It is July 1, 1899, and Julie Manet is navigating the crooked streets and alleys of Paris’ disreputably bohemian Pigalle district. Her destination is the studio of Edgar Degas, who is said to be working on a sensational new series of pastels. Degas has become something of a recluse in recent years, what with his fading eyesight and misanthropic insistence that no true artist can possess a private life of any kind, but Mlle Manet is the daughter of two of Degas’ fellow impressionists (Eugène Manet and Berthe Morisot), the niece of Édouard Manet, a frequent model for Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and an accomplished painter in her own right, making her more willing than most to intrude upon Degas’ carefully guarded privacy. Arriving at 37 rue Victor Massé, she gives a rap at the door and braces herself, only to be met with an unexpectedly cordial greeting — “I’m going to show you some orgies of color that I am making at the moment” — before being ushered into a cluttered, ill-lit attic studio. This is a rare privilege, for Degas rarely reveals his works in progress. Writing in her diary later that day, Julie describes the scene:
He pulled out three pastels representing women in Russian costumes with flowers in their hair, pearl necklaces, white blouses, skirts in lively hues and red boots who dance in an imaginary landscape that is realistic. Their movements are wonderfully drawn and the costumes beautifully colored. In one the figures are illuminated by a pink sun, in another the dresses are less precisely rendered, and in the third the sky is clear, the sun has just vanished behind a hill and the dancers stand out in the half-light. The quality of the whites against the sky is marvelous; the effect so true; this last picture is perhaps the most beautiful of the three, the most engaging, it is extraordinary, quite thrilling.
These are virtuoso compositions that have been arranged for Mlle Manet’s delectation, just as dynamic as their subject matter, and just as vibrant, owing to Degas’ thick, almost sculptural layering of the pastels, and his avoidance of casein-based fixatives, the better to show off the sumptuous colors of the dancers’ flowing garments and natural setting.
The series would not be limited to the three pieces Julie Manet encountered that summer’s day in 1899, and over the coming months, Degas would produce 18 related works that we know of: six finished pastel-over-charcoal studies, eight charcoal or pastel and charcoal studies, and four more unfinished panels. It is clear that Degas was positively infatuated with these folk dancers, much as he had been with the ballerinas who inspired his most celebrated works, and it is surprising to find that the first recorded sale of these enchanting drawings did not take place until May of 1918 when the Galerie Georges Petit put one of them up for posthumous auction under the title Ballet Russe (Trois Danseuses). Eventually, museum curators and connoisseurs would realize the value of these pastels, which were snapped up by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery in London, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, as well as various private collections, appearing under titles like Russian Dancer, Russian Dancers, or Three Russian Dancers.
When these drawings were first introduced to the wider public, it was assumed that they dated from 1909, the year Sergei Diaghilev organized the Saison Russe at the Théâtre du Châtelet, and the year Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov was staged at the Paris Opera. Based on this incorrect premise, the British art dealer Lillian Browse proposed in 1949 that Degas’ dancers were performing “Le Hopak” from the Ballets Russes production of Le Festin, while the Galerie Charpentier’s 1954 catalogue countered that “cette scène aurait été peinte par Degas au moment d’une représentation de Boris Goudounow, à l’Opéra de Paris [this scene would have been painted by Degas at the time of a performance of Boris Godunov at the Paris Opera].” We know from Julie Manet’s diaries, however, that these compositions are from an entire decade earlier, and thus have nothing to do with the preeminent ballerinas performing at the Châtelet or the Paris Opera, but were instead inspired by humble folk dancers like those who appeared at the Exposition Russe Hippique et Ethnographique on the Champs de Mars in 1895, or the members of the Troupe Pierre Newsky who took the stage at the Folies Bergère the following year.
It seems plainly apparent, albeit with the admitted benefit of hindsight, that Degas’ ecstatic, uninhibited peasant dancers stomping about in freshly cut fields are not lissom Russian ballerinas performing Le Festin or Boris Godunov in luxurious, gas-lit Parisian theaters. Indeed — and this is not a minor point — they are not even Russian, and the azure blue and golden yellow flowers and ribbons entwined in some of their headdresses and garlands suggest an obvious alternative nationality. Yet it took until 1987 for the art historian Lisa Bixenstine to establish that Degas’ “Russian dancers” are in fact Ukrainian, an assessment she “based upon the essential features of their costumes,” namely that “while there were some variations in the dress, notably, distinct variations in embroidery from district to district, certain features comprised the standard Ukrainian folk dress for women — a white muslin blouse (for festive occasions it was made of linen or silk), a colored skirt, called a sarafan, an apron, hair flowers and ribbon, and beads and boots, called chereviki, made of red leather,” outfits precisely like those depicted in Degas’ pastels, and differing markedly from, say, the richly brocaded costumes of the central Russian peasantry.
