Cover Image for How the Light Gets in. Remembering Victoria Amelina

How the Light Gets in. Remembering Victoria Amelina

Sasha Dovzhyk
Issue Three

The editor of the London Ukrainian Review reflects on the legacy of the Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina, killed by a Russian missile in Kramatorsk. Combining biography and reportage, the piece explores Amelina’s literary work alongside her quest to preserve Ukrainian culture under attack and hold Russia accountable for war crimes committed in Ukraine.

 

She was looking for lipstick. It was day three on the road, and the roads in the Donetsk region of Ukraine are notoriously bad. For three days, we had been driving from Kyiv to Kharkiv, Izium, Sviatohirsk, and Sloviansk, via countless villages where not a house stood undamaged, delivering books to libraries with plywood-covered windows and speaking to those who survived months of Russian occupation and bombardments. Dishevelled would be a generous description of our appearance.

‘I can’t go to the kids like this’.

‘You look like a princess’.

‘A very tired princess’.

She put some colour on her lips.

She joined us in eastern Ukraine having come from a European advocacy trip the day before. She loved taking selfies in the compartments of Ukrainian trains and said that, since Russia’s full-scale invasion, they felt like home. She was used to traversing her country east to west and north to south. In the spring of 2022, she joined the war crimes investigators of the non-profit organisation Truth Hounds to sift through human suffering so that, one day, justice would be served. This was the part of her job she spoke about openly. One of her unspoken tasks was bringing light to places where darkness felt stale like air in a crowded basement.

Victoria Amelina had plenty of light to give.

On 27 June 2023, she was fatally wounded in a Russian attack on the city of Kramatorsk, a busy urban hub for Ukrainian and international media, volunteers, and instructors situated thirty kilometres away from the eastern frontline. Around dinner time, Russians targeted a pizza restaurant with a precise strike of an Iskander missile. Amelina was inside with a delegation of Colombian writers whom she accompanied to the Donetsk region to raise awareness of the war. The Russian attack on the pizza place injured sixty people and killed twelve, including three children. Five days later, Amelina too died of her injuries.

Two months prior, in a room full of quiet kids in the frontline city of Sloviansk, she wore a black t-shirt with a print ‘book is my superpower’.

‘Do you know what it means? It means I am like a superhero, because I read books. And you can be superheroes too!’

She tried to make the children smile, and eventually, she succeeded. It is not every day that a princess, albeit a very tired one, comes to read and play with you in Sloviansk to the noise of distant artillery.

‘The kids shouldn’t be here but they are’, Amelina explained. ‘It means we should be here for them’.

She managed to be in so many places for so many people. A bit like a superhero. Since the full-scale invasion, she travelled all over the world to speak of accountability for Russian war crimes. She wrote for international publications about the need to hold Russian culture responsible for the moral collapse of the Russian people, as well as the duty to preserve Ukrainian culture amidst the genocide of Russia’s making.

Her approach to the latter was hands-on: a fortnight after the liberation of the Kharkiv region, she dug out the occupation diary of the Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Vakulenko. In late March 2022, a few days before being taken away by the Russians who occupied his beloved village of Kapytolivka, Vakulenko buried the diary under a cherry tree in his garden. He told his dad to give it to the Ukrainian Army when they come to liberate the place. Six months later, his body with two bullet wounds was uncovered in one of the mass graves left in the region by the retreating Russian troops. In June 2023, Vakulenko’s diary was published with Amelina’s foreword. Its presentation took place in Kyiv a few days before Amelina was killed by the Russian missile.

In the foreword, she records the nightmarish thoughts about the losses of Ukrainian culture under colonialism which were rushing through her head as, with Vakulenko’s father, they searched for the diary:

The loss of a manuscript that only a few hours beforehand I was unaware of and that Volodymyr’s father forgot about, now seemed to us both as unrectifiable. An unrectifiable loss for his father, because he was unable to fulfil his son’s will. For me, because my worst fear was coming true: that I was in the middle of a new Executed Renaissance, just like in the 1930s when Ukrainian artists were being murdered, their manuscripts disappearing and their memory wiped away. It felt like the times were mixing and congealing in the hope of a solution to pull them apart again. It was thus I was searching in the fertile black earth of Slobozhanshchyna Ukraine—not just for the notes written by one of our contemporaries, but for all lost Ukrainian texts: the second half of Mykola Khvylovy’s The Woodsnipes, Mykola Kulish’s other plays, the last poems of Vasyl Stus, diaries written during the Holodomor, and the old Ukrainian printed books destroyed by sanctioned arson in the Kyiv Library in 1964. All of our losses, from those old books to Volodymyr Vakulenko’s diary, felt like one great text, never to be read again. What was written there, in that diary? In all of those texts? (Translated by Daisy Gibbons)

