Larissa M. L. Zaleska ONYSHKEVYCH
CHORNOBYL IN UKRAINIAN LITERATURE (1986-1989) AND GLASNOST
In 1986 two Slavic words entered the lexicon
of the world: Chornobyl (or rather the Russian version —
of glasnost itself may well be illustrated
by the manner in which the Chornobyl
story was officially treated. Following the accident, a significant
change in attitude was demonstrated between the first
days when the scope of the disaster was denied and even several months after the explosion when many facts
were slowly and
admitted. The Ukrainian writer Iurii Shcherbak wrote that until
early May 1986, "There was a strong feeling of fear in reference to opening up glasnost on certain very
touchy and very sensitive subjects, among which was
Chornobyl."3 But since the nuclear fallout could not
be concealed from the world, glasnost rode instead on the crest
of demands for real facts about the actual scope of the disaster. Chornobyl also demonstrated to the world that the
proclaimed glasnost was
not really in force even at the end of May 1986, nor it applied equally throughout the
In the summer of 1986 Vladimir Gubarev, author of the
play Sarcophagus, wondered at first whether he could publish it without special permission and cuts by a censor. He admitted in
an interview that "After the accident, those of us who worked for the leading
CHORNOBYL IN SEVERAL LITERARY GENRES to top
In Soviet Ukrainian literature, the subject of the Chornobyl accident is reflected in several literary genres, and interestingly enough, in a manner almost typical of the development of genres in old Ukrainian literature: first folklore and chronicles, then poems and epic poems, followed by novels. A Ukrainian play is yet to come — perhaps when the perspective is larger, when the wounds are not so open, when the object of fear is more specific, the guilt more attributable, and the distance provided by time is more appropriate psychologically. The Chornobyl disaster provides us — to use René Wellek's terminology — with an extrinsic approach (dealing with and explaining the social and historical content and ideas) to Soviet Ukrainian literature. It allows us to analyze this factor not only in terms of glasnost, of group or national as well other types of expressions, but also almost a national existential boundary situation. At the same time, one may also observe how the literary works on Chornobyl have contributed in terms of intrinsic or strictly literary attributes, as well as to some non-literary aspects.
One may justly ask whether due to glasnost there is an actual difference in Ukrainian literature and perhaps also in the spirit, in a type of Zeitgeist that this literature reflects. These aspects may be studied in terms of more candid: 1) fact reflection and documentation, 2) socio-psychological release and historical identification and perspective, and 3) reflection of the first two in striking new images, architectonics, and other literary modes.
Documentation of facts may seem as a rather unusual obligation for literature, and may even sound like an oxymoron; after all, how is the genre of poetry and the novel, or fiction, to be assessed on providing documentary facts on the whole Chornoby1 story? However, constant references to that historical fact are leaving a mark not only on literature but even on the dating of events in the daily lives of people, who talk about either b.Ch. or a. Ch (before or after Chornobyl). The poet Ivan Hnatiuk even named a poem about Chornobyl "Nove Iitochyslennia" (A New Dating of Years).7
The best known work in this genre is Iurii Shcherbak's Chornoby18 subtitled "A documentary novel." Although it does have an epic span and even occasionally reflects the mood of an epic, the work is not a novel, in the proper sense. It is an attempt by a scientist (Shcherbak is a physician and writer) to record and portray facts, accounts by witnesses (who serve as protagonists here), accompanied by commentaries as well as some heavy moralizing and didacticism — also very much in the epic style. In the manner of a chronicle, the author notes the history of Chornobyl (such as its earlier names, its first historical mention in 1127), and provides parts of interviews that he conducted with workers at the nuclear plant-with engineers, firefighters, and physicians, as well as with ordinary people living in the area. In this work he incorporates excerpts of their diaries, letters, and memoirs. While attempting to present facts in a kaleidoscopic manner, Shcherbak searches for the motivations for various actions and behavior of those involved before the explosion, during the accident, during the evacuation, as well as in the days that followed. As a scientist, he observes, analyzes, summarizes, and draws conclusions about who was guilty, what was the punishment and what is to be done now. He hints that one of the reasons for keeping the scope of the accident secret – was the Soviet desire to put up a good front, a pretense of a happy life, so that the world, or "the enemy," would not learn the truth. The outside world is often used as a constant pretext of a threat to Soviet life. (For example, on the second anniversary of Chornobyl, the inhabitants now living in Kyiv were not allowed to have a reunion, because foreigners, people from abroad, z-za kordonu" were supposedly planning to throw a bomb). But most of all, Shcherbak castigates Soviet citizens for not considering the human factor in dealing with high technology, and for moral irresponsibility in carrying out dangerous experiments. "We have reached Chornobyl. We have reached a crisis of faith. The edge of a precipice,"9 he warns. The writer considers that after World War II, Chornobyl became the most weighty event for his country; that is why he pledged to write about the facts relating to Chornobyl, because "...I want the truth to be preserved."1 10
In this quest, Shcherbak does not ignore any elements that may not have been quite acceptable before glasnost; he turns even to an ecclesiastical work. And also very much in the manner of ancient chronicles, Shcherbak quotes from the Bible, from the "Book of Revelation" by St. John the Divine, who refers to "A Wormwood star" (wormwood in Ukrainian is "chornobyl'," a very bitter plant artemisia vulgaris):
10. ...and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
11. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter...
