People like to laugh at the first line of the Ukrainian national anthem: Ще не вмерла України – Ukraine hasn’t died yet. I used to think it was a bit funny myself.
I changed my mind a long time ago. Ukraine: country of lost causes. Country that just won’t lie down and die.
Here’s something I wrote about Ukraine around fifteen years ago, when I hadn’t been living there long. I was travelling around the centre and west in the Spring time, trying to understand and come to terms with this wonderful, mostly tragic place that bore a weight of history so utterly different from Britain’s:
“It’s a real country, although life in it is half-mythical. Its people are shadowed by insupportable ghosts who cling not so much to places but to souls. This countryside is so beguiling and innocent, and what lies beneath the ground has an affinity to flesh and imagination, not to earth and bricks. The hereditary poison is invisible (and of course I can easily find an analogy in the Chernobyl radiation that may be secretly destroying this land and people). It is easy to ignore that which cannot be seen, and while the thyme is still scented, the chestnut trees in bloom, the castle walls softly crumbling, why am I talking of ghosts?”
I think I was trying to describe places like Babiy Yar, that leafy park where children play over the ravine where Jews, Roma, and psychiatric patients were gassed or shot during the Nazi occupation of Kiev. Like the wood on the way to Brovary, where small white notices tied to the trunks of trees remember the thousands murdered by the NKVD in 1920–21. Like the green field near Khust, where the followers of Avgustin Voloshyn, founder of the independent republic of Carpatho-Ukraine, were slaughtered on one day.
That independent republic of Carpatho-Ukraine lasted all of 24 hours: between the 15th and 16th March 1939. Just one of Ukraine’s many experiments in statehood. Here are a few more: The Ukrainian People’s Republic, centred on Kiev, which lasted less than a year between 1917–1918. The Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets, centred in Kharkiv at the same time and even more short-lived. Over eight months in 1918–1919, Nestor Makhno’s grass-roots Anarchist state in central Ukraine, with its own economy and systems of education and social justice.
All this, as well as seventy years of Soviet domination from Moscow, five years of Nazi occupation, following centuries of fighting with or between Russia, Poland, Lithuania, Austro-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, all of which have controlled this territory –
And Ukraine is not yet dead. It just won’t lie down and die, even if individual Ukrainians are prepared to die for it.
From the list of those killed in Kiev over the last three days: people from Rivne, Vinnitsa, Lutsk, Lviv, Kerch, Kharkiv, Donetsk oblast, Poltava oblast, Kirovohrad oblast. That’s all over Ukraine, east and west, north and south.
Ukraine continues to experiment with statehood, with systems of governance, with ways to live and keep living. Ще не вмерла України.