Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Defiance of Celebrating Literature in the Midst of War

How this year’s Lviv BookForum in Ukraine became an act of solidarity.

di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
Janine di Giovanni
By , an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies.
Books are seen among the debris in Borodyanka, Ukraine.
Books are seen among the debris in Borodyanka, Ukraine.
Books are seen among the debris in Borodyanka, Ukraine, on April 6. Hennadii Minchenko/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images

LVIV, Ukraine—One of the most profound images to come from the siege of Sarajevo was the stark image of the cellist Vedran Smailovic playing Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor every day at noon, sitting elegantly and defiantly in black tie in the midst of the wreckage of Bosnia’s National and University Library.

The library had been bombed by Bosnian Serbs on Aug. 25, 1992, destroying 90 percent of its 1.5 million volumes of precious books, including rare Ottoman editions. A 32-year-old librarian was killed that night as she desperately tried to save books. The scene of book pages burning and ashes rising in the air was an indelible image of the cruelty of war and a symbol of cultural destruction.

The beautiful, Moorish-inspired City Hall building, called Vijecnica, which housed the library, was more than a place to find books—it was a potent symbol of multicultural ethnicity. That, above all, is what the Serbs tried to destroy: the cultural ethos of what made up Bosnia.

LVIV, Ukraine—One of the most profound images to come from the siege of Sarajevo was the stark image of the cellist Vedran Smailovic playing Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor every day at noon, sitting elegantly and defiantly in black tie in the midst of the wreckage of Bosnia’s National and University Library.

The library had been bombed by Bosnian Serbs on Aug. 25, 1992, destroying 90 percent of its 1.5 million volumes of precious books, including rare Ottoman editions. A 32-year-old librarian was killed that night as she desperately tried to save books. The scene of book pages burning and ashes rising in the air was an indelible image of the cruelty of war and a symbol of cultural destruction.

The beautiful, Moorish-inspired City Hall building, called Vijecnica, which housed the library, was more than a place to find books—it was a potent symbol of multicultural ethnicity. That, above all, is what the Serbs tried to destroy: the cultural ethos of what made up Bosnia.

A similar phenomenon is happening now in Ukraine. Russia seeks to destroy Ukrainian identity, and that includes monuments, libraries, theaters, art, and literature.

In the many conflicts I have covered, art and literature are essential to morale—to civilians struggling to live moment by moment through the attempted destruction of their country, as well as to the soldiers fighting on the front lines to defend their culture and history. It is also the basis of historical memory: what is remembered, what is forever kept.

Early this month, shortly before Russia began its latest wave of terror in Ukraine—featuring missile and Iranian-made kamikaze drone attacks on civilians in Kyiv, missile strikes on civilian infrastructure in Lviv, and other assaults elsewhere in the country—I went to one of the most remarkable literary festivals I have ever attended: the three-day Lviv BookForum.

Lviv, in western Ukraine, is a glorious baroque city that over the years has been part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Poland, and the Soviet Union, as well as having been besieged by the Nazis. Throughout it all, this wondrous city has endured.

The idea to have a literary festival in the midst of a vicious war is representative of Ukrainians’ defiance. Among the many who gathered in Lviv to attend in solidarity were Ukrainian writers such as the former political prisoner Stanislav Aseyev and Diana Berg, who lost her home twice in Mariupol; the Ukrainian novelist and human rights activist Victoria Amelina; and the British barrister and author Philippe Sands, who wrote one of the most powerful books on the origins of genocide, East West Street.

 Also attending were the historian Misha Glenny; the disinformation expert Peter Pomerantsev and his father, Igor Pomerantsev, a dissident Soviet poet; the French American novelist Jonathan Littell; the award-winning nonfiction writer Nataliya Gumenyuk; and two extraordinary British doctors, Henry Marsh and Rachel Clarke, who came to Ukraine to bear witness to the atrocities. There were many others: philosophers, bloggers, activists.

It was an interesting mix of cultures, but the stars of the event were by far the Ukrainian writers, who read and told stories with courage and brutal honesty. The literary scholar Oleksandr Mykhed told the audience that on Feb. 24, the day of the Russian invasion, he realized: “You could not protect your family from a rifle with your poems. You could not hit someone with a book—you could try, but it won’t work with the crazy occupiers from Moscow. I lost belief in the power of culture, lost interest in reading.”

