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Stephen Komarnyckyj


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Where the apricot trees bloom: Russian - Soft Power and Ukrainian Literature in Translation

By Steve Komarnyckyj, Nov 16 2014 07:36AM

Stephen Komarnyckyj

The Norwich Papers

9 May 2014

Where the apricot trees bloom: Russian - Soft Power and Ukrainian Literature in Translation

“There, where the apricot trees cease, there Russia begins,” Liubov Iakymchuk.

The contemporary Ukrainian poet, Liubov Iakymchuk, as she sought an image to embody the difference between Russia and Ukraine, realised that the boundary between the cultures was marked by apricot trees. If you are in East Ukraine in summer it is impossible not to notice them: their fruit falls and explodes on dusty summer pavements, and this fecund landscape, with its smokestack towns, open fields and Soviet tower blocks, seems endless. However, the cultivation of apricot trees ceases abruptly at the border and, she tells me, their absence is a part of what separates the two landscapes, otherwise so similar (Liubov Iakymchuk, pers comm). In addition, of course, the countries are separated by two languages, as distinct as their landscapes, but sharing a complex legacy. The colonial relationship between the countries is, however, reflected in the perceptions of Ukrainian and Russian within English culture. An analysis of the relationship between the countries and its impact on their respective national literatures casts a light on an aspect of translated literature that is rarely considered, the link between geopolitics and translated literature.

Derek Walcott rejected the limitations of national identity when he made his character Shabine say in The Schooner Flight, “I have no nation now but the imagination,” (Walcott 1980). However, what is a nation? What is Shabine exchanging for the freedom of self-definition? I will adopt Smith's definition of a nation as “a named human population sharing a myth of common descent, historical memories and a mass culture and possessing a demarcated territory, common economy and common legal rights and duties,” (Kuzio). This paper will assume this definition while recognising that the concept is restrictive. Shabine's dark skin, red hair and green eyes testify to our shared overlapping legacies, and national identities are best thought of as colours on a spectrum shading into one another. However, that said, Ukrainian and Russian identities, while they merge into one another, remain as distinct as two separate wavelengths on the spectrum.

The two countries share a common ancestor, the kingdom of Rus, with its capital in Kyiv. Ukraine was an integral part of the Russian Empire and many Russians still believe that the two countries are a single nation. This conception leads some Russians to regard Ukrainian culture with hostility, as an artificial construct that divides a single people. Bogomolov and Lytvynenko note, from this perspective, the Ukrainian cultural heritage that binds the majority of Ukrainians together as a nation:

Taras Shevchenko’s legacy, Ukrainian language, and the Ukrainian ‘national idea’ of the last two centuries ... appear to be meaningless, second-rate or blasphemous to a large number of Russians. Generations of Russian intellectuals have turned belittling (sic) of the Ukrainian language and culture into a part of the Russian belief system, alongside anti-Tatar and anti-Muslim stereotypes. But whereas the latter are built around national differences, what makes Ukraine stand out in this list is a dismissive attitude to any assertion that national differences exist.

(Bogomolyov and Lytvynenko, 2012)

Historically, the attempts by Ukrainians to appeal to the international community for help to address this oppression have gone unheard because of the greater economic and political power of Russia. A notable instance of how a voice was silenced by the soft power of the Tsarist empire occurred in 1878 when Mykhailo Drahomanov attempted to present a paper covering the supression of Ukrainian literature and language at the European Literary Conference in Paris. The paper was not included on the agenda because the assembled authors were concerned about protecting copyright within Russia. Pragmatism and self-interest triumphed over principle (Plyushch 2013). The measures that Drahomanov criticised were introduced by Russia via a decree from the Tsar, the Ems Ukaz of 1876, in an attempt to curtail the public usage of Ukrainian and the literature that could be translated into Ukrainian (Drahomanov 1878). The decree also forbade singing in Ukrainian in public and followed a meeting between Ukrainian cultural figures and the Tsarist regime at which the issue of translating the Gospels into Ukrainian was considered. The Ukrainians also suggested translating Taras Bulba (1835), Nikolai Gogol's Russian language novel that was seen as a celebration of the Ukrainian Cossack legacy.

