Linguistic Identity, National Affiliation, and the Uses of Russian
by Olga Livshin
Translation can obscure as well as clarify. Since the beginning of the most recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia in February, 2022, I have had several opportunities to see the poets Boris Khersonsky and Lyudmyla Khersonska (Odesa, Ukraine) read their work at Zoom events. The readings were followed by their Anglophone translators reading the English versions. Inevitably, audience members commented in the chat about what wonderful translations from Ukrainian these were. Both poets write in Russian, though Boris has also been writing in Ukrainian since 2014, the year the Russian Federation illegally annexed Crimea.
It is not an unreasonable assumption—at least for those unfamiliar with Ukraine—that its poets would be writing poetry in Ukrainian. Both those authors who write in Ukrainian and those who write in Russian blend into a single, English translation at events dedicated to prose or poetry from Ukraine. This seems to happen despite the fact that Anglophone audiences are currently—at last—being broadly exposed to Ukraine and its culture.
But Ukraine is a multilingual country. In a podcast about the Khersonskys’ lives and work, Sally McGrane paraphrases Boris’s belief about this multilingualism. He believes, she says, “in an inclusive Ukrainian identity, based not on ethnicity or language but volition.” And indeed, there has been a stunning flowering of poetry that stands up against the war, Putin, and Russian colonial discourse—in Russian as well as Ukrainian. Some of this work was translated into English and included in the groundbreaking anthology Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky (Academic Studies Press, 2017). I co-translated poems by both Khersonskys, and by Anastasia Afanasieva (Kharkiv), for this volume.
In what follows, I want to sketch out some distinctions between Russia’s imperial claims to the language and how Ukrainian Russophone poets use their native language to write poems of resistance. I also hope to show differences between hybridity, identity, and national allegiance.
To understand the thorny and quickly-changing landscape of language in Ukraine, we have to grasp how much the idea of the Russian language has been twisted by Putin’s government. For years, and especially this year, Putin has been exploiting the false idea of ethnic Russians—and the Russian language—as having been somehow “trampled,” if not “defiled” in Ukraine as a pretext for his invasion of the country. This distortion has powerful consequences: while it may convince some citizens of the Russian Federation, it also helps to explain why so many people defined by the West as “ethnic Russians” have started learning Ukrainian or speaking it more systematically. The poet Iya Kiva notes that she has been writing in Russian and Ukrainian since 2013. In an interview published in August 2022, she says, “After February 24, , I simply cannot write poems in Russian. And this is not so much about a political choice, although it is also about a certain ethical readjustment, a certain psychophysiological reaction to the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war.”
For many people who were previously bilingual, the choice to use Ukrainian exclusively is a question of identity, both internal and external. Anna Stavychenko, the executive director of the Kyiv Symphony Orchestra, says: “It is especially important for me to speak Ukrainian with compatriots abroad so that we are not confused with Russians.” Stavychenko’s endeavor to learn and practice Ukrainian was not a rash decision, but one of many consistent choices: “I tried to switch completely to Ukrainian several times: after the Orange Revolution, during and after the Maidan. With the beginning of the full-scale war, I began to communicate in Ukrainian even with Russian-speaking acquaintances, many of whom are now also switching to Ukrainian.”
It appears that Ukrainian has become a marker of who one stands with—a phenomenon seen before in other wars—when survival becomes crucial and when polarization immediately places the language, symbols, and clothing of the enemy as pertaining to the aggressive, perilous “other.” According to Ilona Demchenko, grant manager for House of Europe, a program fostering professional exchanges between Ukrainians and their colleagues in EU countries and the UK, “First, language has turned into a quick means of identifying one’s own. This was especially noticeable during business trips abroad. It is very difficult to hear Russian there, anxiety immediately increases. Secondly, I realized that I had to admit that the aggressor did take one of my native languages from me.”
