May I like them composed
Of Eros and of dust
Show an affirming flame
W. H. Auden
After the Soviet Union collapsed, some of the busts of Lenin, which had loomed over parks and squares in Crimea, were lowered into the sea off the peninsula. Tourists could scuba dive and swim past his vacant gaze. The act was an assertion of freedom rather than an ideological statement. However, liberty in Ukraine was always only provisional.
When I stayed in Kyiv to present a book of translated poetry in 2012 I met a rather imposing man. He was implicated in the death of a Ukrainian dissident some years previously. The notion that the security services were taking an interest in a lowly, literary translator seemed laughable. Yet autocratic regimes have their own logic and, curiously, it is words that terrify them most. I knew that during my trip to Kyiv I was being watched by shadowy figures. It was like being a goldfish peering at distorted human faces through its bowl.
Although notionally democratic, Ukraine, under presidents Yanukovych and Kuchma, was a place where ‘inconvenient’ people died. Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Honhadze was assassinated on 17 September 2000. The regime in Ukraine echoed its Russian parent. Anna Politkovskaya, a crusading Russian journalist of Ukrainian descent, was murdered on 7 October 2006. Her death, with eerie synchronicity, fell upon President Putin’s birthday. The revolution that swept Ukraine in late 2013 was a revolt against autocracy, which always suppresses the freedom to speak. Ukrainians had looked to the association agreement with the European Union to bring them transparency and fair elections. When Yanukovych refused to sign the agreement in November 2013 people understood that unless they demonstrated, they would be utterly subjugated. Ukraine would remain a country where journalists could be murdered and dumped in the forests. The Revolution of Dignity in February 2014 brought a measure of liberty to Ukraine. Yet, less than a month after Yanukovych fled, Russia seized Crimea on 18 March. In the aftermath of Ukraine’s revolution, freedom remains problematic and conditional.
However, Ukrainians themselves have shown an extraordinary capacity to organise, to create a society out of the post-autocratic vacuum. Numerous civic news sites and organisations such the Ukrainian Crisis Media Centre emerged. Ukrainians understood that they had to create and fight for the freedom and the Europe they aspired to join. I asked four Ukrainian activists and authors to assess the prospects for Ukraine to retain its precious and fragile liberty.
Alya Shandra runs one of the most important multilingual sites about Ukraine, Euromaidan Press. The site has become a vital, independent voice on Ukraine free of oligarchic control. She noted that: ‘Ukraine’s entrenched corruption is a product of 70 years of totalitarian rule… during the Soviet Union, where the individual was a mere cog in the machine. Ukraine’s generation Euromaidan is facing an extraordinary task of battling a system that is resilient to change and used to abusing justice.’ She noted that extremism remains marginal in Ukraine, with only 5% of the population supporting the extreme right.
Vyacheslav Huk grew up in the Russian-speaking area of Saki in Crimea, but moved to Kyiv and became a leading Ukrainian writer. He could only watch as Russia seized his homeland, the peninsula. Subsequently, Ukrainian was banned from schools and Tatar and Ukrainian books were burned. However, Ukraine had come to symbolise a European aspiration for Vyacheslav and many younger Crimean Ukrainians. Their Europe was, for Vyacheslav, not a geographical terrain but an area defined by ‘the rule of law and where legislation protected the individual’. He dreams of a Crimea where all enjoy the freedom other Ukrainians possess, to read, write and speak as they choose.
However, Teodozia Zarivna, a poet and literary editor, noted that freedom of expression in Ukraine was limited by media ownership. While there ‘was no problem with freedom of speech’ she noted that: ‘there is a problem with the lack of a tribune. And without a tribune you are dumb.’
Ukrainian novelist Liubov Holota noted that Ukrainians were free to speak ‘truth to power and were not afraid of the consequences’. However, the Ukrainian media space ‘through which we can speak to power is not under our control. Most media resources are owned by oligarchs.’ She added that: ‘the fear of repression still hangs over us…’ The Holodomor of 1932 to 1933 still casts its shadow on Ukraine. The ‘Leninopad’, which followed the revolution of February 2014, saw Ukrainians tearing down statues of Lenin across the country. They were exorcising the spectre of repression from their country’s visual iconography.
Ukrainians have acquired a measure of freedom that remains under threat from an autocratic regime. The fault line in the country runs not solely between crumbling factories, burned out tanks and hastily buried soldiers. It is a border between an open and a closed society, between an engaged community and a regime where news channels churn out scripts written under the spires of the Kremlin. The war may seem remote compared to WW1 when the explosions at Messines were heard in London. But it is part of a global war to determine the society within which we will all live. Let us hope its outcome is a future where no one pays with their life for freedom.
Steve Komarnyckyj is a poet and PEN award winning translator and Byline journalist. He runs Kalyna Press.