history, literature

The Flowers of Ukraine

Sadly one of the tragic, compassionate lessons of history is that sometimes people can destroy themselves. There are many examples in history where people become possessed by strange ideas, and when these possessed elites follow a path of ruin.

Students of the region known as Ukraine should know this. Readers of the Nemets’ article on the Donbass War will learn this. His article reminded me that there are periods in Ukrainian and Polish History known as ‘The Ruin’ and ‘the Deluge’. In the Ruin, Poland lost one-third of its population, and was ultimately partitioned. In the Deluge, ‘Ukraine’ succumbed to strife, riot and anti-Semitic, ethnic hatreds.

Nemets’ article refers only briefly to these periods. There are accounts of Ukrainian and Polish History that seek to shift the blame for these tragedies to outsiders, and make history nurse grievance and national pride. For example the Polish novelist and nationalist, Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the Nobel Prize in 1905, wrote a trilogy historical novel of these periods that popularised the term, the ‘Deluge’. His writing is full of the kind of aggressive Romantic nationalism that has deformed America and Ukraine. It nursed grievances for the failures of Polish elites, which were blamed on outsiders, primarily Russians and during the early twentieth-century, the Jewish people of Eastern Europe.

But another Polish Nobel Laureate offers us a more mindful history of the Deluge and the Ruin. Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, is a clinical psychologist who writes fiction about history. Her The Books of Jacob is, in many ways, a counter-statement to Sienkiewicz that celebrates complex strands of a multi-faith, multicultural Poland, Ukraine, Europe and world. It is such a brilliant book that I must commit a whole piece to it another day.

Although tempted to quote Olga Tokarczuk, The Books of Jacob for my fragment from the Burning Archive this week, I have chosen instead a poem by Elena Shvarts, ‘Flora of Ukraine’, published in Birdsong on the Seabed (2008) trans. Sasha Dugdale.

I will include just a single stanza from this poem, but would encourage readers to seek it out, wherever you can.

You, my native Ukraine
You who are lost and drowned,
You warm me with your blood
And waving, lure me down.

Elena Shvarts, the Flora of Ukraine

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