Olena Stiazhkina’s new novel Cecil the Lion’s Death Made Sense (Smert leva Sesila mala sens, 2021) takes the reader to the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has been the primary target of the Russian offensive since 2014 and remains occupied to this day. Debunking stereotypes about local identities and exploring difficult choices faced by people in the occupied region, Stiazhkina draws attention to the Soviet roots of this ongoing tragedy. Born in western Ukraine, Mariana Matveichuk examines her own changing perceptions of Donetsk and reads Stiazhkina’s novel as a hopeful roadmap to a personal deoccupation.
I was born in Volodymyr-Volynskyi, a small town near the border with Poland. In 2014, when Russian troops started attacking the eastern regions of Ukraine, my parents and my ‘small homeland’ were safe. ‘Well, I am lucky the eastern border is far away’, I was thinking at that time.
My grandma was less lucky in 1939: the dangerous border at that time was very close. After the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet troops arrived in the village near Volodymyr-Volynskyi where my relatives lived and worked. The Polish administration fled. Having been involved with the Ukrainian nationalist resistance, my grandmother’s father was immediately tortured to death by the Soviet authorities. As the local school became Sovietised, my grandma’s mother stopped her from attending.
Whether in the east or the west of the country, at the start of the twentieth century, one was unlucky to live next to a border.
My first and only visit to Donetsk occurred in the spring of 2006. At that time, I was a very passionate first-year student of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. My friend and I wore traditional embroidered shirts as a pro-Ukrainian statement from the moment we set off from Kyiv. Both of us were born in the west of the country, where the vast majority speaks Ukrainian. Going to the Russified eastern city of Donetsk, we told everyone that we were from Kyiv where the Ukrainian language was believed not to be so prevalent. We spoke only Ukrainian to every passerby.
The outskirts of Donetsk with its countless gob piles of coal waste reminded me of Novovolynsk, a city not far from my house where my grandfather worked as a miner and where my father was born.
I was surprised that Donetsk seemed like a typical Ukrainian city.
The east appeared to have a lot in common with the west, from Soviet toponyms to the people themselves with their shared culture. I felt almost at home. This memory of Donetsk has a special place in my heart. I managed to connect the eastern and western borders on my mental map of the country.
The need to remember
In her new book Cecil the Lion’s Death Made Sense, Olena Stiazhkina imagines the fates of five children born on the same day in the same maternity ward in Donetsk in 1986. To conform to the twisted ideological demands of the late Soviet period, the parents agreed to name their children after the German communist Ernest Telman. Through the mosaic structure of the novel, Stiazhkina traces the lives of the five children and their families up to the present day. Each of them makes a difficult choice in 2014. Some go to war, others flee to Russia. Some stay in Donetsk, others go missing. In her interviews, Stiazhkina insists that she loves all her characters. The reader is made to see the interdependence of their choices and the way their destinies are shaped by history, society, and personal circumstances.
Stiazhkina reveals the ethnic diversity of the Donbas region which is often overlooked. There are native Germans and resettled Poles among her characters. She also challenges the common view of those who remained in the so-called ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ after the occupation as weak or unpatriotic.
As Stiazhkina’s characters demonstrate, some who stayed in Donetsk did so to take care of the wounded or the dead, or to search for the missing. They might have stayed simply to continue living in the city, in spite of everything, as if it still belonged to them.
The novel unfolds the geography of Donetsk to which those who have left no longer have access. Thanks to Stiazhkina, Donetsk ceases to be a flat spot on the map of hostilities. It becomes a city populated by real people, a city to which many fugitives would like to return. One of them is Stiazhkina herself.
The anticipation/inevitability of war
My whole childhood was spent in expectation of a war with Russia. Nobody was actually preparing for it. Little was said about it on TV. However, I clearly remember this anticipation hanging in the air throughout the 1990s. In 2014, the war suddenly started, just when we had frivolously stopped expecting it.
‘The war in the Donbas could not have been avoided’, says Stiazhkina in one of her interviews. She regards Ukraine as the last frontier of the so-called socialist camp. ‘Until the Kremlin that’s walking the streets like a zombie is destroyed, until this modern-age Carthage is diminished, this war is inevitable’.
But what do we have to do to win the war? First of all, we have to remember this is a war of memory.
Ukrainians ‘have set to work with the past. We are working with the traumas of the Holodomor, the Holocaust, the destruction of [our] culture… By default, we have agreed that the late Soviet period is not that bad compared to the Holodomor. But when we compare things like that, it is like choosing between bad and worse’, explains Stiazhkina. ‘We do not want to remember those terrible queues, those sausages made of I don’t even know what, because it hurts. It is easier to forget, to remain silent. However, all that stuff has existed and it continues to affect our worldview and the lives of future generations. And nothing will change until we start talking about the late Soviet period as well’.
In Cecil the Lion’s Death Made Sense, Stiazhkina shows Ukrainians as people who do not actually know who they are, do not know their past, and for this reason, are unable to understand their place in the present. The novel is set in Donetsk, but it could have taken place in Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv, or Dnipro. Those cities were simply fortunate to be further from the unlucky border.
Responsibility for the Soviet past
When it comes to borders, western Ukraine is actually the luckiest. It was fortunate to be part of the Soviet Union for twenty years less than eastern Ukraine. However, this does not absolve the west of the country of responsibility for the Soviet past. The fortunate position of those in western Ukraine only increases their responsibility to build the presence of Donetsk on the mental map of Ukraine and to understand the reasons for its loss, which we hope to be temporary.
The language of Stiazhkina’s novel shifts from Russian to Ukrainian. This technique not only reflects the fluid language situation in Ukraine, but also marks the characters’ political choices. The Ukrainian language functions as a manifestation of one’s personal deoccupation.
Despite all the challenges it outlines, the book is very optimistic. After all, it points towards an opportunity for change and foregrounds one’s personal will as the most important factor for this change to happen. Considering Ukraine at large, what we need most is to strengthen our collective will to thoroughly and honestly rethink our Soviet past.
Mariana Matveichuk is a Kyiv-based journalist. She graduated from the Cultural Studies programme at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. For many years, she has been engaged in performing arts and cultural activism in Ukraine.
Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562, Wiki Commons.