What to Do with All the Russian Books || Viktoriia Grivina

Image Credit: ©The Atlantic

What to Do with All the Russian Books

by Viktoriia Grivina

It’s a sweltering summer day in the early 2000s. Donets river outside the city of Kharkiv in the utmost East of Ukraine. Meadows of tall fluorescent grass and wild camomiles descend to the water, and sleek black adders run like ribbons under my feet, from one patch of tall grass to the other, making me scream even though the tiny yellow spots on the head hint they aren’t really adders. The Donets river carries many myths, shared and my own. There’s an old legend of a cossack mountain above the White Lake. There is always a cossack mountain or a cossack grave wherever you go in Ukraine. Cossacks, Ukrainian military class, would often give their fortunes to the monasteries, and spend the rest of their days in these remote refuges of the Field when it was still wild. St. Nicolas monastery, legend has it, was raided by the russian troops that at the time were ordered to dismantle the cossack state—Zaporizzhian Sich. The monks, former warriors, put up a fight to defend their property. Realizing they were outnumbered, they jumped off the high hill above the lake. The spirits of the old monks are said to be inhabiting the surrounding forests to this day, and, looking at the fierce resistance that the people of Kharkiv region displayed in 2022, perhaps, there might be a grain of truth in the old myth. 

I swim fighting the fast deep river waters, and then, exhausted, climb out onto the tall bank and fall on the hot sand. I cover my face with grandpa’s straw hat and daydream about other newer legends. I think of the dark midsummer night swim when a body got washed up on this beach, rolled into a carpet. The extraordinary event caused an uproar among locals who became suddenly wary of the dangerous torrents. A notorious local business queen, Halyna, the owner of the Kharkiv train station’s first private saloon, “At Halyna’s”, became absolutely furious at the idea that her perfect beach was ruined, so she hired a priest to consecrate the sands and changing cabins with the holy water. World balance was restored.

The most recent myth was a small-scale alien invasion in itself. Locals called it “the summer of the Sea Cabbage Plague”. Story has it, an unfortunate stranger threw the contents of an aquarium with an exotic predatory plant Pistia into the river. Pistia started to breed so fast it hindered the water flow, threatening ecological disaster. I remember a rowing weekend down the river, when our entire boat fought through the thick layer of this “sea cabbage”. We threw it on the banks, away, and sometimes at one another, pretending it was about to stick into our faces like a horror movie beast. Ecologists were pessimistic, saying the new species would kill fish and dry side streams (killing every life form, of course). Then winter came, and the tropical cabbage froze, vanishing like the aliens in the H. Wells’ War of the Worlds. 

Donets river remembers many legends and writers. And writers remember Donets too. Written in 1932, Maik Johansen’s Dr Leonardo’s Journey to Sloboda Switzerland almost perfectly aligns with the area of my childhood summer holidays. This frivolously humorous text could be a delightful read on Halyna’s holy beach. But growing up I never knew about Dr Leonardo or Maik Johansen. The book was banned by the soviet ministry of culture, and the memory of Dr Leonardo forgotten. Its author Maik Johansen was executed by the soviet Secret Police, and rumours have it, the legendary 4th part of Dr Leonardo is still hidden in one of the Moscow dungeons. 

There are other, very famous texts that tell about the Donets river. The medieval Tale of Bygone Years mentions it as a wild nomadic stream that brought predators to the kingdom of Kyivan Rus, a predatory state in itself. The Tale of Igor's Campaign, tells about the Kyivan prince Ihor who decided once to attack Polovtsians (for whatever reason, god only knows), and got captured in the fields of Donets instead. The Tale was written by a Kyivan monk Nestor about Kyiv’s prince, but for some reason we were never allowed to think of him as “ours”, as the heritage of Kyiv was taken by Moscow. The old tales were too valuable to be considered Ukrainian, and so we were not allowed to think of them as local, and even in my school years we studied these texts in the Foreign Literature course.  

Silencing and physical destruction of one part of Ukrainian literature, and denying us the right for the other part, has been the reason why I never read about Donets during my summer holidays on its banks. Our lake houses were filled with books, but few of them spoke to us or about us. Stacks of soviet volumes people brought to the countryside rot and burn did not count. Those were the books about a soviet man (mostly men). The perfect heroic stories of pioneer kids and the communist party, unbearably naive, blah and sterile. 

