Can literature rise up against Russia′s war in Ukraine? | Books | DW

While Ralf Nestmeyer, vice president of the German PEN Center, was traveling to the Leipzig Book Fair, he saw many Ukrainian refugees fleeing the invading Russian army: at the train station in Nuremberg, when changing trains in Halle, and when arriving in Leipzig.

He related 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, held on March 20, was made possible within a very short time by the Book Fair Pop-Up in Leipzig in cooperation with the German PEN Center.

Ukrainian writer Marjana Gaponenko, the German historian Karl Schlögel, Belarusian author Volha Hapeyeva and her Russian colleague Mikhail Shishkin spoke to the theme, “No to Putin’s War — What Can Literature Achieve?”

Finding words for horror

Ukrainian writer Marjana Gaponenko hails from Odesa on the Black Sea coast. She lives in Vienna and Mainz but talks daily with her grandmother who still lives in her home city. Born in 1932, the latter was raised in the Donbas region in the east that has been largely occupied by Russia.

Following Vladimir Putin’s occupation of nearby Crimea in 2014, the recent build up of Russian navy ships off the Odesa coast awakened bad memories for the writer’s family.

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

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

Time and again during the panel, Gaponenko called for NATO to show strength and for Germany to also take tougher action against Russia.

She said she will not find the right words until this war was won. But the words will return, since she firmly believes in Ukraine’s victory.

Germany must do more, says historian

Karl Schlögel is also convinced that more needs to be done. The historian and Eastern Europe expert is a frequent traveler to Ukraine, and his books and essays such as “Decision in Kyiv: Ukrainian Lessons” interweave personal accounts to explain the situation in cities from Lviv to Odesa, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Donetsk.

a man in a blue suit looks into the distance.

Karl Schlögel: Many German compatriots played down Putin’s intentions

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

Schlögel also recalled how people in Germany had long fallen for Putin’s propaganda and did everything they could to avoid demonizing him. He said it was important to move beyond the “talk show circus” in Germany and to actually do something.

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 had praise for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s video appeal to the Russian people, which has been seen by tens of millions of people and has done “more than writers and strategists have come up with,” said the historian. 

‘Euphemisms can be dangerous’

Belarusian author, translator and linguist Volha Hapeyeva escaped Alexander Lukashenko’s regime 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 connection with Ukraine after the events of 2014.

Her boss pointed out to her that “conflict” was the official word. The discourse was already manipulated then, she says.

“Euphemisms can be dangerous,” Hapeveya realized.

Now Hapeyeva is in contact with a Ukrainian linguist friend who is on the run. As for the impact of writers on the war, Hapeyeva said that “normal language no longer works.” She also wondered whether “the word still be trusted?”

‘If everyone does something, it will be good’

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

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

Shishkin still has many friends in Ukraine and has taken in a refugee family from Odesa at his home.

About Putin, he said at 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 solely due to propaganda, he said. “In Russia, there are two different peoples,” he explained: A small part have European values, but the majority lives with a patriarchal mindset and identify “with the tribe.” Putin’s propaganda has widened this divide, 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 being committed,” he said. “I can only ask Ukraine for forgiveness in the name of other Russians,” he added, even though this will not be immediately possible. 

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

This, he said, was the only way that “zero hour,” a fully new start for a denazified nation, was possible. Shishkin therefore “hopes for a crushing defeat of the Russians by the Ukrainians” that will ultimately bring down Putin.  

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

“Then literature will get to the point,” he said. “Then we will need it to overcome the abyss between us.”

This article was translated from the German






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *