Natalia Ivanova. Talk at the Peace Committee of the International PEN

Four months have passed since Russia attached Ukraine, but neither the international community nor the thinking people in Russia have managed to put a stop to the catastrophe. About ten million of refugees left their homes and moved swiftly to the neighboring countries of Europe, millions are looking for a refuge inside Ukraine proper. The words Irpen’ and Bucha ceased to mean happy moments in the life of the Nobel Prize winner Boris Pasternak (“Irpen’ – is a memory of happiness, of summer”) and Mikhail Bulgakov (a datcha in Bucha during his early childhood), but crime scenes. 

In Russia, in turn, all the independent media were shuttered. Many journalists and whole media got the labels of “foreign agents” that gravely inhibit their day-to-day life and professional activity.  The censorship machine started working again – although it is prohibited to call what’s happening a “war” or “censorship.” Moreover, it is prohibited to use the word “war” itself under the threat of an arrest, a penalty, or isolation. The state propaganda works in unbelievable proportions, the journalists from the state channels turned into furious propagandists. From dawn till dusk, the entire population of the country is getting poisoned by propaganda on an industrial scale.

We, Russian writers, journalists, translators of PEN-Moscow, have voiced our protest in our own statement, as well as in a joint protest statement with the International PEN. Under the threat of annihilation of our organization, we chose the literary and the enlightening activity as a priority for the current moment. The community of contemporary Russian writers, like actors and directors, have been split. Some have left the country, some voice their protest: even the cover of Orwell’s book “1984”, or a sheet of paper with a Tolstoy quote or his contemporary poet Nekrasov’s can become a prosecution’s argument in a court. But a part of the community has sworn allegiance to the war, even in their poems.

The horizon of possibilities to speak one’s mind has become increasingly narrow. Journalists have lost their jobs. Writers feel lost, as if they have lost the language in which they could express themselves, let alone create. All their pre-war ideas are suspended in the air, frozen. It is very difficult to find heroes, words or plots for the horrendous reality of today. Everything has lost its value for us – and for the Slavists of the world. “My life’s work is ruined,” Georges Nivat, one of the biggest specialists in Slavistics, told me the other day (although he dedicated himself, this past decennia, to the study of the Ukrainian philosophy, culture, history, and has found many friends and colleagues in Ukraine).  

Many of our writer colleagues in Ukraine have written and continue writing in the Russian language. They write in Russian even now and post new poems.  Alexander Kabanov, who founded a bilingual publishing house in Kyiv (poets are incorrigible dreamers after all) has just published a new book of very strong poems!

Can one speak about peace when Picasso’s dove is under suspicion in Moscow? It’s a rhetorical question. Even personal happy birthday wishes in the prohibited (in Russia) social media start with a peace wish, a wish for a peaceful sky above. Through the same social media, writers from Russia and from the russophone abroad keep their fragile contacts with the colleagues from Ukraine (many of whom, despite the horrors of war, continue to write not just in Ukrainian, but also in Russian language). There’s a fierce debate going on between those who swiftly left Russia and those who are still here for the moment. In these debates the metaphor “a white coat” was born, which means – not without irony – the moral purity of choice.

And the last. Today, in the shelled Ukrainian Odesa, a literary competition is taking place, a competition for the prize named after Isaak Babel, the Russian Soviet writer of Ukrainian origin, born in Odesa, executed under Stalin. It is a prize for the best short story in Russian language: a short story written in Ukraine, in Russia, or elsewhere. This, indeed, is the answer straight from Ukraine to the question of searching for peace and culture.