Music for the Deaf

Steve Komarnyckyj on Ukraine’s “Executed Renaissance”

The priest descended the steps from the aircraft and collapsed to his knees to kiss the tarmac. It was 1992, and my father and I were on our way to see my aunt who had returned from the Komi Republic after four decades in camps and exile. This priest was my first glimpse of Ukraine, a country I had been told from childhood was my homeland. I was now twenty-nine years old, and its inhabitants seemed alien to me. I had flown at the front of the aircraft with the “Europeans,” while in the back, the Ukrainians were obscured by tobacco smoke. We were estranged by a haze of nicotine and history.

Later, my father and I stood in line for hours waiting for a train ticket. A continuous argument raged by the ticket counter—my first encounter with Ukraine’s red tape. Losing patience, Dad headed for the car park and paid a shell-suited thug sixty dollars to queue-jump.

We had time to spare so I headed into the city and checked out a bookshop. I was particularly interested in the Ukraine’s Executed Renaissance of the 1920s. I had first read about them in the diaspora journals my father would bring home. But on these shelves, all I saw were Russian books.

“Where are the Ukrainian books?” I asked.

The guy behind the counter looked at me with disdain and gestured to his right. There was an empty bookcase labelled Ukrainian Literature, cordoned off with string. Some store browsers stared. Others avoided my gaze.

Ukraine had been submerged within the Russian empire before 1917. As early as 1627, Tsar Mikhail had issued a decree to destroy all copies of Ukrainian religious texts. When, in 1654, Ukraine was incorporated within the Russian empire, the assault on Ukrainian intensified. In 1720, Peter the First forbid book printing in the language. In 1729, Peter the Second required all state decrees issued in Ukrainian be rewritten in Russian. Decree followed decree. In 1863, interior minister Pyotr Valuyev banned the publication of secular and religious books (apart from belles lettres) in Ukrainian, stating that “the Ukrainian language never existed does not exist and shall never exist.” The 1876 Ems Ukaz banned publishing new books and performing plays in Ukrainian. Yet, in spite of legislative strangulation, the language remained like a sea held in check by a levee.

In 1920s Ukraine, the lifting of centuries of oppression of the language was the cultural equivalent of blowing a hole in a dam. Writers poured through the gap. Symbolists. Neo-classicists. Futurists. In the absence of a state, Ukrainians had acquired a ferocious capacity for self-organisation. Writing in Ukrainian challenged political and artistic orthodoxies. Olha Kobylianska (1863–1942) wrote her feminist novella Valse mélancolique (1898)—even before Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). Vasyl Stefanyk (1871–1936) produced brilliantly wrought expressionist literary miniatures, bonsai novels. Rory Finnin of the Cambridge University Ukrainian Studies department observed that: “Ukrainian literature is replete with vigorous voices . . . It is a literature of rebels and risk-takers, writers whose works injected world culture with new euphonies and expanded the boundaries of human expression.”

However, in 1992, I was only beginning to understand how soft power had marginalised Ukrainian literature. My father and I caught the overnight train to Volodymyr-Volynskyi, the town where my aunt had settled after her return from exile. A couple of her friends from the labour camp were living nearby. “I was at University with your aunt,” they said. The survivors of the Gulag did not speak its name in public. Ukrainian researchers had begun unearthing mass graves from the Stalinist era from 1990 onwards. In some of the pictures, skulls seemed as artificial as bowling balls.

My aunt lived in a typical Soviet block of flats with a rug over her bed. Having no washing machine, she insisted on washing my clothes in the bath. The collapse of the command economy ushered in hyperinflation. My aunt and dad watched the TV while she raged about corrupt politicians. She berated me for my poverty and lack of ambition: Stefan, you have so little it’s like you’d just come out of a labour camp. Dad took me into the town centre for a break from her loving, but overpowering, presence. An old woman shouldering a massive bag of timber told us of her misfortunes. The cow had died. Her son was on narcotics. Someone had stabbed someone.

