The shared history of Ukraine and Russia makes it hard to speak of their literatures separately

Through its influences and preoccupations, Ukrainian literature reflects its knowledge of Europe

In November 2015, I met the writer Yuri Andrukhovych in a city centre cafe in his home town of Ivano-Frankivsk, in western Ukraine. One of his country’s best-known authors, Andrukhovych writes in Ukrainian but is also fluent in several other languages, including Russian and English. Until the first World War, Ivano-Frankivsk had been part of the multinational Austrian-Hungarian empire. Andrukhovych explained that one of his ancestors had come to Stanislaw, as Ivano-Frankivsk was then called, as an official with the railway, which connected the city to Vienna in 1892.

Having begun by discussing translation and writing, we ended up talking about trains. Andrukhovich and I could both remember the epic journeys, measurable in days rather than hours, that could be made on the rail network of the ex-Soviet space.

At that point, in 2015, there were no longer any direct trains between Ukraine and Russia. The war in Donetsk and Luhansk had put an end to such links. We left the cafe and Andrukhovych took me to see the city’s most recent monument – a memorial to locals who had died in the Maidan revolt in Kyiv and in the then-recent war in the Donbas.

To an Irish person, on the Atlantic fringes of Europe, it is Ukraine that must seem peripheral, a place of undefined frontiers – a borderland in every sense. But Ukraine’s openness to influences and its history under more than one empire puts it at the heart of the European experience, as does its vulnerability to Europe’s historical traumas.


Europe might not have much of a grasp of what Ukraine is, but Ukraine knows all about Europe, and its literature over the past century – in half a dozen languages – reflects that. Most Ukrainians are at the very least bilingual and many of the best contemporary Ukrainian writers are also translators, Andrukhovych among them.

Vladimir Putin’s attempt to divide Ukrainian-speakers and Russian-speakers has been broadly unsuccessful. Ukraine has long been a bilingual society and most Ukrainians switch easily between languages as the situation requires. There are rough geographical divisions. The south and east tend to be Russophone. Kyiv is more Russian speaking, but the surrounding countryside not. As a traveller even in the solidly Ukrainian-speaking east of the country, I never had a problem in addressing people in Russian and getting a reply in the same language.

Over the past three decades, the use of Ukrainian has increased, and in recent years it has also acquired a political dimension; president Zelensky, a native Russian-speaker, delivers his defiant wartime addresses in Ukrainian.

Across a swathe of rural eastern Ukraine, people do not switch between the two languages so much as speak a blend of what could be called – depending on your point of view – Russified Ukrainian or Ukrainianised Russian. Nikolai Gogol was from a bilingual aristocratic family from eastern Ukraine; his Evenings on a Farm in Dikanka is narrated by a peasant who speaks this kind of Ukrainianised Russian. The Russian traditions in the short story and poetry derive much of their vitality from this connection with non-standard speech patterns and their rootedness in the oral tradition.

Putin’s ethno-nationalist rhetoric against Ukraine attacks the idea that a place that permits multiple identities has a right to be a country at all. It doesn’t allow that a Russian-speaker in Ukraine might feel passionately Ukrainian – and especially so when being bombed by a deranged nationalist despot. “They don’t know a thing about our history,” said president Zelensky following a Russian missile strike at Babyn Yar in the first week of the war. “But they have orders to erase our history, erase our country, erase us all.”

Babyn Yar is the site of a Nazi massacre of at least 100,000 people, including most of Kyiv’s pre-war Jewish population. Zelensky, who Putin is so eager to “denazify”, happens to be Jewish.

The 19th-century Yiddish author Sholem Aleichem came from a shtetl near Kyiv, in what was the Pale of Settlement, the area of the Russian empire where Jews could legally reside. The Pale stretched between the Baltic and Black seas and was the heartland of the Yiddish-speaking world.

