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Stanzas for Ukraine (First Post)

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 will 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.

First Blog – Stanzas for Ukraine: Russia and Ukraine – A War of Words and Weapons
[Author: Stephen Komarnyckyj]

On 24 February 2022, Russian troops poured over the Ukrainian border and my friends and colleagues in Kyiv were woken by the sound of air raid sirens. Russia was invading Ukraine but later denied it was invading Ukraine, instead calling its actions a ‘Special Military Operation’. I stayed up watching events on social media wondering if I would have to drive to the Polish border to pick up my family. By the 25 February the capital was threatened with encirclement while fires caused by missile strikes blazed in Ukrainian cities. A plan which amounted to wiping Ukraine off the map was announced in Russian state media. Millions of Ukrainians were driven out of their homes. Some of my own relatives are in Poland. What is the cause of this war? How can you help?

Russia’s rulers have never accepted Ukraine’s existence as a separate country. Its culture has been subjected to brutal oppression for centuries, its writers have been exiled, jailed, and executed. This war is an attempt to occupy Ukraine and destroy a whole national culture. Stanzas for Ukraine, a new Poetry School project, will bring some of this poetry to you through new translations and popularise existing translations of Ukrainian writers. We will also look at other aspects of Ukrainian culture under threat. We will, above all, as you to help us to support the World Central Kitchen which is providing vital support to displaced Ukrainian refugees.

I travelled across Ukraine by train in 1993 and spent hours staring, mesmerised at the seemingly endless pastures. It was hard to believe that this vast country was so invisible in Western culture. Since then, Russia has amplified the country’s presence by invading: the ashes of Mariupol are one of the images that will define this time. Yet Ukraine’s literature remains largely untranslated. Why is this? 

Long ago, from the eight hundreds onwards, there was a Slavonic kingdom called Rus’ whose capital was Kyiv – it covered parts of Ukraine, Belarus, west Russia, but not Moscow (which didn’t really exist then). Its people spoke a language which was the ancestor of Ukrainian. A Rus’ prince founded Moscow as a colony in 1140; but a century later, the kingdom fell under the assaults of the Mongols. Kyiv then spent periods ruled by various states. Moscow was controlled by the Mongols until it rebelled successfully in the fourteen hundreds. Its rulers, the Tsars, claimed descent from the rulers of Kyiv. They decided to reunite all the ‘Russian Lands’ from the fifteen hundreds onwards. Kyiv, in particular, was viewed as the heartland of Rus’ and regaining it was, and remains, the dream of Russian nationalism.

However, the languages spoken by the people of Moscow and Kyiv were different. When Moscow succeeded in uniting with Kyiv in 1654, the Muscovites, as Russians were then known, struggled to accept the existence of this alien tongue in the south. Kyiv was, after all, the heartland of Rus’, the state whose legacy Moscow claimed, and a Greek version of whose name it would adopt as its own. The following centuries saw endless attempts to crush Ukrainian. Moscow’s reasoning was simple. The people of Kyiv and Moscow were one Russian people: there was one Russian language, and the language we now know as Ukrainian (then called Little Russian or Ruthenian) was a dialect. Performing plays in Ukrainian was banned at one point. Ethnic Ukrainians, such as Nikolai Gogol (1809–1852) (Hohol in Ukrainian) wrote in Russian, including a glossary in his early work with definitions for the Ukrainian words he imported into Russian.

In 1814, Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, was born into a family of serfs, but his talents as a painter perhaps led his master to take him to Saint Petersburg. His poetry was a literary bomb lobbed into the heart of the Russian empire. It railed against the imperial oppression of Ukrainians and indeed all the peoples enslaved by the Tsars. Shevchenko’s poetry led to a national revival and many other authors followed in his wake. The poems here include a description of a night time walk around Saint Petersburg, which exposes the empire for what it is; Gogol’s humorous descriptions of his fellow citizens in Saint Petersburg are entertaining, but Shevchenko sees that beneath all the finery and physical peculiarities, slaves are raising slaves. He would spend much of his life in exile, as depicted in the second poem below, in the ‘lockless prison’ of Russia’s empire, yearning to return to Ukraine. He does indeed now sleep there, in the burial mound above the Steppe depicted in ‘Testament’, while Ukraine fights the colonial war he knew was inevitable against its foe.