Bixenstine also offered convincing evidence of a late 19th-century French mania for specifically Ukrainian folkways. The cover of the Christmas 1894 issue of L’Illustration, for example, was graced with an image of folk dancers performing “La Danse Petite-Russienne” (the description using a French translation of the condescending Russian term for Ukrainians at the time, “Little Russians”), while an 1896 edition of the Album du Monde Illustré featured photographs of the “type de fiancée de L’Ukraine.” The journalist Victor Tissot similarly included illustrations of a women’s circle dance in an 1898 account of his travels in Ukraine, and most intriguingly of all, it was around this same time that the Ukrainian writer Boris Grintchenko’s French-language pamphlet Une Nation Opprimée: La Nation Ukrainienne ou Ruthène (1895) was raising awareness of Russia’s brutal censorship of Ukrainian language and culture, as well as describing a (temporary) recent thaw that had allowed Ukrainians to speak their mother tongue and practice their rites a bit more freely.
“Perhaps the appearance of Ukrainian folk dance troupes in Paris during the last half of the 1890s,” Bixenstine reasonably suggested, “can be explained, in part, by the new freedom there to express their native culture unrestricted.” Degas’ interest in popular Ukrainian folk dance thus “shows him to be a man of his times,” drawn as he was to the authentic and naturalistic elements of an imperiled but resilient Ukrainian peasant culture, in the very same way that Paul Gaugin was drawn to traditional aspects of Breton and Polynesian everyday life. Degas’ pastels, it turns out, are artifacts of a Ukrainian fin de siècle cultural renaissance, a time when Prosvita (“Enlightenment”) cultural societies and reading rooms were being opened throughout western Ukraine and beyond when Ivan Franko was producing literary masterpieces like Zakhar Berkut, Stolen Happiness, The Death of Cain, and Withered Leaves, when innovative modernist poets like Lesya Ukrainka and Olha Kobylianska were active, and when Ukrainian dance troupes fanned out across Europe with the aim of broadcasting and preserving their age-old folkways. Yet when European and American art dealers, collectors, and curators encountered these works in 1918, and for decades to come, all they saw were “Russian dancers.”
Earlier this month, a spokesperson for London’s National Gallery announced that Degas’ Russian Dancers (inventory no. NG6581), part of the museum’s main collection, would henceforth be known as Ukrainian Dancers: “The title of this painting has been an ongoing point of discussion for many years and is covered in scholarly literature; however there has been increased focus on it over the past month due to the current situation so therefore we felt it was an appropriate moment to update the painting’s title to better reflect the subject of the painting.” The decision was welcomed by Ukrainian cultural figures like Mariia Kashchenko, who noted that “the term ‘Russian art’ became an easy umbrella term which was useful but it’s really important now to get things right.” It is a small change, but an important one that acknowledges a wider cultural and geopolitical reality while helping to right a century-old wrong.
There is certainly an element of laziness at work when such misidentifications take place. Olesya Khromeychuk, the director of the Ukrainian Institute in London, has taken issue with how
Every trip to a gallery or museum in London with exhibits on art or cinema from the USSR reveals deliberate or just lazy misinterpretation of the region as one endless Russia; much like the current president of the Russian Federation would like to see it. The curators have no problem presenting Jewish, Belarusian or Ukrainian art and artists as Russian. On a rare occasion when a Ukrainian is not presented as Russian, he or she might be presented as “Ukrainian-born” as was the case with the film director, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, in one of the major exhibitions on revolutionary art in London.
There are countless examples of this unfortunate tendency which, as Khromeychuk noted, is by no means limited to Ukrainian artists. Take Mischa Spoliansky, the composer who made his name writing revue songs in Weimar Germany, and whose orchestral works, including the stirring movement “And New Life Blooms from the Ruins,” were recently recorded by the Liepāja Symphony Orchestra. Google his name and you will learn that he was a “Russian composer,” or a “Russian-born composer,” a curious description of a man who was born to Jewish parents in Białystok, located in what is now northeastern Poland, who studied and worked in Dresden, Prussian Königsberg, and Berlin, and who moved to London due to Nazi persecution, living out the rest of his days as a naturalized British citizen. Spoliansky could never have guessed that he would be known to posterity simply as a “Russian composer,” any more than Degas’ peasants would have thought of themselves simply as “Russian dancers.”
