The latest addition to my website is Markiyan Kamysh‘s Оформляндія або прогулянка в Зону (Stalking the Atomic City). Markiyan Kamysh is a stalker, which means he enters Chernobyl illegally and wanders round exploring, regardless of the dangers of radiation, wild animals, snow drifts and the police. He has faced all four and survived. Why does he do it? He is not entirely sure but has done it, at the time of writing, one thousand one hundred and forty-six times. He sometimes takes tourists in but he despises them. He likes nothing better than being there alone with few provisions, enjoying the solitude and nature. The police try to get him and sometimes do but he always comes back for more. He tells us what he finds, what he sees, what he takes with him. Every time I came back, I swore that it would be my last, my very last visit but it never is.
The latest addition to my website is Eugene Vodolazkin‘s Брисбен (Brisbane). The story is told in alternating chapters, the first telling of the early life of our hero Gleb Yanovsky, till he becomes famous as a musician, and the second from, 2012 when three key events change his life. He is born and bred in Kyiv (like Vodolazkin) where, under the influence of his father, he takes up music. He eventually studies guitar but his dream is to go to Leningrad, where he studies language rather than music. He meets and marries Katya, a German woman, and they both become teachers. He is attracted by a generous offer to play music, so they go to Berlin, where the offer does not work out. However, he gets his chance and we gradually see his career take off. However,in the later story, we learn early on that he has Parkinson’s disease and the second half is, in part, how he copes with that, as well as political events. Vodolazkin is clearly concerned with the issue of how Gleb’s music and his life are interconnected and, to a lesser degree, his language(s) as he speaks Russian as a child to most people but but his father speaks Ukrainian. This is another complex and fine book from Vodolazkin.
One of the first published writers in Ukrainian was Hryhorii Kvitka-Osnovianenko. His best-known novel Marusia was translated into English while his novel Oksana was translated into French but both are very difficult to obtain. Iryna Vilde was one of the first twentieth century prose writers, writing in Ukrainian to receive any acclaim. None of her work has been translated into English but a short story collection has been published in German as Das grüne Tor and is available.
The first grouping here is authors who were mainly or entirely first published during the twentieth century, prior to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Note that, during the Soviet era, many/most of them would have written in Russian and that the translations into English were mainly published by Soviet presses and that the books are now quite difficult to find. All of these with English titles were published in English. Where there is a link to an author, it is to an article about him/her. Where there is a link to a title, it is to a review (however brief) of the book. Author names are in bold. If you want just the post-Soviet authors/works, go here.
Bernyk was a science fiction writer who got into a lot of trouble with the Soviet authorities
черный папирус (Black Papyrus)
Apostle of Immortality (story collection)
Земля світлячків (In the Land of the Living Lights) (stories)
I will also mention Oles Honchar who wrote in Russian and was a committed Soviet supporter but wrote a couple of interesting novels which I have reviewed: Людина і зброя (Man and Arms) and Собор (The Cathedral), the latter being of particular interest. Other works of his appeared in English, including Прапороносці (Standard-Bearers), Прага (Golden Prague), Тронка (Tronka), Циклон (The Cyclone), Берег любові (The Shore of Love) and Твоя зоря (Your Dawn).
Many Ukrainians as well as Russians perished in the Soviet terror. Borys Antonenko-Davydovych is one. Three of his books have appeared in English: Смерть (Death), За ширмою (Behind the Curtain) and Between the Trenches : Selected Prose Fiction.
Before the Storm : Soviet Ukrainian fiction of the 1920s is an interesting collection of stories from that era.
However, a lot has been published since the fall of the Soviet Union and that is when the most interesting Ukrainian work appears. The following is a brief introduction to some of these writers in a fairly random order, with the three most interesting (in my view) contemporary novelists who have been translated into English appearing first. As above, where there is a link to an author, it is to an article about him/her. Where there is a link to a title, it is to a review (however brief) of the book. Author names are in bold.
