Shaped By Stories: Understanding the people of Ukraine through their literature

Tim Farrand

I post this article in the hope that you will join me in my effort to discover the incredible people of Ukraine and what has shaped them into the resilient people we see today.

Until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed, Ukraine's culture was constantly being suppressed and actively destroyed. There were laws preventing publications being printed in Ukrainian, active interventions from Russia to try and force their own language and culture onto those that considered themselves Ukrainian, and the arrests—which happened all over the Soviet Union—of artists, writers, poets, and musicians who diverted from the official socialist realism demanded by the Soviet Union. Not only have the Ukrainians been suppressed culturally, but they have also had to constantly fight for the right to their land, their traditions, their freedom, and for their right as a people worthy of respect.

When I saw those first images appear of Russia's invasion into Ukraine just over a week ago I immediately decided, after seeing the power of the Ukrainian people that has been displayed ever since that terrible day, that I needed to learn more about Ukraine, its history, and its people. One of the best ways to get to know the character of a group of people is to read their literature. You not only get a sense of their way of life but you can enter into their minds and explore the ways in which their identity has been shaped.

As I searched for Ukrainian writers I quickly realized that there is a trove of incredible works that have been written even in the short period since 1991. Based on their location and history, influences can be felt from major Russian authors such as Dostoevsky but also from central and western European writers, the strongest of influences being their own history as a nation constantly having to fight for their identity.

Googling "Ukrainian literature" brings up a long list of sites that have collected recommendations for great English language translations of essential reading for those wanting to dive headfirst into Ukraine's wonderfully rich literary history. I downloaded several works and decided to start with The Museum of Abandoned Secrets by one of Ukraine's leading writers, Oksana Zabuzhko. Usually, I would recommend something that I have finished but I did not want to wait to publish this article and I hope it will serve as a catalyst for exploring this culture alongside me.

There are many works to choose from but I find The Museum of Abandoned Secrets to be a great place to start. I am only a couple hundred pages in (the work is over 800 pages!) but it is an entrancing read, one that I had a hard time putting down as I was supposed to be enjoying the last few days of vacation on the sunny beaches of Kauai, miles away from the horrors happening in Ukraine.

Zabuzhko has been described as a modern-day Dostoevsky, a very apt comparison. Firstly, both authors write incredibly long works, but works that justify their length by captivating the reader and allowing an immersive experience that would simply not be possible with a work of only 300 pages. More importantly, what really draws them together is their ability to write from the psychological perspective of their characters, giving a wonderful immersion into the minds of the people and times that they are writing about.

Like Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Zabuzhko's The Museum of Abandoned Secrets propels you into the story in an exhilarating way. There is no slow build-up with 50 pages of back story. The novel captures you from the first page and hooks you in.

This multi-generational novel by Zabuzhko, which spans about six decades of modern Ukrainian history, is a great way to get a quick picture of who the Ukrainian people are at their heart. Even in the first 50 pages, one gets a real look into the generations of history that have led to the development of Ukrainians to the people we see fighting today. Here is a quotation from the first chapter of The Museum of Abandoned Secrets that puts into perspective the constant struggle and reassessments that have happened in just the past 100 years alone:

Ukrainian families changed faiths, languages, and national flags in practically every generation—sometimes faster than fashion, like addicts going through needles: a shot in the arm and toss this one out the window, grab a new one, and so on, for an entire span of our recorded history, beginning, most likely, with Kostyantyn Ostroz'ky who founded the Ostrog Academy to counter the Polish expansion only to see his granddaughter convert to Catholicism and deliver the Academy—lock, stock, and barrel—to the very Jesuits her granddaddy had spent his entire life fighting. This would appear to be our only national tradition that survives to this day—this compulsion to offer ourselves up to whoever rules the day—so you can't expect me to swallow this kind of bait, strung like the Bible on a line of "begats." [1]

Well, this "national tradition" of submitting to whoever takes over is no longer a part of their history. Now Ukrainians, especially after the Orange Revolution—the place where this particular novel leaves off—, are showing a new national tradition, the one of stepping up to autocracy for the sake of democracy. They are showing that freedom is more powerful than fear and they are willing to fight for it.

