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Death and literature in Ukraine

Kyiv’s thriving literary scene was marred by the death of the novelist Victoria Amelina.

By Bruno Maçães

Kyiv is almost entirely back to normal. There are traffic jams coming to Mystetskyi Arsenal, Ukraine’s leading cultural institution, and the city bars, now open until 11pm after curfew was extended to midnight, are starting to fill up.

But a crowd this size you can find only at the book fair. The International Book Arsenal Festival has returned to Kyiv after being understandably cancelled last year. I enter with the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev, one of this year’s speakers. We find our way with some difficulty, moving slowly among the large, mostly young crowd. Krastev seemed to read my mind when he mused: “In this part of the world, literature and history create nations.”

When the writer Milan Kundera arrived in Paris after the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968, he tried to explain to French friends the massacre of culture that had taken place when the Soviets liquidated every literary and cultural journal in Czechoslovakia. “Then my friends would look at me indulgently with an embarrassment that I understood only later,” he wrote in a 1984 essay for the New York Review of Books. “If all the reviews in France or England disappeared, no one would notice it, not even their editors.” In central Europe, however, culture was still the realm of supreme values. And so it remains in Ukraine today.

As we turn the final corner before the main stage, Krastev and I practically bump into President Volodymyr Zelensky, who came to the fair with the first lady, Olena Zelenska, to buy books and support local publishers. Books during a war? Yes, books during a war. They are a necessity now.

One of the books Zelensky reportedly bought was the recently published war diary of the Ukrainian poet and children’s author Volodymyr Vakulenko. Just a few metres from Zelensky it was being presented by the Ukrainian novelist who found it in September 2022, buried under a cherry tree in Kapytolivka, outside Izyum in the country’s east. Her name is Victoria Amelina.

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On the stage with Amelina are Vakulenko’s mother and young son. I visited their home earlier this year. The young boy has autism and needs constant care. The mother, Olena, told us the story of how Vakulenko disappeared after the Russians arrived in Izyum. He was known in the village as a patriot, who always spoke Ukrainian and had an interest in politics, made stronger by the Maidan protest movement ten years ago. Vakulenko was taken away and killed in March 2022, his body buried in a forest together with hundreds of others, and with only a number marking the grave. I was told by several people in Izyum that the plan was to keep a list with corresponding names and numbers so the Russian soldiers could later sell the exact location of the graves to the grieving families.

[See also: Mutiny of the mercenaries]

Olena searched for Vakulenko for months, desperately asking everyone she met if they had seen her son. She told me it was especially painful to know she had walked thousands of times by the place where, she would later learn, he had likely been killed. It was only after the Ukrainian troops retook Izyum in September that Vakulenko’s body was found buried in grave 319, as confirmed by DNA analysis. He had been executed with two bullets.

Shortly after the Russians left Izyum, the 37-year-old Amelina joined Vakulenko’s father as they dug up the garden in the family home. They were looking for a diary of the occupation which Vakulenko told his father he would bury in the garden to prevent it from falling into Russian hands. The old man, also named Volodymyr, was so distraught by the tragedy he could barely speak, but Amelina’s patience and attention had brought back the memory of his son’s secret. After much effort, it was Amelina who found the handwritten pages, wrapped in plastic. She posted a photo on Twitter, holding the diary, her face bathed in sunlight. She delivered the original to the Kharkiv Museum of Literature, where it remains on display. The last two sentences, before Vakulenko consigned it to Ukraine’s black earth: “Everything will be fine for Ukraine. I believe in victory.”

Two days after my unexpected encounter with Zelensky at the book fair, the news arrived that a pizzeria in the city of Kramatorsk in Donetsk has been wiped out by a Russian Iskander missile. I was in the Ria pizzeria twice last February with a Ukrainian writer. It was a wonderful place, always full of journalists and aid workers, and a young staff who made a point of looking as cheerful as possible to make people forget about life in Kramatorsk – a now-desolate city just 30 kilometres from the war’s front line.

Several people were killed in the attack, with many more injured. We later find out that a Russian spy visited Ria and sent back intelligence saying the restaurant was full that evening. I message a writer friend to share the news. He responds: “Our friend severely wounded there, on the edge of life and death.” She died on 1 July in Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro. Her name was Victoria Amelina.

[See also: Old Europe is dead]

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This article appears in the 05 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Broke Britannia