Because of the very name, as well as the bitter taste in their mouths that people in the area had, following the explosion, the quote from
the Bible was immediately considered as a prediction of the Chornobyl
catastrophe. Although this quotation made the rounds already several days after the accident, the
excerpt was cited by the writer Oles Honchar at a public meeting and instantly became repeated
also all over the world. At the same time, Honchar's
use of the reference to the
Bible almost legitimized the source in the
glasnost environment. Shcherbak
went even further; he asked the metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox church
to comment upon the supposed prediction. This too is a new post-glasnost
approach, which was
probably either prompted by the official sanction for the celebration of the millennium of Christianity in
In his determination to present the whole truth about the disaster Shcherbak is willing to use non-scientific data: such as a story about an engineer who had a dream foretelling the explosion at the very fourth block, as well as folk forecasts of the disaster, such as "It'll be green all over., but sad," and "Everything will be abundant, but there won't be anyone around" ("bude vse, ale ne bude nikoho"). He relates how Chornobyl had brought bad luck to many people, and even the army of the fierce Khan Batii was destroyed there. Such examples of folklore and parapsychology would not have been respected in literature earlier, but it seems, that glasnost even opened the way for this. In an attempt to portray all the data, Schcherbak also lists the first scientific warning of an omnicide from possible radium effects, as it was expressed in 1910 by the Ukrainian academician Volodymyr Vernadsky and Pierre Curie.
In the manner of a chronicle, the work provides descriptions of the way of life of the inhabitants and their folklore about the accident. Folklore in the form of black humor was the first expression of a psychological need for a release. Publishing Chornobyl's black humor12 anywhere may seem pretty insensitive, but including it in a documentary literary work is admissible. For example, since in Ukrainian alphabet the letter 'g' was banned, Kyivites started calling themselves hamma sapiens (rather than gamma / homo sapiens). Also, while the word "fon" refers to a radiation field – everybody in Kyiv could then be addressed as belonging to the aristocracy, i.e. with a von before their surname (von Tkachenko or von Rylsky).
While some critics, such as Volodymyr Morenets13 blame Ukrainian poetry for lagging behind others in their reaction to Chornobyl, this comment is actually unfair. True, the first works did begin to appear in Ukrainian periodicals only in January 1987; however, in many of them the authors specify the dates of writing as the previous May or June (only the editors would be able to assess when the works were submitted). Typical for Ukrainian literature in general, even in the short period since the accident, numerous poems have been written and published about Chornobyl. Some of them have already served as lyrics for songs, e.g. Dmytro Pavlychko's "The Cranes flew to Chornobyl." The nuclear explosion also retains astrong presence in poems on other topics. Probably the best example in this category is Bohdan Stelmakh's poem "Istoriia" (History) 14, which provides both a historical summation of Ukrainian suffering from neighboring attacks as well as from its own nature:
Dymom – porokhamy
Ti zreklysia movy
Ti zreklysia rodu...
[Amidst the weeds / Chornobyl breathes / both smoke and dust / Chornobyl breathes our sins. / Some gave up their language / and others their roots. / Such is the history / of my own kin.]
Besides Borys Oliinyk's "The Road to Chornobyl,"15 among the earliest notable poems on the explosion is "Zona" (The Zone) by Leonid Horlach. In the introduction, the poet states that the people who have caused the explosion were "careless and infinitely smug, were used to dealing with things in the old manner ... and now others have to pay for their sins...."16. The lesson is a call to honesty and decency. The author deals directly with the purpose of sending poets to see the area which is "cut away from the world by a barbed wire": because the poets are left with the function of "shedding tears of pain for the Zone." In a manner similar to Ukrainian epic songs and laments, and also using typical Shevchenko imagery, the poet asks "O fate, do not give us glory, if it cannot protect our truth!" It is not a call to physical bravery or ideological fortitude–as it would have been in preglasnost days-only a call to get to the bottom of things, to find the truth about what happened. The poet also repeatedly refers to the people's "sins."
Viktor Kordun, in his two poems "Lyst z domu" (A Letter from Home) and also "Zona" (The Zone),17 uses a more introverted approach and a lyrical mood to deal with the images of the past and the traditional Ukrainian Whitsunday (pomynky) ritual of remembering the dead. However, he comments that while earlier people willingly visited the graves, now, in the deserted Polissia area, it is the dead themselves who have to plead for the traditional visits. The poet dismisses the technical explanation for the explosion at the nuclear plant, and instead puts the question in almost cosmic terms even, "Have we not betrayed our own soil?" In reply, he then asks for the land's forgiveness. He refers to earlier millennia and centuries, and takes a historical perspective. He does not so much as minimize the disaster itself, as perhaps unintentionally, he subtly contrasts its post-Chornobyl growing magnitude in terms of the socio-psychological effect on the people and the ecological effect on the countryside. This aspect is almost externalized by depersonalized emotions and the depopulated setting, as the poet states, "The icons and the wind don't know how long they shall last." And without taking on an optimistic stance, as socialist realism would have required him to do a year earlier, Kordun throws a melancholy look at the speed of progress after the accident, "Until the Earth is healed again, centuries and peoples shall come and go. But I have to wait." The distanced, and almost synthesized, concept of healing is only in the promised stage, though wrapped in a sorrowful dimension – and beyond the wait and reach of any one person. Transcendence is implied.
