Learn About Ukraine From the Country’s Best Writers and Filmmakers

As the world focuses its attention on Ukraine, Crimea, and Russia’s war-like maneuvers there, as a curious observer, I started thinking, “What do I know about Ukraine?” I didn’t know very much: I knew the world-champion boxers the Klitschko brothers were Ukrainian (Wladimir is engaged to Nashville actress Hayden Panettiere, who has supported Ukraine on Twitter) and that you don’t call it “the Ukraine,” which is what Russians called it during the Soviet era — it’s just “Ukraine.” I couldn’t name a single Ukrainian writer or filmmaker. Hoping to educate myself, I sent out queries to a half-dozen friends in that part of the world, and the responses trickled back in varying forms of, “Good question. This writer is Ukrainian. But she might write in Russian. I’ll get back to you.” Here’s who those friends recommended and what I could find on my own. Educate me in the comments.

It’s surprising how little information is out there about Ukrainian literature. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, which was dominated by Russia, which in turn is the country that gave the world some of its most enduring pieces of literature, some of its greatest writers, and at one point was considered by many to be a nation that valued literature and its populace reading it as highly as any nation. Few writers in Ukraine can exist on their writing alone, particularly in their native language. Some have had success writing in Russian, but to live solely as an Ukrainian novelist is almost impossible. Here’s a short list of some of the country’s best writers.

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Oksana Zabuzhko

One of Ukraine’s major writers also makes her living as a freelance writer, which is no small feat. Oksana Zabuzhko’s first novel, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), might make her the Erica Jong of Ukraine. When the book came out, it propelled her to fame. Last year, the poet, writer and essayist gave a talk at Robinson College titled “Being a Writer in Contemporary Ukraine: Drawing the Landscape While Standing on a Powerboat,” in which she criticized the lack of coherent character in the modern Ukrainian culture since the country achieved independence 20 years ago. Her most important book might be The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a family saga that received an English translation in 2012. Regarding her country’s literature, she says the highlights come from poetry, “as it is the only genre that can survive and flourish under any political circumstances, regardless. Of all the arts, poetry is the least dependent on social conditions.”

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Yuri Andrukhovych

As is the case for most of these writers, with Andrukhovych’s work the issue of the language of a country’s people takes high importance. Andrukhovych fights to preserve the Ukrainian language from being swallowed up by Russia. He’s a culture warrior of the highest order. His recent editorial in The New York Times, “Love and Hatred in Kiev,” details the street scenes of the protests during the recent crisis, depicting police officers this way: “Some have even posed for the cameras, their boots on the heads of victims lying on the ground. They proudly upload these photos and videos to their personal pages at social networking sites.” Most American writers don’t need this kind of courage. We’re rarely choked out by the state and our mother tongue isn’t in jeopardy. But Andrukhovych is a real fighter.

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Serhiy Zhadan

Zhadan made news over the weekend and in The New Yorker — “The Abuse of Ukraine’s Best-Known Poet” — as a a photo of his bloodied face sped around the internet. Zhadan is the rock-star poet of the post-independence generation. In one poem, he writes, “[T]his is how it turned — awkward, heavy like a munitions truck / leaving behind dead planets and burnt-out transmitters.” He also wrote a novel about Communism, youth, and Western music called Depeche Mode.

Other notable Ukrainian-born writers include Taras Shevchenko and Mikhail Zhvanetsky.