Melnyczuk, who founded AGNI fifty years ago, delivered this speech for UMass Boston on February 28, 2022.
We are currently sheltering in our apartment, there’s heavy fighting all around. If we don’t survive and our dog does, will someone please take care of him? Our address is . . . . .
I am with my parents in Kyiv. There is no way we can go anywhere. They are too old even to go down to the bomb shelter.
I am not complaining. I don’t need help. I’m simply informing you of our situation. I’m even doing a little writing. But when the missiles strike and the windows shake, it gets on one’s nerves a little. Even our cat Basho is in shock. The bridges over the rivers Irpen and Buchanka have been blown up. We are on an island.
If you know where I can get two pairs of medical stretchers for Goloseyevskaya territorial defense in Kiev – let me know!
And on Twitter this morning: Horrific Images coming out of Kharkiv where a missile just landed: corpses, women without legs . . . .
These are just a few of the emails and tweets I’ve been receiving by the dozens since the Russians invaded Ukraine five days ago. Most come from members of the Ukrainian branch of PEN, the international writers’ organization with which I am affiliated. People are using email as a bulletin board, sending each other either requests for help or offers of support, both moral and tangible. And while these may sound dire, the message that comes through over and over is that the people are committed to fighting for their native land, that they are strong and united and intend to resist, and triumph. Overemphasizing suffering and loss demoralizes. Wars are contests of body and spirit both.
Now let me say at the outset that I’m neither a historian nor a political scientist. I won’t try to summarize Ukraine’s thousand-year history, won’t try to explain the rise of the city of Kyiv beginning with its legendary founder Kiy in the sixth century, as immortalized in the tenth-century Persian epic poem “Shahnameh.” I won’t try to summarize the growth of the city into an empire eventually brought down by Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century, nor will I try parsing the complex rivalry between it and its younger neighbor Moscow to the north. Others—the Harvard historians Serhii Plokhy and Roman Szporluk, and Timothy Snyder at Yale—are far better equipped to do that.
I remember a time when almost nobody knew the word Ukraine—something I used to lament, never guessing that that might in fact have been a golden age. Oscar Wilde once quipped that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Now I’m not so sure. By basic facts I mean that in terms of territory it’s the second-largest nation in Europe, second only to Russia, with a population of some forty-four million. That it’s one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, which once earned it the nickname “The breadbasket of Europe.” That between 1932 and 1933 Stalin tried to break a peasantry resistant to communism by exporting that wheat while letting the people starve, leading to the deaths of between three and five million people. That The New York Times had a correspondent named Walter Duranty stationed in Moscow at the time who, bribed by Stalin, turned a blind eye to what was happening, who kept reporting that all was well, and who was rewarded for his reports with a Pulitzer Prize. That, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine regained its independence and once more became a sovereign nation, and continues to fight for that status with all its might.
Nor do I want to engage in the kinds of debates and what-ifs that seem to be popular in certain disciplines: what if NATO hadn’t expanded eastward, what if Ukraine had accepted the Finland option, what if the signatories of the Budapest memorandum had acted in good faith, what if Ukraine, which once housed the world’s third-largest store of nuclear weapons, hadn’t willingly surrendered those weapons—a feat comparable only to Japan’s giving up the gun in the sixteenth century, willingly returning to bows and arrows and swords because at least these required real skill to wield while any idiot could fire a gun, and many do.
As a writer I believe in the testimony of experience. I believe in recording—and responding to—what actually happens to us, to embodied human beings making our way amid the ever-changing material conditions of our lives.
My own connection to Ukraine is pretty straightforward. My parents became refugees when they fled Peremyshl, Poland, in 1944 because my grandfather found himself on the Communists’ kill list. He abandoned the city he lived in, where he worked as a high school teacher, with great reluctance, but believed he had no choice. He had a responsibility to his three children, above all to my aunt, who was seven at the time, and who is still alive—he felt he’d put her through enough. This seven-year-old girl, who’d just started going to school, had learned to keep secrets: she knew she could never mention the Jewish couple, former students of my grandfather’s, who were hiding in a secret room my uncle had built for them by morning after they showed up at the door at midnight, having escaped from the Jewish ghetto by hiding on a wagonload of corpses.
I agree with Joseph Conrad that my job above all is to make you see. Here’s some of what I’ve been seeing and hearing at a great distance because I am again glued to live TV from Ukraine, where I recently learned that Madonna has tweeted her support for the country and its courageous citizens. I suspect this has something to do with Sean Penn being in the city. The fact that Sean Penn is in town is strangely comforting. Surely not even Putin wants to mess with Sean Penn. I can imagine Russian soldiers clambering out of their tanks for an autograph.
Anyway, the television anchors, who are speaking from an underground garage and seem to be getting some of their information by calling friends on cell phones, race from the news about Madonna to a breathless announcement that another Russian plane has been downed, before rolling smoothly into a plea for donations to help pay for supplies for the Ukrainian military, followed by a request that citizens seeing any suspicious-looking people in the streets inform the police, which is followed by reports of shelling not far from Kyiv’s center.
I remember Kyiv’s center vividly. I’ve been there many times. The first time was for a poetry conference, in 1990, when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. That too was a tense period. The future was not promised then, either. The collapse of the empire was still more than a year away. But Ukrainians were already beginning to assert themselves more openly than they ever had in their lives. The atmosphere was festive, jubilant. In hotel rooms and on the streets, people were singing Dylan, the Beatles. The music represented freedom, an escape from the calcified attitudes of a regime that had grown completely out of touch with its people.
