapable insufficiency of such an empowerment. This insufficiency is sensed particularly in Kharkiv, with its appalling, aspiring “fuehrer” of a mayor, and its plague of neo-Soviet thinking. Violence is invited by this very insufficiency of our efforts; it seems to take over territories we cannot defend, including conceptual ones. That is how we experience the war. I think that’s the feeling that has motivated Kharkiv volunteers to increasingly heroic efforts. Now, in wartime, this not only means joining the army or National Guard, but helping to equip the army, caring for the wounded, contributing to the patriotic ‘Ukrainisation’ of the town – both visually and politically – and supporting refugees. In this, I see the promise not only of a Ukrainian civil society, but of a new Ukrainian statehood – which is ‘what the Maidan stood for.’

TZ: Who were/are the Kharkiv Euromaidan activists, the active pro-Ukrainian minority? What position did Kharkiv students take in the winter and spring of 2013-14, and are they any different, in your view, from the students in Kyiv? Has Kharkiv, a Russian-speaking and in many ways still Soviet city, changed over the past year? Are we likely to witness the return of ‘Gepa’ (Mayor Gennady Kernes), Kharkiv’s mini-Yanukovich?

ZB: The activists were very different kinds of people. I am not sure that any sociological analysis has been done on them, so I will highlight some of the groups that were most visible. There was the middle-aged intelligentsia, mostly women – people who later selflessly cared for refugees. There were the young, creative people (no longer students), musicians and designers who now look after the wounded, help the army and contribute to the ‘Ukranianisation’ of the city. There were also the football fans, the so called ‘Ultras’ – quite young kids on the whole, who represented the most visible, surprising and significant group of our Maidan (they also provided self-defence of the protesters). They are one of the discoveries of the Revolution, and have had an impact nationwide. As it turns out, predictions about the growing role of ‘football patriotism’ made two or three years ago, before the Euro-2012, have been vindicated, even more than we expected. There was the relatively quiet ‘Samooborona’ (self-defence) group or groups; some of those involved have now joined the army. There is our own ‘Automaidan’ (a movement within the Euromaidan made up mostly of car owners – T.Z.); there were mostly men involved in this, ‘serious men’, mature, quite prosperous and many of them business owners. With regard to the students, with the rare exception of the supporters of the ‘Democratic Alliance’ (a new political party with a Christian Democratic profile – T.Z.) – I was disappointed. I can fairly say that there were no students, as an identifiable group, on the Kharkiv Maidan, and I know people who took part in them. But altogether Kharkiv students proved to be as much of an inert, grey and cowed mass as Kharkiv’s ‘biudzhetniki’ (those whose income derives from the state budget, mostly public servants – T.Z.); they are a chip off the old block. This tells us a lot about Kharkiv, and it is not flattering for us.

Moving onto a rather unpleasant subject: ‘Gepa’ (the notorious Kharkiv mayor Kernes) has not gone anywhere, so it seems premature to talk about his ‘return’. Whether or not there was an attempt on his life in May 2014, he did disappear from public life in Kharkiv for a while, which was only to the benefit of the city. But then Gepa reappeared in a wheelchair and went back to his old ways. We saw the same loutish speeches, the same demonstrative, triumphalist hypocrisy, the same flirtations with demoralised ‘biudzhetniki’, the same proprietorial attitude, the same adulation from what is left of the city’s ‘elites’, the same fuehrer-style neo-Sovietism, the same pushiness and impunity. Gepa is not a sword of Damocles hanging over Kharkiv; he is a cancerous growth within the very body of the city. He is not Yanukovych, he is far worse. The Yanukovych cult of personality failed – indeed, it seems that his PR team had not even been entrusted with such a task. Destroying the image of Yanukovych’s main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, was far more important. The country still trembles at the sight of her. But the creation of the Gepa personality cult has been utterly successful. The price was that Kharkiv has been trampled into the mud and has become a rotten city. So we still have our little fuehrer spreading neo-Soviet propaganda and treading in Putin’s footsteps in every possible way (he declared his devotion to the Russian president this summer, after all that had happened!). He successfully acquired a ‘saviour’s’ halo and the image of ‘a nice guy’, especially in the eyes of the small-time crooks and old women in Saltovka, Kharkiv’s industrial suburb.

