Sign In using your Campus Account

Stanzas for Ukraine – 11

THE LONG DECOLONIZATION; how, despite the destruction, Ukraine is moving towards the future by Anatoliy Dnistrovyi, translated from the Ukrainian and annotated by Stephen Komarnyckyj

how, despite the destruction, Ukraine is moving towards the future

There are three eras in recent Ukrainian history when culture and society have flourished significantly: the twenties and sixties of the 20th century, and the period of Independence after 1991.  However, Russian imperialism has always reacted violently to such resurgences. The mass atrocities of the Russians which followed the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 are, in fact, an ancient, and clearly discernible policy arising from the reaction (of the imperial centre) to the right of Ukrainians to exist.

The Sources for Russian Crimes

The symptoms of modern Russian resentment have ancient roots from the period when there was a breach between the logic of the development of European nations and Russia.
The ‘Springtime of the Peoples’ (1848-1849), the revolutionary period which determined the formation of national states in Europe, unleashed processes which saw different responses in Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian nation-building process was activated in the ethnic Ukrainian lands of the Habsburg and Russian empires. The democratic revolutions of the European nations were inspired by anti-imperialist and anti-feudal ideas, the impulse came from their societies. Ukrainians followed that path.

However, Russia did not embark on the kind of nation-building process which took society as its subject. On the contrary within the Russian Empire, this gave rise to reactionary politics, particularly the suppression of the Decembrists rebellion, whose participants raised the idea of a constitutional and representative state. However, the authorities proposed the ideological triad of ‘Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality’, which anchored the self-identification of Russians to the apparatus of the state. In 1876, the Russian Tsar Alexander II said: ‘The power of Russia is based on the unity of the state, everything that can lead to this unity being shaken and the separate development of different nationalities is harmful for it and should not be permitted.’

The state administration of political processes in Russia became the norm, and society would thereby become ‘manageable’ in the tsarist, Soviet, and post-Soviet periods alike. Putin’s ‘Russian World’ derives from here, with statism once again defeating society. The empire viewed the desire for freedom on its territory as a threat to its existence and countermeasures were taken. Those measures include the prohibitions of the Ukrainian language and writing in the 19th century (including the Ems Ukaz of Alexander II[1], and the Valuev Circular[2] of the Minister of Internal Affairs), the extermination of Ukraine’s cultural elite and its peasant class by the Bolsheviks, the peasantry as a class, the Holodomor of 1932-1933, repression, and the mass deportation of the population… These are the agenda of the colonized society.

The empire fought its most substantial battle for control of historical memory. According to the essayist Mykola Ryabchuk, this conflict concerned, in particular, the fatal acquisition of the name Rus (the medieval conglomerate of principalities, the core of which was Ukraine) by the Muscovite kingdom in the process of reinventing itself as Rus=Russia. This prolonged its mythical history by several centuries[3] and simultaneously delegitimised the existence of Ukrainians and Belarusians as inhabitants of these ‘Rus’ lands. They were reduced to the level of regional subgroups of the Russian nation.

Decolonization and the Bolsheviks

The First World War destroyed the old European empires and national states emerged on their ruins. The phenomenon of decolonization policy also arose and was followed by the governments of the Ukrainian states during the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1921: the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Ukrainian State (Hetmanate) and the Directory.

The decolonisation policies gained momentum in the Ukrainian state known as the Hetmanate (April-December 1918) and governed by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadskyi. The Ukrainian language was declared the state language with the aim of ensuring its function in the army, political administrations, and in all spheres of society. Universities and institutes transferred to Ukrainian-language education from Russian. Books and magazines were published in Ukrainian and the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences was established. After the Hetmanate, the Republic governed by the Directory[4] continued the course of Ukrainianisation, but not for long: in 1919, Kyiv was captured by the Bolsheviks.

Subsequently, during the 12th congress of the Russian Communist Party of Bolsheviks (RKPb), a course of ‘indigenisation5’ was announced in order to win over the non-Russian population of the empire. Historians note that this was intended to be temporary and had the tactical aim of stabilising Bolshevik power in the national republics, thereby being an instrument of new colonialism. A policy for the Ukrainianisation of state structures and enterprises was announced, with a planned completion date of 1926. Workers and employees were obliged to learn the Ukrainian language.

Ukrainisation became extremely popular. There was a stunning cultural explosion with the emergence of a generation of Ukrainian artists, which would eventually be known as the ‘Executed Renaissance’ or, as they called themselves, the ‘Red Renaissance’. Literature, painting, theatre, music, and cinema all blossomed. Writers gathered in literary groups such as ‘Lanka’, ‘Avangard’, the neoclassicists, ‘VAPLITE’, and ‘Nova Heneratsiya’.

