Essay / 24 October 2022

I'm a local everywhere around here

Author of the Week: Czech Republic

Poetry and multilingual cultures

I’m a Czech writer, I write in Czech, but I live in three or maybe four other cultures: Czech, Ukrainian, Polish and Russian. People sometimes ask me what it’s like. Such experiences used to be more common. In the country that has been my home for more than thirty years, Czechs, Germans, Slovaks, Jews, Roma and other nationalities have lived side by side for centuries, and not just lived, they mixed. Their identities intermingled, transformed, and from today’s perspective there was quite a pleasant chaos.

Take Franz Kafka for example. His parents considered themselves Czech Jews, but the family spoke German and didn’t find it strange at all. At least until the situation between Czechs and Germans intensified. Kafka’s sister Ottla, who helped in the family haberdashery, spoke German at home and Czech in the shop. She switched between the two languages later as well because she married a Czech man. Kafka wrote in German and published in German publishing houses. Nevertheless, we had to invent a special category for him – ‘Prague Jewish literature’, because calling him a German writer somehow didn’t fit or fell short. This was a somehow clumsy way of expressing the common notion of identity at the time, especially for ordinary people, who often answered the question ‘Who are you?’ with ‘I’m from here’. Today’s social networks, by the way, offer the answer ‘It’s complicated’ for similar situations.

However, the question of Jewish identity is especially exceptional. Let’s leave this famous Prague family alone then and instead take a look at a Viennese telephone directory where every second surname is of Czech origin written in German fashion. Telephone directories are an easy way to remind ourselves of how common the intermingling of cultures, languages, and identities used to be in Central Europe. And this was probably the case in other parts of our continent as well. If we acknowledge that national identity is a relatively new construct, we might even question whether it is even possible to be anchored in a single culture. And if so, is it healthy?

A faience service set and old junk

From a young age, I have seen my straddling of different cultures as an asset. I still see it that way today: two beloved countries and two cultures are simply more than one, and three is more than two. Simple maths, right? Just as it is a simple fact that a little chaos is healthier than perfect order, which is one step away from neurosis.

If I received this treasure chest from my parents, I had to find the key to it myself. I had it easy to a certain extent because my ancestors really were Czechs, as well as Ukrainians and Poles. I didn’t move to a country I had no ties to at all, but I had something to build on. For example, my Czech great-grandfather, may he rest in peace, often comes to my aid in moments where I am asked to explain what I am doing here with such a strange surname. And my Ukrainian great-grandmother appears from beyond the grave whenever my Polish-Czech mother raises a skeptical eyebrow: ‘What kind of Ukrainian are you, please? You’ve never spoken Ukrainian!’

True, I sometimes experience moments of confusion or sadness that I don’t quite belong anywhere. But honestly, it doesn’t particularly bother me. I’ve always been more of an individualist who fits into collectives only with difficulty. Or wait, is that somehow connected to my complicated origins? I mean, it’s a known fact that knowing you’re different commonly leads to feelings of loneliness. I had it the hardest as a child: moving from Kyiv to a small Czech town and the change in linguistic and cultural situation (and family situation, as my parents were in the process of divorcing) made my legs buckle at first. I learned the new language – Czech – in such a way that I practically forgot my old mother tongue, Russian. My mother ordered us to speak only Czech at home. I would later have to dust off Russian laboriously and master it again, even go to university to study it.

And then came an unexpected turn: I lost my bond with Russian completely. Now I basically only use it out of necessity, in an emergency. My experience is in no way unique; it can be placed in history and grasped as a phenomenon. This was not obvious even to historians twenty or twenty-five years ago, let alone to me. Today’s young Ukrainians refuse to learn Russian, saying they don’t know what for. Not only can they get by with English in a globalised world, but the war has made them completely disgusted with Russian and the whole Russian culture. ‘Russian is a retro language’, I read in discussions on social media, and I know what they mean. Russian today unintentionally refers to a bygone historical era and evokes Soviet nostalgia. The young do not need it and do not want it.