A very unique and striking treatment of the future-versus-reality confrontation may be found in the poem "Traven" (May)18 by Natalka Bilotserkivets. She provides rather unexpected metaphors and historical comparisons – and by means of the latter, also reproaches her compatriots. By assuming a megahistorical perspective, she sees mankind develop from dead (!) cells of salamanders or dinosaurs. Then, in a hinted circular chronological path, the resulting mutations may develop new breeds after Chornobyl. The poet reproaches her contemporaries with such haunting images as: "You see dinosaurs as free as horses; / and the most handsome one of all-- / turns to you his meditative eye-- / the dark eye of nature, / a pulsating and alluring call." The salamander / dinosaur, or iashchur/ has a mythical ability to put out fire or live in it. The animal ties poignantly and fittingly to the Chornobyl image. In Ukrainian folklore iashchur can also poison anything that it touches, such as water in a well or even the future fruit of a tree.19 Since the poet sees the present generation related to dead dinosaurs, with this chronological megadistancing from the present, there is a cynical and teasing promise of hope in the last words of the poem, referring to the tempting nature of both Nature and Man.
The poem deals
with the accident as with only one in a long list of historical disasters
taking place in
Stepan Sapeliak, a poet now living in Kharkiv (who publishes his work in unofficial Ukrainian periodicals),
also seems to place the guilt beyond his own
people, by entitling his 1987
Chomobylia" (The Guernica of Chornobyl).20 The images are
just as forceful and memorable as those of Picasso. Sapeliak's Scythian women, who become
A young poet, Anatolii Kychynsky, in a poem, even admits quite frankly that perhaps the Chornobyl punishment is for his own earlier propagandistic verses, when he "was untruthful while underestimating evil," and was ready "to sell the bitter truth for the wretched right"21 to excuse himself for not doing his duty. Iryna Myronenko, on the other hand, expresses the feeling differently in her poem, pointing out that people really do not know themselves, and only the silence of the evacuated Chornobyl will reawaken them asking from whence and whither they go. She also charges the people of being spiritually dependent on the judgments and values of others, rather than on traditional Ukrainian ones. This she poignantly presents and juxtaposes in the images of nightingales (as typical Ukrainian) and cuckoo birds (who lay eggs in the nests of others). She blames the people for selling out their values and "spitting into the soul of their own land."22
one of the first
books of poetry by an
individual to deal almost entirely with Chornobyl and its aftermath is Oksana Pakhliovska's first collection of poetry, "Dolyna khramiv" (The Valley of Temples).23 Similarly to
Sapeliak, she is one of the few Ukrainian writers who present Ukraine as a victim, "They have put you up for
sale in your own temples. / They replaced your history
with а million fakes. / And are you still —
On the other hand, Pakhliovska also sends messages of irreversibility to the days of the more peaceful recent past, when man still coexisted with nature. The immanent finite effect of radiation is ever present in the dark colors, in the turned-to-ashes landscape, all contrasted with the image of the peeple and nature desiring to go on living, "...And the free horse keeps running along the shore, not knowing that he has already been killed."26
The subject of death from the
radiation is more openly developed in Tamara Severniuk's
poems "Zelenyi vohon
zemli" (The Green Fire
of Earth).27 While depicting the unusual situation of "having to bury topsoil together with the deadly dust,"
she also portrays
"tormented corteges of evacuees" and
"terrible death, molded from
rays." Naum Tykhyi, in a selection of poems entitled "O, Shame, I Beg
You, Do Not Fall Asleep," expresses similar sentiments in more subtle and moving images. He
asks, "If the radiation has already touched the young — should the sun bother to come
out in the morning?"
The haunting picture of Kyiv without children that he presents, serves both as a reminder of what was, as well as an expression of fear of a
possible permanent state.28 One of the most
direct expressions of reproach for Ukrainian passivity may befound in the
above mentioned poem by Ivan Hnatiuk.29 He depicts
One of the First works in Ukrainian literature to deal with Chornobyl was Svitlana Iovenko's "Vybukh" ( Explosion). It became much acclaimed in the Soviet press and carried perhaps the heaviest legacy of the tenor of pre glasnost (it is from her poem that the phrase Bil’ і muzhnist (Pain and Bravery) provided the title of the first literary anthology on Chornobyl, published in 1988). The poem possesses all the requisite quotations and notes of optimism required by socialist realism, all the references to "the people" and their strength to withstand anything. However, the author also reproaches the country of the guilt of homicide, of inactivity, and of irresponsibility by the state and the whole government. The poem speaks as a voice of conscience, and includes a large dose of self-flagellation. References are made to lies uttered by scientists, such as the ill-famed excuses, "science requires sacrifices," and of blaming the accident on "the human factor." The poem has intense lyrical parts, as well as epic qualities and strengths; several references within the work to "the poem with no hero" only emphasize the collective hero, and stress time, conscience, and hope.