I remember being struck by people’s forthrightness. Their tongues had been set free, and for the first time in their lives they had an audience from outside to whom they might speak their peace. One such straight-shooter was a young writer, not yet thirty, who’d recently published her first book of poetry. Her name was Oksana Zabuzhko. I’ll never forget how she scolded us, visitors from the West, for imagining that we’d been invited because we had something to teach. On the contrary, she said, there were many things we needed to learn from them. We had no idea, no real idea, what they had lived through. Sure, we might have read a few books. We might have a few theories about how geopolitics works. Thinking that made us experts was like believing that watching Ivan Lendl volley improved our tennis game.
In 1990 the urban landscape in Ukraine was bleak. I remember wandering the streets of Czernivtsi, home city of the poet Paul Celan and the novelists Aaron Applefeld and Gregor von Rezzori and Olha Kobylyanska, as well as the city where my father was born. I still have a photograph of a shoe store with one pair of shoes in the window, the shelves bare.
But back to the news. Perhaps the most unsettling item is a story from a British wire service, which the anchors read straight off their cell phones, claiming that Russian troops are accompanied by trucks that serve as crematoria. Burning the dead is one way of avoiding the bad press that accompanies body bags.
Next, they dispel the persistently recurring rumor, the fake news, that President Zelensky has left town. He has not. The actor has grown into his role. If he manages to sustain his present poise, he will go down in history as one of the country’s most important leaders, who was tested by the harshest of all trials: war.
The last time I was in Kyiv, in 2017, I visited the Arsenal. Built in 1798 as a workshop for manufacturing munitions, it had lately been turned into a cultural center. That May it was hosting Ukraine’s international book fair. The city itself was glittering, proud of its own version of Fifth Avenue, rivaling Italy’s Via Veneto, preening at having been labeled the Paris of Eastern Europe. Lines to enter the book fair stretched around the block. Visitors were discussing what writers they most wanted to hear. It was heartening to see that the arsenal of which Ukraine was proudest was its abundant stock of books and their makers. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Zabuzhko, whose book *A Field Guide to Ukrainian Sex *spent ten years on the bestseller list. On top of that, she’s also my Ukrainian publisher.
At 4:30 a.m. Kyiv time, one of the anchors calls up a friend. He asks him how his night, surely the toughest yet, has gone. The man shakes his head: On the contrary. It’s been the best night yet. He seems preternaturally cheerful. Yes, there’s shelling, but that’s war. Those of us who’ve chosen to stay with our city know why we’re here and what to do, he offers. By the time he signs off, the anchors’ moods have lightened. Their on-camera giddiness is contagious. I too feel relieved. The sun is coming out. Ukraine stands for another day, and will go on standing.
And then there’s another explosion in the center of town. The anchors sigh and call another friend. Though the woman is standing outside in the dark and we hear missiles falling nearby, she assures us all will be well. And I believe her.
Since this was written, the Russians have bombed elementary schools and the University of Kharkiv. They have bombed Babyn Yar. They have ignored the pleas of the chief rabbi of Kyiv. There are rumors they plan to bomb Saint Sophia, the thousand-year-old cathedral that is the birthplace of Ukrainian Christianity. I have stood in that remarkable space, under its frescoed ceiling, its gold-domed cupola, listening in silence to the whispers of ten centuries of prayers echoing in its walls. As President Zelensky suggested today, it seems the Russians are aiming for nothing less than genocide. And the whole world is watching.
Askold Melnyczuk is the founding editor of AGNI and contributes a series of essays called “Shadowboxing.” He is professor of creative writing at UMass Boston. Excerpts from his anti-memoir in progress have appeared recently in The Threepenny Review and Epiphany. The Epiphany excerpt, “Turbulence, Love,” was cited as Notable in The Best American Essays 2010. His third novel, The House of Widows (Graywolf Press), won the Editor’s Choice Award from the American Library Association as one of the outstanding books of 2008. His second novel, Ambassador of the Dead (Counterpoint, 2001) was called “exquisite, original” by The Washington Post, and his first, What Is Told (Faber and Faber), was a New York Times Notable Book for 1994.
In 1997 Melnyczuk received a Lila Wallace-Readers’ Digest Award in Fiction. Winner of the McGinnis Award in Fiction, he has also been awarded grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. He has published stories, poems, translations, and reviews in The New York Times, The Nation, The Partisan Review, Grand Street, Ploughshares, Poetry, and The Boston Globe. His poems have been included in various anthologies, including The McGraw-Hill Book of Poetry, Literature: The Evolving Canon, and Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets. He has edited three volumes in the Graywolf Take Three Poetry Series, as well as a volume of tributes to Father Daniel Berrigan and a livre d’artiste on painter Gerry Bergstein. He also coedited From Three Worlds: New Writing from Ukraine.
He previously taught at Harvard University, the graduate Bennington Writing Seminars, and Boston University, where he edited AGNI until its thirtieth anniversary year in 2002. A research associate of the Ukrainian Institute at Harvard, he has served on the boards of the New England Poetry Club and PEN New England and has been a fellow of the Boston Foundation. In 2001 he received PEN American Center’s biennial Nora Magid Award for Magazine Editing as well as PEN New England’s “Friend to Writers” Award.
Melnyczuk founded AGNI in 1972 as an undergraduate at Antioch College. (updated 9/2018)
See him interviewed on New England Authors.