Halyna Kruk: "War, as an existential crisis, gives birth to very bright manifestations of culture"
Does poetry provide salvation during war? Is trying to convince Western skeptics worth the effort? When will dialogue with "old friends from the russian federation" be possible and what things will the world be forced to reconsider after the war in Ukraine? We spoke about all this with poet, translator, literary critic and professor Halyna Kruk. The conversation took place as part of the joint project of Chytomo and PEN Ukraine Words and Bullets about the experiences of writers and journalists during the war.
– The war for you began long before February 24. Even though you’ve been traveling to Donbas since 2014, was the full-scale invasion still a shock for you? Was this date the start of a personal countdown of something irreversible?
– Honestly, I realized a long time ago that this violent, open phase of war was unavoidable and that it would happen sooner or later. I had many premonitions, so I was preparing for this internally. We discussed the possibility of this happening with my husband and always made note of where we kept the box of military things that he held onto after he was demobilized in 2016. A few days before the 24th I was looking into buying military equipment a military sleeping bag.
On the other hand, I had very strong premonitions on the creative level. From around 2014 through 2022 I was always writing poems about war. I kept them in a separate file called "Буквар/BookWar". There was a lot of war around me: its consequences, traumas. But at the time I wasn’t convinced that this collection deserved to be published: I felt that it was unfinished. The poems that appeared after February 24th supplemented this collection, they provided new aspects and angles. It became more full-blooded, literally and figuratively.
After the 24th, war became closer to all of us, but this closeness is dubious and exhausting – we didn’t choose it.
– The war gave you an opportunity to express yourself poetically. What about prose? Last year you published your first collection of prose. Will the current events become an impetus for writing prose, something more than short stories?
– For me these are two completely different genres and I work with them completely differently. As a prose writer I have to distance myself from the material so that I can grasp it as a whole, let it out and see it as something external to which a creative approach can be applied: weed something out, single something out as being important, sharpen it with very personal psychological details, and leave other things out as guesswork and introspection for the reader.
I, like most of us, can’t treat war as something separate from me. We are all inside war, we are all affected by it. We have a very subjective and very specific internal optic that records what is happening. It’s more important now for us to survive it. We are all living in survival mode, and it’s not the best mode for creative detachment and for making sense of reality. It’s difficult to analyze a picture that you see only partially, not fully: in fragments, blurred. We have our own traumas. We react to certain things and not to others.
Over these past eight years I’ve accumulated many different fragments of war that don’t fit together into an overall picture. These are very indirect testimonies that on the surface don’t seem to be about war, but about something completely different – human and distant. But they speak to me most eloquently about the war. Because speaking about war directly doesn’t work – it’s like retelling a news feed. Like many of us, I’m not able yet to have a conversation in half-tones. But I think in the future literature and art will work with these secondary features, they will speak about the war through completely different things: halftones and nuances that don’t cause wounds that go too deep. They will be eloquent, but sound very different.
Take, for example, a shockingly scary plot, such as a woman’s story about hearing her children’s and grandchildren’s screams from under the rubble and not being able to help them. This material is too heavy. I think that literature in the future won’t be as direct, and it very well may be that the strongest text about the war will be written by a non-Ukrainian.
– I often recall your poem "I dream of a bomb shelter" that you wrote before 2014. Where did this topic come from so long before the war? Was it a premonition of war’s inevitability?
– It’s more about characteristic symbols and concepts of culture of different eras. In my case, it had to do with baroque culture. By the way, it wasn’t until now, during this war, that I understood that the Ukrainian baroque was a very large, bright flash of culture related to war. It all happened on the backdrop and influence of war. War, as an existential crisis, gives rise to very bright manifestations of culture.
I would mention another thesis that’s about something a bit different, but also very important. In the Christian context that hangs over the baroque, there is the notion that a person doesn’t chose between good and evil once and for all – one makes the decision repeatedly in every situation, at every moment. That’s why war is a constant threat. War is always possible when the wrong choice is made by a person or society.
– When we spoke last fall at the New York Festival in the Donetsk region, you said that if you live close to war, the sharpness of feelings dulls over time, that a person gets used to everything, even that kind of experience. Do you have that sense now?
– War is always a very traumatic and borderline experience, even when you’re in a city where air raid sirens just go off from time to time and something is hit maybe once a month. There’s a relative calm compared to Kharkiv and other cities that are under constant shelling. The biggest problem is not to get used to it, to stop accepting that the threat is real (because it’s always possible). But people who are under constant shelling start getting used to this new reality, they can differentiate the sounds of incoming shells, look for rules to the timing of shelling. The human brain starts looking for signs of normalcy in trying to make sense of this abnormal situation. Because this is the only way to survive.
