Understand Ukraine's History and Identity With These Must-read Books

The Russians suppressed Gogol’s Ukrainian identity, Bulgakov disparaged his countrymen’s aspirations for independence and Babel described the Jewish community of Odessa wondrously. A Ukrainian-Israeli editor picks five must-read classic books for anyone looking to understand what Putin seeks to destroy

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A local resident reads a book near a building damaged in Mariupol, Ukraine, last month.
A local resident reads a book near a building damaged in Mariupol, Ukraine, last month.
Ofra Rodner
Ofra Rodner

Two years before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine and bluntly declared its imperial ambitions in a way the world could no longer brush aside, Asaf Bartov was on a mission to make Ukrainian literature more accessbile to Hebrew speakers. A programmer and translator by trade, he made his way into publishing as editor of the "Nemala Series," published by Nine Lives Press. The first book in the series, which he also edited, is "The Moscoviad" by Yurii Andrukhovych and translated into Hebrew by Anton Paperny.

In 2017, after a 6-year stay in the United States, Bartov returned to live in Israel, before moving to Ukraine, where he met his wife. He lived with her and their daughter in the capital Kyiv for several years until the Russian onslaught began, following which they fled to Israel.

You’ve recently returned with your family from Kyiv, where you lived in recent years. Did you flee the war?

"Yes, we’re refugees, in a way. We have friends and family there. It’s hard. We weren’t even sure we’d have a home left after the bombardment of Kyiv."

Nikolai Gogol's Ukrainian Tales. "Everyone knows the saying attributed to Dostoyevsky, 'We all came out of the tail of Gogol’s waistcoat,'" says Bartov.

It seems rudimentary to me to start with Nikolai Gogol and “Ukrainian Tales.”

"True. Everyone knows the saying attributed to Dostoyevsky, “We all came out of the tail of Gogol’s waistcoat.” His name is pronounced “Hohol” in Ukrainian. The Russians suppress his Ukrainian identity and consider him one of them, but the Ukrainians consider him one of them, and rightly so – even though he wrote in Russian. Gogol grew up in a Ukrainian village and spoke Ukrainian. He sucked these tales from the mouths of the people. Gogol didn’t write like a bourgeois observer coming from an anthropological standpoint. It’s writing that, alongside Gogol's satire, possesses a mixture of love, perhaps even nostalgia and longing. You can discover the day-to-day atmosphere there, the types of people and the neighborly relations of the village."

He describes a gorgeous landscape there – wonderful fruit trees and gardens that yield humongous vegetables. Is it like that in reality?

"That really is a unique characteristic of the Ukrainian village. Ukrainian soil is fertile and bountiful, among the best in the world, and that’s the reason that it has always been Europe’s breadbasket, since antiquity. Ukrainian food production always outstripped local consumption, and this is expressed in village life as well, because the farmer didn’t have to work hard to produce food. The traditional Ukrainian farmer not only had enough to eat, but had disposable income. In this way, the Ukrainian farmer differs from the Russian farmer, who always lived in abject poverty and privation. In Russia, it also had to do with political structures and the way the nobility exploited the serfs.

Asaf Bartov, editor of the "Nemala Series" making Ukrainian literature more accessible to Hebrew readers.

"On the other hand, because the two countries are neighbors, the nobles in Ukraine systematically exploited the breadbasket, which often led to starvation of the villagers. The worst of these was the “Holodomor,” the killing and famine that occurred in 1932 to 1933, when Stalin punished the Ukrainians for resisting his collectivization campaign.

"Stalin enacted a law that prohibited a family from holding more than “five stalks of grain” and confiscated all the rest. This left a national scar on Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians died of hunger. It was also the prelude to Stalin’s Great Terror. During the 1930s, Stalin put to death a generation of writers, teachers and journalists who promoted education and journalism in the Ukrainian language. He simply broke Ukraine’s intellectual backbone."

Most of the Ukrainian population is rural?

"Until the start of the 20th century, Ukrainian cities were populated by relatively few Ukrainians – most of their residents belonged to the populations of imperial Poland or Russia, plus Jews, who in some cities accounted for as much as a third of the residents. Even today, the rate of urbanization in Ukraine is the lowest in Europe. During the period we are talking about, most Ukrainians didn’t live in the cities, didn’t study at university and weren’t part of the elite."

Is there any underdog motif in Ukrainian culture?

