Why did Ukrainian poets long to die in Paris at the end of the Soviet era? And how did the yearning for Europe manifest itself in the literature of independent Ukraine? Uilleam Blacker explores three thriving decades in the history of Ukrainian literature, from a symbolically significant poem ‘We Will Not Die in Paris’ by Natalka Bilotserkivets and the experiments of the ‘Bu-Ba-Bu’ group to the powerful new war writing by Olena Stiazhkina, Serhii Zhadan and Olesya Khromeychuk.
Songs of independence
In October 2021, one of Ukraine’s best-loved rock musicians, Misko Barbara, died in Kharkiv. He was days away from his fiftieth birthday. Immediately, old clips of his band, Mertvyi Piven (Dead Rooster) began to circulate online. On one of these, filmed at the Chervona Ruta music festival in Zaporizhzhia in August 1991, a thin, still-teenage Barbara stands motionless on stage, gripping the mic stand with both hands, as guitarist Roman Chaika delicately picks the lingering opening notes of what would become one of the band’s most famous songs. Then, Barbara’s unmistakably rich, soft voice intones the opening line of ‘We will not die in Paris’, and a hypnotic performance begins. As the song builds from its sparse opening to a Velvet Underground-like, violin-driven peak, Barbara and his duet partner, Yaryna Yakubiak, sing the lines:
we will not die in Paris, now I know that for sure
in provincial bedclothes soaked in sweat and tears
and no-one will serve you your cognac I know
and nobody’s kisses will console us
no dark circles will ripple under the Pont Mirabeau
The context for this performance certainly could not have been further from Paris. The festival took place in the final days of the Soviet Union’s existence in an eastern Ukrainian city known more for factories and air pollution than for poetry and song. Despite the un-Parisian setting, the concert was a defining moment in this tumultuous period in Ukraine’s history. The first edition of the festival had been held in 1989 in Chernivtsi. The festival’s name (meaning red rue, a flower with folk significance in Ukrainian culture) came from a song by Volodymyr Ivasiuk, a hugely popular pop-folk musician who many believe was murdered by the KGB. In Ukraine where cultural and linguistic Russification was still in force, the organisers took the bold step of insisting that all songs be performed in Ukrainian. Tradition and modernity, folk ballads, metal and pop combined in a celebration not only of long-suppressed identity, but of hope for a free future.
Popular resonance of Ukrainian poetry
The performance speaks to its historical moment in many ways, not least in what it reveals about the Ukrainian attitude to literature, and especially poetry. The song ‘We will not die in Paris’ is based on a poem by Natalka Bilotserkivets, one of Ukraine’s most distinguished contemporary poetic voices, and one of many poets whose words provided lyrics for countless rock songs of the 80s and 90s. It is a tradition that continues today: Serhii Zhadan, probably Ukraine’s most popular poet and novelist, is the front man of a popular ska-punk band. There is nothing more contemporary than Mertvyi Piven’s achingly cool rock songs or Zhadan’s ska, yet the popular resonance of poetry for Ukrainians is as old as Ukrainian literature itself: in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Ukrainians had no institutions through which to pursue their national interests, it was poetry, heavily influenced by folk music, that carried the idea of resistance to imperialism.
Longing for Europe
‘We will not die in Paris’ speaks to another important aspect of Ukrainian literature at the moment of independence in 1991: its ambiguous longing for Europe. Throughout its history, Ukrainian literature has drawn inspiration from native sources, but it has also always had a broader outlook, often orienting itself towards European influences. In the nineteenth century, Taras Shevchenko admired Byron and Burns, Mykola Hohol (Nikolai Gogol) and Panteleimon Kulish drew on German Romanticism and Walter Scott, while Lesia Ukrainka, Ukraine’s greatest literary cosmopolitan, reworked classical Greek texts for Ukrainian readers. In the 1920s, the Ukrainian avant-garde’s principal ideologue Mykola Khvyl’ovyi advocated a pro-European course for Ukrainian culture that would shake off the hindering influence of Moscow.
The geopolitical shifts of the 1980s and 1990s brought the question of geocultural orientation again to the fore. In western Ukraine, writers began to rediscover the country’s European connections by exploring the ghosts of alternative pasts in the architecture and geography of their region. The ‘Bu-Ba-Bu’ poetic group (Yuri Andrukhovych, Viktor Neborak, Oleksandr Irvanets) professed allegiance to the carnivalesque spirit of Rabelais and found inspiration in Lviv’s baroque and renaissance buildings. In his later ‘geopoetic’ prose and essays, Andrukhovych embarked on a remapping of Ukraine as part of post-Habsburg central Europe, opening up new understandings of the country’s heritage and history.
