“History repeats itself”: Kharkiv’s literary resistance | Ukraine

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When much of downtown Kharkiv was demolished by Russian airstrikes at the start of the invasion of Moscow, the city’s historic House of the Word was among hundreds of buildings affected.

The building, built by the Soviets in the 1920s for Ukrainian writers and poets from Kharkiv’s vibrant literary scene, was later the scene of brutal purges in the 1930s, killing dozens of intellectuals. Now Moscow has struck its people again.

“It’s been almost a hundred years and it feels like history is repeating itself,” said Ivan Senin, a local poet, as the sound of shelling echoed through the garden of the Kharkiv Literary Museum, which is just a stone’s throw away. 10 minutes walk from the Maison de la Parole.

Founded after independence to celebrate Ukrainian culture and inspire a new generation, the museum has a courtyard lined with portraits of famous Ukrainian poets and writers – from Taras Shevchenko, the grandfather of Ukrainian literature, to Kharkiv literary stars of the 1920s and the famous “Sixtiers” generation who started publishing Ukrainian books in the early 1960s.

They all have one thing in common, Senin said. They were repressed for trying to promote Ukrainian culture. Since the beginning of the war, he has felt that history is repeating itself and that his generation is inspired by the resistance of the past.

“You can’t say it’s the same situation,” Senin said, noting that the current generation of Ukrainian writers is the first to experience all-out war with Russia. “But everything they were talking about is still happening today – Russian chauvinism, their desire to control [of Ukraine].”

Senin and other Kharkiv writers who work with the museum, including award-winning poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan, have decided to stay in the city despite constant bombardment and are trying to boost morale by holding readings.

Ivan Senin, a Kharkiv-based poet, stands in the garden of the Kharkiv Literary Museum, which was built to celebrate Ukrainian culture. Photography: Emma Graham-Harrison

eeeBy the early 1920s, Ukrainian artists and writers had flocked to Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, making it an avant-garde center, Markian Dobczansky, an academic specializing in Kharkiv culture told the Soviet era.

But as the House of the Word apartment building was completed in 1929, Joseph Stalin began to crack down on Ukrainian intellectuals whose exploration of their national identity threatened his desire to dictate the direction of Soviet culture.

Getting an apartment there had seemed like luck, but turned into a curse. A total of 33 writers who lived there were executed; six were sent to forced labor camps, three of whom never returned and two committed suicide. The scale of the killings meant that the period came to be known as the “Executed Renaissance”.

City workers place sandbags around the city statue of Taras Shevchenko to protect it in case of further shelling.
City workers place sandbags around the city statue of Taras Shevchenko to protect it in case of further shelling. Photography: Dmytro Frantsev/The Guardian

“One of the necessary steps on the way to building a dictatorship is to destroy alternative centers of power,” Dobczansky said. “Having [writers]… who had different ideas from Stalin was a kind of intellectual challenge for the whole Soviet enterprise.

Soviet-sanctioned Ukrainian culture was then limited to its non-politicized aspects such as folk dancing, Dobczansky said. Even today, Ukrainian culture is inseparable from politics.

“There is no way for [Ukrainian culture] to have an independent direction of development without offending the sensibilities of the Russian state,” Dobczansky said, adding that the Russian state denies the existence of Ukrainian identity.

Because Kharkiv is Russian-speaking, close to the border and the country’s capital during the early Soviet era, Moscow apparently expected its troops to be welcomed there. Perhaps officials even saw the city again as a possible capital, for the eastern half of a partitioned Ukraine.

But it has always had a strong Ukrainian identity that Moscow has overlooked, as one of the cradles of the Ukrainian national movement two centuries ago, and an intellectual center in the early 20and century.

“Russia has a real blind spot when it comes to Kharkiv,” Dobczansky said. “Kharkivians claim Ukrainian identity in their own way… They are Russian-speaking, yes, but that’s something quite different from your political identity.

“There has already been a generation of children who have gone to Ukrainian schools. They speak Russian among themselves, but from a political point of view and in a kind of worldview, they see themselves as belonging to Ukraine.

Only a few ancestors of the original inhabitants of the House of the Word still live there. The Kharkiv Literary Museum uses an apartment there for its residency program. After the bombardment, the building is still standing but has broken windows and damaged walls.

Inside the museum, Senin says he has only managed to write one poem since the war began as he struggles to manage his emotions. It is a testament to how the invasion of Russia destroyed all dreams of a Russian Kharkiv.

No one invited them here to roam
Fuck all the predictions made.
Those who attack our home
Will never be forgiven for the raid.

Ivan Senin’s poem was translated by Anna Kurus

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