Ukrainian PEN: Flourishing Expression in the Face of Repression and Dichotomy
The PEN World series showcases the important work of the more than 140 centers that form PEN International. Each PEN center sets its own priorities, but they are united by their commitment to advocate for imperiled writers, promote literature from all cultures and in all languages, and advance the right of every individual to speak freely. In this series, PEN America interviews the leaders of different PEN centers from the global network to offer a window into the literary accomplishments and free expression challenges of their respective countries. This month we feature Ukrainian PEN. We spoke to the center’s president, Mykola Riabchuk.
What is a project that Ukrainian PEN has been working on in recent months?
With scarce resources and no paid employees, we work on a very limited number of projects, typically in collaboration with other organizations. This allows us to achieve significant goals by sheer enthusiasm of our volunteers and synergy with our partners. One of our recurrent projects is organizing panel discussions on topical issues within the framework of two major cultural events held annually in Ukraine—the Book Arsenal in Kyiv and the Publishers’ Forum in Lviv. Both events, conceived initially as national book fairs, developed into gradually well-attended accessory programs and transformed into increasingly popular international literary festivals.
Three years ago, we established our own literary award to recognize the highest achievements in the art of essay writing, with the goal of drawing public attention to this largely underdeveloped and virtually non-existent genre during the country’s Soviet era. The award was named after George Sheveliov (1908–2002), a prominent Ukrainian emigre scholar who garnered international fame as a linguist and distinguished professor at Columbia University who also laid the foundations of modern Ukrainian essay writing; his work consisted of pieces with high intellectual quality and firm moral stance. With good partners and a properly organized public relations campaign, we made the award competition and ceremony into a major cultural event broadly covered by the national media.
And last year, for the first time, we held the New Voices literary competition in Ukraine and nominated two young poets (one writing in Ukrainian, the other one in Russian) to the PEN international jury.
What are the key free expression challenges facing Ukraine?
We had a very difficult period from 2010–2013, under the presidency of the infamous Viktor Yanukovych, who slowly but steadily consolidated Ukraine’s government into an authoritarian regime, marginalized independent media, and launched, with his oligarchic associates, a multifaceted attack on freedom of speech and expression. At that time, we had to defend both individual writers and publishers from state-run repression and smear campaigns, and entire institutions and legal principles from being targeted by the increasingly lawless government.
Today, we have no major problems with freedom of speech and expression, and the post-revolutionary government is rather cooperative in solving the relevant problems, even though we are still dissatisfied with the authorities’ lukewarm attitude toward problems faced by the LGBT community and failure to prevent the public insults directed at, and occasional assaults on, their activists.
Yet, our major concern today is the plight of the ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other minorities in Russia-occupied Crimea and the southeastern part of Donbas. The persecution of the Crimean Tatars, the only native people of the peninsula, has a particularly large-scale, systemic, and coordinated character and deserves much broader international attention and engagement. We are also seriously worried about the fate of 28 Ukrainian political prisoners kidnapped by Russia from the occupied territories of the Crimea and Donbas and subjected to kangaroo courts over thoroughly fabricated charges, as the tragic story of Oleg Sentsov, a prominent Ukrainian film director from the Crimea, graphically illustrates. The FSB (Russian Federal Security Service) destruction of the Ukrainian library in Moscow and arrest of its director Natalia Sharina under the bizarre accusation of “extremism” is another cause for deep concern and indignation.
Would you share with us a sense of the literary traditions in Ukraine?
Ukraine shares common features with most Eastern European nations, whose people used to be stateless for centuries, and therefore, literature in these countries had to play the role of the main unifying national institution—a substitute for the national school, university, press, parliament, church, and so on. This made literature deeply connected to the life of the common people and engaged in everyday life and social problems. But, at the same time, this situation made the literature often too populist, simplified, and propagandistic. This tradition was increasingly challenged at the turn of the nineteenth century by modernists who struggled to westernize Ukrainian culture and enrich it with new approaches, styles, genres, and topics. The literary dichotomy this produces can be roughly defined as one between modernists and traditionalists, elitists and populists, cosmopolitans and nativists. It largely persisted, in various forms, throughout the entire twentieth century. It has been dissipating, however, over the past two decades, partly because the social agenda has changed after Ukraine achieved independence, and partly because the society became free and open to the global world and international trends that help to recombine different national traditions and produce some synthesis.
…and update us on something new in the literary world of Ukraine today?
Two major developments have taken place in Ukrainian literature during the past decades—a sudden boom in essay writing, virtually non-existent under the Soviets, and an emphasis on promoting modern prose in a country where poetry traditionally took center stage. Additional big news in the literary world of Ukraine today is that of the ten writers named laureates of the Angelus award (arguably the regional equivalent of the Nobel Prize), three are Ukrainian: Yuri Andrukhovych, Oksana Zabuzhko, and Serhy Zhadan.
Who is a writer from Ukraine that we might not know about? Would you introduce us?
Serhy Zhadan is the youngest of the three Ukrainian frontrunners for the Angelus award, and perhaps, the most promising—in both his vibrant prose and powerful poetry that he, in a rather unusual turn for established poets, performs occasionally with a popular rock band while hundreds of youngsters sing along with him by heart.