The latest addition to my website is Andrey Kurkov‘s Серые пчелы (Grey Bees). This a superb novel from Kurkov about a beekeeper, Sergeyich, who lives in a small village in the grey zone on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Post-2014, after the Russian occupation of Crimea, most people have moved away and there are only two people left in this village. Sergeyich decides his bees need warmth and quiet, away from the frequent shelling, so he takes them on a journey and we follow his adventures, particularly his journey to meet a fellow beekeeper in Crimea, a Crimean Tatar. Sergeyich is fairly easygoing but clashes somewhat with the Russian authorities in now occupied Crimea. This is a first-class novel showing the Ukrainian-Russian border area prior to the illegal invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The latest addition to my website is Andrey Kurkov‘s Смерть постороннего (Death and the Penguin). Yes, it is about a penguin but the penguin is both Viktor’s quirky pet but also a symbol for someone struggling to cope in an alien environment. Viktor is a writer who gets a job writing obituaries in advance of celebrities’ deaths, all the while living alone with a king penguin, Misha, whom he adopted when the zoo could no longer feed him, after the fall of the Soviet Union. We and Viktor soon find out that there is a connection between Viktor’s obituaries and the death of the subjects of the obituaries which is not simply coincidental. Gradually, he, Misha, Sonya, a young girl, daughter of an acquaintance who suddenly disappears, and Nina whom Viktor hires to look after Sonya, get caught up up in a dastardly and violent plot. Kurkov cleverly mixes in the serious issue of corruption and violence in post-Soviet Ukraine with the story of a not entirely happy penguin.
The latest addition to my website is Serhiy Zhadan‘s Ворошиловград (Voroshilovgrad). This novel is set in Eastern Ukraine but not in Voroshilovgrad which isn’t called Voroshilovgrad any more. Our hero Herman, working in Kharkiv, is summoned to the small town of his birth not far from the Russian border, when his brother, who runs a garage, has disappeared. He has a whole host of problems, including a less than reliable staff, officials who are after him and thugs who want to buy the garage and can be very unpleasant when people do not do what they want. We follow his adventures with smugglers, Shtundists, gypsies, nomadic Mongolians, aging football players, a secret train that goes nowhere, gypsies, punk farmers and a host of other characters, some of whom are friendly and some of whom are definitely not. Zhadan leaves us with the moral that your friends and family may be peculiar but when things go wrong they are the ones who will stick by you.
The latest addition to my website is Andriy Kokotiukha‘s Адвокат iз Личакiвської (The Lawyer from Lychakiv Street). It is set in 1908, primarily in Lviv, now in Ukraine but then called Lemberg and in the Austro-Hungarian empire, with a majority Polish-speaking population. Our hero is Klymentiy Nazarovych Koshovy, known as Klym, a lawyer from Kyiv, who had been arrested for subversive activities but had been freed thanks to the influence of his father and had decided to flee to Lviv, to stay with his friend, Genyk Soyka. However, when he arrives he finds Soyka dead, apparently a suicide but, in fact, a murder. Much of the book is his Sherlock Holmes-type investigation, involving murky Russia/Ukrainain/Austrian politics, terrorism and the murky underworld of Lviv, and with our hero, like Sherlock Holmes, always one step ahead of the police.
The latest addition to my website is Artem Chekh‘s Точка нуль (Absolute Zero). This is an account of Chekh’s time serving in the Ukrainian army during the War in Donbass when separatists, aided by Russia, tried to take over Eastern Ukraine. Though we do not see any actual fighting, the men are always ready and scared of snipers. Much of the account is how the soldiers coped with the hard life, how they adapted to it (or, in few cases, did not), corruption and incompetence in the upper ranks, how they felt that they could never win and the comradeship that developed between men of different social classes and from different parts of the country. Chekh tells his story well – it never gets boring – and we can only feel with the men that their task is futile.
I have just returned from a cruise down the Danube, into the Black Sea and up the Dnieper. Though this was not the purpose, there was a lot to see of literary interest.
Only a small part of the journey was in Romania but we did stop at Constanța. In Roman times, Constanța was known as Tomis and it is famous, as it is where Ovid was sent into exile. You can see his statue in the town square (to the left) in front of the Archaeological Museum.