poem "Sim" (Seven)31
is one of the popularly known works on the
in the title refers to the first
casualties: six firefighters
and Volodymyr Shevchenko, the
film director. With the names listed next to the title, the
poet asks, "Where do you rock
yourself to sleep now,
children of your mothers?.. The
light striking your eyes, stronger
than a thousand suns...." The poem, in seven parts, also has some attributes of Ukrainian epic dumas and
It is set in the place of Slrakholissia (Fearville), where
a millennial oak tree falls down.
There are references to an intention
to destroy the tree, the "cursed clan," so "you'd
be gone from the planet," — as
a raven/devil admits (much in the style
ravens or crows). Listing the sins
nation, the poem includes very sharp exchanges of
reproach between the poet and the
raven (the polarity brings to mind the polarity introduced by Shevchenko's
split versions of "Myself"').
Stalin is also presented here ("We were hoping to find Lenin in him"), as well as the infamous years 1933 and 1937 (the dates of
the genocidal famine and massive arrests in
Several other important glasnost topics may be found in this poem. For example, Oliinyk considers it a sin to allow a nuclear station to be "at the very cradle of our blood brothers," as if the responsibility then needed to be heavier on his countrymen because it affected the brothers. The raven lists the ills and sins that even descendants might carry now, the disfiguration of man and nature, as well as the dying language of the fathers. However, in an old and upbeat fashion, all these monstrosities pale before the six rays of sunlight and humanity, as the poet declares to the raven/Cain, "The past is painful, but I regret it not."
In his third poem on Chornobyl,
"Pryshestia" (The Coming),32 Borys Oliinyk
goes а step further. He refers
to Stalin's crimes (including the
killing of one-half of
Out of all the poems about the nuclear accident, the most complicated in terms of structure and imagery is "Chomobylska madonna" (The Chornobyl Madonna) by Ivan Drach.33 In the epigram to the work, two excerpts are cited, one from Shevchenko's "Maria" and one from a duma about "A Poor Widow and Her Three Sons." These quotations immediately highlight the pattern of imagery in the two poems, putting the spotlight on the figure of the widowed mother, as well as the seemingly conflicting variations of this image which appear capitalized later in the poem ("You tried to write about Her — while it is She who writes with you..."). Several madonnas of the modern (or Soviet) era are depicted in the poem: they range from the Madonna of the Atomic Era, a Soldier's Madonna, an Old Woman in Cellophane-Wrapping, a Scythian Madonna, a Woman Tractor Driver, the Khreshchatyk Madonna, and a Mother whose mysterious footprints keep reappearing in the sand around the sarcophagus (covering the exploded block at the nuclear station). The latter figure has achieved almost mythical proportions with many writers. Drach depicts her in this manner:
Mother's Eternal Elegy
She passed through the fields —
The green greening
And Her Son's Disciples greeting:
Blessed You be, Maria!
from Pavlo Tychyna's "Mother of Sorrow"
Her Son's Disciples meet her,
Lead her by the arm.
That strange woman again!
— Don't you know me, Son?
—Why do you keep running away, Mother,
We have to keep catching you.
I must tell you frankly:
You can't fool me.
I'll take you to the City,
To the grandchildren, to die there.
And proudly said she:
I am the undying mother!
The generals crying,
The old woman again
To her house hurrying.
To her stork and her well,
Her cat and her cow,
And her dreams,
Without words or curses.
She bypassed the sentries,
And passed through the barriers.
Her roses were flaming,
Like roosters stood the generals.
Everything as on a blade of a knife,
Ready for cutting.
And the mother kissed a flower
Smack into the cesium.
Not wanting to die,
Everything under the sun shed tears.
And the mother kissed a flower
Smack into the strontium.34
It is the Mother's
determination to reach her house, her animals and flowers, and to be on her own, and this contrasts with the deserted
area, as well as with the strong note of
reproach, that actually it was she who was deserted by her sons, who are
referred to as really stupid. This is
a little jarring in
terms of contemporary Soviet social self-appraisal in literature, however, a certain continuity of the message from
0les Honchar's Sobor (Cathedral) may be found here. It is a glasnost type of admission that children have failed
to live up to human
expectations of normal gratitude and care for the Mother, the Clan Begetter, or even that of a higher order — of the country itself, of
The theme of motherhood in Drach's poem is two-fold. One aspect reflects the traditional moral standards, the natural family relationship that the "sons" have neglected to continue, and as a result have built a nuclear station and abandoned the mother. The other aspect deals with the basic concern for the well-being of the offspring and the future of mankind. It is here that the fear is expressed in quite bleak colors. The concern is not only for the physical health, but for spiritual and moral as well. It is the latter that actually dominates the whole complex structure of the epic. The poet even quite explicitly depicts the abandoned widowed mother who looks into her descendant's soul, and not finding one, instead sees only guilt.
