From Pushkin to Brodksy: the literature that anticipated the invasion of Ukraine

It happened in the spring of 1992, a few months after Ukraine’s independence was proclaimed. Joseph Brodsky, the Russian Nobel laureate in literature exiled in the United States, launched a question that betrayed the Russian sentiment that today encourages the invasion of Ukraine. Brodsky was participating in a debate on Slavic poetry at Rutgers University in the United States with the Pole Czeslaw Milosz and Oksana Zabuzhko. When she was introduced as a Ukrainian poet, Brodsky mockingly asked, “Where is Ukraine?” Zabuzhko, who was sitting between him and Milosz, replied: “Don’t you see? It is where it always is, between Poland and Russia.”

This scene is quoted in the cain complexan essay that Marta Rebón has just published with the Editorial Destino. This short book, written by one of the most prolific Russian translators in Spain, is a reflection on the imperialism that wants to subjugate Ukraine, a book based on the life and work of some of the most important Russian and Ukrainian writers. The arrival of the cain complex to Spanish bookstores is a few months ahead of the acclaimed the gates of europe, the history of Ukraine told by Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy. In this work, which he will publish Debate and which has been translated into Spanish by Rebón, Plokhy already synthesizes on the first page the sin of Ukraine, which was to give the finishing touch to the Russian empire: “In December 1991, when the citizens of Ukraine went to the polls en masse to vote for independence, they also sent the Soviet Union to the trash can of history”.

Monument to the writer Taras Shevchenko in the Ukrainian city of Borodianka, which has been damaged after a Russian bombardment.DPA via Europa Press (Europa Press)

Brodsky’s case is paradigmatic of the widespread conception among generations of Russians that Ukraine, as an independent state, is a fiction because it is an inseparable part of the Russian world. Brodsky himself, who was a victim of Soviet repression and who benefited from democracy in the United States, could not stand the separation from Ukraine. The poet Evgenii Rein, a friend of Brodsky, said in a 2015 interview that the Nobel “was devastated” by the disintegration “of the Russian empire”, “of the Slavic space”, not by the disappearance of the Soviet Union, which he considered a regime cruel. “Crimea has to be Russian,” Brodsky repeated. Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in 2014.

Brodsky wrote in 1991 the poem Ukraine’s independencetext born of rancor and in which he proclaimed that the Ukrainian Cossacks, now separated from Russia, when they died would not hear the mediocre verses of Taras Shevchenko, but those of Alexander Pushkin. Shevchenko is the great Ukrainian patriotic icon, his image is present in schools throughout the country, in town and city squares, and also on war propaganda posters against the invader. Opposite is Pushkin, used by Russian nationalism. Rebón puts one of his poems into context, To the slanderers of Russia, an 1831 diatribe against France: “The central argument would be repeated in Soviet times, in disputes between Slavs, the West should not interfere -“This family feud is incomprehensible and alien to you”-, and Russia, judge and party , had no other place than to be the center of the Slavic world, its only and predestined interlocutor”. In addition, the author continues, “Pushkin raised a question that is still valid for Moscow: «Will the Slavic streams join in the Russian sea? Or will it dry up? Here’s the dilemma.”

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Alexander Pushkin, painted by Evdokia Petrovna Elagina.
Alexander Pushkin, painted by Evdokia Petrovna Elagina.

Rebón illustrates the authoritarian destiny that awaits Russia’s satellite republics with the example of the repression exerted by the Belarusian president and ally of Vladimir Putin, Aleksandr Lukashenko. Svetlana Alexievich, the great author of this country, resident in Germany, is quoted in the cain complex to confirm that there is a cultural link between these peoples, that of the “red man”, the homo sovieticus. Although if there is any reading of Alexievich that challenges Ukraine, that is Voices from Chernobyl. An interviewee from one of the villages evacuated after the 1986 nuclear catastrophe explained it to the Nobel Prize winner for Literature: “We have always lived submerged in terror; we know how to live in terror; it is our natural way of life. And in this, our people have no equal”.

The accident at the Ukrainian nuclear power plant accelerated the end, in Zabuzhko’s words collected by Rebón: “Less than a month after what happened in Chernobyl, it was felt in the atmosphere that Ukraine had freed itself from the fear of the imperial myth […] the power of the Kremlin, considered by most of the inhabitants of the USSR as eternal, turned out to be weak”.