There is a moving scene early on in Zabuzhko's novel of the main character, Daryna, looking at an old photograph of her then lover's paternal great uncle and a few other kids. She begins to swell up with tears and gives the following possible reason for this sudden onslaught of sadness upon looking at a relatively pleasant photo of youths smiling, seemingly happy:

I don't have it in me to resist the numbing spread of this insane, universal tenderness that pools under my skin like blood from a thousand wounds—this visceral, glandular, animal pity for these dead, for their youth, their speech, their laughter no longer audible from where we are, their piercingly pitiful, childlike innocence to the impenetrable gloom that awaits them. [2]

Daryna knows the terrible pain, sorrow, and loss these happy, innocent youths were to face and that, along with the knowledge that those laughs and smiles are of a different world, one far away from the current one, would give anyone reason to feel insurmountable grief.

Stories Shape Us

Stories and narratives are important. We are seeing on display the power of a nation that is feeding off of an ever more empowering narrative, one of heroes, of courage, and of sacrifice. The Ukrainians are supporting each other by shaping their current narratives, led on by their powerful leader and the support of almost the entire world behind them. Against seemingly impossible odds, they have been able to drastically slow down the objectively more powerful army of the Russian military. They are showing the world that it is not the objective, rational power of a nation that determines strength but rather it is the resilience, courage, inner convictions, and incredible morale demonstrated by the Ukrainians that show where true power lies.

The Ukrainians are rising above any previous estimation because their history has shaped a culture of individuals that have more strength and resiliency than their counterparts in the Russian military. They are fed by their righteous narratives and the Russians are slowly being defeated because they were fed a false narrative. They were told they were going to be welcomed by Ukraine, going to bring peace to Ukraine, that they were going to be regarded as heroes. Russian media and propaganda hid the truth from them but that has no power over the reality that they are faced with once they cross the border as has been demonstrated by the numerous conversations captured between Russian soldiers and their families such as the devastating last texts between a Russian soldier and his mother only moments before he was killed, read below by Ukraine's UN Ambassador:

The texts begin with the mother asking where her son has been and why he has not been in contact with her for so long. He explains that he is no longer in Crimea but rather in Ukraine. The sadness and confusion can be felt as he describes that he is fighting a war against civilians and not leading a peace mission like he was told back in Russia. He writes:

Mama, I'm in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I'm afraid. We are bombing all of the cities together, even targeting civilians.

And continues:

We were told they would welcome us and they are falling under our armored vehicles, throwing themselves under the wheels and not allowing us to pass.

And ends:

They call us fascists. Mamma, this is so hard.

Not longer after, he was killed.

My heart goes out to the Ukrainians that are being forced to fight for their country and sacrifice themselves to this needless war. My heart also goes out to the Russian soldiers that have been misled by their own nation into believing lies. So many must be confused, not knowing what to do, and not knowing how to stop it (the price of disobedience in Russia is severe.). Everyone, whether Ukrainian or Russian, must be incredibly afraid and we will watch as the Ukrainian narratives give their people strength and the Russian narrative collapses as they realize that their story simply was a lie.

Here is a poem by Walt Whitman that has been on my mind these few days:


I Dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the
whole of the rest of the earth,
I dream'd that was the new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led
the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

I urge you to, along with me, delve into the rich literary history of Ukraine, to uncover a sense of these amazing people. Combat ignorance with knowledge, combat lies with truth, and shape a narrative that gives strength instead of one without any foundations. If you have suggestions of Ukrainian literature, art, poetry, music, etc. that I should explore, please contact me. I would love to learn what you have discovered.


This moment yearning and thoughtful sitting alone,
It seems to me there are other men in other lands yearning and
It seems to me I can look over and behold them in Germany,
Italy, France, Spain,
Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or Japan, talking other
And it seems to me if I could know those men I should become
attached to them as I do to men in my own lands,
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.

- Walt Whitman

May we soon find peace and love.

March 2, 2022

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1. Oksana Zabuzhko, The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, trans. Nina Shevchuk-Murray (Las Vegas: AmazonCrossing, 2012), 17, Kindle.

2. Ibid., 12.