Mind you, this blindspot is not always the result of “lazy misinterpretation.” Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian museum curator and co-author of Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasure (1995), recently explained to Deutsche Welle that “a few years ago, I spoke to the director of a large German museum and tried to convince him to organize Ukrainian exhibitions and generally make joint programs with Ukraine,” but the director was unwilling to move forward with any projects on the grounds that “his Russian colleagues would not work with him if he did something with Ukraine.” As with Chinese interference in exhibits relating to Mongolian history, Russia has been willing to exert its influence to isolate Ukrainian cultural institutions, and thereby Ukrainian culture itself, when it is not engaged in the outright plundering of Ukrainian museums, as occurred after the 2014 Crimean takeover, that is.
The Putin regime insists, contrary to all evidence, that Ukrainian independence is no more than a fleeting historical accident.
Russia presently finds itself in the iron grip not just of Putinism, but of a fanatically nationalistic ideology often referred to in Ukraine as “Ruscism.” Unable to accept that, in the words of Ivan Gomza, “Ukraine has deviated from the Russian autocratic pan-Slavonic project,” the Putin regime insists, contrary to all evidence, that Ukrainian independence is no more than a fleeting historical accident, and that Ukrainian culture is inseparable and indistinguishable from that of Russia. It would be one thing if this chauvinism was confined to Kremlin strategy rooms and state-controlled newspaper columns, but it has now spilled over into Ukraine’s territory, engendering a conflict with increasingly genocidal characteristics, as entire Ukrainian cities are erased from the map and civilian populations are subjected to barbaric campaigns of ethnic cleansing. But if the intention was for this invasion to increase Russia’s influence in Ukraine, it must be counted as a spectacular failure. Writing in the Ukrainian online literary magazine Chytomo, the critic Oleh Kotsarev examined the “bizarre historical paradox” in which:
Putin and his minions (as well as those who are silent and turn a blind eye), with their bombs and rockets, the killing of children and pregnant women, the old and young, women and men, destruction of symbols and heritage, transportation and infrastructure are cultivating a sincere and fiery hatred of Russia and Russians among largely Russian-speaking Kharkiv and other cities that just yesterday were their most sincere friends and sympathizers,” giving rise to the “not so funny joke that we Ukrainians should one day erect a monument to Putin for having done more than most anyone else to unite and strengthen Ukraine internally.
Just as iron sharpeneth iron, Russia’s outrageous behavior has only further honed Ukrainian identity. As a consequence, we see the famous theater formerly known as the Alexander Pushkin Kharkiv State Academic Russian Drama Theater declaring that:
In this difficult time for our country and our people, when the Russian occupier has invaded our land, is destroying our cities and villages, killing civilians, including children; when our beautiful Kharkiv is completely destroyed by Russian Grad rockets, only because it greeted the occupiers with strong selfless resistance instead of flowers, bread and salt, proving that Kharkiv is Ukraine; we, the staff of the Kharkiv Pushkin Theater, believe it is necessary to change the statute and name of our theater by removing the word “Russian.” From now on, the theater will be called the Alexander Pushkin Kharkiv State Academic Drama Theater.
Going a step further, the western Ukrainian cities of Ternopil and Mukachevo have taken down Soviet-era statues of Pushkin himself on the grounds that they constitute the residua of cultural imperialism, and that Pushkin as a literary figure has no particular significance in those regions of Ukraine. It should be noted that Pushkin only referred to Ukraine as “Little Russia” in his works, and in his narrative poem Poltava denigrated the Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa as a “wicked,” “heinous” “traitor” with “no motherland,” a man whose “treacherous flame will never dim,” making him an unconvincing role model in these fervently patriotic times.
