‘My Ukrainian publisher’s son said he wasn’t frightened – but the war changed him’
by Sara Stridsberg
translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
Before the war the Swedish writer Sara Stridsberg had never had any contact with her Ukrainian publisher. When Russia invaded Ukraine she sent an email. Here she writes about the exchange that followed, the family that was forced to flee, and the place of literature in the ongoing war.
This article was originally published in Dagens Nyheter,10 June 2022.
Svetlana Alexievich has described Russian culture as her homeland, or one of them. Her first homeland is Belarus, the country where her father was born and where she lives and writes her books today. The second is Ukraine, the country her mother comes from. And the third is Russian culture.
There is a glimmer of light in the idea of culture as a home in this time of homelessness, rootlessness and flight, of literature as a dwelling you can take with you anywhere in the world, one that moves silently across national borders. For many, Svetlana Alexievich’s books have been a means to understanding what war is, beyond grand history with its conflicts and battles and its sovereigns with their swelling peers, and beyond all the peace treaties which appear to sow the seeds of the next war, and the next. War – and so too the history of war – is grandiose and greedy. Svetlana Alexievich seeks instead the little tremor that exists inside everyone, ‘the tremor of eternity’, as she calls it. This little tremor that reflects grand history like a broken mirror.
In her first book, The Unwomanly Face of War, which came out in 1985, she writes about women in the Red Army. ‘A human being is most visible and open in war, and also maybe in love. To the depths, to the subcutaneous layers. In the face of death all ideas pale, and inconceivable eternity opens up, for which no one is prepared.’ 
I don’t always have contact with the publishers who bring out my books abroad – I have close contact with a few, and occasional or sporadic contact with some others. I had never been in touch with Petro Matskevych, my Ukrainian publisher. We started to write to one another at the beginning of March this year, when he was still at home in Kyiv, where he runs the Calvaria Publishing House and PR-Prime Company. When the bombs began falling on Ukraine I wrote and asked him if there was any way in which I could help.
By then millions had already left their homes, just as the 100 million currently escaping other wars and disasters all over the world have done. After a few days Petro replied, writing that the situation was horrendous, and that almost every day he and his wife Kseniya and their child Luka had to hide in a bomb shelter from Russian air raids. He said that publishing activity had all but ceased and it was no longer possible to sell books, and that the only thing that could be hoped for now was that the war would lead to European publishing houses taking more interest in contemporary Ukrainian literature. He asked me for help in making contact with European publishers. ‘I daren’t ask you for anything more,’ he wrote.
He attached two photos of Luka, nine years old, both pictures taken one day at the end of February. In one, Luka is in a park surrounded by flowers, wearing a little red padded gilet. He has that classic pudding-basin haircut that all boys sport at a certain age, my son did too. He is wearing blue trainers and smiling shyly at the camera. In the second picture he is holding a white kitten in his arms. The cat has its eyes closed, Luka is beaming. It is taken in the bomb shelter where they used to hide.
Then everything goes quiet from Kyiv and Petro. I write, but there is no reply. I contact publishers in Sweden and other countries and try to put them in touch with Petro. After ten days he writes again – he, Kseniya and Luka have left Kyiv and travelled to Poland. By the time they leave, two thirds of the apartments in their building are empty. Now they are in Katowice, near the border with Hungary and Czechia.
Petro: ‘Dear Sara, I’m sorry our correspondence has been interrupted for so long. My wife, my son and I left Ukraine more than a week ago. (It was extremely difficult.) I didn’t want to go, but we were forced to. Russian bombs were already falling close to our house, I’m too old for the army (66), and my son was very frightened and couldn’t sleep at night. On the way here we had no access to the internet. Now we’re in Poland. We’ll solve all our problems with the help of our Polish friends. In a few days I hope I’ll have access to our database too and follow up with the publishers you have put me in touch with. Apologies again for my long silence.’
I get in touch with Petro’s wife Kseniya, who was the one who discovered my novel The Gravity of Love, a story based in Beckomberga mental hospital. ‘There’s so much light and hope in your novel,’ she writes. My thoughts turn to the German-Swedish poet Nelly Sachs – all ideas about war and sickness sooner or later lead to her – who wrote that a refugee carries her homeland in her arms like an orphan and deep inside only seeks a grave for this lonely child. The old persecutors and executioners in Nazi Germany from whom she had fled had continued to live inside her as demons and hallucinations long after the Third Reich had fallen, and in Beckomberga she could find a temporary refuge of sorts.
