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Stanzas for Ukraine – 3

Our third blog in the Stanzas for Ukraine project is by the Ukrainian writer Oleh Shynkarenko, who is known for his experimental fiction. However, Russia’s invasion of his homeland spurred him to write poetry. His blog talks of the threat to individual identity under occupation and these previously unpublished poems deal with the war in his usual inventive and quirky manner. You can also find an ‘Invitation to Write’ at the end of the blog, should you like to take part.

Blog 3 – Stanzas for Ukraine – What is this anyway? or the Cognitive Paralysis of Wartime

[Author: Oleh Shynkarenko, Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj]

“What is this anyway?” a man asked his wife in Tambov, while inspecting the ruins shown on the TV screen.

“Something is exploding in Ukraine again” she replied.

“But why?” 

“I don’t remember now. Apparently we lost to them at the Eurovision. So we had to seize something and bomb somewhere, and subsequently we couldn’t stop.”

“But this is expensive. Why do we have to pay for it?”

“Firstly you don’t pay, the money, the money comes from the state budget, secondly taking revenge on them is a necessity.”

“Well that’s great then” her husband agreed, switching the channel to an online show about sexual perversions.

The text above is an excerpt from my 2015 novel The First Ukrainian Robots. Even then I was unpleasantly struck by the absurdity of this still compact, almost pocket-sized war. Those passionate Russians started it simply because they were bored. All of their explanations about some ‘NATO expansion to the East’ and the ‘Nazi regime in Kyiv’ which were later supplemented by ‘bio-labs that produce birds and bats contaminated with pathogens which are especially dangerous to the Slavonic ethnic group’ and ‘the production of nuclear weapons at power stations’.  These justifications were so clumsy that it was immediately apparent they had just been devised for self-justification, without even hoping to convince people not directly involved in their aggression. The endless production of ever more absurd and fantastic explanations for this war has only one goal: to hypnotise the population by such means so that it does not even reflect about the end of the war but, on the contrary, demands ever more bombing, missile strikes and the immediate punishment of the enemies.

I recently heard a story about a Russian programmer who condemned Putin and supported the opposition but after the beginning of the war he was suddenly transformed into a ferocious militarist. He continuously felt an acute internal conflict because his intellect and facts testified to one thing and the unceasing propaganda to another. So, in order to silence his intellect, this man repeated to himself, often and loudly what he had heard on the television. Because while the TV was switched off, his intellect began to awaken from the state induced by the power of suggestion.

Many years ago a cruise missile hit the Ashan supermarket in circumstances that are now forgotten. However, strangely, after the roof collapsed and the interior burned, the building became more habitable for a three-member family. Major Hryhorenko lived there on his own. However, over the past 20 years, he never lost hope of extending his extremely limited family circle. Over 300 characters in this novel were preserved in its warehouse. These were either people or conserved memories, corrupted copies or konnektoms which were permanently damaged by time and adverse weather. Each appeared as a rusted, creaking container on castors.[1]

The text above is an excerpt from my novel Kaharlyk, published in 2014, which began as a Facebook page in 2012. I knew even then what the forthcoming war would look like, so I focused on depicting its long-term consequences. What most interested me was how people would preserve their memories in conditions where real media had disappeared and there was instead an environment of total propaganda that distorted reality. A decade ago, my assumptions about morphones – special devices that preserve a copy of the individual’s consciousness – seemed fantastic and superfluous, even to myself. However, in the present day, I observe an interesting phenomenon: the occupying forces are, in addition to destroying Ukrainian cultural artefacts, museums, books, schools, libraries, also engaged in so called ‘filtering’, examining loyalty to the regime on social media and private messages. This ‘filtering’ process is as meticulous as it is paranoid: any post can be deemed suspicious, so smartphone owners delete all their messages, social media and messaging or, in order to avoid yet more suspicion through the absence of online interaction, create their own sterilised image, consisting of specially prepared correspondence and a selection of photographs. Where do those memories, so dear to them, go? Some decide to conceal them on the Google Documents drives, but this is also not very secure, because the passwords may fall into the hands of those persistent ‘filterers’. This is becoming a serious problem: where can that true individuality, which is dangerous to itself, go? Is it possible to store it on external discs then send it to the territory of NATO countries where it could be safe for a certain period? And what if the bearer of this individuality disappears due to the impact of a cruise missile? Who will be the owner of this copy and what will be the legal consequences?

GranДaД y had an old smart Фon
MЕny saw зat telefon,
Мany gioлs zaТ Вos so preti
Lukshri Дudes ant zo Мeni.
So many photos and MP3s
But a dodgy screen and batteries
Oh zat old man recalled a лoтt
About how one day he was shot
It was Nikolai number two
Our all Russian Tsar okay
So GОoogle and ФFuck You
He had been the Tsar eternally
So know that bitch and greet
Any ozers zat you meet
By tTearing off zere his бBollocks.
Grandady had an old smart fon
Many saw zat telefon.