Likewise, the middle generation of Ukrainians, who still mostly learned Russian in school or even used it in everyday life, are slowly but surely leaving it behind. At some point, I stopped seeing Russian as a precious faience service set – as it appeared to me in my childhood, at the moment when I was losing it, and as I later described it in a poem called Azbukovnik[1] – but I see it as useful junk: I am glad that I speak Russian and that I speak it well. It comes in handy when following the news on Radio Free Europe, while searching for hard-to-find texts, and one day I hope to use it when travelling in the Caucasus, Central Asia or Siberia.

My situation is ironically typical. I was born in the 1980s into a Kyiv family that had spoken Russian for three generations. I was not even bilingual, although I would certainly learn Ukrainian later in school. Russian in Ukraine is mostly the result of the suppression and uprooting of Ukrainian. ‘All Ukrainians who speak Russian told me about their grandmothers who spoke Ukrainian. If it’s the third generation of city dwellers, that grandmother was there a generation earlier and has been kind of forgotten,’ says Oleksandr Stukalo in a column for Ukraine Zhurnal[2]. Stukalo is a bohemist and, like me, he has personal experience with this. ‘In almost all cases, Russian in Ukraine is a transgenerational trauma: the previous generation started speaking Russian because if they had spoken Ukrainian, they wouldn’t have found work, survived, and wouldn’t have produced those who then produced our generation.’ Apparently this is not an exceptional situation: ‘How many people today live in a language that is not their own? Or don’t know their own language anymore, or don’t know it yet and know the majority language they are forced to use badly?’ Deleuze and Guattari ask.[3]

I gradually began to realise that Russian in Ukraine is the result of soft and hard russification. By soft, I mean the manipulation of dictionaries that deliberately impoverished the Ukrainian vocabulary, and by hard, I mean the famine of the 1930s and the murder of an entire generation of Ukrainian writers. It is a trauma that was handed down from generation to generation until it seemed natural and normal to us. It seems that now it’s finally coming to an end. And one symbol of this end is the tearing down and removal of the statues of the great Russian classic, Alexander Pushkin, which stood in every Ukrainian town.

Statues are a remarkable phenomenon: with statues one can create places of memory or false places of false memory. The great Russian poet never visited any of those Ukrainian towns or cities where they installed his monuments and busts, and there were hundreds, thousands of them. He had zero relation to those places. The Soviet regime simply installed him everywhere as a symbol of Russian culture and the Russian world, like a message in stone or bronze: this land is ours. If I wanted to be more cynical, I would say that this is the same as a dog peeing in someone else’s yard. Am I exaggerating? One of the first things the Russians did after taking Kherson was to set up banners with Pushkin’s portrait. And I think we can all agree it wasn’t for the love of poetry.

In my family, too, there was an almost pious reverence for Pushkin, the symbol of the great Russian culture (read: ‘our culture’ or ‘culture in general’). My mother taught me his poems when I could barely speak. Even today, she still quotes individual verses to me on the phone on various occasions. For example, we have a poem suitable for the first snow. Or for a hopping magpie. My dad depicted the poet in one of his prints which hung above my desk for a long time. My great-grandmother, the Polish one, left me a silver powder box with his portrait on it. The powder is long gone, and I sometimes joke that it could only be used for cocaine if I were rich and famous. I don’t have to explain that I like Pushkin very much and I will continue to like him. What I am describing, though, is the misuse of the poet for political, or more accurately imperial purposes, and it is this process that now makes him (and many other Russian classics) – to put it with some hyperbole – ‘old junk’.

Side note: the absurd thing is that he was a poet persecuted by the upper class and a troublemaker. Though that didn’t stop him from taking a dig at Ukraine in one of his pieces of poetry, just as his fellow poet Joseph Brodsky would do a hundred and fifty years later. After all, persecution by the powers that be did not prevent these poets from admiring the empire that persecuted them.

Central Europe exists, I’ve seen it

But let’s leave Russian and Russia and go back to Ukrainian, because that’s what it’s all about now. I started to learn Ukrainian after the Maidan, like some of my peers whose lives were changed by the experience. Many of them switched to Ukrainian in everyday life. For me, it was a bit harder. I was not surrounded by the language like the people of Kyiv, my daily bread was Czech. I started to learn Ukrainian by reading Ukrainian books, contemporary fiction, essays, poems.