A modern Ukrainian cultural canon of Ukrainian was emerging. It included the intellectual, psychological and urban prose of Valerian Pidmohylny and authors such as V. Domontovych, Mykola Khvylovy, Maik Johansen. The poetry of the Red Renaissance also displays an explosion of worldview experimental diversity, as represented by the poets Mykhailo Semenko, Mykola Bazhan, Mykola Zerov, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, and Volodymyr Svidzinsky. The ethnographic theatre prevalent to this date gave way to the experimental, philosophical theatre of the Berezil created by the outstanding director Les Kurbas. A unique school emerges in the visual arts with a monumental-synthetic style and is termed Boychukism after the artist Mykhailo Boychuk. This school united the art of Byzantium with Proto-Renaissance and Ukrainian folk art. There was simultaneously a boom in Avant-garde art, design, and architecture.

The renowned Great Literary Discussion of 1925-1928 occurred and developed into a discussion of the cultural and political path of Ukraine. The leading Ukrainian prose author Khvylovy published a book of pamphlets entitled ‘Where are you going?’ and called for Ukraine’s orientation towards ‘psychological Europe’ under the slogan ‘away from Moscow!’ Khvylovy condemned Russification, provincialism, and the superficial dilettantism of Ukrainian culture. Stalin reacted harshly and ordered his minions to put an end to ‘the extremes of Khvylovy in the ranks of the communists.’

The rollback of Ukrainianisation began in 1926 with Kremlin directives and decisions by party bodies. In 1930, a fabricated trial of members of the ‘Union for the Liberation of Ukraine’ was held in Kharkiv. The 474 defendants were representatives of the intelligentsia and cultural figures. The principal among the accused was the senior figure in philology, Academician Serhii Efremov.

In 1933, more dramatic events occurred with the arrests and suicides of the leaders of Ukraine’s national communism — Oleksandr Shumsky, Mykola Khvylovy, Mykola Skrypnyk. The flywheel of repressions that would last until the beginning of the Second World War unfolded.

The Bolsheviks had in summary first led the indigenisation in order to draw the masses of the people to their side, and then destroyed them.

Following the repressions of the 1930s and the Second World War, Ukraine had suffered unprecedented losses. The country’s development potential had been drastically undermined, and the thirties, forties, and fifties became a moribund period.

The emergence of the 60s generation became a turning point in the revival of Ukrainian culture: its leading artists included Lina Kostenko, Mykola Vinhranovskyi, Vasyl Holoborodko, Ihor Kalynets, Valery Shevchuk, Hrihir Tyutyunnyk, Alla Horska, Viktor Zaretskyi, Ivan Mykolaichuk and Serhii Paradzhanov.

The Soviet authorities and penal institutions repressed the 60s generation. The harsh phase of suppression lasted until 1972, many of these figures were arrested and thrown into psychiatric hospitals. Vasyl Stus, Ivan Svitlichnyi, and Yevhen Sverstyuk among others served long terms of imprisonment. Many artists ended up in a situation called ‘internal migration’, being moved away from Ukraine or adopting official views. A new wave of Russification began, which deepened the tension in Ukraine.

Ukraine and The Decisive Battle 

After the collapse of the USSR, the situation in Ukraine was problematic: the Soviet party’s ‘nomenclatura’ changed its clothes on the hoof, adopting a nationalist politics and remained in power in the new state. However, despite its rudimentary nature, during Ukraine’s independence the role of civil society grows, and current Ukrainian culture is constantly developing.

With the advent of Putin, whom Yeltsin made his successor (to cover up the crimes of money laundering on a particularly large scale particularly the Mabetex case), a new ideological vector of Russian fascism has emerged. A state ideology is being formed known as the ‘Russian World’: it is revanchist, and expansionist, while denying the right to an identity, and indeed to exist, of other peoples.

Putin is looking for a legitimate basis for his views in the activities of Lenin. The USSR was created on the basis of the seizure of power and territories. It was ultimately a product of the aggressive policy of the Bolshevik putschists, and its example served to teach European fascists similar techniques. In 2001, Putin said that the concept of the ‘Russian World’ over the centuries extended far beyond the geographical borders of Russia, and far beyond the borders of the Russian ethnic group. He will make a statement that the collapse of the USSR is the biggest geopolitical catastrophe. After the Revolution of Dignity and the annexation of Crimea, Putin advanced new territorial claims, recalling the ephemeral administrative entity Novorossia, created by Catherine II, which existed in south Ukraine (the region allocated for foreign colonists).