Kyiv City Council secretary Volodymyr Bondarenko, meanwhile, has announced name changes coming to various sites in the Ukrainian capital, including Moskovska (Moscow) Street, Heroiv Stalinhrada (Heroes of Stalingrad) Street, Druzhby Narodiv (People’s Friendship) Boulevard, and the Minska (Minsk) station on the Obolonsko–Teremkivska line. The acclaimed Ukrainian novelist Andrei Kurkov, author of the best-selling Death and the Penguin and most recently Grey Bees, has commented on this campaign of de-Russification in his deeply affecting New Yorker essay “The Archaeology of War”: “I am sad to think that, after the war, when children are given the option to study Russian at school, they will flatly refuse and say, ‘The Russians killed my grandfather!’ or ‘The Russians killed my little sister!’ It will surely happen. And it will happen in a country where a third of the population speaks mostly Russian at home, where there are several million ethnic Russians like me.” This instinct is only natural in light of the ongoing outrages being perpetrated in the name of the so-called Russkiy Mir, or “Russian World,” and the openly genocidal de-Ukrainianization program being advocated in the Russian halls of power and state-run media.
Renaming Degas’ Russian Dancers, removing the term “Russian” from the Pushkin Theater’s name, taking down Pushkin statues, renaming streets in Kyiv, refusing to study Russian in Ukrainian schools — I am sure there are those who consider such symbolic measures to be evidence of “Russophobia” and “cancel culture.” Putin himself even took time out of his busy schedule orchestrating war crimes to bemoan cancel culture (“they are trying to cancel a thousand-year-old country”) and to liken his country’s plight to that of J.K. Rowling, while others in the West express concerns that innocent Russians and their highly regarded culture are being unfairly blamed for Putin’s depredations. Of course, orchestras should feel free to perform Shostakovich’s discordant symphonies, though whether audiences are willing to stomach compositions dedicated to Lenin and Stalin, or submitted in honor of the Red Army, remains to be seen. And it is entirely appropriate to object to, for instance, the University of Milano-Bicocca rector’s recommendation, since rescinded, to postpone a lecture on Dostoevsky so as “to avoid any controversy, especially internally, during a time of strong tensions.”
Such reticence is, of course, unnecessary. By all means, teach students about Dostoevsky, though make sure to discuss the four years he spent doing hard labor in a katorga prison camp, a sentence he earned for his opposition to censorship, serfdom, and other forms of tyranny. (Criticizing the Russian government these days will get you 15 years in prison.) By all means, teach students about Tolstoy, and include his courageous 1901 letter to Czar Nicholas II, a missive criticizing “the cruel religious oppression practiced in your name, [which] besides doing harm to yourself in the opinion of people and the opinion of Europe, and the judgment of history, lays upon you a tormenting responsibility.” (That would also get you 15 years.) Or teach students about Varlam Shalamov, who somehow survived his extended imprisonment in the forced labor camps of Kolyma, and later asked the question that remains pertinent in today’s Russia: “Is the destruction of human beings with the help of the state not the main issue of our time, of our morality?”
But we could also teach students about Ukrainian writers like Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko, or about the dissident poet Vasyl Symonenko, author of “People Are Beautiful,” which was recently recited rather beautifully by Ukrainian-American actress Vera Farmiga, and who elsewhere warned about the “churchyard of executed illusions”:
Tremble, murderers, think, grovelers,
Life is no handle for your sledge.
Do you hear? In the churchyard of illusions
Already there’s no room for the graves.
Already the nation is one massive wound,
Already the earth grows savage from the blood.
A thin rope already awaits
Each hangman and each tyrant.
(We can certainly hope.) There are other dissident Ukrainian poets worthy of mention, such as Mykhaylo Osadchy, who was repeatedly jailed and then exiled by the Soviet authorities, producing along the way a masterful memoir, Cataract, along with collections of poetry including The Moonlit Field, Quos Ego, and The Scythian Altar. And then there is the Odesa-born Russian-language novelist Irina Ratushinskaya, author of Grey Is the Color of Hope and The Odessans, who was convicted for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime” and sentenced to seven years in a strict regime labor camp, where she spent an entire year in solitary confinement, struggling to survive in an unheated cell where the temperatures routinely fell to 40 degrees below zero. I could go on, but it suffices to say that I agree with Claudia Roth, Germany’s commissioner for culture and the media, who in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, urged German cultural institutions to “show more Ukrainian art and culture,” and also to showcase dissident Russian and Belarusian artists, given that “many people in Russia are raising their voices, condemning the attack on Ukraine.”
