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In Conversation with Ukrainian Poet Natalka Bilotserkivets (Harriman Resident, ’22-’23)
March 20, 2023

Natalka Bilotserkivets (Harriman Resident, ’22-’23) is a Ukrainian poet and translator. Her poem, “We’ll Not Die in Paris,” was adapted by the rock group Mertvyi Piven, and became the unofficial anthem for Ukrainian independence in 1991. Since then, Bilotserkivets has become a foundational poet in the Ukrainian national cannon.

Bilotserkivets was living in Kyiv when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. She fled Ukraine for Paris a few weeks later. We are honored to host Bilotserkivets as a Harriman Resident at Columbia’s Global Center (Paris) and the Institute for Ideas and Imagination this year.

The following transcript is an edited and condensed excerpt from a longer interview that will appear in a forthcoming episode of our podcast, Voices of Ukraine. Our conversation took place via Zoom on February 27, 2023, through an interpreter, Bilotserkivets’s translator Ali Kinsella.

[You can meet Bilotserkivets at our March 27 event, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culturewhich will highlight the work of Harriman residents in Paris!]

— Masha Udensiva-Brenner

Masha Udensiva-Brenner: Can you tell us about your background?

Natalka Bilotserkivets: I was born in a village [Kuyanovka]. You could say I’m the child of a village, the child of village teachers—my parents taught Ukrainian.

I began to compose poems at a very young age, and all this had an effect. I use the word compose instead of write, because I believe that all young children compose poems. They really like rhythm and sound and musicality.

And I composed these poems at a young age, I didn’t begin to write them down until I was around 10.

MUB: Where was the village you grew up in?

NB: A very interesting part of Ukraine. Northeastern Ukraine. In the time of Kyiv Rus, it was on the border between Kyiv Rus and the Dyke Pole, Wild Fields [Editor’s note: Wild Fields was a historical term used in 16-18th century Polish-Lithuanian documents]. And then much later it was on the border with the Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Today, it’s very close to the Ukrainian-Russian border. But it’s interesting to note that on the other side of that border, in what is officially the Russian Federation, there are Ukrainian villages, too. And so, when Putin talks about a single people and uniting the Russian people, what people is he actually talking about? Who is it who lives on both sides of that border?

Now, the district I grew up in is under intense attack from Russia and I just can’t stomach this idea that it’s all one people, because if we we’re supposed to believe this lie that we’re all one people, then why would these people be attacked?

MUB: And what was it like growing up in a Ukrainian village during the Soviet period, particularly one so close to the border of Russia?

NB: I had a very happy childhood. I am very grateful that I was born in a village and got to grow up away from a city. I was so close to nature and had this really tight connection to it.

I was sort of isolated from politics. I sometimes heard people talking about the Thaw or major political events, but it didn’t really influence my subconscious, it wasn’t really a part of my life.

Our village had a nice square. Soviet propaganda existed. We had to go out for marches and parades and school celebrations. As a young poet, I was often invited to recite poetry about a pioneer scarf or something like that.

But the Ukrainian element was tolerated. So, kids wore embroidered shirts, vyshyvankas, and girls might have worn garlands on their heads and done some Ukrainian dances. And it was sort of peacefully symbiotic.

MUB: Can you talk about your relationship to language?

NB: I spoke Ukrainian at home. When I began to read, I read both languages from the beginning. This was because there were lots of really interesting books in Russian that I couldn’t get in Ukrainian, like Doctor Aybolit. I could speak and read in Russian and Ukrainian, although I probably read Russian better than I spoke it, but it was somehow always understood that I would just write poems in Ukrainian.

I published my first poem when I was 13, and that’s about the time that my parents started having conversations with me about what Ukraine is and what Ukrainian culture is. But these conversations had to be careful and cautious. If you had looked at this from the outside, you might have said, “Oh, they’re trying to turn her into a patriot”

MUB: You left the village to attend university in Kyiv. What was that like?