The writer Marta Rebón.
The writer Marta Rebón.Ferran Mateo

Democracy ends in Ukraine

“Russian democracy ends where the Ukrainian question begins.” It is the appointment that Rebón offers in the cain complex by the Ukrainian writer Volodímir Vinnichenko, one of the referents of Ukrainian sovereignty at the beginning of the 20th century. Something similar was expressed by the writer Anne Applebaum in Red famine, Stalin’s war against Ukraine (Debate): “Just like in 1932, when Stalin told [Lázar] Kaganovich that their main fear was losing Ukraine, the current Russian government also believes that a stable, sovereign and democratic Ukraine, linked to the rest of Europe through cultural and commercial ties, is a threat to the interests of Russian leaders.”

Applebaum’s book is a huge piece of research on the death of almost four million Ukrainians from hunger in the 1930s, by Stalin’s decision, accompanied by the murder of hundreds of intellectuals and referents of Ukrainian culture. Under the terror of Stalinism even Isaak Bábel fell, who, although far from any nationalist whim, did feed the myth of the cosmopolitan Odessa or that of the idiosyncrasy of the Cossacks with his tales. Babel was shot in January 1940 accused of being a Trotskyist and a spy for France and England.

The writer Isaak Bábel, pictured in 1933.
The writer Isaak Bábel, pictured in 1933.Georgy Grigoryevich Petrusov (ALBUM ONLINE)

Reading any story of Babel allows us to understand that a voice as free as his could not survive in the Soviet Union. “Writers are engineers of the human soul” was the quote that Stalin twisted from the Odessa writer Yuri Olesha to ask creators to work for the Soviet ideal. In this ideal, Stalin violently saw to it that neither the Ukrainian language nor its identity had a place in the Soviet Union. The tsars also did their best to prevent their culture from flourishing in the 19th century. Rebón remembers that Nikolai Gógol was ignored while he wanted to write about Ukrainian culture. He had to change registration and emigrate to St. Petersburg from his native Poltava to succeed. “The homeland, the true Russia, was Moscow and St. Petersburg, and this is the province, a colony,” said one of the characters in service stuff, 1899 short story by Anton Chekhov.

Chekhov was born in Taganrog, on the shore of the Sea of ​​Azov, “a lost city” in the confines of the empire, Rebón points out, “as close to Tehran as Saint Petersburg, or Constantinople as Moscow.” Knowing the plurality of the Slavic world, when he retired to the Crimea, Chekhov stood out for his support of the Tatars against the Russian colonization of his land. Rebón insists on the diversity of identities that Crimea would have, highlighting the novel by Liudmila Ulítskaya Medea and her children, in which the descendants of Greeks, Italians, Tatars, Jews and Khazars coexist, an ignored legacy in Putin’s account of Russian Crimea.

Vasili Grossman, in Schwerin (Germany) in 1945.
Vasili Grossman, in Schwerin (Germany) in 1945. vasili grossman study center

Vasili Grossman, born in Berdíchev, in western Ukraine, is the main protagonist in the cain complex. in his novel Everything flows, Banned in the Soviet Union, Grossman reflects on what Russian power never had or allowed: individual freedom. Freedom was a most precious commodity in the Ukraine, and that is why Stalin punished it with the famines of the 1930s. “Such an order had never been signed by the Tsar, nor by the Tatars, nor by the German occupiers. An order that said: starve the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don, the Kuban, kill them and their children”. “Moscow had all its hopes pinned on the Ukraine,” Grossman said in Everything flows, “and it was above all against Ukraine that his wrath would later be unleashed.”

Something not mentioned in the cain complex it is the law of the pendulum, the reaction to this past of the independent Ukraine: the de-Russification of society, the progressive withdrawal of the Russian from institutions and public space, a process accelerated by the war in Donbas in 2014. Another effect would be a impoverishment of Ukrainian literature, a militant writing and reaction to the invader, as explained to EL PAÍS by the novelist Andréi Kurkov, also in favor of separating Russian from Ukraine. “Thanks to Russian pressure, the nation has become more unified around the Ukrainian language than it has been since the 1920s,” confirms Applebaum.

Voltaire, a beacon of the Enlightenment, pointed out in 1756 that “Ukraine always aspired to be free”, which does not imply that he coincided with these desires: the French thinker considered it necessary that Catherine II, Russian empress and of enlightened despotism, “put order in this part of Europe” to the detriment of Poland, as Plokhy recalls in The gates of Europe. “Stalin’s worst fear came in 1991,” Applebaum assesses, “when a free Ukraine was first founded, along with a new generation of Ukrainian historians, archivists, journalists, and publishers. And thanks to his efforts, the story of the famines of 1932 and 1933 can be told today.” A freedom that Putin, the heir to the tsars, wants to subdue again.

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From Pushkin to Brodksy: the literature that anticipated the invasion of Ukraine