This special issue of the London Ukrainian Review is dedicated to the memory of Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian writer and war crimes investigator killed in the Russian missile attack on the city of Kramatorsk on 27 June 2023. The UIL is grateful to Oleksandr Amelin and Emma Shercliff for the permission to reproduce Victoria Amelina’s previously unpublished prose piece and three poems translated for the London Ukrainian Review.
‘We are fated to have a future’, said the Ukrainian writer and activist Serhiy Zhadan as he accepted the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in October 2022. ‘Moreover, we bear responsibility for it’. The memory of the dead pushes Ukrainians who have so far survived Russia’s genocidal war to fight ever harder for bringing forth another dawn.
Hannah Arendt, the Jewish philosopher whose writings have had a colossal impact on the way we think about the Holocaust, considers this predicament in the preface to her book Between Past and Future. She discusses Franz Kafka’s parable in which a man is placed between two antagonists, both of whom he battles: the first pushes him forward from the origin, the second blocks the road ahead. As Arendt observes,
The first thing to be noticed is that not only the future—‘the wave of the future’—but also the past is seen as a force, and not, as in nearly all our metaphors, as a burden man has to shoulder and of whose dead weight the living can or even must get rid in their march into the future.
Memory entwined with responsibility is a galvanising force driving Ukrainians into the future. With a price tag, measured in human lives, attached to every moment of the day, the present in Ukraine is devoid of a weightlessness one encounters in the conversations about the prospects of the Russo-Ukrainian war outside the country. Almost a decade into Russia’s invasion and a year and a half into the all-out onslaught, every step in the allies’ efforts to arm Ukraine is being stymied by the bureaucratic and discursive loops of political indecision. Meanwhile, some Ukrainian school kids who, nearly ten years ago, sent their drawings to the soldiers on the frontline have become soldiers themselves. In the absence of adequate weapons, their bodies close breaches in the shield which guards the rest of Europe from Russian aggression.
It is through those breaches that Ukrainians glimpse the future that is obscured from their allies by the illusion of safe distance. This landscape of the future is double-layered. In the first layer, Russia’s military defeat in Ukraine is followed by an international tribunal for Russian war criminals while Russian society at large is held accountable, in economic and cultural terms, for complicity in the atrocities committed in Ukraine. In the second picture, Ukraine is bled out, Russia’s sense of impunity is bolstered and its neocolonial wars are allowed to escalate on a global scale. Whichever scenario prevails, Ukraine is the land where the world’s future is decided.
This land is sublime and its thirst for life is fierce. On 24 August 2023, Ukrainians mark thirty-two years of renewed independence and a year and a half of full-scale resistance to Russia’s aggression. Mourning irreparable losses and surviving the scale of destruction unseen since the Second World War, they keep strengthening state institutions, the existence of which distinguishes the past three decades from the previous three centuries of Russia’s imperial domination over much of the stateless nation. To the sound of air defences shooting down Russia’s missiles and drones over Ukrainian cities, their residents attend theatre premieres and poetry readings, open independent bookshops and launch art shows, and almost no gathering is complete without a fundraiser for the Armed Forces. Writers retrain as war crimes investigators, war crimes investigators retrain as paramedics, paramedics retrain as snipers. Everyone constantly speaks of the future.
The secret of this energy, this future-oriented drive may be prosaic: generation after generation of Ukrainians has been cut short by the waves of repressions and mass murders orchestrated by Moscow. This special publication of the London Ukrainian Review is dedicated to the memory of a cultural figure who has become one of the most recent victims of Russia. Victoria Amelina’s death at the age of 37 was caused by a high-precision Russian missile fired at a restaurant in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk on 27 June 2023.
As a novelist-turned-war-crimes-investigator, Victoria Amelina bore witness to evil in its purest form and strove to eradicate it so that the future generations of Ukrainians would not inherit the fight. She recorded her experience of documenting Russia’s war crimes in her poems, translated for the London Ukrainian Review by Larissa Babij. In a previously unpublished excerpt from Looking At Women Looking At War: A War & Justice Diary, the book Amelina was working on at the time of her death, she described reading the news about Russia’s shelling of a kindergarten in Stanytsia Luhanska a week before the full-scale invasion: ‘My son is trying to see the screen of my phone. He shouldn’t see destroyed kindergartens’. Amelina fought for a future without kindergartens destroyed by Russian missiles, for her son and all our children. And we inherit her fight.
Sofia Cheliak’s tribute to Amelina sheds light on the fight’s longevity. ‘Girl talk’ is a code name Cheliak and her best friend Amelina coined for their conversations about collective traumas and erasures in the history of Ukraine, from the Holodomor and Soviet deportations to the most recent losses in the Russo-Ukrainian war. Losing yet another generation for Ukrainian culture was Amelina’s worst nightmare. In the commemorative piece ‘How the Light Gets In’, I write about the many forms her resistance took, from literary and advocacy work, to most recently unearthing the occupation diary of Volodymyr Vakulenko, a Ukrainian writer murdered by the Russian occupiers in March 2023.
The London Ukrainian Review commemorates and continues Victoria Amelina’s work by publishing new translations of prose and poetry about Russia’s war against Ukraine: two winning and five shortlisted entries for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize, run by the Ukrainian Institute London. This year’s winner is Daisy Gibbons, with her translations of the writer-turned-soldier Artem Chekh’s wry and paradoxical dispatches from the front, and Olha Matsiupa’s abstract play Pilates Time, which documents ‘war trauma without showing frontline experience’. Yulia Musakovska’s piercing poems ‘A Soldier Is Born’ and ‘Lord, Tell Me’ in Olena Jennings’s translation wed intimate and universal in their description of the ways the human condition is impacted by the war. Translated by Julia Lasica, Taras Shumeyko’s ‘The Centre of the World’ tells of the war reporter’s return to his hometown of Bucha after the massacre, and sharpens the conflict between the local and international perspectives on Russia’s crimes. Oleksandr Kocharyan’s poem ‘While We Were Waiting for War’ in Anna Lordan’s translation is a quiet and contemplative account of anticipation infused with internal tension, while Olha Kryshtopa’s powerful short story ‘Alive’, translated by Inga Kononenko, generates hope amidst the unfolding tragedy. Ukrainian Institute London is grateful to the jury members of the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize, Uilleam Blacker, Nina Murray, Halyna Hryn, and Sasha Dugdale, for this distinctive selection of new translations of Ukrainian war literature.
Clear-sighted about the existential threat posed by Russia, Victoria Amelina envisioned a future for Ukraine that would be vibrant, diverse, and defiant. In 2021, she founded a literary festival in New York, a village in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, then and now situated just a few kilometres away from the front. Deprived of its historical name as well as its patchwork multiethnic population by the Soviets, the town had been rediscovering its roots when the full-scale war broke out. In her curatorial text for the New York Literature Festival, Amelina wrote, ‘We will still build our new European home in our Ukrainian New York. A home where real stories and real names are sought and every Ukrainian is appreciated regardless of their background, views, or beliefs’.
On 26 May 2023, Russians dropped a bomb on Ukrainian New York, destroying the main festival location and damaging three residential buildings, a nursery, a hospital, a cinema, and a gym. On 16 June, Amelina tweeted poignantly, ‘Ukrainians will survive, laugh and make literature festivals, not war—in all possible New Yorks. I promise’.
A week later she was critically injured in Kramatorsk. In memory of Victoria Amelina, her family, friends, and colleagues have united to revive the New York Literature Festival. They have set up a fundraising campaign which gives us an opportunity to contribute to Victoria Amelina’s cause.
Image: Victoria Amelina’s archive.
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