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25 December, 2010  ▪  Записала: Olena Chekan

Lina Kostenko: I’m Coming Back. I will No Longer Stand Aside

The prominent Ukrainian poet speaks on the surreal Babylon of the contemporary world, the special character of Ukrainian madness, and her first prose work

On 17 December, the long-awaited presentation of Lina Kostenko’s Diary of a Ukrainian Madman, finally took place. The writer offered her assessment of the present times.

“St. Nicholas always brings gifts. They used to make mykolaichyky (pastry figures of St. Nicholas) … But this mykolaichyk, let me warn you, is not very sweet. … However, I did it intentionally. At some point, you have to get rid of the last persisting illusions and face the problem head-to-head.

“First of all, let me thank journalists. In the past 10 years, as I worked on this book, I turned to their writing time and time again. I needed a multitude of information: from local, Ukrainian coverage to global, worldwide news. I needed you. You didn’t know it, but I did. … I saw that without journalists this society would die. I believe that today the entire situation rests on the fact that you haven’t given up. … I mean true journalists. I have good reason to thank you. … It was not by accident that I wrote in this book: ‘What we do have are journalists — the eyes of sleeping society.’

“This book is written from the standpoint of a man. This is not a ‘women’s novel.’ … But I haven’t done this on purpose. This is not an effort to shock people. … I thought about what this novel would begin with. And the first phrase came to me. … The protagonist told me: ‘I have always been a normal person.’ This is how this ‘men’s novel’ began. I started writing it as I sifted through local and worldwide news. In a word, this is a surreal Babylon of the contemporary world.

“Another (women’s) novel has branched off from this novel and material. My protagonist has a wife. … I wrote this second book with ease — it is a women’s novel, so it came easy to me. In contrast, writing this novel was hard. … My characters, I love all of them. They wrote themselves, so to speak. … I write poems … and articles … but prose writes me. For your knowledge, this piece of prose wrote me. These people were guiding me, and my task was only to filter out the unnecessary things.

“A true human being cannot stand the things that are taking place now. This kind of person fights, hangs themselves or languishes. My protagonist is not one of those who can lead a miserable existence. Nor is he, incidentally, one of those who can fight… He is a reflecting intellectual. But there is another one, Lev, who is desert-oriented and asks very difficult questions. He may be an embodiment of myself but not in my own, feminine form. His worldview did not change.

“Why do you think that a worldview is something theoretical? A worldview includes, among other things, love. If a person loves something and believes in something, he or she will have a strong worldview. … I don’t like to see people’s worldview change very quickly. This is how worldviews replace one another in Ukrainian parliament. An MP comes to parliament with one party, then changes his worldview and goes on with another party.

“We will soon mark 20 years of our independence. Literary critics, writers themselves, and history in general will sooner or later reflect on what kind of period it was, what literature was produced by independent Ukraine, and what kind of works its writers penned. … We have very talented people, excellent writers, young and even younger ones … or older ones. But for some reason our literature is tagged ukrsuchlit. This must have been started by some evil person. Even if someone said it as a joke in the first place, let him joke but don’t pick it up. … What underpins this word is something very unpleasant, bitchy and evil.

“However, it is also called post-modernism. But let me tell you this: post-totalitarian, post-genocidal society and post-modernism — “post-” and “post-” again. “Post-“ means “after,” but what is ahead? … It seems to me that we need to fire the starting pistol and run ahead rather than approach the finish line with a “post-” and failure. We need to get to the starting line and think about victory.

“Why has language become a political issue? … Language is a tool for communication, while in Ukraine it is a factor of alienation. … I think the current situation is outrageous. It is repugnant. And then, if only they were able to at least speak Russian well. When I listen to this parliament, I only record their chatter. … In a word, language has to be removed from the sphere of politicking, because this is not even politics — it’s politicking.

“To the young, I wish, above all, freedom. The freedom of revealing one’s individuality and that in the true literary process rather than in the ukrsuchlit process. … In this respect, I have some things to say against the older generation, even though we are not really guilty of the heritage our youth is receiving. We did everything to avoid it, this madness of the Ukrainian situation. You fight and you work, but then the youth finds itself in an even worse situation than the one we faced. … Every generation experiences its own nightmare.

“You know I am deeply saddened by the superficial character of literary reflections. I don’t mean those that come from literary critics — we only have a handful of brilliant specialists here. … I mean reflections which for some reason afford creative young people, poets, and prose writers a mere decade for their literary lives. [They speak about] the Sixtiers, Seventiers, Eightiers, 2000-ers — does this mean that that’s it, we’re in 2011, so please get off the stage? It shouldn’t be so.

“One person can write a book and that will be the end of them; one book and they will turn sour, while others are different. .. In other words, this is the phenomenon of Rimbaud and Goethe. They should finally stop giving young people just a decade for creative expression. What if some of them are destined to be immortal writers? We have very talented people. You see, [we need] the freedom to breathe and, you know, some sort of kindness in society.

“It is no longer possible to bear it all: everyone dislikes everyone; everyone hates everyone; everyone raises their tail against others, just like skunks. … I don’t want to give you specifics, but it is impossible to live in this atmosphere. Let me tell you that there was love and respect for one another among the Sixtiers. … And now it happens that a person can send you greetings from the other world, after their death. … This is very important when you love your colleagues.

