"Ukraine Has Finally Become a Visible Country". Maryana Savka in Conversation with Henry Marsh

Savka Maryana
Savka Maryana
Poet, children's writer, literary critic, publicist
"Ukraine Has Finally Become a Visible Country". Maryana Savka in Conversation with Henry Marsh

In an effort to improve international understanding of Russia’s unprovoked invasion that started on February 24th, PEN Ukraine is publishing a series of conversations for a new project, #DialoguesOnWar.

On March 16, the Ukrainian poet, essayist, editor, and co-founder of "The Old Lion Publishing House", Maryana Savka, interviewed Henry Marsh, an English neurosurgeon and author of two memoirs: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (2014); and Admissions: A life in brain surgery (2017). As a pioneer of neurosurgical advances in Ukraine and a great friend of our country, Henry has a fine understanding of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Below is an abridged transcript of the conversation that took place. The full interview is available here.

H.M. Can you write poetry in a time of war, or has your mind gone silent?

M.S. It’s strange, but I have written four poems. My friend from Boston translated one of the texts into English.

H.M. So, you’re able to go on writing, despite the war?

M.S. Fortunately, yes. But I cannot make music, nor read. I absolutely cannot read. Instead, I did four paintings. They depict the angels of Ukrainian cities – Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, and Mariupol. If you want, I can show you. (Henry agrees.)

This is the newest one. It is the "Angel of Kherson", and Kherson is Ukraine. (Shows another painting.) This is Kyiv and its citizens in the shelter. The angel protects the shelter and the people. (Takes another painting.) This is Kharkiv, my first angel. Kharkiv is on fire, and the angel tries to protect the city.

A few days before the [full-scale Russian invasion] started, I had visited Kharkiv and took part in a reading session, at [Ukrainian-American scholar and literary critic] Yuri Shevelov’s house. I asked my friends from Kharkiv: "Do you think there will be war, or not?" All of them assured me they were not afraid, because an invasion, they thought, was unlikely to happen. I didn’t believe it, either.

(Presents her next painting.) This painting is probably the most tragic one – Mariupol. What happened to this city is horrible. It is being absolutely destroyed. Most people, who have already died in this war were in Mariupol. More than two thousand civilians, not military.

H.M. I think most people in the West did not expect Putin to invade. It was just so wrong, so evil (...) Surely, Putin is mad, and I would say: "No, he’s not mad. He’s Russian." And he is ignorant, he doesn’t have the facts. A classical problem with dictators, like Hitler or Stalin, is that people will only dare to tell them what they think the dictator wants to hear. So, we all know Putin thought his army would be welcomed in Ukraine, and he would drive into Kyiv, like Hitler drove into Prague, or Khrushchev did. But he was completely and utterly wrong. And if he had asked me, I would say: "Don’t do it. The Ukrainians are going to fight". And that’s exactly what has happened – tragic, terrible consequences. I feel completely useless and helpless. I’m doing what little I can.

I’ve been working with a very famous English surgeon, called David Nott, who has the strange specialty of war surgery. He has been in just every war zone for the last 30 years. And the war surgery is different. You’re dealing with blast injuries, burns, all sorts of injuries you do not see in peacetime. I helped him to produce a video and a webinar for Ukrainian doctors, which, I hope, they will not need to use. But, considering the situation in cities like Mariupol or Kharkiv, it is important [to obtain this knowledge].

I can’t write at the moment. My newest book is to be published in September. I wanted to add quite a lot about Ukraine to it when I wrote it some months ago. Usually, I write every day about what is happening. At the moment, I can’t. I am lost for words.

M.S. Henry, I don’t think any mentally healthy person would imagine this war is possible. We are facing pure evil threatening our values. And we are experiencing a whole range of feelings, but anger prevails. Ukrainians are angry with Russians, who are bombing our cities and killing our people. I think Putin is sick and dangerous. Unfortunately, nobody can stop, cancel, or kill him somehow.

In my opinion, the war in Ukraine is a tragedy for the entire world. Maybe, we are at the beginning of World War III. Ukraine is in the situation, where the biggest countries, which hold the first positions in everything and have powerful

weapons, do not use their power to fully protect our people. At the same time, I am grateful to those countries and nations, who help Ukrainians greatly in different ways, offer food and shelter to our refugees.

These days, my native city of Lviv (Western Ukraine) is being crowded. It has become home for thousands of people in need, who were evacuated here or plan to leave the country. Everything starts when people arrive at the Lviv railway station, and local volunteers greet them and help. Near the station, there are buses that constantly pick up people and take them to the Polish border of Ukraine. We are receiving big support from our neighbor, Poland, and are grateful for their strong position in helping us.

Furthermore, in Lviv, we’re trying to stop the humanitarian catastrophe by collecting medicine, food, clothes, and sending them to the bombed cities. We work with thousands of children who cannot recover from this horrible nightmare. Nowadays, Ukraine works as one organism. Each person is doing their best.