It is entirely understandable that Russian bleating about cancel culture has been met with Ukrainian scorn, particularly as their own country is being torn to shreds. The Ukrainian novelist Victoria Amelina — currently working in a Lviv aid warehouse — lamented in her Eurozine essay “Cancel culture vs. execute culture” how “not only must we witness the mass murder and destruction of our Ukrainian heritage, but also, on the side, the debate about whether the world should cut cultural ties with Russia. I have nothing to add to this Russia-centric discussion; I just want it to stop.” While Putin rants about J.K. Rowling, and Moscow billboards read “Some countries have decided not to play Shostakovich. We decided that Vivaldi’s music is always wonderful. Culture cannot be canceled,” Ukrainian cultural figures like Oleg Sentsov, Artem Chekh, and Artem Chapaye are risking death each day serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine, while the poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan chose to remain in besieged Kharkiv. The prize-winning writer Volodymyr Vakulenko and his son have been taken into Russian custody in the city of Izium, and while their fates remain unknown, we do know that other writers, including Nadia Agafonova, Yuriy Ruf, and Dmytro Evdokimov, have all lost their lives at the hands of the Russian invaders.
In her scathing essay, Victoria Amelina took particular issue with Mikhail Bulgakov’s oft-quoted maxim that “manuscripts don’t burn,” a line delivered by Voland in The Master and Margarita. (And again it should be noted here that Bulgakov notoriously referred to Ukrainian as “a vile language that does not exist in the world,” rendering his pronouncements on culture automatically suspect among Ukrainians.) “Russian manuscripts don’t burn; that might be true,” wrote Amelina, but “Ukrainians can only laugh bitterly. It’s imperial manuscripts that don’t burn; ours do.” “Have you ever read The Woodsnipes by the Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylovy?” she continues. “Nor have I,” and this is because
Russians destroyed the second part of Khvylovy’s manuscript, confiscating all the copies of the Ukrainian magazine that featured it. Not a single copy was ever found. The magazine was confiscated in 1933, the same year that Khvylovy died in Kharkiv. At that time, Ukrainians around the city had had all their food confiscated by the regime. Millions died in the Holodomor, which is now recognized as a genocide. The “lesser” crime of confiscating the magazine and destroying another work of Ukrainian literature went unnoticed for years. Most of those who would know about it were executed. Ukrainian lives, paintings, museums, libraries, churches and manuscripts do burn. They are burning now. So maybe it is time to shift the debate from whether the world should “forgive” Russian imperial art and literature, to how to prevent one of Europe’s cultures from becoming another Executed Renaissance. I was never a fan of Cancel Culture. But maybe the Execute Culture that Russians have repeatedly practiced on free Ukrainians is something the world would like to stop before it’s too late again.
The attempted Soviet erasure of Ukrainian culture, later known as the Chervonyi Renesans or “Executed Renaissance,” may have been a figurative execution, but the deaths of Soviet-era writers like Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Vasyl Symonenko, and Volodymyr Svidzinskyi, the deaths of ballerinas like the 23-year-old Vera Goroshko, the deaths of bardic kobzars and bandurists like Hryhoriy Andriychyk, Ivan Boretz, and Ivan Kucherenko, the deaths of scholars like Hnat Khotkevych, and the deaths of hundreds of thousands more besides — all those were very real, as are the massacres and extrajudicial executions once again being carried out on Ukrainian soil. (READ MORE BY MATTHEW OMOLESKY: There Is Still Time to Safeguard the Heritage of Ukraine)
Victoria Amelina’s question — “Have you ever read The Woodsnipes?” — takes on a haunting significance in this current climate of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and physical and cultural genocide. She understands that manuscripts can and do burn, and that, pace Bulgakov, books in particular constitute an eminently flammable material. We could add a few pointed questions of our own. Would you like to visit the Kuindzhi Art Museum on Georgievskaya Street in Mariupol, and take in the works of Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ivan Aivazovsky, Vasily Vereshchagin, and Ivan Shishkin? Impossible, because the museum was obliterated in a Russian airstrike on March 21, 2022. Have you gone to see a play at the aforementioned Kharkiv Pushkin Theater, which on the eve of Russia’s invasion was, appropriately enough, staging an adaptation of Ivan Franko’s Stolen Happiness? No, because Kharkiv is heroically holding out in the face of an unrelenting Russian siege, and the Pushkin Theater’s season is on hold, while musicians perform Bach, Dvorak, and Ukrainian folk songs not at the canceled Kharkiv Music Fest, but in an underground bomb shelter. Have you popped into the public library of Oleksandrivka in Ukraine’s Kherson region? No, because that institution, along with its collection of 16,000 volumes, was recently razed to the ground. Have you attended liturgies at the gorgeous Neo-Byzantine church Lukashovka, near Chernihiv? Again, quite impossible, but if you have been there in recent days, it is only a burnt-out shell that you encountered, since the Russians who had been using the church as a military headquarters, set fire to it before ignominiously fleeing from the counter-attacking Ukrainian army. A horrified Konstantin Akinsha pointed out that
It seems they also used the Church of Ascension and its grounds for executions. Investigators have now undertaken the grim task of identifying and collecting the bodies of villagers strewn about the ruins. One looks at the photographic evidence of these war crimes and remembers the shrill voices of Vladimir Putin’s ideologues. So much for the idea of Russia as a “defender of Christian values.”