Growing up 30 kilometers from the russian border was in a sense like living in the vicinity of the Chernobyl power plant, where instead of radiation, the remainder of sovietness leaked out. During the first years of Ukrainian independence this decomposing sovietness was still visible and palpable in every pore of our young Ukrainian state. Of course, for me Ukraine was something eternal, its silhouette fixated on my school map and my eyelids, 603 000 km2. The soviet past was recent, but imaginary, an anecdote that could well be a plot of my grandpa’s vivid imagination. Kharkiv was just a storage of things left from this fictional past—an “antresoli” (russian word for upped storage closet space under the ceiling)—for a huge number of soviet books, things, and myths. 

I never understood how those books got in, but they were in every house and flat that I saw. Mom explained that oftentimes soviet people had to buy those books as an extra condition if they wanted to purchase something more practical. A winter jacket, leather boots, or toilet paper.  

At my friend’s lake house by the fast steppe river of Donets, I saw three identical volumes of “How the Steel Was Tempered” by a russian writer Ostrovsky. All three books were glued together, never touched by a human hand. They were lying there, at a summer house, from the dawn of time, like theatre props. My friend’s dad would read a two-year-old gossip newspaper lying on a deck chair in between potato weeding sessions. But never Ostrovsky, god forbid. 

Several years ago I watched The Danger of a Single Story, a brilliant talk on how it feels to be surrounded by an imperial culture that does not speak about you. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie recalls how she’d always dreamt of apples instead of oranges, and saw herself as a white boy instead of a curly black girl, because that was what British novels for little white British boys were about. Soviet and russian imperial books worked in a similar way. I could never recognize myself and my home on their pages. Kharkiv never seemed to be a hero of the soviet russophone books that surrounded me, making me think that it was too small, too insignificant, less photogenic than “a provincial town N” which russian writers seemed to be obsessed with. In my imagination Russia consisted of three cities, Moscow, Petersburg, and a “provincial town N”. Ukrainian literature seemed to consist of villages, where everyone was a slave or a poor woman made to sell her virtue to the russians. 

Sometimes I could recognize Kharkiv in the foreign writers like Mykola Gogol (as I thought of him then). We were not allowed to think of him as Ukrainian, because people said it was only “russian literature that walked out of Gogol’s overcoat”, and because Gogol was “a good writer”.

Yet, every other Saturday morning Mom would take me on a metro to Kharkiv city centre. As we walked from the History Museum down the Bursatskyi Descent, one of the oldest city roads, leading from the original fortress down to the riverside market, I always remembered Gogol’s novella called Vij. The text starts with a merry bunch of students running out of the bursa (religious college) down to the market, grabbing every kind of food on their way without payment as they head out home for their spring break. While Gogol didn’t write about Kharkiv per se, he described a typical Ukrainian town, and his description fits Kharkiv like a glove. 

Like Gogol’s characters, we walked down the descent leading from the former bursa school down to the market. There in a labyrinth of market rows surrounded by bucolic 18th century two-storeys, books, notepads and all kinds of stationery would be sold, cheap paperbacks and even cheaper smuggled reprints of the Oxbridge language manuals. Up a narrow Classical alley, ambiguously soviet-dressed people were selling the exact books that I never read. Unbeknownst to me their lives were filled with adventure, trickstering old ladies out of precious collections, and other drama. I learned about it from the book one of them wrote and congenially sold me many years later, as an addition to the 1960s Kharkiv photo album that I needed as desperately as a soviet person needed a Yugoslavian winter jacket.

As I grew up, Ukrainian books started to become more popular, and the old book market was replaced by pretty bookshops where book assistants smiled at you and spoke in Ukrainian. Smiling and Ukrainian language became the new signs of Kharkiv intellectuals. In late 1990s Kharkiv became the centre of Ukrainian printing industry, and we were lucky to have those first editions of recovered and rediscovered Ukrainian classics, and new unbearably postmodernist authors. In the second-hand Classical descent part, though, Ukrainian books were rare guests. Just like in home libraries. To get a two volume set of Olha Kobylyanska, the main feminist Ukrainian writer of the early 1900s, was as difficult as getting to the North Pole expedition. Every Ukrainian book printed before Ukrainian independence was a miracle, a survivor of censorship and a proof that someone in those years spent their entire lives fighting for this book to see the light of day. 

