Ukraine at 30, Part II: An Abundance of Emptiness

August 23, 2021

How do you know that you love your homeland properly? Why would a war draw you back to the place you tried to escape in peacetime? What does it mean to inhabit a language that comes with political baggage?

Three women authors who were born just before their country’s rebirth reflect on belonging, identity, and displacement. Olesya Khromeychuk, Sasha Dovzhyk, and Iryna Shuvalova come from different parts of Ukraine — west, southeast, and center — but their texts are replete with shared experiences. All three left Ukraine to live elsewhere, but their essays are declarations of uneasy love for the country they left behind.

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“The steppe is what is not there. There are no mountains, no woods, no lakes. There’s nothing but a shameless disc, above which shimmers a mystical, sparkling mist.”

— Maik Yohansen, The Journey of the Learned Doctor Leonardo (1929), translated by Uilleam Blacker

My issue with assimilation in England boils down to a single letter: ж (zh). A good friend, herself a foreigner in London, once told me that ж was more of a drawing than a letter. Preceded by another consonant in the middle of my surname, it’s an assault on an off-guard anglophone’s organs of speech and mother wit. Things get trickier if I try to clarify “where I am from.” The fact is, I am from an industrial city in the southeast of Ukraine called Запоріжжя (Zaporizhzhia). That’s two drawings in one word. An ice breaker or a deal breaker, depending on the sense of humor of my interlocutors.

When I first came to London to obtain my second Master’s degree, I didn’t wear the Zaporizhzhian badge of honor. I enrolled in a Victorian Studies program — Ukraine was odd enough of a birthplace to reveal to my peers. We went for a pint in a Bloomsbury pub that was older than the oldest building in my city and I wished I too could learn to mispronounce its name. Among the aspiring Victorianists, I felt robbed: of Heritage, of Culture, of History and its quirky, haptic physicality weaved into the texture of the everyday. There is nothing like that in the place I am “from.” Indeed, the vast amount of nothingness is what distinguishes the region.

Zaporizhzhia is a city embedded in the southern Ukrainian steppe. Imagine windy plains, with hot summers and cold winters, too dry to support forest growth, covered with sharp grasses that stick from the earth like blades. Imagine long-gone nomads who used to navigate around the land, from the Scythians to the Khazars and the Golden Horde. Around the 16th century, this territory entered Polish-Lithuanian chronicles under the learned Latin designation Loca Deserta, or “wild fields.” Under western eyes, the windswept terrain was empty and the daredevils who roamed it, wild. The Tatars of the Crimean Khanate and the runaway Ukrainian peasants-turned-Cossacks glided over the wuthering grassland for several hundred years until its 18th-century colonization by the Russian Empire. The Zaporizhzhian Cossacks’ proto-state was demolished and a fortress built in its stead, serving for the defense of the Empire’s southern frontier. By the early 20th century, the place was home to Mennonite settlers and Jewish traders, machine-building industrialists and industrious farmers, striking workers and political agitators. This late-imperial town was busy piling up factories in the heart of Loca Deserta, driving the entropy out of the steppe.

The two World Wars released the anarchic energies implanted in the landscape. Between 1917 and 1921, the region was fought over by the Red and White Armies, German-Austrian troops, forces of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and local peasant insurgents who opposed all of the above. The civil war was won by the Bolsheviks. Zaporizhzhia became a key center of Stalin’s galloping industrialization and the construction site of DniproHES, Europe’s most potent hydroelectric power station, which was to electrify the local metallurgical plants as well as the industries of the neighboring Donbas region. Work at the construction also provided refuge for peasants fleeing Stalin’s man-made famine in Ukrainian villages, known in Ukraine as Holodomor; in 1932-33, it claimed close to four million lives.

During the years preceding World War II, the “wild fields” of southeastern Ukraine, with their rich black soil, captured Adolf Hitler’s imagination. American historian Timothy Snyder calls Hitler an “ecological anarchist” whose Generalplan Ost aimed at conquering those fertile lands as “living space” for the Aryan race. The territory of Ukraine was to be deurbanized, depopulated, and colonized by German farmers. Over the course of the war, Ukraine lost seven million of its citizens, including close to a million Jews, but Hitler’s Aryan pastoral was prevented from coming to fruition.

The failure of the Nazis to take root in the land taps into the mythopoetics of the steppe. Written by the eastern Ukrainian author Serhiy Zhadan and set in the now-occupied region of Luhansk, the 2010 novel Voroshilovgrad (the city’s Soviet name) constantly evokes the scars inflicted on the place by the last big war. In hindsight, it anticipates the war that would unfold there four years after the novel’s publication. As a native of the region, Zhadan is granted access to the desert-like, surrealist landscape with the off-center carcass of the Soviet project rusting in the noonday heat. He describes a region whose demons and mirages had passed unnoticed by the overriding western voices in Ukrainian culture. One of Zhadan’s sidekick characters — an amateur student of history and a connoisseur of moonshine — speculates about the steppe as a void (in the 2016 translation by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler):

“And when you finally find yourself here,” Ernst said, his finger circling in the air, “you get this eerie feeling, your realize how good you had it until then, because here, right on the other side of the nearest fence, as soon as you get three hundred meters away from the railroad tracks, everything you thought you knew about war, about Europe, about landscapes, is nullified, because endless emptiness begins right on the other side of that fence, emptiness without content, form, or connotation. It’s real absolute emptiness, and there’s nothing to hold on to.”