In the face of these enormities, it really does feel like an obscenity to fret about cancel culture, at a time when execution culture has been given free rein.
It was on November 25, 1896, during an enviable burst of literary creativity, that the Ukrainian writer and political activist Lesya Ukrainka produced two of her finest poems, “Fiat Nox” and “Word.” The former is an homage to Taras Shevchenko’s “Kavkaz,” and laments “the torment, the inseparable bonds/the premature death in a wild loneliness” faced by political exiles while assuring the reader that “the chaos of darkness, the cry of hunger and trouble” will one day be dispelled by the “desperate cry of ‘light, light.’” The latter begins with a famous complaint:
Слово, чому ти не твердая криця,
Що серед бою так ясно іскриться?
Чом ти не гострий, безжалісний меч,
Той, що здійма вражі голови з плеч?
Word, why aren’t you made of tempered steel,
That glints so clearly in the midst of battle?
Why aren’t you a sharp and ruthless sword
That can separate an enemy’s head from his shoulders?
It is true that words alone cannot defeat the Russian invaders — that is what Javelin, NLAW, Harpoon, Neptune, and Stugna-P missiles, self-propelled artillery, MiG-29s, Bayraktar TB2 and switchblade drones, and WAC-47 rifles are for, and the soldiers wielding those weapons are rightly considered the heroes in the national salute “Heroyam slava.” But words, for writers like Ukrainka and her literary descendants, represent the only weapons to hand (“Слово, моя ти єдиная зброє”), and, in the end, “better a poor horse than no horse at all” (“Краще, ніж служиш ти хворим рукам”).
Their words may not be made of tempered steel, but they are ringing out all the same, “echoing in the strongholds of tyrants.”
As we speak, writers like Serhiy Zhadan, Andrei Kurkov, Victoria Amelina, and many more besides are facing the quite literal cancellation of their country, their culture, even their lives at the hands of Putin’s invading horde. Their words may not be made of tempered steel, but they are ringing out all the same, “echoing in the strongholds of tyrants,” as Ukrainka once put it. What is more, the world is finally listening. The National Gallery changing the name of Degas’ painting to better reflect reality may seem like a minor matter, but it is part of a veritable sea change in the outside world’s perception of an embattled but resilient Ukraine, a sea change made possible in no small part by novelists, poets, artists, curators, filmmakers, and other cultural figures who have cultivated and built upon the legacy of their unjustly persecuted forebears.
The last word ought to be given to Serhiy Zhadan, whose unforgettably poignant “Four Poems” was written in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. In the first part of his quadriptych, Zhadan provides a literal bird’s-eye view of an unnamed city in eastern Ukraine, a city that may very well have been subsequently swept from the face of the earth by Russian artillery:
I imagine how birds see it:
the black branch of a river,
rooftops in winter,
perplexed pedestrians on the sidewalk.
I imagine it’s scary for birds to fly over the river.
Still, they look at the city from above.
At the depot beyond the station,
the library on the other side of the river,
the full pages of the streets.
In due course, the February snow melts, the sodden Rasputitsa season sets in, and life gradually returns to the steppe tracts of eastern Ukraine, where
The soil emerges
the way facial features become clear,
fish will arrive in the floodplains of the Donets river,
a bit of blackness will appear on the horizon,
there will be happiness,
there will be cattails.
The point is to warm up among people,
to love this artel work of winter,
this inaudible breath of soil,
You have to scream about it.
And so they scream.