NB: I studied at Kyiv University. I was in the Department of Philology. At the time, it was the best university, but more importantly, my parents had also gone there. I had been to Kyiv before—my mom grew up in the Kyiv area, so Kyiv was not new to me. But living in Kyiv is when I began to discover and appreciate the beauty of cities.

 MUB: How was it to be a Ukrainian speaker in Kyiv?

NB: Kyiv has always been a complicated place. It’s never been a fully Russian-speaking city, and it was always possible, if you wanted, to surround yourself with a completely Ukrainian-speaking environment. There were all sorts of different subcultures.

The one thing that I never fully got used to, was the fact that if I spoke Ukrainian in public, people often stared. Even people who knew how to speak Ukrainian themselves.There was a general undertone—of course Ukrainian is beautiful, but it’s not for serious matters.

MUB: How were you able to get your poetry published in Ukrainian during Soviet times?

NB: Many of my poems were censored. Some of them have never been published to this day. Right before perestroika began, I had a poem that didn’t make it into a collection. And that’s my most famous poem, “We’ll Not Die in Paris.” The editor said, why are we talking about death in Paris? Can’t you just die a beautiful death here in the Soviet Union?

But people did know the poem because I read it aloud for seven years at my readings. And my husband, Mykola [Editor’s Note: Literary critic and public intellectual Mykola Riabchuk], is responsible for its fame in no small part because he would type it up on our typewriter and spread it around and post it and hand it out to people. So people knew the poem by the time it was eventually published.

MUB: And then the band, Mertvyi Piven, turned it into a song. Can you talk about that experience?

NB: No one told me that my poem had been turned into a song. No one asked for my permission. There was no concern for author’s rights. So I didn’t hear the song until it was performed live at the Chervona Ruta Festival in 1991. And this group of children—they were 19, maybe 20 years old—they got the grand prize at the festival. And this was right before the August putsch happened in Moscow, and then Ukraine eventually voted for independence in December that same year. And so, the song accidentally became this political statement and anthem for politically oriented youth who wanted a free independent Ukraine.

MUB: What inspired the poem?

NB: It’s a poem about a variety of things, but one of them is love. It’s a poem about love, and it’s a poem about two poets. And the epigraph to the poem, “I’ll die in Paris on Thursday evening,” is from Cesar Vallejo, whom I consider the greatest modernist among Latin American poets of the 20th century, with the exception perhaps of Pablo Neruda.

And, in fact, he died in Paris. I don’t know if he died on a Thursday. There was another thing that sort of inspired the poem, and that was Paul Celan who said, “geniuses are born in the provinces and they die in Paris.”

So, I was playing with these two notions. Of course, I’d never been to Paris. I wouldn’t get to go until many, many years after the poem was written.

MUB: And how does it feel to be talking about it now, while you’re in Paris, in this forced exile?

NB: When I came to Paris, last year in March, it was a very, very difficult time. It was a difficult time in Kyiv. It was a difficult time for me in Paris. I sometimes thought about how I had written “We’ll Not Die in Paris.” And I thought, in fact, I won’t die in Paris. I don’t want to die in Paris.

And even my young colleagues here on this fellowship from Columbia and the Harriman Institute have also picked up on this. And sometimes we say among ourselves that we’re not going to die in Paris. And I think that people probably need to die where they live.

But, now, it’s a bit easier than it was back in March. I’m beginning to enjoy Paris a little bit and perhaps this is a sign that things are coming to an end, and that they will end the way Ukraine wants them to end. I hope for a future time when I can just come and have fun in Paris.

Bilotserkivets, along with her fellow Harriman Residents, will join us at the Institute in late March and participate in two campus events: an evening of discussion and celebration at Low Library, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture (March 27), and a poetry reading and discussion of Bilotserkivets’s work, Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow: An Evening With Ukrainian Poet Natalka Bilotserkivets (March 31).