a dark angel flies with a shofar
playing his trumpet in flight
– Boris Khersonsky
HOW IS IT possible to think about art during a time of war? Years before the Russian military began the full-scale destruction of the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kyiv, and many others in February 2022, writers and artists had been raising their voices in defense of freedom and peace. And while Vladimir Putin’s ethnonationalist, irredentist campaign to annex Ukraine continues to kill thousands of people, wreak untold destruction, and send millions of refugees into exile, the current “Muses” issue of WLT makes the case for a Republic of Arts and Letters that transcends geopolitical conflicts and promotes a shared sense of humanity through cultural ties.
Many of the cultural linkages present in this issue go as far back as Odessa in the late nineteenth century, where the Russian painters Leonid Pasternak (1862–1945) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1914) both attended the Grekov Odessa art school. Pasternak’s painting of his famous son, Boris beside the Baltic at Mereküla (1910), appears alongside a letter that Boris wrote to a young University of Oklahoma student soon after Pasternak had been awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, which, under pressure from Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and the Union of Soviet Writers, he declined to accept (page 20). Romanian artist and writer Constantin Severin’s poem dedicated to Kandinsky appears alongside the latter’s Composition #218 (Two Ovals) (1919). In a note introducing his poem, Severin writes: “Kandinsky inspired me as a symbol of interferences and fusion between music and art, soul and spirit, human and angel, dark history and bright culture” (page 42). A dark gulf looms between history and culture in the present moment, however.
A further cultural connection presents itself in the interview with Russian Jewish émigré writer Yelena Lembersky (page 22). Her grandfather, Felix Lembersky (1913–1970), created a series of paintings between 1944 and ’52 depicting the murder of more than 33,000 Ukrainian Jews at Babyn Yar in September 1941, “the largest single mass killing by the German army during its campaign against the Soviet Union” (Wolfram Wette). These paintings are the earliest representations of the massacre and among the earliest artistic images of the Holocaust. “Under the Stalinist regime,” Lembersky’s daughter Galina writes, “my father was offered fame, wealth, position, and endless opportunities to paint [and] exhibit his work,” but instead “he refused the grand offer and chose instead poverty, persecution, and deprivation” (lembersky.org). For her part, Galina stood guard on the roof of the Academy of Arts during the Nazi siege of Leningrad (1941–44), armed with a bucket of sand. Back in Kyiv, over the course of the war, more than 100,000 victims of Nazi mass murder died at Babyn Yar during the occupation. On March 1, 2022, when Russian airstrikes killed at least five people at the site of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the attack on Twitter, writing: “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for eighty years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?”
In their just-released verse collection The Country Where Everyone’s Name Is Fear, by Odessan writers Lyudmyla and Boris Khersonsky (Lost Horse Press), war pervades the poems like an “angel of destruction” hovering over a landscape where a “black sun of melancholy shines like a shrapnel hole.” As editors Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky note in their introduction, both poets have switched from Russian to Ukrainian in their recent work, in solidarity with other Ukrainian writers and artists. “Against the backdrop of silent muses heavy gunfire thunders louder,” Boris writes in one poem, “and then there’s a shank in your ribcage or gunshots at point-blank.” In another poem, he imagines an era of “postwar executions” in which “the only justice is the bullet and the rope.”
Will writers and artists look away while such justice is rendered? Art must bear witness in a time of war as well as its aftermath. And even when they fall silent, muses will find ways to inspire.