The regime could not tolerate the translation of a book that might foster a wish for political autonomy in Ukraine. Gogol's voice would only be heard in Russian, but silenced in Ukrainian. Gogol (in Ukrainian Mykola Hohol), while known as a Russian author was, arguably, thinking in Ukrainian and writing in Russian (he imported a vast lexicon of Ukrainian words into Russian), so Taras Bulba would effectively have been on a return journey. His Russian was characterised by numerous “Ukrainianisms” and can be seen as a celebration of the culture of the colonised in the language of the coloniser. The Ukrainian words he shipped into Russian enriched that language with the fragrance of the Steppe and helped facilitate the integration of Ukrainian mythology within Russian. The Cossacks in particular became a central part of the Russian nationalist narrative with Hohol's 1842 text becoming the basis of a flag waving patriotic film in 2009.

The paradox of Taras Bulba is that a book with a profoundly anti-Russian imperialist message became part of the Canon of Russian literature. This was no accident because the Tsarist regime sought not only to colonise the territory but also the minds of its subjects, and understood that literature, like the Steppe, the “Wild Field” of Ukraine, must be tamed. However, the book in its original form, published in 1835, was unusable because it depicted the Cossacks as aspiring to freedom rather than unity with Russia. The version published in 1842 was amended to include references to the “Muscovite Tsar” and “Russian power” and to cast Ukraine as a loyal Russian province. These references were extremely problematic in relation to the seventeenth century when the novel was set at which point Ukraine had not been a province in the Tsar's empire (Paliy 2009). However, Gogol's protest was in vain and the amended text became the accepted version of this novel and the variant that was subsequently translated into other languages. When the Ukrainian author, Vasyl Shkliar, translated the original 1835 version into Ukrainian in 2005, the Russian Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdin protested “Gogol could not have written like that” (Zvarych 2005).

The prejudices identified and analysed by Bogomolyov and Lytvynenko are to be found in the work of many major Russian writers. Joseph Brodsky, for example, wrote a poem condemning Ukrainian independence, ‘On Ukrainian Independence’, which, as Loseff notes, is rife with “ethnic slurs” (Loseff 242). These include such lines as “spit in the Dnipro it blows back” a reference to Ukrainian culture as a gobbet of spit, crass references to Chornobyl, the fertile black earth of Ukraine being “under zombies” (presumably Ukrainians zombified by the specious notion of Ukrainian culture). Loseff presents these as justified in the context of the poem, almost an integral mechanism for conveying the meaning that, “separating Russia and Ukraine is nothing less than a crime.” (Loseff 242). What Loseff is effectively saying is that Brodsky uses the language of prejudice against Ukrainian nationality to convey his extreme antipathy to Ukrainian independence. He seeks to rationalise Brodsky's ethnic abuse as a poetic strategy. The last couplet of the poem derides the work of Ukraine's national poet, Taras Shevchenko, and read withthe preceding lines makes it clear that the entirety of Ukrainian nationality and literature is, for Brodsky, a sacrilegious fiction (Brodsky 1994).

You will snore scratching the edge of the mattress

For the lines of Aleksandr rather than the nonsense of Taras.


Having characterised the presence of Ukrainian as being akin to spitting in the Dnipro (and only the most wilfull reading on the poem could avoid this interpretation) Brodsky suggests that Ukrainians will lie awake pining for Pushkin's lost poetry. Their own national poet has simply produced brekhnya, nonsense, lies. The poem's advocates, such as Gessen, are in effect naturalising the language of xenophobia as a poetic technique (Gessen 2011). However, this is not only morally questionable but indefensible in aesthetic terms. A great poem is one which, potentially, speaks to all humanity. A poem which relies on prejudice is by this definition less than great. I would also submit that there are several rather poor images in this poem such as for example the image of a blue and yellow Lenin at Konotop, This rather laborious metaphor perhaps means that the Ukrainian state is merely cosmetic, akin to painting a soviet statue in blue and yellow. It is perhaps indicative of what happens to a poet when writing is driven by ideological rather than aesthetic concerns. The technique of using prejudiced languageould only work with readers who shared the poet's emotional reflexes and, for example, applauded the comparison of Ukrainian culture to spittle. Whether fomenting rather than challenging prejudice is acceptable as poetry is another question. Brodsky himself would subsequently refuse to discuss the poem and wished to omit the work from his legacy (Gessen 2011). This is perhaps the most pertinent comment on the aesthetic quality of the poem. However, the emotional matrix which led to the poem, the assertion that Ukraine is part of a common Russian imperial space, is fundamental to Brodsky (Loseff 242).

