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In Ukraine, Fiction Has Lost Its Meaning—But Recording the Truth Is More Important Than Ever

16 minute read
Kurkov is a writer, journalist, and the current president of PEN Ukraine. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1961. Having graduated from the Kiev Foreign Languages Institute, he worked for some time as a journalist, did his military service as a prison warder in Odessa, then became a writer of screenplays and author of critically acclaimed and popular novels, including the bestselling Death and the Penguin. His latest novel is Grey Bees

Thanks to the support of the democratic part of humanity, Ukraine has been fighting for its freedom for two and a half months against the Russian army, which is much larger, but, as it turned out, not much stronger than the Ukrainian army. Ukrainians are determined to win, to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.

When I think about the current situation in Ukraine and about what I must say today, I get the impression that I should be giving not the Arthur Miller Lecture, but the George Orwell Lecture. Russian aggression has stretched its steeling grip out to us as if from the distant Soviet past, from the 20th century, from a country in which there is a “Ministry of Truth” and a “Ministry of Happiness”, from a country where the massacre of civilians and the destruction of cities is accompanied by the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, from a country where even monuments to Pushkin are dressed in military uniforms and forced to take part in the fight against Ukraine and against Ukrainian identity and culture.

I have a lot of questions: how did this become possible in the 21st century, in the era of high technology, in the era of world economic, political and cultural cooperation?

I am not yet ready to answer all these questions, but I do not ignore them. I write down my answers so that I can later compare my answers with the opinions of recognized analysts and political scientists.

And I am learning to live in wartime. I have learned to be an internally displaced person. I know what to do during shelling. I am mastering a new layers of knowledge, without which it is difficult to survive and act effectively during a war.

I have learned how to travel from Ukraine to Europe, and this time even to the U.S. I have learned to return to Ukraine as quickly as possible. Above all, I have learned not to write fiction. Previously, I could not have imagined a situation in which I would decide not to write a novel. But it has happened. Reality is now scarier, more dramatic than any fictional prose. In this context novels lose their meaning. Now it is necessary to write only the truth, only non-fiction. All those who can write are witnessing one of the worst crimes of the 21st century. The task of a witnesses is to record and preserve the evidence of the crime.

Yes, now I am a witness in a future criminal trial. And even if this process takes place later than I would like, my testimony, like the testimony of dozens of other Ukrainian writers and journalists, will be claimed by the judges.

On the first of May, I sat in my car at the Ukrainian-Slovak border for five hours in order to leave war-torn Ukraine in order to get to Denmark and from Denmark to get here, to New York, for this meeting. The distance you have to cover does not become longer when the flat racecourse is converted into a steeplechase course. The distance is simply filled with new meaning and it requires new strength and new understanding from those who want to overcome this distance. The same thing happens with any tasks: war changes the rules for solving tasks but does not make the desired result impossible.

Today the task for Ukraine is to defend its independence, defend its freedom and complete the reforms that should have been fully implemented long ago. To forge any change, you need to know the truth of the situation. For any decision-making, in war or in peacetime, without an understanding the true state of affairs it is impossible to achieve a result. You can not even choose the right route to the goal.

I am always surprised when Google Maps tells that a 40 km car journey will take me two hours. Yes, I’m always unpleasantly surprised in this situation, but I’m not angry at Google maps. I am angry about the bad roads. Google maps is just telling me the so-called “unpleasant” truth.

There are many people in the world who believe that the truth must necessarily be unpleasant. I myself have often heard in my life the words “I would like to tell you an unpleasant truth!” And in such situations, the question always worries me—those people who believe that the truth is most likely unpleasant, do they live in a lie, do they live in self-deception, do they hide from the truth so that they can maintain themselves in a pleasant and carefree life?

The truth cannot be pleasant or not pleasant. The truth can only be the truth. What a person does with it, how he perceives this truth, is a personal matter for each one. Whether they hides from it or, on the contrary, arm themselves with the truth and, brandishing it, charge forward in life, this is a personal choice.

In his plays, Arthur Miller brought the truth about American life, about the problems faced by immigrants, about the delusions that consciously or unconsciously lead people to, what false values ​and false narratives lead people to. His voice was powerful and it was heard by many. But it was those “many” who wanted to hear the voice of truth. Those who did not want to hear it tried to make sure that the voice could not be heard at all. Miller always fought for his rights, and especially for the freedom to write and say what he thought. Neither did he tire of fighting for the rights and freedoms of other writers. Thanks to the efforts of Arthur Miller and the American PEN, the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, who later became a living world classic and Nobel laureate, was saved from death. Arthur Miller’s work as president of the American PEN Center deserves special attention.

