April 24, 2014

Russian and Ukrainian writers take sides in the crisis


A Russian soldier at the Ukrainian Military Artillery Base in Simferopol, Crimea. Image via Shutterstock.

A Russian soldier at the Ukrainian Military Artillery Base in Simferopol, Crimea. Image via Shutterstock.

As the situation in Ukraine turns ever more fragile and troubling, writers on all sides of the conflict have come forward and taken official positions in a series of letters of support and open statements.

Recently, twenty writers from the Russian Union of Writers declared their support for the actions taken by President Vladimir Putin and the Russian government in Crimea and Ukraine. As Eugene Gerden outlined it in an article for Publishing Perspectives,

In their official letter to Putin, representatives of the Union called for war, noting that, “some forces of the West have started an open attack on the most important moral outcome of the Second World War and, in particular, the prohibition and condemnation of the ideologies of fascism and Nazism.”

The mention of fascism and Nazism, which may surprise readers in the West, who thought this whole thing was about whether Ukraine would throw its future lot in with Russia or the EU, is most likely a reference to what James Meek describes in the March 20th issue of the London Review of Books as the characterization of the Ukrainian revolutionaries as “Banderovtsy,” after Stepan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist leader who entered in a brief, disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany during the Second World War in order to secure an independent Ukrainian state.

It’s also an indication of the heatedness of the rhetoric at this point, a disturbing level of historical dredging. And yet even among Russian writers, there are very different lessons being drawn from the past. Boris Akunin, author of the immensely popular Erast Fandorin historical mystery series, has been posing questions about the potential cost of Russia’s aggressiveness. From a March 11 BBC article:

“I want to ask the majority celebrating the annexation of Crimea: Do you have any idea about the price you will have to pay for this trophy?” he wrote on his Facebook page, predicting political and economic isolation.

“Thanks to his Crimea adventure, Mr. Putin has guaranteed himself a life-term in office but I doubt that this term is going to be particularly long,” he wrote. “In the absence of a legal mechanism for changing a bankrupt regime the mechanism of revolution switches on. And a revolution in a multi-ethnic country equipped with nuclear weapons is a truly frightening thing.”

Another group of twenty-one Russian writers — including one winner of the Russian Prize, Anastasia Afanasyeva — from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv have come out explicitly against military intervention. In a letter translated by Tanya Paperny and posted on the blog Three Percent, they state:

 “We, Russian writers of Kharkov and citizens of Ukraine, don’t need the military protection of another State. We don’t want another State—hiding behind the rhetoric of protecting our interests—to drive its troops into our city and our country, risking the lives of our friends and relatives.”

And of course, Ukrainian writers have also been weighing in about the events of the past few months, with some of their responses making it into English-language media, though not as many as one might expect. Andrew McGrath blogged here in March about Ukrainian poet Serhiy Zhadan, who was beaten while participating in demonstrations in Kharkiv, and yet remained defiant, writing that “It’s very simple. I don’t want to live in a country of corruption and injustice.”

Novelist Andrey Kurkov has also been sending dispatches in to English PEN about the state of affairs in Kiev, most recently at the beginning of March, at a moment when Putin had denounced the new Ukrainian government and threatened that Russia “reserved the right to use all means at our disposal.” Kurkov’s take is acerbic and deliberately personal, but a sense of imminent violence — avoided on a day-to-day basis, but always looming — comes through powerfully. On March 5, he writes, he “went to bed at two in the morning and woke again at six to find out whether the war had started. As it turned out, it hadn’t. I rushed to give my children the good news but they already knew. They’d been up earlier than me – to find out whether they had any future in Ukraine.”

Whatever your position on the developments in the region, there is something fundamentally disturbing about the letter from the Russian Union of Writers, with its unabashed support for further violence. It’s not that I’m naïve about the engagement of writers with political positions that may result in warfare, but that a stance of skepticism, which seems the right place for a writer to be, often coincides with principled pacificism. Now, as in 2001 and 2003 when the US went as eagerly and dubiously to war, the great American critic and conscientious objector Randolph Bourne’s analysis of the support from intellectuals for the First World War is apposite: war, Bourne wrote then, is the health of the state, and its boosters among the creative classes had signed over their critical intelligence to the state’s self-perpetuation on any and all terms. “In a time of faith,” he writes in the 1917 essay “The War and The Intellectuals,” “skepticism is the most intolerable of all insults.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.