The Russian Occupation of Ukraine
Russia and Ukraine have a long and complicated history but tension between these neighbouring countries reached its peak earlier this year with the Crimea crisis.
Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula after the Ukraine revolution of February 2014 which saw the ousting of Ukraine’s Pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych. Many Western countries have condemned the actions of Russia as provocative and illegal, and have ordered sanctions against the country in retaliation.
While governments debate the next course of action and news outlets report the bare facts, we turn to poetry to reveal the true human cost of conflict.
In Ukraine, poetry is revered and poets treated like pop stars. Poetry has a hugely diverse audience and is an increasingly important part of Ukrainian culture. Poets are considered the voice of the people. One such poet speaking on behalf of her nation is 23 year old Anastasiya Dmytruk whose angry poem “We Will Never Be Brothers” made her an overnight YouTube sensation. Dmytruk wrote the poem shortly after the Russian invasion of Crimea. It is a passionate rejection of the propaganda that claims Ukraine and Russia are ‘brothers’.
Never ever can we be brothers.
Neither blood, nor homeland unite us.
You don’t own that spirit of freedom,
You are not our stepbrother either.
You have claimed you are elder brothers…
We’d be younger ones, but of others.
You’re so many, but every faceless.
You are huge, but we’re great since ages.
And you strangle us, toss about in pain.
You’ll gulp down the poison of own envy.
You will never know what liberty is,
Since your birth enchained, you’ve lost dignity.
You praise silence like gold in your motherland.
We have cocktails of fire, raised in our hands.
Yes, that blood is hot, running through our hearts.
What a blind kinfolk are you now to us!
And no slightest fear’s found in our eyes.
We are dangerous, though we have no arms.
We’ve grown up and now we become so brave,
As a walking target, a sniper’s aim.
Their hangmen wanted us on our knees,
But we rebelled and chastened the fallacies.
And those lurking rats, they just pray in vain.
Only their blood will redeem our pain.
You just get new orders and you are fine.
While we offer our souls for uprising’s fire.
You have Tzar, and we gain democracy.
And your “brother” appeal is hypocrisy.
19th Century poet Taras Shevchenko is one of Ukraine’s most celebrated literary icons. He became legendary for his poetry (notably written in the Ukrainian language) which spoke out against the tyranny of Russian Tsars and called for an independent Ukraine. Shevchenko remains a symbol of freedom and resistance for the Ukrainian people today.
Dig my grave and raise my barrow
By the Dnieper-side
In Ukraina, my own land,
A fair land and wide.
I will lie and watch the cornfields,
Listen through the years
To the river voices roaring,
Roaring in my ears.
When I hear the call
Of the racing flood,
Loud with hated blood,
I will leave them all,
Fields and hills; and force my way
Right up to the Throne
Where God sits alone;
Clasp His feet and pray…
But till that day
What is God to me?
Bury me, be done with me,
Rise and break your chain,
Water your new liberty
With blood for rain.
Then, in the mighty family
Of all men that are free,
May be sometimes, very softly
You will speak of me?
Serhiy Zhadan is considered one of Ukraine’s most influential living writers. The poet and renowned activist protested during the February revolution and was severely beaten by pro-Russian demonstrators during one particularly violent clash. Zhadan was hospitalised with head injuries but he claims the experience will not stop him from fighting his cause. “It’s very simple,” he wrote in an email, “I don’t want to live in a country of corruption and injustice. I, like millions of other Ukrainians, would like to have a normal measure of power. A dictatorship is not normal, and people who don’t protest injustice, they have no future.”
Here is an excerpt from Zhadan’s poem “Stones”, published circa 2011.
Who came to power in our cities?
Who are these
to break the hearts of our houses and let out their warm raspberry blood?
is glass splinters which they scatter under their feet,
and make us
Now they come
together in their black suits, looking like chimney-sweepers
who have come
Their politics is ropes instead of ties
on their necks,
firm ropes good for hanging them on when they exit the game.
Of course, the people of Russia have themselves suffered – and fought – corruption. The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a historic moment that had a profound impact on much of the Western world. Russian poet Aleksandr Blok famously and controversially captured the feelings of a nation in the aftermath of revolution with his poem “The Twelve” [excerpts below].
Our sons have gone
to serve the Reds
to serve the Reds
to risk their heads!
O bitter, bitter pain,
A torn overcoat
an Austrian gun!
-To get the bourgeoisie
We’ll start a fire
a worldwide fire, and drench it
The good Lord bless us!
Poetry has the power to reveal the truth and it does so without intervention. Poetry may be banned and poets beaten, but the message remains the same. For the people of Ukraine, poetry has been an outlet and an escape through hundreds of years’ of struggle. And as we have seen from the strength of great writers like Serhiy Zhadan it will long continue to be.