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Ukrainian Literature During Wartime: Two Questions for Andriy Kurkov
January 17, 2024

Each academic year we host hundreds of interdisciplinary events with regional experts and members of the Harriman community discussing a range of issues on Eurasia, and Eastern Europe. In our web and print feature, Harriman Talks, Harriman Magazine follows up with some of those speakers about ideas or experiences discussed at the institute.

Andriy Kurkov, Harriman’s 2023 Writer in Residence, spoke at the institute in November about life for writers in Ukraine throughout the Soviet period, then during the 1990s, and now in wartime. Editor-in-Chief Ann Cooper followed up with him.

Cooper: During your talk you told some colorful stories about surviving as a writer during the Soviet era in Ukraine. What was most important in shaping you as a writer back then?

Andriy Kurkov: The most important thing at that time was access to “illegal literature,” which came into our house thanks to my older brother. From the ages of 14 to15, I already understood censorship and how it limited the worldview of anyone who lived in the Soviet cultural space, without access to objective knowledge about world culture.

The biggest revolution in my consciousness occurred at age 17. That’s when I read The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This book changed my attitude toward the “official” history of the Soviet Union and made me want to learn real Soviet history. So, I began to travel around the Soviet Union with a voice recorder, looking for pensioners who could tell me the truth about what happened in the 1930s-1950s. This is how my novel Bickford’s Fuse came to be. I wrote it from 1985 to 1989 but could not publish it until 1993, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Working on it shaped me as a writer.

Cooper: How has Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine changed the atmosphere and the work for Ukrainian writers?

Kurkov: Russian aggression has created many problems both for the publishing world and for the literary process. At the very beginning of the war, the largest printing plants, which also contained supplies of paper for future books, were bombed by Russian artillery and missiles in Kharkiv and the Kharkiv region. Many books prepared for publication before the full-scale invasion were never released.

Most Ukrainian writers practically stopped writing fiction, switching to essays and journalism. Many are still unable to work on novels. All publishing houses, without exception, began to publish mainly documentary prose about the war.

Some Ukrainian publishers, lacking new works from Ukrainian authors, are more actively publishing translations of modern foreign literature. And others, feeling the lack of contemporary Ukrainian fiction, began writing novels themselves. For example, the director of one of the largest publishing houses “Folio” (Kharkiv), Alexander Krasovitsky, has already published two of his own novels about events in Ukraine and Russia: Yesterday and Today. Now he is working on Tomorrow, the third part of the trilogy where he is trying to predict the further developments in this war.

The priorities of Ukrainian readers also changed. Before the war, readers gravitated toward Ukrainian translations of Western bestsellers. Now the books in demand are Ukrainian classical literature: prose and poetry by previously little-known Ukrainian writers of the 1920s – 30s executed by the Stalinist regime, modern patriotic and war poetry, and books on the history of Ukraine.

Several Ukrainian writers, such as Andriy Kokotyukha and Maxim Kidruk, continue to actively write genre fiction, but, like most, they are also involved in volunteer activities to support the Ukrainian army.

And it’s important to add that Russia’s aggression started shaping Ukrainian literature long before the full-scale invasion. One example is a so-called “parallel military literature” that emerged in Ukraine after 2014 — documentary books about military operations in Donbas, written by veterans, soldiers and volunteers. By 2016-2017, this new generation of writers was fully formed, it had its own publishers — also veterans of the war in Donbas. These writers continue to work on military topics and the number of books published by veterans already numbers in the hundreds.