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Opinion | Ukraine’s war is against Europe

by News Room
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As a board member of PEN Netherlands, an association that defends freedom of speech and literary expression, I have an innate desire to combine solidarity with Ukraine with the military struggle against the Russian aggressor. But that is only one dimension at stake in Ukraine. The battlefield is about defending territory, which is related to the other battle, which is much less reported in the national and international media: the preservation of Ukrainian culture and identity, which is linked to European values ​​such as freedom and human dignity.

Therefore, in May of this year, despite the threat of war, I will respond to PEN Ukraine’s invitation to visit Kyiv. I travel by plane to Warsaw and from there change to Chelm on the Polish-Ukraine border, to a full night train.

The possibility that I, along with my fellow travelers from PEN France, Catalonia and Georgia, will fall under Russian bombardment seems small to me. I trust that PEN Ukraine knows what it is doing and will adapt the program quickly if our security is at risk. A few months after February 24, 2022, the day Russia invaded Ukraine and started what Ukrainians call an all-out war, they started these regional meetings. We are now in eight editions.


If there is one thing that Ukrainians know clearly, it is that they do not under any circumstances want to return to the yoke of the Russians, where those European values ​​are once again replaced by a culture of fear, oppression and humiliation. . But as long as the war continues, this threat will still hover over the earth.

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Stanislav Asejev in his temporary shelter five kilometers ahead.

This is the main reason why, for more than two years now, Ukraine has sent to the front a young, brave generation who hoped to lead the country towards a European future since the Maidan revolution in 2014 – the Maidan protesters were often the first. to take up arms. At the same time, the country still has a vibrant civil society, which stems from the struggle for European values.

The difference between Ukraine now and before the war is that, in addition to their original tasks (fighting corruption, developing the rule of law and equal rights for all), those thousands of organizations now have to focus on that war and document it. it.

In addition, they collect money for aid supplies for the front, give humanitarian support or, for example, renovate hundreds of destroyed libraries across the country and fill them with books.

People with a story

The latter project is one of many activities of PEN Ukraine and features a white van and slogan Write to an existing one organize meetings on the front lines. Behind that attitude of fearlessness and flexibility is also sadness. The organization has recently lost important writers and poets, such as Victoria Amelina, who was killed in a Russian airstrike on the Kramatorsk restaurant on June 27, 2023. He was there to document the organization’s war crimes Truth dogs.

He also tracked down Volodymyr Vakulenko’s war diary, which he had buried for security reasons. His body was found on November 28, 2022 in an unmarked grave number 319 in the woods of Izium.

Another example is the poet, photographer and soldier Maksym Kryvtsov, who was killed on January 7, 2024. In 2023, Kryvtsov published a collection called Virshi z biinytsi (Poems from the Battlefield), which PEN Ukraine considered one of the best collections of the year.

In the future, Ukrainians will also speak for themselves, themselves and with their own voice in art

The composition of the writers’ organization’s staff reflects the current situation in many organizations outside of society. As more and more men serve at the front – and many die there – women with faces narrowed by fatigue are in the majority. By inviting foreigners, we want to emphasize that war is not about the number of victims, but about people with a story. Stories to be attached to the burden of proof of how they died.

For Ukrainian writers and poets, reality is more important than fiction at the moment. Russia’s totalitarian war in their country has made them (literary) eyewitnesses of this war.

And while the collections of Ukrainian museums are hidden away in safe places, these empty, sacred spaces are now filled with musical performances and other public gatherings. The staff members say that there is a joint discussion about the process of decolonization of culture, the dismantling of old power structures. Is the art that Ukraine has produced in the past Russian or Ukrainian art? The answer already exists: from now on, Ukrainians will also speak for themselves in art, by themselves and with their own voice.

To convey this, they lend art that they currently cannot display in their own museums for security reasons to major exhibitions worldwide, such as In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930. Works by leading painters such as Oleksandr Bohomazov, Vasyl Yermilov, Viktor Palmov and Anatol Petrytskyi are on display. As of the end of this month, for example, it is still on view at the Royal Academy in London. Earlier, for this very reason, Ukrainian art was also exhibited in the Museum De Fundatie Zwolle.

Real nature

Back on the train to Warsaw, I imagine the lively streets of Kiev, full of cafes and restaurants. When the air raid siren went off, hardly anyone reacted. I remember crushing pictures of sad visits to Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka. The suburbs of Kyiv, which were badly damaged in the first weeks after February 24th. In the village of Yahidne, just outside Chernihiv towards the Ukrainian-Russian border. In March 2022, three Russian brigades held 380 villagers hostage in the basement of a school building for 27 days. Men from underdeveloped regions of Russia who saw a microwave oven for the first time and thought it was a safe told Ivan, a small man, a former school janitor, who showed us sunglasses in the basement, hiding his tears. hide.

Eleven inhabitants died of exhaustion or were shot; the children got chicken pox. Those weeks were hell on earth and when the Ukrainian soldiers freed them, they saw that all the houses in the village had been destroyed or looted. The village has been largely rebuilt and 75 percent of the residents have returned.

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The center of Ochtyrka is scarred by the war.  The front of the department store has been swept away.

Here, too, is the attitude of fearlessness and flexibility. Ivan said the villagers don’t talk about horrors. First, the Russians had to be defeated, only then did they begin to deal with their humiliating experiences and the basement of the school building could be turned into a memorial.

The farewell was the appeal, the theme also in the discussions with the representatives of cultural organizations in Kyiv: this is not only our war, it is also your war, Europe’s war. However absurd Russia’s drive to destroy cities may seem, its real goal is to destroy Ukrainian culture and identity, which is connected to our shared values. Please don’t see Western military aid to Ukraine as a humanitarian act, but as protection against the Russians, who will not limit their culture of oppression to Ukraine if we lose this war. Our freedom is your freedom.

Is Europe aware of the true nature of Russia’s desire for destruction? Does it understand what is also at stake in Europe? I dare not say it in the country – the long walls are full of portraits of fallen soldiers – but I doubt that Europe is the ally that Ukraine wants. What I do know is that Ukraine must win this war.

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Olesya Khromeychuk, Wednesday in London.

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