Using the logic above, the very fact of writing literary works in Russian at this time necessarily aligns one with the enemy. It is understandable to many Ukrainians that these matters are closely related. But linguistic, national, and ethnic identities are not always the same. If they were, we would be pressed to perceive poets like Boris and Lyudmyla, who write in Russian, as catering to the Russian national citizens. Lyudmyla Khersonska in particular is a strong presence who counters her manner of using Russian to the Russian of the aggressor. She uses Russian as a way of standing one’s ground. A strong sense of domesticity characterizes her poetry. Home and garden, in her work, are a protected and cultivated place, a space of autonomy, ownership, and adornment. The speaker of a poem by Khersonska makes peace with the world by settling down in her home. When a Russian war aircraft hovers overhead, Khersonska asserts her indignation powerfully. In Russian. Labeling Putin’s army, in Russian, chuzhoi: “someone else’s,” “foreign,” or “alien”:
On the Eve of the War
On the eve of the war I bought rhododendrons.
I went out to plant them. Over our roof: drones;
the air raid siren is howling, the air defense, pounding.
It’s nothing. I am not scared, I’ll have time to plant. It’s nothing.
The tiny cat grew big with raised fur from the loud crash.
The music pours in from the window. A cantata by Bach.
The sun peeks from the sky. A drone flies,
ugly, strange objects thump from every side.
What is this rattling beast that shoots and shoots?
What bald putin bro celebrates
this war like some satanic marriage? Shame. Disgust.
Someone with horns. Someone who needs a slingshot.
I planted my plant, watered it, squinted at the evil heaven:
wherever you are, bald demon, I wish you weren’t!
You old-fashioned, retrograde, cunning nark,
grandpa from the past, a cop’s used-up cigarette butt,
why the hell would I need your planes?
Your bombs, snouts, pilots?
I live here. It’s here that I plant flowers,
and your war in these parts is an odd, alien creature.
I breathed, I waited, I watched
birds flying away from their execution.
I still don’t know how to—try, I suppose—
how to get rid of those horned bros…
It is heartening that Khersonska’s Russian is not at all owned by Putin’s regime—quite the opposite. Her home is characterized by growth: music (Bach’s cantata), horticulture (her beloved flowers), and poetry (the poem itself); the invader’s actions, by destruction. She lives in harmony with nature, attuned to birds, while the war appears as a stray animal, one that does not belong “here,” makes no sense with the landscape, and must be chased away, the land reclaimed. I particularly appreciate the conversational, direct, feisty accusations and reprimands of this poem; it is not heavily or overtly nationalistic, and yet it makes a strong statement for one’s home as connected to one’s garden, which in turn is deeply related to the land.
And what is Putin (spelled with a lowercase “p”) in this poem? I chose to use “bros” for Khersonska’s Russian brattsy to maintain the conversational register of the poem’s language. But what my translation does not capture is an irony in the original: bratets is defined as “younger brother.” Putin’s rhetoric of Eurasianism, with Russia at the helm, treats every Slavic nation other than Russia as a lesser nation (one of his most recent, most significant speeches goes even farther, claiming that Ukraine is not an independent country at all). Khersonska, on the other hand, puts the “bald putin bro” in the position of a small sibling, a bully. This choice turns Putin’s rhetoric against him, while using his very own language; moreover, it treats Putin’s war as a mere younger sibling, a bully.
At the time of writing—more than a year into this most recent invasion—using Russian cannot be anything but a political choice, a choice that I am certain Lyudmyla knows about. To continue writing in Russian means to defend the home and one’s language, as intimate as the plants one waters and cares for. It means that the statements of opposition and resistance become encased in the textures and rhythms of Russian. Writing about home, Khersonska domesticates the language itself. Speaking her wrath to Russia’s leader in a language he claims to own, wield, and willfully contort to harmful uses is a bold choice that should be respected.
And Khersonska has written resistance poetry nearly every day since February 24, 2022, posting her work on Facebook. She has been reported for the vague reason of “hatred” several times (Boris Khersonsky sardonically asks each time: “I wonder, hatred towards whom?”) Each time, her account has been suspended—and each time, she has come back and posted more work. Khersonska’s persistence shows an admirable resilience in the face of the devastation caused by Russia’s war. Here is another one of her poems from 2022:
where, she asks, are my irises
where, she asks, are my irises,
yeah, the purple ones, but especially
the yellow ones. have you seen them?
they were tall, with their little tongues sticking out,
their leaves were sharp and strong.
they were so tall, so very peaceful.
maybe you’ve seen them?
oh yes, we saw them,
of course, we saw them.
we denazified your irises,
they were preparing an attack,
planning to join the eu and nato,
stockpiling biological bees
that’s not true. they never traveled
outside the borders of the garden bed.
they are flowers. why the hell
do you lie all the time? you trampled them.
to you, nothing will ever be pretty.
why do you lie all the time? why?