Ovid’s exile is something of a mystery. It is not clear why he was exiled. He himself said it was because of carmen et error, i.e. a poem and a mistake. The poem was presumably his Ars Amatoria though this had been written seven years before and was certainly not the first obscene Roman poetry. Other reasons suggested included that Ovid discovered that the Emperor Augustus had committed incest with his daughter Julia or granddaughter, also called Julia, or that Ovid himself had had an affair with one or both.
There are further mysteries. It was customary for the family of an exile to be sent into exile with him. However, Ovid’s wife, Flavia, stayed in Rome. It was also customary for his fortune to be confiscated but Flavia kept her husband’s fortune. Finally, though we know that Ovid died in Tomis, no-one knows where he was buried.
From Constanța, we moved into Ukraine where our first stop was Izmail. Izmail is a pleasant town and, as it its name implies, it used to be Turkish. It is so small that it does not rate a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide to Ukraine. Its main claim to fame happned in 1790. During the Russo-Turkish War (1787–1792), the Turks tried to reclaim land lost to Russia.
The Turks had a huge fortress at Izmail. The boundary was seven kilometres. It had massive bastions, a ditch eleven metres deep, filled with water to the height of a human, and part of it was protected by the sea. To make things more difficult, the Sultan informed the garrison that any man who surrendered would be beheaded. General Suvorov, victor of over sixty battles, planned a nine-point attack. On the right,above, you can see a diorama of the battle, from the local museum, where we got an excellent, detailed commentary on the battle. After hard fighting, the Russians won and there were relatively few Turks left for the Sultan to behead.
The fortress was destroyed after the Crimean War, when the victorious Allies made Russia dismantle such fotreses, so there there is nothing left to see, though the museum where the diorama is housed, is, in fact, in a former mosque which was there a the time (see photo above left).
The battle may not appear in Lonely Planet but it does get a mention on my website, as Mikhail Shishkin used it as a title for one of his novels, though the battle did not feature in the book. Rather it is used a metaphor for overcoming life’s problems.
Byron mentioned the real battle in Cantos 7 and8 of Don Juan:
So much for Nature: — by way of variety,
Now back to thy great joys, Civilisation!
And the sweet consequence of large society,
War, pestilence, the despot’s desolation,
The kingly scourge, the lust of notoriety,
The millions slain by soldiers for their ration,
The scenes like Catherine’s boudoir at threescore,
With Ismail’s storm to soften it the more.
Odessa has had many occupiers and many names in its history but was occupied by the Russians in 1789 and finally became Odessa. Catherine the Great was determined to have an all-year sea port so Odessa was key to her strategy. There is a statue of her in the town with four men beneath her. Three of these men contributed to the development of Odessa. The fourth, Platon Zubov, contributed nothing but, like the other three, he was her lover, aged twenty-two when she was sixty.
For Westerners, Odessa may be most famous for the Odessa Steps and the scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Battleship Potemkin (named after one of the men on the statue mentioned above) where a pram roles down the steps, knocked by its mother after she falls, when shot by a Cossack. You can see a scene from it to the right, above and the whole sequence here.
Several famous writers were born in Odessa. They include the poet Anna Akhmatova, Leone Ginzburg, father of Natalia Ginzburg, Ilf and Petrov, Yury Olesha (born in nearby Elizavetgrad), Valentin Kataev and, in particular, Isaac Babel. He is known for his sharp humour, something Odessans still value and which they say comes from the Jewish population. Babel was and still is very much loved by Odessans. In English he is perhaps best-known for his short story collections Red Cavalry, which I can highly recommend. You can see a statue of him to the left. He was arrested in 1940 for being anti-Soviet, and shot.
Despite their own fine writers, Odessans are particularly fond of Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin spent thirteen months in exile in Odessa, where he wrote a lot including the first part of Eugene Onegin. There are two statues to Pushkin in the town. The one on the right is front of the Pushkin Museum. The other one is front of the Town Hall, but facing away from it. According to our guide, Odessans collected money for a statue but the town council refused to contribute, so the statue was built facing away from them. This is undoubtedly an urban legend, of which the Odessans are fond.
