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“A path that leads you to a different light.” Things we’ve learned from Volodymyr Vakulenko-K03.07.2023
Volodymyr Vakulenko used to post frequently on Facebook, but he stopped doing so on March 3 — the beginning of the second week of Russia’s full-scale invasion against Ukraine. The last time someone contacted him by phone was on March 7. The final notes he made in his diary during the Russian occupation were on March 21. Today, we know that Russians captured him three days later and he never returned home. We also know that between that day and the news of his death, there were long and agonizing weeks, primarily for his family — who clung to hope that Volodymyr was still alive; there were unmarked graves in Izium forest and contradictory rumors.
Volodymyr Vakulenko died during the occupation and we’ll never find out what he would have said or and how happy he would have been if he saw with his own eyes that his hometown of Kapytolivka, first letter of which he always added to his last name, was liberated by the Armed Forces of Ukraine (ZSU). He was buried on Dec. 6 — ZSU Day. The diary Volodymyr wrote during the Russian occupation was presented at the Kyiv Book Arsenal on June 22. The collection “I’m transforming…” is published by Kharkiv publishing house Vivat.
Those who have passed away remain forever fixed at the moment they met their death. You can dive into their past — social media pages or old interviews — but a certain thought will always linger in your mind: what would they say if they were here, if they were alive? Chytomo is initiating a series of articles focused on the words and deeds of Ukrainian writers, translators, editors and publishers who lost their lives in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The series will highlight what they spoke, drew attention to, the wisdom they shared with their friends and family, and what they held dear during their lifetimes. What have they given us and what we must eventually preserve.
One of the first quotes in this text comes from Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian writer and investigator of Russian war crimes. She penned the foreword of Volodymyr’s diary, where she wrote, “I promised Volodymyr’s father that I will do everything to make the world talk about his son.” Tragically, Victoria passed away while we were preparing the English translation of this text. Her life was taken by Russian missiles. By publishing this text, we seek to honor her promise.
“I, as a Ukrainian writer, must speak on behalf of my colleague Volodymyr Vakulenko, who, unlike me, didn’t survive the empire’s renewed attempts to destroy Ukrainian identity. The prize awarded to Volodymyr means a lot for the Ukrainian literature community in particular since in the 20th century hundreds of Ukrainian writers, artists and public figures were murdered for their choice to be and remain Ukrainians. Unfortunately, none of them received such an award in Norway. I’m sure Volodymyr Vakulenko would like to dedicate the IPA Prix Voltaire Award 2023 to them too.
Volodymyr Vakulenko took notes while being in occupation still hoping that you, the world, will be able to hear him,” said Victoria Amelina, Ukrainian author, at the ceremony of Prix Voltaire the International Publishers Association (IPA) awarded to Volodymyr Vakulenko posthumously.
Numerous articles have been written and published about Volodymyr now, far more than when he was still alive. Victoria discovered Volodymyr’s diary, which he had buried in his garden to protect it from the Russians, and handed it over to the Kharkiv Literary Museum. The museum focuses on the stories of the Executed Renaissance — Ukrainian artists executed by Russia in the 1930s. This decision adds an important context to Vakulenko’s story: he wasn’t a random victim of atrocities of certain Russian military actions in Kapytolivka but rather a victim of the empire which Russia represents; an empire that nowadays uses the same methods it used nearly a century ago. Much like in the last century, it seems only the memory of these individuals endures, preserved in their writings or in the memories of those who knew them. How does this memory shape us — those who continue in their absence?
“The road to success is like traveling through a tunnel. It is completely dark but then suddenly you see the light. And you have two options: follow the light or look for an alternative way. What is hidden behind that light? Could it be a train and you have nowhere to run? But even in the tunnels there’s a narrow path that leads you to a different light. It exists only for those truly believing it should be somewhere there,” Volodymyr said in his interview seven years ago.
“I think it was autumn 2008 when Vakulenko started organizing small literary festivals in different cities and towns of Ukraine, and he invited young poets to participate. I had penned a few verses so I attended some of these events. I remember I was in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhya for sure,” writer Maksym Bezpalov recollects. “People always liked Volodymyr because of his initiatives. And also his positive attitude. He loved telling young authors not to be downhearted if they hit a snag, assuring them everything would work out in the end: they’d write a good book, find a publisher, and see that it’s not as difficult as it seems.”
