Three days after Britain launched its Home for Ukraine website on March 14, more than 100,000 potential refugee sponsors had signed up for the voluntary job. The scheme, which allowed people to register as refugee sponsors in exchange for a monthly stipend of £350, was received with relief by a British public anxious to do something, anything to help Ukrainians fleeing their war-bloodied country.
It made me think about Marina Lewycka’s 2005 novel ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’. Ms Lewycka was born in a refugee camp in Germany after World War II. Those long-ago refugee camps, full of people like Ms Lewycka’s family, indicate how much the Ukrainian people have suffered in less than a hundred years.
Ms Lewycka’s debut novel is also about need, lasciviousness, selfishness, memory, pain, jealousy and family strife. All of life, really, but more particularly, life among Ukrainians who are far from their country.
The novel was generally well-received when it appeared (I remember reading it with considerable pleasure), but panned by the great and the good in Ukraine.
Andrey Kurkov, a prominent Ukrainian writer who’s now being reverently quoted everywhere, reviewed Ms Lewycka’s debut book in The Guardian in withering terms. It’s a quite “banal tale”, he said, “of a Ukrainian woman who enters the UK on a tourist visa and who is prepared to go to any lengths to remain in the country.”
So there we have it.
A short history of tractors in Ukrainian is about anything but. In fact, it is about need, which drives everything really – even war.
Valentina, a buxom young Ukrainian immigrant, needs a British passport, for which she is prepared to marry 84-year-old Nikolai, a Ukrainian immigrant to Britain, whom she cares about not a jot.
Valentina also needs to provide an “oxfordcambridge education” for her teenage son, who has come with her to the UK.
Nikolai needs to play out a number of sexual fantasies, much beyond his physical capabilities.
Nikolai’s daughters, Nadezhda and Vera, need to show their concern for their father by much gnashing of teeth over the young blonde gold-digger.
Incidentally, Nikolai also feels he needs to leave a permanent mark on the world and so he’s trying to write a history of tractors in Ukrainian.
Mr Kurkov noted in his review that the characters in the novel suffer from their treatment at the hands of their creator.
That sounds a tad arrogant. What might Mr Kurkov mean?
There is Valentina’s buxom form; the old man’s impotent instinct to constantly be in pyjamas or naked, occasionally inserting “a Ukrainian word into his English sentences” and his younger daughter Nadezhda’s reminiscing about Ukraine and tragic events such as the famine, Nazi occupation and Stalin’s purges.
There is the fact the daughters eventually manage to get their father divorced from his grasping young wife, even as Nadezhda learns about the Holodomor, the three-year Great Famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932. It killed millions and Ukrainians correctly regard it as entirely man-made and deliberate. Again, there are echoes of the situation today.
Mr Kurkov, who belongs to a literary school that seeks subtlety rather than on-the-nose portrayals, writes: “Reading this novel gave me the impression that I had read a school textbook on Ukrainian history with one eye on an episode of Coronation Street.”
Some might say the daily news, as this horrific war grinds on, is no different in the way journalists are telling it.
Ms Lewycka’s website offers some observations on eastern Ukraine, to which her family belongs.
In the summer of 2014, she wrote about a trip to Ukraine to stay with her relatives. She posted photos of the pretty, rural and peaceful area of Krasniy Derkul, with its “communal cow-milking field” and recalled her cousins’ smallholding with its “long garden where they grow tomatoes and sweet corn and onions”. A field at the bottom of the garden and then a river is all that separates them from Russia. Ms Lewycka also had a photo of “a home-made tractor”, something I would’ve expected because her 2005 debut novel was ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’.
Ms Lewycka went on to note in her blog: “Ukrainians are clever, inventive, hardworking, and poor – they deserve so much better than the bunch of thieving politicians and oligarchs who have robbed them shamelessly. And they certainly don’t deserve a civil war while their ‘masters’ scrap over who should be allowed to exploit them further.”
Those observations are hideously pertinent now, when Ukraine is facing an existential crisis and a horrific toll in lives and infrastructure in a dreadful war. In a recent newspaper article (paywall), Ms Lewycka wrote about her cousin (perhaps the same one she visited nearly a decade ago?) in relation to the fracturing of ties between Kyiv and Ukrainians in the east of the country. Her cousin, she said, is a retired apolitical academic who lives in Luhansk. The cousin has not had a pension from Kyiv since 2017. It’s a sign of how things stand between eastern and western halves of Ukraine.
So who is a Ukrainian and who is not, she asks. Ms Lewycka’s family “comes from Luhansk, which is one of the so-called Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine”; her mother was born in a place that was part of Poland at the time, and her father was born in Kyiv.
And yet, she insists “there are at least two kinds of Ukrainians…But only one (my kind) is acceptable to Putin’s gang and, historically, only the western kind has been treated as truly Ukrainian by the west.”
I thought it was an interesting nuance, one that is often missed.
Vladimir Putin has somewhat contemptuously said that Ukraine is not an ancient state; it’s not even a nation.
And British-Ukrainian novelist Marina Lewyka, whose family hails from the east of the country, takes a nuanced view of Mr Putin’s assertion. She recently wrote (paywall) as follows: “I don’t like Putin but he is technically right when he says that Ukraine is not an ancient state.”
It sounded fairly controversial but Ms Lewycka went on to explain her thinking: “Most states, as we currently think of them, are relatively new. But although Ukraine is not ancient, Kyiv is — hence its importance to his project. Kievan Rus, a federation of mostly East Slavic peoples that was dominated by the city, existed from the 9th century. Kyiv was Russia’s first capital until Moscow was built. The western side of Ukraine, on the other hand, was part of the Habsburg Catholic empire and only incorporated into the Tsarist empire relatively recently.”
She concluded by acknowledging that contentious ideas about the past can’t really be allowed to get in the way of a peaceful present. “Who knows what Putin believes, but he seems to be counting on the idea that the pull of ancient history will prevail. Amid the current horrors, one thing seems clear: whatever nation they identify themselves with most, the peoples of Ukraine and Russia will lose out in this conflict.”
It’s an important point. It’s worth examining these very different terms – countries, nations, peoples, races.