On February 24, 2022, the extended Russian invasion of Ukraine began. The whole world knows the names of Bucha, Mariupol, Irpin and Hostomel. The mass murders of civilians, destruction of cities, mass torture, the rape of women and children, looting… are all indications of genocide. The Russian Federation has turned into the Fourth Reich and threatens humanity with nuclear blackmail.
Everything repeats itself like a closed circle. The Russian Federation is a mire of meta-historical, premodern, reactionary, colonial ideas. Ukraine, however, lives with a promising future. The battle is occurring on a planetary scale, between the dead past and the living future, in which the former seeks to destroy the essence of freedom, the values ​​of a democratic world. The free world must bring a halt to this toxic past.

Poems by Anatoliy Dnistrovyi, translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj


вони похворіли мов діти
незвично притихли
не галасують і не вередують
не летять як птахи у чистому небі
не шурхотять у темних скверах
сполоханими кроками закоханих

відпрацьовані як технічна вода
виснажені як дні приреченого
потріскані як важкі руки будівничого
надламані як серце старого солдата
            що повернувся в осиротілу домівку з війни
наші слова втомлено сплять

ними вже стільки всього сказано й написано
проголошено продекламовано
стільки всього ми собі пояснили
збуджено прокричали
колективно обурено засудили
одностайно викрили затаврували
науково проаналізували
що вони більше не мають сили прокинутися
і радувати нас

наші слова дрімають і набираються мудрості
щороку стають делікатнішими й обережнішими
щороку вони сиротіють
коли змушені
            мов непривітний старий камергер
одягати понурі та черстві думки

наші слова покидають нас коли особливо боляче
відходять раптово як перша любовна пригода
коли світ втратив ознаки світу
а їжа смак

наші слова залишають по собі лиш травми
і тіні тремтливі
що рибками миготять у бурхливих струмках
і їх виловлюють як останній вид на планеті
з азартом першого природознавця ретельно


до хрипоти полемізують
оперують складними термінами
стосами книжок прагнуть схопити їхню суть
але суть це привласнення
а повітря неможливо привласнити


they sickened like children
became unusually quiet
Not making a fuss or whingeing
not flying like birds in the clear sky
not rustling in dark city squares
or in the frightened steps of lovers

utilised as service water
exhausted as the days of the doomed 
cracked like the heavy hands of a builder 
broken like an old soldier’s heart
           one who returned to an orphaned home from the war
our words sleep wearied

so much has been said and written by them
so much  proclaimed and recited
we explained so much to ourselves and threshed it out with them
they shouted excitedly
and collectively and indignantly condemned
unanimously exposed and branded
scientifically analyzed
that they no longer have the strength to wake us
and delight us

our words slumber and gather wisdom
every year they become more delicate and careful
every year they become orphans
            when forced like an unfriendly old chamberlain
to wear gloomy and callous thoughts

our words abandon us
when it hurts the most
depart suddenly as a first love affair
when the world lost the signs of the world
and food lost its taste

our words leave behind only traumas
and the trembling shadows
that fish flicker in turbulent streams
and they are being hunted as the last species on the planet
with the excitement of the first naturalist carefully describing it

they polemicise until hoarse
operate in complex terms
stacks of books try to grasp their essence

but the point is appropriation
and air cannot be appropriated


вони з’являються завжди несподівано особливо
в непідходящий момент
коли ніщо не мало би нагадувати про факт
                                                їхнього існування

та появу на горизонті

вони збуджено і ніби трохи механічно розмахують
своїми кінцівками
з панібратською радістю підбігають до тебе
голосно щось горланять
на вас звертають увагу люди навколо

задерикувато виблискують очима
клацають пожовклими зубами
ще дужче розмахують кінцівками
несподівано повисають на тобі ніби ліани
                                                            на стовбурі дерева

згадують химерні сцени минулого з тобою
про які ти вже нічого не пам’ятаєш
і не впевнений чи це було насправді

вони заслинено розводяться на теми
які їх незмінно турбують усе свідоме життя
але до яких уже нікому немає діла
потім злорадно дорікають тобі за твою позицію
про яку ти вже не маєш жодного уявлення
хоча в молодості судження завжди були
                                                із будь-якого приводу

морщиш лоба щоб згадати
яка з цього приводу була в тебе позиція
а вони тобі все дорікають і дорікають
дихають своїми докорами тобі в обличчя
від чого паморочиться в голові

ти прощаєшся і поспішаєш у справах
а вони ще довго мов дворові собаки біжать за тобою
голосно гавкають услід


they always appear unexpectedly and especially
at an inopportune moment
when nothing should recollect the fact
                                                of their existence

they emerge on the horizon

and wave excitedly and somewhat mechanically
with their flailing limbs
trun up to you with fraternal joy
bawl something 
people around you stare,

their eyes sparkle derisively
they clatter yellowed teeth
swing their limbs even more vigorously
and suddenly drape over you
                                    as vines drape over a tree trunk

remembering bizarre scenes from the past
although you no longer remember anything
and are not sure if it actually was them

droolingly cover topics
which invariably trouble them throughout their conscious life
but no one else cares about anymore
then you are gloatingly scolded for your views
about which you have no idea in fact
although there were always judgments in your youth
                                                made on any basis

you frown trying to remember
what was your position on this matter?
and they reproach you for everything
and reproach and breathe their reproaches in your face
which makes you dizzy

you say goodbye and hurry about your business
and they run after you like yard dogs
for a long time loudly barking in your wake