Many people who knew Vakulenko pointed out his passion and abundance of ideas. He was both a maximalist and an uncompromising person. Yes, Volodymyr categorically didn’t recognize the Russian language or pro-Russian positions in Ukraine when he encountered them. Besides, organizing literary events outside of the major cities where such events are typically held — Kyiv and Lviv — was obviously a time-consuming activity that required persistent effort and perhaps even diligence, qualities that Vakulenko embodied.
In 2012 after being awarded the Oles Ulyanenko International Literary Prize, journalist Lilia Demydiuk asked Volodymyr Vakulenko what he’d like to do in Ukrainian literature. “A counter-literature explosion,” he replied. “A Ukrainian book must be a worldwide bestseller and the world must discover us and know that modern authors write, it isn’t only Taras Shevchenko. And it is “untapped,” still unknown genius, who will write such a bestseller and there will be a break-through even for the Nobel Prize. For the first time it will be a Ukrainian, and definitely a young one. I believe in it, and am constantly searching.”
“We met at various literary events all the time. However, there were instances, like when Volodya came to Ternopil, where in addition to events at the library where I worked, he organized meetings with children at the reception center, a National Police facility where children were temporarily housed before being transferred to other state institutions if no one could take care of them. It was important for Volodymyr to give something to these children,” recalls Iryna Matsko, a writer. “Another time he invited me and two other writers, Serhiy Hrydin and Sashko Dermansky, to come to Izium to meet the children in the camps. He secured funding for the trip and arranged accommodation for us.”
“I recall us walking from one camp to another. They were outside the city and we had to walk through pine forests — perhaps even the same ones where so many unmarked graves were found after the de-occupation, where Volodymyr’s body was buried. That’s why it was so hard for me to look at those photos later; I recognized the pine trees we had passed… I remember we got a little lost in that forest. It was hot and we were trudging through sand with heavy backpacks full of books… But it was clear that for Volodymyr these were really mere trivialities. The main thing was to reach the children on time, as they were eagerly awaiting us.”
“Volodya’s story demonstrates that even a personal stance, when clear and firm, carries significant weight. If Russians killed him for this, it truly speaks volumes about its potency. Even if a person has no weapon and is no visible danger to the occupiers. Now that Volodya is gone, I ask myself: am I doing enough? I think no, compared to him,” Iryna Matsko says.
Not giving up friends, not putting up with enemies
Iryna Novitska, Volodymyr’s ex-wife, says that his father, along with a local librarian and activists, have restored the garden that Vakulenko once planted in Kapytolivka. They also plan to hold annual readings on March 23 or 24 to commemorate the dates when the Russians took him captive, and to realize his ideas, such as publishing books for children with disabilities and a prize for young authors from Eastern Ukraine.
“Prix Voltaire award indicates the striking contrast between a person who inspires us and a tragedy that befell them,” says Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the Freedom To Publish Committee in the International Publishers Association. “One can easily lose the freedom of expression even where it is taken for granted. There are many places where artists can’t work freely; where the state censorship’s red lines have blurred into gray zones, leading individuals to practice self-censorship for their own protection. Mazin Lateef Ali (this year’s other nominee, an Iraq publisher who went missing) and Volodymyr Vakulenko are heroes who risked their lives to protect these values.”
Volodymyr Vakulenko’s actions were in fact the antithesis of self-censorship — even when he was under the occupation.
“Volodya taught me to stand my ground, fight injustice, lies and double game. He could not stand hypocrisy and double standards in any way, Iryna Novitska says. He often engaged in heated debates and would sever ties with people because of differing viewpoints, became an irreconcilable enemy while still recognizing their virtues. His fearlessness in participating in protests and risking physical harm is evident in his involvement in Euromaidan and the fact that he remained under occupation, becoming a victim of the Russists without giving up or abandoning his friends or reconciling himself to his enemies. He taught me not to fear growth and experimentation. Despite not being a professional, he actively worked on many things: he wasn’t proficient in languages and yet he translated articles for Wikipedia and pieces of poetry from English and other languages, he helped me to compile an index for a book without being familiar with historical terms and figures, and obviously learned at the same time. He edited his own texts, dabbled in layout and printing, binding, put effort into designing covers, and making posters.