Arthur Miller was never silent. In addition, he did not want others to be silent. He wanted everyone to enjoy freedom of speech and other freedoms. He tried to involve Soviet writers in a discussion about human rights, he traveled to Moscow and talked to them about the possibility of registering a Soviet PEN club. Soviet writers were ready for this, provided that the PEN Charter was changed, provided that International PEN ceased to protect freedom of speech and other freedoms. Arthur Miller would never agree to this condition. The conversation with Soviet writers led nowhere. They were not free, they depended on the Communist Party of the USSR, they wanted to depend on the government, because this government fed them, paid for their more-or-less comfortable lives. This conversation with Soviet writers spoke more about the role of writers and literature in the Soviet Union than about the naivety of Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller gave Soviet writers a chance to become part of world literature. He did not understand that Soviet writers were primarily servants of the regime, and not thinkers or philosophers. They did not depend on their readers. To a great extent, they did not influence them either.

Later, when his plays were banned in the USSR, he was at first perplexed by the ban. Surely there was nothing anti-Soviet in his plays! In the end, he realized how he had become the “enemy of the Soviet people.” And then he understood much better the nature of a totalitarian society and the role of literature and of writers in such a society.

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Arthur Miller has not been with us for 17 years, but his voice continues to resound in the world and continues to turn the thoughts of hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions of people back to the search for truth and justice. Because truth and justice cannot be separated. They are interconnected. A person who experiences the sharp pain of injustice, in whatever way, can become a champion of truth. Such a person is usually ready to fight for this truth and, if necessary, to die for it.

I have always tried to avoid pathos, and if I cannot avoid it now, please forgive me. Pretentious words like “truth”, “justice”, “motherland” used to set my teeth on edge. I could not but doubt the sincerity of the speaker if, of course, I was not utterly convinced of their insincerity. Now I catch myself thinking pretentious thoughts. I try to muffle them. I try to think about what is happening calmly and coolly. But, to be honest, I don’t always succeed.

When the new, bloodier phase of Russian aggression began on February 24 of this year, when the shock of the first days of the new war had passed, I found myself wanting to look back and say “thank you” to everyone who had been with me in my pre-24th-of-February life and who had helped me make my life interesting, useful, fulfilling and meaningful. The first name that came to my mind was the name of my country, my Ukraine.

Ukraine is a country of individualists. Every Ukrainian has his own personal Ukraine. Every Ukrainian appreciates something special about his homeland, something that is important for her or him. It might be the country’s amazing and diverse nature, it might be the fertile black soil that produces 10 percent of the world’s wheat. For me, Ukraine is, first of all, the space of my personal freedom. This is a country that since 1991 has given me more than thirty years of life and work without censorship, without political control, without pressure. Even today, during the Russian aggression, during attacks that every day take the lives of Ukrainian citizens: military and civilian, the government of Ukraine has not introduced real military censorship and has not told citizens what to say or what to think. Yes, of course, information about what is happening on the fronts of the war is not freely dispersed. We have had to learn new rules of behavior regarding information. But even in wartime, the Ukrainian state has remained essentially democratic, trying not to restrict the freedoms of citizens, including the freedom of speech.

A woman mourns while visiting the grave of Stanislav Hvostov, 22, a Ukrainian serviceman killed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in the military section of the Kharkiv cemetery number 18 in Bezlioudivka, eastern Ukraine on May 21, 2022.Dimitar DILKOFF-AFP

Ukrainians do not accept diktats or restrictions on their rights, especially the right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion. For Ukrainians, freedom has always been more important than money, more important than living standards, more important than stability. In fact, there has never been stability in Ukraine precisely because freedom was a priority. Unlike the Russians, for whom it seems, stability is more important than freedom and all individual freedoms and rights.

Now, looking back at thirty years of life in the Soviet Union and thirty-one years of my life in independent Ukraine, I can only say thank you to Ukraine for helping make my dream come true. I became a writer and at the same time remained completely independent of any political conjuncture. I realize that in this happy state of mine there is a great merit of my country, which immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union abandoned the principles of total control over the thoughts, views and creativity of its citizens.

When you live in a free country and are a free citizen, freedom seems to be something natural, something that no one can take away from you. But in fact, even with the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution of Ukraine, in our country there has always been a struggle between those who wanted to tell the truth and those who wanted to make it inaccessible. First of all, it was not politicians who took part in this struggle, but journalists. The number of casualties among representatives of honest journalism testify to the cruelty of this struggle. Over the years of independence, about 100 journalists have died in Ukraine, in the past two months more than 20 of them have been killed by the Russian military. Journalism remains one of the most dangerous professions, and during the war it becomes even more dangerous. The inscription “press” on a bulletproof vest or helmet is to the Russian military, like a red rag to bull.