The text above, another, and very bizarre, extract from my novel Kaharlyk, is an attempt to imagine how our language might change after many years of this exhausting war. If there are so many ruins around us a hundred years after the beginning of the first bombardment, can it be anticipated that language will remain undamaged? The occupation authorities display video reports from the local schools where children are taught the correct Russian language by teachers from Saint Petersburg. This is a common colonial practice – oppressed peoples are obliged to understand the language of the invader in order to precisely fulfil their wishes and orders, and to forget their native language which is incomprehensible to their masters and can be used for conspiring or underground struggle against occupation. What language will we use then as a result of such a ferocious struggle? Won’t the meanings of familiar words be distorted because they haven’t been used for a long time? I remember an angry remark by the new Russian inhabitants of the Crimean Peninsula who noticed the remains of Ukrainian language signs by the roads. One of them read ‘Don’t Leave Rubbish By the Roadsides’. The chauvinistic Russian correspondent was especially enraged by the word узбіччя (uzbìččâ transliterated into the Latin alphabet, roadsides in this context). She didn’t understand it but saw a resemblance to the word ‘Uzbeks’. This similarity and association seemed completely unacceptable to her, so she called for the sign’s immediate removal. In what form and in what places may the Ukrainian language exist so as not to irritate the occupiers? In addition to shelling and bombing we are experiencing such a cognitive, military shock that during the first two months of the war there were many people who couldn’t grasp what was happening. There was a powerful feeling that all this couldn’t fit in your head, a sensation akin to a huge horn that had suddenly grown in your forehead and hampered you seeing what was in front of your eyes. The mind froze and didn’t move. This paralysis was difficult to prevent by any means. During the war it became impossible to think about anything except this war.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Five Poems by Oleh Shynkarenko
Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

The Burned Out Eyes Of Mariupol Buildings

The burned out eyes of Mariupol buildings
Did not stop seeing,
But, on the contrary, began to see more
Than all their dead inhabitants.
They see so much
They can’t hold all the pictures,
In their cramped, ruined apartments.
Scenes, memories, views and dreams,
Are randomly dumped in them,
Mixed with broken glass
And fragments of destroyed life.
Sometimes the remains of the seen things
Fall outside
And blindly roam the streets
Knowing neither day or night,
And not recognising each other
Or anyone.

The Imprint Of Death Is On Every Face

The imprint of death Is on every face
But on some it is particularly invisible.
It cannot be reproduced
By any camera.
Silver salts have no power.
The matrix will never have enough electricity.
Only occasionally
During moments of exceptional concentration
Can the long dead ancestors
See it
With their missing eyes.
At these moments there is no one around
To whom may be confirmed the manifestation
Of the imprint of death.
Because of this it is perceived
Like a certain legend
Which in these moments
Completely absorbs life
Which afterwards never ceases.

Whose Hatred Is Stronger?

In a train carriage on the Lviv-Kyiv route
An engineer suggests and interesting theory to a soldier
That hatred is proportionately stronger
The further you are from the front line,
Because it is constantly fuelled by the news,
And has no release.
Whereas the soldiers have little time
And do not manage to read Medynskyi
Who says that “good neighbourly relations”
Will be established soon,
But they can quickly
Convert their hatred
Into shooting.
The soldier denied that his hatred was weaker
But, in any case
It is impossible to compare them.
“What advantage do you see in the greater hatred?”
He asked eventually “for yourself”.
The engineer hesitated a long time before saying this
“Hatred suffices instead of children and a wife”

When Will We Return?

Sven Bayraktarevych says
That they returned to Sarajevo
After three years.
Grandmother squabbled a lot
Because Serbs had been settled in their apartment
And fucked up everything in there like pigs.
It took her a long time to clean up the dirt.
It’s worse with landmines.

25 years later he is still afraid,
To go to unexamined locations.
Three years is a long time
Even if
You have somewhere to return to.
Not everyone was so lucky
Some housing remained
Only in memories
And for some it became a grave.
There are videos on local Telegram channels
Where you can see the ruins and fires
The carcasses and the skeletons of cars
Which create a certain effect of presence.
There is a persistent illusion
That we are already there
And our bodies cannot be harmed
By bullets and bombs.
It can be said
That we never went anywhere from there.

The Phantom Siren

Is especially persistent at nigh
When all other sounds disappear.
Then it doesn’t just howl anymore
But tells pitiably
Its tragic story.
The details are not audible
But I gather
That it’s not easy for her
She had suffered for a long time
And lost almost everything.
It shames me
I want to do something for her
And at that moment she disappears.
“Yaaa-Yeee!” She cries
And at this moment the actual siren
Is switched on
And the phantoms
Become completely real.


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.

the remains of the seen things’

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

Oleh Shynkarenko’s poem ‘The Burned-out Eyes of Mariupol Buildings’ in Stephen Komarnyckyj’s translation insists that these eyes ‘see so much / they can’t hold all the pictures / in their cramped, ruined apartments.’ This is one of the many possible scenarios of buildings and their eyes seeing more than they could possibly hold.

Think of a building of your choice at a specific moment in time. Think of the building’s eyes. What are these eyes’ attributes at the moment of your thinking about the building? What can these eyes see under the condition? How can this building hold – or not – what has been seen? And what happens to the remains of the seen things?


Oleh Shynkarenko (1976-) is a writer, journalist and multi media producer from Ukraine whose brilliant experimental novel Kaharlyk was described as a series of ‘hologramatic puzzles’ by Andrey Kurkov. His fiction teases the reader, constantly unmaking their expectations and its own narrative structure.

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.

[1]   All the extracts from Kaharlyk are taken from the translation by Stephen Komarnyckyj published by Kalyna Language Press in 2016.

One Comment

  • Carolyn O'Connell

    You know the darkened eyes of Mariupol
    apartment windows shattered, blackened
    by fire as those I know walked under
    when I was a mother with young children.
    Both sheltered the poor, the ordinary folk
    but greed extinguished lives
    for you it was a man’s thirst for Ukraine
    for me the Commercial Greed clad a simple sixties block
    that one night enflamed and killed.
    It now stands shrouded in white
    waiting for resolution.

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