It was partly the tensions so skilfully elucidated by Shevchenko that led to Ukrainians more and more using the old name for their country, Ukraina, or land, and ceasing to call themselves Little Russians. After Shevchenko, an increasing number of writers wrote in Ukrainian, including Ivan Franko (1856–1916), a brilliant revolutionary thinker and poet; Lesya Ukrainka (1871–1913), a radical socialist and feminist Shakespeare rolled into one; and many others. It was, as Rory Finnin, a Cambridge University Lecturer says, a literature of ‘rebels and risk takers’.

Ukraine was briefly independent from 1917 to 1921, but the Bolsheviks conquered the Ukrainian republic and established a soviet Ukraine with the help of Ukrainian communists. Initially they allowed Ukrainian to flourish but, after centuries of repression, the resulting explosion of literary creativity and increasing demands for political autonomy terrified them. Stalin’s regime culled, jailed, and destroyed a whole generation of authors known as the Executed Renaissance who had risen to prominence in the nineteen twenties. A genocidal famine known as the Holodomor killed 3.9 million Ukrainians in 1932 to 33, and a 1921 study suggests that hunger might also have been used to kill Ukrainians in Russia and Belarus in the same period.

However in World War 2, when Stalin faced defeat, the few remaining writers were called on to rekindle Ukrainian patriotism, throwing Stalin’s assault on Ukrainian culture partially into reverse. After World War 2, the regime continued to Russianise Ukraine while denying its ongoing destruction of Ukrainian culture and blaming the mass graves left by Stalin’s genocide on the Nazis.  This policy proved unsustainable: a Ukrainian literary revival, embodied in a generation of authors known as the ‘Sixtiers’ from the decade they rose to fame in, was also crushed. The regime would not openly admit it was destroying Ukrainian culture, and jailed these authors on various absurd pretexts. The brilliant poet Vasyl Stus died in a Forced Labour Colony in 1985 after long years of brutal internment.

Russia had simultaneously convinced the world that Ukrainian culture was second-rate and derivative, its language a dialect of Russian. Western textbooks echoed this narrative. However, graffiti left by the medieval inhabitants of Kyiv on the walls of Saint Sophia now proves that they spoke in a language that resembled modern Ukrainian – it unmakes decades of imperialist propaganda masquerading as linguistics. The more people actually read Ukrainian poetry in translation, rather than received views of it as a minor literature, the more they realise it is one of the world’s lost voices; Ukrainians and the colonised peoples of the Russian empire and all empires, have the right to speak – now is the time for these writers to be heard. Ukrainian writing has wrongly been perceived as a “minor” literature throughout history, in the same way that literatures from many other nations subjected to years of conflict, colonialism, and turmoil have been similarly dismissed. As a 2012 Chatham House Paper said ‘Generations of Russian intellectuals have turned belittling of the Ukrainian language and culture into a part of the Russian belief system’. These views, unfortunately, affected cultural industries in the west with guides to world literature, such as Martin Seymour Smith’s hefty tome, dismissing Ukrainian as insignificant and duplicating imperial hierarchies.

When Ukraine gained its independence on 24 August 1991, its language was largely driven out of the cities in central and East Ukraine. Some Ukrainian speakers felt like a minority in their own country. Their own bookshelves were often dominated by Russian classics. Slavonic studies reflected Russian imperialism and was dominated by Russian narratives on Ukraine. Ukrainian was similarly marginalised in the cultural sector both within Ukraine and abroad – it was simply assumed to be inferior.  However, many Ukrainians spoke a mixture of the two languages and were relaxed about language choices.

