Victoria Amelina, a 37-year-old Ukrainian writer and war crimes researcher, died in a Dnipro hospital on Saturday, July 1, due the injuries she sustained when the Kramatorsk restaurant where she was having a meal was struck by a Russian missile.
Amelina was in Kramatorsk with a delegation of Colombian writers and journalists on June 27, when Russian forces fired two Iskander missiles at the city, one of which hit the popular Ria Lounge pizza restaurant downtown.
“With our greatest pain, we inform you that Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina passed away on July 1 in Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro,” PEN Ukraine said in a statement on its Facebook page on Sunday.
Russians claimed there were soldiers at the restaurant
This may have been the case. But there are soldiers in nearly every restaurant in the country. Ukraine is at war. You will see soldiers in uniform everywhere you go.
Yet even those not in uniform are contributing to the war effort. Men, women and children from every walk of life are doing whatever they can to help the war effort. This can range from repairing bombed infrastructure to keeping the trains running to performing music by which to collect donations for the military.
According to Moscow’s rationale, the entire country and all its civilians are a legitimate target. Indeed, the Russians have been killing civilians systematically since its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, and even before.
Is this a new policy?
The Russians have been targeting Ukrainian culture – and anything that questions their appropriation of Kyivan Rus’ history – ever since Muscovy extended its sphere of influence southward to occupy Ukrainian lands in the 17th century.
Through legal edicts and brute force, Moscow has consistently tried to “russify“ Ukraine, which they have long referred to as “Little Russia.”
The 20th century was no exception. There was a glimmer of hope for Ukrainian writers in the early days of the Soviet Union. Lenin tried to bring nationalist elements over to the Bolshevik cause by encouraging the Ukrainian language. The 1920s saw a veritable explosion of Ukrainian literature on lands previously occupied by the Tsarist Empire.
Unfortunately, the rebirth was to be short-lived. Toward the end of the 1920s, as Stalin took power and recognized Ukrainian national feelings as an organic opposition to his attempts at collectivizing Ukraine’s agriculture, Moscow cracked down on Ukrainian writers.
Historians now refer to the cull as “The Executed Renaissance.” In the 1930s Stalin decimated Ukraine’s most promising literary lights. Writers such as Mykola Khvylovy, Mykhailo Semenko, Mykola Kulish, Les Kurbas and a host of others were arrested, imprisoned and killed.
Stalin and the proxies he placed in authority over Ukraine obviously considered a thriving Ukrainian language to be a threat to Russian hegemony over the Soviet Union’s many minority nations. In essence, the same linguistic imperialism imposed by the tsars came to be ruthlessly enforced by Stalin.
Didn’t things get better after Stalin’s death?
Only briefly. The 1960s in Ukraine saw another literary rebirth – the Shistdesiatnyky (Sixtiers) generation. Figures such as Vasyl Symonenko, Lina Kostenko, Ivan Drach, and others benefited from the Krushchev thaw and revitalized the Ukrainian literary language, which Stalin had devastated.
Then, with Brezhnev, the pendulum swung back once more towards increased repression.
Often included among the Shistdesiatnyky is poet Vasyl Stus, who was arrested for nationalist activities and sent to the Gulag in the 1970s, where he died in 1985, at the height of Mikhail Gorbachev’s much vaunted perestroika.
Didn’t russification end with independence?
Not quite. The russification process just became softer; it managed to exploit the inertia of a policy that had been implemented for centuries.
Even in independent Ukraine, where efforts were made to revitalize the Ukrainian language so that it didn’t become something similar to Gaeilge in Ireland (the Irish language which is only spoken in its westernmost provinces), Russian was the language heard in most city streets, school playgrounds and university corridors – alas, even on cigarette breaks during Ukrainian literature classes.
In Western universities, Slavic literature departments tend to be “Slavic” only in name. In reality, they are Russian literature departments with a few token courses about Poland and/or the Balkans. The Harvard University Research Institute – with which Viktoria Amelina was affiliated – is a notable exception.
Gradually, however, Ukrainian literature has come increasingly to the world’s attention, largely thanks to the Revolution of Dignity and the subsequent war. Moscow has countered this trend by claiming Russian speakers in Ukraine were being persecuted. But in fact, the majority of soldiers fighting against Russian occupation – not to mention President Volodymyr Zelensky – have Russian as their first language.
A heavy history still has victims
Ukrainian writers since Taras Shevchenko in the 19th century, and even before him, have understood that the mere act of writing in Ukrainian was regarded as a threat to authorities who considered Kyiv to be “the mother of all Russian cities,” as Russian chauvinists like to call it.
By writing in Ukrainian, Amelina was already somewhat of thorn in Moscow’s side. Last October Amelina organized a literary festival that she had founded in the small Donbas town of Нью-Йорк (New York).
Not long after the festival was over, Russians bombed the building in which it had been hosted.
When Amelina began her mission as a researcher of Russian war crimes, she became more than just a thorn in Moscow’s side. She became the public face of those seeking evidence on which to base a potential war crimes trial against the Russian hierarchy.
Anyone familiar with Russian history vis-à-vis the Ukrainian language should not be surprised that the pizzeria where Amelina was eating with journalists and aid workers was targeted.
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