I was beginning to see that in the absence of a state, Ukraine had become a vast family. Strangers on overnight trains would swap beers, share food, chat as if they had known each other all their lives. When we caught a taxi to see another relative, they invited the driver in and fed him. In a country that had suffered three famines in the twentieth century, sharing was a reflex. More cake Stefan? My aunt insisted on sleeping on the floor and giving me her bed.

Of course, Ukraine was not perfect. Prejudices had been preserved as in aspic. Yet Ukrainians were open to change. Large demonstrations, such as the awakening of 1917, were hardwired into the nation’s psyche. It was this autonomous spirit which led Stalin to become increasingly suspicious of Ukraine.  

A wave of executions commenced in 1930. The first show trial focused on a non-existent “League for the Liberation of Ukraine.” Writers and artists were arrested and dispatched to labour camps to die of malnutrition or disease, or shot. Between 1932 and 1933, Stalin took advantage of the food shortages across the Soviet Union to organise a genocidal famine against Ukraine. Although the demography is hotly disputed, according to a recent estimate a minimum of 3.9 million people died during the Holodomor in Ukraine.

Ukraine subsequently became the centre of Hitler’s colonisation plans. Yet, as the prominent historian Tim Snyder noted recently, the country’s role in World War II has been systematically distorted. More Ukrainians died fighting on the Allied side than British, French, and Americans combined, yet Russia succeeded in associating Ukraine with Nazism. In reality Snyder stresses that “The Ukrainians were to be at the center of a project of colonization and enslavement. The Ukrainians were to be treated as Afrikaner, as Neger . . . ” However, the Nazi aim of enslaving and exterminating Ukrainians has been largely ignored in Western discourse. Historian Norman Davies observes that there has been an undue focus on examples of Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis.

I eventually realised that the negative branding of Ukraine as either Fascist or simply Russian led to its culture being held in low regard. It wasn’t until a few days after we arrived that I managed to purchase some Ukrainian books. I found some works of the Executed Renaissance at a bazaar in west Ukraine, which had only been under Soviet control since World War II. Here, Ukrainian was spoken in the city rather than harried into the villages.


We travelled from Volodymyr-Volynskyi to Lviv to meet my aunt’s best friend from Vorkuta. The landscape undulated through sunflowers and poppies. I read Pavlo Tychyna’s Solar Clarinets (1918) on the train. Tychyna (1891–1967) was initially known as a poetic innovator whose enraptured language seemed effortless. The first poem described a moment of transcendence as the narrator played a clarinet. The poem exploited Ukrainian’s fluid sentence structures beginning with a triple negative that would sound bizarre in English. Another piece handled a pathetic fallacy as delicately as Meissen Porcelain:

Over the road stands the willow
Catching the resonant strings of rain
Bowing with its branches as if saying
Sorrow, sorrow
Such years such without end
On the strings of eternity I play
A willow, solitary.

I tried to see with his eyes, to understand what he was saying about humanity’s capacity for love and violence. The poems in Instead of Sonnets and Octaves (1920) stripped away the pretensions of revolution:

Each great idea requires sacrifice.
Is it a sacrifice when beast eats beast?

He summed up the tragedy of the Soviet experience in five words: Revolution is a tragic lyric. Tychyna survived by contrast with the majority of prominent Ukrainian writers in this period, by becoming a propagandist for the regime.

I translated the poems over several years before eventually publishing a selection of his work. Sean Street described the texts as a “revelation,” and they were singled out by reviewer Charles Bainbridge from The Guardian. But nothing changed. I had created a small, unnoticeable flurry like the flakes in a snow globe. The sediment of indifference settled back into place.

