Face-to-face with terror: Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany, in 1945. Image: Album / Alamy Stock Photo

Listening to, and reading, the voices of Ukraine

Until recently, the history and literature of Ukraine was ignored in the west. But it’s vital we expand our geography of empathy
May 12, 2022

One of the most exciting developments over the last few years has been the discovery of Ukrainian literature and history. For decades, much of this was ignored in the west, especially in Britain. Now, thanks to a new generation of historians and translators, we have realised that many of the greatest writers of the 20th century were from Ukraine and that Ukrainian history, far from being marginal, was at the centre of some of the defining tragedies of modern European history. As the war in Ukraine continues, it is more important than ever for us to learn about the distinctive history of this proud and richly cultured nation.

There are several important reasons why generations of British readers were not aware of Ukrainian writers. First, in the words of the German-born poet and translator Michael Hofmann, many of them were stuck in “the deep freeze of history” during the Cold War. It was hard to visit the birthplaces of Joseph Roth, just a few miles from what is now Lviv in Ukraine, or Czernowitz, now Chernivtsi in Ukraine, where Paul Celan was born. The history of east European countries didn’t matter much to British critics, publishers and historians. Writers from the margins were barely known and, apart from a famous essay on Babel’s Red Cavalry by Lionel Trilling, they were ignored by the great modern English-speaking critics.

After the fall of Soviet communism in 1991, it became easier to travel and things changed. Thanks to the efforts of small independent publishers like Pushkin, Scribe and Granta, and to translators like Boris Dralyuk, Robert Chandler and HT Willetts, British and American readers have been able to read major poets and writers born in Ukraine. As a result, our whole map of 20th-century European literature started to change. It shifted eastwards towards places like Kyiv, where Lev Ozerov, one of the great chroniclers of Stalinism, was born; Odesa, where Isaac Babel, Anna Akhmatova and contemporary English-language poet Ilya Kaminsky were born; and Berdychiv, where Vasily Grossman, Joseph Conrad and the Yiddish writer Der Nister came from.

The same thing happened with historians. Even though Isaac Deutscher was born in neighbouring Poland, his trilogy on Trotsky (1954-1963), has little to say about Ukraine: four references in volume two and one in volume three. Deutscher’s biography of Stalin, first published in 1949, has one reference to collectivisation in Ukraine and one on the German invasion of 1941. Given Deutscher was Jewish, there is surprisingly little about Ukrainian Jews. More recently, Eric Hobsbawm’s overrated history of 20th-century Europe, The Age of Extremes: 1914-1991, makes only three passing references to Ukraine, none to the famine and none to Jews in Ukraine, whether suffering in pogroms or as victims of the Holocaust. As the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum wrote recently, “most of the great western historians writing about Russia… were never interested in Ukraine.”

This has all changed in just a few years. In an extraordinary sentence in his 2010 book, Bloodlands, Timothy Snyder writes: “during the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.”

In particular, Jews in Ukraine are suddenly centre stage. In Jeffrey Veidlinger’s new book on the pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Holocaust, In the Midst of Civilised Europe, the author writes: “between November 1918 and March 1921, during the civil war that followed the Great War, over one thousand anti-Jewish riots and military actions—both of which were commonly referred to as pogroms—were documented in about 500 different locales, throughout what is now Ukraine,” an area violently contested by Russians, Poles and Ukrainians. Forty thousand Jews were killed during these pogroms, Veidlinger writes, and another 70,000 “subsequently perished from their wounds, or from disease, starvation, and exposure as a direct result of the attacks.”

Something else links these new histories: extraordinary violence. Antisemites, writes Veidlinger, “tore out Jewish men’s beards, ripped apart Torah scrolls, raped Jewish girls and women, and, in many cases, tortured Jewish townsfolk before gathering them in market squares, marching them to the outskirts of town, and shooting them.” These were not strangers, as is the case with the massacres in Ukraine committed by Russian soldiers today. They were neighbours, people who had known each other at school. “One raped woman,” writes Steven Zipperstein in his 2018 Pogrom, “spoke afterward of having held her rapist as a baby in her arms. The sons of a local shoemaker… recognised the killer [of their father] as a neighbour whose shoes they had recently repaired.”

Historians like Snyder and Applebaum, the latter of whom wrote Red Famine, have also drawn our attention to the terrible Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, the Holodomor or “Terror-Famine,” which led to the deaths of between three to seven million people (estimates vary widely). The famine has since become the subject of a film, Mr Jones, in 2019.

