Tanja Maljartschuk: “Ukraine has always been a part of Europe, and will remain so”

An abridged version of this interview was published in the Irish Times on 4 May 2024

Natalya Korniyenko is a Ukrainian journalist, originally from Lviv Region, who lived and worked in Kyiv for 11 years. She used to work as a journalist, editor, and media project coordinator for different Ukrainian media, including “The Ukrainian Week,” “Channel 5,” and “Chytomo”. Natalya has been based in Galway with her two children since March 2022, after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The struggle of Russia against Ukraine has been going on for centuries. Russia was changing its face, but its underlying desire always remained the same: to destroy the Ukrainian identity, to kill the Ukrainian language and culture, to turn Ukraine into a part of Russia. It used various means of terror, but always met the resistance of Ukrainians and their desire to be independent and to have their own democratic state. In a conversation with the famous Ukrainian writer Tanja Maljartschuk, whose translation of the novel Forgottenness was recently published in Ireland by Bullaun Press, we talk about why Ukraine failed to gain its statehood at the beginning of the 20th century, how Ukrainians have rethought their history in these 100 years and why now they will surely succeed.

– When I was reading Forgottenness, I could not escape the feeling that you were writing about the present. All the same: the struggle for our own statehood, efforts to preserve our national identity, language, and culture, the persecution and killing of intelligentsia, burned libraries and archives, and emigration. How did it happen, that 100 years later we are going through the same things again?

– That is because 100 years ago the goal was not achieved. Ukrainians, despite all efforts and sacrifices, did not get their own, quite expected, and logical statehood as a result of the First World War and the collapse of the empires of which Ukrainian lands had been a part. This statehood was as logical as the Irish one, for example, but Ukraine was extremely unlucky with its geography. At the beginning of March, I came to Dublin for the launch of Forgottenness. In St Stephen’s Green Park I came across memorial plaques with brief information about the Easter Rising in 1916, which brought into existence the Irish Free State in 1922. At that moment, I could not get rid of the thought that Ukrainians also could limit themselves to the memory of the courageous struggle of their ancestors, cherish museums and monuments, and live peacefully today, if history had treated them more kindly a hundred years ago.

I undertook to write Forgottenness because I adhere to the opinion that the defeat of the statist movement at that time and the subordinate position of Ukraine within the Soviet Union became the cause of all the following tragedies: the Holodomor, the destruction of the intelligentsia in the 1930s and 1970s, repressions, mass deportations and waves of emigration. Ukraine’s independence in 1991 should have put an end to all crimes, and we believed in it until the end, if only the corresponding democratic transformations had also taken place in the aggressor state. However, after the collapse of the USSR, Russia followed the path of resentment and hegemonic autocracy. Resorting to manipulation and bribery of the Western world, it has been waging wars in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria all these years, while at the same time not ceasing to terrorize Ukraine. Czech author Milan Kundera defined the Russian form of imperialism as “offended love”. A Soviet officer, driving a tank into Prague in 1968, told him: “We love you! Why, well why don’t you want to be with us, be the same as us?!” Similar “declarations of love” were recorded in the occupied Kyiv region in March 2022. “We love you,” said the Russian military, “We have come to save you.” Having received the refusal of the locals, they resorted to terrible executions.

The more Ukraine left the Russian sphere of influence (and it always did, as soon as it gained even a little freedom), the bigger and more irrational the Russian imperial trauma became. And the revenge was all the more terrible and bloody. Russian Tsar Peter the Great at the beginning of the 18th century literally wiped off the face of the earth the capital of the Ukrainian Cossack Republic, Baturyn, when his beloved vassal, Ukrainian Hetman Ivan Mazepa, resorted to “treason”, by switching to the Swedish side. The Russian army always entered the territory of Ukraine exclusively in order to tame and punish the refusal to “love”. The current war is also a kind of punishment.

– The hero of your novel – Ukrainian historian and politician Viacheslav Lypynskyi – reproached Ukrainians that they were always fighting “against something (against Poland, Russia, landowners, Bolsheviks, Hetmanites), and not for something”. Now the situation has changed: we are fighting against Russia, but at the same time for something. How would you put it: what are Ukrainians fighting for now?

– We are fighting for the right to a democratic future. For the right not to be afraid of our police and officials, for the right to freedom of speech, for the right to be who we are, to believe what we want, for the right to discuss and disagree, for the right to build a free society. Look at modern Russia. Who in their right mind would voluntarily want to live there today? Sometimes in my speeches, (I have given many of them in the last two years), I ask a foreign audience this simple question – and no one says “I would”. So why should Ukraine want to be a part of Russia? Adult Ukrainians – and this is my generation, plus or minus 40 years – have been socialized in a somewhat imperfect, but more or less free, independent Ukraine. This generation cannot imagine returning to prison, which for most would mean voluntarily going to a mass grave …

Forgottenness is an attempt to pull out of the mouth of time the forgotten pages of the Ukrainian history of the beginning of the 20th century, to rethink them, to work out our transgenerational traumas, and to find the strength to build our future. To what extent is our national memory – as an indispensable component of our national identity – realized and worked out for now?

