Ukrainian Literature’s Executed Renaissance

Every national literature is always in some form of crisis, but the crisis of Ukrainian literature is a special case.

Official Ukrainian literature is doing just fine. The state-supported National Writer's Union of Ukraine (know by its Ukrainian acronym NSPU) makes sure there are plenty of literary awards, which, the NSPU has figured out, is all you really need to support a literature. Readers–books even–are purely optional when you're a member of a government-supported writers' organization. 

But for Ukrainian writers who actually write for real readers the situation has been dire for a long time. The first problem is language. Ukrainian was once a stand-alone language, but since Soviet times it's been relegated to a dialect of Russian. "Little Russian" is its nickname. To claim anything–a word, a poem–as uniquely Ukrainian is to court charges of nationalism, a touchy subject in the Soviet Union and the regions claimed by separatists fighting their farcical war against the Kiev government.

The second problem is the long-extinct Ukrainian Modernism. Natalka Sniadanko says just as Ukrainian artists had developed their own type of Modernism, in the 1920s the Soviets arrived and swept it away. The preferred method was shooting artists. Cut off from European Modernism for nearly a century, Ukrainian literature has been in a steady retreat. "Ukrainian literature – or Ukrainian culture more broadly – employs the word 'last' quite often," Sniadanko writes, "last territory, last bastion, the last issue of a magazine, the last books of a bankrupt publisher, the last Ukrainian-speaking readers, writers, translators."

Perhaps because the official Ukrainian literature is so vapid and craven, when somebody manages to produce a work of serious literature, it finds a ready audience. Particularly keen on Ukrainian literature are soldiers fighting in the east. Yet, as popular as these books are, Sniadanko suggests, they're really just "the last bastion" of what Ukrainian literary critics call "the Executed Renaissance." The Soviets put a bullet in the Modernist renaissance of the 1920s, and the Russians are still firing bullets at it. 


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