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The essence of freedom

At the intersection of liberty and language, one of Ukraine’s leading writers contemplates his literary identity


As Ukraine struggles against the current Russian invasion, it may seem strange to spend time remembering the collapse of the USSR in 1991. And yet I find it useful to reflect on that event. New, unexpected thoughts appear that provoke a shift in my attitudes, allowing me to reassess the past from the point of view of today’s tragedy.

In 1991, the USSR was physically disintegrating, crumbling like an old, abandoned building. Now Russian President Vladimir Putin’s dream of restoring the USSR is crumbling, and nostalgia for the Soviet past is dying.

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I have always believed that the most important thing in life is to have a choice. This is the essence of freedom. Choice gives the opportunity to better understand yourself, the purpose of life, and your own role in it. In Soviet society, I could not choose a role that would suit both me and the Soviet system.

In my student years, I was an anti-Soviet Soviet person, as were many of my peers. I disliked many things about the USSR. I often argued with my communist father about the wrongness of the Soviet regime. And yet, I did not believe that this regime could be changed, that it could be made “correct.”

My father did not like to argue, although he always defended the Soviet system, in his calm, lazy manner. His positive attitude toward it grew from his belief that the Soviet system had allowed him to realize his dream. Since childhood, he had wanted to become a military pilot and he became one. He rose to the rank of captain, spending several years in Germany with the Soviet occupying forces after World War II. He returned to the USSR, and had it not been for the Cuban missile crisis and Nikita Khrushchev’s unilateral disarmament policy, he would have risen to the rank of colonel. Having faced the threat of a third world war, Khrushchev wanted to demonstrate that the USSR was a peace-loving state. This meant that my father, along with tens of thousands of other military men, was sent into the reserve army and a peaceful life. I am still grateful to Khrushchev for this beautiful peacekeeping gesture. Without it, I would not be a Ukrainian today.

Illustrations by Oksana Drachkovska

After leaving the army, my father began to look for work in civil aviation. He was fortunate. My paternal grandmother lived in Kyiv, where one of the largest aircraft factories in the USSR — the Antonov factory — produced civilian passenger and cargo aircraft. It was this plant that invited my father to work as a test pilot, and our whole family moved to Ukraine. More precisely, we moved to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

I was not yet 2 years old when we moved. Budogoshch, my mother's home and the Russian village where I was born, is preserved in my memory only through the stories told by my mother and maternal grandmother. In my memories of early childhood, only Kyiv features — Kyiv and Yevpatoriia in Crimea, where our family spent the summer holiday every year.

I have no non-Ukrainian childhood memories, though truthfully it is difficult to call the memories I have "Ukrainian." They were Soviet, geographically connected with Ukraine. The country's "Ukrainianness" at that time was expressed only in folk songs and dances, as if the Soviet republics differed from one another only in those narrow areas.

My parents considered themselves Russians all their lives, but in fact they were people of "Soviet nationality." They were brought up in Soviet, not Russian, culture. They did not sing Russian folk songs; they liked Soviet songs from popular Soviet films.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the founders of Soviet Russia, dreamed of creating a special "Soviet man," a person cut off from his ethnic roots, from the history of his specific, small homeland. Of course, Lenin took the Russian person as the basis of the "Soviet person": someone with a collective mentality who was loyal to the authorities and who valued stability more than freedom. And, of course, the Soviet person had to speak Russian. Without one common language, the system of control would not function. Therefore, the Soviet political system, which had initially abandoned the tsarist policy of Russification in the early 1920s, returned to this policy in the mid-1930s. The dramatic flourishing of distinctly Ukrainian culture in the 1920s ended in 1937-38 with the mass executions of those who had powered the Ukrainian cultural revival.

In Kyiv in the 1970s, most schools were "Russian," in that all subjects were taught in Russian. "Ukrainian schools" were considered to be institutions for the children of janitors and cooks, students with no ambition.

At Russian school number 203, only one of my friends was from a family that spoke Ukrainian at home. But at school, he spoke Russian, like everyone else. If someone in Kyiv spoke Ukrainian, it was assumed that they had come to Kyiv on business from some outlying village, or that they were nationalists.

We were taught Ukrainian twice a week. Some of my classmates were excused from these lessons. All you needed to be exempt from Ukrainian lessons was a letter from your parents stating that, in connection with a possible future move to another region of the USSR, their child did not need to learn Ukrainian.

