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Russia and Ukraine in Literature

By Stuart Mitchner

A year before the invasion of Ukraine, I said in the Fall/Winter 2021 Book Scene that while I’d never actually been to Russia, I lived through “a St. Petersburg summer” in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and spent “my first Russian winter” reading The Brothers Karamazov. The phrasing suggests a naive belief in a literary realm beyond time, space, and politics, a land of no boundaries when, in fact, the novels I was reading were American editions published in New York.

My first summer in Europe I found novels and stories by Russian authors like Gorky, Gogol, and others under the imprint of the Foreign Language Publishing House in Moscow. The curiously bound and decorated volumes I discovered in Vienna were more than books to me because they came from what was then the Soviet Union. I saw myself buying low-priced literary contraband from the old Russia shut off from the West behind the Iron Curtain. The title pages in both English and Cyrillic seemed incredibly exotic, as did the bindings and paper reeking with the scent of Soviet machinery, the actual ink and metal of the printing presses. I lugged a dozen books home with me, as if they were souvenirs of an actual visit to the U.S.S.R. They’re all long gone now, with three exceptions that happen to have Ukrainian backgrounds.

I kept Short Novels and Stories by Anton Chekhov because of an amusing cover illustration presumably modeled on Luka, the village in Ukraine where he grew up. Ukraine native Nikolai Gogol’s Mirgorod and Evenings Near the Village of Dikanka survived because of strikingly bright, colorful, flowery covers and decorated endpapers that complement Gogol’s lush prose (“How intoxicating, how magnificent is a summer day in the Ukraine!”). When I first read that sentence, I had no reason to think of Ukraine as separate from Russia — it was all Russia, or so I thought.

Gogol’s Choice

In her New Yorker essay, “Novels of Empire: Rereading Russian classics in the shadow of the Ukraine war,” Elif Batuman points out that Gogol achieved critical recognition only after moving to St. Petersburg and writing in Russian. Both now and then, as Batuman shows, writing in Ukrainian meant having no readership, therefore no reputation in Russia. She quotes contemporary novelist Oksana Zabuzhko’s claim that even if you were to produce a work as great as Faust in Ukrainian, “it would only lie around the libraries unread.” A guest essay by Zabuzhko in the New York Times (“The Problem With Russia Is Russia”) suggests that the U.S. and the West have actually enabled Russian imperialism and “the rise of a new Hitler” by “agreeing to blame Communism alone for all the atrocities of the Soviet regime.”

According to Batuman, the Kremlin, meaning Putin, now uses Gogol’s work as evidence “that Ukraine and Russia share a single culture.” She quotes a 2021 article by Putin himself demanding to know how this heritage can be divided between Russia and Ukraine when Gogol’s books are written in Russian with “Little Russian” folk sayings and motifs. Again, it’s all Russia and as Zabuzhko puts it, “the problem with Russia is Russia.”

Although Batuman loves Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment, she has to confront the possibility that the works that helped define her life can be coopted to serve the Russian über alles argument that Putin calls “Russkiy Mir.”

Understanding the War

Among the numerous publications offering avenues to understanding the Russia-Ukraine crisis, The Zelensky Effect: New Perspectives on Eastern Europe and Eurasia (Oxford University Press $24.95) by Oleg Onuch and Henry F. Hale, is “the go-to book for grasping Ukrainians’ morale in the face of Russian aggression,” says Marc Berenson, senior lecturer at King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London. The book begins with Zelensky’s March 20, 2022 recitation of Ukrainian poet Lina Kostenko’s reference to “the sound of a new Iron Curtain lowering and closing Russia away from the civilized world.”

Onuch is senior lecturer in politics at the University of Manchester. Hale is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.

The Ukrainian Experience

President Zelensky is on the cover of the new paperback edition of Andrew Wilson’s The Ukrainians: The Story of How a People Became a Nation (Yale University Press $20). According to the publisher, the book begins with the myth of common origin in the early medieval era, then looks closely at the Ukrainian experience under the tsars and Soviets, the experience of minorities in the country, and the long path to independence in 1991. Wilson is a lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College, London.

Russian Aggression

Serhii Plokhy’s The Frontline: Essays on Ukraine’s Past and Present (Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute $19.95) is now available in an affordable paperback reprint. In his preface, Plokhy says that “Russian aggression turned not only Ukraine but also Ukrainian history into a battleground.” Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Larry Wolff finds The Frontline “illuminating for the current moment…. What emerges from some of these essays … is a powerful sense that Putin’s wantonly destructive delusions and machinations have had the unintended effect of helping to consolidate Ukraine as the unified and distinctive nation whose existence he flatly denies.”

The author of Unmaking Imperial Russia, Plokhy is Mykhailo S. Hrushevs´kyi Professor of Ukrainian History in the Department of History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.

A Ukrainian Family

Inside Ukraine: A Portrait of a Country and Its People (Batsford $35), which will be reissued this month, opens with a note from the publisher, Polly Powell, who says that the book came into her hands from the Ukrainian family she was hosting in London. The mother and two girls had traveled 30 hours via a bus, a train journey to the Polish border, and then a flight from Krakow (“They didn’t know I was a book publisher and my immediate interest was a surprise to them”). Described by the original publisher as “the product of five years and 100,000 kilometers of travel around the country by the volunteers of Ukraïner,” a multimedia project “launched in 2016 to help Ukrainians discover the varied regions of their country and to promote Ukraine to the world.” With 350 images, the book presents the people of Ukraine and their stories, with a cast of characters that includes traditional carol singers, wild honey farmers, potters, railway men, artists, sheep breeders, and broom makers.

War and Childhood

In You Don’t Know What War Is: The Diary of a Young Girl from Ukraine (Union Square $19.99), Yeva Skalietska writes, “My goal was to put my experiences into writing so that ten or twenty years from now, I could read this and remember how my childhood was destroyed by war.” Calling the book a “firsthand account that shows courage,” Kirkus Reviews says it records “the immediate sounds and sensations of explosions, sirens, and panic.” Skalietska and her grandmother fled Kharkiv as the war intensified; they currently live in Ireland.

Chekhov’s Childhood Home

After his last visit to the Ukrainian town where he spent childhood summers, Chekhov wrote in a letter to Ukrainian friends, “I have left my soul behind in Luka.” According to a story in The Independent written in May 2022 when Chekhov’s former home, now a Chekhov museum, was under fire from Russian missiles, “both sides claim Chekhov’s works as their national heritage,” and “neither has been capable of protecting his legacy.” In May 2003, when Putin and then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kochma visited the Chekhov museum in Yalta (the White Dacha, where he wrote some of his most notable works), both presidents expressed their thanks in the guest book. At a time when the museum was having serious financial issues, Putin donated a book about handicrafts and his visitor card.

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