In memory of Victoria Amelina

4, Mar 2024 | Europäische Kultur, European Culture, La culture Européenne

In memory of Victoria Amelina

(1 January 1986 – 1 July 2023)

After the liberation of Kherson, it wasn’t long before Victoria Amelina announced on her Twitter account that she was travelling there to document the Russian war crimes against Ukraine’s cultural heritage. – Naturally wearing a helmet and flak jacket, she set off to record the looting and destruction in Kherson and its museum and to report on it on Twitter and elsewhere. –

There I had reminded her of her resemblance to the Allied “Monuments Men” during World War II, who located and secured art looted by German occupying forces throughout Europe.  – Neglecting all respectful politeness, I warned her in March 2023 to beware of Russian booby traps in museums and concert halls in previously occupied territories.

It was inconceivable to me that she would be fatally injured by a russian rocket in a café In Kramatorsk a few weeks later. What she said about the forever sorely missed legacy of other authors also applies to her own work, which has not yet been written and will never be written.  [1]  Thomas Haeringer, march 2024


To Fix Everything: In Eternal Memory of Victoria Amelina

by Mykhed Oleksandr

july 20, 2023

Day 487 of the full-scale invasion. PEN Ukraine posts a notice of the death of Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina, author of books for adults and children.

A few days earlier, Russia had launched a missile attack on Kramatorsk. Victoria was in the company of Colombian journalists and writers. The Russians targeted a cafe where journalists, activists, and human rights defenders gathered.

60 people were injured, twelve were killed, three teenagers among them.
Victoria was fatally wounded. Doctors fought for her life, but Vika’s heart stopped. Russia killed her.

I go through our correspondence. The first message is from the day Victoria and I met, at the beginning of March 2015. By that time, her debut novel The Fall Syndrome had already been published. Vika had abandoned her successful career in IT to focus on writing. In 2015, in her essay ‘Human Programming Languages’, she reflects that ‘both the programmer and the writer create something new by means of language’. She plunges into the language that was emerging in the fractures of reality after the beginning of Russian hybrid aggression: ‘I am trying to explain to a Russian that I am doing something for the sake of freedom’, she says, ‘but when they hear the Russian word “freedom”, all that comes to their minds is “chaos” and “lawlessness”’.

In 2016, Vika’s first children’s book, Someone, Or Heart of Water, was published. It’s a story about the inhabitants of an aquarium who learn the alphabet, and in doing so become able to understand who they really are. Before it was published, Victoria wrote an essay, ‘The Peter Pan Effect’ – a kind of a manifesto on her writing for children, which initially had only one reader: the person closest to her; her son. She was aware of her responsibility: ‘For talking to a person at the beginning of their time with the voices of their people, before going to sleep, when everything spoken comes to life, is nothing more and nothing less than changing the future. That’s how you change things every day’.

In 2017, Vika’s second novel was released, Dom’s Dream Kingdom, a family saga narrated by a dog called Dominic, abbreviated to Domic (meaning, in Ukrainian, ‘little house’), or simply Dom.

In May 2019, I took a picture of a runaway dog that my wife Olena and I saw in Irpin. He had escaped from his owner, who kept shouting across the park: ‘Dominic! Domic! Dom! Where are you?’ I wrote to Vika and sent her the photo. She wrote back with emoticons, and the words ‘Wow! So you really can give dogs that name’.

In November 2020, Vika asked what the village we lived in was called. She said that our photos of it – with its forest and its walking trails – looked too idyllic to be real. I wrote: ‘We just live and breathe here. The village of Hostomel, nearer to Bucha’. Vika replied: ‘I’ve been dreaming about Bucha for a long time!’

In May 2021, we were invited to Kramatorsk, for the literary festival taking place on Myr Square (in English, ‘Peace Square’). Two weeks before it was due to start, on Easter Sunday, Vika asked if I could moderate a reading of her yet-to-be-published novel.

The following day, when I tried to call her, Vika’s phone was out of range. I was getting worried – but it turned out that their car was just stuck in the middle of nowhere. She sent a touching selfie: her, her smiling son, and her closest friend, a beautiful white dog called Vovchytsia – ‘She-wolf’. Olena and I responded with a family selfie from our Hostomel kitchen – the two of us, relaxed after eating Easter cakes, with our red dog Lisa (Foxy) between us. The plan was for our families to be friends, dogs and all.

In Kramatorsk, while on a walk, Vika told me about the imminent publication of her children’s book Storie-e-es of Eka the Excavator. She missed her Vovchytsia, she said, and would not part with a small, plush dog toy that reminded her of her best friend.

Vika founded the New York Literary Festival in Donetsk. ‘It’s just to prove that we are not afraid to live life in a time of war’, she said. She asked for mine and Olenka’s opinion on the logo and branding, and we joked that the lettering seemed a little sexualised, that it might cause some unexpected associations for the audience.

A few days later, Vika sent the updated logo and joked back that, because of us, ‘all the sex had to be taken out’.

In September 2021, I thanked Vika for my copy of Storie-e-es of Eka the Excavator. Eka could drain the sea and scoop up the moon. Little Eka was truly driven, gentle, charming. I thanked her for this ‘bucket of joy’.

We exchanged greetings at the beginning of 2022. Wished each other peace. There was a separate heart emoticon for Lisa. And then the Russian invasion began.

My wife and I evacuated from Hostomel on the evening of 24 February and went to Chernivtsi. I joined the ranks of Territorial Defence Forces. A week after the beginning of the invasion, a Russian shell hit our house, destroying our ‘dream kingdom’.

