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Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?

 

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