Ukrainian Classics at War: Vasyl Stefanyk
– That's not any of my business, but why did you leave your home, on welded wagons, on dark horses and with small children?
– Badiu Seméne, I loaded my kin on black horses and welded carriages so my children won't be violated. When the priest and his wife were chained and taken into the mountains, when the professor was taken somewhere in the middle of the night, and our viyt was hung right in the village. A guard sat next to him so nobody would take his body to bury, this is when I denounced my land and put my kin on the welded carriage so nobody would deface it. The tsar is Orthodox, and so are we, which is betrayal. This is one. And two, a moskal walks in and the sun sets down. And China, Siberia, and all the wild peoples around the world. They execute the old, rape young women, cut their breasts off, and take young children to settle them in the barren lands in the kingdom far away… The windows in our village gone blind; the bells got mute."
"She Is Soil" by Vasyl Stefanyk
Yesterday it dawned on me how deep of a scar this war leaves on our children's consciences. I'm not talking about babies here, who understand little, rely on their close people and relatives and listen to them, even though they have fantastic impressions of what is happening around them. I am talking about young people, students, school children, those who are only starting their independent life, who have broken or are breaking their nativity bond with their parents and are building their independent life.
The start was quite mundane. I listened to students delivering oral presentations: prepared, pre-recorded and sent for grading. A usual practice, so to speak. At a certain point, I've realized that the assignments were recorded after the start of the war in Ukraine. Students either spoke about it directly, or I felt it in their trepidation. One response has stood out for me. The student discussed the war and used Stefanyk's novellas for his analysis. Obviously, his choice of the topic was not random (after all, they could have offered any topic) and the selection of texts wasn't random either. He spoke about "trauma, pain, fear." The very assignment manifested this trauma, it transpired through his speech. I'm not sure the recording was made after the liberation of Bucha, Irpen, Hostomel. Summarizing the plot of "Children's Adventure," one of the Stefanyk's novellas, the student had stumbled upon a phrase. It was tough for him to say it. He tried six times, reiterating and trying to convey the meaning of it adequately. It was about war, about the death of a mother, and children who saw it happen. So a young man tried six times to form a message that carried a painful meaning for him.
Here are they, the six sentences.
"They saw it.. they became orphans."
"The bullet killed their mom as the children watched."
"The children watched.."
"The children lost their mom. They became orphans."
"As the bullet killed their mom."
"Vasyl and Nasty became orphans. The bullet killed their mom."
To be honest, for the first time in my teaching career, I faced such an obvious language of trauma. I also thought about the immense potential of our classic literature to describe what is happening to us and to Ukraine right now. So I decided to write small stories about Ukrainian classics at war, about the texts that speak on important truths to us that we need in the war, the texts that know us and our mental state better than we do. We don't have words to describe everything, but our classics have them. For example, the anti-war novellas of the same Stefanyk.
On the pages of his novella "She Is Soil," he unravels the entire psychological drama of the people. World War I. The villagers in Bukovyna are fleeing war, leaving their land and homes behind, and running into the unknown. The Russian military's behind them, tortures and killings, the fear of siege and destruction. "A moskal walks in, and the sun sets down," – old Danylo confesses, fleeing with his whole family from the Russian tsar. Danylo tells his story when asked Semén to take him in for a night – far from his native Bykovyna, perhaps somewhere in Rusov in Pokyttia, where Stefanyk used to live. "Badiu Seméne, I loaded my kin on black horses and welded carriages so my children won't be violated," an old man tells another. - When the priest and his wife were chained and taken into the mountains, when the professor was taken somewhere in the middle of the night, and our viyt was hung right in the village, and a guard sat near him so nobody would take his body to bury, this is when I denounced my land and sat my kin on the welded carriage so nobody would deface it. The tsar is Orthodox, and so are we, and this is betrayal. This is one. And two, a moskal walks in, and the sun sets down. And China, and Siberia, and all the wild peoples around the world. They execute the old, rape young women, cut their breasts off, and take young children to settle them in the barren lands in the kingdom far away…"
So he gathered his belongings, his children and his wife, and placed a baby crib on top of his carriage. Danylo, a wealthy peasant, flees the war into the unknown. Stefanyk wrote a lot about the great migration and displacement – his character Ivan Didukh from The Stone Cross left a memorial cross for himself. Alive, he traveled to the foreign land to die. He bid farewell to his land and that hill that he spent his life cultivating with his horse, like a horse himself. Ivan travels across the sea fleeing poverty. Danylo from the novella She Is Soil flees the war.