You said that Kharkiv is still Soviet. I don’t agree. I arrived here at the end of the 1980s, and at the time, I witnessed the final collapse of the ‘Soviet’ mind-set and the slow sinking of the city into the depths of ‘dis-identification’. In 2004, the Orange Revolution brought an unexpected burst of patriotism. (A comparison of the Maidan protests then and now is a separate issue, although both were provoked by Yanukovych and by the psychological, social and governmental regime that stood behind him. Today’s Maidan is perhaps less of a mass phenomenon in Kharkiv than the Orange Revolution was, but it has demanded far more intense effort from the activists, with direct risk to a greater number of people, affecting their personal lives, their health, material wellbeing, the prosperity of the family, relatives, etc.). Then came disappointment with the Orange Revolution and soon afterwards a neo-Soviet myth emerged, in tandem with its Russian counterpart, the myth of ‘the golden age of a great Empire’, which ultimately ended in an absurd kind of ‘anti-fascism’. It nurtured a vacuous regionalism associated with the memory of Kharkiv as the ‘first capital’ of Soviet Ukraine, followed by a creeping identification with the ‘Russian World’, that negative myth for anybody who is afraid to become a subject and prefers to avoid questions about his or her own identity, by delegating it to a pseudo-omnipotent mafia clique, or “banda”. In this context, the latter term can be used without inverted commas.

TZ: As we know, the protesters on the Kharkiv Maidan were divided over the dismantling of the Lenin monument on Independence Square. It survived the first wave of toppling Lenin monuments all over the country in the spring of 2014 and was removed only at the end of September. Why did the Kharkiv Lenin survive longer than similar statues in other cities? Were the fears of many activists – that a forced, unsanctioned removal of the monument would lead to further political polarisation in the city – justified? What should take the place of the former monument, in your view?

ZB: I think that the ‘Lenin question’ has been blown out of all proportion by counter-revolutionary forces. As we are talking, two weeks have passed since the removal of the monument and it has become clear that the plinth only needs to be wrapped in a green plastic fencing for everyone to be satisfied. If it were not for the usual attempts by Mayor Kernes to destabilise the situation, then the disturbances would have died down earlier. And he (that is to say, the Kharkiv Lenin, not Kernes) did not in fact survive any longer than the others. The Lenin statue in Zaporizhzhia was recently dressed up in a vyhsyvanka – the traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. In Kharkiv, too, there are still about ten Lenins left, although their ranks have recently thinned noticeably. The reason why the monument on Independent Square did not fall in spring 2014 was that Maidan activists in Kharkiv are exceptionally tolerant and civilised people. I’d like to remind you that as far back as February 2014, Kharkiv officials were ‘authoritatively’ saying that the demolition of the monument would cause a major catastrophe by its sheer weight – the square would be destroyed, the metro station beneath would collapse, communications would be broken. As it turned out, the statue was hollow inside and even the paving stones remained undamaged when it fell. It is also worth mentioning that the authorities obviously had no intention of fulfilling the terms of an agreement about a ‘planned dismantling’ of the monument, signed six months ago.

Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine
Empty head of the toppled Lenin monument in Kharkiv, September 28, 2014.


The formula of ‘further political polarisation’ seems strange to me, and indeed suspect, to put it mildly. The dismantling of the monument has a significance that corresponds to its previous presence. If there were people who hoped that ‘everything would be as it was before’, then it is right and good that their expectations should not be fulfilled. That is the only ‘polarisation’ worth talking about in my view. And I continue to hold that, had this process begun earlier, it would have developed at a more calm and even pace. Things are being inflamed by the tension, the uncertainty and the lack of clarity created by those who like to fish in troubled waters and present themselves as ‘guarantors of stability’ (yet another soothing, meaningless formula).

Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine
Old woman weeping in front of what is left of the Lenin monument, September 29, 2014.


It was important to me that the monument should be dismantled – not in order to put something else in its place, but simply in order not to have it there. I don’t think that the issue of what to do about ‘the absence of the monument’ is particularly urgent. It seems to me that the city will remain wholly indifferent to this empty space on Independence Square, provided of course that people are not intentionally induced into a state of anxiety or persuaded that the Soviet idol is ‘all we have’. In recent years, the city authorities have dismantled a great many Soviet monuments in the centre (plus at least one erected after independence). Few people have noticed that these include genuinely unique pieces of sculpture (such as the well-known October Revolution monument, known in Kharkiv as ‘five carry a refrigerator from the pawnshop’). Among the dismantled monuments, there were also mass produced ones such as the Alley of Komsomol Heroes, which was removed in order to build an underground car parking and a new church. (It will come as no surprise to me if plans come up to decorate the church walls with the busts of the Komsomol heroes – it would be a typical Kharkiv-style solution). As it turns out, the square looks pretty good without Lenin. The job should be finished, of course, and the plinth removed. After that, time will tell. In Kharkiv, there is no public debate about what monuments should be dismantled and what memorials should be erected. In this, as in everything else, we simply follow the lead of the country.