Shortly after that realization, Mykhed enrolled in the army; a week later, he lost his family home to a bomb.

But even in Lviv—relatively peaceful until the recent attacks—the war was not far away. In between sessions, we wandered the cobblestoned streets, passing the historic Garrison Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, honoring the fallen soldiers. One night, on my way home from dinner, I saw a crowd of young people gathered around a guitar player, who was belting out the Ukrainian national anthem. It was powerfully emotional. Everyone stood with their hands on their hearts, under an enormous full moon, singing at the top of their lungs in Ukrainian: “Ukraine’s freedom has not perished, nor has her glory. … Upon us, fellow Ukrainians, fate shall smile on us once more.”

The next day, one of my fellow panelists was Amelina, the Ukrainian novelist and author of the books Fall Syndrome and Dom’s Dream Kingdom. I first met Amelina in Berlin at a conference for human rights monitors. Since the war started, she stopped writing novels and started investigating war crimes. In her backpack, she carries tourniquets—her work often takes her to front lines throughout the country.

“While Russian occupiers try to destroy the Ukrainian elite, including writers, artists, and civil society leaders, the free world needs to hear and amplify the Ukrainian voices,” she said. “Then we have a chance not only to defend Ukraine’s independence this time in history but also truly implement the ‘never again’ slogan for the continent.”

Amelina told me of a recent visit to Izyum, in eastern Ukraine, after the Ukrainian Armed Forces had liberated it. She met with the parents of Volodymyr Vakulenko, a Ukrainian children’s book author who was abducted from his house during the Russian occupation.

Volodymyr’s father mentioned to Amelina that before being abducted, his son hid his war diary under the cherry tree in the garden. Amelina helped the grieving father dig the diary up and later brought it to the Kharkiv Literary Museum.

“I chose the museum because it holds the first editions and manuscripts of my favorite writers executed by the Soviet regime in the 1930s,” she said. “I hope Volodymyr Vakulenko is still alive and his diary [doesn’t] start the collection of manuscripts of another generation of Ukrainian writers murdered by the empire.”

During one of our panels, we were joined on Zoom by a 27-year-old poet named Yaryna Chornohuz, who called in from the front line. As well as being a gifted writer, Chornohuz is a reconnaissance soldier and combatant in the 140th Reconnaissance Battalion of the Ukrainian Marine Corps.

“My position now is a combat medic of the reconnaissance combat group,” she said. “I’ve been on the front line since 2019. Now it’s my 14th month of rotation in [the] Luhansk and Donetsk region.”

She proudly told us that her unit took part in the defense of Severodonetsk, Bakhmut, and Popasna. In March, she took part in engagements in villages north of Mariupol. Now she’s participating in a counteroffensive on Lyman and Yampil.

Listening to her, I thought of how when I first went to cover a war, long ago in Bosnia, I carried with me a pocket-sized book of poems by the World War I poets Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Graves. Somehow, the poignancy and pain of the poetry helped me understand the brutality of war in a more profound way.

In Lviv, I felt an intense solidarity among the writers who had gathered. “Intellectuals from all over the world coming together in Ukraine to discuss how justice and truth can prevail is already part of the solution,” Amelina told me.

That night, some of us boarded an overnight train to Kyiv in high spirits, carrying bags of fruit and bottles of whiskey. We arrived after dawn in the capital, unaware that we would soon witness Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wrath: missile attacks on Lviv, Kyiv, and other Ukrainian cities. We were sent to bomb shelters, waiting it out with locals along with their children and pets. Plates of cookies and tea were brought out; people pulled out books and computers. A seminar that was meant to take place in the hotel upstairs carried on in a corner of the parking garage that was our new home for the time being.

And I kept thinking of something that Mykhed had told listeners only a few days before in Lviv. “More talented writers of the next generations will take this raw material and make a beautiful novel about it,” he said. “But being in the center of the hurricane, you just try to grab the tiniest moments of your grief, the tiniest moments of your scream.”

Janine di Giovanni is an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies. Twitter: @janinedigi

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