Khrystyna Semeryn: The five lessons of war


From the editor: Khrystyna Semeryn is a cultural and literature researcher, a freelancer and editor of several journals under the umbrella of Geopoetical Studies. She is a member of Ukrainian Association for Jewish Studies and Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine. In the essay, Khrystyna reflects on the role of a scholar during Russia-Ukraine war. As a researcher on Holocaust, she insists that current war is an aftermath of the WWII because the crimes of the Soviet and Russian regimes were not punished.

What a weird title in the 21st century Europe, isn’t it? Sometimes I forget about the war for a second, getting really scared in the next seconds by recalling it is a fait accompli.

Just the day before the war in Ukraine was unfolded by Russia, I was certain that my words are my activist tools, weapons and protection kits as well as writing was a primary communication and expression channel for me as a homo scriptor. By then, I wrote hundreds of texts: research and academic papers, media articles, reports and art critique, columns, essays, reviews, poetry and so on. I was occasionally taking notes on a bus station hiding from the snowstorm or in the middle of the night, waking up spontaneously. 

The language I used to express myself and speak to the world has not completely changed or exhausted on 24 February 2022. Yet, following the date I could not find the words and arrange them the way needed. The space for our thoughts and expression has been totally occupied by the killings, shelling, missile strikes, a lot of grief, dead children and obliterated cities that used to flourish only weeks ago.

We have no tears left. 

Here is the first lesson: you can never be prepared for war. War cannot be explained rationally, justified or accepted. It silences and paralyzes people for a while. Not forever, hopefully. 

Since the start of the war, I have stayed in north-western part of Ukraine quite close to the border with Belarus just between two nuclear power plants. Chornobyl NPP is just in a four and a half hour drive from here. The constant threat from the air, air raid sirens several times per day, missiles hitting buildings and killing people around as well as the Belarusian menace lingering in the air are puzzles of a new reality we fell into on the last Thursday of February. 

Some days and nights the siren has literally been sounding unstoppably.   

My personal belongings and documents are packed and my five cats are ready to go, but where? Those reflections remind me a heroine of my research Zuzanna Ginczanka, the Polish-Jewish poetess from the Ukrainian city of Rivne, murdered by the Nazis when she was twenty-seven. Today I am almost her age. In her best-known poem Non omnis moriar, referring to Horace’s ‘not all of me will die,’ she writes that after her death, she will only leave her plates, tablecloths, and a lot of bright dresses. I have never thought that her simple but sincere lines could sound even more impressive. Another living example: my academic supervisor fled the Crimean Peninsula occupied by Russia in 2014 and now she is again in the city under Russian attack. During all our lives, we are building our comfortable private little worlds, filling them with people we love and things we like. It’s sheer nonsense that in a new millennium we have to leave our homes, cities, motherland just because Russian Nazism – Ruscism – was not rectified in time.

In the first days of war, I was shocked, exhausted, incapable of working, sleeping and eating. At night, I got up and rashed to the window for several times in order to be sure that there was no nearby fire or enemy tanks coming. Amazons and Danubes of news, grim photos and videos were flowing through and their waves were breaking over me. 

For March, I planned a few book drafts, two chapters, a series of cultural interviews, to finalize dissertation and some other promising projects. Everything stopped with the outbreak of war. The media outlets I used to write for as a freelancer have been suspended or could not afford to pay freelancers any more. Well, I felt almost physically gagged for a while. 

It is the second lesson: war destroys all that you love and like, your plans, connections, work schedule and routine, health and life. In this regard, a shock and depressive state is expectable but keep in mind, the strength will come soon. 

I liked cooking since early years and even used to run a food blog. I recalled my recurring idea that cooking mastery would come in handy in a case of war. I inherited the thoughts about war from my grand-grandmother taken for forced labour to Germany during WWII; my grandmother born in Nazi Germany who became a widow in her twenty-six; people whose memories of wars, deportations, famines, national liberation struggle with Russians, hard women’s life, and Soviet realities I remembered in my childhood. Ukraine’s history was neither far nor too optimistic for me. Well, my research has always been permeated by the premonition of war. 

