Oksana Zabuzhko, poet, fiction writer, and essayist, is one of contemporary Ukrainian literature’s foremost voices in the West. She is one of the few—the very few—who have been translated into Swedish. In 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas, she wrote a text about writing from within a country that hardly anyone in the world knew anything about. She speaks of how this invisibility has been a prerequisite for the Russian aggression, and she concludes with the words: “may the world listen this time.”
After the full-scale Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, we can ascertain that we did not in fact listen—at least not in the way that was needed.
It seems that the Russian regime really believed that the blitzkrieg would make Ukraine fall. That during the first days of shock and awe attacks the country would topple like a house of cards. That the army would be easy to overpower, the soldiers would quickly abandon their barracks, the population would be demoralized, and would have split loyalties and therefore become easy targets for the occupation authorities’ propaganda campaigns. This was the lesson the Kremlin had learned in Crimea and Donbas in 2014.
But in those first few days in the end of February, Ukraine did not fall. And not only because the Ukrainian army was now better fitted or more motivated than they had been in 2014. They now also had the experience of eight years of fighting against Russian or Russian backed separatist forces in the East, but the main reason was perhaps that the Ukrainian society as such was better prepared to meet the aggression.
At present we are almost two months into the invasion. It is now possible to make some preliminary observations as to what kind of war we are dealing with. The first thing that needs to be inculcated is that this is not a war between two states, that make conflicting territorial claims. It is instead a one-sided war of aggression that has been initiated by a former colonial power with the aim of claiming back a former colony, in order to once and for all wipe out the cultural, lingual, and political traditions that serve to strengthen and defend the country’s newly won independence. One of the main targets of this war is therefore the cultural heritage. And the occupation army’s lists of people who are to be arrested contain not only the names of members of the political leadership, but also the names of writers and intellectuals.
Therefore, the war is not one where civilians suffer through what in military language is called ‘collateral damage.’ In this war the civilian population is, on the contrary, being directly targeted. The reasons seem to be several. One is obvious and is of a practical nature: the population’s motivation to defend itself must be broken down with the goal of weakening the Ukrainian will to defend itself. But over time, a deeper and more frightening reason has surfaced: the Russian war strategy can be characterized as a war of annihilation. It is targeting “the Ukrainian” as such, which also means that it is targeting the Ukrainians. Articles in mainstream Russian press openly describe the ideological basis of an ethnic cleansing of Ukraine. The Russian Orthodox Patriarch has given the campaign his blessing. And when the Russian troops were forced to leave the suburbs that they had occupied north-west of Kyiv—Bucha, Irpin, Hostomel—the practice of ethnic cleansing became visible: the mass graves with civilians, the rapes, the plundering, the destruction. In Mariupol we see another kind of practice: the occupation and starvation of a complete city. And a little on the side, in the shadow of the front-line news, we have reports of a third kind of practice: how Ukrainians are being evacuated by force into Russian territory. Stories reach us of filtering camps, of people who have had their identity documents taken away from them, and who have been separated from their children. The systematic manner and the magnitude of these Russian war crimes is a question for a future war tribunal that will hopefully be set up; that they are occurring is beyond doubt.
In Europe there has been nothing like this since the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. And perhaps we have only seen the beginning.
In this first publication of PEN/Opp’s thematic issue on Ukraine we want to share witness accounts of the disaster of the war as it unfolds. But in the longer perspective we hope to contribute to the possibility that the world finally will begin “to listen to Ukraine,” as Zabuzhko writes. We also want to help collect more manifest humanitarian aid during the ongoing catastrophe. The money that reaches the Swedish branch of PEN’s Emergency Fund goes entirely to the Relief Fund for Ukrainian Cultural Workers living within the country or in exile, which has been started by Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Polish PEN in collaboration with the Polish Open Culture Foundation.
Swedish PEN’s work of solidarity with Ukraine is a natural continuation of the literary work of solidarity that began when the Belarusian Revolution erupted—and was subsequently crushed—in 2020. The networks of writers, translators, and activists that emerged during the Belarusian events now stand ready to try to meet the war in Ukraine. And there is certainly a strong connection between Belarus and Ukraine. The tragedies in these two countries are very different, but they are nevertheless intertwined. While Ukraine today is combatting an occupation army, Belarus already suffers from a Russian occupation, an occupation that has taken place on the sly and with the dictator Lukashenka’s consent.
In the work with Belarus, our foremost task was to create opinion, and to keep the events in the country topical even after the first weeks of attention had waned. We wanted to awaken Swedish civil society and Swedish politicians, and to put pressure on the business world and various policy makers. However, in the case of Ukraine all these aspects are already in place. We are witnessing a wave of solidarity in the whole of Sweden: all the way from parliament to big organizations to individuals who have opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees. Political adjustments are being made at an unprecedented speed and industries and businesses are, at last, backing out of the Russian and Belarusian dictatorships. In this new landscape our task has partly become a different one. One important aspect though remains the same: to help keep alive an interest and level-headed discussions as time goes by. Also, to insist upon the role played by literary participants and by literary forms of expression, which are central both to the Ukrainian resistance and to our Swedish work of solidarity.
In this field there is much yet to be done. On the Swedish literary chart Ukraine is basically a blank spot. Some dozens of poems and extracts from novels have been translated and published, mainly in magazines; there are one or two anthologies, and only three novels: two by Serhiy Zhadan (who is currently active in defending Kharkiv) and one by Zabuzhko (who is now in Warsaw).
This brings us back to Zabuzhko’s call for help from 2014. Had we made sure to translate more, read more, listen more, and engage in cultural dialogue with one another, then the pain inherent in the current events would have touched us more directly. We would have felt more acutely the pain of the war that followed on the annexation of Crimea and Donbas in 2014, the pain when the rising in Belarus was crushed in 2020. It would certainly have been harder for us to look away; desperation would have forced us to speak out, to shatter the silence that made it possible for the Russian regime to gather their forces for a new onslaught. And then we might not have had a major war in Europe as we have today.