At the end of March 2022, Vika got in touch. I told her: ‘31st day in the barracks, everything is fine, clear and understandable’ and asked how she was. ‘I’m fine’, she said. ‘What can happen to me? Take care of yourself, we need you’. I said, ‘You too’.

In the summer of 2022, Vika joined a human rights organisation. She documented war crimes in the de- occupied territories. A writer, a human rights activist, a witness looking into the dissected heart of darkness and the bestial crimes of Russians.

Kharkiv was de-occupied in September. Vika went to Kapitolivka in the Izyum district to visit the parents of the writer Volodymyr Vakulenko, who had been missing since the end of March. Having had a feeling that the occupiers would soon come for him, Volodymyr had buried his diary under a cherry tree, and told his father to get it when ‘our own come back’. The following day, Volodymyr was taken away by the Russians. His body was identified in November.

Volodymyr’s father couldn’t find his son’s diary. But Vika did. She literally dug it up with a shovel. Once again, Russia, the self-proclaimed successor to the Soviet Union, destroying the past, the present, the future of generations of Ukrainians. But Victoria is a link in Ukrainian history that will never disappear.

In October, the Lviv literary festival BookForum took place. We were sitting in the lobby of a hotel, planning the discussion that was about to begin. Vika let out a sudden scream, and then a smile of absolute happiness. The Centre for Civil Liberties, run by her close friend, Ukrainian human rights defender Oleksandra Matviychuk, had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Vika was radiant. How often are your friends of friends names as Nobel laureates?

Vika had been working on War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War, a book about women documenting Russian war crimes. It was a book destined to tell the truth about the war – telling it in such a way that foreign journalists and intellectuals started calling us ‘Cruel Ukrainian Writers’.

Vika made a T-shirt, emblazoned with this very inscription. *

At the end of May, we met up at the PEN space in Kyiv. Vika was giving a public reading of her new poetry.

Language, as if it was hit by a shell. Fragments of speech
look like poetry
but this is not it.

Fragments of language; clusters of pain, anguish, grief.
After the reading we gave each other a hug. It was another day of Russia’s war crimes; this time, they had destroyed a cultural centre in New York, Donetsk, the main site for Vika and her team’s festival.

I asked her: ‘How about now? Does this sound like the final story for the book? Is that enough to put a full stop in it?’ Vika smiled: ‘It seems to me that this final story is constantly running away. There is always something else happening’. ‘Yes’, I say, ‘the Russians are committing a new evil every day’.

Vika remembered how she wanted to buy a house in Bucha or Hostomel. Olenka and I exhaled. ‘See now how it turned out’.

Vika said that, soon, she would go to Paris on a year-long scholarship, and that she was dreaming of spending more time with her son. That evening we took Lisa with us, and Vika finally dog-whispered to her. In this special, international language of petting and love, she told Lisa how much she missed her Vovchytsya.

A month later was the International Arsenal Book Festival in Kyiv. PEN Ukraine brought Volodymyr Vakulenko’s family to the Festival and, with Vika’s assistance, they presented the published edition of Volodymyr’s salvaged diary.

Then Vika read her poems from the stage.

We hugged for just a quick moment, afterwards. Vika was in a hurry – in a minute, together with Oleksandra Matviychuk, she was going to be part of a panel called ‘What is this crime that Russia is committing?’ And then Vika left for Kramatorsk.

I learned about the attack while on my way to her hometown, Lviv. Doctors fought for her life. Friends were asked to observe silence and pray.

I don’t know how to pray. But I know how to read.

I went to the bookstore and bought myself another copy of Storie-e-es of Eka the Excavator. A large- format children’s book. You can read it. You can hug it in silence.

Morning. Official notice – Vika is no longer with us. An hour later, a message arrives from my friend in the Chernivtsi Defence Brigade. Yurko, with whom I spent the night air raids in the basement of the barracks during the first months of the invasion. He, his brother, and their father went to war. Now they are near Bakhmut. Yurko writes: ‘Russians killed my brother’. After that, casually: ‘Mortar fire during shift change’.

Tears. Another morning of genocide. Russia annihilates Ukrainians – every day, everywhere, whole generations.

Vika passed away on 1 July, birthday of Volodymyr Vakulenko, whose last words she had saved from eternal oblivion.

Two days after the attack on Kramatorsk, a study by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology was published. 78% of Ukrainians have relatives or friends who were either wounded or lost to the war. On average, every Ukrainian can name seven such people close to them.

In a conversation, published three weeks before the invasion, Vika explains the numbers of Stalin’s terror and repression against generations of Ukrainian artists – what they really mean, and what could happen now. Vika says: ‘Such statistics would mean the extermination of 80% of my friends and acquaintances’.

In her 2016 essay ‘The Peter Pan Effect’, Victoria says: it is worth learning to speak ‘to a child in the way you would have liked to be spoken to. And you should also write like this – as if for a distant little self. And despite your age, hope cautiously for the Peter Pan effect, which could fix something over there, far away, in the once little you’.

At the end of the piece, Vika writes: ‘Well, perhaps this is how we should start a new story, simply and honestly: “Once there was a timid storyteller. She dreamed of thinking up a fairy tale that would fix everything in the world”’.

No, Vika. In fact, it will be the other way round: Once there was a storyteller. She dreamed of thinking up a fairy tale that would fix everything in the world. She was extremely brave. She had a big, transparent heart. And she could feel the pain of others.

Translated by Maryna Gibson
Originally published: PEN Transmissions by English PEN

Author – Mykhed Oleksandr

july 20, 2023

[1] Cancel culture vs. execute culture  – Why Russian manuscripts don’t burn, but Ukrainian manuscripts burn all too well  by Victoria Amelina; 31 March 2022