Ukrainian author Tanja Maljartschuk: ‘Our national memory is a mass grave ... No one was ever punished for all these crimes’

On a visit to Dublin, the award-winning author talks about how Ukrainians have re-thought their history since being denied statehood after the first World War, ‘irrational Russian imperial trauma’, and why non-Ukrainians need to think about where they see their future

Tanja Maljartschuk, author of Forgottenness, talked to Natalya Korniyenko about how Ukrainians have rethought their history in the last 100 years

Award-winning Ukranian author Tanja Maljartschuk recently travelled to Ireland for the launch of the English translation of her novel Forgottenness, which was acclaimed by the BBC as Ukrainian book of the year in 2019 and awarded the Usedom Literature Prize in 2022. The book revolves around a contemporary writer who becomes fixated on Viacheslav Lypynskyi, a once-significant figure in the struggle for Ukrainian independence who was born on the same day as her 100 years earlier. As the narrator plunges into her nation’s history to come to terms with her own, the book slowly uncovers the complex relationship between time, memory and identity to confront the question: what does it mean to remember?

During her visit to Dublin, Vienna-based Maljartschuk met Natalya Korniyenko – a Ukranian journalist now living in Galway who had to leave Kyiv after the Russian invasion in February 2022. They talked about why Ukraine failed to gain its statehood at the beginning of the 20th century and how Ukrainians have rethought their history in these 100 years.

When I was reading Forgottenness, I could not escape the feeling that you were writing about the present. All the same: the struggle for our own statehood, efforts to preserve our national identity, language and culture, the persecution and killing of intelligentsia, burnt libraries and archives, and emigration. How did it happen, that 100 years later we are going through the same things again?

That is because 100 years ago the goal was not achieved. Ukrainians, despite all efforts and sacrifices, did not get their own, quite expected and logical, statehood as a result of the first World War and the collapse of the empires of which Ukrainian lands had been part. This statehood was as logical as the Irish one, for example, but Ukraine was extremely unlucky with its geography. At the beginning of March, I came to Dublin for the launch of Forgottenness. In St Stephen’s Green Park I came across memorial plaques with brief information about the Easter Rising in 1916, which brought into existence the Irish Free State in 1922. At that moment, I could not get rid of the thought that Ukrainians also could limit themselves to the memory of the courageous struggle of their ancestors, cherish museums and monuments, and live peacefully today, if history had treated them more kindly a hundred years ago.


I undertook to write Forgottenness because I adhere to the opinion that the defeat of the statist movement at that time and the subordinate position of Ukraine within the Soviet Union became the cause of all the following tragedies: the Holodomor (famine), the destruction of the intelligentsia in the 1930s and 1970s, repressions, mass deportations and waves of emigration. Ukraine’s independence in 1991 should have put an end to all crimes, and we believed in it until the end, if only the corresponding democratic transformations had also taken place in the aggressor state. However, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia followed the path of resentment and hegemonic autocracy. Resorting to manipulation and bribery of the Western world, it has been waging wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria all these years, while at the same time not ceasing to terrorise Ukraine. Czech author Milan Kundera defined the Russian form of imperialism as “offended love”. A Soviet officer, driving a tank into Prague in 1968, told him: “We love you! Why don’t you want to be with us, be the same as us?!” Similar “declarations of love” were recorded in the occupied Kyiv region in March 2022. “We love you,” said the Russian military, “We have come to save you.” Having received the refusal of the locals, they resorted to terrible executions.

The readiness to listen and hear me and my Ukrainian colleagues means, first of all, [western Europeans have] the readiness to say goodbye to big illusions about Russia and carry out the ‘decolonisation’ of eastern Europe inside themselves

The more Ukraine left the Russian sphere of influence (and it always did, as soon as it gained even a little freedom), the bigger and more irrational the Russian imperial trauma became. And the revenge was all the more terrible and bloody. Russian tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century literally wiped off the face of the earth the capital of the Ukrainian Cossack Republic, Baturyn, when his beloved vassal, Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa, resorted to “treason” by switching to the Swedish side. The Russian army always entered the territory of Ukraine exclusively in order to tame and punish the refusal to “love”. The current war is also a kind of punishment.

Today, when another large-scale violence is taking place in Ukraine, it is more important for me to be present in the present, here and now. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/AFP via Getty Images

Forgottenness is an attempt to pull out of the mouth of time the forgotten pages of the Ukrainian history of the beginning of the 20th century, to rethink them, to work out our transgenerational traumas, and to find the strength to build our future. To what extent is our national memory – as an indispensable component of our national identity – realised and worked out for now?

Our national memory is a mass grave. Moreover, those victims of violence, whose names no one remembers now, were covered by a layer of later victims, and then another, and another. No one was ever punished for all these crimes. And in fact, I don’t know how to work with such a memory, so as not to retraumatise and not go crazy yourself from the awareness of total injustice, from all this pain. I tried to write a novel about the Holodomor – the artificial famine of 1933, as a result of which 3.5 million people died in Ukrainian territories – but I quickly gave up on this idea, because I realised that neither I myself could bear to write about death from hunger, nor the readers could stand to read about it. My next project was devoted to the Holocaust in Galicia, where me and my family come from. The Russian invasion two years ago pulled me out of the archives and put an end to the novel. Today, when another large-scale violence is taking place in Ukraine, it is more important for me to be present in the present, here and now.

What can a writer in whose country there is a war do? You chose the role of speaking about Ukraine to the world. Can you be heard?

In these two years, I held an infinite number of events, gave a lot of interviews, and all of them, without exception, were related to the war and the Ukrainian perspective in it. I speak (at first I also cried, but then I stopped doing that, a long time ago), but whether they hear me is the business of the other party. I can’t do the work for them. Before the invasion, western Europe had big illusions about Russia. The readiness to listen and hear me and my Ukrainian colleagues means, first of all, the readiness to say goodbye to these illusions and carry out the “decolonisation” of eastern Europe inside themselves.

At one public meeting you said that Forgottenness is “a crying for European Ukraine, which we lost then and for which we are fighting now”. Who will we emerge as from this war and how do you see the future of Ukraine in Europe?

Ukraine has always been a part of Europe and European culture, it is and will remain so. None of the worst terror that Moscow has ever perpetrated on Ukrainian territory has changed this fact. One hundred years ago, European Ukraine lost and was destroyed, but a new, even stronger one appeared in its place. It seems to me that now non-Ukrainians should ask themselves how and where they see their future, because for them this question has been resolved long ago. Europe needs to think about how it sees itself in the future.

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How will the world change after what is happening now?

The escalation of violence in the world, which we are witnessing now, did not happen by chance. Autocratic political systems feel threatened by globalisation and the spread of liberal values, so they resort to open attacks. How brutally were protests suppressed in Belarus or Iran, for example? Russia lost the hybrid war it waged against Ukraine, so it went for an open armed aggression and all terrifying crimes, no longer fearing the condemnation of the rest of the world. If Ukraine stands up now, the axis of liberal values will stand up, and there will be fewer autocracies in the world. In general, I am convinced that the spread of freedom will not be stopped in the future, and now is a defining moment in this process. It is very important that those democratic societies that take freedom as a given understand that sometimes you have to fight for it.

Forgottenness by Tanja Maljartschuk, translated by Zenia Tompkins, is published in English by Bullaun Press

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