The first Ukrainian literature textbooks were a trial-and-error, and only now that I’ve started to teach Ukrainian to beginners, I realize how hard it must have been to take those first steps. Unlike russian, Ukrainian literature consisted mostly of banned authors. These authors were not merely sent away to Caucasus, like Alexander Pushkin, but rather shot, like reindeer (like Maik Johansen), subjected to psychiatric treatment (like Volodymyr Sosiura), broken psychologically (like Pavlo Tychyna), driven to suicide (like Mykola Khvylyovy) or, like Ostap Vyshnia, sent to build the Trans-Siberian express so much adored by the romantic foreign tourists.

My mom never believed that writers like Maik Johansen or Vasyl Stus existed, because she never heard of them in her soviet school. She consequently did not believe they were important, and didn’t help me read them. This added to my perception of these writers’ biographies. I did not believe that Maik Yohansen could be arrested in Kharkiv in plain sight, just several miles from my home, and simply killed in the same year when a russian writer Maxim Gorky was sunbathing on Capri. Was he better than Yohansen if everyone in the soviet schools read him? I was not sure.

In contrast to russian literature, quite abstract and philosophical, showing very little detail of the actual life of everyday humans, Ukrainian literature was overwhelmed with the tiniest details, and smallest social injustices of just about every creature, from a lumberjack’s son to a forest nymph. It seemed that there were absolutely no historical times when Ukrainian writers and people did not suffer. We always complained. Shevchenko complained about russians, Poles, Turks, Jewish, Ukrainians who were rich and enslaved other Ukrainians. The only ones who Shevchenko cared for were cherry trees, poor peasant women who had to harvest grain all the time between the times they fell victims of russian soldiers (oh how differently does it sound now in 2023). Panas Myrnyi complained about russians and the enslavement of Ukrainian farmers. Panteleimon Kulish complained about russians, Turks, Poles and Ukrainians bickering between themselves only to be enslaved by russians, Turks, Poles, and so on. Olha Kobylanska complained about toxic men and poor women who could not earn their living honestly (she lived in Austro-Hungarian empire, and didn’t get to complain about russians. Lesya Ukrainka complained about russians and the impossibility of forest nymphs to live amongst the greedy Ukrainian villagers. Ivan Bahrany complained about russians and soviet concentration camps. Oksana Zabuzhko complained about russians, Americans and weak-willed Ukrainian intellectuals who could not imagine the independent Ukrainian identity. Yuri Andrukhovych complained about women in general, and russians of course.

In short, most Ukrainian writers in our school curriculum complained about russians. While russians themselves—I saw it clearly in the course of Foreign Literature—did not think about Ukrainians a single bit, enjoying their fabulous bohemian melancholies and ball dancing. Only later did I realize that aggressors usually prefer to be silent about their victims.

Speaking about her recent book Russia’s War, Jade McGlynn mentions that Russia’s neighbors often see russian culture as a vampire culture. This definition might seem slightly Twilight-like at first. But it sinks in. Vampires have three strategies towards their victims, to kill, to make subservient, or to convert.   

In his novel White Guard a russian writer Mikhail Bukgakov shows Kyiv, a city of his birth, through the eyes of a small-time russian gentry who watch with horror as Ukrainian elites rapidly flip Kyiv into a Ukranian city the moment the russian empire collapses. In a way, the russian state sees Ukrainians and other colonized peoples as shapeshifters who put up with the imperial rules, emulate behaviors of russians, even learn to speak without an accent, but only to a certain point. Russia always fears that they would convert back in a blink of an eye, and reveal the savage identity of the Other the moment imperial ties are relaxed. Thus, Ukrainians can never be trusted. Bulgakov accurately conveys this primordial russian fear of Ukrainians, the aliens in the crowd. 

Bulgakov’s Kyiv is small and suffocating. It is nothing like a bucolic, sunny, ornamental and boundless city of Ivan Nechuy-Levytsky, or an ambitious megapolis of Lina Kostenko. In short, it is not the centre of the world, like it is for any Ukrainian writer. And rightly so. White Guard is not about the entire Kyiv, but rather a small fracture of it, the world of the russian minority. A desolate, crumbling world of people who suddenly felt that everyone around them threw their human russian skins off to become something else, Ukrainians. A Ukrainian leader Petlura, whose surname the characters of the White Guard are afraid to pronounce, studied at the same university as Bulgakov, almost at the same time. How can an educated polyglot suddenly turn against the empire, and call the peasants to revolt? 

The Maidan revolution of 2014 was shown by the russian state TV much like Bulgakov showed Petlura. The great russian writer and a tiny russian TV propagandist see Ukrainians in the same way. As dangerous shapeshifters.