Personally, I started to volunteer when I received a phone call from a friend of mine, who owns a factory in Kharkiv. He asked me to get medicines from the list, because a person has been wounded. My employees and I quickly organized a group of volunteers and started searching for what was needed, no matter where we can get it. We also decided to open our bookstores in Lviv. In such difficult times, it is important for people to have some kind of "book shelter" – a place, where they can sit, drink coffee, and have a hug. In other words, feel safe. Most people from "The Old Lion Publishing House" are involved in volunteering and defending our country. We have also donated money to "The Return Alive Foundation" and opened access to our e-books. For the first two weeks, there have been more than 30 thousand downloads. Besides, we’re also grateful to those publishers from abroad, who offered to cooperate with us and publish books for Ukrainian children. So what we do now is stand with Ukraine, keep calm and hold our positions.

H.M. Whatever happens with the war, there will be so many long-term consequences. And one that I find most distressing is psychological damage, done to all children. It’s very hard to think it will do them anything other than harm, which is terribly sad. Among the devastation of the infrastructure of

Ukraine, it will take years and years to rebuild Ukraine. And the hatred of Russia and Russians will probably last forever, for hundreds of years. It will be sad. There are good Russians, even though most Russians choose to believe Putin or cannot dare to realize how much they were lied to. But at the end of World War II, many people said "Any good German is a dead German." I hope that philosophy does not become too widespread in Ukraine, although you can understand it. Because Putin will go one day - the sooner, the better. And there will be a Russia after him.

Thanks to Putin, Ukraine is today a completely united nation. There were many problems, splits, and differences before, but now we know for certain, Putin has built it into a single nation. But what will happen in Russia, I have no idea.

M.S. Putin and Russian military troops took the lives of many people here, but we stayed strong. Putin was blind with an absolutely false image of Ukrainians. Nowadays, we are united, and we know what we are standing for. Conversely, Russians haven’t understood yet what has happened to them. Putin took the fate of his people, made them destitute. You’re right, saying it will take Russians a hundred years to be called "humans" again.

H.M. Indeed. I mean, there is a stain of blood on all Russians, wherever they are guilty or not. That’s the bloodguilt. It will take a long time to go away. I mean, to go away when the war is finished, it never happens. Russia will still be stuck with all the sanctions and international pressure.

M.S. Moreover, while the war is basically broadcast online, Russian media lies. For whom is their fake information? Only for Russians themselves. They have spent years believing propaganda.

H.M. When the Russian army comes back to Russia, it will be much more difficult for Russian people to (cover their eyes and ignore the truth). I don’t know, will their instincts to know work, and they suddenly realize they were being lied to, from start to finish, or will they find that so horrifying that they choose not to believe it, and believe in even more lies? And they will believe the Ukrainians destroyed their own cities. But they inevitably will see. Thousands of Russians are being killed. It will be difficult for Putin to hide all that. Again, I don’t know what will happen, but it’s very strange.

Hitler had a plan. He wanted to fill all the Ukraine and western Russia with German farmers, kill all the Jews, and kill all the Slavs. It was evil, but it was some sort of plan. What is Putin’s plan? To maintain himself in power with his kleptocratic friends. It is really not in the interests of the Russian people at all. In fact, Putin and his gang have been stealing from the Russian people for the last 20 or 30 years. It is difficult for me, as an Englishman, because the British government has been helping the Russian oligarchs. The city of London has been laundering all their money, and the British government, to immense shame, has been very reluctant to take Ukrainian refugees. And yet, within 24 hours of the government starting the scheme for Ukrainian refugees, 100 thousand British people said "We want to have Ukrainian refugees in our home." And within 24 hours of a charitable appeal for Ukraine, 140 million dollars were raised just from ordinary people. So the British government is completely out of touch with public opinion. Only now at long last the government reuctantly changed course. It’s taking action against Russian oligarchs. We’re paying millions of dollars to the Conservative Party over the years, but this is a big change now. It will not happen again, but it’s still disgusting that it happened in the first place. And again there will be so many consequences for this, all over the world. But at least everybody now understands the nature of Putin and this regime. Many people in Ukraine understood it. And I can claim I understood it because I’ve read all the books about it. For instance, Catherine Belton’s book on Putin and his people ["Putin's People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took On the West", 2020]. But now people all over the world understand the dictatorial fascist nature of Putin’s government.

M.S. Yes, I agree. And all this time Europe was feeding this monster and his oligarchs, they had a very good life.

H.M. Yeah, they bought almost all the most expensive houses in London. M.S. And in one moment, everything will change.