Until the appearance of The Academic Studies Press and the Lost Horse Press in the United States, almost no small presses published Ukrainian literature in translation in the Anglophone world. Yet now, as Russia and Putin embark on a last attempt to force the Tsar’s vision of one Russian people on Kyiv, Ukraine’s literature is suddenly more visible than ever before. Putin, of course, didn’t understand that Ukrainian Russian speakers are Ukrainian, just as Seamus Heaney who wrote in English was Irish, and many now are switching to Ukrainian and many – indeed, most – people use both languages. Ukrainian literature was experiencing a second renaissance before Russia intervened and the world will finally acknowledge the country as a fully-fledged nation. But at what cost? Mariupol is reduced to ashes, there are mass graves left by retreating Russian soldiers filled with bodies with their hands tied behind their backs, recalling the Holocaust by bullets.

It is said that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’. You can help return a literature that Putin is trying to destroy to Europe by engaging with this project. More importantly you can help refugees displaced by the conflict, by donating to the World Central Kitchen via their site


Once, at night, while I walked

Once, at night, while I walked
Beside the Neva, thinking to myself,
“If it had been, if the slaves
Had not bowed down
These palaces would not stand
Above the river, defiling all…
A brother or a sister would survive
But… there is nothing now…
Neither God nor Demi God
Only the dog trainers rule
And we, the most adept of them
Weep and nourish their hounds again!”
Thus I, to myself, at night
Beside the Neva as I walked
Thinking fine thoughts. I did not see
Over the river as if from a pit
The eyes of a kitten blink…
But it was just two lamps
Shining by the Apostol’s Gate.
I fell silent and crossed myself
And spat three times just to be sure
And then walked on again and thought
Of the things I had thought before.

Taras Shevchenko. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

The dirty unwashed sky, the waves drowsy

The dirty unwashed sky, the waves drowsy
And by the bank, and far beyond
Seemingly drunk,  the  rushes bend
Without a wind. Oh Lord,
How long will I be in
This open, lockless prison
By this inane sea
World sick? The yellowed grass
It does not  speak, but sways
As if alive, across the Steppe;
To speak the truth it does not yearn
And to who else could I turn?

– Taras Shevchenko. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj


When I die, then bury me
In a grave amidst
The width of the Steppe
In my beloved Ukraine,
So that in the  broad pastures
By the Dnipro and its banks
I can see and hear
The river’s roaring water.

When it bears from Ukraine,
Into the blue sea,
The blood of our foes…
Only then will I abandon
The pasture and the mountain,
To ascend to God and pray…
Till then I shall not know the deity.

Bury me and arise
Tear asunder your chains,
And water your liberty
With blood of your foes.
Then in the great family,
Of a renewed people, and free
Do not forget to speak softly
And not unkindly of me.

– Taras Shevchenko. Translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj

Writing PromptsStanzas for Ukraine: Let’s Write with Ukrainian Authors

In a manner borrowed from the Poetry School’s ‘Transreading’ courses, this blog series, hosted by Steve Komarnyckyj, invites us to read and write in conversation with Ukrainian authors. Our close readings and new texts are gestures of our support and appreciation. As writers, we can learn from our Ukrainian colleagues and their international translators.

Look for such invitations to write at the end of upcoming blog posts featuring poems; invent your own writing games; share your own texts with our writing community.

Invitation to Write: What does the grass say? What do I say?

‘The yellowed grass
It does not speak, but sways
As if alive, across the Steppe;
To speak the truth it does not yearn
And to who else could I turn?’

Taras Shevchenko’s ‘The dirty unwashed sky, the waves drowsy’ finishes with the image of the yellowed grass swaying silently. And if it chose to speak after all? What would it say – in protest, in celebration, in…? To whom would it speak? And if the poem’s speaker addressed the grass, how would this poem continue – adding more lines to the already existing text; creating a sequel that might break away from the formal constraints of the ‘original’? Can we borrow from our literary traditions a text or a form that could assist these exchanges? For example, what would happen if Shevchenko’s grass spoke in long lines resembling Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass?


Steve Komarnyckyj’s literary translations and poems have appeared in Index on Censorship, Modern Poetry in Translation and many other journals. However, he spends most of his life looking after four rescue dogs from Bosnia while persuading himself that adopting a fifth would be sheer folly. Follow him on Twitter at:


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