Category: Ukraine

Serhiy Zhadan: Ворошиловград (Voroshilovgrad)

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.

Andriy Kokotiukha: Адвокат iз Личакiвської (The Lawyer from Lychakiv Street)

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.

Artem Chekh: Точка нуль (Absolute Zero)

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.

Romania and Ukraine

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.

You can read more about Augustus in John Williams‘ novel Augustus. Quite a few novelists have written about Ovid and his exile. You can see my list of them here. Of the three that I have read, I particularly liked Christoph Ransmayr‘s Letzte Welt (The Last World).

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.

You can read the entire cantos here and here.

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.

Tanja Maljartschuk: Біографія випадкового чуда (A Biography of a Chance Miracle)

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.

Margarita Khemlin: Дознаватель (The Investigator)

The latest addition to my website is Margarita Khemlin‘s Дознаватель (The Investigator). This is a complicated murder mystery, set in Chernihiv (Chernigov in this book), Khemlin’s home town, in the Ukraine in the early 1950s. The eponymous investigator, Police Captain Mikhail Ivanovich Tsupkoy, is not Jewish but the victim, Lilia Vorobeichik, stabbed, and most of the people he deals with during the case are Jewish, as was Khemlin. The murderer is soon found. Her boyfriend, an actor, confesses and soon after kills himself, without leaving a note. However, Mikhail is not convinced and continues the investigation, getting more and more embroiled in the case and in the various activities of the Jewish population. Indeed, his involvement has a serious effect on his marriage, his job and his mental stability. Khemlin tells an excellent and complicated story with something of an unexpected outcome but also shows us the treatment of the Jews in Ukraine and the Soviet Union

Lesia Daria: Forty One


The latest addition to my website is Lesia Daria‘s Forty One. This is a novel by a woman born in the USA, of Ukrainian parents but currently living in the UK. Her heroine, Eva Holden, is, however, Polish, albeit with Ukrainian grandparents and living in the UK. Eva is an intelligent and educated woman but stuck at home with two young children while her husband, Harry, a lawyer, spends most of his time working in Eastern Europe. When he does phone, they often argue. They have a Plan, for Harry to make money with the good salary he is getting, free of UK tax, and then for him to come back to the UK as a partner in the law firm so that they can all live happily ever after. However, life is not so simple and Eva is resentful of being stuck in a house in Surrey. When her former French boyfriend appears on the scene, still interested, even though he is married, she is tempted. When they go to Poland for Christmas, another ex-boyfriend appears, also still interested and also married. At this point, things change dramatically for Eva and she struggles to cope with finding out what she really wants in life and how to get it. Daria tells her story very well and, from a slow start, we follow Eva as the randomness in her life (as she calls it) drags her further down and various unexpected life events disrupt her further.

Yuri Andrukhovych: Перверзія (Perverzion)


The latest addition to my website is Yuri Andrukhovych‘s Перверзія (Perverzion). This is a wonderful post-modern romp, telling the story of what may be the last week in the life of Stakh Perfetsky, poet, dandy, trickster, performer, traveller and, of course, lover. He is giving a speech at a conference in Venice called The Postcarnival Absurdity of the World:What is on the Horizon? From the very beginning we learn that he may have died, either by jumping into or being pushed into the canal. However, no body has been found. We follow his colourful journey to Venice, driven by a urologist and his wife, Ada Zitrone, whose family, like Sakh, were originally from the fictitious Chortopil (i.e. devil’s town). Ada is to act as his interpreter (and also spies on him). After his death/disappearance, the author has managed to amass a variety of documents, some by Stakh, some by others, which tell what he did in that last week, in particular, what happened at the conference. As a good Ukrainian poet, sex and drink take up much of his time. He also falls in love (with Ada) but is also fearful of death and that someone is after him. Andrukhovych mocks the participants, Venice, Ukrainian politics and Stakh, while telling a funny and thoroughly chaotic story of sex, love, politics, literature and the other finer things of life (and death). The good news is that his Дванадцять обручів looks set to appear in English translation next year as Twelve Circles/

Yuri Andrukhovych: Рекреації (Recreations)


The latest addition to my website is Yuri Andrukhovych‘s Рекреації (Recreations). This is a thoroughly enjoyable anarchic take on the first day of Festival of the Resurrecting Spirit in Chortopil (it means devil’s town). We follow four poets, who seem to be more interested in alcohol and sex than poetry. Two come by train – the gay Khomsky and the hope of Ukrainian poetry, Rostyslav Martofliak, while the other two manage to hitch a lift from an expatriate Ukrainian doctor, now living in Switzerland. The festival is partially based on the recreations of eighteenth century Kiev students, which involved dramatic and poetical performances. Once they get to the festival, they are more interested in drinking – seriously drinking – as well as eating and endless what Marta, Martofliak’s wife, calls prattling, on poetry, politics and people. But we do learn about expatriate Ukrainians, about the mass deportation of Ukrainians to Kazakhstan after the war and a lot about contemporary Ukrainian literature. However, above all, this is a witty, lively and rambunctious romp through a somewhat dubious festival and through at least part of what contemporary (i.e. mid-1990s) Ukrainian culture and life looks like.


Joseph Conrad, a Ukranian writer

Joseph Conrad, a Ukranian writer

John Dugdale, in the Guardian, has produced an interesting list of writers born in Ukraine but not usually associated with that country . It includes the likes of Gogol, Conrad, Lem, Lispector, Bulgakov and Isaac Babel, who is not on my site as he did not write any novels but who was a brilliant writer. I would add to his list Vasily Grossman, Ilf and Petrov and Jan Potocki, well outside the period of my site but whose Saragossa Manuscript is a superb work, which was made into a superb film by Wojciech Has. Though obviously not a writer, I would also add Sergei Prokofiev. When you add the writers that we know to be Ukrainian, it does seem to show that the country was a fertile literary breeding ground.

Backing the wrong horse - again

Backing the wrong horse – again

I am going to take the opportunity to comment on the current situation in Ukraine. Whatever you, I or John Kerry may think of Viktor Yanukovych, he was the democratically elected president. I do not often agree with Putin/Medvedev, but here they are right. The democratically elected president was kicked out of office by an unruly mob, some of which were/are right-wing nuts. What would we think if Obama was driven out by a Tea Party mob or Cameron driven out by a UKIP mob or Hollande kicked out by a mob of Le Pen supporters? We would be against it. (We, meaning normal rational people and not Ted Cruz, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen.) Something similar has been happening in Thailand and Cambodia though, so far, the democratically elected party has held onto power. Will we ever learn? No. Let us not forget Syria, Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, Chile, Zaire and many other examples from the past fifty years where the US, all too often backed by the pusillanimous UK government, has backed the wrong horse or failed to realise that the opponents of people we do not like are not necessarily saints but may well be just as bad as or even worse than the people we are trying to get rid off (Assad vs al-Qaida, for example). As George Santayana very wisely remarked Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Rant over. Back to real life – books.

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