Our second blog in the Stanzas for Ukraine project is written by the Crimean-Ukrainian poet Vyacheslav Huk, who now lives in Kyiv. He spent most of his childhood hidden from the Soviet authorities on his grandmother’s farm after reading a protest poem in class. In this week’s piece, he explains why this makes Putin’s attempt to revive the Soviet Union and commit genocide in Ukraine particularly painful for him.
Blog 2 – Stanzas for Ukraine – The Genocide of the Ukrainian People
[Author: Vyacheslav Huk, Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj]
Russia has always been antipathetic towards Ukrainian culture and has now embarked on the genocide of the Ukrainian people, evoking memories both of the Holodomor and other historic erasures of people and cultures. Putin has in effect become the successor of Hitler and Stalin while trying to restore a kind of Soviet system. This is especially painful for me because I grew up in the inhumanity which Putin wants to renew. Let me tell you the story of my childhood so that you will understand…
1984. The USSR. A small provincial town in Crimea. I am ten years old and a pupil at a small Soviet school. The war in Afghanistan has endured for six years. The Soviet soldiers slain there are buried across from the yard of the school where they once studied. They carried a coffin with one of the bodies into that yard and we, the children, were all lined up near it, the senior classes and the little kids too.
I have a sensitive nature, which has hurt me a lot and still does but you cannot change that. After seeing that horror I came home, locked myself in my room and just cried, shut away so that no one I lived with could see me. It was very unpleasant and painful, it felt as though ants were crawling over my skin. There was a helpless, fatal feeling. It seemed as if I was not going to school but to some kind of torture chamber, where everyone understood what was happening but pretended that it was really necessary.
After the funeral of another soldier, where the corpse was in the school yard, my protest against all this was embodied in the following action: my family had a large library at home where there were many pre-revolutionary texts. Among a pile of books and texts, that perhaps only the KGB knew in the USSR, I found a verse by the symbolist poetess Zinaida Gippius Vse Kruhom (Everything Around). This poet, forbidden in the USSR, portrayed very accurately and in great depth what had replaced the Tsarist regime in this poem. I remember being profoundly affected when I read it, because everything in the work corresponded to the state of my soul. I don’t even know why, but I really wanted to read it in class. So I did, adding that this text should be the Soviet anthem rather than the one played on the radio daily at 6 am.
What happened next? They expelled me from school and wanted to send me to a boarding institution for ‘difficult, impulsive children’ due to my supposedly bad behaviour. For my behaviour… despite the fact that I had never missed a lesson and was always the first pupil to arrive at the school.
The situation was critical. Overbearing female officials began to visit us to conduct various inspections. They walked around the rooms, looked over everything carefully, noted things down, and sighed wearily from time to time. Where was my parents’ oversight if their child could publicly commit such vileness? The doctors visited once, they knocked long and insistently on the door. I didn’t open it, my parents were at work. However, I heard them say ‘It has been reported to us that a sick boy lives here. He needs treating urgently. His parents initiated the disease, and a long-standing ailment of this kind can be fatal.’ However, what I remember most of all is that my mother didn’t scold me for what had happened. I recollect that she hugged me tightly to herself and whispered, ‘Forgive me for not being able to get you out of here.’
My mother was given some documents at school. Then she just hid me away from everyone. She made up a story that I really had fallen ill and was at hospital in Simferopol. However, she had concealed me at my grandmother’s place in the village. She hid me from all of them, from the formidable women from social services, from the doctors, from my classmates and even the neighbours who were continuously informing on people to the authorities.
Half a year… I lived in my grandmother’s home for half a year, and no one knew. I only went out into the yard at night so that no one would see me, and during the day I studied the school curriculum on my own. It was then that solitude became the source of my inspiration, the essence of my life. This may not be comprehensible for many people, but my mind made its choice when I was a child. When I look back into the past I see my parents, terrified by the system which existed then, working continuously day and night. I see my grandmother who tore up a portrait of Lenin and listened to the Voice of America radio at night. I see my so exhausted grandfather who was not destroyed by the Germans during two wars or the Soviets during the long Soviet occupation. I see my mother’s unfortunate older sister who had an abortion, because she lived in dormitory housing linked to her employment and could be fired if she had a child. She cried for all her life over that lost ‘little boy in a shirt’ and died alone. I see my mother’s older brother who returned from the Soviet Army having gone insane. They forced him to plough a mined field with a tractor somewhere near Semipalatinsk. After that he just swigged bucketfuls of moonshine of an evening to forget everything in a dead sleep. I see myself, a child, wishing himself dead at ten years old and praying to the merciful Goddess to take him to herself…
Although I grew up in a Russian speaking environment, I have wanted to be a Ukrainian language author since childhood. There is a monument to the Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka in the city of Saki in Crimea. When I was still a schoolboy I visited there often to be inspired by the greatness and strength of the spirit of this brilliant poet. That monument gave me an inner strength which was later embodied in lines of poetry.