My first studies ever were about poetry of Vasyl Stus, one of the greatest Ukrainian poets, an intellectual and dissident murdered in the Soviet forced labour camp for political prisoners, as well as a novel about Ukrainian emigrants during WWII written by an exiled intellectual Yurii Kosach, a nephew of a prominent writer and playwright Lesia Ukrainka. I conducted research into the historiosophy of WWII in the novels by a famous émigré Ukrainian writer Ulas Samchuk. Later I explored the Holocaust experience through the eyes of poetesses born in Ukraine as Zuzanna Ginczanka and Rose Ausländer, as well as Alejandra Pizarnik – an Argentine poetess of Ukrainian origin. I wrote on the Holocaust spatial memory of Ostroh, a city in Volyn region with a multicultural history. I study Ukrainian short stories depicturing Jewish life on the brink of the 19th and the 20th century focusing on Jewish pogroms and the theme of rape. I analyze the Revolution of Dignity cultural memory through the lens of trauma, space, and identity. I write on Ukrainian contemporary sculpture through the lens of complicated cultural memory. I always tell everyone that culture is a basis and a mirror of the mankind.

Ukraine’s entire history is littered with an unbelievably large number of tragedies and continuous grief as well as the same unprecedented bravery, self-sacrifice, and the will to survive as a nation. Awareness of history and culture entails the understanding that the Russians with their bloody and Nazi ideology have always been the chief enemy to Ukrainian people. After WWII, the Soviet Union – a genuine empire of evil – remained unpunished for multiple crimes against humanity, wars, deportations, the genocide against Ukrainians and other ethnic groups. The Soviets killed millions of people but got carte blanche as an alleged victor over the Nazism. In the meantime, their bloody invention Ruscism continued to exist and has extremely intensified in the 21st century.   

It is the third lesson: the 2022 war is an heir of World War II because its terrible lessons have not been fully learnt by the world. Art and culture, cultural memory showcase it clearly. Accordingly, cultural research is vital for comprehension of the war and a wider context.

Later, I managed to do something more useful than donating to the Armed Forces and monitoring the news. After some thought, I realized my writings and research is the best contribution to the war effort. I stepped in as an information warrior and started interviewing people from the war-torn regions. I listen to them and write down their stories for a volunteer project hoping to integrate it into my research. 

The current events change rapidly, and there are so many of them. Shocked and oversaturated with the news, solving multiple unusual tasks that piled high in our minds, we are getting used to daily tragedies and bloody images. It scares. The war memory is extremely fragile, it disappears like the sand going through our fingers. So, it should be recorded and then analyzed. It is a universal task for researchers in every pivotal moment of history. And it is currently my direct commitment. 

In particular, I conceptualized the research project on documenting the war memory and exploring it through culture and media. I hope it will be developed in whatever form. With this in mind, I am building up a collection of cultural signs, symbols, and gestures of the war as well as art pieces. There are more and more artistic expressions blooming in midst of war and terror. They need to be assembled and critically analyzed.   

Additionally, I attempted to return to my research routine. To structure and design a paper accepted for a well-known Czech journal, to edit a foreword for another publication, to revise the dissertation, to write and send some applications and other ‘to-do-s.’ I have to say most of the tasks are still unfinished but I am trying. All work emails start the same: ‘I hope you and your family are in a safe place.’ Many emails from the foreign colleagues end with ‘Slava Ukraini!’ (Glory to Ukraine!).  

The fourth lesson is therefore that in order to survive, one should do what one can and be engaged in a professional routine or some kind of affirmative action during the war. Commitment and work become literally a life vest.

The last, fifth lesson is actually a reminder that war is always closer than one thinks. Being under constant bombardment, my compatriots and I do not in fact need this lesson. It is addressed to our dear neighbors. Sure, I understand and appreciate the feeling of comfort and tranquility of civilized life in Europe. Until February 24, we had the same feeling in Ukraine: going to a theatre in the evening, planning vacation, choosing new furniture from IKEA, and the weekend trips to Budapest or Riga. Yes, it’s natural not to pay attention to the war somewhere far enough not to hear shelling and explosions. But Ukraine is here, in the very heart of the region, and the war the world was afraid of since the Cold War has already started. Today’s fight is a pivotal moment of our common history and I hope, it will result in the future of new Europe – deedful, irreconcilable to injustice and violence, ready to fight for its values and people. During these tough times, Ukrainians are very grateful for your invaluable help and support. Slava Ukraini!

Senast uppdaterad: 2022-04-11