The attitudes embodied in Brodsky's poem have resulted in centuries of repression against the Ukrainian language, which have combined legal restrictions, genocide (Lemkin) and, as exemplified by the Brodsky poem we have discussed, derision. However, during the 1920s, the Soviet State sought to embed itself in Ukraine through a different policy known as Ukrainianisation. The Soviets fostered Ukrainian culture, albeit within Soviet parameters, during this period. The intention was to be perceived by the people as their government and similar policies were adopted across the other national republics. Ukraine's situation, as a country where the indigenous language had been outlawed from most public space, meant that the policy became the instrument of a genuine renaissance (Lavrinenko 1959). There was a volcanic eruption in Ukrainian literature in the 1920s that left a body of work that is a vital and neglected part of Europe's literary legacy.

As Stalin became increasingly concerned that Ukraine might break away, a wave of executions swept the republic's intelligentsia from 1930 onwards. He and his immediate subordinates shared the reflexive antipathy towards Ukrainian culture that we have discussed. The organised, judicial killings were linked, in some instances, to a covert organisation supposedly working for Ukrainian independence, but other pretexts were often found for executing, or imprisoning in lethal conditions, the republic's literary elite (Lavrinenko 1959). Dray-Khmara may well have died because of a sonnet in which five swans fly to freedom, an image that the authorities interpreted as representative of the author and his four neo-classicist colleagues (Lavrinenko 1959: 263-265). Lavrinenko looked at 259 authors who were active in 1930 and found that by 1938 only 39 were still being published. He coined the name which is still used to refer to these writers “the Executed Renaissance”. A large number of the writers who disappeared would have been arrested and sent to camps where they died of disease, hypothermia and malnutrition. The mass executions were accompanied by an organised famine involving the confiscation of all foodstuffs and the blockading of ethnic Ukrainian territory from 1932 to 1933 (Kulchytsky 2008). One of the architects of this policy, and Stalin's police chief in Ukraine, explained to the Italian consul, in 1934, that these measures were implemented so that, “the ethnographic material ... will be changed,” (Graziosi 1991: 168). The mass executions of the nation's authors and intelligentsia, and the extermination of its peasants by artificial famine were referred to by Rafael Lemkin as the “classic example of Soviet genocide” (Lemkin).

The Russian state has endeavoured to control both what is published and translated into Ukrainian and how Ukrainian literature is presented. The attitudes that we have outlined continue to dominate Russian political discourse on Ukraine. Simultaneously, Russia has promoted its own literature while belittling the literature of its neighbour. The attitudes that shape Russian state policy are shared to varying degrees by many Russian speakers, including, paradoxically, one who is commonly regarded as Ukrainian. Andrey Kurkov is the most prominent representative of Ukrainian literature and has enjoyed considerable success in English translation with novels such as Death and the Penguin (translated by George Bird, 2001). He is the one author who, while identified as Ukrainian, enjoys the authority to make pronouncements on Ukrainian literature in the English language media. He was however, born in Leningrad, writes exclusively in Russian, and his views partially reflect a standard Russian view of Ukrainian language literature. There is no doubt that Kurkov's intelligent, humane commentary on the political situation in Ukraine has benefited the country. He is a man who is held in high regard by Ukrainians and has performed an enormous service to the country as a literary ambassador; however, his views on Ukrainian literature are not helpful in the context of building an audience for the country's literary heritage.

During an interview with Sam Ruddock in which he talks about his novel, Angel of Death, Kurkov provides a somewhat problematic account of Ukraine's national poet, Taras Shevchenko. Anyone reading his words who was unfamiliar with Shevchenko's work would learn that the Ukrainian author wrote largely in Russian and glean nothing of his achievements as a poet. Indeed, it seems as if Kurkov is unaware that Shevchenko had any artistic ability when he says that he “somehow got noticed by the famous Russian artist from St. Petersburg, Ilya Repin, who collected enough money to buy him out from his owner” (Ruddock). The reason Shevchenko was noticed is that he was a brilliant artist who was studying art at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. In a revealing mistake Kurkov refers to Repin, when the artist was Karl Bryullov who donated a painting which was raffled to purchase Shevchenko's freedom. It would have been remarkable indeed if Repin had “somehow” noticed Shevchenko and bought his freedom because Shevchenko was released in 1838 and Repin was born in 1844. This statement is unfortunately characteristic of Kurkov's account of Shevchenko and Ukrainian culture in this piece.