I ask Petro and Kseniya what they were doing on the last day before the bombing started. ‘Do you remember?’
Petro: ‘February 23rd was a normal working day. We received a new order from a chain of bookshops, we liaised with a bookseller over technical issues, we discussed a manuscript by an author we were considering publishing.’
Kseniya: ‘That day I had a discussion about future plans for the office with our team working on social projects. We were pleased to see each other, because Covid restrictions had meant we hadn’t had many opportunities to meet face-to-face up to then. But the next live meeting would turn out to be postponed indefinitely.’
Petro: ‘The only thing that distinguished that day from any other was how Luka was in the evening. He was really anxious at bedtime and didn’t fall asleep until very late.’
Just before 5am (4am in Sweden) Vladimir Putin announces that Russia is invading Ukraine. The Russian military reach the outskirts of Kharkiv in the morning and Kyiv is also attacked with armoured tanks, ground forces and missile strikes. After that night Petro, Kseniya and Luka spend much of the time in an air-raid shelter.
Petro: ‘Actually there isn’t an air-raid shelter in our house, it’s a building with only 50 apartments. So in fact we had nowhere to hide. When the shelling got more intense and came nearer, or when something exploded, we went out into the space between the apartments. It’s the safest place, with load-bearing walls on both sides. Each time, Luka took his rucksack and a folding chair with him, but we made a special little bed so he didn’t have to sit on a camping seat the whole time and he could lie down and rest. Originally it wasn’t our intention to leave. We learned that Kyiv, the heart of the country and the nation, would be protected. And yet our situation was still so difficult. Every day, but most often at night, the bomb attacks came, the explosions when Russian missiles hit somewhere, and the sound from our air force trying to stop them. Almost nothing was working, the shops that were open closed very early and the range of goods was meagre. In some parts of the city there was a problem with water and getting hold of bread, and the air-raid sirens were going day and night. Things like computers and the internet didn’t work. You couldn’t get hold of normal medication. But if it hadn’t been for Luka, we would have stayed.’
Kseniya: ‘The biggest problem was Luka. The lack of activity unsettled him. Being on the internet was never a substitute for live communication for him. He loves communicating. And he was so anxious about the shooting and explosions around us that at night we had to go out into our ‘bunker’ between the apartments. He said he wasn’t frightened, that the Russians couldn’t scare him, but we saw him change. In the end he started sucking his fingers – two, three, four at the same time. He didn’t even do that when he was small. It was harder for him to concentrate in online lessons and when we played games at home, even though usually he likes chess. My mother rang every day and wanted us to take Luka away. As for her, she refused to leave.’
Petro: ‘In the end even working on publishing house business was pointless. The little we could do, we could do from a distance.’
There have been no novels from Ukraine published in Sweden since 2014, when Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex and Zerhiy Zhadan’s Depeche Mode came out. It is easy to imagine that the new political situation after Russia’s annexation of Crimea must also have created a new kind of novel in the midst of the transformation in Ukraine. One of the great poets, Boris Khersonsky, writes in a special issue on Ukraine in the Swedish journal 20Tal in 2014:
‘Europe is dead. The beautiful gravestones are so close together that the full-moon nights are darker than the moonless. But the towns empty long before dark. Judas kisses Christ. They thereby declare themselves dear friends. The Red Army soldiers laugh – they have passed Perekop. Russia caught sight of Crimea, and – splat! – like swatting a fly with your hand.’ (Originally translated into Swedish from Russian by Mikael Nydahl.)
Petro and Kseniya have had their papers ready since 2014 in case they had to leave, but neither of them believed that what did eventually come about would ever happen. We keep writing. They tell me about their life in Poland, about Luka at school, about the white kitten. We observe late one night that we are writing under the light of the same full moon.
Petro: ‘The kitten’s owner fled on the 24 February and left the kitten in her apartment. When she arrived in Lviv she started looking for someone who was still back there who could look after it for a while. And that was us. Then when we left Kyiv we went via Lviv so we could give it back to her. And now we’re here, in Katowice . . . I speak fluent Polish and Kseniya can read and understand. We’re tremendously grateful to our Polish colleagues for taking us in, helping us sort out our papers and finding somewhere to live, and with everything else.’
