In Ukraine, Fiction Has Lost Its Meaning

TUkraine is grateful for the help of the democratic side of humanity. For two months it has been fighting against Russia’s army for freedom. The Russian army is bigger than Ukraine, but the Ukrainian army was not stronger. Ukrainians will win the war to protect their sovereignty and to enjoy the right to live in an independent, democratic nation. Ukrainians fighting in this conflict are not united by an enemy common to them, but by a shared European vision of the state’s future. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. The choice is between winning and remaining an independent nation or joining the Soviet Union, Russia’s new empire, or President Putin wishes.

When I consider the present situation in Ukraine, and the things I need to speak today, I feel like I should not be giving the Arthur Miller Lecture. But the George Orwell Lecture. Russian aggression has stretched its steeling grip out to us as if from the distant Soviet past, from the 20th century, from a country in which there is a “Ministry of Truth” and a “Ministry of Happiness”, from a country where the massacre of civilians and the destruction of cities is accompanied by the music of Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky, from a country where even monuments to Pushkin are dressed in military uniforms and forced to take part in the fight against Ukraine and against Ukrainian identity and culture.

There are many questions I have: How did it become possible, 21st Century, with high-tech, and in an era that promotes global economic, political, and cultural cohesion?

While I may not be able to answer all of these questions yet, I will not deny them. To be able later to evaluate my responses with opinions from recognized analysts or political scientists, I record my answers.

I’m learning how to survive in times of war. I learned how to live as an intern displaced person. I understand what to do in the event of shelling. It is becoming easier to live and work effectively in war.

It has been my experience to learn how to travel to Europe from Ukraine, as well as the United States. I learned how to get back to Ukraine quickly. I learned how to stop writing fiction. I couldn’t have imagined that I would ever decide to stop writing novels. It has actually happened. It is scarier and more terrifying than fictional prose. The meaning of novels is lost in this setting. It is now necessary to only write the truth and not fiction. People who have the ability to write witness the most serious crimes in the 21st Century. Witnesses are responsible for recording and preserving evidence about the crime.

Yes. I’m now a witness at a criminal trial. The judges will claim my testimony along with that of hundreds of journalists and writers in Ukraine, even though it takes place later than I would prefer.

Five hours was spent in my car on the Ukrainian-Slovak border in May to escape war-torn Ukraine and to travel to Denmark. I also had to drive to New York to meet with the other participants. When the flat course is transformed into a steeplechase track, it doesn’t make your distance any longer. It is an entirely new way of looking at the distance. This requires new knowledge and strength from all those who wish to make it happen. Similar thing occurs with all tasks. While war may change the rules of solving problems, it does not render the desired outcome impossible.

Ukraine must defend and defend itself, as well as its freedom, and implement the necessary reforms. You must know what the facts are to effect any changes. It is difficult to make a decision, whether in wartime or peacetime. Without understanding the truth, it will be impossible for you to reach your goals. The goal is not possible without knowing the correct route.

Google Maps telling me that I will need to drive 40km in two hours is always a surprise. Yes, I’m always unpleasantly surprised in this situation, but I’m not angry at Google maps. The bad roads make me angry. Google maps is just telling me the so-called “unpleasant” truth.

Many people believe the truth has to be painful. I myself have often heard in my life the words “I would like to tell you an unpleasant truth!” And in such situations, the question always worries me—those people who believe that the truth is most likely unpleasant, do they live in a lie, do they live in self-deception, do they hide from the truth so that they can maintain themselves in a pleasant and carefree life?

It is impossible to be both pleasant and unpleasant in the truth. Truth can only ever be truth. Each person’s decision about how to deal with this truth is their own. It is up to the individual whether they choose to hide from the truth or embrace it and move forward with their lives.

In his plays, Arthur Miller brought the truth about American life, about the problems faced by immigrants, about the delusions that consciously or unconsciously lead people to, what false values ​and false narratives lead people to. He was a powerful voice and many heard it. But it was those “many” who wanted to hear the voice of truth. People who didn’t want it heard made every effort to stop the voices from ever being heard. Miller was a fighter for his rights. He fought especially for the right to express himself and write what he believed. He never gave up fighting for other writers’ rights. Arthur Miller and American PEN were instrumental in saving Wole Soyinka from his death. He was a Nobel laureate and living world legend. Arthur Miller’s work as president of the American PEN Center deserves special attention.

