Dreaming Orchards of Hope in Ukraine’s “Wild East”

Reviewing Lyuba Yakimchuk's Apricots of Donbas


in Features • Illustrated by Bhavna Ganesan


Put yourself in the Donets Coal Basin, abbreviated as Donbas, with its two urban centers of Donetsk and Luhansk. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been the site of Ukraine’s Rust Belt. Before that, it was a land that, despite the ravages of heavy industrialization, was a beacon of hope for many. Its coal fueled the rapid growth of industry in the previously sparsely populated region. The czars, as they were wont to do, brought in the international experts. A Scottish industrialist founded Luhansk in 1795, and a contingent of Welshmen led by John Hughes founded the settlement of Hughesovka in 1870 . . . later renamed Donetsk. Most of the subsequent settlers to arrive in the region were Ukrainian, a group that remained the ethnic majority through to the present conflicts. With the migration of laborers from within the Russian Empire, the imperial language became a dominant facet of life, particularly within the urban working class. However, the ethnic Russian population never surpassed the Ukrainian one, and both were accompanied by significant German, Greek, Jewish, Serb, and Tatar populations. Catholics, Lutherans, Mennonites, Jews, and Muslims mingled with Greek and Russian Orthodox in Ukraine’s “Wild East.” One German named his settlement New York. It is easy to see why. Although perhaps an analogy with Detroit or Buffalo would more readily come to mind for recent visitors. If we knew in 2014 what we know now, then perhaps we would have seen in the Donbas separatist movement an indicator of our own futures. Certainly as an indicator of the full-scale invasion which has since begun.

Lyuba Yakimchuk comes from a working-class Donbas family. Her mother was a factory worker, and her father a coal miner. She came of age after the fall of the Soviet Union and grew up through the industrial decline of her region. It seems that the age-old questions of where Donbas belonged were always, for her, steeped in the realities of the place more than in ethno-nationalist passions. In her recently translated collection of poems, Apricots of Donbas, she describes her father’s hair as “flaxen yellow” and his eyes as “sea blue.” Yet she says he is “not a flag.” She recounts how she watched her father, like the Donbas landscape, turn faded and gray. The terricones, chimneys, sumps, trenches, toxins, smoke, trains . . . all these are her Donbas, where she sees in the landscape only so many cigarette ashes and bottle caps left behind by her father. Yet, as the title piece of her collection indicates, she also sees Donbas as a land of natural beauty and innocence . . . of apricots, in fact, which grow throughout the steppe which crosses into Russia. Yet, as she says, “Where no more apricots grow, Russia starts.” Apricots, in her poetry, descend into mines in hardhats and ascend into heaven after industrial accidents. The apricot trees are “uprooted” — they aren’t Коренные народы, “rooted” or Indigenous people (so went the ethnological argument of many a Ukrainian nationalist of yore). If these apricots are the popular Red-cheeked variety, in fact, then they are the product of Soviet breeding. Rather than take root they “stretched their hands to the sky.” It is instead smoke which takes root, tracing its way down to mingle with ancient mammoths and Cumans. These apricots, for their part, have been growing in the sludge and slag. It becomes clear that Yakimchuk is writing folklore for an industrialized people on the faultline. The coal mining apricots plummet to their death, explaining the origin of their pits: coals trapped inside. “End of tale,” it abruptly finishes, as we imagine the storyteller returning to work again.