Talking to Anne Levine for Ukraine 242 podcast, Amelina confessed: ‘This was, perhaps, the scariest moment for me during this war… Because this would be, you know, like the second death for a writer, trying to pass your message to the world and failing at it’. One learns from the foreword that it was only after Amelina managed to dig out Vakulenko’s diary that she ‘felt a little easier: Volodymyr’s message was saved, even if the next day I had to step on some anti-infantry mine. As long as a writer is read, (s)he is alive’.

Ukrainian readers are bent on keeping Amelina’s voice alive. In the weeks after her death, her books have become bibliophilic rarities. Set in the writer’s native city of Lviv, her post-Soviet family saga Dom’s Dream Kingdom (2017) has been sold out in an instant. As the novel’s oblivious human protagonists look away from the many erasures in the history of their family and city, the story remains to be told by the family dog. In the eco-minded Stories of Eka the Excavator (2021), Amelina also centres on a nonhuman hero whose adventures are kept from turning into full-blown disasters by his clever little friends. This book, from which I saw her read to the kids in Sloviansk, has also disappeared from the bookstores. So when a bookseller in Kyiv produced the author’s first novel Fall Syndrome: Homo Compatiens from under the counter, it felt like a miracle.

Published in 2014, the debut marked Amelina’s change of fate: she left her career in IT to focus on writing. As the Ukrainian poet Iurii Izdryk points out in the foreword, this novel is indeed a rare case when the simplistic ‘what is it about?’ has an obvious answer. Fall Syndrome is about compassion. The main character is marked by a gift for feeling other people’s suffering, a ‘dumb inability to switch off from the boundless field of pain in which some random waves reach you and make you shudder from the sense of injustice’. From the stifled protests of the Arab Spring to the Revolution of Dignity in Kyiv, he receives these waves from places around the globe where the human spirit rises in defence of what is just. First treating his power as a curse, the hero eventually learns to embrace it as a way of listening to, and of loving, the world. The inability to distance himself from human pain becomes a drive to succour: ‘Isn’t the type of compassion that drives us to action the only justification for the very existence of compassion?’.

If ‘book’ was indeed Amelina’s ‘superpower’, so was her compassion. She listened to the world and wrote. The testimonies of Ukrainians she interviewed as a war crimes investigator seeped into her poems. After Russia’s full-scale invasion, this novelist and children’s author resorted to poetry which the literary scholar Iryna Starovoyt calls ‘documentary’. Condensed records of co-suffering, these poems are also vessels of compassion, sealed by the author and sent out to the world:

nine talk amongst themselves on the way to the cemetery

I’m going there too, for I already know everyone in this city

and all of its dead are my dead

and all the survivors are my sisters

(translated by Larissa Babij)

At the time of her death, Amelina was working on her first English-language nonfiction book Looking At Women Looking At War: A War & Justice Diary. It was meant to share the stories of her sisters, tireless Ukrainian women who dedicated themselves to the cause of justice. They include the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights advocate Oleksandra Matviichuk, the lawyer-turned-soldier Ievheniia Zakrevska, the famous journalists Nataliya Gumenyuk, Vira Kuryko, Ievheniia Podobna, as well as activists and volunteers we might have never heard about if not for Amelina. Her book will be published from drafts, but the author will not be the one to finish it.

Victoria Amelina was buried in the Lychakiv cemetery in Lviv on 5 July 2023. At the farewell ceremony, friends and colleagues spoke of her courage and empathy, her love for the land of eastern Ukraine which has endured so much and for the small frontline town called New York where she founded a literary festival in 2021. The last words which will stay with me belonged to the writer from Donetsk, Olena Stiazhkina: ‘More than anything, Vika loved her son. She witnessed absolute evil and fought so that he inhabits a world without it’.

Vika’s pale face shone from a portrait behind the mount of flowers at the gravesite. She used to smile with that peculiar archaic smile of a Greek statue of Kore, like a thin kiss of eternity on a mask which is not allowed to age. And she had eyes which cracked the mask, as in her favourite ‘Anthem’ by Leonard Cohen: ‘but there is a crack, a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in’.

Russians might have cracked the vessel, but the flame it contained has spread to burn in all of us.

 

Image: Victoria Amelina’s archive.


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