The history of the Holocaust has shifted eastwards from famous German concentration camps like Dachau and Buchenwald to the death camps in Poland, and now gives due attention to the “Shoah by Bullets” in the Soviet Union (see Wendy Lower’s The Ravine and David Shneer’s Grief).

These three developments—a new emphasis on eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, especially Ukraine; Jewish experience during the first half of the 20th century; and a new tone, darker, with more emphasis on violence and suffering—are a feature of the best new historical writing about Ukraine.

You can find the same preoccupations in the greatest Jewish writers from Ukraine, including Babel, Grossman and the poet Lev Ozerov (born Lev Goldberg). All were born in Ukraine—Babel in Odesa, Grossman in Berdychiv and Ozerov in Kyiv.

Babel rode with the Cossacks during the Russo-Polish war of 1919-1920 and wrote of the terrible violence wrought by Cossacks and Poles as they took and retook countless small shtetls in Galicia (the borderland between what is now Poland and Ukraine) and Ukraine proper, leaving havoc and grief in their wake. “How unimaginably sad it is,” Babel writes in his 1920 Diary, “these Galicians grown wild and pitiful, and the ruined synagogues, and this petty life against a background of fearful events…”

Babel’s Diary became the basis for Red Cavalry (1926). He has no illusions about his situation, caught between the antisemitic Cossacks and “my plundered Jews.” “I am an outsider,” he writes in the diary. He never denies his Jewishness. “Oh, Talmuds of my childhood, turned to dust!” he writes. “Oh, dense sadness of memories!” But he knows the Jews will be victims, yet again.

In a story called “The Rebbe,” Babel writes about how in Zhytomyr, in western Ukraine, Babel himself spends the Sabbath with a shopkeeper called Gedali and the rebbe or rabbi. “The rebbe blessed the food, and we sat down at table. Outside the window horses neighed and Cossacks yelled, the wilderness of war gaped outside the window.” And where is Babel? Is he inside with the Jews or outside with the Red Cossacks?

More than 20 years later, another Jewish-Ukrainian writer, Vasily Grossman, the author of Life and Fate, travelled though the same landscape, this time with the Red Army. As the Germans retreated, he saw what had happened to the Jews in Ukraine and wrote his famous unpublished report in 1943, Ukraine without Jews. His mother was one of 12,000 Jews killed in one day in his hometown of Berdychiv to the southwest of Kyiv, one of the first mass killings by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen. He never recovered from her death. A decade later he wrote the chapter “The Murder of the Jews of Berdichev” for The Black Book, a publication that set out to chronicle the worst crimes by the Nazis in the Soviet Union (and which Grossman himself edited alongside Ilya Ehrenburg).

As he continued west with the Red Army in 1944, Grossman entered Poland. In September they arrived at Treblinka and his report was one of the first published accounts of a Nazi death camp. The Hell of Treblinka was widely translated and distributed at Nuremberg as part of the evidence against the Nazis. He brought back a child’s building block and a shoe.

Grossman was also one of the great chroniclers of Stalinism. In the short stories and in his novels, he described the Gulag, collectivisation and famine and the atmosphere of terror under Stalin. His courage was extraordinary. When his second wife was arrested in 1938, he wrote to the head of the USSR’s secret police, Nikolai Yezhov, asking for her case to be reviewed. As another biographer points out, this was like “putting his own head in a noose.” He was summoned to the headquarters of the secret police on Lubyanka Square in Moscow. He survived the encounter and she was soon released.

There has also been an upsurge in interest in Ukrainian poetry. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry included famous 20th-century poets: Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Anna Akhmatova. But also others barely known to English-speaking readers, including Ozerov, whose Portraits Without Frames, translated in 2019, includes poems about the Gulag, Ukraine and the fate of the Yiddish poets, several of whom were murdered by Stalin in 1952.

One of the great poems in the collection is about the Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, back from the Gulag. Ozerov and Shalamov eat in a café:

As he eats the bread,

He holds one hand

just below his chin.

Crumbs fall

into his palm.

Shalamov eats them greedily,

with particular relish.

When they part Ozerov says, “It’s a cold day.”

“What do you mean?” he says.

“It’s warm.”

In three lines we see the difference between someone who had spent years in Siberia and someone who hadn’t.

On 27th September 1938, Neville Chamberlain famously described Germany’s conflict with Czechoslovakia as “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.” Some may still feel that way about Ukraine now. But as our knowledge of Ukrainian history and literature has been transformed in just a few years, so our geography of empathy and solidarity needs to expand too. People in desperate need in faraway countries, of whom we knew nothing, are not as far away as we once thought.