– Our national memory is a mass grave. Moreover, those victims of violence, whose names no one remembers now, were covered by a layer of later victims, and then another, and another. No one was ever punished for all these crimes. And in fact, I don’t know how to work with such a memory, so as not to retraumatize and not go crazy yourself from the awareness of total injustice, from all this pain. I tried to write a novel about the Holodomor – the artificial famine of 1933, as a result of which 3.5 million people died in Ukrainian territories – but I quickly gave up on this idea, because I realized that neither I myself could bear to write about death from hunger, nor the readers could stand to read about it. My next project was devoted to the Holocaust in Galicia, where me and my family come from. The Russian invasion two years ago pulled me out of the archives and put an end to the novel. Today, when another large-scale violence is taking place in Ukraine, it is more important for me to be present in the present, here and now.

– What, apart from memory, shapes us as a nation today?

– Memory – that is, knowing where we came from – is one thing. Another is to know where we want to go and what we will do there when we get there. A nation is a political choice. A nation is a gathering around certain political ideas and values. There are 130 ethnicities in Ukraine who form the Ukrainian nation. I have friends whose parents were Russians, and they themselves grew up in Ukraine and today identify themselves as political Ukrainians. They used to speak Russian in everyday life, but for us (I speak Ukrainian) it never caused any problems. Now these friends speak only Ukrainian. The decline of the Russian language in Ukraine is a natural reaction to the war, the desire to separate from the aggressor in every way. Even Christmas, which we used to celebrate on January 7th, that is, together with the Orthodox Russians, was moved to December 25th, and no one was particularly indignant. I was convinced that my religious mother would be the last to accept this innovation, or she would never accept it. But no, on the contrary, she said that it’s okay.

– At the launch of your book in Dublin you said that over the past two years you have been disappointed in literature, that it seems for you that literature does not really solve anything. At the same time, one of the strong images in your novel is the image of the voice: the characters try to scream out, to cough out their pain. I think that literature can be such a scream during the war. Also it can be a fixation of experience, documentation of crimes, working out of traumas. Also it can become what remains when authors are physically killed by Russia, as it was with our fellow writers Victoria Amelina, Volodymyr Vakulenko, Maksym Kryvtsov. So maybe through the texts written during this war, we can at least shout the truth about it?

– That’s true. It is very important to write about this war, to scream and cough it out, to document the crimes, to work out the traumas – no one will do it for us. Moreover, it is our duty. Victims must speak. As soon as they fall silent, their killers begin to speak for them, and the cycle of violence begins again.

At the same time, and this will also be true, on an individual level we experience this war very differently. On the morning of February 24, 2022, I watched from a distance (I live in Vienna) rocket attacks on my hometown of Ivano-Frankivsk, and also Kyiv, where I also lived for many years. All my friends and all my family were there. Endless rows of Russian tanks advanced on the Ukrainian capital. At that moment, I had a kind of global rift, absolute disappointment in the word as such, in literature, which never managed to create a world in which such wars would no longer take place. The Holocaust, perhaps the greatest crime of man against man, it turns out, has not taught us anything. So many novels have been written on this topic – you can’t count them. So many memories, so many screams. I do not want for the rest of my life to write about this war as a crime that we could not prevent. I refuse to participate in such post-genocidal literature.

– What can a writer do in whose country there is a war? For yourself, you chose the role of speaking about Ukraine to the world. Can you be heard?

– In these two years, I held an infinite number of events, gave a lot of interviews, and all of them, without exception, were related to the war and the Ukrainian perspective in it. I speak (at first I also cried, but then I stopped doing that, a long time ago), but whether they hear me is the business of the other party. I can’t do the work for them either. Before the invasion, Western Europe had big illusions about Russia. The readiness to listen and hear me and my Ukrainian colleagues means, first of all, the readiness to say goodbye to these illusions and carry out the “decolonization” of Eastern Europe inside themselves.

– At one public meeting you said that Forgottenness is “a crying for European Ukraine, which we lost then and for which we are fighting now.” Who will we emerge from this war and how do you see the future of Ukraine in Europe?

– Ukraine has always been a part of Europe and European culture, it is and will remain so. None of the worst terror that Moscow has ever perpetrated on Ukrainian territory has changed this fact. One hundred years ago, European Ukraine lost and was destroyed, but a new, even stronger one appeared in its place. It seems to me that now non-Ukrainians should ask themselves how and where they see their future, because for them this question has been resolved long ago. Europe needs to think about how it sees itself in the future.

– How will the world change after what is happening now?

– The escalation of violence in the world, which we are witnessing now, did not happen by chance. Autocratic political systems feel threatened by globalization and the spread of liberal values, so they resort to open attacks. How brutally were protests suppressed in Belarus or Iran, for example. Russia lost the hybrid war it waged against Ukraine, so it went for an open armed aggression and all terrifying crimes, no longer fearing the condemnation of the rest of the world. If Ukraine stands up now, the axis of liberal values will stand up, and there will be fewer autocracies in the world. In general, I am convinced that the spread of freedom will not be stopped in the future, and now is a defining moment in this process. It is very important that those democratic societies that take freedom as a given, understand that sometimes you have to fight for it.

Image credits for photos of Tanja Maljartschuk © George Eberle