When there are lots of people dying around you every day, at some point it’s not as painful because the psyche protects itself by dulling the feeling. Your mind begins to develop self-defense mechanisms and there are complex processes of adapting to reality. For example, some children who were in occupied territories or under shelling and saw death up close talk about it as a normal everyday experience, as if it’s nothing terrible. That’s the only way they can process this moment. That’s how their psyche decides to treat this reality.
With regard to war as "material" – we can’t treat war as material to write about. Our perception of war has many emotional threads and irritants that prevent us from analyzing and dissecting situations, approaching them creatively and selectively, the way an artist does.
– Where do you find the strength to keep going?
– It’s important for me to be active, to know that I can be useful somehow, so I’m trying to do what I can to help in this situation. I see it as an important job that has to be done well and effectively. I think that most people fighting in the war now also see it as a job that has to be done, a difficult and at times dirty job that nobody else will do. This allows you to emotionally distance yourself from everything a bit and remain active.
I’ve been spending a lot of time over the last few months appearing at various foreign events and venues. I consider it informational volunteering. I think it’s extremely important to continue the focus on Ukraine when the news and death no longer affect people. We must take advantage of every opportunity to keep reminding people about Ukraine. During my trips abroad I am constantly convinced how important it is to spread information about us, especially through popular culture, because what’s being built by popular culture on the global level is also partially built on the level of mass consciousness. What the mass audience tolerates in the future and how it is perceived will influence all political decisions made at the top. And this is a very important aspect that Ukrainian culture can work with in the West.
– Over the course of these four months, you’ve explained what’s happening in Ukraine to American, German, Latvian and Polish audiences. You recently returned from a trip to Denmark. Tell us more about that.
– In Denmark I performed at one of the largest music festival in Europe – Roskilde, which is kind of like Woodstock in the US. Some 120,000-130,000 people attend the festival every year. They organize a very important stage where they discuss socially important information that aims in one way or another to change something in the public consciousness. This year it was information about the war in Ukraine, and I’m very glad that I was able to speak at this event.
When I got to the festival, I felt a large dissonance with what’s happening in Ukraine. I saw young, carefree people listening to music, having fun, celebrating life. It’s not that I was jealous that they have all this while young people in Ukraine are dying. It was just too strong a contrast, it was emotionally difficult. I understood that it was going to be very hard to explain to them the fragility of this world, the fragility of peace, which until now we also thought was absolute and irreversible. There was even a point when I started to doubt whether there was any point in talking about war here. But once I started reading my poems, suddenly there was silence, and there was a lot of attention in this silence.
Then I had a personal meeting with Danish Culture Minister Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen about the humanitarian issues Ukraine faces because of the war: the war is ruining people’s lives, destroying material and non-material culture. I tried to show the human dimension of war. These types of stories are a good way to complement dry reports and statistics and help to focus on the most sensitive aspects of war.
My key message was that every day Ukraine is losing many of its best people. I tried to explain that the Ukrainian army isn’t a professional army of specially trained fighters. These are people from various spheres of life who have gone to defend their country: journalists, writers, lawyers, professors, economists, engineers. This war is costing us our future. What we lose in this war will create a huge gap that will take a long time to fill. This is a very important message for the Western audience, which is used to distancing itself from the army and military things, as if it’s a completely different world separate from culture, education, art and science. I remember how in the beginning Western writers would donate money and say that it was only for humanitarian purposes, not military. Everywhere you go you have to explain that our army is made up of people that yesterday were engaged in culture and science and today have been forced to defend their country. Helping them do this is no less humane.
– Your speech at the opening of the 23rd Berlin Poetry Festival caused a stir among Western audiences. It was translated into several European languages. Were you able to get through to the skeptics that refused to listen to us in 2014 and all the years leading up to the big invasion? Like that russian girl in Berlin who so passionately opposed you in 2014? Has their position changed? Do they still have room for manipulation?
– Actually, I realized a long time ago, when I would come to Germany back then, how well russian propaganda worked on foreign audiences.
I don’t know any other way to change the situation than to talk about it. Even if they’re baby steps, lots of baby steps ultimately produce a result. Unfortunately, in several countries, such as Germany and Italy, where russian propaganda was very active and has been working for a long time, you start off at a big disadvantage. It takes a lot of effort just to get someone to have a neutral position on the situation. But it has to be done, because if you don’t counter the thesis that Ukraine had been "bombing Donbas" for 8 years, nothing will change. You can’t expect that one news story will change biased views.
– When you were abroad this time, after February 24, did you encounter people who absolutely do not accept or understand the situation, be it within the professional audience or ordinary people?
