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26 February 2024

Ukraine’s history war

Tanja Maljartschuk’s novel Forgottenness confronts Ukraine's long struggle for nationhood in the face of Russia’s “imperial oblivion”.

By Linda Kinstler

In the village of Zaturtsi, in the Volyn region of western Ukraine, 50 kilometres from the Polish border, stands a grand country estate. Its yellow walls and soaring portico seem to announce the optimism of its interior, where its late proprietor’s scattered belongings – a Remington typewriter, a letter-writing desk, a leather suitcase – are carefully displayed, as if at any moment he might sit down to use them. Once the home of the Polish historian, diplomat and philosopher Viacheslav Lypynsky, a prominent early advocate for Ukrainian statehood, the building was destroyed three times in the early 20th century, and each time it was carefully rebuilt. After he died in 1931, Lypynsky was buried in the local cemetery; his body is still there, somewhere beneath the earth, but his grave can no longer be found because when the Soviets occupied the land, the cemetery was razed, its tombstones uprooted and repurposed as barn floor tiles. The Lypynsky estate, where he developed his conception of Ukrainian territorial sovereignty and tried to mobilise the regional nobility to support his cause, was converted into an animal pen.

Nearly 100 years later, amid another Russian assault on Ukrainian land, a young writer visits Zaturtsi to search for Lypynsky’s tomb and is distraught by its disappearance. “Deprived of a grave, his death had wilfully inscribed itself into the landscape. His bones, ploughed through by a tractor in exchange for a bottle of moonshine, stirred underfoot, making the ground itself frightening. How do you tread on such ground?” Who, she wonders, should be held accountable for this affront? At whom should her tearful anger be directed? At the tractor driver who razed his grave? At the peasants who “just stood and watched” as it was destroyed? “At the party members who gave the instructions, adhering to the Soviet policy of destroying harmful history, the policy of lobotomising memory? Or, perhaps,” she wonders, “at my own grandfathers and grandmothers, great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, who proved too weak to resist this lobotomy? Who was to blame? Who should I be angry at?”

The writer, the narrator of Tanja Maljartschuk’s novel Forgottenness is consumed by an ambivalent, unplaceable rage, a sense of historical disaffection and disappointment that nearly paralyses her. Her country is once again under attack by its former coloniser, its very existence suddenly called into question and rendered precarious by the force of a thousand guns. This state of uncertainty drives her mad, and her madness pushes her to look back in time, to the tumultuous years of the early 20th century when Ukraine first emerged as a sovereign state. She discovers the story of Lypynsky, a man who fought, and failed, to achieve a vision of Ukrainian nationhood defined not by ethnicity or blood, but by language and territory, and begins to identify with him. “Through the unbridled madness of modern war, the world had ceased to be a place where one could be sure of oneself, and the terror unleashed by this new reality gripped Lypynsky in the same way that it gripped me a hundred years later,” she writes.

Originally published in Ukrainian in 2016 as Zabutiya, a word that describes the state of being forgotten or overlooked, of inhabiting oblivion, Maljarschuk’s novel was named Book of the Year by BBC Ukraine on its release. It documents the disorienting experience of witnessing irrecoverable erasure in real time. Faithfully translated by Zenia Tompkins, it is an unsentimental, unsparing account of the force of historical destruction and imperial domination. “Is it possible to kill time? To destroy it? To wipe it out of existence? To dig up the graveyards and pretend no one had ever been buried there?” Maljartschuk writes. Her English-language readers might anticipate a defiant answer, a resolute commitment to warding off oblivion and chasing away those who seek to erase the past. But Maljartschuk’s novel succeeds because she defies this expectation: her narrative refuses to indulge in the easy, appealing desire for a triumphalist future, for a future from which nothing has been erased and no one has been lost. Instead, she addresses her own question with brutal honesty: yes, she suggests, it is possible to kill time and to “wipe out” undesirable histories, and it is through a studied commitment to obliteration that empires and colonisers have, for centuries, seized land that was not theirs to take.

The narrator herself is evidence of this inescapable reality: her ancestors lived because they were good students of imperial oblivion, because they did not project their insurgent friends from police round-ups, because they knew to follow the rules to survive. “I’m the offspring of meekness in the face of power and fear in the face of death,” she writes. “And the price that had been paid to survive fell on my shoulders. Through the generations, considerable interest had accrued. Little by little, I had to start paying off my debts.” Unearthing Lypynsky’s tragic life and idealistic national philosophy before they are lost to time is her way of beginning to do so. Forgottenness, Maljartschuk warns, has repeatedly subsumed Ukraine’s past. It now threatens to consume its future.

