Peppered Mead & Gnostic Democracy: Gifts of the Spirit, from Ukraine

Peppered Mead & Gnostic Democracy: Gifts of the Spirit, from Ukraine


With pleasure, and no small amount of astonishment, I announce today that for my ‘poetry and essays about Ukraine’ – the latter published here on the blog – I have earned a place on the list of recipients of the 2014 Hryhorii (Gregory) Skovoroda Award (honestly, in section 7, there I am: Наомі Фойл). Hryhorii Skovoroda was a 18th century Cossack poet, philosopher, teacher and composer. Born in what is now East Ukraine, and known as ‘the Russian Socrates’, he was a thinker who believed both that ‘the Kingdom is within us’ and ‘the Sanctity of human life lies in doing good to others’. According to Wiki, his philosophy found political expression in his support for the serfs, with ‘sharp hostility to the Muscovite oppressors’. He was a gentle person, so considerate of others that he literally dug his own grave – showing up at a friend’s house to stay ‘permanently’, he mysteriously left each morning with a shovel and, having competed his secret task, on the third day stood up after dinner, said ‘my time has come’, then went and lay down and died. I cannot promise such alacrity when my own final days dawn, but if I am to get one international literary honour in my life, I would like it to be in the spirit of such a person – a ‘gnostic democrat’ who asks us to look both without and within for, not one, but many truths. It seems fitting to have been honoured for blog publishing: Skovoroda’s twin commitments to self and society also infuse the internet, a medium in which, from our own private glowing screens, we simultaneously pursue our personal passions and mount collective resistance to tyrannies large and small. Like Ukrainian Horilka, the country’s famous honey and chile vodka, or ‘peppered mead’, his was a spirit both ambrosial and fiery.

But what have I won? Some vast sum that will turn me into the corrupt parrot of Ukrainian oligarchs? Alas, no. I am in the noble position of only ever winning literary prizes with no cash value – £50 I spent on train fare to the ceremony; a bird walk in Norfolk; and now, quite splendidly, a medal. Precisely what a Brighton eccentric needs – you can be sure I will wear it out to the grocers, perhaps on my Edith Sitwell turban. I have decided to visit Ukraine in the autumn to collect the prize. In the meantime, I warmly thank the prize administrators – the Volyn Company ‘Svitiaz’, the Chernihiv Intellectual Centre, the National Union of Writers of Ukraine, the Tara Shevchenko Institute of Literature, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and various international NGOs. In particular I thank Ihor Pavlyuk who recommended me to the jury; also Lyudmyla Pavlyuk for all her correspondence, and Stephen Komarnyckyj for translating some of my poems and placing them in the venerable journal Vsesvit, thus kickstarting my introduction to Ukrainian readers and writers. Finally, this being a gong I feel I must (like Barack Obama . . .) still fully earn, on the day that a Russian convoy of uncertain intentions rolls into Ukraine, I would like to conclude by posting some more links on the current situation in the country:

First, Putin’s Propaganda Machine and How To Smash It, Stephen Komarnyckyj’s new article for Euromaidan, exposing the ruthless efforts of the Russian government to project its own fascist values onto the Ukrainian revolution. The article raises vital questions about how we get our information about the world, and while I am yet not sure myself if banning Russia Today is possible or desirable in Europe at least (in Ukraine is another matter), it is certainly crucual to understand the channel’s role as pure propaganda, a television station from which at least one journalist has resigned, citing management pressure to lie on air and create fake social media profiles.

Second, Steve’s petition demanding that The Ecologist Magazine change its editorial policy and stop publishing articles that slander Ukraine and have nothing to do with the environment. Possible unsavory links between the Green Party and pro-Russian ideologues are not new to readers of this blog, and as Steve says, this petition is, like him ‘stuck in the fifties’, so it would be terrific if you felt inclined to sign.

And, to end on a poetic note, with news that is always current, here’s The Kalyna Review, an online literary translation journal edited by Steve and his partner Susie Speight – now open for submissions – and Ihor Pahlyuk’s A Flight Over the Black Sea (Waterloo Press, 2013), poems translated by Steve, and which I first heard in Oxford, warmed by Ihor’s kind gift of a shot of the spirit of Ukraine!



Thank you Maria! I do feel very attached to Ukraine, having grown up in Saskatchewan where so many Ukrainian immigrants settled. xx

Leave a Reply