In this work Drach often quotes or refers to other works by Ukrainian writers about Chornobyl. By employing similar situations, symbols, and images as they do, he creates a certain credibility for these images as "facts." At the same time he also raises them to adifferent level of generalization and typicality, allowing them to serve almost as Chornobylian archetypes. This sharing of common imagery not only makes them more valid, but also enhances the epic universality which they carry, and provides almost an organic structure to the work. The variants of the Madonna within the poem itself serve as a common non-heroic Chornobylian image, as well as substitutes for protagonists, thus representing one part of the community or nation. While these madonnas are shown as suffering victims after the explosion, it is within a tragic mode, since there is a strong hint that in their indisputable goodness-they are to blame somehow for the wrongs of others, especially that of their own descendants.
Another work which also reflects certain elements of the Ukrainian epic duma is Yuriy Andrukhovych's "Povik ne vyshchezne trava" (The Grass Won't Ever Fade Away). 36 The poem refers to the land that was once noted for many children, the land with scars unhealed, while a hangman's poles become live and grow as plants. Painful expressions of pessimism and hopelessness flow freely without the typical pre-glasnost restraints or cosmetic concealment.
At this time, at least three
Soviet Ukrainian writers have written
novels that deal
specifically with Chornobyl: Leonid Daien, Volodymyr lavorivsky, and Anatolii Mykhailenko. Daien's documentary novel is entitled Chornobyl— Trava hirka (Chornobyl — The Bitter
terms of structure, the work is a step beyond Shcherbak's documentary, and
relies much on the epistolary form. Daien's method in providing credibility to the work was to build the story on the life of the chief firefighter Leonid Teliatnykov,
by means of correspondence (from the hospital in Moscow)
with his children. The author openly
blames experiments for causing the explosion at
and places it on a list
with other nuclear accidents in
A similar approach in attempting to minimize Chornobyl's horrors bv showing the West in the worst possible light, is Anatolii Mykhailenko's Zapakh polynu (The Smell of Wormwood).38 However, he also mentions some of the excuses, used before glasnost, to block any open discussions of nuclear plants, e.g.: that it was considered reactionary to doubt the safety of Soviet reactors, or that the reason for not disclosing the explosion immediately was so that the enemy across the border would not learn of it. Besides making such charges against the system, the writer also asks some painful questions of the local people, as to what took place both before and after the accident. He depicts such acts as stealing of ancient icons and similarly unique treasures from the evacuated empty houses. The police then confiscated some of these from the thieves-only to have a seventeenth-century Psalter or a sixteenth- century icon disappear from official safekeeping, leaving hardly anything for a planned museum called "Muzhnist" (Bravery). Other writers also portrayed how such stolen and radioactive items quickly found their way to Western European black markets. This rather candid depiction not only lists the facts, but also points out the underlying explanation that people stopped caring for their culture and historical heritage and traditional values.
Volodymyr Iavorivsky's Maria z polynom pry kintsi stolittia (Maria with
the Bitter Wormwood at the End of the Century) 39 also reflects an ever-present charge of guilt. The writer places the events right in the heart of the town of
Several common elements may be seen in the above works in Ukrainian literature on the Chornobyl topic. First of all, there is now a definite openness in the depiction of the extrinsic element, thus almost performing the function that journalism should have had in describing exactly what actually happened at Chornobyl. Noting what the situation was before and how it changed during the glasnost period, Soviet Ukrainian critic Hryhorii Klochek, in discussing Chornobyl admits that in the pre-glasnost days such painful problems could not have been discussed in literary works40. Similarly, expressions of fear of immanent death and long-range effects from radiation were becoming more blunt in new poems on Chornobyl.
strong psychological need has surfaced in
The Russian journalist Gubarev, on the other hand, treats the situation in a more heroic manner; by considering Chornobyl as the third greatest historical achievement of "our people" (i.e. Soviet or Russian), listing these events as: saving Europe from the Mongols, saving Europe from Hitler, and with Chornobyl-securing the future
of mankind by very expensive means.43 Aleksandr Tkachenko, a Russian poet of Ukrainian heritage, while listing similar events, places his sentiment elsewhere. He explains that in his poem the mention of the renewed misfortune refers to earlier historical sufferings by Ukrainians: in the Middle Ages from invading Mongol hordes, in the twentieth century from Stalin, and then from the Nazis. Tkachenko sees Ukrainians and Belorussians as those who suffered the most from Chornoby144, a distinction that was not made by Gubarev at all.
When comparing Soviet literary works written by non-Ukrainians to that by Ukrainians, in most cases a rather different approach appears to prevail. While in the non-Ukrainian works the problem of present-day morals is also hinted at, in the Ukrainian ones it is more emphasized, and the element of guilt is ever-present.
