Fragments from a War Diary, Part #115
I seldom if ever write biographies of living persons; it can be a dangerous habit, particularly if the person in question doesn’t like them. But in Lina Kostenko, possibly Ukraine’s greatest living intellectual, I have decided to depart from this habit because Kotsenko is one of the people keeping the cultural traditions of the Ukrainian people alive amidst the conflict of war by reason of her universal admiration. She’s 93 and she remains active even now, involved in a campaign to rid wartime rhetoric of obscenities and the language of hatred: a cause with which I have every sympathy. Even when fighting a war we should not debase ourselves by using inhuman language that glorifies the murder of our opponents or refers to them using indecent or offensive language. War is bad enough as it is without rendering our mouths and our thoughts ever the more vulgar and coarser.
Born in 1930, Kostenko is a good decade older than my parents and I am proud to say that both she and my parents maintain their intellectual vigour even in their advanced years. Kostenko was born outside Kyiv and in her early years witnessed the Nazi occupation and then Soviet liberation of Kyiv and all the horrors associated with it. During the period of relaxation of totalitarian control over intellectuals in the period following the death of Stalin and the murder of his secret police head Lavrentiy Beria in 1953 and the so-called Khrushchev Thaw, Kostenko became a leading figure in the Sixtiers Movement, a period of renaissance for the Soviet intelligentsia in which the publication of poetry, literature and journalism with a broader range of views than the strict Stalinist ideologies of the past would permit. During this period she started writing in the Ukrainian language and her poetry became sufficiently popular, containing themes that deviated from the Communist Party norm of “socialist realism” (literature and writings glorifying Soviet grandeur and workers’ pride) that she became a subject of criticism by the Communist Party elites.
The Soviet Union was a very arbitrary place for writers and intellectuals to work. If someone decided, for an entirely abstract reason related to Marxist-Leninist theory, that your writings deviated from the norm, then you would find yourself subject to peculiar and incomprehensible criticisms in semi-official newspapers or media outlets and this would be an indicated that you were being gradually blacklisted for your unconventional views. This is what happened to Kostenko in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and it was a typically Soviet obscurantist way of sidelining independent thought. She found that she could not get her works in the Ukrainian language published within the Soviet Union, and subsequently she was the subject of an official blacklisting process, in particular after she defended Ukrainian intellectuals on trial for subversion charges and other opaque offences in the 1960’s. The Ukrainian Communist Party had a Central Committee on Ideology that worked to persecute dissident intellectuals, and in the 1970’s Kostenko came within its sights and suffered petty harassment including a ban upon her works.
She was then formally rehabilitated in 1979 and her most active period of writing and literature continued through the 1980’s until the collapse of the Soviet Union. She is a creature of her times as a Soviet intellectual, not easily warming to the chaotic environment of post-independence Ukraine and the rise of the Oligarchs and of elements of the free market. In 2010 she published her first book in over twenty years and was reportedly disgusted when she discovered that tickets were being sold for her book presentation. In the Soviet Union, of course, elite cultural events of this kind would have been free. She also famously turned down a political award from President Viktor Yushchenko.
Kostenko is a reminder that even in the Soviet Union period there were a decent share of academics and writers, as in any civilised society, who could operate albeit under constraints that were more or less onerous at different times. Some Soviet academics, such as rocket scientists and aeronautical engineers, were much feted by the Soviet regime for their contributions to the country’s military and industrial advancement and many of them were very good indeed, rivalling the finest minds in the West. For those scholars working in the field of the liberal arts, the Soviet Union was a less hospitable place because such people were familiar with political ideologies different from the themes recurrent in Soviet communist thinking and were also inclined to write about the poverty, injustices and lack of freedom in the Soviet Union. Although the Soviet Union became a less overtly hostile place to intellectual life after the death of Stalin, who was profoundly anti-intellectual in every way and had no time for liberalism and diversities of ideas and opinions, it remained oppressive and the Cold War was won on the back of a Euro-Atlantic ideology of personal, political and religious freedom and mutual tolerance and harmony between people of different views.
These are values that Kostenko, possibly Ukraine’s most admired living intellectual, herself embraced and continues to embrace to the present day. While she may have had trouble adjusting to the dramatic economic and social ruptures in Ukrainian society that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union, she was not alone in that regard. What we saw as the Soviet Union collapsed was the disintegration of an entire society and social order, with nothing remaining in its place. Everything had to be built up again from scratch in what had been the world’s biggest Empire, dissolved into fractured fragments after a period of only some seventy-odd years. While the Soviet Union was a desolate, gloomy place in which personal liberties were often absent, its destruction was undertaken in a catastrophic way that left widespread poverty and social chaos for years to come and arguably we are still now dealing with the consequences in resisting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I am pleased to hear of a voice of true moderation in the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although we must use all our resources to fight with most valiant determination this evil menace that sits on Europe’s doorstep endangering our liberal democratic polity, we must not forget our own humanity in doing so and, as Kostenko observes, we should desist from offensive, blasphemous, obscene or indecent language in describing our enemies. Our task in resisting Russian aggression is a solemn one and we must not dehumanise ourselves in undertaking the necessary tasks ahead.