Stanzas for Ukraine – The Invasion of the Ukrainian Language
[ Author: Lyuba Yakimchuk, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj]
The war calls into question everything on which our survival depends and provokes a crisis in our vision of humanity. During Russia’s large scale war against Ukraine only the apathetic wouldn’t quote Theodor AThe war calls into question everything on which our survival depends and provokes a crisis in our vision of humanity. During Russia’s large-scale war against Ukraine, it’s difficult not to think about Theodor Adorno’s words on the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz, that Second World War catastrophe. However, it is crucial to remember that the philosopher’s words applied to the period after the war, when it was known who won the conflict and the war criminals were prisoners and undergoing trial. That was a stabilised situation, rather than an ongoing one, as is the case with Ukraine, whose territory Russia is still striving to occupy. Therefore, the question is slightly different: is poetry possible during the war?
This is too large a question for a blog, its scope would suffice for a whole book, so I will attempt to outline the factors which, if they do not make poetry impossible, at least render it extremely difficult during a war. One of the challenges poets face is not only the daily need to protect themselves, their families, and their country but also the Russian invasion of the Ukrainian language. Language seemingly doesn’t drive in on a tank or fly upon a cruise missile. However, if we follow the reality in which a critical number of changes occur, we can also observe how they happen within language.
The first notable aspect here is how many words have changed their meaning. The word ‘light’ for example once meant that which made the invisible visible, the incomprehensible comprehensible, overcoming the darkness or the darkness of ignorance. However, when there is war in your city, and especially when it is militarily attacked, the light becomes something treacherous and dangerous, because it marks out life at night. This means that the enemy, who violates the international rules of war, can use it to destroy life.
For instance, one of my male friends, who lives in Irpin in Kyiv Oblast, left his house when the town was occupied by Russian troops to check if his car was intact after some shelling had occurred. It was in the evening and the security light in a neighbouring building detected his movements and switched on. During that short period of time a shell flew into his building and destroyed it down to the foundation.
It’s a horrendous situation and the Ukrainian authorities are therefore asking for measures to mask light, including requiring there to be no light in the evening or at night in any place where there are people, not only in houses but on city streets and in trains. However, even when the Russian troops retreat, people continue to hide their lights behind windows covered with books, or blocked with cabinets, because light is something dangerous, that you must mask to survive. The word light has therefore swapped its positive meaning for a negative one.
Alternatively let’s take the word ‘corridor’ which means a transitional space that links the entranceway of a building with residential rooms, and is a crossing from the public space, the street, to a private place protected from the stranger’s eyes. This word now has a new meaning. Why? When the air raid siren sounds you must hide in a bomb shelter or subway. However, on occasions when you aren’t near either of these, they recommend you take shelter in a room with two load bearing walls and no windows, because windowless walls are more likely to hold up during a blast, and a window is always a potential danger because the glass could be blown out into small fragments. Corridors and bathrooms are this kind of safe location. We therefore put our children to bed in the corridor during shelling, our own and those of our neighbours who had moved in with us because their building had several glass walls. My friends slept in their bathrooms when missiles flew at Kyiv and Kharkiv, just laying the mattress inside the bath.
I have only mentioned a couple of words, but there are in reality hundreds whose meanings have changed due to the war. Language has altered together with reality and when a corridor is mentioned in a poem, Ukrainian readers understand this word as meaning a safe place. Foreigners need a separate dictionary of the new meanings which have appeared in the Ukrainian language if we are considering translations from the Ukrainian language, or special skills are required from the translator. Writing in Ukrainian now, is not how it was before the war. I would say it is not at all how it was.
The second significant change in language is the emergence of new words, which also occurs in different ways. There is for example, a newly coined word ‘rashist’ to denote the Russian soldiers who commit war crimes, as well as referring to Russian civilians who support the war and the actions of their military. It is very similar to the word ‘Fascist’ so its meaning can be conjectured from and is strengthened by attributes and actions taken from real life. Certain words have entered common usage from the professional vocabulary used by the military. ‘Two hundred’, for example, means killed soldiers, ‘three hundred’ means wounded soldiers. Some words migrated into the war lexicon, meaning words in wide usage at this time, from the vocabulary of obscenities. There is, for example, the word ‘bl’edina’ which is used to denote a Russian missile and which the Urban Dictionary quite rightly describes as follows: ‘a noun that is used by Ukrainians to identify a Russian missile. Was specifically used during air rides to warn civilians about the flying missiles across the country. Roughly can be translated into “deadly ugly fucking bitch”’.
There is always a danger with these new words that they will depart with the retreat of the Russian There is always a danger with these new words that they will depart with the retreat of the Russian military. Using them in journalistic texts that react to the reality here and now is always good, because they convey the current atmosphere and add detail, but is it fitting to use them in poetic texts? In a few months they may become unnecessary, depending on how the Ukrainian troops at the front advance, and consequently disappear. This is a further issue which must be resolved in each instance by the poet.
