Ukrainian ethno band DakhaBrakha on its concert in Lviv. Photo by Lyudmyla Dobrynina, Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.
I have been thinking often of the 2017 anthology Words for War: New Poems from Ukraine, edited by Oksana Maksymchuk and Max Rosochinsky. The collection includes nine poems by Lyuba Yakimchuk, who grew up in Luhansk, one of the regions taken by Russia-backed separatists in 2014. Her poems of that period bear witness to the decomposition of a country, a region, an identity, and language itself. Her words break apart under the pressure of violence: “my friends are hostages / and I can’t reach them, I can’t do netsk / to pull them out of the basements.” Now Yakimchuk is in Kyiv, working to help defend the capital as Russian shells fall. When the invasion began, she was already trained in military-style first aid and well stocked with supplies; she donated much of her store of gasoline to the local Territorial Defense Forces for Molotov cocktails. She has been documenting her experience on social media and in frequent interviews.
I am also reminded of the Soviet writer and four-time Nobel Prize nominee Konstantin Paustovsky’s memoir, The Story of A Life—long out of print in English, but now available in a new translation by Douglas Smith. Paustovsky was born and raised in Kyiv and attended gymnasium with Mikhail Bulgakov, whose White Guard is another classic of that city’s literature. During the First World War, Paustovsky served as a hospital train orderly, following the troops, collecting the wounded, and burying the dead. His memoir is a model of fine-grained, compassionate observation in the tumult of history and violence. In one scene, he listens to the dying words of a captured Austrian soldier who wants to confess that he is a Slav, captured in battle. “Why hadn’t he complained,” Paustovsky wonders, “or asked for a sip of water, or pulled out the metal chain holding the regimental disc engraved with the address of his next of kin as the other wounded Austrian prisoners did? He seemed to want to say that the world is run by the powerful and it wasn’t his fault that he had been forced to take up arms against his brothers.”
Today, you can watch another such memoir emerge in real time: the Kyiv war diary of the writer, photographer, and activist Yevgenia Belorusets is being updated regularly online here, hosted by Artforum in collaboration with the small press Isolarii, which recently published Belorusets’s short story collection Modern Animal. Lucky Breaks, her 2018 collection of half-documentary, half-magical stories about Eastern Ukrainian women and war, also just came out in English translation. Now, she turns her exquisite powers of perception to the bombardment of her own home city. “When I think about the beginning, I imagine a line drawn very clearly through a white space. The eye observes the simplicity of this trail of movement—one that is sure to begin somewhere and end somewhere,” she writes. “But I have never been able to imagine the beginning of a war.”
One of my favorite Ukrainian musical groups is DakhaBrakha, the theatrical, Astrakhan-hatted band that has become famous beyond Ukraine’s borders for their “ethno-chaos” blend of Ukrainian and world music. Their hypnotic 2011 video for “Vesna” (“Spring”) captures the gritty yet verdant beauty that made me fall in love with Ukraine. March 1 was the beginning of spring for Ukrainians; I hope that the new season will bring peace. —Sophie Pinkham
I remember taking “internet literacy” classes in third grade in which we were made to find examples of three reliable and three unreliable websites, based on a list of rules according to cues like their adherence to normative English (typos: unreliable), the modernity of their graphic design (rainbow fonts: unreliable), and their domain (.gov: very reliable). Two years later, on Facebook, we would begin making our own rules. These early experiments in semipublic, semicryptic semiotics—like identifying each of our friends as a loser, sidekick, or it-girl type by “tagging” them in an image of various Harry Potter characters—which our teachers were quick to decode (and discipline), have long since been made obsolete by ever more opaque forms of creative communication that came to the deeply online as naturally as bullying. The amazing thing about internet literacy is that it actually doesn’t have to be taught; in fact, it’s so intuitive that it’s difficult to put into words at all. But Libby Marrs’s “The Lore Zone: How to Read the Internet,” a careful structural study of this almost kinetic skill (navigating the proliferation of online languages), does just that. The essay, which thankfully transcends the tiresome hysteria surrounding the cultural meaning invested in the term vibe shift, draws on the concept of orality to describe the production of memory and meaning online. It more than satisfies one’s itch for formalization, and my specific desire to follow elaborate extended diagrammatic metaphors involving trees and rivers.
The “Lore Zone” essay series (coresearched by Marrs and Tiger Dingsun) is a product of Other Internet’s applied research into social technologies. The organization’s other reports include fascinating case studies of governance in online communities, granular interface critiques, and more meta-level opinion pieces on the social implications of various technologies. My favorite of these, “Positive Sum Worlds: Remaking Public Goods,” by Toby Shorin, Sam Hart, and Laura Lotti, is a philosophically and ethically rigorous investigation into the administration of the public sphere in the age of crypto protocols. It’s hard to find careful, legitimately technically informed analyses of digital culture, at least in legacy media publications—I recommend these! —Olivia Kan-Sperling
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