I haven’t written a single work in Russian. Poetry, for me, is a like a prayer, a kind of confession of the soul. And I have always been attracted to the modern poetry of free Europe, particularly Swedish and Norwegian poetry, which has something very mysterious and is able to touch the painful strings of the human soul with an angel’s wing.
Please consider donating to The World Central Kitchen to support their work in Ukraine.
Vyacheslav Huk: Two Poems
Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj.
This late summer, and the melody of song protracted,
Like soothing words or victory after struggle,
A planned assault or the delusions of Penelope,
Wherein distant perspectives are awash with birds,
And a military Grasshopper
Disappears into the sky and fades to unconsciousness,
A coffee’s warm vapour drifts from one of the tables,
And a white rose exhales its fragrance.
You are entitled to all of this,
The wind subdued by the tree’s dark tree crown
Forms melodies of yellow leaves,
Extracted from a box, whether for an undefined period,
A short August vacation abroad.
The engine hums through broken passages of summer,
Where the wind cradles birds’ nests in tree crowns,
Giving you the possibility to whisper: this is an augury
Or the comprehension of an image and the end point of flight
Which remains dark and immutable in any season.
The negative of a plane bombing a foreign location.
Through all horizons, without exception, and in all perspectives,
The low sky you encompass in a glance continues
With a plane at a high altitude, and there is no possibility
Of analysing life’s boundlessness in dreams.
So you watch birds through binoculars,
Their wings sculling though blue sky,
Anticipating autumn’s coldness
As they fly towards the southern coast.
The Annexation of Crimea
‘I feel alien, solitary, an orphan amidst the people with whom I now live… in exile’
– Osip Turianskyi, Beyond the boundaries of pain
A solitary seagull breasts the waves, a boat undulating on a fjord,
The arrow halts its flight… and the heart becomes too anguished
The rules of syntax are violated, and now unfashionable
But every trivial thing in this life is significant.
His head bowed in deep contemplation. The harbour grey in the morning,Nevertheless the living entity is powerful enough
To resist death at winter’s end, where the neglected soil lays,
And there is scant warmth and the shirt free of the aroma
Of tobacco and paint, whose colour is already lost forever,
The thick cloth of an old sail. Phone that place
Where the heart was salvaged from terror by flight and fear,
A morose man adding a spoon of coarse sugar to his tea
Because only the cold rules in the Crimean south and the throat
Loses voice, as the veins lose their blood in time,
The acrid fragrance of burnt timber suddenly reaches you,
The rusted blood finds its own path, is a vine
And the ruptured word has its beginning and end, like iron
Weeds embroidering the roadsides,
The water retains its calm and the word
Will die sooner than the body.
Do you remember how the wagons
With fruit and vegetables trundled in the mountains
While the copper sun blazed and this
Defined by memory, as if he remained in his hometown
Now occupied by Russian soldiers albeit for only a year
And thinking he resembles Leo Gursky*
Washing in a bowl before his death
And utterly alone in New York.
* Leo Gursky is the protagonist of Nicole Krauss’s novel The History of Love.
The English translations were originally published in Index on Censorship and republished with the kind permission of the editor.
Stanzas for Ukraine: Let’s Write with Ukrainian Authors
In the manner borrowed from the Poetry School’s ‘Transreading’ practice, this blog series invites us to write in conversation with Ukrainian authors. Our close readings and our new texts are also gestures of our support and appreciation. As writers, we too can learn from our Ukrainian colleagues and their international translators.
Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese: ‘Phone that place / Where the heart was salvaged from terror by flight and fear’
In our second invitation to write alongside Ukrainian authors (you can read the first here), we are looking closely at Vyacheslav Huk’s ‘The Annexation of Crimea’ in Stephen Komarnyckyj’s translation.
First, locate ‘that place’: is it a particular space? Or is it perhaps some specific time? Consider whose heart was rescued there or then: the poem’s speaker’s or someone else’s? What were/are the means of salvage: flight, fear, faith, courage, resilience, hope…? Now, phone that place: what is this phone call about? Has the connection worked?
Vyacheslav Huk (1974–) was born in Russian-speaking Saki in Crimea but wanted to be a Ukrainian writer from an early age and has received numerous literary awards. He now lives in Kyiv and imports European traditions into his poems and novels in the manner of one of his literary heroines the renowned poet Lesya Ukrainka.
Poetry School is proud to have partnered with tutors Steve Komarnyckyj and Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, and PEN International’s Judyth Hill to publish Stanzas for Ukraine.
Every fortnight we publish a blog written by some of the most significant contemporary Ukrainian poets, who will reflect upon the more than 300 years of historical conflict their country has endured, the on-going struggle, and highlight poems and voices from the past and present. This will launch a new strand of Poetry School work, giving voice to those globally who are being silenced and providing a platform for those suffering forced migration. Future strands will include Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, and more.
 This poem actually predates the revolution but struck Vycheslav as fitting and is perhaps a timeless description of frustration with Russian society.