It happened at the time when I was finishing my university studies and my thesis on the literature of Galicia. I was fascinated to discover a part of the country where four cultures and languages, in this case German, Polish, Yiddish and Ukrainian, intersected and intermingled in a similar way as in my life. Moreover, I had a personal connection to the region: my father studied in Lviv and later, when I was born, we used to go there for holidays. It was there that I got to know the Ukrainian countryside with its thatched roofs, sunflowers and icons above painted coffins.

While writing, everything came together and I finally understood who I was – a Central European. In Central Europe, it has always been normal for borders to shift and languages, cultures and identities to mix. And later, if someone told me that there was no such thing as Central Europe, that there was only Eastern Europe and Western Europe, I just laughed quietly (and sometimes out loud).

As a Central European, place is clearly more important to me than language. I write in Czech because at the moment it is the tool I have at hand and the one I know best. I am much like a jeweller who makes jewellery out of gold when he has gold, or brass when he only has brass on hand. But for me, all my languages – Czech, Ukrainian, and Polish – are equally precious. Czech is my daily bread, while the other two languages are my holiday.

When I understood how important a place was, I expanded the boundaries of my imaginary home to make it comfortable. At the moment, it extends from Karlovy Vary to Kharkov, where my paternal grandfather has roots, and from Gdansk to Bohemian Forest. I have generously included Slovakia in my personal map, but with no colonising intentions, just following the old maps of Czechoslovakia. And I am now a ‘local’ in every corner of that expanse. But before that, I needed to regain my last lost piece of identity, the one of my grandmother with the silver powder box. In addition to my great-grandparents, I also had Polish grandparents. My mother came from the Polish minority, which is large and ancient in Ukraine. Poles, like Czechs after them, came there many centuries ago for fertile or free land or who knows what, and settled there. They jealously guarded their language and their religion, unlike the more light-hearted Czechs.

So Polish was spoken in my mother’s family, even if it was a funny version of it, full of obsolete words and turns of phrase. When my mother was a little girl, she was in the street one day with my grandmother, and she was ashamed of her other language and lowered her voice. My grandmother’s Polish pride was immensely hurt by this, which she duly made clear to her daughter. She remembered it for the rest of her life and told me about it. It makes me all the sadder that I didn’t want to speak Polish as a child. Probably because my attempts to do so were rather lazy and came late. But the time for Polish came in college, when I went to Poznan for two semesters and Gdansk for one. During this time, I was able to get to know Poland a little bit from the inside. I don’t understand why I didn’t go to Lublin, where some of my grandmother’s distant relatives still lived at that time. Today I would have done it, today I would still be following the hot trail. But I don’t have any living relatives in Poland anymore.

I’m fascinated by the idea that my grandparents once went to Ukraine as colonists. The word is a little less applicable to Czechs, but at any rate the Poles have treated western and southern Ukraine that way for centuries. In Polish literature there is even a whole body of so-called kresa literature (from the word ‘kresy’ meaning ‘edge’), in which Ukraine is often portrayed as a vanished Atlantis – a land that used to be ours before the Soviets took it from us. In some of these works, Ukrainians flit in and out of view only as sort of extras – indigenous inhabitants in frock coats, almost as exotic as the peyotted Orthodox Jews.

For example, Adam Zagajewski’s famous poem Jechać do Lwowa (Go to Lviv) portrays Lviv as ‘the city that is not’. But Lviv is! I saw it with my own eyes, Adam! And it was there, all the time! In the post-war years, when Soviet commissars tortured UPA fighters in the prison on Łącki Street, in the 1960s, when samizdats were printed in home presses and long-haired Soviet hippies gathered in the ‘Holy Orchard’, in the 1970s, when my father learned to draw there in college. And also in the 1980s, when this poem was written, and when I was a child getting to know Lviv. It’s just that when it was without Poles, it wasn’t really there, right?