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The novel alternates between the lives of its two protagonists: the young writer who finds her life caving in amid the war in Ukraine, whose marriage dissolves under the weight of her depression, who buries herself in old newspaper reports; and Lypynsky, one of the forgotten forefathers of Ukrainian national philosophy, who lived long enough to see his vision for a Ukrainian state fail. Sometime during the contemporary war, the young writer reads his obituary and of how he “had left instructions to have his heart pierced after his death because he feared being buried alive”. Another death notice claims that he was one of “four men of genius” produced by the “Polish nobility of the eastern borderlands” around the turn of the century, naming Lypynsky alongside Joseph Conrad, Józef Piłsudski and Felix Dzerzhinsky. In Forgottenness, Maljartschuk stages a revival not only of Lypynsky’s political theory, but also of his stubborn idealism and his commitment to philosophical purity. “He was feared because he demanded dignity from people, contending that it was their duty,” Maljartschuk writes. “Who needed that? That’s precisely why no one liked him.” Unable to make sense of the present, the young novelist immerses herself in the past and begins to live vicariously through the long-dead philosopher. “Mine and his, Viacheslav Lypynsk’s,” she writes. “My story through his story.”

His story, then: born to Polish landowners in the historical region of Volhynia in 1882, Lypynsky spent his early life in Ukraine, an experience that led him to consider himself Ukrainian rather than Polish. Maljartschuk narrates how he insists upon trading his Polish name, Wacław, for its Ukrainian equivalent, Viacheslav, to the dismay of his family. In 1917, the year that the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic was born, Lypynsky founded the Ukrainian Democratic Landholders Party, and soon after became the new nation’s ambassador to Vienna.

It was around this time that he also began vocally espousing the philosophy of “territorialism”, (“his best political idea,” Maljartschuk writes). He believed that the Ukrainian nation would only survive if its ruling class included all ethnic groups and if land was regarded as the “building component” of the nation, “in contrast to the common blood of the nationalists or the membership in a common social class of the socialists”. It was a philosophy that hewed closely to his own circumstance: he himself was not ethnically Ukrainian but had inherited an estate within the nation’s new borders and felt an obligation to cultivate and protect his land. It was an idealistic political vision, and a doomed one. “Oddly enough, this simple and clear-cut plan for surmounting enmity in the multi-ethnic and socially stratified Ukrainian territories engendered even greater enmity,” Maljartschuk writes. He failed to read the political tea leaves, not registering how deeply entrenched ethnic nationalism had become in his time. “He appears to have overlooked one of the most important lessons of World War I, namely, that nationalism was the driving force of the new Europe,” the historian Alexander J Motyl writes. “His call for transcending intra-elite ethnic difference and his evident expectation that the Ukrainian masses would not object to being ruled by an ethnically non-Ukrainian elite were totally out of place in the world of the 1920s and 1930s.”

Lypynsky’s commitment to building a Ukrainian nation was matched by his enthusiasm for documenting Ukrainian history, a history distinct from that of the Russian empire. Maljartschuk depicts his controversial lectures in the academic halls of central Europe, which left his listeners at times outraged, confused and bewildered. “The listeners fell silent, perplexed,” she writes. “The coupling of the words ‘Ukrainian’ and ‘history’ had never been heard in these walls.”

Lypynsky’s theory of history, in Maljartschuk’s telling, is rooted in his obsession with land and agriculture. “History was the theoretical preparation for the practical utilisation of the earth,” he tells students. “The end goal of history was to trace the earth’s roots to their smallest offshoots and to investigate the particularities of their growth, the causes of their decay, and the miracle of their rebirth. The dying of one root and the triumph of another.” He considered it his obligation to first “pay tribute to the land, in order to then be able to utilise that land”, and believed that popularising the notion of a uniquely Ukrainian history, a history tied to national territory and rooted in the lessons of the autonomous Cossack Hetmanate that had ruled Ukraine for more than 100 years, was critical to the formation of a stable, independent nation. In 1920, he published a monograph in Vienna proclaiming that “only when we rid ourselves of the notion, forced on us in a time of decay – that we are incapable of forming a state, that we are an inferior people who can only rebel and are forever victimised – only when we realise the broad sweep of our history, the extensive plans and conceptions of statehood of our forefathers, shall we be able to appraise the actions of these ancestors and to evaluate truthfully the facts of our history.”  

Maljartschuk narrates how Lypynsky is repeatedly ridiculed for his views, called “naive” for his belief in a Ukrainian nation, marginalised and ultimately exiled for his political agenda. Her young narrator reads of how she too experienced the madness of living through an existential war, and in the records of his travails seems to find a blueprint for her own survival. For like him, she also feels inescapably bound to her land, so thoroughly rooted in Ukrainian soil that she becomes unable to easily traverse a landscape laden with so much sacrifice and struggle, finding it difficult even to leave her apartment to go to the store.

The Ukrainian release of this novel in 2016 came just as the country was grinding to a stalemate in the first wave of the war between Russia and Ukraine, after Crimea had been seized by Vladimir Putin and its eastern provinces forcibly annexed, when the world’s attention was beginning to drift away. The English translation comes just as the Ukrainian nation is fending off another wave of forgottenness: its borders have been further diminished and more of its territory occupied or destroyed, its ability to continue to defend its remaining land dependent upon legislative votes hundreds of miles away. Maljartschuk’s novel is a reminder that although everything will ultimately be lost to time, swallowed up by what she calls the “blue whale” of oblivion, one has a duty to slow down this process for as long as possible. Being “responsible for memory”, even in the face of its destruction, is a requirement for a dignified life.

Forgottenness” by Tanja Maljartschuk, translated by Zenia Tompkins, is published by Bullaun Press on 29 February.

[See also: Where does Ukraine go from here?]

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