Amid the growing crisis in Ukraine, a swarm of confusing and often clashing voices about its tumultuous history has emerged. As I have tried to clarify this fog of voices and experiences, I have discovered the works of writers Svetlana Alexievich and Ilya Kaminsky.
Svetlana Alexievich opens Chernobyl Prayer (1997), her polyphonic oral history of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, with the “lone human voice” of a witness. It seeks to locate the experiences of Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians within the disaster, which has had profound social and environmental consequences to this day. As a Ukrainian-born Belarusian oral historian and journalist, Alexievich’s work oriented Chernobyl’s horror within the ordinary rather than the extraordinary, allowing personal accounts of the past to retain historiographical value. Alexievich describes her mission as one where she “paint(s) and collect(s) mundane feelings, thoughts and words”, constructs “the day in the life of ordinary people”, and remembers the disassembling of ”home”. Her voice counters the erasure of ordinary voices on the Chernobyl Disaster, providing a deeper history than is provided by official political narratives’
The Ukraine Crisis, an entanglement of historical, legal and political problems that remain difficult to unravel, is another event that illustrates the ways ordinary voices go unheard. Despite the proliferation of social media today, I have found that I gravitate towards other platforms to educate myself on what ordinary people are experiencing in moments like these.
Similarly, Kaminsky’s poetry (in particular his collection Deaf Republic) soars with a personal language that reckons with the way tense and complex histories destroy individual stories. The collection draws on a wide spectrum of historical analogies and contexts, ranging from the 2005 Orange Revolution in Ukraine — which involved protests against electoral fraud in the 2004 election — to the 2014-15 annexation of Crimea. The poem dances around metatheatre, the poetic, and the historical, playing with the auditory imagination to fuse three alternate visions of Ukraine’s past, present and future together. In ‘Central Square’, Kaminsky deliberately highlights the consequences of political rebellion. As the poem’s main persona Sonya is murdered, “the town watches”, quietly suggesting the fate that awaits should they dissent. Around her reads a sign of defiance: “I RESISTED ARREST”.
In another poem, ‘And Yet, on Some Nights’, Kaminsky foreshadows a perversion and rewriting of history:
“Years later, some will say none of this happened, the shops were open, we were happy and went to see puppet shows in the park. And yet, on some nights, townspeople dim the lights and teach their children to sign. Our country is a stage.”
Alexievich also considers the role of trauma and memory in the destruction of language able to describe and contain individuals’ experiences. Her interview with Viktor Latun, a Russian photographer who has shot Chernobyl, evinces that “we live not on the ground but in the realm of dreams, of talk, of words. We need to add something to everyday life in order to understand it. Even when we are living next to death.”
Alexievich and Kamisky’s need to “add something to everyday life”, to clarify its nuances and complexities, articulates the need to reach for such language in recording and narrating the crisis in Ukraine. That is, we need language that stands courageous against the political discourse that seeks to overcome it.