H.M. Yeah, exactly. What worries me is the enormous waves, the surge of goods towards Ukraine will weaken. Possibly without Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk, Ukraine will be left free and united. But ruined. And it will take a

long, long time to rebuild it. That will cost lots of money. At the time of the disastrous rising of commodity prices and energy prices, all the governments will be struggling, because there will be all sorts of problems. So it’s frightening, very frightening. At least, now we know where we are, which is sort of progress. And the terrible cliché "every difficulty is an opportunity." But Ukraine has paid the price for the free world. And I’m angry about that. Ukraine is paying the price. I am afraid NATO is right not to impose a no-fly zone. I think the risk of it turning into a nuclear war is too great. But Ukraine, therefore, is paying blood for the rest of the world. And I will do everything I can, with the time I have left, continuously reminding the world of that. That the world owes Ukraine a great debt. And the problem with Putin has been largely for letting him get away with his wicked behavior for so long.

M.S. I hope we'll survive, but Putin won’t.

H.M. I couldn’t agree more. He will go to hell as soon as possible. He cannot be very happy at the moment.

M.S. I agree.

Also, Henry, Ukraine has finally become a visible country now. For many years, it had remained invisible in many ways, except in art and science mostly, and treated as an object. Now we claim to be the subject. Everybody abroad should know that the guardians of Ukraine are the guardians of freedom. Our independence is crucially important for each of us, and we will fight for it til the end. Because this is our truth. There are many talented people in Ukraine, artists among them, and we want to be in equal rights with the world. To hold this position, because we deserve it.

Ukraine became an independent country 30 years ago. I remember how it all happened and what price we paid for leaving the Soviet Union and Russia behind. This time there is a new rope of history, and for our enemy, it lies in a burning Ukraine.

H.M. As you know, I have been going to Ukraine for 30 years. When I came back to England, I said: "Look, guys! It’s true. Ukraine is a really important country." "Ukraine?" they said. "Where is that? Isn’t it Poland or Russia?"

I gave them a lecture about why Ukraine was this incredibly important boundary between European liberalism and freedom, and the Kremlin’s despotism. And because I had studied Russian and Soviet politics at Oxford University before becoming a doctor and a brain surgeon, I knew this right from the start. It is extraordinary how even the name of Ukraine is synonymous with freedom and heroism in the fight for freedom. And that will never change, whatever happens. I am so proud to be associated with you, Ukraine, even in a very humble sort of way.

M.S. I am proud of my brave friends from all over the world, and Ukrainians in particular, who are greatly contributing to our victory. For example, an author and a friend of mine, Andriy Tsaplienko, is giving a speech in the American Congress now. And another Old Lion Publishing House author, Dorje Batuu, who lives in the United States, has supported us with tactical emergency medical supplies. Writers based in Ukraine are now experiencing different situations. Some of them are hiding in shelters and suffering from the war in bombed cities, others volunteer, for example, by creating camouflage nets. Everyone is doing everything possible.

I understand the President of the United States, who does not approve of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. It’s a difficult decision. Instead, we ask for weapons that could help us protect our sky from Russian bombs and rockets.

I do also agree that we need to protect our children from stress. Women, children, and those, who have spent many days in shelters, are traumatized. For example, I accommodated a family of our common friend, who is a doctor from Kyiv. His wife and their children were in a shelter and could hear the bombs explode. Even though the children are safe now, they cry every night. Because they remember what happened, it’s such a stress. I know we will need a long time to recover. And I hope that you, my dear friend, will support us.

H.M. Maryana, I have a literary problem, and I require your advice. My two books are bestsellers in Russia with thousands of copies. Before the war, they wanted to publish my third book, and I have not yet signed the contract. By coincidence, today my literary agent has just written to me sending a contract ready to sign. Now, what should I do? If I sign the contract, any money I get I’ll give to a Ukrainian charity. But would it be better not to have the book published at all in Russia? I spoke to my friend, a famous novelist, asking

"Should I have a literary boycott of Russia?" and he said, "No, literature is more important than politics." What do you think?

M.S. Maybe you know Michael Katakis?

H.M. He’s cutting it all off. (This is a friend of ours, who is the literary manager of Ernest Hemingway's literary estate). He says "No Hemingway books will be published today in Russia". I don’t know. There are good Russians, and I hope my books will make people better. There’s quite a lot of Ukraine in my new book. But I don’t know the answer to it. I wish someone would tell me. Most of my Ukrainian friends, you must say "No, the only good Russian is the dead Russian". But will the literary sanctions, literary boycott do more harm than good? I don’t know.

M.S. I will just share my own experience. If you remember, there was a case at my publishing house, where we got into a conflict for selling rights for two of our books to Russia. (Henry agrees.) At that time, I thought that I did this for Russians to help them understand.

Savka Maryana
Author - Savka Maryana
Text by Romania Strots’ka
Support our work

We need your help to create projects and materials aimed to defend freedom of speech, popularize Ukrainian culture and values of independent journalism.

Your donation means support for discussions, awards, festivals, authors’ trips to regions and PEN book publications.

Support PEN

We recommend viewing: