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A Beautiful, Diverse Country: On Artem Chapeye’s “The Ukraine”


UKRAINIAN LITERATURE’S TIME in the global spotlight coincides with one of the country’s darkest periods. While publishers and translators try to satisfy a growing demand for Ukrainian literature among English-language readers, many of Ukraine’s contemporary authors have essentially put their careers on hold to take up arms on the battlefield. Artem Chapeye is one of those authors.

When news came that the titular story of his 2018 collection The Ukraine had been accepted for publication in the print edition of The New Yorker—the first Ukrainian story in history to earn this merit—Chapeye was preoccupied with, first, evacuating his family from Kyiv and, second, acclimating to the military. His introduction to the English-language edition, now available in Zenia Tompkins’s attentive translation, was composed on his phone during brief moments of downtime. Chapeye writes: “Over the days that I add to this text—paragraph by paragraph, in brief chunks between army duties, and before and after shifts—increasingly terrible things are being added that are happening to people increasingly close to me.”

Comprising stand-alone fiction and nonfiction pieces written over the course of eight years, The Ukraine offers a heartfelt ode to Ukraine and those who call it home. The country has faced significant challenges since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Yet these 25 stories highlight how ordinary Ukrainians are simply trying to do right by themselves and get by.

As Tompkins notes in her introduction, the original version—presented in a mix of standard Ukrainian, Russian, and Surzhyk (a vernacular mix of the two languages), which she now has translated into English—reflects the linguistic complexity of the country. In English, the book’s prose forgoes embellishment for a more “realistic” use of language; Chapeye’s stories are largely plot-driven. At the same time, the literary and emotional density of these narratives cannot be overstated, and there is a profound significance to each of the collection’s characters and their respective journeys.

In this way, Chapeye represents a modern-day Ukrainian counterpart to classic American writers like Mark Twain or O. Henry, capturing the dignity and respect his characters might not get but nonetheless long for and deserve. Whether it’s a portrait of a laborer grappling with familial alienation due to his constant work abroad or a sketch of an impressionable and exploited delivery boy aspiring to upgrade his phone, Chapeye’s portrayals elevate and honor the seemingly mundane. His sheer perceptiveness renders each story deeply resonant, even if most English-language readers will never experience post-Soviet malaise or impending war firsthand.

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In the short story “Sonny, Please …” the main character, Grandma Nadia, faces financial difficulties following her husband’s death. Under constant pressure from her grandson to provide money for alcohol, she is driven to dip into her meager savings, including those reserved for her own funeral. Eventually, she leaves her village to earn a living—in her younger years, Nadia had success selling vegetables in Kyiv.

The story thereby evokes a common sight across Ukraine today, and one not limited to the capital: groups of elderly women, and occasionally men, lining up on sidewalks to offer a mix of vegetables, fruits, nuts, or herbs at a fraction of the prices found in supermarkets. In Nadia’s case, many of them “worked as a group, one woman helping another load the sacks onto the train quickly.” This sense of solidarity becomes especially crucial when elderly street vendors are compelled to deal with the police. The authorities routinely target unauthorized vendors regardless of age, and an individual’s ability to continue selling goods at modest prices hinges on understanding the specific amount each officer expects as a bribe.

Nadia’s age isn’t stated in the story. Still, we’re told that her younger sister, who works as a cleaning lady in Kyiv at the age of 65, “had it good,” while “no one would hire” Nadia, an “uneducated old village woman.” Employed or not, both Nadia and her sister share the fortune of many elderly Ukrainians for whom retirement remains a distant luxury. A large share of the older population depends on their families for financial support to supplement their modest pensions; for those without such support, the only viable option is to continue working until they’re physically incapable of carrying on.

This vulnerability makes Ukraine’s elderly feel isolated, effectively unnoticed by certain subsets of society. As the conclusion of “Sonny, Please” illustrates, even the police—theoretically entrusted with safeguarding society—can and do scorn older women like Nadia. They gesture toward signage addressing unauthorized street vendors and mockingly inquire if she can read, as the sergeant sneers, “I’m sick of you people.”

In the end, kindness prevails. A young man from Nadia’s village offers to drive her into the city, sparing her the burden of wrestling with the heavy load of vegetables on the train. Other vendors rally behind Nadia and urge her, upon noticing that her potatoes aren’t selling, to persevere until the evening rush. This strong sense of camaraderie despite societal injustice represents a vital, defining feature of the Ukrainian people.

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A recurring theme in many of Chapeye’s stories is the importance of compatriots making an effort to understand one another better. There’s a long-standing misconception that Ukraine—a geographically vast country—harbors an irreparable divide between eastern and western regions, splitting along social, linguistic, and political lines. Over the years, Russian propaganda has exploited this purported division, attempting to sow discord among Ukrainians by falsely asserting that individuals from Lviv and Luhansk, for example, have nothing that unites them. The ongoing full-scale Russian invasion has disproved this countless times over; unfortunately, Russian propaganda persists in disseminating the delusion.

Thankfully, the collection’s nonfiction stories illuminate both Ukraine’s diversity and general air of companionability. In “A Fancy Send-off,” a gas station attendant in Luhansk wishes the lost narrator, who hails from Western Ukraine, well on his motorcycle travels, at which the author notes: “There isn’t even a shadow of hostility. I smile. To this human being, I’m another human being and not some generic ultra-nationalist ‘Banderite.’ That boosts my spirits.” The term “Banderite” is a reference to 20th-century nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose last name became a pejorative adjective from the Soviet era onward, employed to describe even the slightest display of Ukrainian patriotism.

The narrator’s destination is the southern city of Huliaipole in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, the birthplace of 20th-century anarchist Nestor Makhno. The region, which is also home to the steppes, was once the historical domain of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Now, Chapeye revels in its beauty, recognizing aspects of the familiar:

​​The vernacular is close to that of western Ukraine. And there’s an unhurriedness characteristic of the steppe—a dignity without fuss. In half a day, I make it around the entire town four times and can’t stop delighting in its people. I keep thinking to myself, How beautiful these steppe dwellers are. How open and noble-looking and honest their faces are. Some of them seem to be right out of that Repin painting of the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks.

The Cossacks, freemen who led a semiautonomous military state up until it was destroyed during Russian Empress Catherine II’s reign and absorbed into the Russian Empire, form an integral part of modern Ukrainian national identity. Their warrior mentality and courageous spirit are often invoked as something to aspire to in the ongoing fight against Russian aggression. In The Ukraine, Chapeye’s ode to the region is made even more poignant by the realization that these lands today—just as they did centuries ago—are undergoing destruction in Russia’s war, to the point of being unrecognizable.

Among Chapeye’s many discoveries throughout the collection is that the spirit of Makhno remains alive and well in Huliaipole. Many of the locals speak fondly of the anarchist revolutionary, as if he were a distant relative or even, perhaps, still alive. One gray-haired man tells Chapeye how Makhno was considered “cruel but fair” and always gave to the poor, adding, “That sort of thing doesn’t happen these days. If you’re poor, if you’re not poor—no one gives a … fuck.”

The gray-haired man’s son remarks that, just as Western Ukrainians are called Banderites, the people in this part of Ukraine are called Makhnovites. He explains how “[i]t’s profitable for the politicians to pit groups against one another. Meanwhile, things are probably the same everywhere, right? There’s no money to be had!” The son then addresses Chapeye, asking, “You’ve traveled all around Ukraine: You tell me, what have you seen?”



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