Ukrainian literature’s attitude to Europe has not always been straightforwardly celebratory, however. Shevchenko warned against the inferiority complexes that lead to blind acceptance of all things foreign at the expense of self-understanding. The critic Serhii Iefremov accused the modernist pioneer Olha Kobylianska of harming Ukrainian literature through her decadent European influences. For Khvylovyi, meanwhile, it was the vitality of Ukrainian literature that would reinvigorate a complacent and declining Europe, rather than the other way round. This sentiment finds resonance in one of the defining texts of the 1990s, Yuri Andrukhovych’s postmodernist novel Perverzion (Perverziia), which follows a Ukrainian poet on a journey to the heart of European culture, Venice. The novel is a tale of unrequited love: rather than a joyous reunification with Europe, the Ukrainian poet finds ignorance, indifference, and stagnation, all of which stifles his own creative energy.
Marginalised voices, poetic links, and closed borders
Bilotserkivets’ poem speaks to this complicated love. It is not a hymn to Europe, but rather a lament for Ukraine, which is negatively defined as a space from which an idealised Europe is absent. Ukraine is ‘provincial bedclothes soaked in sweat and tears’, and Paris is far away. Yet what exactly is the Paris, the Europe, that is missing? The mention of the Pont Mirabeau immediately recalls Apollinaire’s famous poem, named after the bridge, reflecting on love and transience. Yet this is not the only reference: there is also Cesar Vallejo, whose poem ‘Black stone on a white stone’ opens with the line ‘I will die in Paris, in a rainstorm’. Vallejo came from a remote Peruvian village, fled corruption and persecution in his homeland, and lived in poverty in Paris, where he did indeed die. His poem suggests the most ambiguous of escapes from hardship. The circles on the water under the bridge are a reference to another Parisian immigrant, Paul Celan, one of the greatest modern European poets, who drowned himself at the Pont Mirabeau in 1970. Celan, as it happens, was born in 1920 in Chernivtsi (then Romania but now Ukraine, and the location for the first Chervona Ruta festival in 1989), but was forced to leave after his family was murdered in the Holocaust.
Celan and Vallejo gravitated to Paris from distant provinces and difficult backgrounds, yet neither found true escape or solace there. This knowledge renders the poem’s expression of desire ambiguous, even ironic. The Ukrainian poet, marginalised beyond the closed borders of Europe, cannot even aspire to a tragic metropolitan suicide. The very prospect is cordoned off by a military guard: at the poem’s close, the image of circles returns, only this time they are not on the water, but around it:
we cried too bitterly, we offended nature
we loved too ardently, embarrassing our lovers
we wrote too many poems, neglecting our poets
they will never let us die in Paris and the waters
under the Pont Mirabeau are encircled by troops
This last line reflects the atmosphere of the mid-1980s in the Soviet Union, when the poem was written and when few expected the system to collapse. Yet the poem is much more than a political statement on the intransigence of borders: it is also about the inability to coincide with oneself that comes with lack of freedom and prospects. It talks about reaching out in vain for one’s own soul as it passes high overhead, of love remaining when perhaps it would be better if it didn’t. It is a pessimistic poem, but it is also an expression, despite itself, of love and life continuing in adverse circumstances. This quiet defiance is certainly palpable in the way Barbara and Yakubiak sing Bilotserkivets’ lines in the 1991 clip, perhaps reflecting a change in the mood: Ukraine was on the brink of freedom, and the new generation was determined not to be ashamed of itself, its poets, or the intensity of its love.
‘Encircled by troops’: new war literature
Today, the song reminds many of both a brilliant lost talent and the excitement of 1991. Yet it has more than nostalgic appeal. The metaphorical military convoy of the poem’s ending (the original contains the Ukrainian word ‘konvoi’), which cordons off the Seine’s waters, takes on a new resonance in the context of the war in Donbas. In 1991, as he sang these words aged nineteen, Misko Barbara could hardly have imagined that, in thirty years’ time, as Ukraine celebrated its thirtieth birthday and he himself was about to turn fifty, very real military convoys would be rumbling across the border from Russia. As it faces yet another episode in a long tale of adversity, however, Ukrainian literature has once again risen to the task: the voices of Ukraine’s powerful new war literature, from Serhii Zhadan and Andrii Kurkov to Olena Stiazhkina and Olesya Khromeychuk, give powerful expression to the trauma and resilience that characterise the experience of this forgotten war on Europe’s edge, far from Paris.
The forces that threaten to circumscribe Ukraine’s freedom still loom, then, thirty years on. And even today, it is not so easy for a Ukrainian poet to travel to western Europe (they usually get their visas, but not always). Dying in Paris is still not guaranteed, but perhaps it is no longer a priority, if it ever was. In any case, despite the borders and the military convoys, Ukraine’s literature continues to thrive.
Translations by Uilleam Blacker.
Dr Uilleam Blacker is Associate Professor in Comparative Russian and East European Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. His research focuses on Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian cultures and cultural memory. He is author of Memory, the City and the Legacy of World War II in East Central Europe: The Ghosts of Others (2019). He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, LA Review of Books, and Words Without Borders. He has published fiction in The Edinburgh Review and Stand, and has translated the work of several contemporary Ukrainian authors.
Image: Misko Barbara at the Fortmissiya festival, 2009. Photo by Yurko Dyachyshyn.