Literature and the Ukraine War – What can books do against tanks? – culture


Literature is rich in descriptions depicting the horror of war. However, she never stopped him. However, they are invaluable to Ukraine at the moment. What role does literature play in wartime?

There are many striking images of war in East Slavic literature. Among the most famous of these Russian brigadier general Leo Tolstoy. But more recent works, such as those of Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich or Ukrainian Andrei Kurkov, mercilessly describe the horrors of war.


“War and Peace” is perhaps his most famous work: the Russian brigadier general Lev Tolstoy.

IMAGO / United Archives

All of these books paint a pure picture of the misery caused by war. Among the soldiers at the front – and among the civilian population, which is helpless against unrelenting violence and often loses everything.

Literature cannot be accused of failure

“A person who has read these books can no longer start a war,” the Ukrainian poet Halina Petrosanyak, who has lived in Switzerland for six years, said at the opening of the Literary Days in Solothurn. “However, one must actually read the books.”

According to Petrosanyak, Putin hardly did. And maybe not his soldiers either. “Otherwise they will feel sympathy for the people of Ukraine and not senseless murder, rape and looting.”

Halina Petrosanyak participates in a panel discussion on the relationship between war and literature in Solothurn. Together with other writers who have a biographical link to the crisis zone. Among them is Marina Skalova. The author and translator was born in Moscow and now lives in Geneva.

Marina Skalova in Solothurn.


Marina Skalova grew up in Germany and France. She is currently working on various projects related to women’s history in the Soviet Union.

KEYSTONE / Urs Feller

Literature cannot be accused of failure because it failed to prevent war, she said. This is not one of their duties at all.

Skalova says the power of word is at a loss for the powerful political and economic forces that caused the Ukraine war. But: “The power and responsibility of literature is to destabilize society – by virtue of its ability to be both radical and consistent.”

Literature versus propaganda

Unlike bare news from a war zone, literature is able to infiltrate the minds and souls of those affected. And to tell readers what war really is – as opposed to one-sided and troubling war propaganda.

Library destroyed in Ukraine


Literature is not immune from war either: In the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, a library was badly damaged in a Russian air raid on March 11.


Marina Skalova disagrees with the chorus of some Western writers who have recently expressed their weakness and anger at their inability to do anything about the catastrophe of war. Among those who have expressed basic doubts about the potential of their profession are well-known names such as Antje Rafik Strobel, winner of last year’s German Book Prize, Maxim Beller and Lucas Parvus.

The language of literature makes the web of propaganda lies visible.

perverted language

Lucas Parvus expressed his horror in the weekly newspaper “Die Zeit” that the war misused language for propaganda and thus underestimated the value of each writer’s means of expression. So what good is language if you can use it to write literature, but in propaganda distortion it becomes itself a part of war?

The misuse of language makes her think, too, explains Marina Skalova. However, “the exact language of literature is now more important.” You are making the “network of propaganda lies visible”. It helps “get out of the mess created by advertising”.

Literature can name shock

Belarusian translator and essayist Irina Herasimovich is convinced that good literature seeks originality and makes contradictions visible. This is exactly what the millions suffering from war in Ukraine desperately need: “Literature can help people process experiences and clarify what our values ​​are.”

For Herasimovich, literature provides a space for reflection “in which we as a society can negotiate the way we want to live.” Specifically, a friend of mine who is a writer in Ukraine is currently working on creating a “War Dictionary”. In it he collects stories from various people who have all been affected by the war in their own way – such as those who were bombed, as refugees, as soldiers at the front.

Literature has always been the carrier of Ukrainian identity throughout history.

People who do not have their own voice find a way to express themselves in this work. A name is given to the pain he experienced – and one day, when the war is over, it may be easier to overcome.

Literature creates identity

Ukrainian Halina Petrosanyak is also convinced that literature has a healing function. In addition, the literature written in the Ukrainian language in its homeland also represents an important national framework.

“Throughout history, literature has always been the bearer of Ukrainian identity,” says Petrosanyak. This is for centuries during which Russia suppressed Ukrainian culture. For example, volumes of poetry of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko of the nineteenth century had the “stature of the Gospels” for many people.

Literature, and this is also one of its functions, helps the Ukrainian national idea to assert itself in the face of challenges and oppression. Especially today because he is going through one of his toughest tests because of the war.

New weekly reading material in the Literary Bulletin

open box
close the box

The Literary Newsletter provides the perfect inspiration for the next book. In addition, a Swiss writer is featured every week. subscribe now.

Leave a Comment