“What am I working at now? I always work. For example, when I submitted this manuscript, I read two books of poems which I wrote in the meantime but didn’t have time to read. You know, things like that happen. Your work can overpower you and won’t let you go. Writing prose is responsible work. Valerii Shevchuk once told me when he heard that I was writing prose: “Ah, now you understand; this is not the same thing as composing some verses.” It’s true. Prose is excruciatingly hard to write. I wrote poetry at the same time and grasped that poetry is easier to write. … So there are two books of poems ready [for printing].

“I am in a great hurry to complete a documentary book on the expedition to the Chornobyl zone. I worked as a member of the Chornobyl expedition since 1995. This is a brilliant team — up to 15 absolutely fearless people. These are, mind you, people with Ph.D. diplomas, a doctor of art criticism, etc. There is also a young guy whom I didn’t want to take along to places where cesium spots were identified: it had to be off-limits for him; marriage was still ahead of him … These are absolutely remarkable people — from Kyiv, Lviv, Rivne. Over these years we gathered tons of material; I dictated it into a portable recorder and made recordings. … This is fantastical material. I won’t tell you the title of the book, but it is a very cheerful one. … Well, it is time to laugh rather than languish.

“Regarding the special nature of Ukrainian madness, it was there at the end of the 19th century and it was still here at the turn of the 21st century — I see no changes. Problems are like madness, but while violent lunatics are cured, those who are quietly insane are incurable. … I get the impression that contemporary problems are this kind of quiet insanity which has to be healed, even though it is not an easy thing to do.

“Do you know what I was afraid of? Doing harm to this state. … I was afraid I would write something wrong. Our independence must not be lost. But when I saw … that we were losing it, that this was a moral catastrophe, and that not only our enemies were to blame (oftentimes we ourselves … patriots, even those that have a mustache, were guilty) — I got angry.

“I am sometimes deeply troubled when my forecasts come true. I don’t want it; I don’t want them to come true. However, back in 1993, a selection of my poems was published in Literary Ukraine. One of them said: They again sit to the right of the authorities / Neo-cynicism is coming. I don’t exist in it. I warned that I would not be present in this society for a while: I don’t want to play any part / In this devilish show. I also wrote there: This ornamental independence is moving its mustache in its sleep. All these years, our ornamental independence has been moving its mustache. Some have been sleeping …. sound asleep. There was also a difficult line there, in fact, a poem in one line: They rolled Ukraine to an abyss. This was back in 1993.

“When you foretell something, you simply see what is happening and speak straightforwardly about it. However, I didn’t want to say it out loud and thus has been silent all these years. I didn’t interfere with anyone, as you may have noticed. There was no interference whatsoever on my part with the literary process, politicians or anyone else. But as I watched it all, I realized what we were coming to. This is a very difficult condition. This is, actually, the outcome: this book conveys part of my sufferings and reflections about the direction we were heading in.

“Now we have come [to the critical point]. We are already there. We need to overcome this; otherwise we’ll lose Ukraine. This is the absolute harsh truth. We’ll lose a beautiful independent country. We need to understand the horrible things that are taking place in Moscow now … — ethnic and racial clashes. … We need to stop and hold our ground at the edge of an abyss. … I’m coming back. I will no longer stand aside.”




Lina Kostenko, a Ukrainian poet

1930 — born in Rzhyshchiv, Kyiv oblast, into a family of teachers

1936 — the family moved to Kyiv where the future poet later graduated from a secondary school

1956 — graduated from the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute

Lina Kostenko is a winner of the Shevchenko Prize, the Antonovych Foundation Prize, the Petrarch Prize, and the Olena Teliha Prize. She is an honorary professor of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and an honorary doctor of Lviv University and Chernivtsi University. She is also a recipient of the Certificate of Merit granted by the President of Ukraine (1992) and the Order of Yaroslav the Wise, 5th degree (2000). Ms. Kostenko refused to accept the Hero of Ukraine title.


Collections of poems

Prominnia zemli (Rays of the Earth, 1957)

Vitryla (Sails, 1958)

Mandrivky sertsia (Wanderings of the Heart, 1961)

Nad berehamy vichnoi riky (On the Banks of the Eternal River, 1977)

Nepovtornist’ (Uniqueness, 1980)

Sad netanuchykh skul’ptur (Garden of Unthawed Sculptures, 1987)

Buzynovyi tsar (The King of the Lilacs, 1987)

Vybrane (Selected Works, 1989)

Richka Heraklita (The River of Heraclitus, in print)


Marusia Churai, a historical novel in verse

Berestechko, a historical novel in verse

Duma pro brativ Neazovskykh, (The Duma of the Non-Azov Brothers), a dramatic poem

Skifska odisseia (Scythian Odyssey), a ballad in verse

Snih u Florentsii (Snow in Florence), a dramatic poem


Zapysky ukrainskoho samashedshoho (Diary of a Ukrainian Madman, 2010)

Lina Kostenko’s works have been translated into English, Estonian, Italian, German, French, and all the languages of Eastern Europe.




Ivan Dziuba described the novel along the following lines: “This is an astounding chronicle of what an intellectual’s soul has experienced in the world of the absurd, both in Ukraine and on a global scale. Individually experienced absurdities create the high emotional and intellectual tone of the work. It is very desirable and important for this novel to be translated into other languages. This would enable the world to see itself and Ukraine through Ukrainian eyes.”

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