The stories that make Ukraine’s recent history tangible

With a few exceptions, contemporary Ukrainian literature is perhaps more interesting than Russian literature. This is evidenced by the notable writers who have appeared in translation since the Russian invasion of that country in 2014. One of them is Oksana Zabojko (1960), who recently published two books: The Short Story Collection Sisters and group articles Longest book tour. Both deal with the current war in Ukraine and especially the long period leading up to it.

For example, Zabuzhko publishes the first story in ‘Sister, My sister’ SistersSubtly see what things were like in Ukraine when it was still part of the Soviet Union. She does this with the help of an adult woman, D’Arca, who talks about her life. All the suffering she could face as a member of the Ukrainian intelligentsia under the communist dictatorship is carelessly passed into her account, which makes it all the more hideous. This happens, for example, on the basis of the miscarriage of Draka’s mother, as a result of which the girl was “stolen” from her sister when she was five years old.

Darka’s mother was treated so badly during that miscarriage that she could no longer bear children. as punishment, because her husband has Ukrainian nationalist views. The woman was then broken. She suffers from nightmares, which Szabojko describes in a poetic sentence nearly a page long. It then transitions seamlessly into the anguish of D’Arka’s father, who was deported twenty years ago to the Gulag camps in Siberia, where he was imprisoned for years. And even after his release, the regime does not leave him alone. The KGB regularly searches homes to force him to “cooperate”, which he, of course, refuses to do.

Darka is an eyewitness to her as a child. She consoles herself by making up a younger sister who she calls Ivana. It is her fairy ally who must help her survive.

The success of this is seen in the next story, “Girls”, in which Darka relives her high school years in the Soviet Union in post-communist Russia. It is a story of scarcity, envy, betrayal and disappointment.

It all revolves around Darka’s early boyfriend Lintje, who bit off a piece of a classmate’s foreskin at a party and was expelled from school. Subsequently, Lenti actually had an affair with the gym teacher, with whom she had a child.

The story takes place on the eve of a school reunion, at which Darka hopes to see Lintje again. She abandoned her friend at the time and feels guilty for her infidelity, which was typical of everyday life in the Soviet Union.

Russian propaganda

The third story, “The Gustav Album”, is about the 2014 Maidan uprising and the naivety of the West, which then refuses to see what Russia really means to Ukraine. It reads like a prequel to the fifth story, “No entry into the hall after the third bell,” as Zabojko shines a spotlight on the chaos in the years since 2014. This time it centers on a 45-year-old jazz singer in transition who feels like a rival to her young daughter, who I just started my period. She makes offerings at the front to encourage the soldiers, but she realizes that as an older lady, she no longer matters, even though she is happily married.

This negative feeling was reinforced by the news of the death of her ex-husband, who had been involved in Russian propaganda in Ukraine in recent years. When they were still together, he worked as a prostitute to get rid of a Russian criminal creditor.

Everything shows her fear for life, which Zabojko beats up. When she finally comes to terms with her fate and thus with her daughter, she is glad that the children of today, unlike in her younger years, are no longer children. “They are not afraid to live and they are not afraid to die if they have to: they know that this is part of life, too.” In the current war, evidence of this is presented daily.

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