– When I go abroad at the invitation of some organization, I have one categorical demand: I immediately ask that there be no russian participants. There were situations when the organizers didn’t understand why I will perform only without russian participants. They told me: "It’s a shame that you won’t be there. We value russian authors who are against the war, we will stand with them in support of you, even without you there." People couldn’t understand that we don’t need russian support, that it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t affect anything.
Sometimes people also don’t quite understand the situation correctly. For example, they think that it’s enough to be a pacifist and the war will disappear on its own. They say that being anti-war is good. If you fight, then you’re pro-war and that’s bad. It’s the same approach that the Pope takes: he doesn’t differentiate between war when you’re defending and protecting yourself, and war when you’re the aggressor and attacking. They equate a defensive war with an aggressive war. You have to use your whole arsenal of knowledge and arguments to explain what’s wrong here. By the way, many Italians aren’t critical of russia because of russian help during covid (you may remember that gesture by the russian federation). This gratitude explains why Italy took in so many russians who since the start of sanctions began fleeing Russia en masse, bringing with them their russian vision of the war.
– You mentioned that you turn down events with russian writers, but not everyone in the writing community has the same position. On the one hand, we say that you have to cancel russian culture, and on the other hand some authors are doing joint readings with russians. What should we do about this duality in our community?
– Many of us know russians who had the previous eight years to understand that their country occupied a part of Ukrainian territory. Many wanted to explain to close relatives that they are the victims of propaganda. The acquaintances may even be pro-Ukrainian and understand what’s really happening. But when we at PEN were writing up the provisions on cancelling russian culture and refusing to participate in events with russians, we meant not to give russian culture a platform now, during the war, because every appearance is used to say that not all of russia is for the war, that there are normal people there, and if there are normal people then you can’t impose sanctions. The West is very sensitive to these manifestations of "civic activism and disobedience". And it’s very difficult to explain that this civic activism and disobedience is being expressed by russians solely in the West, it’s demonstrated within the Western system of values, and that in russia this often means nothing.
That’s why these joint appearances of Ukrainian authors and "old friends from russia" are appearances with citizens of russia working for the good reputation of the russian federation. Because this "good old friend" in this case isn’t just a friend, but a representative of the culture that for centuries was created by the "russkiy mir" (Russian World). And there is symbolic meaning when they’re standing next to a representative of Ukrainian culture – it’s perceived and can be presented as an act of reconciliation, an act of mutual understanding, an act that says war is war but there are always people above it ready to extend a hand. This extended hand legitimizes russian culture and this symbolic act works against Ukraine – it downplays the effect of the war and its consequences.
I think there is only one acceptable option: any sort of dialogue will be possible only after the war is over, once this war is put to an end, the guilty and the victim are named, when there are no ambiguities, and the situation cannot be manipulated. Right now this is a very slippery slope and area for manipulation. That’s why it’s better to avoid joint appearances, even if these are your good friends and you’re certain that they are pro-Ukrainian and anti-Putin.
– How do you see Ukraine, Europe and the world after this war?
– There will be a reevaluation of the concept of security, guarantees and security guarantees in the world. The world is no longer safe. Until now, it seemed that a certain status quo had been reached in the world and nobody would dare violate another country’s borders or its sovereignty, especially in Europe. Many countries felt safe until February 24. Now they’ve been forced to reconsider their position on defense issues, build up their defense complexes, develop effective weapons. There will be a need for new military alliances. I lived through the arms race as a kid and now we’re in a situation again when everyone is thinking about how to defend themselves. This war showed us that the rules of the game are no longer predictable, the rules of international politics are no longer interpreted the same way, not to mention their adherence.
With regard to literature, russia’s war against Ukraine showed us that many concepts in European and world culture and the intellectual space lost their original meaning during the time of relative peace in Europe. For example, the reconsideration of the concept of pacifism. The world has become a lot more complex in the context of what’s happening right now in Ukraine and therefore the reaction of culture must be more complex.
This war triggered a big reevaluation of what we had and what we used without thinking: a reevaluation of authority and change in how we look at certain cultural and national stereotypes that lost their traditional meaning long ago. I hope that Europe finally understands the evil effect on the post-soviet space of Stalinism and all soviet ideology, which modern ruscism is the result of, and that it will finally be condemned the same way as fascism.
Words and Bullets is a special project of Chytomo and PEN Ukraine about Ukrainian writers and journalists who after the start of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine or became volunteers. The name of the media project symbolizes the weapons that the heroes and heroines of the project used before February 24 and the ones they were forced to take up after the start of the full-scale war with Russia. This special project is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
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