However, in Ukrainian works reference is usually made to the moral problems in their historical aspect, and thus the guilt syndrome or the accusations of betrayal of traditional morals become quite dominant. The recurring charge against the Ukrainian society is of naively trusting others to do the deciding and the planning, while failing to keep old personal and historical values. Nothing similar has ever been as strongly expressed before Chornobyl. Mykhailenko even begins his novel with the comment "Our guilt before the ruined earth is unforgivable, and inexcusable—I want to make you see that."45 The community and/or national guilt and fear reaches almost a universal proportion due to the span of time during which the effects of the explosion are to be felt. The insiders, the Ukrainians, in most works see themselves as a nation guilty of the specific sin of trusting others and allowing the nuclear station to be built, of having people risk the experiment at the plant and perform similar misdeeds, as well as a multitude of other real and alleged sins. It is as if Ukrainians see themselves as historically guilty morally guilty the threshold of the twenty-first century (this point is always stressed), at the threshold of a new civilization, for allowing this to happen in Ukraine, and thus reaching the bottom of an existential and moral pit (as in Shevchenko's poem "The Great Vault"). This element is quite dominant in the works of Bilotserkivets, Drach, Iavorovisky, and Kychynsky.
While there are numerous references to the once traditional Ukrainian values, they are not identified anywhere, and
are only generalized as the decent, ethical, and moral values of the past. Until the Soviet era, most
practicing Christians, and therefore, through the centuries,
many of the values were promulgated by the Christian
religion. Once religion was barred or erased from Soviet lives — with it were erased many of the values that it taught. However, none of the above authors tie the collapse of morals to
religion. Only in Oksana Pakhliovska's
poem "Bula sumna" (You were sad),46 is there a reference to bringing God back to the land. After the days of mourning, or even entombment, a mythical "she" (
Thirdly, not only traditional values surface with the
Chornoby1 theme, but also traditional imagery, as well as
complete passivity (the helpless victim), and is followed by the guilty self flagellation. In all of these stages however, the historical identification hovers in the background. Such writers as Ivan Iov, deal with it quiet openly, and ask "How can we honor our parents in the present without knowing our own past?" 47 Although Ukraine is rarely mentioned by name in most of the early post-Chornobyl literary works on the subject (it becomes more visible in the 1989 publications) — traditional Ukrainian literary imagery is used to represent the country: a young girl, a woman, Maria, or the duped Kateryna (from Shevchenko's poetry), "the land", or even Kyivan Rus'. Related literary purpose is served through the use of other traditional imagery from: a) folklore (the raven: variation of a crow; two / three brothers; a mistreated mother (as in the works of Bilotserkivets and Drach; a cuckoo-bird; b) literature (imagery related to that used by Shevchenko or Khvyliovyi); and c) from the Bible (in Oliinyk's poem "The Coming").
New imagery has quickly become very identifiable with the Chornobyl etymology and metaphors: chornobyl meaning wormwood, or, bitter grass (polyn), sarcophagus, salamanders/dinosaurs, Maria, the archetypal mother with child, an old woman who returns to feed her cow, icon thieves, and an old legendary pine tree in the Prypiat river area. However, there are hardly any men (except the young victims) — thus going back to the post-World War II presentations in Ukrainian literature, which were abundant in absentee fathers or fatherless settings, reflecting an unprotected and defenseless country. The image of the Ukrainian mother-Maria reappears not only in the works of Drach and Iavorivsky, but also in other poems, such as Pavlo Movchan's "The Bitter Maria," where she is present as а symbol ("It is so hard to keep holding your name..."), Mykola Som's "Marusia from Prypiat"48 or Iryna Myronenko's "Mother's Paths." In these works there is also a strong confrontation between mothers and sons, as well as between old virtues and novel twentieth century sins. Without pointing at the source of these sins, there is a strong juxtaposition of the old Ukrainian values and present day moral and cultural rootlessness, specified in numerous examples, all the way to and including probably the first mention of AIDS in Ukrainian literature. Together all these images seem to tie past and present folkloric and literary expressions into a bigger representation revealing many other aspects of life as well.
Errors of the past, errors in judgment as well as moral
faults expressed in the literary works now seem to have precipitated
a prevalent desire for a national hamartia; the tragic flaw is depicted as naive trust and submission to a new trend in the cultural and moral rootlessness. Most of the Ukrainian authors in their works on Chornobyl contrast the present with the old Ukrainian ethos. In an interview Shcherbak points out that for many
years the official Soviet trend was to root out any sense of conscience, any ties to
Mykhailenko, in his prose work subtitledА A Novel — A Memory expresses this feeling quite vividly:
We are all guilty. We are guilty that the young Prypiat has died ... What an immeasurably heavy payment are we making? One wants to tear one's breast and shout at the world: Wake up! Let Chornobyl not be lost in our memory and in our verbal errors-the quiet evil of our days. 51
One author, Taras Romaniuk, treats
the Chornobyl literature as a
warning. He does this both in apocalyptic terms as well as in terms of
national messianism. By referring to the
writings of Iurii Lypa ("PryznachenniaUkrainy," 1938) he expounds the idea that
Individual, cultural, linguistic, and ecological problems are all tied to the predicament that Chornobyl is disclosing now. That is why Ivan Dziuba claims that the Chornobyl catastrophe "has placed our community before the inevitable need to know the truth about ourselves and to build all aspects of our lives on the basis of human morality."53
The post-Chornobyl syndrome is
very much like a Pavlovian reflex; from
an old habit the victims blame
themselves and feel guilty ven for the misdeeds done
to them by others. This behavior is manifested as a so-called paradoxical psychological effect, 54 since the Ukrainian nation seems to be charging itself with each of its historical disasters. This expression appears to
go deeper than just an intent to learn from one's mistakes in order to avoid them. It is more than just the need for
catharsis — but even that stage seems to be postponed. And
may explain the early
absence of the genre of Ukrainian drama
on the subject,
or the fear of showing in
reflex and the paradoxical effect syndromes blend
into new expressions in Ukrainian
literature: the loss of traditional moral values, the sudden desire or
need for a historical self-perception, and a
very strong feeling of guilt. This guilt is
occasionally represented as
a disappointment derived from naive trust in promises made to gullible victims by outsiders.