The next significant change in language caused by the war is the inflation of the expression of certain words. These are usually words which are often repeated at this time, such as the word ‘war’ itself. It has sounded for a long period now like something quite ordinary and not exceptional and almost impossible as it did before. Eight years of war tailing back from the present. War, war, the word has sounded incessantly since 2014. What is to be done with this word when writing poetry? Should it be avoided? Used when there is no way not to use it?
There was, in addition, an inflation of the lexicon of obscenity, the expression of these words. I would previously have used the word ‘nahuj’(fuck) or similar to convey the most emotional moment, but it’s not so impactful now. The precedent that led to this inflation in the usage of obscenity was that famous phrase about a Russian warship spoken by a Ukrainian border guard on Snake Island: ‘Russian warship, go fuck yourself!’ This phrase subsequently became part of the informational and psychological operation against the occupiers. Banners inscribed with this phrase were placed all over Ukraine. Also, instead of road signs pointing to a particular location, road signs with the words ‘fuck off’ and ‘fuck off to Russia’ and similar phrases were erected. This border guard introduced obscene vocabulary into the public space. The phrase concerning the Russian warship was used in the design of Ukrainian bank cards and postage stamps.
It wasn’t just the border guard who used foul language, it was deployed by people in bomb shelters. This vocabulary has ceased being taboo, so even children who have been saved in these secure locations have begun saying ‘Putin is a prick’ or sending such messages to their relatives.
 Putin khuylo! meaning “Putin is a prick!” began as a football song in Ukraine in 2014 but has become a popular phrase used routinely to refer to the Russian leader.
I have only described the major trends in changes to the Ukrainian language which relate to Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory, and only some isolated instances pertaining to them. In order to comprehend the scale of these changes, they need to be identified and described more systematically. It is nevertheless clear that the war has changed not only life in Ukraine, but that it has also provoked changes in language and therefore Ukrainian poetry which is already blossoming wildly. In order to give guidance with language, poets need to search for ways to work with that language which seems to be at the tip of the tongue but suddenly slips out and is borne somewhere ahead.
Two Poems by Lyuba Yakimchuk
Translated from the Ukrainian by Svetlana Lavochkina. Originally Published in Apricots of Donbas (Lost Horse Press 2021, USA).
with relatives, we share table and graves
with enemies—only graves
one such candidate comes
to share a grave with me
says to me:
—I’m bigger than you
I’m harder than you
I’m tougher than you
sticks knife after knife into my stomach and below
knife after knife
his pressure springlike
he is smaller than us
he is softer than us
because he’s only got one knife
and there are plenty of us
at the table
and each has their own “but”
and each has their own cut
says to me:
—I’m a sharper blade cut you
I’m a thicker blade cut you
chip, chop, chip, chop
the last one is dead
hold on they say hold on
and we hold onto our table
from the gun muzzle
we all drink our bullet
READ POEM HERE
INVITATION TO WRITE
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.
‘both shaven and unshaven’
Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
Lyuba Yakimchuk’s poems featured in the fourth blog of Stanzas for Ukraine rely on bringing together opposites: ‘with relatives, we share table and graves/ with enemies—only graves’; ‘I shaved my right leg but forgot to shave the left leg.’ Consider similar pairings of opposites to suggest the complexity of their co-existence. Write from such a two-sides-of-the-same-coin position. Contemplate this emotional/ existential/ argumentative simultaneity of two extremes. Ask yourself: is my poem (poem’s speaker/ poem’s protagonist, etc.) undermining the necessity of such polarities? or is the poem embracing them as whole-heartedly as the protagonist of Yakimchuk’s text:
‘— but I love you both shaven and unshaven
as well as half-shaven
and stark naked.’
Alternatively, reflect on a chosen word whose meaning has changed recently and investigate the circumstances of this change, the way Yakimchuk does in her post: ‘The word “light,” for example, once meant that which made the invisible visible, the incomprehensible comprehensible, overcoming the darkness or the darkness of ignorance. However, when there is war in your city, and especially when it is militarily attacked, the light becomes something treacherous and dangerous, because it marks out life at night.’
You’re always welcome to invent your own writing games in response to the presented poems. Share your texts with our writing community: https://poetryschool.com/groups/stanzas-for-ukraine/
The three previous invitations to write can be found here: https://poetryschool.com/category/stanzas-for-ukraine/
Invitation to Donate
This project aims to support refugees displaced by the conflict through raising funds for the World Central Kitchen. Please consider donating via their site here.
Lyuba Yakimchuk (1985-) is a poet, playwright and screenwriter whose work reflects the Donbas region where she grew up and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. She performed one of her poems‘Prayer’, a powerful appeal to God to protect her family and ultimately the motherland, at the 64th Grammy Awards on 4 April 2022. Yakimchuk is the voice of the occupied Donbas in Ukrainian poetry, with her own family being internally displaced by the occupiers in 2014. Her work is a refusal to surrender to despair and an insistence on poetry’s validity in the face of war.
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.