Наталі Якубчак

в моїй темряві тихо
сон бездомне сліпе кошеня
засинає довірливо у твоїх обережних долонях
ці тривалі сніги за вікном ніби кажуть
що часу нема
вкотре змушують марити літом
і приймати пігулки від болю

ми довіримось тиші
заплющимо втомлені очі
і побачимо тьмяні
коридори й кімнати плющу
ним укрите все небо
будівлі вулиці площі
скрізь співають птахи
голоси їхні чисті

старість тут не живе
ні болячок
ні прикрощів

десь далеко хтось кашляє
мов відлуння на тім боці світу

у нас є трохи часу
не прокинутися в чужині
цих нестерпних снігів
і тривалих марудних морозів

In the Kyiv Blizard of 2012

For Nataliia Yakubchak

it’s quiet in my darkness
the dream of a homeless blind kitten
that falls asleep trustingly
in your caring hands
these prolonged snows outside the window
seem to say that time doesn’t exist
and once again make you dream of summer
and take painkillers

we will trust silence
we close our tired eyes
and we will see the dark corridors and rooms of ivy
the whole sky is covered with it
buildings, streets, squares
birds are singing everywhere
their voices
are pure
as tears

old age does not live here
there are no sores, no regrets
somewhere far away
someone is coughing
like an echo on the other side of the world

we have a little time
not to wake up in the foreign land
of these unbearable snows
the blizzard and long arduous frosts


я посаджу для тебе
дерево тиші

де птахи не можуть нагидити а люди наслідити
де відмивають сльозами ніби бензином
заплямовану совість
де безголосся настільки неприродне
ніби скляніє час
не врятуєшся

я посаджу для тебе
дерево тиші

I Will Plant the Tree of Silence for You

I Will Plant the Tree of Silence
for You

Where birds may not sully nor people oppress
There where the blotted conscience
Is washed with tears like petrol
Where voiceless is so unnatural
As if time stiffens to glass
You break
You do not save yourself

I will plant the tree of silence
For You


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.

‘where voiceless is so unnatural’

Invitation to write by Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese

‘I will plant the tree of silence for you,’ writes Anatoliy Dnistrovyi. All of us have experienced situations when words have failed us. They ‘sickened like children’ – we are told by the poet in ‘Words’. Think back to such a situation and try to make ‘voiceful’ how it felt: for you or the speaker/s of your poem. See how Dnistrovyi’s ‘Words’ encourage us to reflect on such experiences. Alternatively, imagine what it feels like when words come to our rescue, when we can depend on them – when words finally find us.

You’re always welcome to invent your own writing games in response to the presented poems. Share your texts with our writing community here.

The ten previous invitations to write can be found here.

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.


Anatoliy Dnistrovyi is one of Ukraine’s leading poets. This blog piece forensically analyses how Russia entered the darkness of authoritarian rule while Ukraine made freedom its religion. The poems that follow are playful glances at how our words take on a life of their own, those unwanted old friends who grab us on the street and the yearning to find peace in a tree’s silence. Every blog is accompanied by an ingenious writing exercise to allow you to develop your own poetry… along with a link to donate to The World Central Kitchen and support Ukrainians whose lives are shattered by the war.

[Author biography]

Anatoliy Dnistrovyi (real name Anatoliy Astafiev) is a poet, essayist, novelist and painter. He is a member of both the Ukrainian PEN-club and Association of Ukrainian Writers. Dnistrovyi’s work has featured twice in the BBC shortlist for the Ukrainian book of the year and he has won several literary awards.
Facebook Page (painting): Анатолій Дністровий – живопис:


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]   A secret decree issued in 1876 aimed at destroying Ukrainian publishing. See

[2]   An 1863 decree which placed restrictions on publishing in Ukrainian. See

[3]   Moscow was founded long after Rus’ but, by claiming to be the successor of Rus, it adds several centuries into its history, in effect stealing them from Kyiv/Ukraine which were the core of that ancient kingdom. See for example my translation of Who Are We Ukrainians? by Georgii Chornyi.

[4]   The Directory was a temporary collegiate government body founded after a revolt against Skoropadskyi who was supported by the Germans and seen as too pro Russian.

Add your Reply