Lia Mills writes: Victoria Amelina had a way of walking straight into your heart and making herself at home there. She had no time to waste; she was easy to love. Living the dangerous life of a war crimes researcher, gathering testimony from survivors of Russian atrocities in Ukraine and using her considerable intellectual and writing gifts to write searing, accurate reports, she knew she had a target on her back. Every time she visited recently liberated areas of her country near the front line she went into danger. We all knew the danger she was in but there was some unquenchable flame in her that made us believe that we’d see her again, that we’d be together in Ukraine when the war ended; that she’d come back to Ireland many times, bringing her son with her. It was an absolute certainty that we would read and hear more of her amazing work, including her ongoing project War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War, and as much poetry as her hazardous, volatile circumstances allowed her to write.
I met her weeks after Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. She came to Dublin to help a young friend to settle here. Her essay in English “Nothing Bad Has Ever Happened: A tale of two genocides, the Holocaust and the Holodomor” appeared soon afterwards in the Irish Times online. ‘Homo Oblivious’ featured in the Dublin Review of Books that July. These two vivid essays explain a lot about the intertwined families of Russia and Ukraine and about how state propaganda succeeds in blinding us to truth. Victoria gained many friends and admirers among Ireland’s readers and writers, further strengthened by her appearance in Smock Alley that October and a workshop in Pearse Street Library for Ukrainian children who had been displaced to Ireland by Putin’s war.
In an Irish PEN event at Smock Alley, supported by UNESCO City of Literature, a large audience listened with rapt attention while she spoke about her work. She talked about destruction she had witnessed, about life in Ukraine under attack and the disappearance – and presumed death – of her friend Volodymyr Vakulenko, who had been lifted and tortured by Russian soldiers. They were waiting, she said, for DNA results to confirm whether a body found in a mass grave was his. Imagine that.
It was Victoria who searched Vakulenko’s garden with his father and found the diary he had buried there. She described taking photos of each page with her phone and sending them immediately, page by page, to a literary museum for safe-keeping. ‘In case anything happened.’ Each page sent and retrieved constitutes a victory for the preservation of Ukrainian culture.
She spoke such appalling truths in a calm and almost understated way, knowing the power of plain speaking. She wanted us to know what is happening in her country, to her country. She emphasised that Ukrainians are not downtrodden and have no appetite for defeat. On the contrary, they do their absolute best to live their lives as fully and normally as possible. She spoke with obvious joy of a rock concert she had attended, where people stayed outdoors during an air-raid alarm to sing and smoke and drink wine, showing Russia that, against all the odds, Ukraine is alive; Ukrainians are alive.” They will sing, dance, laugh (and eat pizza) if they damn well want to.
In Pearse Street library two days later, the atmosphere was completely different. Speaking in Ukrainian, Victoria talked Ukrainian children through her most recent book, Ten Ways for an Excavator to Save the World (Ееесторії екскаватора Еки). She encouraged them to join in activities, finding their way through a maze on a page; drawing and colouring in the characters. A party atmosphere was generated by library staff, with cake, biscuits and soft drinks for the children and their grateful mothers. There were even party bags. Victoria was at the effervescent heart of it all, with her gorgeous smile and enough time and energy to talk to everyone. No one present could have guessed that on the way in to town she’d fallen asleep in the car, exhausted by her demanding schedule and the effort of constantly switching roles, from investigator to international traveller; reporting events and conditions in Ukraine to people in luckier European countries. For once I was glad of the heavy traffic that day; it allowed her to sleep a little longer.
Victoria lived on the nineteenth floor of her apartment building in Kyiv. She liked sitting out on her balcony watching over the city. When I wrote to ask how she was managing to climb all those stairs during a power cut, she replied: Well, the nineteenth floor isn’t such a problem; but it would be nice to have either heating or electricity 🙂 In Smock Alley, she’d told a popular joke, which I’ve since heard from other Ukrainians: ‘We’d rather live without electricity for the rest of our lives than live with electricity under the Russians.’
Her essay title “Homo Oblivious” is a reference to a popular Ukrainian term, homo sovieticus. It refers to generations whose parents, to protect them, didn’t speak about the horrors, fears, or restrictions of a repressive era, or of the life that preceded it – a Ukrainian version of ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’. The language, history and religion Victoria’s generation were taught in schools is one hundred per cent the official, authoritarian, pro-Russian version. Until recently, these generations knew nothing of their true past.
Homo Sovieticus sounds irreversible, a life sentence, as though such an identity were inscribed in one’s genes. In fact, this isn’t about genes; it’s about false memories and malleable identities. It is about accepting lies in order to survive and prosper while forgetting the truth of the past. It is about them being the easiest prey to the post-truth era deceptions. So the cycle of lies and forgetting never breaks.
The Ukrainians of today have broken that cycle. They have reclaimed their own language; they know their own history; they know about Stalin’s Holdomor (famine) and about the twentieth century murders and disappearances of hundreds of Ukrainian artists and writers (“the lost renaissance”). They have no intention of submitting to Russian control. This is the culture of resistance that Victoria embraced so passionately and to which she dedicated the last years of her life.
A gifted young Ukrainian novelist (for adults and children), the facts of her successes and awards and her transition to her wartime life as not only a war crimes investigator but also an unofficial ambassador for her country are easy to find, online and in print. She was also a campaigner for the recognition of Crimes of Aggression (which would make it possible to punish leaders and decision-makers who initiate or authorise illegal wars, as distinct from soldiers who carry out those orders).
Many beautiful, true words have been written about her, along with some which, though well-meaning, are inaccurate. I worry that the weight and repetition of truths and half-truths will smother her, flatten her memory somehow; that they’ll shape her into a beautiful but two-dimensional patriotic hero but miss her vitality, her laugh, her courage and compassion, her love of all things literary, her gift for friendship and for joy in dark times. Reportage – including this piece – exposes her memory to the dangers of lies and distortions written by Russian sympathisers and agents, facilitated by the internet. My instinct, now, is to save the feelings we have for the friend we remember; to keep her memory and her legacy safe where she left them, in our hearts, where nothing bad can ever happen to her.
Victoria Amelina in the Dublin Review of Books: https://drb.ie/articles/homo-oblivious/
Photograph with permission from Victoria and from her publisher, Askold Melnyczuk of Arrowsmith Press. The Arrowsmith website, https://www.arrowsmithpress.com/, has links to a series of conversations with Ukrainian writers: ‘For the Record’.