TZ: We sometimes hear that, in the USSR, the authorities took literature and the written word rather seriously. An author could be sent to a prison camp for writing a poem. Perestroika and glasnost were the apotheosis of this ‘community of readers’, which then gradually disappeared in the 1990s. Does the fact that the key protagonists of the ‘Russian Spring’ (the pro-Russian unrest in the East and South of Ukraine in spring 2014) have been philosophers, historians and science fiction writers indicate that this was a return of the traditional power of images and ideas created by literature and philosophy? The role of historians and re-enactors is a separate issue…

ZB: I would not go so far. It would be a mistake, in my view, to seriously consider the protagonists of the ‘Russian Spring’ to be philosophers, historians and writers. This is role-play. These are masquerades and imitations. There is perhaps one professional writer there in the background –Fyodor Berezin (a science fiction writer from Donetsk, vice minister of defence of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ from July to November 2014 – T.Z.), but that professional Santa Claus, Pavel Gubarev (the separatist ‘governor’ of Donbas and leader of the ‘Novorossia’ movement – T.Z.), puts him in the shade. I believe that military and security professionals play a greater role in the ‘Russian Spring’, but I’m no expert. Incidentally, I suspect that, in this war, Berezin is known as more of a former military figure than a writer.

Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine
Pro-Russian demonstration in front of the Lenin monument, March 23, 2014.


In other words, I’m inclined to think that the literary mantle around the ‘Russian Spring’ is pure simulation, mimicry and bluff, it’s just bogus. In this context, the appearance of any literature, history or philosophy (one should add the prefixes pseudo- or quasi-) serves only to cover up the illiteracy, dehumanisation and philistinism of the pro-Russian part of the society. It matters little what sick ideas exist in the head of any particular re-enactor. But it was the degradation of the Russian culture into the ‘Russian world’, a 21st century revival of the principle of lebensraum, that created the conditions for an ugly and cynical war. The roots of the war lie in mass-produced propaganda with a strong visual focus and in a neo-Soviet ideology. All those endless texts about our darling Russia’s victories in the past, in the future and in space are a symptom of this pathology.

TZ: In the early 1990s, the post-Soviet intellectuals experienced a fashion for postmodernism, psychoanalysis and feminism. Nationalism was viewed as something primordial, archaic and almost embarrassing, to be deconstructed at the very best. There might have been an element of self-justification in this. The post-Soviet intellectuals, in particular the Russian-speaking ones, sought to legitimize their new role and often dissociated themselves from the autochthone Ukrainian intelligentsia, which saw its own mission in nation building. But now that many intellectuals have had the existential, physical experience of involvement in mass protest, resistance and solidarity, nationalism is no longer an abstract concept. Can this new experience lead to a revision of the existing dichotomy between Ukrainian nationalism and pro-western, anti-nationalist intellectual discourse? Is a conceptual and discursive breakthrough possible, or are we doomed to lapse into balkanisation?

ZB: If anything, in Ukraine we are witnessing a process that is the opposite of balkanisation, and more along the lines of national consolidation. The communities that have ‘fallen away’ from Ukraine (such as the imagined ‘Donbas people’, though it’s tempting to say ‘Donbas tribes’) evidently belong nowhere. They have been less lucky than ‘Russian Crimea’. I would add in parenthesis, as a former inhabitant of the Luhansk region, that I have never sensed any distinct regionalism in Donbas. The sense of identity there was generally built on the notion of ‘shared territory’, no more than that. Equally, the regional identity in Kharkiv was rather amorphous. As I mentioned before, this space of non-identification was occupied by a neo-Soviet myth in response to the Orange Revolution and the emerging national identity. So I would contrast the hypothetical ‘new Ukrainian nationalism’ against a neo-Soviet nationalism, with a Russian Nazism looming on the horizon. If we look at the left-wing groups that discredited themselves during the Ukrainian Revolution (the Marxist-Leninist organisation Borotba is such an example), we can see time and again that Western leftist anti-nationalism also acts as camouflage and covers up a Russian imperialism that is the same as ever.

