Łukasz Saturczak speaks about his novel Galicia and the relationships between Ukrainians and Poles in border regions
The topic of ethnic conflicts is always a sensitive one. Politicians often use it to their advantage; historians frequently study it, but writers rarely tackle it in their works. A Przemyśl native, Saturczak wrote a daring and sharp novel which has become available to Ukrainian readers through the efforts of the Tempora Publishing House. The Ukrainian Week spoke with the author during his launch tour in Ukraine.
U.W.: Galicia is about the dramatic events of the 1930s and the 1940s in the Ukrainian-Polish border regions. It also touches on the situation there today. Why did you pick precisely this topic?
Every time I sit down to write any texts I am faced with two possibilities – even though it may sound ridiculous, considering my age (25. – Ed.) – writing the way I want or writing about important things. I enjoy reading Janusz Rudnicki, Kszysztof Varga, Dorota Masłowska, Andriy Bondar and Serhiy Zhadan, but I also like it when literature raises important issues, even though I understand that it lost its power a long time ago and can hardly convince anyone of anything. There used to be lists of banned works, and books were burned at one point in time. Today no-one pays much attention to them. As I wrote Galicia, I wasn’t thinking that it would cause such intense emotions in my native Przemyśl. I didn’t expect that anyone who would read about xenophobia and mutual biases would even care to comment. Meanwhile, I caused a true war in local internet forums where users wished for my death.
U.W.: How did you write Galicia?
The idea came to me close to the end of my studies at a lyceum, and it’s hard to say what the immediate reason was. Perhaps Galicia is a kind of summary of my “discovery” of Ukraine in Przemyśl. The village where I was raised was completely Ukrainian before the war. All of this surrounded and touched me but remained a mystery. Ukraine was an integral part of my everyday life. For example, it was strongly present in the language I heard every day, but for a long while it was all taboo for me. I didn’t talk with Ukrainians, have friends among them or understand why this was so. My family did not speak about things like that at home. Nor did anyone mention that there were mutual offences or that others talked about them.
U.W.: How much in your novel is fiction? Did you rely on any historical sources?
In fact, all of it is fiction. I even went too far, because I described things that could not have happened even theoretically. Thus, the entire plot is fictional, and it was only in several places that I turned to historians, such as Grzegorz Motyka.
U.W.: Does Poland have a dominating interpretation of facts you described in your book? How do historians and writers interpret this topic?
Historians are quite eager to write about it, but there is no predominant view. Everyone interprets facts as they please. Literature almost neglects the topic though there may be some rare and biased accounts. If you mean Ukrainian-Polish relations in general, you can start from Henryk Senkiewiecz’s With Fire and Sword and end with Marek Krajewski’s detective stories. Włodzimierz Odojewski handled the topic of post-1945 conflicts from a very anti-Ukrainian position. I keep hoping that someone will tackle it without any political agenda whatsoever, but I think it will take some time.
COMPLAINTS OUT OF PRINCIPLE
U.W.: What is the attitude in Przemysł on contemporary Ukraine?
As long as I can remember, Przemysł locals have always had some complaints against Ukraine, and it’s hard for me to say where they come from. I believe that this is a natural trait for borderland residents – nationalism as a weapon against a foreign culture which can theoretically conquer us. This is strange of course, because far more Ukrainians died in the vicinity of Przemysł than Poles, so the fear is somehow ungrounded. The locals like to use the argument about atrocities allegedly committed by the UPA in any argument: “You are criminals, and there is nothing to talk about with you.”
U.W.: How do younger generations view history?
In different ways. You can still come across those who are like their grandfathers and hate Ukraine out of principle. But most do not care the least bit. But let us not forget that the indifferent are very easy to manipulate. The it-has-nothing-to-do-with-me stance is also a political one. It shows that you will allow politicians to build their doctrine on hatred. Those who want to change something are the smallest group.
U.W.: Do people in Przemysł know anything about Ukraine except that it is a source of cheap cigarettes and alcohol?
Of course — only vodka and cigarettes. But what is the perception of a Pole in Germany? An unskilled worker and drunkard. Biases and stereotypes exist everywhere. Since I was a child, I saw only Ukrainian smugglers and venders, but it is only because the border is too close. As soon as I made friends with Ukrainians, began to read their writers and finally moved out of Przemysł, my perception changed. The stereotype itself is changing. People are becoming more aware. But this coin has two sides. They show the poor Ukrainians on the border in order to omit saying anything about the Poles who also cash in on the contraband. They stress the ubiquitous nature of corruption in your country to conceal ours, and so on.
U.W.: Are there any traces of the Lemkos in Subcarpathia after Operation Vistula?
None. After all, the Lemkos are in the Bieszczady and the Lower Beskids. Near Wołowiec, where Andrzej Statiuk lives, there is a village with a bilingual Ukrainian-Polish sign. The Lemkos are trying to return in Lower Silesia. But it looks like they will fail. I would very much like to describe them in my next book. That’s my plan.
U.W.: Do you think the relations between our nations are normal now, or do we still have things to work on?
Polandwas the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence in 1991. But it is trying to influence the politics of the country it recognized. For example, it drives me crazy when I hear about Polish protests against the idea of naming a stadium in Lviv after Stepan Bandera. How can we recognize the sovereignty of a country and then decide what heroes it should have? Our bilateral relations are moving in the right direction, but there will be a change on our side only when we realize that Ukraine is not a puppet but an independent partner. I don’t see this understanding so far.
WITH LITERATURE INTO THE FUTURE
U.W.: You are now writing a thesis about the image of Ukraine in the Polish literature of the second half of the 20th century. Can you share a little about your scholarly hypotheses? What is it exactly that you want to prove?
I will be defending a thesis that the Poles colonized Ukrainians all the way until 1939. This thought is not new. It can be heard increasingly more often in Poland, but I will defend it from the standpoint of fiction. Is it true that after 1945 the Poles wrote about Ukrainians from the position of landlords whose slaves rebelled? If you read, for example, about Polish Lviv, you will not see a word about Ukrainians striving for independence. If anything is indeed said about Ukrainians, it is rather negative.
U.W.: How popular is Ukrainian literature in Poland?
It is probably past its popularity peak, which came amid the Orange Revolution when Ukrainian poems translated by Bohdan Zadura were published, as well as books by Yuriy Andrukhovych, Taras Prokhasko, Serhiy Zhadan and Oleksandr Irvanets. But Ukrainian literature always has good reviews in Poland. It seems to me that there is a lot more Polish literature in Ukraine than Ukrainian literature in Poland.
Lukasz Saturczak was born in 1986 in Przemysł. He received a diploma in journalism and creative writing from the University of Wrocław. He is now writing a PhD thesis on Ukraine in contemporary Polish prose. His literary sketches, essays and reviews are published in Polish periodicals dealing with culture and literary criticism. He is the author of the novel Galicia. His works have been translated into German, English and Ukrainian. Saturczak lives in Wrocław.