Arthur Miller never sat still. Miller did not wish for others to be silent. He believed everyone should have freedom to speak and enjoy other rights. In order to include Soviet writers in a discussion on human rights, he went to Moscow to talk to them about the possibility to register a Soviet PEN club. Soviet writers agreed to this, as long as the PEN Charter was amended and International PEN stopped protecting freedom of expression. Arthur Miller wouldn’t agree to such a condition. Talking to Soviet writers didn’t lead to anything. The Soviet writers were not independent. They depended upon the Communist Party of the USSR. Conversations with Soviet writers were more about Soviet literature and writers than Arthur Miller’s naivety. Arthur Miller allowed Soviet authors to be part of the world’s literature. It was not clear to him that Soviet writers were not philosophers or thinkers, but rather they were servants of the government. They didn’t depend on the readers. In a large part, they didn’t influence their readers.

His plays were later banned in the USSR. He was initially confused by this ban. There was no anti-Soviet content in his plays, surely! In the end, he realized how he had become the “enemy of the Soviet people.” And then he understood much better the nature of a totalitarian society and the role of literature and of writers in such a society.

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Arthur Miller may not have been here for seventeen years but his voice is still heard around the globe and continues to stir the minds of millions. Because justice and truth cannot be separated. They are both interrelated. One can be a champion for truth if he or she experiences injustice in any way. This person will often be willing to fight for the truth, and even to sacrifice their life to achieve it.

Since childhood, I’ve tried to prevent pathos. I ask for forgiveness if it is not possible. Pretentious words like “truth”, “justice”, “motherland” used to set my teeth on edge. If I wasn’t convinced, though, I couldn’t help but question the sincerity and honesty of the speaker. This is what I caught. MyselfThinking pretentious thoughts. These thoughts are muffled. It is my goal to be calm and collected when I think about the events. But, to be honest, I don’t always succeed.

When the new, bloodier phase of Russian aggression began on February 24 of this year, when the shock of the first days of the new war had passed, I found myself wanting to look back and say “thank you” to everyone who had been with me in my pre-24th-of-February life and who had helped me make my life interesting, useful, fulfilling and meaningful. My country was my Ukraine, and that’s the first thing I thought of.

Ukraine is home to many individualists. Each Ukrainian is his or her own Ukraine. Every Ukrainian cherishes something about Ukraine that is special to him or her. It might be the country’s amazing and diverse nature, it might be the fertile black soil that produces 10 percent of the world’s wheat. Ukraine, for me, is first and foremost the place of my personal freedom. It is a country where I have enjoyed more than thirty-years of freedom and life without being censored, under political control or subject to pressure since 1991. Even now, during Russian aggression that has seen civilians and soldiers killed every day, Ukraine’s government has not implemented military censorship. It has not even told the citizens what to say. Information about the conflict on the frontlines isn’t freely available. Information has required us to adapt our behavior. The Ukrainian state, even during war, has maintained its democratic nature and tried to not limit the rights of citizens.

Ukrainians don’t accept any restrictions or dictats on their rights. This includes freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Freedom has been more important to Ukrainians than money and living standards. It is more important that stability does not exist. Because freedom is a priority, Ukraine has not experienced stability. Contrary to the Russians who seem to believe stability is more important that freedom and individual rights, it’s not so.

We can now look back over thirty years of our lives in Soviet Union, as well as the thirty-one years we spent in Ukraine. I want to thank Ukraine for helping me realize my dream. My dream was to become a writer while remaining completely free from political influences. This is what I see as a huge merit in my country. It abandoned all control of citizens’ thoughts, ideas, and creativity immediately after collapse of Soviet Union.

