Ukraine: The legacy of author Victoria Amelina

The Ukrainian novelist and researcher Victoria Amelina has died following a Russian missile attack. Her friends and colleagues hope that her work will help bring war criminals to justice.

“With our greatest pain, we inform you that Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina passed away on 1 July in Mechnikov Hospital in Dnipro. Her death was caused by injuries incompatible with life, which she suffered from during the Russian missile shelling of a restaurant in Kramatorsk.”

This statement  was issued by the Ukraine chapter of PEN International, of which Victoria Amelina was a member. Tributes to her from artists, activists, journalists and publishers poured in on social media — “Fly to eternity, bright bird!”

The 37-year-old author was with a delegation of Colombian journalists and writers in the center of Kramatorsk when the Russian army struck the eastern Ukrainian city on June 27.

Award-winning author

Victoria Amelina was born in Lviv in western Ukraine. At the age of fourteen, she emigrated to Canada with her father, but later decided to return to Ukraine. She studied computer science at Lviv Polytechnic National University, and worked for various international technology companies before dedicating herself fully to writing. She published two novels and a children’s book, as well as an assortment of poems and essays, and was a recipient of the Joseph Conrad Literary Award, a prize for young Ukrainian writers.

In 2014, Amelina made her literary debut with the novel “The Fall Syndrome, or Homo Compatiens.” LitAccent, a Ukrainian web portal for modern Ukrainian and foreign literature, included it in its top ten books of the year, and in 2015 it was shortlisted for Ukraine’s Valerii Shevchuk Prize.

Her children’s book “Somebody, or Waterheart” appeared in 2016. Then, in 2017, her second novel, “Dom’s Dream Kingdom,” was published by the Old Lion Publishing House in Lviv. It won the prize for best prose book of the year at the literary festival Knyzhkova Tolaka in Zaporizhzhia, and made the shortlists of several Ukrainian and international awards.

Amelina’s works have been translated into Polish, Czech, Italian, German, Croation, Dutch and English.

Documenting war crimes

Author Marjana Savka is the editor-in-chief of the Old Lion Publishing House. “Ukrainian literature has lost a very mature writer,” she told DW.

Amelina, she says, wrote about painful chapters of Russia’s war against Ukraine, because she herself was constantly at the heart of events.

“She was very near the frontline, with children who had lost their homes and parents, with women who had lost everything in this war, and with soldiers, as well,” Savka said.

In the summer of 2022, Amelina joined the human rights organization Truth Hounds, documenting war crimes in areas liberated by the Ukrainian army in the east, south, and north of Ukraine.

At the same time, she started working on her first nonfiction book, “War and Justice Diary: Looking at Women Looking at War,” which she was writing in English. Soon to be published abroad, it is a chronicle of women who have documented their own lives during wartime, as well as the crimes committed by Russian occupying forces.

“There was so much strength in this fragile young woman, so much depth and talent — and, above all, kindness. I don’t know how she managed to do what she did: to look into the eyes of people who suffered at the hands of the occupiers, and calmly write down what noone can listen to calmly,” Ukrainian writer Irena Karpa wrote.

Amelina’s colleagues believe that these glimpses into the depths were a new spark for her creativity.

“The experience of documenting crimes affected her as a writer and poet: she began writing very powerful verses. Her poetics developed in response to documenting evidence,” Savka said.

She hopes the writer’s family will allow her to publish a collection of Amelina’s poems. She wants as many people as possible to read the writings that were prompted by the emotions Amelina experienced during the war.

“It was as if she was trying to collect all the grief in her heart, to let it pass through her. She was the first to help and to be there. She sometimes worried that she wouldn’t have the strength to cope with the full magnitude of the disaster that has been visited upon us. She moved heaven and earth to make sure everyone she cared about was helped,” Tetiana Pechonchyk, the head of the Human Rights Center ZMINA, wrote on Facebook.

‘Prophetic in the truest sense of the word’

It was Amelina who found the diary of Volodymyr Vakulenko, buried in a garden in his home village of Kapytolivka near Izyum, after the writer was killed by Russian forces.

Later, she wrote in the preface to his book “I Am Transforming … A Diary of Occupation. Selected Poetry” that she found herself in the middle of a “new Executed Renaissance.” This refers to the events of the 1930s, when countless Ukrainian authors, journalists, and artists who had spearheaded a 1920s cultural renaissance in Ukraine were imprisoned and executed by the Soviet communist regime, or died in penal colonies.

“We would never have imagined that this statement by Victoria Amelina would prove so prophetic, in the truest sense of the word,” said Savka, adding that the late writer herself had falled victim to this “new Executed Renaissance.”

Savka also pointed to the “terrible symbolism” of the fact that Amelina had died on Vakulenko’s birthday, considering she had taken care of the writer’s parents and son after he had died.

Ukrainian artists say they hope that the killers of Victoria Amelina and Volodymyr Vakulenko will eventually be brought to justice.

In the words of the Ukrainian author Tanya Malyarchuk: “One day, their work will help to bring war criminals before court, because that is the only way to break the cycle of violence.” —DW

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