West indian literature

Can literature rise up against Russia’s war in Ukraine?

While Ralf Nestmeyer, vice-president of the German PEN Center, was on his way to the Leipzig Book Fair, he saw many Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invading Russian army: at Nuremberg train station, during a change of train in Halle and arriving in Leipzig.

He told the anecdote during an introduction to a Ukraine-themed panel, which he described as “the most important event to take place at the fair”.

The panel, which took place on March 20, was made possible in a very short time by the Book Fair Pop-Up Leipzig in cooperation with the German PEN Center.

Ukrainian writer Marjana Gaponenko, German historian Karl Schlögel, Belarusian author Volha Hapeyeva and her Russian colleague Mikhail Shishkin spoke on the theme “No to Putin’s War – What can literature do?”

Find words for horror

Ukrainian writer Marjana Gaponenko is from Odessa on the Black Sea coast. She lives in Vienna and Mainz but speaks daily with her grandmother who still lives in her hometown. Born in 1932, the latter grew up in the Donbass region to the east, which was largely occupied by Russia.

Following Vladimir Putin’s occupation of neighboring Crimea in 2014, the recent buildup of Russian Navy ships off Odessa has stirred up bad memories for the writer’s family.

Right now, Gaponenko says that even she, the wordsmith, is at a loss for words. She considers it “obscene to work on literature at the moment”.

But she found a word for this war, “genocide”, adding that it must be “stopped as soon as possible”.

Repeatedly during the panel, Gaponenko called on NATO to show strength and Germany to also take tougher action against Russia.

She said she wouldn’t find the right words until this war was won. But the words will come back, because she firmly believes in the victory of Ukraine.

Germany must do more, says historian

Karl Schlögel is also convinced that there is still a lot to be done. The historian and Eastern European expert travels frequently to Ukraine, and his books and essays such as “Decision in Kyiv: Ukrainian Lessons” intertwine personal accounts to explain the situation in cities from Lviv to Odessa, kyiv , Kharkiv and Donetsk.

Still, he told the panel that current events in those places he knows so well are beyond his imagination. His Ukrainian editor is likely sitting with his 92-year-old mother in a kyiv basement at this hour, he said.

Schlögel also recalled how the Germans had long fallen in love with Putin’s propaganda and had done everything to avoid demonizing him. He said it was important to go beyond the “talk show circus” in Germany and do something about it.

Schlögel cites the Polish, Slovenian and Czech prime ministers who recently made a daring train journey to visit Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv to express their solidarity.

The German author also praised Arnold Schwarzenegger’s video appeal to the Russian people, which was seen by tens of millions and did “more than writers and strategists imagined” , said the historian.

“Euphemisms can be dangerous”

Belarusian author, translator and linguist Volha Hapeyeva escaped the regime of Alexander Lukashenko and lives in Munich. A few years ago she worked as a translator in Minsk and was not allowed to use the word “war” in relation to Ukraine after the events of 2014.

His boss pointed out to him that “conflict” was the official word. The speech was already manipulated then, she says.

“Euphemisms can be dangerous,” Hapeveya realized.

Hapeyeva is now in contact with a Ukrainian linguist friend who is on the run. As for the writers’ impact on the war, Hapeyeva said “normal language no longer works.” She also wondered if “is the word still trustworthy?”

“If everyone does something, it will be good”

Living in Switzerland since 1995, Mikhail Shishkin is one of Russia’s most widely read authors and the winner of the Russian Booker Prize for “The Taking of Izmail” in 2000. Shishkin published an open letter in 2013 after refusing to represent the Russia in the American Book Fair.

He called Russia “a country where power has been seized by a corrupt and criminal regime, where the state is a pyramid of thieves, where elections have become a farce, where the courts serve the authorities, not the law”. .

Shishkin still has many friends in Ukraine and hosted a family of refugees from Odessa in his home.

About Putin, he told the panel: “He can’t win the war and he can’t lose it.” NATO will not interfere in the war, he says, and Ukraine must “single-handedly destroy the Russian army”. In this, he said, they must be supported.

The fact that Putin still enjoys a lot of support in his country is not only due to propaganda, he said. “In Russia, there are two different peoples,” he explained: a small part has European values, but the majority lives with a patriarchal mindset and identifies “with the tribe.” Putin’s propaganda has widened this gap, he said.

Literature can bridge the abyss

Shishkin did not shy away from his own complicity. “I am Russian. It is in the name of my people that these crimes are committed,” he said. “I can only ask for forgiveness from Ukraine in the name of other Russians,” he said. added, although this will not be possible immediately.

The author recalled that the German people managed to break out of the vicious circle of dictatorship only after the Second World War after a “crushing defeat”.

This, he said, is the only way to make “zero hour” possible, a brand new start for a denazified nation. Shishkin therefore “hopes for a crushing defeat of the Russians against the Ukrainians” which will eventually bring down Putin.

“Literature always fails when a war starts,” Shishkin said near the end of the panel. But when the war is over, only culture can overcome “hate and pain”. he said.

“Then literature will go to the essentials,” he said. “Then we will need it to bridge the chasm between us.”

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