Perhaps, I think, the college educated Petlura, the founder of the first Ukrainian embassies, a man who died in Paris in exile, who was not a thinker of an imperial scale, but was a visionary. It is just that Bulgakov could not see Kyiv in the way Petlura and other Ukrainians did. And yet, when you ask any russian doing literary studies abroad, if they know the greatest novel about Kyiv, they would most probably say, White Guard

If you ask a Ukrainian, they would nominate a different book, The City (Misto) by Valerian Pidmohylnyi. The events of The City take place several years after the White Guard. A young man from a village arrives in the big city to become a great writer. The city opens up slowly, revealing first its faraway fringes with the islands of Dnipro river, spanning to the multi-story houses with elevators, where the young writer’s love affairs take place. Perhaps, he also walks up the Andriyivskyy descent, and looks at the house of Bulgakov, thinking that he could have never been allowed inside just several years back. The cynical life of the city slowly wears down the writer’s enthusiasm. He grows bored and disillusioned with fame. Kyiv is shown as a boundless universe with its hidden treasures and dark histories, and moral corruption. For a Ukrainian writer Kyiv is the centre of the world, while for Bulgakov, it is a small provincial town. Not because Kyiv is small, but because russian Kyiv is small, like every diaspora’s neighbourhood.

Slowly, as Ukraine re-evaluates its colonial history, more and more books about our cities resurface, and yet more are being written. These literary works mark a wall rising between the two states, as we start to recognize ourselves on printed pages of the books that not many russians will ever open. This wall grows in many, often anecdotal fields as well. In a recent book of reportages about the town of Severodonetsk, now temporarily occupied, Svitlana Oslavska recounts that in 2014 the Donbas criminal world chose Ukrainian side for a very simple reason, “in Ukraine, the most North we could be sent to is Chernihiv, a mild continental climate, while if we join Russia, we could go to Siberia. And so we prefer Donbas to stay in Ukraine.”

This very practical reason is also why I today reread all those Ukrainian novels that I could not find at school. On my shelf new Tiger Trappers by Ivan Bahranyi stand alongside Maik Johanssen and his Travels of the Scholarly Doctor Leonardo and his Future Lover Fair Alchesta to the Switzerland of Sloboda Ukraine. Both books are new editions in a trendy design with the commentary of a well-known Ukrainian literary critic. Both books aren’t written by the great russian writers, and thank god for that, I think. I enjoy reading these novels partly because they are thrilling and fresh, partly because they speak about my world, about Donets, Kharkiv and Poltava, as the places worthy of attention. These are also the texts and places and rivers Ukrainians continue to die for as I write these texts. Perhaps, russian soldiers also think of these places as worthy to die for. Not many high-brow Western professors write articles about these books, much less than they write about abstract Dostoyevsky sufferings. But I think they should reconsider. To my mind, Ukrainian literature and language hold some important keys to the nature of this war, and the resistance of Ukrainians, the Frodo Baggins of contemporary Europe, the kids-who-survived, whichever franchise you prefer. Just like great russian novels hold some important keys to why their great russian people cannot stop loving “thy neighbours” to death. 

What to do with all those russian books in our lake house libraries? I don’t know the answer to that question yet. On a hot summer day I take a bunch of them to a newly opened Media Cafe in central Kharkiv. The books are taken to recycling, money used to support a local military division that didn’t let Kharkiv be occupied. Perhaps, we will have to use other russian books to make fires, if more attacks on the energy infrastructure takes place in the upcoming winter. What I know is that my library is slowly growing with Ukrainian books, and I finally begin to recognize myself and the great wild river of Donets on their pages. 

Viktoriia Grivina is a writer and cultural researcher from Kharkiv, Ukraine. She writes personalised essays and short stories. Her project Khastoria: Kharkiv Legends, is a series of short scripts and stories that use the genres of sci-fi, magical realism and absurdist comedy to reflect on her home city of Kharkiv and the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In 2014 she received an award from Transitions Online magazine (Ukraine's Sleeping Beauty). In 2023 her book proposal, Potatoes and Other Stories, was selected for the long list of Nan Shepherd Prize for underrepresented authors (UK). Her current PhD study at St. Andrews University (UK) is dedicated to the mythological and aesthetic transformations of the cities in the times of war. She is currently based in Kharkiv, Ukraine, working on her field research.


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  1. Excellent. Thank you. I am pleased to see Pidmohylnyi is now available in English and I look forward to reading him.

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