As I translated Tychyna I studied the work of his contemporaries, using an anthology collated and published by the Ukrainian literary critic Yurii Lavrinenko (1905–1987). The spectral faces of Tychyna’s contemporaries, who had for the most part been executed or died in camps, stared out of the book’s grainy photos. Volodymyr Svidzinsky (1885–1941), one of the Executed Renaissance poets, evaded censorship by writing a poem which used silence to speak. “The Lustre of Surfaces,” a poem written in 1934, describes dusk in a dilapidated countryside. The horror of Stalinism is implicit but never stated. I tried to capture his melancholic eloquence:

The lustre of surfaces dies into the shadow
And antique silence sleeps,
Like water decanted into a bowl.

He was reportedly burned alive by the Soviets in 1941.

Lviv, where my aunt’s friend lived, had been part of Poland prior to World War II. The city was one of the haunts of Bohdan Ihor Antonych (1909–1937) whose work I also explored during my translation of Tychyna. He died in 1937 when several of his fellow authors were murdered in Soviet Ukraine. His work is enraptured with life:

We return slowly to the earth, our cradle.
Green tangles of vegetation bind us, two fettered chords.
The razor sharp axe of sun hews at a trunk,
The music of moss, tenderness of the breeze, the oak a proud idol.

Antonych’s poetry yoked together disparate images organically. It seemed less forced than that of English authors using similar metaphors. I became aware that Ukrainian literature had qualities lost by other European traditions. The work of Tychyna and Antonych conveyed an affinity with nature that contrasted with D. H. Lawrence’s stridence. Stefanyk spoke with the voice of a peasantry often transformed into comic grotesques elsewhere. The authors of the Executed Renaissance in particular were uninhibitedly experimental.  

As I engaged with the work of these authors in the years that followed, my own understanding of language grew. The challenge of rendering Tychyna’s poems as texts that worked in English reinvigorated my own writing. I tried to import the rapture of Ukrainian poetry into my own work:

My father, with his trousers rolled up to his knee,
Stood in the beck, in peat-stained water
That was the gold orange of a delicate tea,
Though curious frills of lace and snow
Bloomed over the stones nearby
And his feet were either bronze or ivory.

In the years following my trip, the economy recovered and Kyiv became one of the hippest destinations in Europe. The country’s turbulence resulted in one of the most fecund artistic environments in the world. The Russian translator Elena Marinicheva argues that Ukrainian literature has “advanced further” than Russian. Yet translations from the Ukrainian language are almost invisible. When Kalyna Language Press crowdfunded and published the translation of Kaharlyk in 2016, it was a rare moment when a translated Ukrainian text broke through the asphalt. It featured in Index on Censorship, The Guardian, among other publications.

Oleh Shynkarenko’s 2014 book Kaharlyk originated as Facebook posts. The book consists of numbered paragraphs. It is set in the future after a war between Ukraine and Russia. The Russian army has used the narrator’s brain to control military satellites. The book is a tragicomic Odyssey which plays with language:

Everything I could imagine resembled Kaharlyk. But what was Kaharlyk, what did it look like, and where was it? It seemed spherical, apple sized; its very uneven surface was covered in deformed growths. Some saw its unique beauty, but I did not know these people.

Shynkarenko’s work and that of other Ukrainian authors which draws on the experimentalism of the Executed Renaissance is replete with potential for other languages. However, the structure of the literary market still reflects Russia’s historical dominance over Ukraine. 2017 marks the eightieth anniversary of 1937, the year in which many Ukrainian writers died. Yet there will be no official commemorations of the Executed Renaissance. Instead we will see commemorations of the Russian Revolution. Lenin and Stalin will, in death as in life, eclipse their victims. This is a loss both culturally and in terms of our understanding of the Soviet experience. Many influential authors and politicians still argue that a politics which resulted in mass killing is of value. An awareness of the Executed Renaissance, the culling of a literary generation, would help dispel such myths. The West and Russia have often talked over Ukraine either diplomatically or in academe where Russian views of Ukraine are dominant. It’s time we listened to those unheard but sweeter melodies which its voice has drowned out.