It seems to me that Ukrainian intellectuals have already laid the ground for reflecting this constellation. The personal, physical experience of collective action is a logical extension not only of 2004, but of the protest movements of the 1990s and of the 2000s. It has not been, by any means, monolithic and has included separate (sometimes even contradictory) sub-ideologies in a way characteristic of all Maidan Square protests – though always within a patriotic consensus. The Maidan protests have quite naturally developed into voluntary movements, in which each group chooses its own direction. This trajectory is now widely accepted as a basis for the development of a new Ukrainian citizenship, even nationhood.

TZ: The Russian-speaking population has proved to be the weak point of the Ukrainian project, and that is where Putin has struck. By and large, the Russian-speaking East is now paying a terrible price for our short-sightedness. Who bears responsibility for what is going on now in Donbas? Can we speak about collective guilt? Do you think that, in the current situation, Ukrainian Russian-speaking intellectuals could (and should) help the two countries to understand one another? You have written that ‘Russian speakers’ represent a double-edged sword that could be used against Russia. Could we destroy – or at least weaken – the project of the ‘Russian world’?

ZB: There is a whole range of questions within the point you make. I will begin from the end. The double-edged sword that the Russian-speaking population represents undoubtedly can and should be applied to the destruction of the ‘Russian world’, but in the first instance, this should happen within Ukraine. At the time of the 2014 Revolution, Russian-speaking Ukrainian culture – in its literary dimension, at least – was already fairly autonomous from the Russian one, even though Ukrainian-Russian authors were often published in Russia. Of course, there are authors (primarily producing popular, mass literature) who are fully integrated into the ‘Russian world’. But a culturally autonomous, Russian–speaking Ukrainian is someone who has been through the early phases of the post-colonial drama, at the very least.

With regard to the issue of mutual understanding between Russia and Ukraine, I am more than sceptical. We cannot expect any understanding from the Russian side until it shakes of its neo-Soviet cocoon. Even the so-called ‘fifth column’ in Russia – courageous people who challenge the official discourse and risk a great deal – is still preoccupied by internal Russian problems, in which Ukraine is only of secondary significance. Even the most desperate Russian fighters against Putin’s regime often shock us with their colonial high-handedness. As a rule, intellectuals make pretty poor warriors (I have the literal meaning of the word in mind), but now we have Ukrainian poets, scholars, businessmen, managers and programmers fighting at the front. Some were mobilised; others went as volunteers.

Mutual understanding is something that we need in the first instance within Ukraine. And it is happening, thanks to the efforts of people who are dealing with supplies for the army, looking after the wounded, supporting refugees, fighting against an old, criminal, pro-Russian neo-feudal system against which we are being forced to hold on a second front. And these people, Ukrainian and Russian speakers, understand each other – there is no language barrier.

As regards guilt and responsibility… If we are to talk about collective guilt, then it has to be the guilt of the Donbas before the rest of the country. All Ukrainians, regardless of regional differences, are being forced to pay a terrible price for the acquiescence shown by the Donbas in the face of neo-Sovietism. What is happening to the Donbas region itself is, alas, a natural consequence of this. One could also mention the failed policy of Ukrainisation in the years before the revolution, and before the reckless surrender to Russia. But who is guilty – the political elites? It seems that, in Ukraine, this imagined community has never been a political subject to merit blame.

TZ: It has always seemed to me that the discourse about the tenacious survival of ‘homo Sovieticus’ is a form of ideology and intellectual laziness. Meanwhile, I doubt that. Russia is so hard to overcome – not because it has tanks, but because it sells itself as a replica of the Soviet Union, a country where life is warm, friendly and where there is protection from fascists. Who wouldn’t want to be there? I suspect this may resonate with your psychoanalytical studies…

