ZOiS Spotlight 16/2022

Literature in War

by Nina Frieß 27/04/2022
Ukrainian writer Yevgenia Belorusets joined a solidarity event at the Berlin International Literature Festival. IMAGO / Future Image

Translated from the German by Hillary Crowe.

“The editorials were abominable, packed with bloodthirsty, arrogant lies. The whole outside world was represented as degenerate, treacherous, stupid, and good for nothing else but to be taken over by Germany. These were not small local papers; they had formerly enjoyed a good reputation. In terms of both content and style, they were unbelievable.”[1] Two weeks after the war started, I came across this quote from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel The Night in Lisbon on Facebook, posted by a friend from Russia. Without any further comment, her post simply stated that she was grateful for the recommendation by a Russian YouTuber which had reminded her of the text. She apparently felt that this quotation, which describes the observations of a German émigré in 1939, was appropriate to sum up her own situation in Russia in 2022. And it seems she is not the only Russian to feel drawn to Remarque, German literature’s great pacifist: four of his works, in various editions, currently feature on the list of Top 100 fiction books, produced by Ozon.ru, Russia’s largest online marketplace.

The fact that many readers in Russia are now turning to 20th century (anti-)war literature to “get through all of this”, as another friend put it, attests to the timeless relevance of these texts. The oppressive sense of déjà vu that is overwhelming when reading Remarque shows, however, that the anti-war message inherent in this literature has not struck home. Indeed, Russia – where Remarque is more popular than in his homeland and which has its own long tradition of anti-war literature that is still read today – has been engaged in a war against the whole of Ukraine in violation of international law since the end of February.

Authors who no longer write “literature”

I say “against the whole of Ukraine” because a fact too often forgotten is that war has been raging in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 – a war which, by the start of 2022, had claimed thousands of lives and displaced some 2.5 million people. We find it documented in contemporary literature: for example, in Serhiy Zhadan’s novel The Orphanage (2017) and Andrey Kurkov’s novel Grey Bees (2018). Both works describe their protagonists’ road trips through the no man’s land between the fronts in the Donbass. And they leave no room for doubt about the brutality and senselessness of a war in which, for Zhadan and Kurkov, there are no heroes. And although the journeys made by the protagonists – classic “anti-heroes” – lead towards personal growth, by the end of the novels they are right back where they started: facing an uncertain future.

Even before the outbreak of war in the Donbass, Zhadan and Kurkov were two of their country’s best-known literary figures. But as a result of the war, they “are no longer writing literature”, as Kurkov explains in an interview. Both are still living in Ukraine and using their status as international figures to raise awareness, in guest articles and interviews, of the suffering of the Ukrainian people and Russian war crimes and calling for action by the international community.

Yevgenia Belorusets is another writer who chose to stay in Ukraine for as long as possible. In her Tagebuch aus Kiew [Kyiv Diary], which she continued until she left the country in early April, she wrote a report every day about what it was like to live through war. In her diary entries, which were published in Der Spiegel magazine, she described in detail the fear and despair, the anger, the resilience and the resolve of her fellow Ukrainians. As well as reporting on her own experiences, she encouraged friends and acquaintances to share their stories in her open-access diary, so that at a time when speechlessness is seemingly the default, an eyewitness account was created, featuring many different voices. After reading Belorusets’ diary, there can be no more claims that we didn’t know”; it is testimony that never fails to puts its readers on notice.

Russian writers for and against the war

In response to the invasion, the Ukrainian Book Institute, PEN Ukraine and other literature organisations called for a “global boycott” of Russian cultural products in general and books in particular. In an open letter published on 1 March, they claim that Russian propaganda is woven into many books, turning them “into weapons and pretext for the war”. And indeed, there are writers in Russia who support the country’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. According to information from the organisers, more than 500 writers have signed a letter of support, published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, which, in its tone, is fully aligned to the Kremlin’s official narrative with its blend of pathos and hysteria. But one searches almost in vain for any of the big names in contemporary Russian literature among the signatories. Even Zakhar Prilepin, once fêted by the international community as the enfant terrible of Russian literature and now better known for his role as second in command of a battalion on the side of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass, is missing from the list. However, this is likely due to Prilepin’s characteristic individualism, for this author makes no secret of his Great Russian fantasies. He is also one of the Russian individuals currently subject to European Union sanctions. Prilepin reacted with his customary irony, describing the sanctions as a “reward for his service”. Pushkin never went abroad either and “I live in Europe’s most beautiful country”, he remarked to the Russian media company RBK. Writers are chroniclers of their time, but as the example of Prilepin shows, they do not always act as moral guides and mentors.

A general boycott of Russian writers is not appropriate, however: many Russian writers of international repute are sharply critical of the war against Ukraine and warn about its catastrophic effects, not least for Russian culture. Russian YouTuber Yury Dud’s interview with Boris Akunin in early March resonated particularly strongly. In the hour-long interview with Dud, now declared a “foreign agent” by the Russian authorities, Akunin – one of Russia’s most popular writers, best-known internationally for his detective novels – talks about Russian history and current events. A brilliant intellectual and cosmopolitan, Akunin arrives at very different conclusions from those drawn by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose attempts to reframe and rewrite Russian history as one constant heroic narrative have tragically culminated in the invasion of Ukraine. Akunin is convinced that empires have only ever been good for their rulers, not their citizens. Russia, he says, has to go through dramatic changes and become a democratic country, allowing it to normalise the relationship with Ukraine; he hopes this will happen, although it will take time. He concludes that “Russia is stronger than Putin. Russia will outlast Putin. It will survive and become normal again”. With more than 23 million views, the video is one of Dud’s most clicked productions.

Like all previous wars, Russia’s war against Ukraine will give rise to new works of literature. But will humanity heed their lessons? Based on the anecdote recounted at the start of this text, that is a somewhat doubtful prospect.

[1] Erich Maria Remarque: The Night in Lisbon, Fawcett Columbine, translated by Ralph Manheim (1964) with amendments; englishonlineclub.com.

Nina Frieß is researcher at ZOiS.