I went to Ukrainian language and literature classes, but I do not remember that I enjoyed them. Strangely, I cannot now remember either the name or the face of our Ukrainian language teacher. I do not even remember if the teacher was a man or a woman. But I remember my Russian teacher very well. Her name was Bella Mikhailovna Voitsekhovskaya. She taught us Russian literature with great enthusiasm, constantly reciting Pushkin, Lermontov, and even the officially frowned-upon Anna Akhmatova. Now, when I think about the Ukrainian language and literature teacher who has disappeared from my memory, I suspect that he or she did everything possible to remain unremarkable, as if there was some shame in teaching the subject.

The Ukrainian language was not banned during those years. There were Ukrainian-speaking communists and university professors. When I was a student at the Kyiv Pedagogical Institute of Foreign Languages, we had a professor who lectured in Ukrainian, the legendary translator Ilko Korunets, who translated into Ukrainian books by Oscar Wilde, James Fenimore Cooper, Gianni Rodari, and others. Strangely, of all the professors who taught me, he is the only one whose name I can still remember.

After university, I worked for half a year as an editor at the Dnipro publishing house. I edited translations of foreign novels into Ukrainian. Inside the publishing house, everyone spoke Ukrainian — that was the unwritten rule of the place. I remember walking to work with my colleagues. As we approached the doors of the publishing house, we would be talking about something in Russian, but as we went inside, we automatically continued the same conversation in Ukrainian.

Knowing the Ukrainian language did not automatically make me a Ukrainian. Even though I had lived in the capital of Soviet Ukraine since early childhood, "Russian" was written in the nationality column of my Soviet passport. When I received a passport from independent Ukraine, I discovered that there was no "nationality" column in it, only the name of my new homeland, "Ukraine," embossed in gold on the cover.

Without crossing any borders, I found myself in a new country. I did not change much, and my attitude toward freedom of choice did not change. I continued to write literary texts in Russian, but I called myself, and considered myself, a Ukrainian writer. Some of my Ukrainian-speaking colleagues treated my self-identification with hostility. They stubbornly called me a Russian writer and insisted that if I wanted to call myself a Ukrainian author, I should switch to writing in Ukrainian. From the mid-'90s to the mid-2000s, I participated in dozens, if not hundreds, of debates on this topic, and I do not remember any of the participants shifting in their opinion. But at the same time, some Russian-speaking writers did start using Ukrainian as their language of creativity. The current war has caused a new wave of language migration. The most famous Russian-speaking writer from Ukraine's Donbas region, Volodymyr Rafeyenko, turned his back on the Russian language last year. This war has made many ethnic Ukrainians begin using Ukrainian in everyday life. They no longer feel any need of Russian.

The concept of identity is usually associated with belonging — being at home in a particular community with a shared culture, history, and language. Although I cling to my native language as a writer, I feel that I am part of the Ukrainian community and therefore I need to know the Ukrainian language and understand Ukrainian history and culture.

Now the issue of self-identification has become one of the main themes of public discussion. Soldiers from the front are asking friends to send them books on Ukrainian history. We have seen an explosion of interest in classical Ukrainian literature and modern Ukrainian poetry. Putin, with his statements that Ukrainians do not exist, provoked in us a desire to feel and act as Ukrainian as possible. The process of Ukrainization is now unstoppable. "Ukrainianness" has become a powerful weapon in the defense of our country.

Ukrainian has long been the language I use for public communication — for radio and television interviews and meetings with readers. I also write articles for newspapers and nonfiction in Ukrainian. But I still write novels in my native language. Now, when most bookstores refuse to sell books in Russian, my books are immediately translated into Ukrainian for the domestic market. Morally, I am prepared for the fact that my books will not be published in the language in which I write them. Russian will become my "internal" language, just as Ukrainian was the internal language of my school friend, who was forced to speak Russian at school, while at home with his parents, he used Ukrainian.

If I am honest with myself, I can see that my self-identification as a Ukrainian is more important to me than my native language. To be Ukrainian, especially now, means to be free. I am free. And, using this freedom, I reserve the right to my native language even though, thanks to Russian policy, it has gained the status of "the language of the enemy."

In the end, Ukraine was and remains a multiethnic state with dozens of active national minorities, each with their own culture and literature written in Crimean Tatar, Hungarian, Gagauz, and other languages. I need to see all these languages and cultures as part of my Ukrainianness.

Tolerance in interethnic relations is a Ukrainian tradition, and the harmony that flows from such tolerance should flourish in my country once we have peace.

Andrey Kurkov is the author of more than two dozen books, including the novels Death and the Penguin and Grey Bees. His novel Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv will be published in North America in January 2024.

This story originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Rotary magazine.

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