Editor’s Note: Sasha Dovzhyk is a special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Birkbeck, University of London. She divides her time between London and Ukraine. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
To really understand Ukraine’s resistance to Russia’s invasion – from local teenagers weaving army nets, to grannies taking up weapons – you must look to the pages of the nation’s poetry books.
Largely unknown outside of the country, Ukrainian literature is filled with calls to fight against imperialist subjugation. In 2022, these words are finding new resonance.
My generation – the first to grow up in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union – had to rediscover these messages, obscured from us by a different tradition, that of censorship, distortion and belittlement of the Ukrainian national canon by the Russian imperial and Soviet ideology.
I was born and grew up in Zaporizhzhia in the southeast of Ukraine. In the overwhelmingly Russian-speaking city, I went to a Ukrainian school. An embarrassing thing to confess for a literary expert is that Ukrainian literature was among the school subjects I hated the most.
In this newly independent country of the 1990s, the school curriculum was rooted in the Soviet narrative of the oppression of the Ukrainian people by the ruling classes. And when you are a teenager, there is only that much oppression you can stomach.
For example, Taras Shevchenko – a former serf who is largely regarded as the father of the nation – often wrote about the crucifixion of his “poor” and “unfortunate” Ukraine by Tsarist Russia. The fate of this 19th century Romantic poet himself has become an exercise in Ukrainian martyrology.
For his revolutionary poetry, Shevchenko was sentenced to exile as a private in the Russian army. The sentence undermined his health and shortened his life. The school curriculum emphasized this personal tragedy as well as the suffering of the Ukrainian nation so powerfully depicted by Shevchenko – but not the nation’s fight for liberation, which was at the heart of his poetry.
Skipping forward to the 20th century, there was the Executed Renaissance – the generation of Soviet Ukrainian writers and intellectuals murdered by the regime in the 1920s and 1930s. This pattern of anti-Ukrainian violence continued with the dissident Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus, who died a political prisoner in a Russian jail, just six years before the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The focus on martyrdom and national suffering was symptomatic of the colonial trauma and learned helplessness of the colonized. The narrative of Ukrainian victimhood left no space for agency – and was utterly disempowering for me as a kid.
The tide began to turn in 2014, during the so-called Revolution of Dignity – or the Maidan Revolution, named after the square in central Kyiv where Ukrainian citizens gathered, lived and fought for three winter months.
The revolution started as a protest against the government’s decision to realign the country’s fortune with Russia and reject the association with the European Union. The national martyr Shevchenko was depicted on the barricades.
Quotes from his poems appeared on the wooden shields of the protesters who stood up against the armed riot police. Shevchenko’s line, “Fight – and you shall prevail,” became the motto of Ukrainian resistance.
It was also the Maidan that taught my generation of Ukrainians to self-organize. Many of the activists who formed self-defense or medical units and ran logistics or field kitchens at the Maidan went straight to the frontline when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014.
For the past eight years, the Maidan generation was fighting in Europe’s forgotten war. While much of the world appeared preoccupied with appeasing Putin, Ukrainians were busy defending their country against his army. Unlike the West that sleep-walked into this disaster, Ukrainians were prepared to resist.
Indeed Ukraine’s fierce resistance to Russia’s invasion surprised many in the West. The Kremlin anticipated Ukraine to be defeated in a matter of days, and western pundits largely agreed. Having been on the receiving end of the Kremlin’s propaganda for decades, they too bought into the imperialist narrative of Russia’s dominance in the region and of Ukraine’s regrettable, but inevitable surrender.
Surrender Ukrainians did not. And it wasn’t just the Ukrainian Armed Forces fighting back. Civilians have also volunteered to support the war effort. In doing so, they switched the Ukrainian national narrative from the mode of victimhood to that of defiance.
The readiness to fight the invaders which I witnessed in Ukraine during the first weeks of Russia’s war was both startling, because of its sheer pervasiveness and force, and unsurprising, because of its rootedness in the national tradition of anti-colonial resistance.
Overnight, the country’s economy transformed to support the war effort. In Lviv, a popular brewery started to fill bottles with Molotov cocktails instead of beer. A youth library hosted thousands of volunteers weaving masking nets for the army. A shop that used to sell baby slings switched to the production of tactical combat vests. The queues of volunteers to enroll in the defense forces, cook in field kitchens, or donate blood stretched all over the city.
In those queues, people would spontaneously recite lines from the Ukrainian classics. The door of a bomb shelter in my building was inscribed with Shevchenko’s famous lines:
Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
(Translated by John Weir).
The writer who dismantled my own victimized perception of the Ukrainian culture was Lesia Ukrainka. Her pseudonym literally means “a Ukrainian woman” and her fate does rhyme with that of her nation.
This emblematic feminist and anticolonial thinker was presented to me as a victim too: not of the Russian Tsarist oppression but of her ill health, as befits a woman writer. Ukrainka had tuberculosis of the bones, and it was her physical pain that became the focal point of the school curriculum.
The line from her 1897 poem about her experience with the disease, “in order not to cry, I laughed,” characterized Ukrainka’s attitude to her condition. Most Ukrainians would remember the line from the school program.
Yet, it acquired a renewed significance after the Russian army started bombing Ukrainian cities. A friend working as a fixer for foreign journalists told me the story of a woman from Bucha whose bed was hit with shrapnel while she was feeding her dogs in the next room. “In order not to cry, I laughed,” the woman said.
Ukrainka insisted that her spirit was stronger than her body and her willpower could transcend physical suffering. The heroine of her most famous poetic drama “The Forest Song” (1911) sacrifices her earthly body and proclaims:
Ah, for that body do not sigh!
‘Tis now infused and glows with fire divine.
(Translated by Vera Rich)
These days, the famous line – “for that body do not sigh” – is quoted by the Ukrainian rap artist Freel in his recent wartime song “Blast.” It is stylized as a letter of a son to his mother from the frontline of the war.
For me, Ukrainka’s most emblematic text that challenges the victimhood narrative, sticking to both her personal story and that of her country, is the short poem of 1911:
Who told you that I might be weak,
that fate I would obey?
Who told you that my hand might shake,
that word and thought are frail?
You heard me sing a woeful song,
a lamentation wail, –
but that was just a warm spring storm,
and not the autumn gale.
(Translated by Olesya Khromeychuk).
Ukrainians are not known for obeying fate. In 1991, they spelled the end of the Soviet empire by voting themselves out. In 2013, they confirmed the choice of independence by rising against their corrupt pro-Russian government. In 2022, they are yet again resisting Russia’s colonial expansion, this time fighting for their very right to exist.
“Fight – and you shall prevail” is the lesson Ukrainians have learned from their literature. For the European continent they are shielding now, the urgency to learn the lessons of Ukrainian resistance is more important than ever.