English PEN Ukrainian Poetry Evening

English PEN Ukrainian Poetry Evening







Given the current crisis in Ukraine, and my own lack of expertise in the country’s history and politics, it is humbling indeed to be included in English PEN’s Ukrainian Poetry Evening in Oxford this Thursday, featuring poet Ihor Pavlyuk and translator Steve Komarnyckyj reading from A Flight over the Black Sea, published this month by Waterloo Press. As well as an honour, it is also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. I therefore wanted to take the opportunity to publically thank Steve Komarnyckyj and Susie Speight of Kalyna Language Press for extending the invitation, and English PEN for approving it. I would also like to express some of my own thoughts and feelings about the worsening situation in Ukraine – an analysis that is indebted to Steve’s dedicated Tweets and personal emails over the last weeks.

But to begin by introducing Ihor’s work, to quote from English PEN’s invitation, ‘Ihor Pavlyuk’s A flight over the Black Sea . . . paints an extraordinary and complex picture of Ukraine and gives us a unique perspective on the current political situation. These poems combine beautifully-wrought metaphors, transforming a shooting star into ‘candlelight glimpsed through water’ with an ancient landscape inhabited by pagan gods. Pavlyuk abandoned his studies at the St. Petersburg Military University to pursue a career as a poet, and was jailed as a result, prior to embarking on a life of rhyme. Pavlyuk’s work has been translated into several languages including English, French, Polish, Russian and Japanese. However, Pavlyuk remains rooted in Ukraine and remains one of Europe’s most versatile poets — quite literally: he recently delivered an entire reading stood on his head. These poems contain moments delicate as snowflakes: ‘The fragrance of crushed mint at dusk,/ The leaves yearning to fall/ Before the snow comes’. The sweet yearning of this poetry will remain with you long after you have turned the final page.’*

I can’t promise any yoga – my own contribution to the evening will be to read, in English, a selection of my poems very kindly translated into Ukrainian by Steve Komarnyckyj and published last year in Vsesvit, Ukraine’s most venerable literary magazine, under the magical insignia of Наомі Фойл. Not being able to read Ukrainian, I will be delighted to hear Steve read his translations of my poems, and above all to meet him for the first time. Our communications began when I worked at Waterloo Press, where I so admired the sample translation he sent in his first polite email that I broke my ‘admin-only’ firewall and replied with some spontaneous literary praise. I was later thrilled when out of the blue he asked if he could have a go at some of my work. His are my first foreign translations, and partly because I grew up painting pysanky and eating pierogi (AKA varenyky) on the Canadian prairies, partly because Steve’s work with Holodomor, to achieve UK recognition of the 1932-33 Soviet genocide of Ukrainians, chimed with my own activism for Palestine, from the beginning I felt personally close to the project.

Which brings me to current events. As I say, I am no expert. But since Ukrainians first began occupying the Maidan in Kyiv in November it has been obvious to me that Euromaidan is a people’s movement, a peaceful and determined stand against corruption, exploitation and Russian overlordship.  If you doubt that, please take a peek at this video. From my pro-Palestinian activism, including a week-long, 1400-strong international demonstration in support of Gaza held in Cairo in Dec 2009, I am accustomed to the world ignoring peaceful protests. What took me by surprise was the overwhelming Western media insistence, during those harrowing days and nights of violence in February, that the protests were in fact an effort at an extreme right wing coup. Wha?

Yes, fascist groups were in the square. There are fascists also on UK streets, and we must be vigilant against the rise of right wing extremism wherever it occurs. But echoing coverage of Syria, where the courageous, diverse and impoverished Free Syrian Army, battling a dictator armed by . . . oh! wait! Vladimir Putin . . . is routinely conflated with al- Qa’ida, our media seemed intent on radically over-simplifying a complex situation, and ignoring undeniable evidence that a genuine people’s revolt was (and is) in progress. Why? Perhaps no-one in our government wants us out on the streets toppling anyone, while the traditional Left is so heavily invested in old paradigms of opposing Western imperialism that it cannot recognise or respect an oppressed people’s right to determine its own relationship with global powers.

I won’t divert into a discussion of interventionism, which I opposed in Iraq and supported in Libya and – to no avail – in Syria. In Ukraine with the UN Security Council and NATO meetings imminent, Western military aid may yet be on the table, despite the Russian veto. As Luke Harding put it today, in a refreshingly clear-eyed view on Crimea, Putin’s attempted annexation of a sovereign state is pretty much the biggest crisis the West has faced since the Cold War. Oh yes, him again. Vlad the Invader. Striding out to Crimea in the guise of Putin the Protector.