He seemed to conjure neologisms out of thin air, inventing , amusing and sometimes childlike, yet remarkably astute etymologies. He combined the incompatible, was not afraid of unexpected thoughts, unconventional methods while avoiding the stereotypical and hackneyed language. He did not like people with stereotypical thinking. He taught us to love and understand children, stressing the importance of individualized engagement and rejecting any form of condescension or superiority over the young or inexperienced. Volodya often professed to being a big child at heart and his spontaneity and openness knew no bounds.
Volodya was deeply committed to self-development and self-improvement. He frequently revisited his own works and even had a special folder entitled “Quality Conservation”. He would edit, review and shift emphasis. From the first day we met, he made it clear that he was driven to study hard and become a professional. He respected professionalism and strived to achieve. In a certain way he was a perfectionist, but he never allowed himself to become complacent in his creative endeavors.
He regarded animals and the environment with a sense of awe. He also volunteered for river cleanups, collected trash to take to the dump, and taught children to do the same. During the first days of the full-scale invasion and occupation, the devastation of nature and his town pained him deeply. He cared for the buildings, animals and people alike. At the same time, he was compassionate, supportive and encouraging. He was incredibly emphatic, often described as a “person without any skin.” He went out of his way to help others even when it seemed impossible.
From the very beginning of war in Eastern Ukraine in 2014, he was actively involved in volunteer work, initially helping displaced people from Crimea and Donbas, and later assisting military and territorial defense forces. Volodya had a sense of self-irony and taught me to face life’s hardships with humor. He was a fervent patriot. In Eastern part of Ukraine such an attitude comes at a high cost, making his stance more meaningful, considered, intense and impactful. Volodya and his friends embodied patriotism — not just in words but in actions. He’s extremely needed here, in Ukraine, now and I often think how inspired and passionate he would be when working on his ideas now.”
– What is your most valuable award your life gave you?
– Children, Volodymyr said in his interview in 2016.
PEN Ukraine Executive Director Tetyana Teren adds that all proceeds from the first edition of Volodymyr Vakulenko’s book “I’m Transforming…”, published by Vivat publishing house, will be given to his family. This follows the action taken by the Old Lion Publishing House, which re-published “Daddy’s Book”, Volodymyr’s collection of poetry for children, and also directed the proceeds to his family.
“I’m sure that Volodya’s death and burial changed everyone. I could physically feel changes inside of us and in the space surrounding us. Volodya’s death is a terrible, unthinkable and painful loss that evokes the memory of the Executed Renaissance in all of us. One of our duties as cultural managers, one of the duties of our culture, will be keeping and preserving the memory of our fallen,” Tetyana Teren said.
PEN Ukraine is actively supporting Volodymyr Vakulenko’s family, primarily his parents and younger son, who requires ongoing care. The Kharkiv Literary Museum and the Dobrochynets NGO are also lending support. Tetiana Teren says this group of people united around the search for Volodymyr when he was reported missing.
“I have faced many difficult experiences since the start of the full-scale invasion, but it never crossed my mind that I would need to become a co-organizer of my colleague’s funeral and I discussed this with Tetyana Pylypchuk, the director of Kharkiv Literary Museum when we met in the yard of Saint Demetrius Church in Kharkiv before Volodya’s burial. We hugged each other and Tetyana remarked: “We used to organize festivals, and now we are organizing a funeral.”
In fact, the most important thing, concerning the families of the fallen, is that they shouldn’t be left all alone with their grief. Our today’s tasks are to help to buy a comfortable and safe house for Vitaliy in Kapytolivka, translate Volodymyr’s diary, publish it abroad and find more new platforms to tell about Volodya’s story and expose the atrocities committed by Russian occupying forces at every opportunity that presents itself.
I wish the book “I’m Transforming…”, which contains a diary written during the occupation and collection of poetry, never had to exist. I wish Volodya could have published his diary himself and continued to release collections of poetry… However, given the circumstances, we have united to publish this book with utmost responsibility, as a homage and as a testimony of the crimes committed by the Russian occupants on our land.”
Photos: Volodymyr Vakulenko’s Facebook page
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