A Castle Built on Sand? Ukrainian Literature and Crimea

By Stephen KomarnyckyjAugust 19, 2018

A Castle Built on Sand? Ukrainian Literature and Crimea
UKRAINIAN AUTHOR Vyacheslav Huk has the fixed stare of the Ancient Mariner as he tells me about the seizure of his Crimean birthplace. “I was in Kyiv when I saw those little Green Men with guns on the news,” he says. “Then crowds waved Russian flags in the streets I knew. It felt like part of me had died.” Vyacheslav, who is of Jewish, Russian, and Tatar descent and writes in Ukrainian, embodies the Crimean Peninsula’s glorious complexity. But in the past four years, the Putin regime’s annexation has imposed a simplistic Russian narrative on a landscape where Triremes once berthed. Unfortunately, the suppression of Crimea’s native Ukrainian culture has received far too little attention abroad.

This may be because Crimea “is often viewed through the lens of Russian nationalism,” suggests Ellie Knott, a British academic who has researched ethnicity in Crimea. She argues that this “creates the impression most Crimeans are Russian nationalists. However, prior to 2014, many didn’t identify simplistically as ethnically Russian and many refused to identify ethnically. There were also those who preferred to identify as Ukrainian citizens, or as both Ukrainian and Russian.” Tatars who identified as Ukrainian citizens are also part of this mosaic.

Putin’s mythological Russian Crimea is being violently imposed on this diverse population. Madeline Roache, a journalist reporting on the status of Crimean Tatars, notes that “arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture, and at least one execution are documented. Terror is supported through repression. Russia promised to make Crimean Tatar a state language but its use in education is increasingly restricted.” Russian-speakers who identify as Ukrainians are also targeted. Oleg Sentsov, a filmmaker and author, was tried in Russia on highly spurious charges of terrorism in 2015 and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

It is, however, the peninsula’s fragile Ukrainian-speaking community that faces the greatest threat. The very notion of Ukrainian identity is, according to Alexander Bogomolov and Oleksandr Lytvynenko’s paper for Chatham House, “meaningless, second-rate or blasphemous to a large number of Russians.” The notion that Ukrainians are deluded members of a single Russian people dominates Russia’s attitude toward Crimean Ukrainians. The number of students taught in Ukrainian in Crimea has declined by 97 percent since 2014, according to the UN. This attack on Ukrainian language and identity has dramatically transformed the situation of Ukrainian literature in Crimea, as well as how Ukrainian authors elsewhere regard the peninsula.

Like the Russian-born Anton Chekhov, one of Crimea’s most famous residents, Ukrainian authors who have written about the peninsula were, historically, not native Crimeans. Their encounter with the peninsula was, however, generally more complicated than that of Chekhov, who used it as a beautiful setting for “The Lady with the Little Dog” (1899). For instance, Lesia Ukrainka (1871–1913) provides a feminine take on the holiday romance Chekhov describes in her tale “By the Sea” (“Nad morem,” 1898). The opening paragraphs evoke the haunting desolation of this imperial playground. The sea’s tranquility is contrasted with the raucous soldiers at the Tsar’s summer retreat, Livadia Palace. The story focuses on a desultory friendship between its female narrator and Alla Mikhailivna, a young Russian. Alla has no profession and speaks contemptuously of the female Tatars she meets. Her banal romance symbolizes the emptiness of the lives of the Russian Empire’s disempowered noblewomen. Yet at the heart of the story is the suggestion that another way of being is possible beyond the roles imposed on women by imperial society. In the concluding paragraphs, Ukrainka imbues a beautifully sketched landscape with profound symbolic significance. The blend of exquisite lyricism, imagery, and metaphor calls to mind the ending of The Great Gatsby:

“It will be a dark night. The sea will burn,” said the sailor. And indeed a delicately blue phosphorescent band trembled beyond the stern, and the oars seemingly paddled in fire. I scooped the water in my hand casting it aloft, and a fantastic fountain of cold flame glittered. Dolphins splashed, battering geysers of light from the black surface and stars fell into the sea. The shore was invisible in the dark — only far, far away the communal fires burned like the Pleiades. The boundless sky seemingly spoke to the sea in words of flame and the sea sang its powerful, majestic, and eternal poem to the solemn night.

Mikhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864–1913) offers a similarly nuanced perspective on Crimea’s physical and cultural landscapes. “On Stone” (“Na kameni,” 1902), one of his wonderfully evocative Crimean tales, is a well-observed account of a patriarchal Tatar community, which is shaped by the arid landscape it occupies. Yet even this Crimea, to which Greeks and Turks sailed without visas, seems less isolated than today’s militarized peninsula.

Memet looked out to sea. “There will be a storm,” he said, without turning round. “The wind’s getting up. It’s catching the sails on the boat.”

The Tatars turned their heads to the waves.

The wind really was swirling the sails on a large black boat, which appeared to be turning towards the shore, blowing them till they tore from human hands like vast white birds: the boat listed and lay with its side against the delicately blue waves.

“It’s heading for us!” said Dzhepar. “I even recognize the boat, it’s the Greek bringing salt here.”

Ukrainka’s and Kotsiubynsky’s stories depict a colony hovering between modernity and a wealth of dying local traditions. The poet Pavlo Tychyna (1891–1967), by contrast, inscribed Crimea in a broader European context. In his “Crimean Cycle” (“Krymskyi tsykl,” 1927), the peninsula serves as home to Daphnis and Chloe, the lovers from Longus’s second-century Greek tale. The lyric in which they appear is entitled “Ai Petri,” after the Crimean mountain that bears the Greek name for St. Peter and thus neatly unites the pagan and Christian traditions of the peninsula:

It has been evening for a while
Outlines engraved in metal
Fires burning above
And cypresses entombed in silence.