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The level of journalism traditionally shows the level of democracy in society. We can see how independent journalism is being destroyed by the example of annexed Crimea. Immediately after the annexation, some journalists remained working in Crimea, including freelancers for Radio Liberty. One by one, they were deported from the peninsula or arrested. Citizen journalists stepped in to replace them – courageous people who understood the necessity of objective information about what was happening. Today, there are fourteen Ukrainian citizen journalists are in prisons in Crimea and Russia, against whom criminal cases have been fabricated. They are accused of terrorism or religious extremism, although their only fault is that they voluntarily assumed the responsibility to cover the repression of the Russian authorities against dissidents, against those who do not recognize the annexation of Crimea, against those who do not agree with Putin’s policies. I want to remember by name these courageous people who have already been sentenced to long prison terms or are awaiting their sentence. They are Vladislav Esipenko, Marlen Asanov, Osman Arifmemetov, Remzi Bekirov, Ruslan Suleimanov, Rustem Sheykhaliev, Server Mustafaev, Seyran Saliev, Timur Ibragimov, Amet Suleymanov, Alexei Besarabov, Irina Danilovich and former journalist, politician and deputy chairman of the Crimean Mejlis Nariman Dzhelal. In addition to them, more than two hundred Ukrainian citizens are in Russian prisons and in the prisons of the annexed Crimea on fictitious charges.

Nariman Dzhelal, despite the 20-year prison term that hangs over him, does not hide his attitude towards the Russian occupation authorities, wishing Ukraine to defend its independence. From the Simferopol pre-trial detention center, he handed over a letter, which I will read to you:

Dear Friends.

It would seem monstrous that in the 21st century, a country that took on the obligation to maintain peace, a member of the UN Security Council, has become an aggressor whose actions have led to tens of thousands of victims among the civilian population of Ukraine and among the defenders of our country. However, this is reality.

This is the result of the actions of the Russian leadership – for many years, actions aimed at limiting human rights and resurrecting imperial ambitions.

It is obvious that one cannot remain indifferent to this.

It is necessary to unite efforts to stop the killing of people and protect peace and democracy.

Many of my fellow prisoners are waiting for release not only from their personal imprisonment – they are also waiting for the release of their country into freedom.

Nariman Dzhelal

We cannot but admire the courage of Nariman Dzhelal and his wife Leviza. We can’t help but admire the courage of all his fellow citizen journalists and the resilience of their families, of their wives or husbands who understand that their parents’ attitude will lead to children growing up without fathers or mothers. But the children will grow up knowing why their fathers or mothers were repressed by Russia. From early childhood they will understand the price of freedom, and the price of fighting for their beliefs.

Kyiv Suburbs Clean Up After War Shifts Away From Capital
A children's cuddly toy sits on top of a destroyed Russian main battle tank, next to war damaged homes, on May 24, 2022 in Hostomel, Ukraine. As Russia concentrates its attack on the east and south of the country, residents of the Kyiv region are returning to assess the war's toll on their communities.Christopher Furlong-Getty Images

For a writer and for a journalist, there is no more important freedom than the freedom to write. And if a journalist or writer continues to write, realizing that he can be repressed for this, this only speaks of the courage and dedication of such a person.

My family’s world changed on February 24th. The whole world changed on February 24 this year, when the aging and ailing President Putin gave the order to launch a crusade against Ukraine, against the collective West, against democracy and against Western civilization.

Putin left Ukraine no choice but to fight for its independence to the end, to the bitter end. He left no choice to the civilized world. The world should help Ukraine, and the world does help Ukraine defend its freedom, defend all the freedoms of its citizens.

Now, as I speak to you, the Russian occupation forces in the Kherson region in southern Ukraine, near the Black Sea, are trying to switch the Ukrainian Internet to a Russian service and are warning residents in the occupied territories that soon they will not have access to Facebook or Instagram. That is, in this way the invaders warn the Ukrainians that they are about to become “Russians” and that they must accept this as something that cannot be changed. They must give up their freedoms and rights, as tens of millions of Russians have done. I know how the people who remained under occupation feel, I know what they are thinking now and my thoughts are with them. Several times I have spoken via messengers with colleagues who found themselves in the occupied zone. I have lost touch with some of them. But I know that they will not accept the rules of slavery that Russia is trying to impose on Ukrainians who find themselves in the territories occupied by the Russian army.

Ukrainian writers, regardless of the language they write in, will never give up the freedom to write what they think and what they consider important.

Ukrainians, writers or not writers, cannot and will not learn to live without freedom. Without the freedoms that are included in the mandatory and inviolable “list” of human rights!

This is a slightly edited version of Ukrainian novelist and PEN Ukraine President Andrey Kurkov’s 2022 Arthur Miller Freedom to Writer Lecture, delivered May 13 in New York City as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.

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