"There is such a motif, and this may be the reason for the assimilation into the empire. By the way, that was the option many Jews chose – they observed their religion and wrote in Hebrew, but didn’t partake in public life or in literature until the Enlightenment. The Zionist enterprise tried to obscure this, but even during the days of Ze'ev Jabotinsky there were Jews who chose to write in Russian and be loyal to the empire."

Isaac Babel's Odessa Stories. It "describe the Jewish community of Odessa, the secular side of it, even the criminals," says Bartov.

For example, Isaac Babel, whose “Odessa Stories” (from his collected works, the first volume) you chose for the series?

"Babel is an interesting case: There are, of course, his “Red Cavalry” stories, where he rides with the glorious Communist cavalry across Ukraine. He wrote it without relating to his Judaism, but what did he find along the way? Shtetl after shtetl. It’s interesting to see how he looks on at these Jews – a little as an outsider, somewhat alienated from them, like a stranger encountering new phenomena. For this interview, I chose him mainly for his “Odessa Stories,” which are among the pinnacles of world literature. They also describe the Jewish community of Odessa, the secular side of it, even the criminals."

The characters that appear in his crazy stories about the underworld are based on real people?

"The character of the gangster, Benia Krik, is based on someone who indeed did live in Odessa, who is real life was called Mishka Iaponchik, that is Mishka the Japanese, because his eyes were slightly slanted. he was one one of the most prominent Jewish gangsters. There were Jewish gangsters who wouldn’t have embarrassed the Sicilians in New York, but with a certain Jewish style to them. Babel describes how they engage in blackmail and criminal violence but in a certain gentlemanly way. When you read it, it seems fantastic – did the Jews of Odessa really behave like that? The answer is yes. There is evidence of that in the Russian language, which was influenced by Odessan."

What do you mean?

"Odessans speak Russian more than Ukrainian, and the Russian language was influenced by the Odessan dialect, which was influenced by Yiddish. You have to remember that more than 30 percent of Odessans were once Jewish. For instance, my Ukrainian mother-in-law was shocked to discover that the phrase she knew, “Sh’mun” (a search conducted by the authorities) became Russian and Ukrainian slang by way of the slang used by Jewish gangsters in Odessa. In the Odessa jail they would search the cells every evening at eight (shemona in Hebrew), so it came to be known as the sh’mun. It has no Slavic root.

"Babel was one of those responsible for introducing Odessan to Ukrainian and Russian culture. He wasn’t really Ukrainian, he was an urban Jew from Odessa, who lived as a Russian in a Russian city. He was clearly on the Russian side, trying to assimilate into Russian culture. And ironically, he ended his life in the basements of a Soviet prison."

The cover of 'The Political and Social Philosophy of Ze'ev Jabotinsky: Selected Writings.'

Jabotinsky wrote on the question of assimilation in the 1922 essay “The Lesson of Shevchenko’s Jubilee” that you chose for the series (from his collected works).

"Jabotinsky wrote the essay in Russian and was an integral part of Odessa’s Russian intelligentsia, but he thought complete abstinence was a mistake. It is an instructive essay. He accurately predicted the survival of Ukrainian identity and knew it was independent and rooted. Even then he quoted articles that slighted Ukrainians – that they weren’t a real nation and that Ukrainian is a rural dialect, backward and marginal – the same claims that Putin articulates today. Jabotinsky appealed to the Jews: In his opinion, it was correct to preserve Jewish particularism while standing together with the Ukrainians, for ethical reasons and tactical ones – in other words, the consequences of non-support. He didbn’t use the word antisemitism, but did say there would be consequences. And, Again, he understood that Russian imperial ambitions weren’t realistic.

"He was right then, and today he remains relevant. It’s a pity that Putin hasn’t read Jabotinsky or read Ukrainian literature at all. He doesn’t get Ukraine, and here I point to something written by Shalom Boguslavsky: Putin thinks from inside the Russian nation, from inside the repressive Putinist Russia. that has destroyed the last remnants of liberalism. He can’t imagine there’s a Ukrainian backbone."

What has happened in Ukraine since the breakup of the Soviet Union?

"Even in Ukraine, characteristic post-communist corruption remains, but it’s in decline. A young man that I know, who works for a local council, told me something nice: Where he works, the district government was supposed to conduct an audit. His father, who grew up in the Soviet Union, gave him a bottle of whiskey and said to him, “Take this to work and give it to the right person, and the audit will go fine.” The young man argued with him, but his father insisted. To make a long story short, he took the bottle with him and came home with it in the evening. The audit was completed without the whiskey.

