Artem Chapeye

Artem Chapeye on the search for authentic Ukraine: ‘It doesn’t have to be a ‘propaganda’ story’


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James Baldwin famously wrote in his essay “Notes of a Native Son” in 1955, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”  The Ukraine, A collection of essays and short stories by a rising international star of Ukrainian prose, Artem Chapeye, recently translated by Zenia Tompkins and published in English by Seven Stories Press, embodies a similar spirit of patriotic dissent.


Its international publication aims to broaden foreigners’ understanding of a country now facing an existential threat, but Chapeye (given name Anton Vodyanyi), who volunteered for the Ukrainian Armed Forces following the onset of the full-scale invasion, had a different idea in mind when he first wrote it in 2018.


“My intention was to be provocative about the Ukrainian perception of ourselves. Even the title, ‘The Ukraine,’ triggers negativity among those who believe we should only show what is palatable to foreigners, which is bullshit,” Chapeye said in an interview with Chytomo, conducted via Zoom while he was on a break from duty at a military training center. 


As we noted in our Chytomo review, while the term “The Ukraine” is typically used to refer to Ukraine during its time within the Russian Empire, here Chapeye reclaims or re-appropriates it to denote “untranslatable cultural phenomena” unique to the country. These phenomena, vividly brought to life through essays documenting Chapeye’s travels and through the array of characters he encounters or sketches in the short stories, showcase the rich diversity and peculiarities of Ukrainian culture and life.




Hiking with Skovoroda


This style of travel and reportage follows a long literary tradition of travel narratives. It’s akin to a hobo-esque “On The Road” meets “Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” except, in this instance, the mechanics fixing Chapye’s disabled Yamaha are two dudes in a yellow Zhiguli who are both named Anton, sporting tracksuits and buzz cuts, off a highway near Tokmak. A closer comparison might be with Rory Stewart’s “The Places in Between,” which chronicles  Stewart’s walk across Afghanistan in 2002 following the fall of the Taliban. Both writers set out on long journeys and  engaged with ordinary people in a country at a crossroads. However, for Chapeye, that country was also home.


Photo courtesy of Artem Chapeye


His real influence, though, predates all the above: he is a disciple of the Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda, an 18th-century thinker, teacher, and writer often referred to as “the Socrates of Ukraine,” whose nomadic lifestyle and method of teaching through dialogue and interaction with common people resonated deeply with Chapeye. 


“I still love traveling across the country and especially going to very untouristic places, places which are not on the map. I would love to travel all over Ukraine, but more for the people than for the nature, going the way Skovoroda did, from village to village, from small town to small town and just seeing what happens… I did a lot of travels like this… and I think it helps you a lot to see the country from the inside, because in big cities, it’s very often difficult to start communicating with people.”


The writing that resulted from his travels is rich and full of compelling details and personalities, but the reality it depicts is also often messy and complicated. In the short story “Sonny, Please,” we follow a grandmother from a village thwarted by an overzealous police officer in Kyiv as she tries to sell potatoes to support her alcoholic and insolent grandson. In “Rymma Hryhorivna Is Craving Human Contact,” Chapeye accompanies police in the capital, in one moment, overhearing their homophobic and racist jokes, and, in another, watching as they de-escalate, or at least refuse to take the bait, in a domestic dispute involving a drunk woman who falsely accuses her son and mother. “The Apolitical Wunderkind” is a dry, sardonic short story skewering the Ukrainian elite: a teenage girl with ultra-rich parents has a photography exhibition at a museum. Her work is of questionable merit (tellingly, she hasn’t yet learned to take photos of people) but she’s convinced she’s a genius because of the platform and attention given to her because of her parents’ wealth and influence.


Throughout, the writing is vivid, well-paced, and often laced with irony and humorous or affectionate asides, but it’s not the kind of thing you’d put on a postcard. Initially published in the aftermath of the outbreak of war in 2014, “The Ukraine” serves as a subtle rebuke to the kind of crude patriotic narrative that often appears during wartime – what Ukrainians in some instances call the “bayraktarization” (Bayraktarshchyna) of pop culture, a reference to a pop song named after the Turkish drone “Bayraktar,” that became ubiquitous in the early stages of the full-scale invasion.


Of course, the title is provocative or triggering. So people get interested. And then, inside the book, you can see that this is actually challenging our own perceptions about ourselves, the way we want to see ourselves, because at the time I was writing it… there were a lot of very complimentary stories about Ukrainians. For example, even visually, you would see these pictures, taken from drones from up high. And they would show the beauty of a city. But then if you could come down within the city, you would see the leaking pipes, the alcoholism, and stuff like that. So I wanted to show both sides, but with love.

— Artem Chapeye.