In both cases a tremendous grief transpires through words and feelings, and women are especially perceptive to it. Old men and women, children are borderline liminal characters to whom Stefanyk grants the secret of life and death. Danylo's wife got mute, because the better part of her stayed at home, at her house, where her quotidian essense left traces, saturated the windows, doors and things that had surrounded her and she got attached to. Doesn't it describe all of us, fleeing war, and leaving a part of us at home, like our material shell, together with books, favorite items, and peace?
Those are the displaced people who fled the Russian army that Stefanyk describes more than a century ago, and they are remarkably similar to us. The old Semén knows: his wife "left her words on the window ledges and the golden icons at her house, like tiny birds they flatter in an empty house like orphans. Prayers twee at the corners, and the old woman will be mute without them."
When he stayed overnight in the Semén's house at the other corner of Ukraine, old Danylo hears the words of wisdom from another old and wise man, just like he is – "Don't leave your soft land behind," he says. Go back to it, because "An old bird shouldn't leave its nest, because it cannot build a new one. It's better for its heart to still at the old nest rather than in a ditch at a foreign road." Stefanyk is like a child connected to his mother-land, displacement and extinction of his people in the beginning of the 20th century hurt him because, as Stepan says, following stone cities and foreign lands, "as you enter the foreign language behind huge stone-cold walls, the fate will shatter you against the stone in million pieces, and you will see our beautiful land only in dreams, as your stiffed hands would numbly sow wheat into the stones to amuse the rich people passing by."
Of course, some may consider Stefanyk to be anti-modern and conservative, terrified of change and willing to hold to his native land. Some might also say that leaving their land behind, refugees learn new things and save themselves for the future. Some might contradict that it's possible for people to change their whole life and at any age. These all are valid arguments, but it's not what Stefanyk preaches. He says how important is the presence and grounding at home, how precious is the land you become attached to. In a hundred years another Ukrainian author, Serhiy Zhadan, will convey this state of grounding in own land. In his Voroshylovgrad he would talk about his grounding in the east, the east that is impossible to give away, because you've become a part of it, and have cultivated it like Ivan Didukh his stony hill.
In moving away from the land and watching it in bird-eye view, in looking closer into the soil that consists only of roots, stones, grass, yellow layer of sand, white layer of clay, Zhadan's character has finally realized his umbilical connection to this clay soil. "Clay smelled sharp and sweet like I've finally dug into something precious, something I suspected but couldn't even imagine it right on the surface," he feels, grounding in "his territory" not only spiritually, but also physically. A local deputy-businessman on the contrary, persuades Hermann and all the "locals" to abandon their native places, not hold on to them and move somewhere, travel somewhere "where life is better," You "hung up on these places too much" and "holding on this hollow," he persists.
How to transform the Donetsk "hollow" into "own territory" – those questions occupy the Zhadan of 2010, as if he knew how relevant these questions would become in February 2022. But we realize that dusty and conservative Stefanyk also talks about the same issues - how to stay a nation in the new war the treacherous occupant Russia launched against Ukrainians, destroying them, conquering their land and forcing them to flee. He talks about our classics also fighting in this war, and protects us from destruction like a shield.
We have to hold on to the east, protect it. We should learn this lesson from our literature.
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