ZB: It seems to me that this topic demands a book, at the very least; or, alternatively, one has to confine oneself to truisms. As I see it, the ‘Russian world’ project began after 2004, when the first contours of Ukrainian national identity emerged. The post-Soviet identity vacuum appeared as dangerous to the protagonists of the ‘Russian world’ and so they hurried to fill it with neo-Soviet identity – a meaningless neo-Soviet nationalism – in order to prevent Ukrainian identity from crystalizing. All the constructs within this neo-Soviet ideology are essentially hallucinatory and performative. Consider the ‘Ukrainian fascists’ and ‘Banderovtsy’ (alleged followers of Stepan Bandera, the anti-Soviet wartime leader of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army – T.Z.) who are blamed for attacking ‘the peaceful Donbas cities’. These fantasies led to a quite real destabilisation in these cities, the arrival of weapons, everyday terror, horrible torture, witch-hunts, the murdering of patriots, public executions, a complete break from the Ukrainian state, and finally a war between the Russian and Ukrainian armies. By the way, over half of the latter is made up of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the territories of the illusory ‘Russian world’. Look at the map (if it is still being maintained) that shows our losses – the Dnipropetrovsk region heads the list…

Psychoanalysis has a strong tradition of theorizing the phenomena of war and totalitarianism, beginning with Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego and his correspondence with Einstein (Why War?), and Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism. The Second World War further galvanised this research and, when it was over, there followed the publication of works by Henry Dicks, Roger Money-Kyrle and others on the ‘Nazi psyche’. All these resources can help us to grasp how people come to take ‘the path of Evil’, why they make the choice to do so, and how far it is a choice at all. In my view, the fact that vast numbers of people supported the criminal and authoritarian Yanukovych regime, and were further prepared to dissolve in the similarly malignant body of the ‘Russian world’, is reprehensible. But it also chimes with what is perhaps the main issue today: the problem of narcissism – in particular destructive narcissism – something psychoanalysts have to grapple with constantly when treating their patients. The relegation of the self into the hands of an internal ‘mafia’ leads to serious consequences in life. Applied to the whole of society – where the ‘mafia’ exists externally and is wholly concrete – the same process leads to a condition where the population that has been exposed to induced psychosis, deprived of a real historical identity, and demoralised in the most literal sense of the word, descends into a grotesque and criminally violent form of neofeudalism.

TZ: How do you feel about the boycott of Russian books at the L’viv Publishers’ Forum in September 2014? Is it right to penalise books? Was this a symbolic gesture or simply a case of protecting the Ukrainian market?

ZB: There was no officially declared boycott of Russian books at the Forum, but since the Russian-Ukrainian war is underway, the decision had been made that there should be no Russian publishers’ stands at the Forum. And anyway, even in good times, they could have been counted on the fingers of one hand, the ‘official All-Russian’ stand included. Two interconnected factors were taken into account when this decision was made by the organizers: first, the inappropriateness under conditions of war of promoting businesses from the country of the aggressor, especially when these are associated with Russian cultural expansion and the ‘Russian world’. Second, the organisers wanted to avoid provoking Ukrainian society at a time when it was suffering so acutely as a result of the war. However, Russian authors did come to L’viv and participated actively in events at the Forum. Russian books were sold freely, though Russia was often indicated as the country of origin on book covers so that the consumer should be aware whose business he was supporting. (If I am not mistaken, this was the result of a decision relating to Russian goods in general taken by the L’viv City Council. Indeed initiatives such as this could be observed throughout the country). By the way, this recommendation was ignored by many booksellers without any consequences.

The problem is that the Ukrainian book market is 85% dominated by Russian production, if one excludes educational publications and, to some degree, specialized literature, like on fiscal policy, accounting and law. The lion’s share of Russian book production represents an alien culture, which currently tends to be hostile against Ukraine. Furthermore, most bookselling chains in Ukraine are Russian owned. This is a dangerous situation. However, most Ukrainian publishers are cautious about the radical ban of Russian books – it could lead to the collapse of the Ukrainian book market. But in the long run, I believe that the Russian book trade in Ukraine is effectively finished. The question is only how quickly Ukrainian publishers will be able to organise a substitute trade for home-produced publications. There are no fundamental obstacles that cannot be overcome as we go down this route.

TZ: How is everyday language responding to mass violence and war? Is it acceptable to use a pejorative vocabulary for the political enemy (take the use of the pejorative ‘kolorady’ (‘Colorado beetles’ for pro-Russian activists) following the fire in Odessa, for example)? Or is that just how things are in war?

ZB: Is the enemy to be referred to in polite, politically correct terms in wartime then? The phrase ‘is it acceptable’ in your question seems to me to be slightly naïve. Colloquial language does not seek permission from anyone; it simply goes ahead and stigmatises: ‘vata’ (a term referring to the cotton padded jackets worn by Soviet workers), ‘lugandon’ (a derogatory term for the self-proclaimed Lugansk and Donetsk republics, also alluding to “gandon”, meaning condom), ‘maidauny’ (pro-European Maidan supporters, also alluding to Down syndrome), ‘yaytsenyuk’ (the Russian word for ‘balls’ merged with the name Yatsenyuk) – there is a whole lexicon. It has been widely noted that this lexicon not only mocks and humiliates, but ‘dehumanises’ the opponent. We should recognise, however, that this dehumanisation only reflects the desperate situation when you have no choice but to pull the trigger. In war, the word is a weapon, a means of attack or a means of defence. To be fair, Ukrainian society has never been particularly politically correct. To think of cultivating political correctness under conditions of war would be naïve.

Kharkiv Talks in a Viennese Kitchen – On Revolution, War and Literature in Ukraine
Ukrainian books burnt by a pro-Russian mob in Kharkiv, March 16, 2014.


Mass violence did not begin in Odessa nor, alas, did it finish there. Taking the Odessa episode out of context (declaring it a genocide, another Khatyn) is a Russian ideological tactic. There was a no less horrible fire in the Kyiv House of Trade Unions, in circumstances that were far clearer than in Odessa. The meme that ‘Russian people are victims’ has marked this war ever since the first stone was thrown on Maidan Square. And this meme has an origin that goes far further back than this.

TZ: What happens to literature in wartime? Is it possible to describe adequately what is now going on in the Donbas region? After all that happened in 20th century Europe, when war came to be viewed as an absolute evil, can we still talk about a ‘just war’ and about heroes today?

ZB: As I see it, the theme of war is currently reflected in two genres: lyrical poetry and diary notes in the Japanese Zhuihitsu style – stylistically close to postings on social networks (indeed quite often they are such postings). Most of these writings, whose authors are often refugees or people caught in the midst of a military conflict, reflect a civilian’s perspective.

Another genre is reports written by volunteers who work in the conflict zone. These are usually witness accounts, fragmentary reports that often contain colourful details. War journalism, however, is rare. If there are reports from the front, they often come as a cry – a scream of horror, a plea for help, weeping for the dead. Sometimes this can be concentrated into the 140 characters of a Twitter message. The reality of war breaks all conventional patterns of understanding; it is too merciless and volatile for us to be able to produce any kind of structured narrative.

I am concerned by the almost complete absence of any kind of ‘soldier’s literature’. Obviously it is extremely hard for those taking part in military action to write (although there are some remarkable examples, such as the soldier-poet Borys Humeniuk), and it seems that writers working away from the front find it impossible to identify with those who are there. No doubt the problem lies in the extreme experience, far beyond the boundaries of what most people know; it is something that cannot be ‘appropriated’ in absentia. I would assume that even at the front, the effort to articulate this experience can easily result in truisms and clichés. For the time being, despite all the selfless support offered to the army and all the patriotic fervour, belles lettres from the front (what a strange oxymoron!) are absent. It may be that, in time, war prose will appear on the scene – although it seems to me that we need it now. On the other hand, I have the impression that our attempts to make sense of the war are hampered by a premature work of mourning. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder normally appear in the wake of a trauma – while we are still in the throes of it. This leads to a particular kind of psychological confusion: we are trying to come to terms with loss too early, at a time when the extent of it cannot yet be fully measured. When there is a temporary pause in the fighting (in the form of yet another ‘truce’), even the media cannot find an adequate formula to express what is happening. We are under the pressure of war, and of events that are moving too rapidly. Or perhaps our confusion results from the inadequacy of our psychological resources to deal with war. After all, this is the first experience of full-scale military conflict for almost all of us. For the time being, the few precise texts that we have show the very shock of the war reflecting the fragmentation, fracture, the collapse of the physical and mental world.

We have heroes, however, even if it is easier for us to identify with the victims, whoever they may be. We were not prepared for war in many ways – including psychologically. We were not ready to take the burden of responsibility, to recognise the justice of our resistance. Fear of active resistance, of an adequate response to violence has been haunting us since the Maidan. War is not only an evil; it can also be a response to evil. But if we look at Europe, it seems it is no longer capable of any kind of robust resistance to evil. As for us, we simply have no choice. This is the price we must pay for our identity. The debt has been prolonged too far. The hiatus in the fight for independence was too protracted. We have had our independence on credit for too long and now we are paying the interest in blood.

Translated from Russian by Irena Maryniak