Kseniya: ‘As long as you have enough money, you can always find a way to manage, just the same as everywhere else. We used up a lot of money in Ukraine, helping people and getting ourselves here to live, so now it’s more difficult. It all takes a long time trying to pick up work again.’
Small movements in the world can give an author the sudden feeling of writing in melting snow, that the world we are writing for won’t still be there when the story reaches its end, or that this new world will be so radically changed that our words no longer have meaning.
The sale of books in Ukraine stopped almost entirely for two months. Bookshop chains closed, printing works shut down or were destroyed, and book stocks were obliterated. Above all, writers, designers, translators and editors found themselves in dire circumstances, often without any means of communication, and in total panic. Up until the 24 February Russian publishers had often bought the rights to Calvaria’s titles, but they’ve gone quiet since then, Petro says. I ask if they knew where their authors had gone. Was anyone still writing?
Petro: ‘We’ve managed to keep in touch with our authors, translators and designers, but not on a daily basis. Some have joined the army, some are in the home guard, and a number are now working as volunteers. Most of the book trade, 60-70 per cent, is in Kyiv and Kharkiv, and these cities were bombed and under attack from day one. But today (27 April) Yakaboo, Ukraine’s largest platform for e-books and audio books has started operating again. Though production itself is still very difficult. We’re looking for printing possibilities in Europe. Now there’s a demand for Ukrainian literature the world over, because of the war.’
The seeds of full-scale war exist in peacetime in all civilisations, a thin surface of peace over cruelty and barbarity, but love and caring exist too. We are frequently told that this war began in 2014, but perhaps it began long before that? Kseniya has spent time in eastern Ukraine with her social projects – including children, health and literacy – and has often been to Donetsk, Luhansk and the Kharkiv region.
Kseniya: ‘We’ve been supporting refugees from eastern Ukraine since 2014, with books and so on, but also providing psychological support. And a huge amount has changed there. The thrust of Russian ideology has always been to regard Ukraine as a vassal state.’
Petro: ‘We have friends in Bucha, Irpin, Vorzel, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol. Most of them are still alive, but some are dead. Some have lost their homes, all have lost their businesses. A number of them have found safety now, some of the others we haven’t heard from for a month.’
One night I dream that bombs are dropping on the other side of the water, above the silhouettes of buildings on the little island in the centre of Stockholm. The sky is rumbling, crashing, the sound of explosions so loud and metallic it feels as though the whole world is gone, that we are the only ones left. In the morning Kseniya and I write about another kind of dream. ‘What are you dreaming about now?’
Kseniya: ‘We dream of victory and a bright future for our son. We also dream about travelling, but not as refugees. And we dream about publishing fantastic books and about seeing people smile again. But none of that can happen for a very long time.’
Svetlana Alexievich writes about women fighting in the Red Army. ‘Now I understand the solitude of the human being who comes back from there. As if from another planet or from the other world. This human being has a knowledge which others do not have, which can be obtained only there, close to death.’
We are still writing to each other, Kseniya, Petro and I. Sometimes I receive photographs of Luka. In the latest photo he is holding a chess piece in one hand and a book about chess in the other. On the desk next to him is a freshly picked rose in a vase. On 7 May he celebrated his tenth birthday in Katowice. He feels slightly better now, but when he hears a loud noise he often thinks it’s the air raid siren. Their hometown Kyiv was bombed again a few days ago, but their building is still standing. They keep in touch with the other tenants in a chat group.
Their plan is to stay in Katowice at least until the summer, when Luka’s school term ends. ‘Then we’ll have to see what happens next.’
- 1: Svetlana Alexievich. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Penguin, 2017.
- 2: Ibid.
We are grateful to Sara Stridsberg, Dagens Nyheter and RCW Literary Agency for permission to publish this translated article.
Contact: Laurence Laluyaux, RCW Literary Agency.
Sara Stridsberg is an award-winning novelist and dramatist. Her novel The Faculty of Dreams, translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019), was longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2019. Her latest book is a collection of short stories, to be published in English translation by MacLehose Press in 2023.
Deborah Bragan-Turner is a translator working from Swedish to English. Her published translations include works by Per Olov Enquist, Mikael Niemi, Sara Stridsberg and Anne Swärd.