Literary Ukraine

I haven’t written a “fun” (yet educational!) entry in a while, so this one will be on what some famous authors have written about Ukraine (before it was Ukraine, obviously).

After a month-long hiatus (oops!), I’m back to reading Anna Reid’s Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine. In chapter three — “The Russian Sea: Donetsk and Odessa” — Reid focuses on the development of Catherine the Great’s “New Russia” (made up of what is today south-eastern Ukraine) in the early 19th century.

To begin, Reid quotes author Nikolay Gogol (1809-1852; Ukrainian Микола Васильович Гоголь) — who was Ukrainian but wrote his novels, short stories and plays in Russian. In the following excerpt from Village Evenings near Dikanka and Mirgorod (1831-35; trans. Christopher English, Oxford, 1995, p. 257), Gogol expounds upon the beauty of the fertile steppe of “New Russia”:

The surface of the earth appeared here like a golden-green ocean, flecked with the colours of a million different flowers. Through the tall, slender stalks peeped pale-blue and lilac cornflowers; the yellow broom thrust its spiky tips upwards; the white clover adorned the surface with its umbrella-like caps; an ear of wheat…stood ripening, deep in the grass. […] The air was filled with the song of a thousand different birds. Hawks hung motionless in the air, their wings spread wide and their keen eyes fixed on the grass. […] With measured strokes of its wings a gull rose from the grass and bathed luxuriously in the deep-blue waves of the air… (Reid 55-56)

Sounds pretty great to me. Some 50-60 years later, Anton Chekhov (at left; 1860-1904; Russian Антон Павлович Чехов) wrote a short story called The Steppe (1888) as what Reid calls “a memorial to a landscape that was vanishing forever” (Reid 56). Chekhov grew up on the Sea of Azov in what is now Ukraine, and below is an excerpt from The Steppe (from The Chekhov Omnibus: Selected Stories, trans. Constance Garnett and Donald Rayfield, London, 1994, p. 32):

You drive on for one hour, for another…You meet upon the way a silent old barrow or a stone figure put up God knows when and by whom; a night bird floats noiselessly over the earth, and little by little those legends of the steppes, the tales of men you have met, the stories of some old nurse from the steppe, and all the things you have managed to see and treasure in your soul, come back to your mind…And in the triumph of beauty, in the exuberance of happiness you are conscious of tension and yearning, as though the steppe knew she was solitary, knew that her wealth and inspiration were wasted for the world, unsung, unwanted; and through the joyful clamour one hears her mournful, hopeless call for singers, singers! (Reid 56-57)

Beautiful. You can read the full text of The Steppe online in Constance Garnett’s translation by clicking the title of the story in this sentence.

After the steppe, Reid moves on to discuss the history of Odessa, a city founded by foreigners on the Black Sea. Something in my brain has had me leaning toward / hoping I’ll be chosen to learn Ukrainian, but after reading about Odessafounded in 1794 by Catherine the Great — I’m beginning to reconsider. Not that I’ll have a language choice anyway. So, why was Odessa a city of foreigners? Well, as Reid tells us, it was brought to reality by a Frenchman, Armand-Emmanuel, Duc de Richelieu (1766-1822; he was great-nephew to the infamous Cardinal Richelieu), who became the first governor of Odessa in 1803 and then of all New Russia. This Richelieu sounds like a great guy: in Odessa, he offered “cheap land, religious toleration and exemption from military service” and thus “attracted persecuted minorities from all over Europe and the empire” (Reid 58-59). Sweet. He was such a mensch that a statue of him in a Roman toga was built at the top of the Odessa Steps:

Hottie! Or just god-like. Take your pick. So this Duc de Richelieu did many good things for Odessa. Even Mark Twain (1835-1910) visited the city in the 1860s and compared it to the American West:

It looked just like an American city; fine broad streets and straight as well; low houses (two or three stories); wide, neat, and free from any quaintness…a stirring business-look about the streets and the stores; fast walkers; a familiar new look about the houses and everything; yea and a driving and smothering cloud of dust that was so like a message from our own dear native land that we could hardly refrain from shedding a few grateful tears and execrations in the old time-honored American way. (Reid 60; from The Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), London, 1897, p. 355)

Seems like a pretty hip place, even — or maybe especially — in the 19th century. Russian author Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837; Russian Александр Сергеевич Пушкин) even had his famous Eugene Onegin retire to Odessa, which the latter sums up as follows:

But why succumb to grim emotion? Especially since the local wine / Is duty free and rather fine. / And then there’s Southern sun and ocean. / What more my friends, could you demand? (Reid 61-62; from Eugene Onegin (1825-32), trans. James Falen, Oxford, 1995, p. 223)

And there is more than streets, statues, wine, and sun — there’s music, too! The Odessa Philharmonic Orchestra seems to be quite popular — they have an American music director, Hobart Earle. And, at least when Reid’s book was published in 1997, the city is making an effort to bring back its “multi-ethnic identity,” post-Russification (Reid 62). The Odessa opera house (pictured, right) was built by Austrians in 1887, and Odessan-Jewish novelist Isaac Babel illuminates the city’s musical history: “All the people of our circle — brokers, shopkeepers, bank and steamship office employees — taught their children music” (Reid 62; from Collected Stories, trans. David McDuff, London, 1994, p. 59). This tradition, says Reid, “produced great violinists, among them Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh” (Reid 63).

So basically, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, Odessa — and much of south-eastern Ukraine — sounds awesome. Even if I’m not placed near there, I will definitely make an effort to visit during my service!

And speaking of music, I just bought this recording of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (the opera based on Pushkin’s novel) on iTunes and ordered the DVD on Netflix so I can experience some Russian-language opera before I leave.

7 thoughts on “Literary Ukraine

  1. Alyssa G

    Hi! My name is Alyssa. I am currently a senior at a Long Island high school and I hope to do Peace Corps volunteer work after graduating college. I just wanted to let you know that I will be living vicariously through your posts!I was considering learning Russian in college. Do you know if this would help put me into the TEFL program in Ukraine?

  2. Tammela

    Hi Alyssa! Thanks so much for your comment. I'm glad you found my blog and hope that it'll live up to your expectations. As you can tell, I haven't even left yet and there's been so much to learn about.I'm sure taking Russian in college will help you get to Ukraine (and you can always request Europe on your PC application). I know of a few trainees in my group that studied Russian in college. I studied Spanish (high school) and German (college), so who knows how I got placed in Ukraine?! Do let me know if you have any questions along the way!Best,Tammela

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