Pushkin is the only writer to have two statues in the town and the only writer to have his own museum. Anyone who has visited a museum or similar places in the Soviet Union or any of its successor states will be familiar with the imposing ladies who guard these institutions. insisting that you follow a set route and watching over you like a hawk to see that you do not take a photo or harm the exhibits. This was the case at several of the museums we visited though, I must say, the ladies at the Pushkin Museum were friendlier, doubtless because they were Pushkin devotees, eager to promote their hero.
The Pushkin Museum was located in the building where Pushkin lived and consisted of the furnishings, some of the books he owned (in English, French, Polish, Russian and Latin) and various other items. The captions were in Russian and Ukrainian but each room had a long blurb on the wall in English about the contents of the room. When one of the ladies found that I could speak some Russian, we were taken to a back room where they were about to have a concert. They were several portraits of Pushkin, his wife and four children and his parents and their families. There were also many photos of Pushkin statues around the world, including Asmara, Australia and New Jersey, as well as most of the major European capitals but not, I am ashamed to say, in London or elsewhere in the UK (though there is a Pushkin House (a place of meeting for people of all nationalities who are interested in Russian culture).
Though Pushkin is the only one to have his own museum in Odessa, there is a an Odessan Museum of Literature, devoted to writers associated with Odessa. I had not heard of most of them, but it was still fascinating to see the books, newspapers and magazines, photos and portraits relating to so many fine writers. The museum had a separate sculpture garden. The statue to the left above is of Ilf and Petrov and you can see the chair, representing their book Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) and the golden head of the calf, representing their book Золотой телёнок (The Little Golden Calf; The Golden Calf).
Kiev (Kyiv) is a capital city that is growing rapidly, with rows and rows of very tall blocks of flats, both those in use and those under construction.
As you can see above, there are writers whom we know as Russian, who are in fact Ukrainian. There are two very famous Russian writers who are, in fact, Ukrainian. The first is Nikolai Gogol. The second is Mikhail Bulgakov. That is him to the right.
Bulgakov lived in a house on Andriyivskyy Descent, a winding street in Kiev. His former house is now the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum, which is well worth a visit. It is set out not only as he and his family lived in it but as it was for the Turbins, the characters in his play The Days of the Turbins, which Stalin saw fifteen times and which is based on his novel Белая гвардия (The White Guard). The drawings on the tiles to the left, above are his.
At the bottom of the street is the One Street Museum. This is a museum devoted to the inhabitants of the street and while I had heard of none, except for Bulgakov, there were many academics, scientists and intellectuals who lived there. The museum is well laid out with a display for each notable family, including the Bulgakovs. The picture to the right is part of the Bulgakov display.
I visited the National Museum of Ukrainian Literature. There was only one other couple there while I was there. The museum was located in a former Collegium, presumably something like a high school for rich kids. As with other museums, the captions were in Russian and Ukrainian but each room, devoted to a specific period, had a description in English of the contents of the room. I am aware of two writers born in Kiev – there are undoubtedly many more – Ilya Ehrenburg and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.
The museum covered a range of periods, from very early medieval to early twentieth century. Some better-known writers such as Ivan Franko and Taras Shevchenko (there was a huge statue of him) featured prominently.
And to conclude, here is a statue of my favourite non-writer Ukrainian, Yaroslav the Wise, by the Golden Gate Museum. He seemed to be fairly ubiquitous. And it is a building, not a wedding cake that he is holding.
The latest addition to my website is Tanja Maljartschuk‘s Біографія випадкового чуда (A Biography of a Chance Miracle). The novel is about corruption, incompetence, inefficiency, brutality and indifference in contemporary Ukraine and uses a cynical approach to these problems. However, it is also about Lena, a Ukrainian woman, who, unlike most other Ukrainians (in her opinion) has a conscience and tries to stand up for the less fortunate, not always entirely successfully. This is Maljartschuk’s first novel in English and an excellent one it is too, showing both, with humour and a serious approach, the problems of modern-day Ukraine but the courage and, at times, foolhardiness of a young woman who tries to combat these problems. There are no easy answers – Lena struggles hard – but miracles can happen, as the title implies.
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