In another piece on Ukrainian literature, on the Vintage Books site, Kurkov mentions several notable contributions that Ukraine has made to world literature, but utterly omits to mention any Ukrainian language authors in this context. I will only note that Ukraine has many Ukrainian language authors of global significance. These include Taras Shevchenko who we have discussed above, Pavlo Tychyna (1891-1967) whose ecstatic pagan voice in Solar Clarinets (1919) is like no other in East Slavic poetry. The twenties were a particularly fertile period which saw authors such as dramatist Mykola Kulish (1892-1937) reaching their peak. Kulish's play Sonata Pathétique, (1930) ought to be required reading for anyone looking to understand the disintegration of revolutionary ideals. His plays which were both classics of Soviet and Ukrainian literature would cost Kulish his life. That is perhaps the most pertinent comment on his greatness of a writer. He was one of many Ukrainian authors whose work would result in their death at the hands of the authorities. The Soviet state was not able to destroy or to reconcile the literary culture of Ukraine with the autocratic totalitarian state which Stalin constructed. ; However, the country's colonial relationship with Russia has helped silence the Ukrainian voice within translated literature.It is ironic, of course, that Kurkov's own oeuvre reflects a characteristically Ukrainian milieu expressed in Russian.

The perceptions of Ukrainian literature conveyed to the West by Brodsky, Kurkov and several other major Russian cultural figures have helped shape a view of Ukrainian language as a dialect. This does not in any way detract from the contribution these men made to global culture; however, the attitudes that they expressed have helped obscure other Ukrainian literary figures. The prominent English critic Martin Seymour Smith described Ukrainian as a “minor literature”. (Seymour Smith 1975) The Russian state continues to influence perceptions of Ukraine through agents of influence, who are offered incentives for producing material favourable to Russia. The most recent example of this is the creation of a veritable troll army on the internet (Elliot 2014). However, more prosaically, the iteration of this view, through cultural ties between institutions such as universities, helped foster this belief.

The result of this information war was that the country became a byword for the second rate as non-Ukrainians picked up the denigratory tone noted by Bogomolyov and Lytvynenko. The author of the present paper has more than once been told that he is a Russian or asked, by a Dane, why he doesn't speak Russian as it is “more useful”. Kevin Kline's repressed homosexual, bewailing his inadequate laundry services in the film In and Out was able to lament “Where am I? The fucking Ukraine?”

The volume of literature translated into English from both languages reflects the negative perception of Ukraine and its status as a Russian colony. The statistics published by Literature Across Frontiers illustrate that the UK is impoverished in terms of translated literature with only 4% of books published being translations from other languages (Donahaye 2013: 3). Their report identifies a number of issues that restrict the volume of translations into English, including “certain entrenched attitudes to other languages,” and “the global dominance of English”. Their figures indicate that in the UK, Russian was among the five most translated languages in 2000, 2005 and 2008, (Donahaye 2012: 28-29).

There are almost no statistics available on Ukrainian literature in translation into English. However, a study undertaken by Nadiya Polischuk of Lviv found that there were twenty-one books translated from Ukrainian into English between 2000 and 2013 and published on the European continent (this is defined as Europe, primarily the United Kingdom, excluding Ukraine). However, the study includes Kurkov's Russian language works which, I believe, should be treated separately, perhaps as “Russian language Ukrainian literature”. He accounts for all 16 of the translations and publications in the period up to 2012 and 17 of the translations in total; several of these are repeat publications. In fact, there are only four literary translations from Ukrainian to English published in this period in Europe and none by an established major publisher. Three of these translations were published by Glagoslav, a Dutch-British press, specialising in Eastern Slavonic literature, and one was published by Poetry Salzburg, an English language poetry press based at the University of Salzburg. So, even if we look at Ukrainian literature in translation, the situation duplicates the dominance of Russian language within Ukraine's own media space.

Polischuk also notes that there are clear differences between the situation in the United Kingdom and on the North American continent. The existence of several Ukrainian studies departments in North America has resulted in a more extensive and representative volume of Ukrainian literature in translation. However, classical Ukrainian poetry is absent from the list and the modern publications she lists include a self-published volume.

The amputation of Ukrainian literature from the European canon impoverishes us all, silencing several important voices. The head of Ukrainian Studies at Cambridge, Rory Finnin, points out that many exceptional writers who chose to use Ukrainian could have pursued a career in one of the dominant imperial languages. He notes that to write in Ukrainian was:

to defy convention and imperial fashion, often at personal cost; it was to refuse to conform to imperial majorities, often at the expense of wider renown. After all, writers like Olena Teliha or Mykhailo Kotsiubyns'kyi or Mykola Khvyl'ovyi could have devoted themselves to literary careers in the Russian language; writers like Ivan Franko or Bohdan Ihor Antonych or Vasyl' Stefanyk could have devoted themselves to literary careers in Polish. Yet for various reasons all of them made the choice to express themselves in an often marginalized, and at times outlawed, language. All of them sought to craft out of the Ukrainian vernacular a literary language of sensitivity and sophistication. As Melville would say, they believed that it was better to risk failing in originality than succeeding in imitation. (Finnin 2012)

