Diary, continued: Eugene Ostashevsky on Yevgenia Belorusets
Photo: From “Victories of the Defeated,” a cycle of more than 150 photographs and texts created by Yevgenia Belorusets during the 2014 war in Donbas, devoted to post-industrial Ukraine, to work in coal mines on the edge of the war zone, and to contemporary forms of labor amidst military conflict
Read Yevgenia Belorusets’ “The Stars,” here
The fighting in the East Ukrainian region of Donbas casts a shadow of unreality over Yevgenia Belorusets’ stories. For years, Russian propaganda efforts and planted rumors have rewritten the lived reality there in deliberately absurd and atavistic terms, not just to appeal to the emotional associations of their audience’s Soviet childhoods, but to sabotage the very possibility of an independent truth. Belorusets narrates the lives of her protagonists with the perspectivism, fragmentariness, and, above all, uncertainty that characterize the war as perceived by participants willing and unwilling—especially this war, where the Russian instigation of separatist violence has been disguised and denied up to now. Some of Belorusets’ stories take place in Kyiv, others, near the war zone, while yet others are set in the regions occupied by the separatists, or else regions that have recently changed hands.
The language of her stories is Russian, a controversial choice for a Ukrainian writer both politically and logistically. Ukraine is a country where almost everyone can speak both Ukrainian and Russian, and many people get to use both languages daily, although Ukrainian is the main language in, roughly, the western and central parts of the country, whereas Russian is more common in the east. A lot of language mixing takes place, both within the bounds of a single conversation and within the village dialects spoken by millions, called surzhik, that have no written form. But most Ukrainian citizens who care about language would like Ukrainian to become the one language of the nation.
The presence of so much Russian on Ukrainian territory is the linguistic consequence of colonial history. During the Imperial and Soviet periods, the state made efforts to suppress the use of Ukrainian as an autonomous language of culture and politics. The areas of the country emptied during Holodomor, the Soviet-made terror-famine of 1932-1933, in which millions of Ukrainian speakers starved, were resettled with Russian speakers from elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The last major Ukrainian-language poet to suffer in captivity, Vasyl Stus, died during a hunger strike in a Soviet labor camp in 1985.
However, Ukrainian and Russian also have a long history of coexistence. They emerged from the same medieval dialect continuum which had its literary and political center in Kyiv, not Moscow. After their separation, Russian language and literature were often influenced by, or simply made in Ukraine. Graduates of Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy were crucial in the early efforts to Westernize Russian culture. The great Ukrainian Neoplatonist Hryhorii Skovoroda composed poetry and philosophical prose in a fusion of Ukrainian, Russian, Church Slavic, and Latin that stylistically recalls writers of the English baroque like Robert Burton and Sir Thomas Browne. Nikolai Gogol, so far the only Ukrainian writer known worldwide, worked in Russian, even when composing his early stories about Ukrainian villagers that draw on Ukrainian folklore. In the twentieth century, “Russian” avant-garde and modernism could and have been described as largely Ukrainian and Belarusian, especially if one includes the Jews, most of whom, under the Empire, were allowed to live in Ukraine and Belarus but not in Russia.
Today, Russian Federation media are watched by large numbers of Russian speakers in the former Soviet republics, either because they lack local Russian-language sources of information or because their own sources are insufficiently attractive due to underfunding. Russian media are state-controlled and used to spread disinformation and propaganda. In particular, Russian media present Russian speakers in the former republics, including Ukraine, as oppressed ethnic minorities in need of protection from the Kremlin. The imprint of state control on the main information sources in the Russian language has encouraged Ukrainian political and cultural leaders to see the Russian language itself as a potential instrument of pro-Kremlin influence. Measures have been taken discouraging the use of Russian and encouraging the use of Ukrainian in public life. Some Russian-language Ukrainian writers have switched into Ukrainian as a patriotic gesture, but the transformation, however well meant, is also likely to flatten their style and reduce their capacity for nuance. Ukrainian Russian-language writers who seek publishers in Russia cannot easily find readers in Ukraine, since books from the Russian Federation are not carried by most Ukrainian bookstores.
Although she writes in Russian, Belorusets is not willing to publish in Russia. As a Ukrainian writer writing about Ukraine, she wants to be published and read in Ukraine. She sees her language as subtly different from the kinds of Russian spoken in the Russian Federation. Her language is based on the rhythms and intonations of the Russian of Kyiv and Kharkiv, continuing the Russian-language line of Ukrainian literature. Indeed, Gogol’s representations of lower-class Ukrainians in his early stories, his normalization of the supernatural, his play with different discourses, and, above all, his comedy, stand at the origins of Belorusets’ work. Her language registers tonal, rhythmic, and semantic strategies of speech in a way that may itself be interpreted as a gesture of resistance to the standards of correctness upheld by the apparatus of the Russian state. These effects and divergences are difficult to render in English, which demands much more explicit marking of causal relations than reflected in the suggestive paratactic sentence structure of the original. The book’s critical attitude towards plot—and its take on the sensation of time in general, especially in the regions of political and cultural periphery—appears on the syntactical level in the grammar and diction of Belorusets’ Russian.
Yevgenia Belorusets is a photographer. She came to writing from photography, and she came to photography from political activism. She is a practioner of documentary methods. Each of her photo projects explores a different community of people who are, literally, underrepresented. Testimony of subjective, traumatic experience is often marked by self contradiction, ambivalence, and other rhetorical features that provide logical ground to dismiss it as unreliable, unverifiable, or simply untrue. The term “fiction” in contemporary popular culture suggests the opposite of a “true story.” Belorusets has said, “Any document is partly a lie, and this is especially true of documentary photography, which only ever conveys a small part of reality.” The job of Belorusets’ work is not to report on any particular true story, but to speak to the truth of the individual, vulnerable, transitory stories of vulnerable people who are too easily not heard.
Eugene Ostashevsky is the author of the books of poems The Pirate Who Does Not Know the Value of Pi and The Life and Opinions of DJ Spinoza. This post is adapted from his introduction to the English translation of Yevgenia Belorusets’ first work of fiction, Lucky Breaks, which appears this week from New Directions in his translation.
ICYMI: Read Michael Idov’s review for Book Post of The Orphanage, by Ukrainian novelist Serhiy Zhadan. His opening line: “A straight-up war novel from the middle of today’s Europe may seem like a postmodern proposition at heart, but in the case of Ukraine it’s plain realism …”
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