(Such an image of
Two haunting images are reflected in the work of several authors: the erased or decayed historical memory, and the deserted streets and cities with no children. Both of these are potent enough individually to shock a group into an evaluation of the present, while furtively and frantically considering the future. And it is with the future in mind that Oksana Pakhliovska asks quite directly, "Who'll find us amidst our own fields of ashes? /If generations shall become strangers-/ who'll come to begin everything anew?"58
From the shock and the resulting self-evaluation to the fear for the future, in their Chornobyl works the Ukrainian writers are expressing a type of Zeitgeist. It has not been expressed to any degree in other arts (except for the film, perhaps) or disciplines; it appears, almost subconsciously and subcutaneously as the yet unrealized and unexpressed feeling of the nation facing a boundary situation and a very dim future. It is as if the nuclear disaster bared the inner world of the people's souls, shocking them, and making them face themselves. As the young poet Mykola Adamenko observes: "Chornobyl has matured us. /Yes, everything is as before./ Only we are not."59 The who ask their compatriots to change spiritually. It is as if the writers are saying what the people feel or know subconsciously but cannot face or articulate yet.
Ivan Dziuba identified Chornobyl as:
one of the important battlefields in our striving for complete truth in our literature, for its civic devotion, social apoliticism, and intellectual honesty... It is important that they lead to a bold and honest understanding of our difficult apocalyptic era... lead us steadfastly to a new manner of thinking, as well as to the old and eternal principles of human morality.60
With glasnost's permission, while we now may read not only of the admissions about the effects of the explosion, and of the socio-psychological element which echoes in the Chornobyl literature, there are also the intrinsic literary aspects, the literary treasures, the imagery, the architectonics found in many of the works, such as in the poems by Natalka Bilotserkivets, or Ivan Drach, or Stepan Sapeliak. We see also how Drach, in the epiloque of his poem, attempts to pass-by the Pavlovian reflex affecting Ukrainians, and reach a universal level and a universal problem.
The salt of knowledge — is the fruit of repentance...
and the gray Chornobyl mother
carries this child — this sick planet Earth.61
It is this threat to the whole
planet that has left a mark on glasnost, not only on the environmental, on the human life aspects but also on the linguistic, cultural, and historical fields as they surface in the concerns that are
widely discussed in
1. Prof. Bohdan Krawchenko also dealt with
the subject in his Keynote Address at the Symposium on Glasnost in Soviet
2. Nagle Jackson, Program
Notes for the McCarter Theater in
For a review of the play see: Larissa M. L. Onyshkevych, "Chornobyl' u p'iesi", Suchasnist, 12 (1987):60-64. For a review of the production see Larissa M. L. Zaleska Onyshkevych, "Chornobyl and Sarcophagus", The Ukrainian Weekly, 24 April 1989, 9-10.
3. Iurii Shcherbak, "Chornobyl'", Vitchyzna, 4(1988):18.
4. Reports of the Soviet
Ukrainian press were summarized by Larissa M. L. Onyshkevych,
"Nuclear Disaster in
5. Mykhailo Malash, "Kompetentnist' vriatuie svit", Ukraïna, 36 (September 1988), 3.
6. Shcherbak, Ibid.
7. Ivan Hnatiuk, "Nove litochyslennia", Zhovten, 1(1989):4-5.
8. Iurii Shcherbak, Vitchyzna, nos. 4,5,6,7,9,10 (1988)
9. Shcherbak, no.19, ibid., 188.
10. Shcherbak, no.4, ibid. 22.
11. "The Revelation of St. John the
Divine", The Holy
also started to turn up in various entertainment programs, e.g. in the Lviv group "Ne zhurys!". In their skit, the enemy is blamed for
13. Volodymyr Morenets, "Poetychna epika Chornobylia", Radian'ske literaturoznavstvo, 12(1987):3.
14. Bohdan Stelmakh, "Istoriia", Zhovten, 6(1988):9.
15. Borys Oliinyk, "Doroha na Prypiat'", Vitchyzna, 1(1987):24.
16. Leonid Horlach, "Zona", Literaturna Ukraïna, 22 January 1987.
17. Viktor Kordun, "Lyst iz domu", and "Zona", Ukraïna, 39(1988):5.
18. Natalka Bilotserkivet's, "Traven", Ukraïna, 27(1987):13.
Onats'kyi, "Iashchur," Mala ukraïns'ka
20. Stepan Sapeliak, "Gernika Chornobylia", Suchasnist, 7-8(1988):15-17. It should be noted that the Nazi bombing of Guernica took place in 1937, also on April 26.