For me, there was nothing to hold on to in Zaporizhzhia. Like most Ukrainian families, mine was a product of displacement perpetrated by two totalitarian regimes. Jewish survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust and Slavic survivors of Stalin’s collectivization with some rebels, martyrs, and collaborators thrown into the mix met at the postwar construction site of communism and survived that as well. I, however, wasn’t interested in surviving Zaporizhzhia. Its chemical, steel, and machine-building plants, its thermal, nuclear, and hydro power stations, its scorching summer sun and the red-eyed proletariat insulted my aesthetic sensibilities. The city was a smoking pile of toxic waste. I was a self-obsessed and queer melancholic. We parted ways, the city and I, both of us ignorant and lost.

Like the protagonist of Voroshilovgrad, I had “no trouble letting go of emptiness” and ran away to the capital at the first opportunity. Kyiv’s relentless clutter of forms and styles spoke to me of generations that could afford to construct things slightly more refined than a blast furnace. Greedily, I cluttered my head with courses on the History and Theory of Culture, something the sparse Zaporizhzhian landscape seemed reluctant to produce. After two years behind university walls, I moved further away to London to study the Victorians: the genteel dust on their first editions was worlds apart from the anthracite fallouts on my windowsill at home. When I came back for a gap year between my Master’s and my PhD, prepared to be bored and disconnected, a revolution broke out, followed by the war.

How does Zhadan put it? “Even this territory, it turns out, may be desirable, […] it turns out, this old train station and an empty summer panorama are enough for love.”

Two things occurred between my volunteering in military hospitals and drinking inconsiderately in the company of PTSD-afflicted friends during the summer of 2014. First, I grew used to calculating how long it would take the Russian army to reach Zaporizhzhia with its vital rail and road connections to annexed Crimea. Second, I stopped craving an escape. It is surprising what the prospect of losing your home to the imperialist fit of a neighboring country can do to your sense of the very place you scorned and fled.

On a hot day in July 2014, I was sitting with my mother at the shore of the Azov Sea, the shallow appendage of the Black Sea not yet cut off from us by Russia, watching military planes hover over the water. We had read about a passenger flight hit by a missile over the fields in eastern Ukraine. The world as we knew it was ending in slow motion. We were learning how to be at home in the unknown. Behind us was the steppe, the vast and troubled sea of emptiness, no longer speaking of abandonment but reminding us of a freedom worth defending.

The Russian onslaught paused 200 kilometers away from Zaporizhzhia, having devoured “Voroshilovgrad” and much of the Donbas region, displaced nearly 1.5 million people, and ended 14 thousand lives. The war has taught me that I was not as glamorously rootless as imagined. I left Ukraine for the UK to learn my own nomadic ways. As Rebecca Solnit reassures me in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, “nomads, contrary to current popular imagination, have fixed circuits and stable relationships to places.” I move in circles too. I fly to London and return, like a vintage yo-yo, to the dusty city I call home.

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I dream of fire only to wake up in a room full of smoke. It takes me a minute to realize that I’m home and the air is thick with toxic exhaust from the factories. My windowsill shines with a layer of anthracite in the morning: I am in the city of miracles. The miraculous fills the distance between myself and the hot-pink horizon. Sun rays stick to the dust, making it shimmer with a refreshing absence of hope. There is a lost revolution up north, a war to the east, a tortured land to the south, but I am neither claustrophobic nor lost. I breathe in the colorful air — my body is instantly filled with the entire periodic table of elements. The shimmering begins. I exhale and break free.

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See Part I: “How to Love Your Homeland Properly” by Olesya Khromeychuk.

See Part III: “The ‘Mova’ I Live In” by Iryna Shuvalova.

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Sasha Dovzhyk is a Ukrainian writer and scholar based in London. She holds a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She has co-edited a scholarly volume of Aubrey Beardsley’s Decadent writings, forthcoming with Modern Humanities Research Association, and has written on topics as diverse as the legacies of Chernobyl and transnational decadent aesthetics for various publications, including The Ecologist, British Art Studies, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. She was recently featured as an expert on Lesia Ukrainka in the short film Fin de Siècle Ukrainian Feminism, produced by the Ukrainian Institute London. You can visit her at her website: sashadovzhyk.com

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Photograph by Nicola Roper.