And the poems’ nameless protagonist swims out sea, where she is lost, like one of the characters in the Finnish epic The Kalevala. Tychyna’s new Crimean myth, which includes autobiographic fragments, defies straightforward interpretation, but it locates Crimea at the heart of European culture. If for Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s national poet, Crimea was just another part of the empire, which “smelled” of Russia, for Ukrainian authors it was, like Heaney’s Ireland, “the ground possessed and repossessed.”

It is only after World War II that a truly indigenous Ukrainian literature began to emerge on the peninsula, thanks to an influx of Ukrainian immigrants. A prominent example is the work of the poet Svitlana Kocherha. She has now left Crimea, but her legacy — upheld by the students she taught in the Ukrainian Language department at Yalta University — remains. As she reports,

Ukrainian culture was strengthening very slowly in Crimea. The annexation was mainly resisted by young people who didn’t accept Russia’s political mythology. However, many Crimeans were comfortable with the imperial discourse. Ukrainian language education has fallen sharply and the Ukrainian faculty at Yalta University has closed. Ukrainian literature is still taught at Simferopol, but it is negligible. Nevertheless, one of my students, Denys Mokrentsov, will shortly publish his second collection of Ukrainian language poems in Crimea.

A small number of Ukrainian-language authors who are natives of the province are still published in the pages of the journal of the Crimean Writers’ Union. Their poetry often eschews difficult political issues and is affected by their isolation from the literary mainstream. Nevertheless, it evokes a richer landscape than that of Russian imperial mythology. Even the simple image of a totemic Ukrainian cherry tree in the shadow of a mosque presents a rebuttal to the Putinist conception of Crimea. But this is about as radical a gesture as Ukrainian Crimean authors can allow themselves. Sadly, in order to escape the crippling restrictions on their self-expression, they may have to emigrate.

This was certainly the case for Huk, one of the most notable Crimeans writing in Ukrainian, who had to come to Kyiv in order to engage with the peninsula imaginatively. The title of his 2013 collection, Krymskyi Elehiyi (Crimean Elegies), anticipates the 2014 annexation. Huk grew up in the predominantly Russian-speaking community of Saky; for him, writing in Ukrainian is both an artistic and political choice. He sees Ukrainian as a vehicle for importing European literary modes into his verse. His poems allude to Scandinavian and German artists, presenting the Crimean seascape through the prism of North European culture. The poem “Arnold Schönberg” relocates the Austrian-American composer to a Crimean seascape:

You believed in the fragility of the sea, and female hands,
Your car ran smoothly along the shore, the sea’s sound
Muffling the clumsy noise of its motor.
The sand was too white, reminiscent of the first snow.

The coast extended to where they built the lighthouse,
And the cape looked into the sea, where a seagull flirted,
And you, cigarette squeezed tightly in your fingers, smoked,
Until only the filter remained between your lips.

And, of course, this aesthetic choice carries political implications: Ukrainian, unlike Russian, emerges as a distinctly European language, belonging to a distinctly European realm.

If Crimea had remained in Ukraine, it is likely that Ukrainian Crimean literature would have put down deeper roots and tackled wider themes. Nevertheless, Ostap Slyvynsky, a poet and member of Ukrainian PEN’s board, argues that this stymied literary tradition is more significant than it might appear. He emphasizes “striking literary examples of Ukrainian nostalgia for Crimea by authors from outside the peninsula. Svitlana Povaliaieva’s collection Pislia Krymu (After Crimea), for example, evokes the feeling that part of Ukraine’s identity has been amputated.”

However, Yana Dubynianska, a Russian-language author from Feodosiya who now lives mainly in Kyiv but often returns to Crimea, notes that Ukrainian identity is more political than linguistic. “I don’t want to speculate about the language question,” she says. “Russian is a language of democratic Ukraine. Crimea fell victim to Russian aggression for military and political, rather than linguistic, reasons.” For her, the main issue facing writers in Crimea is “provincialism” and cultural isolation. Dubynianska’s work reflects and responds to Ukraine’s own native Russian-language culture, whose most prominent literary representative is the international best-selling author Andrey Kurkov.

Unfortunately, Kurkov remains a rare exception. Ukrainian writers, whatever language they use, rarely gain a platform outside of their country. The West’s failure to hear Ukraine’s literary voice and understand the consequences of the annexation of Crimea has geopolitical repercussions. Maxim Butchenko, a Luhansk miner turned writer, says that the annexation “opened the war for hybrid aggression elsewhere. The technology deployed in Crimea was subsequently utilized in the US presidential election and Britain’s EU referendum.” The writer Sergei Fursa says that “Putin affected the destiny of thousands when he seized Crimea. But Auntie Clara from Yalta who greeted the Russian troops enthusiastically now has no tourists and is broke. Those who believed his promises are now silent.” Indeed, many Russian Crimeans are now disillusioned. The peninsula’s once thriving resorts stand empty.

For Kocherha, the Ukrainian Crimea that had been her home was a “castle built on sand.” But it may yet return. Putin’s Crimea is struggling, if not crumbling, economically, and is barely able to supply itself with water. If his regime abandons its imperial dream, Crimean literature may thrive again and escape its provincialism. In the meantime, the unique landmarks of the peninsula’s fragile Ukrainian literary tradition should be made available to readers worldwide.


Stephen Komarnyckyj is a poet and literary translator. His translations of popular and literary Ukrainian fiction and original poetry are published by Kalyna Language Press.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Komarnyckyj is a poet and literary translator whose work has appeared in Index on Censorship, Modern Poetry in Translation, and many other journals. He is the recipient of two PEN awards and his verse has been described as articulating “what it means to be human” (Sean Street). His translations of popular and literary Ukrainian fiction and original poetry are published by Kalyna Language Press.


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