Finnin cites just one of many neglected authors whose voice has been lost, Olha Kobylians’ka:

For Kobylians'ka, art was everything. She was a follower of Nietzsche, fully committed to his philosophy of life affirmation and fully convinced of the revitalising potential of the aesthetic. In her novella Valse Mélancolique, which was published in L'viv in 1898, she explores the relationship between three independent women who reject patriarchal mores and share a home together, living only for art. One of them, Hanna, declares: 'I am an artist and live according to the rules of an artist, which are more demanding than the rules of a narrow, programmatic person... My field is wide, limitless, and therefore I live the life I do... I look upon everything from an artistic standpoint... Everyone should.' Hanna then makes a resounding exclamation: 'We shall not be wives or mothers, but women.' Bear in mind that Valse Mélancolique predates Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own by over thirty years. (Finnin 2012)

It would be possible to describe at greater length the literary riches that have been lost. Pavlo Tychyna and Bohdan Ihor Antonych are possibly the two most gifted lyric poets of any age, in any Eastern Slavic language. As Finnin says:

Ukrainian literature is replete with vigorous voices like Kobylians'ka's. It is a literature of rebels and risk-takers, patriots and pioneers, writers whose works injected world culture with new euphonies and expanded the boundaries of human expression. That many of them also came to be heralded as voices of the Ukrainian people, or even prophets in a national canon, is undoubtedly significant. But it is ultimately secondary. These artists deserve something more than respect for “national service”. They deserve our renewed study, in Britain and beyond.

(Finnin 2012)

These authors should be as well-known as Blake or Blok, Mayakovsky or Milton. With regard to Shevchenko, it is arguable that his poetry led to the emergence of his country. He is unique as a major European poet in that he was legally owned by another human being, yet founded a modern literary language and became the spiritual father of his country; but his work transcends national boundaries. As Finnin explained in his remarks at the unveiling of a commemorative pavement marker, dedicated to the poet, at Cambridge University:

Taras Shevchenko’s work shatters barriers between ‘east’ and ‘west’ ... with a singular passion he appealed for justice for all oppressed peoples, drew important moral lessons from the past, and interrogated the relationship between the human and the divine in a broken world.

(CUUS 2012)

The Russian translator of Ukrainian literature, Elena Marinicheva, when comparing contemporary Ukrainian and Russian literatures, argues that the former has “advanced further” (Slavynskaya 2011). Ukrainian literature, though, is neither better nor worse than Russian; however, it has unique qualities. Shevchenko, for example, was at the bottom of the imperial pyramid, a serf, and through him the silenced masses of the empire speak.

This paper has provided a sketch of how soft power had and continues to have an impact Ukrainian literature in translation. It is, of course, impossible to portray within a short article the complex ramifications of the imperial relationship between these two countries; there are many instances of positive cultural exchanges between Ukraine and Russia. However, the situation I have discussed needs to be understood and addressed. I have not touched on other areas of the humanities, but stress that, when looking at these countries, people need to be aware of how Russia has sought to negatively brand Ukraine and erode its culture. However, the point that the literary canon depends not solely on the worth of the work in question but on geopolitical processes is applicable beyond the Ukraine-Russia dynamic. The very idea of a canon suggests a hierarchy of esteem, a pyramid of cultural dominance. As T.S. Eliot said, we are forever rebuilding the temple, but perhaps the very idea of a literary temple needs to be demolished.

Finnin himself does not articulate an answer to why Ukrainian literature has been neglected, though his text touches on the issue of “imperial majorities”. There is little doubt, however, that the negative branding of Ukraine and Ukrainian literature is in part responsible. Anyone reading Kurkov's view on Shevchenko, and on Ukrainian literature, might well conclude that Ukraine's national poet was of limited interest. They might, if they read Brodsky, reach the conclusion that Ukrainian language literature had little of value to offer. A perusal of that much revered tome, Seymour Smith's guide to World Literature, would confirm that view. These perceptions are part of the wall of silence around Ukrainian literature through which the voices of dead authors seek to make themselves heard. This silence impoverishes each of us. Unless this situation changes Ukrainian literature will stand inarticulately in the background, like Kurkov's penguin. The loss to the literary canon of Europe will be immeasurable.

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