Telling victim’s stories — in all their complicity 


Of course, to understand Chapeye’s writing and perspective, it’s important to remember that he is a self-identified leftist with a history of civic activism and protest, which includes opposition to U.S invasion of Iraq in 2003. He is also the author of “Father on Paternity Leave” (2016), in which he documents taking a full year off to care for his two young sons. An essay in The Ukraine touches on his involvement with community activism via the “Save Old Kyiv” movement, which sought to preserve the city’s historic center from encroaching developers, including an Orthodox church that was expanding its footprint in the historic Karavaievi Dachi district without the required permits. And after he enlisted following the full-scale invasion, he described the decision by quoting lyrics from “Committed to Life,” a song by the Asian Dub Foundation featuring an interview with Assata Shakur,” in which she describes how necessity had driven her to become  a “reluctant warrior” in the struggle against oppression. 


It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he sees Ukraine’s struggle against Russia within the framework of other anti-imperialist struggles.


“I’m thinking a lot about it because, now that the war is happening in my country, I have been ruminating about the imperialist tendencies in culture. We know about the Vietnam War only from the American perspective… Or I know the stories of the French Algerian War of the 60s, but only from the French side. I would love to see how it looked like, truthfully, from the side of the Algerians… this story from the point of view of the victim, basically, with all its complexities,” he said.


For Chapeye, capturing those “complexities,” when it comes to Ukraine means portraying those who chose to stay and fight, and those who did not.


I don’t stand by the official definition of a nationalist or even a patriot; for me, it’s a matter of consciousness. And so, I would love to see future stories about Ukraine with all its complexities. If it’s a novel, it has to deal both with the people who volunteer and the people who are running away. Everything. It doesn’t have to be a ‘propaganda’ story.


Solidarity with Gaza


Chapeye also applies this anti-imperialist lens to Israel’s ongoing attack on Gaza, which came in response to Hamas’s brutal attack and seizing of civilian hostages on Oct. 7. He was one of the signatories of the “Ukrainian Letter of Solidarity with Palestinian people,” although he is well aware that, within Ukraine, he’s in the minority.


“For me, this is also a matter of principle. I wouldn’t bend to the majority. I have very good Israeli friends, and I admire how, in Israel, many more people participate in wars than in Ukraine. Like there are fewer ‘draft dodgers’ or whatever you call them. So I admire Israel for that. I admire Israel for their will to survive. And I can sympathize with their struggles. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘you can kill Palestinian kids, and this is okay because you were attacked first.’” 


Chapeye quickly notes, as he must, that he is only speaking for himself, as an activist and a writer, and not as a soldier or in any official capacity.


Ukrainian agency


But in his capacity as a writer and activist, Chapeye plays an important role in explaining Ukraine’s fight. As someone who has been clear in his support for Palestine, and who speaks in the language and critical frameworks of the left, his words carry weight with similarly-minded audiences both in the West and beyond. He reaches people whom Zelensky cannot.


Before the war, he says he was deeply committed to nonviolence and translated both Mahatma Gandhi and Noam Chomsky into Ukrainian. Now he is dismayed when he sees part of the left talk about Ukraine’s fight for survival as a “proxy war” between Russia and the United States.


Photo courtesy of Artem Chapeye


“For me, this is like talking about chess instead of talking about pawns. And I already addressed this in my argument with Noam Chomsky, whom I translated into Ukrainian. I was very hurt by his stance because he is talking about big political geopolitical chess. I don’t give a damn about geopolitical chess when my kids and my wife have to run away from our home. And sometimes I feel like these people who are dealing in schemes and frameworks, this big painting, they just don’t feel the anguish of the people on the ground or the millions that have to run away and the millions of separated families. They deny agency to Ukrainians. We [Ukrainians] understand all the geopolitical games very well. But don’t exclude us from the equation. We are active agents who are fighting for our own good, and we are the victims,” he says.


In the English translation of “The Ukraine,” Chapeye is both showing Ukrainian agency, for better and for worse, and trying to capture and explain what makes Ukrainians Ukrainian for international readers. 


“As I was writing the book, I didn’t think it would reach international audiences, ever. And the thing is that it’s reached international audiences at a very horrible price. Because the only reason why it’s becoming interesting to international audiences is this war and Ukrainian resistance.”


Hopes for young writers 


As he serves in the army, with the war dragging on, he hopes Ukrainian writers younger than himself will take on the task of telling the stories, in all their complexities, of this current chapter of Ukraine’s fight against Russian imperialism.


“I’m already over 40, and I think writing about stuff that’s happening now has to happen like 10 or 20 years after, when we can talk freely about everything. And I hope there’s still something to write about and somebody to talk to readers about it. So I have very big hopes for the people who are not writers yet, but who will start writing in ten or fifteen years from now,” he said.


Editing: Lesia Waschuk

Cover photo: Alexander Bugaenko