To leave and seek asylum is to be uprooted, Yakimchuk explains, but it is also to extend one’s roots. Yakimchuk was forced to leave her town in 2014, but she continued to hope to bridge the gap between Kyiv and the underserved region of her birth. A great influence on her work has been the Ukrainian Futurists, particularly the poet Mykhail’ Semenko. Taking place during the early period of cultural experimentation following the Russian Revolution, the Ukrainian Futurists distinguished themselves in both their art and tenacity. Unlike its Italian iteration, which would come to be identified with fascism, Slavic Futurist artists embraced the Soviet Union’s ideals of international socialist revolution. That is, despite the fact that the Russian Bolsheviks had had to subjugate Ukraine through a process of war and interference, including the familiar establishment of an opposing Ukrainian state in Donbas and the deployment of Russian troops disguised as local militants (a tactic also perfected in Mongolia). At the time Ukraine had already independently established itself a People’s Republic of the Left-revolutionary mold and did so in anticipation of a federation with Russia. Unless we believe the Bolshevik accusation that the Ukrainians, with their autonomy only recently reclaimed from Czarist russification, were hopelessly “bourgeois nationalists” in their wishes to secure democratic independence for themselves, it would seem that their only sin was to not consent to Russian dominance in their revolutionary future. In response to this perpetual loss of autonomy as much as in rejection of the Italian Futurist fascination with violent nationalism, Semenko would call his movement “Panfuturism” — at once proletarian and universal. Yet, as contemporary scholars point out, the Ukrainian avant-garde was rich in Ukrainian folkways, including traditional subjects, such as the Cossack Mamay, and motifs such as the pysanka. Ukrainian Futurists wanted to imagine a future for themselves, and to see themselves in that future meant to connect it with the past. It was not for nothing that, with the onslaught of Stalinist attacks on “formalism” and “national deviations,” Ukrainian Futurists would hold out longer than their counterparts in Moscow. Neither was it pure coincidence that the official reputation of Russian artist, Vladimir Mayakovsky, was “rehabilitated” following his 1930 suicide, while Mykhaylo Semenko would disappear from cultural memory following his 1937 execution . . . for “bourgeois nationalism,” of course.

Among the efforts which Yakimchuk carries forward from Semenko is the desire for a Ukraine which is no mere ethno-national state, but is rather a particular articulation of universal human principles. In her poem “Prayer” we hear this clearly:

Our daily bread give to the hungry
and let them stop devouring one another

our light give to the deceived 
and let them gain clarity

So, what about this permanent excess which refuses to be incorporated into anything else? This stubborn thing that reemerges, this nation? Why, if our best intentions are so broad, do we persist through them all to declare our independence? Yakimchuk answers this, too, as a pregnant spouse of a soldier at war. For her, the Motherland is at once both burdened with the future which the father defends, and simultaneously she is a burden on the future herself:

I carry inside me his child
and cannot force it out
for he owns my body through it […]

and lead us not into temptation
to go down with this rotting world
but deliver us from an evil
to get rid of the burden of a Motherland — 
heavy and hardly useful

Here the poet reminds us of the hope of the Махновщина (“Makhnovshchina” or “Free Territory”), the effort begun under the Donetsk–Krivoy Rog Soviet Republic puppet state in Donbas to establish a stateless anarchy. Yet she will later conclude that the future which is fought for, the child which is the “solid love / of a liquid mother / and a gaseous father”, is not so much the product of the national myth, as much as the national myth is the assumption it inherits, rightly or wrongly, from its family history. Far from desiring to inculcate the immortality of his people in the child, the mother knows it is merely the most convenient way to continue to survive in our struggles:

so when your own father and son
believe in your immortality
what are you supposed to do?

it’s all changed now
father’s ill
and I’m already mortal
yet I keep saying
that all of us in the family are cut from the same cloth
never falling ill
never dying
simply immortal, we are!
instead of memory everlasting — ours is life eternal
and the child listens

What family behaves any differently? In the powerfully painful piece entitled “Caterpillar” we see another family dynamic. The mother and daughter are stopped by what we assume are separatists. The mother drops her wedding band, which the daughter conceals in her mouth while the men inspect the mother for evidence of having fired a rifle. The burn on her finger gives her away. The violation which ensues has two readings. For her part, the mother sees the number of men as nine: biblical completion, judgment. Their garments are blue: God, Heaven. Their shoes are Nikes: Goddess of victory. What does the daughter see? She sees “a caterpillar devour their verdant town.” In even the most horrible contexts of war, nature returns. 

We all, as the folktale goes, shall be apricots. “Ukrainians”? It is almost unintelligible. Yakimchuk begs us: “don’t talk to me about Luhansk / it’s long since turned into hansk / Lu had been razed to the ground / to the crimson pavement”. “Ukrainian”, from the Old Russian word for “periphery”, doesn’t quite cut it. No, we shall all be apricots. For apricots do not disappear under so much soot and destruction. Apricots only perish where there is no liberty. Even one’s name disintegrates: “no longer Lyuba // just ba”. What could blood itself even mean in such circumstances where there is no freedom? In “How I Killed,” calling relatives under the oppressive gaze of the Russia-backed separatists, she explains”

all of my phone connections are blood relations
my blood is wiretapped
they must know what percentage is Ukrainian
Polish, Russian, and if there’s any Gypsy
they must know how much of it I gave, and to whom
they must know whether that’s my blood sugar dropping
or the roof collapsing over me
and whether it’s possible to build borders out of membranes

A border of membranes against an orchard of apricots. The counting and labeling of genes belong to the other side. We are all merely apricots. But how did we get here?