The cover of Mikhail Bulgakov’s 'The White Guard.'

"That shows you the change from one generation to the next. Putin thinks that the Ukrainians are still fearful Soviets. He doesn’t understand how much Ukrainians love their homeland and are ready to die for it. Look at the Snake Island attack at the beginning of the Russian invasion in February, when 13 soldiers were besieged by a Russian warship and offered a chance to lay down their arms. But they told the Russians by radio words that have now become legendary: “Russian warship, go fuck yourself.”

The Israeli attitude toward Ukraine is ambivalent. There’s a lot of baggage.

"Our problem is, of course, the bloody relationship between Ukrainians and Jews over the years. I won’t deny, God forbid, the collaboration and antisemitism of the Ukrainians. But to automatically throw that back at the Ukrainians of today isn’t smart and a bit hypocritical because we don’t hold the Dutch today responsible for the crime of the Dutch back then when they provided the Nazis with the addresses of Jews.

"The “Nemala” series of translated Ukrainian literature that I’m editing for Nine Lives Publishing got started, among other things, out of a desire to bring Ukrainian culture closer to Hebrew. As I see it, we Jews have a deep historic connection with the Ukrainians. A large part of the Jewish people lived with the Ukrainian people under the same empires. And, as we’ve seen with Jabotinsky, Jews of Odessa wrestled with the same issues as the Ukrainians – questions of being a minority within an empire, modernity versus tradition and identity and language."

Odessa itself is at a crossroad.

"Odessa is a fascinating city. We have to speak truthfully that it wasn’t Ukrainian at the start – there was a settlement there from the days of ancient Greece, and the modern city was founded as a southern port for the Russian Empire. It became a typical port city, cosmopolitan and open, a magnet for intellectuals, revolutionaries and everyone who couldn’t fit in. It’s not by accident that Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, Mendele Mocher Sforim and many others worked there. Because Odessa was a place where that could happen due to its openness and its activist, ideological atmosphere. Bialik wrote that there he could finally breathe fresh air. In a certain way, this was also good for the authorities, who knew what was happening in Odessa but preferred that all the ferment happen there rather than in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

A cover for Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov's 'Twelve Chairs.'

"Among other things, there was a tradition of satire there, even during Soviet times. For example, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, who wrote the “Twelve Chairs” satire (1928), were Odessans. Their book, which I like a lot, is another example of Odessa’s powerful influence. Every Russian speaker grew up with that book. It was written before Stalin’s Great Terror and laughs a lot at the absurdity and rudeness of the Bolshevik regime."

The last book of the series is Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The White Guard,” which was published in 1925 in a periodical. What period is writing about?

"Bulgakov was a child of Kyiv, but he is known to the world as a Russian author who wrote in Russian. “The White Guard” is less well known than his “The Master and Margarita,” which takes place in Moscow. By comparison, this takes place in Kyiv, during the Ukrainian Civil War following the Bolshevik Revolution. Key figures appear in it – Symon Petliura, who was a symbol of Ukrainian independence but is also remembered as one of those responsible for pogroms against the Jews. His militia carried shocking pogroms, even though today there are documents and other writings that show at the time he sought to stop them – he is to blame mainly for failing to control his militias."

They succeeded in achieving independence?

"For a short time. An independent republic lasted for seven months, until Lenin strangled it to death. But Ukrainians remember. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the story of the struggle for independence was a flame that continued to burn. Today, in every city and village, at the cemetery there’s a memorial to the dead of the war of independence. Bulgakov, in contrast to Gogol, had a complicated relationship with his Ukrainian identity, which is evident in his underestimating Ukrainian aspirations for independence. But “The White Guard” is a wonderful book that describes a critical moment in Ukrainian history, which, of course, is relevant today.

"Going back to the present day, I have no doubt that Ukraine will survive and we will get through this. I see in the Ukrainians a very strong sense of “We can’t allow ourselves to give up.” They see how the Russians are living today – Russia is falling behind, even behind Ukraine. I don’t know how much damage the war will leave. Without a doubt what is happening now is traumatic. There are thousands of victims, perhaps tens of thousands. It’s a huge tragedy. Books will be written and films will be made about this war. But Ukraine will not surrender, because it has no choice."

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