Living in freedom and being a citizen of a country is something you are naturally able to enjoy. However, even though the constitution guarantees freedoms in Ukraine, it has been clear that there have always been conflicts between people who are open to the truth and those who make the truth difficult to access. First, journalists were not the ones who participated in this fight, but politicians. This struggle has resulted in the death of many journalists who are honest. In Ukraine over the last ten years, more than 100 journalists have lost their lives. More recently, 20 have been murdered by the Russian military. Journalism remains one of most hazardous professions. It is even more so during wartime. The inscription “press” on a bulletproof vest or helmet is to the Russian military, like a red rag to bull.

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Traditionally, journalism has been a measure of the democracy within society. Annexed Crimea shows how the destruction of independent journalism can be seen. Some journalists, including Radio Liberty freelancers, remained in Crimea even though they were annexed. Each one of them was deported to the mainland or taken into custody. Citizen journalists stepped in to replace them – courageous people who understood the necessity of objective information about what was happening. There are currently fourteen Ukrainian citizens journalists in Russia and Crimea, where criminal charges have been made against them. They are accused of terrorism or religious extremism, although their only fault is that they voluntarily assumed the responsibility to cover the repression of the Russian authorities against dissidents, against those who do not recognize the annexation of Crimea, against those who do not agree with Putin’s policies. This is a list of courageous men and women who are in prison or awaiting sentences. Vladislav Esipenko is amongst them. They are joined by more than 200 Ukrainian nationals who are currently held in Russian prisons, as well as in prisons in annexed Crimea for fictitious accusations.

Nariman Dazhelal is not ashamed of the 20-year sentence that hangs over his head. He handed me a letter from the Simferopol Pre-trial Detention Center, which I will give to you.

Dear friends

It seems strange that a country, which has taken on the UN Security Council’s obligation of maintaining peace, and became an aggressor in the 21st Century, has caused tens or thousands of deaths among civilians in Ukraine as well the country’s defenders. But this is the reality.

This is the result of the actions of the Russian leadership – for many years, actions aimed at limiting human rights and resurrecting imperial ambitions.

This is evident.

Unification is essential to prevent the death of innocent people, and to preserve peace and democracy.

Many of my fellow prisoners are waiting for release not only from their personal imprisonment – they are also waiting for the release of their country into freedom.

Nariman Dzhelal

The courage shown by Nariman Dzhelal, and Leviza is something we can’t help but admire. We can’t help but admire the courage of all his fellow citizen journalists and the resilience of their families, of their wives or husbands who understand that their parents’ attitude will lead to children growing up without fathers or mothers. However, the children will be able to understand why Russia oppressed their parents and mothers. They will learn early in life the cost of freedom and how to fight for their beliefs.

Writers and journalists can write freely. If a writer or journalist continues writing, even though he knows he may be arrested, it only shows the dedication and courage of that person.

My family’s world changed on February 24th. When the old and frail President Putin issued the command to start a crusade in Ukraine against the West and democracy against Western civilization, the entire world was changed.

Putin had no other choice than to stand up for Ukraine’s independence until the very end. Putin had no other choice than to serve the civilized world. Ukraine needs to be helped by the rest of the world.

While I am speaking to you now, Russian forces are trying to change the Ukrainian Internet service to one that is Russian. That is, in this way the invaders warn the Ukrainians that they are about to become “Russians” and that they must accept this as something that cannot be changed. As tens to millions of Russians did, they must surrender their rights and freedoms. Knowing the feelings of those who have remained in occupation, I am able to tell them what I think now. I also know their thoughts and I share my sympathies with them. I have communicated via messengers many times with coworkers who were in the occupied territory. Some of my contacts have disappeared. However, I am certain that the Russians will not allow Ukrainians to be slaves in territories held by Russia.

Ukrainian writers are free to express themselves in any language, no matter what it is.

Ukrainian writers and non-writers cannot or will not live in freedom. Without the freedoms that are included in the mandatory and inviolable “list” of human rights!

This is a slightly edited version of Ukrainian novelist and PEN Ukraine President Andrey Kurkov’s 2022 Arthur Miller Freedom to Writer Lecture, delivered May 13 in New York City as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.

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