Urban educated Jews in Ukraine tended to learn Russian. Isaac Babel, whose stories were based on his experiences with the Red Army in the 1920 war between the Soviets and the Poles, was an assimilated Jew from Odessa. Though Babel may initially have sympathised with the revolution, his stories and diaries show his disillusionment with the army that was spreading it, and how vulnerable the poor shtetl Jews in the war zone of western Ukraine were to the predations of the antisemitic soldiery of both sides.

Babel’s first language was Russian, but he understood the Yiddish of his grandparents. His short story collection, Red Cavalry, appeared in 1927, in a brief period of relative artistic freedom under Lenin, but he was executed in Stalin’s great pre-war purge.

Vasily Grossman, another Jewish “Russian” writer and the author of the second World War epic Life and Fate, was from Berdichev in west-central Ukraine. As a journalist with the Red Army, Grossman was among the first to write about the Holocaust on Soviet soil and he was with the Red Army when it liberated Treblinka. His documentation of the Nazi genocide of the Jews in Ukraine and beyond was ultimately suppressed by Stalin, who did not wish the simple tale of Soviet valour complicated by other stories concerning the extermination of entire peoples.

Grossman would likely have ended up a victim of Stalin’s own antisemitic campaign had the dictator managed to live just a little longer than he did. The Holocaust remained a Soviet taboo and Babyn Yar did not get a memorial to its Jewish victims until the era of Ukrainian independence. And Grossman’s Life and Fate, which depicted the Holocaust in Ukraine and drew parallels between Nazism and Stalinism, did not appear in Russian until the fall of the Soviet Union. Nor did Grossman’s final novel, Everything Flows, which provides the first account in fiction of the Holodor, the man-made famine in 1932-1933 that resulted from Stalin’s policy of forced collectivisation, and killed three million Ukrainian peasants.

As Ukraine and Russia emerged from censorship, fiction had a role in testifying to what had happened under Stalinism and Nazism, and bearing witness to the real experiences of millions of ordinary people. (In Ukraine the process would continue; in Putin’s Russia the machinery of deception would enter the electronic age.)

The shared history of Ukraine and Russia make it difficult to speak of their literatures separately, just as it is impossible to draw a border – as Putin would wish – between speakers of Russian and Ukrainian. But Ukraine’s linguistic fluidity goes much further than those two languages, particularly in the area of western Ukraine that was once part of the Habsburg empire.

German was the language of the urban elites in cities such as Lemberg (Lviv) and Czernowitz (Cernivitsi). The poet Paul Celan and the novelist Gregor von Rezzori were both from the Cernovitsi area and wrote in German during their post-war exiles.

The Cernivitsi-born novelist Aharon Appelfeld, in an interview in the 1980s given to Philip Roth, told how he spoke German with his parents, Yiddish with his grandparents, Ukrainian with people from the countryside and Romanian at school (Cernivitsi was Romanian between the world wars). Appelfeld was deported with the Jews of his city at the age of eight to a Romanian concentration camp. He escaped. He learned Hebrew upon arriving in Palestine in 1946, aged 14, and went on to write his books in that language.

Just as the Ukrainian language leans towards Russian in the east, it leans towards Polish in the west, an area of centuries of mingling between the two peoples. The Polish population in western Ukraine was subject to mass deportations and purges during the Stalinist years, and the survivors pushed west into Poland after the war.

The great interwar Polish short story writer Bruno Schulz was from Drohobycz, now in western Ukraine, previously eastern Poland, previously the Habsburg province of Silesia. A Jew, he was killed in the Holocaust.

Through its influences and preoccupations, Ukrainian literature is European literature. There is nothing peripheral about Ukraine. Western Europe has lately been awakening to an awareness of why this country sees its future as part of the modern European political order. Ukraine knows too well about the man-made disasters of the 20th century, and is desperate that they not be repeated.

Philip Ó Ceallaigh lives in Bucharest. His most recent book is Trouble (Stinging Fly Press)