A review of Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine by Nicole Yurcaba

Released at a critical, pivotal moment during Russia’s brutal and inhumane invasion of Ukraine, the 8th and Atlas Publishing’s anthology Voices of Freedom: Contemporary Writing from Ukraine, edited by Kateryna Kazimirova and Daryna Anastasieva, is a cornerstone of the Ukrainian literary tradition. While English translations of Ukrainian literature have appeared for many years now in anthologized form thanks to publishers like Glagoslav Publications, few possess the cohesiveness achieved in Voices of Freedom. While the anthology houses the works of long-established Ukrainian writers such as Oksana Zabuzhko, Serhiy Zhadan, and Vasyl Makhno, it brings writers like Iya Kiva, Olaf Clemensen, and Yuliya Musakovska to a new audience.

Poet, novelist, and former political prisoner and dissident Ihor Kalynets opens the collection with his poem “18.” Placing Kalynets at the front of the anthology establishes the anthology’s role as a well brimming with poems, short stories, and narratives testifying to the unbreakable Ukrainian spirit. During the 1970s, authorities repressed Kalynets’ work, and the writer faced six years of detention in camps and another three years of exile. Now, at 83, Kalynets refuses to leave Ukraine despite the war, asserting that his entire life history is in Ukraine. As for the poem, certain lines allude to Kalynets’ imprisonment: “having clung with my ear / to the wall of the day / as if to the wall of a prison cell.” Other lines serve as a distinct reminder of poetry’s role in culture and in politics:

  if you are not
  a poet’s

  what are you then

The message of defiance rings clearly, and it implicitly pays homage to Ukrainian poets such as Vasyl Stus who used their poetry as a weapon against Soviet oppression.

Poet, publisher, and editor Ivan Malkovych’s first untitled poem showcases a Ukrainian’s deep love of homeland. The speaker admits, “I love recognizing you / on maps the world over.” They refer to the unnamed “you” as “my dear homeland / my touching comedy.” Despite its respectful, affectionate tone, the poem’s speaker implicitly condemns the Russian influence present in Ukraine. The speaker depicts Ukraine as running away “from that all-consuming nesting doll / that smothers everyone with its kremlin.” The speaker also draws on Russia’s historical oppression and manipulation of Ukraine, declaring “you run / but can’t quite get away.” The image of “hordes of nesting doll backers / running on foreign batteries” is stark, shocking and stands in contrast to later images of a nation “ready to take flight.” The speaker’s worry, however, is insurmountable, inescapable, and the poem culminates into the final line “…but I’m worried about your left paw.” The speaker’s assertions echo ideologies displayed nearly thirty years earlier in Oksana Zabuzhko’s groundbreaking book Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, which closely examines Ukraine’s (then) newly acquired independence during the early 90s.

Voices of Freedom also harbors thought-provoking prose by writers Kostiantyn Moskalets and Olaf Clemensen. Moskalets’ “War is Nigh,” originally written in 2021, addresses the current invasion’s true origins with which Ukrainians have lived since 2014. In Moskalets’ piece, the war is “getting closer” and is “undeniable, and irrevocable, no matter how much we would like to forget about it.” Moskalets asserts that he encountered the war even earlier–a concept that, perhaps, Western readers will not be able to understand. However, instead of analyzing the war’s origins in-depth, Moskalets refocuses on his own creative process and how his songs prior to the war served as a prophecy. Moskalets also draws attention to the rising number of wounded appearing in hospitals and in Ukrainian cities, and the essay concludes with quiet plea: “You must be ready. The time to be courageous has come.”

Olaf Clemensen’s “Summer-ato,” despite its similar focus on the war, stands in contrast to Moskalets’ piece. An excerpt from “Summer-ato” titled “Howitzers” approaches the war in a post-modern, Pynchon-esque manner. In this brief work, ten howitzers “are beautiful slender fashion models.” The speaker declares, “We have such howitzers! Even more beautiful than sunflowers.” In the context of the United States’ preparation of yet another aid package and in consideration of sending a Patriot missile system to Ukraine, “Howitzer” is a critical piece, and its emotional power lies in the personification of the howitzer. More specifically, the howitzer is portrayed as a female who carries “a baby in her arms, picked up somewhere in the middle of the steppe.” This representation is symbolic, especially as more and more Ukrainian women rise to duty’s call, enlist in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and take on significant combat roles such as sniper and drone operators. The West’s, particularly America’s, disassociation with and lack of education about Ukraine creates public desensitization, allowing Russian propaganda to influence public attitudes about sending aid to Ukraine. Thus, Clemensen’s piece is also a commentary about the necessity for other nations to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win the war against Russia. 

Yuliya Musakovksa’s “My Mother’s Prayer,” written in March 2022, is another of the anthology’s paramount poems. In this poem, the speaker reflects on a telephone conversation exchange between them and their mother. The mother poses a question asked by anyone paying attention to headlines from Ukraine: “How can humans do this to other humans?” However, the poem’s sharpest lines appear in its final stanza:

  Mother, my flower, don’t cry.
  You will finally see how the darkness consumes them,
  how Christ is temporarily being replaced
  by the severe God of the Old Testament.

Clearly and concisely, Musakovksa’s lines utilize biblical imagery to portray the ferocity of the Ukrainian spirit, a spirit and tenacity that Putin, like Stalin, is attempting to break. In the same manner as Clemensen’s piece, Musakovksa’s poem relies on feminine and maternal imagery to convey the strength of Ukrainian women, who, for centuries, have managed to not only preserve their identity, but—more specifically since February 24, 2022—have established themselves as a stalwart phenomenon standing strong against incomprehensible brutality.

Of course, an English-language anthology like Voices of Freedom wouldn’t be possible without the immense dedication and effort from the translators who breathe an entirely different language into these works. The anthology showcases the phenomenal work of translators such as Katherine Young, Oksana Maksymchuk, Olena Jennings, Grace Mahoney, Boris Dralyuk, and Ostap Kin. The poems and narratives are translated from both Ukrainian and Russian, a fact that—despite Ukrainian novelist Andrei Kurkov’s assertion that Russian language is losing its position in Ukraine (and this fact does not upset him or many other Ukrainians)—testifies Ukraine’s complex, multicultural identity. These translations allow Ukraine to tell its story, and it reminds its audience that defending a nation and culture doesn’t only occur on the battlefield. Fiction and nonfiction writers, translators, editors, poets, and risk-embracing publishers like 8th and Atlas Publishing are all warriors engaged in Ukraine’s fight to preserve its sovereignty and democracy.

Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба–Nikola Yurtsaba) is a Ukrainian (Hutsul/Lemko) American poet and essayist. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, West Trade Review, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Nicole teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and is a guest book reviewer for Sage Cigarettes, Tupelo Quarterly, Colorado Review, and The Southern Review of Books.