Khersonska parodies the tropes of Russian propaganda (“denazification,” “planning the attack”), only to lead them to the boundaries of logic (“[my irises] never traveled / outside the borders of the garden bed”) and to explode the Putinist discourse. Her voice, however, is not intrinsically comical, but rather tragic, covered up by a mask: her speaker argues that Russia’s propaganda undermines the idea of truth, or even a discussion about what might be the consensus about the truth. At the end of the poem, she turns towards the aggressors, tearing off her mask and accusing them of lying. Her direct and passionate language helps her reassert the importance of truth, and positions her as one who fights for the truth.
Parallels to Khersonska’s use of Russian can be found in our own country, with how certain Native American authors recouped English for their own purposes, decolonizing the language of the occupier. In 1998, the seminal anthology Reinventing the Enemy’s Language came out, edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird. The poets and writers included in the anthology infused English-language poetry with indigenous mythologies, various oral narratives about recent history among indigenous people, and, at times, entire passages in native voices. In the case of the Ukrainian poets writing in Russian, the language has been imperial, with further colonial ambitions, but the outcome is a far departure from Putin.
Awareness of the possibilities of Russian—the freedom to use it to write whatever geographic and political position one embraces—releases me from the mathematics of “empire = language = identity.” I write my poetry in English, but many of my own poems are paeans to my childhood experiences; others celebrate the Russian, Yiddish, and Ukrainian in my family history. I have translated Gandelsman’s highly experimental poems from Russian into English, and now I am translating Khersonska’s Ukrainian Russophone work.
Khersonska’s complexity is partly grounded in the fact that she comes from Odesa, a city that, as Roger Cohen wrote for the New York Times, symbolizes ethnic diversity and “creative mingling.” It is also, to Cohen, “a scarred metropolis steeped in Jewish history.” (Jews were certainly not part of the empire’s dominant hand; they could not choose where to live, and Odesa was one of the few cities where they were allowed to settle.) The city has had a complex relationship to empire from the beginning. On the one hand, it was a port and imperial outpost, and until recently was predominantly Russian-speaking. On the other hand, it played the role of a far-off province full of liberalism; Alexander Pushkin was exiled there, and wrote some of his best work; Isaac Babel’s charming criminal masterminds resided in Odesa; it is famous for its humor, and for its worldview of irreverent irony.
But is it only Odesans who should be viewed as part of a culture of diversity, and whose relationship to Russian is complex? In an interview, Eugene Hutz, the leader of the internationally acclaimed band Gogol Bordello and a man whose childhood took place in Kyiv, describes the realization, in his teen years, that Ukraine was highly diverse as a formative moment: “This understanding of Ukraine really stuck with me. Whoa, it’s not just this, like, some kind of feeble, benign . . . Soviet republic with no identity; it’s like: people speak Hungarian, Ukrainian . . . there are Hutzuls, Lemkos, Bukovinians… that was like my first New York.” I agree with Hutz that Ukraine is a diverse country, and its own, internal creative mingling contributes greatly to its vitality and the sense that it is not to be reduced to the edge, the periphery, of an empire.
Given this diversity, the tendency to associate the Russian language exclusively with Putin is not quite justified. It is somewhat hard to accept for me because in the past decade, here in the United States, the choice to trust anyone or anything related to the Russian language or culture has been suspect at best, dangerous at worst. As a Russophone immigrant in the U.S., I find myself subject to certain assumptions regarding the way language, culture, and country must necessarily all be tied together. This happens even after thirty years in the U.S. It happened particularly frequently during the Trump years, and it picked up again since February 24, 2022, with Russia’s war in the news. In a sadly ironic twist, many Russian speakers in the U.S. are actually from Ukraine. Numerous immigrants, their children, and the grandchildren of Ashkenazi Jews are Ukrainian Jewish. Others are Uzbek, Tajik, and other ethnicities. The eliding of language, ethnicity, and citizenship was recently noted in several articles. In one, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Masha Rumer describes an incident in which a small boy of six was approached on the playground by a group of teenagers:
What language are you speaking?” they asked.