For another distorted analysis of events in Ukraine – and one I fell prey to for a moment, thanks to the map in this blog – is the view that the country is geopolitically ‘half Russian’ and a split, while tragic, may be the only rational way to conclude the conflict. In fact, once again, the true picture is more complex than that. Often the Russian language was imposed – Steve informs me that Stalin shipped in Russians to ‘dilute national feeling’, while many older Ukrainian Russian-speakers spoke Ukrainian in their youth. In Crimea the Tatars (15% of the population) are a strongly pro-Ukranian ethnic minority, with a significant history of repression by the Soviet Union. And the majority of all Ukrainian youth – including all the football fans in Crimea – would far rather be allied with the West. In twenty years, as the older pro-Soviet generation dies away, that map could look very different. And while the interim government’s immediate decision to repeal the law granting the Russian language official minority status was considered by some Twitterers to be ill-advised and prejudicial, it was not reported widely that the law was only introduced two years ago by Yanukovych – a move opposed by many Ukrainians, some of whom feared it was a way to Russify the national bureaucracy, in preparation for a takeover.

The map will certainly look different if Putin gets his way. This summer I read The Gulag Archipelago. Not least, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece taught me that no-one was ever prosecuted for the sixty million-plus crimes of the Gulag. The collapse of the Soviet Union has not remedied this conspicious lack of justice and national soul-searching. Rather, in 2008 the human rights group Memorial in St Peterburg was raided by police, who seized its entire archive on Soviet terror (thankfully later returned), while the internment of Pussy Riot members Maria Alyoknina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova confirmed to the world that Russian prison camps still separate prisoners from their families over vast distances, and subject them to inhuman working conditions. At the same time, Stalin is praised as a ‘great leader’ in Russian school books, while Putin has authorised arbitrary campaigns of terror in his legalisation of homophobic torture gangs, and changed the constitution to allow himself to maintain and consolidate his personal power over the country. And others. In Syria, he’s backing a vicious tyrant to the hilt. Now,  in Ukraine, his ultimate aim becomes clear: empire rebuilding. As described somewhat flippantly here by The Guardian, since 2010 Putin’s pet project has been the nascent Eurasian Union – supposedly a simple trade bloc, currently numbering three authoritatian regimes, but with the dangerous potential to annex weaker neighbours and attract more dictators (Syria is apparently considering joining), drawing them all into dependent relationships with an increasingly totalitarian Moscow.

No, I am no expert. Far from it. But quite apart from Steve, I can direct you to someone who is: researcher Anton Shevhovtsov, academic researcher into the Ukrainian far-right. Here, Shevhovtsov exposes the far-right Russian networks dedicated to discrediting Euromaidan in the international media, their long-term goal being to lock Ukraine into the Eurasian Union.  Here he reveals the plans of one of the most influential of these players, Aleksandr Dugin – to use Putin’s dream of presiding over a ‘union’ of strong-man regimes as a stepping stone to the establishment of an openly fascist Russian dictatorship. Because the really scary news is that Dugin and his cronies consider Putin, well, a big old liberal pussy cat. Dugin is an proud anti-Semite and friend to the Ku Klux Klan; he is also involved in organising Russia’s neo-Eurasianist youth movement into groups with names like ‘Oprichnina‘ – Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, responsible for mass repression, land grabs and executions. And he is no crank, but an increasingly powerful man.

Anyone concerned about the rise of fascism in the world needs to be deeply worried about Russian expansionism. To denounce Putin’s support of the Syrian regime as loudly as his homophobic terror squads. To defend Euromaidan, Crimea, the Tatars and all ethnic and religious minorities in Ukraine. Like most people watching the new Ukrainian interim government shift to a war footing, I hope there is still time for world diplomacy to help. But like everyone tonight, I don’t know what new aggression tomorrow will bring.  I do know, however, that I will learn far more about the crisis and its background from Steve and Ihor in person, and I promise to blog again on Ukraine after my return from Oxford.

English PEN is hosting two events with Ihor and Steve:

  • Dash Café with Ihor Pavlyuk, Josephine Burton, Annabelle Chapman and Steve Komarnyckyj, with music from Olesya Zdorovetska, Wednesday 5 March at 7.30pm, Rich Mix, London
  • Ukrainian poetry evening with Ihor Pavlyuk and Steve Komarnyckyj on 6 March at 7pm, St Antony’s College, Oxford







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