Donbas was once one of the leading industrial centers of the Soviet Union, and was celebrated as the “Heart of Russia” in 1920s state propaganda, where it was also known by revived Czarist nomenclature as part of “New Russia.” For its distinct character and strategic importance, both geographically and economically, Donbas also has a long history of being a dynamic peripheral region always disquieted by its distance from the power centers which seek to benefit from its resources and labor. It has also always been willing to play one side off the other in its search for a better deal. 

The so-called Euromaidan protests and Maidan Revolution of 2013-4 ousted pro-Russian president Yanukovych and precipitated the Russian annexation of Crimea, but it also (with Russian help) awakened long-simmering resentments in Donbas. Yet it is only too easy to forget how Donbas had historically expressed the same resentments toward Moscow at times. The decline of the coal industry in Donbas had in fact been visible as early as the 1970s. Up to that point, the immense power of the coal industry and its lobby in Moscow had the wherewithal to intimidate even the operators of that totalitarian state. Their strength was ideologically represented everywhere, in images of heroic miners building the glories of Communism. Regardless of the poor working conditions, including undisclosed exposure to radiation during nuclear mining experiments, Soviet miners such as those in Donbas formed a virtual proletarian aristocracy. While miners enjoyed high salaries and extravagant benefits, the Soviet coal industry as a whole was barely turning a profit after 1958, and it was entirely operating at a loss by 1978. In the 1980s the industry was costing the USSR nearly 2 billion rubles per year. 

Something had to give. Strikes and protests aimed at Moscow erupted in 1989, first in the Kuzbas in Siberia and then in Donbas. The 1991 Ukrainian independence referendum found unanimous support in Donbas, but the miners’ hopes that independence might revive their industry were misplaced. In 1993 strikes and protests returned, this time against Kyiv. The conflict in Donbas was never, at its core, about Russian ethnicity or Russian language any more than it was about returning to the industrial hazards of the past. The shallow Soviet nostalgia in the region speaks to this — there is no longing for the Russian Federation, nor for actual Soviet ideology. It is a reactionary longing as hollow and anachronistic as the past “greatness” that we hear about in our own country. We know this — we know returning miners to the coal mines or enforcing an ahistorical ethnic hegemony will only profit the elite and resort to worse ecological, economical, and social suffering. It is no way forward. It is merely a way to react. A way for one group to lash out when its interests are in truth connected to those of its neighbors. In the efforts to rid the region of its post-Soviet oligarchs, either Zelensky’s or Putin’s, it is a categorical step backward.

For all the destruction of war and all the failures of words, Yakimchuk’s poems on war indicate a hope that, once begun, war allows us to throw out what doesn’t work and to start again. In “Yum and War” we see desire and its confounding as the root of fighting, where our enemies are often our closest intimates. She reminds us that “we purchase cars from the enemy / their tires ploughing our roads”. It is under a blanket where we retreat, and where we hide. But it is under a blanket where the real conflict can at last begin: “that’s where hiding ends / and truth begins”. In the end, the absence of a language to articulate our struggle becomes the presence, as the empty-handed mailwoman herself begins to write to the speechless narrator in “letters don’t come”, borrowing her words from all the letters she’s seen before. She “knows all the letters”, the poet says. The piece is dedicated to Ivan Velychkovsky, Baroque Ukrainian poet, reminding us to search in our past for all those letters which have once been. Not one, reactionary letter. Not the toxic impetus to “make ____ great again”. Yakimchuk, like the Ukrainian Futurists before, suggests that we begin by taking out all the letters. 

As long as we do not euphemistically refer to our wars as “crises.” There are, after all, some simple, pre-linguistic facts on which language can depend. As she implores in “Prayer:” “and forgive us our destroyed cities / even though we do not forgive for them our enemies”. Yet even them, the “terrorists,” she seeks to see as human. Even a terrorist who must hide their identity wishes in the first and last instance to merely be human. And they can be. We all can be. Even despite such false cognates between our tongues, despite the absurd prospects of war: “today love me — tomorrow — love a country”. Even “if we don’t find our home in the place where we left it”, she says, “we will build another one in an apricot tree”. And that is why Russia will never conquer apricots. •


Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is a frequent contributor to Boston's The Arts Fuse. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.