Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuk reflects on war and the burden of a motherland
'Language is as beautiful as this world. So when someone destroys your world, language reflects that.'
Long before the contested Donbas region in eastern Ukraine was a war zone, poet Lyuba Yakimchuk experienced it as a kind of paradise.
"In the spring, I could see the wild apricots in bloom," she told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.
When she was a child, the region experienced an economic crisis after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To make a living, people in her town would pick apricots and sell them to conductors on the train between Moscow and Kyiv.
"There was a Russian border near my town of Pervomaisk. One of my distant relatives said one time that after crossing the border, the apricot trees are nowhere to be seen."
Her long poem Apricots of Donbas starts with the line, "Where no more apricots grow, Russia starts."
"Now this territory is occupied. But the borders still exist, by these apricot trees … forever," she said.
When pro-Russian separatists took control of the region in 2014, Yakimchuk's parents tried to stay in their home in Pervomaisk. They planted potatoes under occupation and slept in the cellar with the potatoes when the shelling got worse.
But like so many others, eventually they had to flee. For the last five years, Yakimchuk's childhood home has been occupied by a sniper.
Her family made a new home in central Ukraine. But now, as Russia invades, the entire country is in danger.
"Kyiv could be next," Yakimchuk said. "We see it right now."
'We will be witnesses'
On February 24, 2022, Yakimchuk said she woke at 6 a.m. to the sound of shelling in Kyiv.
"I have covered the windows with scotch tape to prevent glass [from] flying. Our neighbours came to us because our house is more secure," she said.
"We hear civil defence sirens here, the shelling sounds and the helicopters."
Before the invasion started, she and her husband attended civilian military training, completed their first aid kits, stocked up on food, installed a solid fuel boiler and an electric generator.
"Our plan is to stay in Kyiv and try to be helpful. Tomorrow, we are going to donate blood for Ukrainian soldiers. I guess it won't be easy for us, but … Putin's regime will fall apart," she said. "We will be witnesses."
'When someone destroys your world, language reflects it'
A major theme of Yakimchuk's poetry is what happens to language in wartime. "Language is as beautiful as this world. So when someone destroys your world, language reflects that," she said.
In her poem decomposition, the names of places like Luhansk, Donetsk, and her hometown of Pervomaisk literally fall apart.
"I decompose words to describe the decomposition of cities and towns, the decomposition of Donbas region, my little motherland," she said.
Our Father, who art in heaven
of the full moon
and the hollow sun
shield from death my parents
whose house stands in the line of fire
and who won't abandon it
like a tomb
shield my husband
on the other side of the war
as if on the other side of a river
pointing his gun at a breast
he used to kiss
I carry on me this bulletproof vest
and cannot take it off
it clings to me like a skin
I carry inside me his child
and cannot force it out
for he owns my body through it
I carry within me a Motherland
and cannot puke it out
for it circulates like blood
through my heart
our daily bread give to the hungry
and let them stop devouring one another
our light give to the deceived
and let them gain clarity
and forgive us our destroyed cities
even though we do not forgive for them our enemies
and lead us not into temptation
to go down with this rotting world
but deliver us from evil
to get rid of the burden of a Motherland -
heavy and hardly useful
shield from me
my husband, my parents
my child and my Motherland
Translated by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky
Yakimchuk's strategy of decomposing language is part of a longer tradition in Ukraine.
"Her predecessor, the person that she is working on as a historian and a journalist and a literary scholar, is Mykhailo Semenko, a prominent Ukrainian poet who started this whole discourse about what he called destruction or deconstruction," said Ukrainian-American poet and scholar Oksana Maksymchuk.
Alongside her husband Max Rosochinsky, Maksymchuk co-translated Yakimchuk's poetry collection Apricots of Donbas. In 2017, the couple also co-edited an anthology of Ukrainian poetry titled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. They left their home in Lviv, Ukraine several days before the invasion, and are now in Hungary.
Semenko was one of the founders of a genre of poetry known as Ukrainian Futurism. When it began in the 1910s, it was a profoundly optimistic movement.
"It was meant to destroy the old patterns of making sense of reality, to be replaced by new patterns. He thought that … they can create a new way of making sense of the world, a new language for this beautiful new reality," said Maksymchuk.
Semenko's beautiful dream for the future was never realized. In 1937, at age 44, Semenko was executed — one of roughly a million people in the Soviet Union who were executed during Stalin's purges in the 1930s. But the legacy of Futurism lives on in contemporary poets like Yakimchuk.
"He changed how we should tell our stories. 'Nation is narration,' it's a post-colonial idea. I think Semenko had this idea before," said Yakimchuk.
'Nation as narration'
During war, the idea of "nation as narration" takes on a new resonance.
"War is also a story maker," said Yakimchuk. "There are damaging narratives in every country — in Ukraine as well … Ukrainians believe that the heroes are dead people. According to [this narrative], a person who managed to stay alive, to survive isn't a hero. And this idea is very dangerous when war is here."
"It's one thing to tell a soldier during training that you are heroic, not if you surrender, but if you stand your ground. It's very different to adopt this rhetoric that I think has been adopted now in the recent days of the civilian resistance, where all members of the civilian population are encouraged to arm themselves, to stick their guns out of every window," said Maksymchuk.
Ultimately, she said, staying alive is what gives you a chance to shape the future.
"Defense is one thing. Sacrificing yourself in the end is another thing. There is a lot of rhetoric about self-sacrifice that we would like to avoid, because every human life is meaningful," added Rosochinsky.
"I believe culture can program people for behavioral models, and that is what I mean when [I write about] about a 'burden of the motherland,'" said Yakimchuk. "It's our burden, which in the end we should cope with. And we should invent new stories to tell ourselves. If we don't, our enemies tell them for us."
Each side of the current conflict has a very different narrative.
"I was looking through my Facebook and seeing what people and friends in other cities have been posting. We have this former friend in the Luhansk People's Republic, we used to read poetry together, we used to drink together," said Maksymchuk.
"She said that all of these years we have been praying not for peace, but for victory. So to her, it was never about stopping the violence or somehow resuming this return to normalcy. I think that had been painful to her. What she wanted was the continuation of this struggle of Russia against what she perceives as a hostile world."
In thinking about how to communicate across these radically different narratives, Maksymchuk takes inspiration from Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.
In his poem "To My Russian Friends," Mickiewicz wrote: "as for those of you who are complicit, it is not you that I want to destroy, but your shackles."
"So it's this kind of choice about how to direct the emotions, perhaps very strong and very destructive, such as anger or the wish to retaliate, how to direct them so that you can actually live together after the war ends, which inevitably will happen in the future," said Maksymchuk.
"Because there is always a future."
Guests in this episode:
Lyuba Yakimchuk is a poet, playwright, and screenwriter. Her most recent poetry collection is called Apricots of Donbas. Her poetry has won prestigious awards, including the International Slavic Poetic Award (Ukraine) and the International Poetic Award of the Kovalev Foundation (USA). Born and raised in a small town near Luhansk, Yakimchuk now lives in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky are award-winning literary translators, poets, and scholars. In 2017, they co-edited an anthology of Ukrainian poetry titled Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine. In addition to co-translating Lyuba Yakimchuk's Apricots of Donbas, they also recently came out with a translation of The Voices of Babyn Yar, a book of poems by Marianna Kiyanovska about the mass killing of the Jewish population of Kyiv uder the Nazi occupation in 1941. Until a few days ago, they lived in Lviv, Ukraine.
*This episode was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.