“I speak Russian,” said the boy.
The teenagers’ tone immediately changed, becoming aggressive.
“Oh, you’re Russians?!” they probed, not realizing that the little boy was born in the United States and that his mother was from Ukraine, watching in horror as the Russian military bombed her homeland.
The mother in this incident is my friend Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach, born and raised in Dnipro. Together with me, in the early days of the latest intensification of the war, she hosted an online reading for poets from Ukraine that gathered over 800 attendees worldwide. Both Dasbach and I continue to reflect on our origins, even as we are retraumatized by the war in our homeland some thirty years after fleeing the country. It is hard enough to watch. It is harder when strangers assume you are the aggressor.
In 2018, I wrote a poem in response to living in Trump’s time as well as the experience of translating poems for Words for War. The poem is dedicated to Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky, the fantastic translators, scholars, and poets who edited the anthology. Russian in Ukraine and in the United States is another theme—character?—in my poem.
Translating a Life
Someone spread a blanket of wild buckwheat
over a meadow. Someone tucked puffball pillows
in each corner of the purple-green sheet.
It is summer everywhere, except war.
War, where it used to be home,
and now, war by government, here.
And what does it matter that the meadow
seduces the bees in pollen, or me in lines
of a poem, or that I hear perfectly good
Russian names for plants and translate them
into You-and-Me-ish? Take the tea mushroom,
the little fox mushrooms and piggies,
the early field-dweller, the mysterious
cheese-eater. These words are undocumented
here, and the country that sent them erases
every syllable with its crimes.
Take an under-birch-mushroom
anyway—it’s a choice edible,
birch bolete in your tongue, on
the tongue. The language for falling in love
with forests, and stories, and friends
does not care who’s killing whom.
Unfortunately, I care. And, sitting here
by a huge flowering bush, I see no refuge.
What languaged fantasy could stop us
from being murderous strangers? Would you
take a Russian mushroom name,
tuck it in your lapel for the brief banquet of life?
Does that translate anything else for you? Is this
how it works?
Translation connects me to my roots, both Ukrainian and Russian; nature connects us to my origins as an animal. But in the United States, Russian has become a suspicious language due to its connection to Russian meddling. And in the last few months, it has become the language of atrocity worldwide, with its close connection to Putin and his crimes.
Recently, Khersonska translated my poem into Russian for a performance by What If Works theater in Miami. In accordance with the script written by Philip Church, the director, I read Lyudmyla’s translation slowly, while walking towards the stage, while three actors echoed me in English from the stage. To me, this experience felt like much more than a useful creative strategy: it was a redemptive act, a gesture towards kinship and healing at a horrible time, one that I hope is a harbinger of a Ukraine restored, diverse and inclusive. By killing, maiming, and terrifying, war reduces our reality to two most important categories: those who are alive and those who have perished. This is the way of the world. At the same time, educating ourselves about the gray areas can reveal unexpected and creative cultural phenomena. Lyudmyla Kheronska’s poetry demonstrates bravery, an intelligent and witty opposition to propaganda, and a willful wresting of Russian from the enemy’s hands.
There are a lot of Ukrainians who speak Russian and are opposed to Putin’s war of aggression. We do not want to stop listening to them.
Speaking a language is a personal choice, and a fluid one. Lyudmyla Khersonska may speak Ukrainian or Russian. My main concern is that she is still alive, and speaking—and writing her anti-aggressor poetry. Let us listen to her words as well as the medium in which they are presented. And, regardless of their language, let us translate vibrant, independently thinking poets who deserve to be heard.
 The Maidan Uprising was the wave of demonstrations in Kyiv, culminating in the Revolution of Dignity.
Olga Livshin’s poetry and translations appear in the New York Times, Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, and other journals. She is the author of A Life Replaced: Poems with Translations from Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Gandelsman (Poets & Traitors Press, 2019). She is a co-translator of A Man Only Needs a Room, a volume of Vladimir Gandelsman’s poetry (New Meridian Arts Books, 2022) and Today Is a Different War by Lyudmyla Khersonska from Arrowsmith Press, available for preorder now and widely available in May 2023.