21. Anatolii Kychyns'kyi, "Hirka travo moia, chornobyl!," Doroha zavzdovzhky v liubov (Kyiv: Molod, 1988), 40.
22. lryna Myronenko, "Mamyni stezhky," Dnipro, 12 (1988): 3.
23. Oksana Pakhliovska, Dolyna khramiv (Kyiv: Radians'kyi pys'mennyk, 1988), 27.
24. Ibid., "Vydinnia sukhykh osokoriv," 27.'
25. Ibid., "Chornobyl'," 57.
26. Ibid., "Ne vpiznaiu...," 32.
27. Tamara Severniuk, "Zelenyi vohon zemli," Dnipro, 3 (1989): 100-101.
28. Naum Tykhy, "Kyiv. Traven' 1986-ho," Kyiv, 11 (1988): 16.
29. Ivan Hnatiuk, op. cit.
30. Svitlana Iovenko, "Vybukh," Vitchyzna. 5 (1987): 2-21.
31. Borys Oliinyk, "Sim," Literaturna Ukraïna, 38, 17 September 1987.
32. Borys Oliinyk, "Pryshestia,"Dnipro, 1 (1989): 2-11.
33. Ivan Drach, "Chornobyl's'ka Madonna," Vitchyzna, . 1 (1988): 42-62.
34. Ibid., 48.
Proishla vsi storozhi,
Mynula vsi obvaly
Palaly ïï rozhi,
Iak pivni — heneraly
Bulo vse, mov na lezi,
Iakomu vse stynaty,
I kvitku priamo v tsezii
Vse plakalo na sontsi,
Ne khtilo pomyraty,
I kvitku priamo v strontsii
35. Ivan Dziuba, "Muzy ne movchat'", V itchyzna, 6 (1988):164.
36. IuriiAndrukhovych, "Povik ne vyshhezne trava," Ukraïna, 4 (1989):7.
37. Leonid Daien, Chornobyl'—trava hirka (Kyiv:Veselka, 1988).
38. Anatolii Mykhailenko, "Zapakh polynu," Dnipro, 11 and 12 (1988).
39. Volodymyr Iavorivsky, "Maria z polynom pry kintsi stolittia," Vitchyzna, 7 (1987):16-139.
40. Hryhorii Klochek, "Uroky pravdy," Kyiv 7 (1988): 139.
41. Raul Chilachava, "Derevlianska Iaroslavna z nemovliam," Dnipro, 12(1988):18.
43. Personal interviews with Vladimir Gubarev, 9 and 11 February 1989.
44. Personal interview with Anatolii Tkachenko, 9 March 1989.
45. Anatolii Mykhailenko, "Zapakh polynu," Dnipro. 11 (1988): 23.
46. Oksana Pakhliovs'ka, "Bula sumna", op.cit.
47. Ivan Iov, "Nabolile", Vitchyzna, 12 (1988):12.
48. Mykola Som, "Marusia iz Pryp'iati", Poeziia 1'88 (Kyiv: Radians'kyi pys'mennyk. (1988),42.
49. Lesia Voronina (interview with Yuriy Shcherbak), "Zelenyi svit", Ukraïna, 6, 1989,.2. Dmytro Iliushyn, "Zberehty dlia nashchadkiv", Ukraïna (1989), 12 and in inserts, describes some of the art treasures that were being collected in Chornobyl.
50. Ibid., 1.
51. Anatolii Mykhailenko. op. cit., 40.
52. Taras Romaniuk, "Chornobyl': Vidplata za vseliuds'ki hrikhy chy za natsional'nyi infantylizm?", Kafedra,.4, 1988, 23-25.
53. Ivan Dziuba, op. cit., 157.
I am grateful to Prof. Ivan Holowinsky
Four major films were made on the
subject: "The Chornobyl Bell," "Two
Colors of Time," "Chronicle of Difficult Weeks," and "The
Threshold." The first three have suffered severe censorship and great
delays in being shown in the
55. Mykailenko, op.cit.
56. Ibid., 24.
57. Oksana Pakhliovksa, "Ia chuiu skryp...", op. cit., 29.
58. Mykola Adamenko. "Hran'", Poeziia, 1'88, (Kyiv: Radians'kyi pys'mennyk, 1988), 49.
59. Ivan Dziuba, op.cit ,. 166.
60. Ivan Drach, op. cit., 62.
61. Lesia Voronina, "Zelenyi svit", op. cit.
This article by Larissa M. L. Zaleska
Onyshkevych was originally published as "Echoes
of Glasnost: Chornobyl in Soviet Ukrainian
Literature" and provided the title
for the book Echoes of Glasnost in Soviet
The article was later reprinted in an abridged version in Agni, 29/30, 279-290. to top
Copyright ã 2002-2003 Shevchenko Scientific Society, Inc.; all rights reserved.