Fortunately, one of the East’s cultural assets is a certain unanchoredness (yes, I consider it an asset) and generosity. I’m used to switching perspectives, seeing things from different sides, and I’m capable of empathy. So, I understand you, Adam. Just to remind myself of ‘our’ Polish perspective: this beautiful, thriving, and cultural city was suddenly wrested from Poland, separated by the new border, and those who were born there were not allowed to return or even visit for many years. Everything Polish was expelled from it as far as possible, swept away. Everything Polish was to be forgotten. Monuments to Polish figures were torn down (only Adam Mickiewicz remained), street signs were changed, as were the names of shops. Façades, balconies and beautiful carved doors began to deteriorate. Today, by the way, the signs in some places are trilingual again, and the younger generation of Poles has a different relationship with the city. But Poland never disappeared from Lviv anyway, all the intellectuals read Polish books that were smuggled across the border.

If Poland ever viewed Ukraine as a colony or, let’s say, its backyard, it could not match the attitude of the Soviet Union and then the Russian Federation. Today, Russia is not even pretending, it is not playing games, but waging a bitter and desperate war for a country which, although independent, it regards as its own. But any visitor to the Hermitage, full of stolen Ukrainian historical treasures, paintings, jewels, archaeological finds, could have realised this earlier. It is hard to say whether Ukraine will ever manage to recover at least some of this wealth. Russia, of course, is not going to return anything, just as it is apparently not going to take a critical look at its past.

Darling, when will we see each other alive again?

But let me return to my micro-history and what it’s like to be straddling several cultures. In addition to the richness I mention above, it also means endless frustration and endlessly engaging work: my knowledge of Polish and Ukrainian culture, pop culture and history will never be as deep as my knowledge of Czech culture I grew up in and that was imparted to me in school. I only understand a fraction of the Polish and Ukrainian jokes and memes on social media in response to current events. It annoys me how hard it is for me to find new Polish and Ukrainian books. And I still miss them. It’s like experiencing a long-distance love affair, sighing, and asking over and over again: ‘Darling, when will we see each other alive again?’

At the same time, Czech culture will never be mine on a deeply visceral level either. Whenever someone goes back in narrative to the pre-90s, I feel I can’t gain a foothold. It’s all a rustling of paper somehow, some cultural habits or phenomena like the beer-soaked Czech underground remain alien to me, I can only understand them with reason. Ukrainians were also publishing samizdats at the same time, but I remember that they sat in kitchens, not in pubs, drank black tea and sometimes vodka.

The whole of the twentieth century, starting with my great-grandmother’s arrival in Kyiv from the village and ending with perestroika, is anchored in my family memory through slightly different narratives. In Prague, where I live and which is my home, I simply miss the streets, the courtyards, the balconies, the bell towers and the mosaics of Orthodox churches, the places of memory where I could point my finger and tell the history of my family and my ancestors. But as Aleida Assmann writes: ‘The power of the bond in the case of places burdened with memories is replaced by neutral space as an open dimension available to humans.’[4]

But those unique backyards, mosaics, benches and bollards are in another country and another city, where the bombs are now falling. And when the war is over, I don’t know if they’ll still be there. A bomb just fell on my beloved Shevchenko Park. And so, every bomb that falls on Kyiv and Lviv and Kharkiv takes away the ground beneath my feet, even though I am far away. And I hate being far away. It annoys me childishly that my parents decided that I would not grow up and live in Ukraine. And I can’t go back because then I would miss Prague so much. In a way, it’s a no-win situation and the only option is to accept it and consider it a blessing.

I am extremely proud to be Ukrainian and very honoured to come from such a beautiful, free-spirited and brave country. And I am also very proud and extremely grateful to the Czechs and the Poles for how unequivocally and vigorously they stood up for Ukraine. It is because they understand that they share history with Ukrainians. And I am happy to have some connection with these three countries. And I know that everything I write as a writer will always be influenced by this endearing cultural chaos.

Translated by Nathan Fields

[1] Marie Iljašenko: Osip míří na jih, 2015.

[2] Oleksandr Stukalo: Ruština jako transgenerační trauma, Ukrajinský žurnál, 7–8/2022.

[3] Gillez Deleuze, Félix Guattari: Kafka: pour une littérature mineure, 1975.

[4] Aleida Assmann: Prostory vzpomínání – Podoby a proměny kulturní paměti, 2018.