The White Tree of Gondor: A Brief Overview of Modern Ukrainian SF&F
It is known that Númenor had sunk under a great wave, much as the Kievan Rus had perished in the flames of the invasion by the Golden Horde. In both cases, the legacies of those cultures live on. The descendants of Númenor had founded Arnor and Gondor, while the descendants of Kievan Rus live in Ukraine. This is not merely a matter of geography, but also the cultural heritage that informs and resonates through modern Ukraine.
This overview won’t focus on the time of Ancient Rus or even the era of the Cossacks, because you won’t find speculative fiction there as we understand it today. However, the era of romanticism during the nineteenth century is another matter.
Mykola Hohol, better-known by his Russian name of Nikolai Gogol, lived under Imperial rule and therefore wrote in Russian, but without denying his Ukrainian cultural roots. Hohol and his many followers saw their land as wondrous and magical. They leaned on folktale tropes (pacts with evil spirits, taming the devil, encountering mermaids) and made up their own. “This is the present and future of our country” they would say. Or, for those who didn’t believe in its future, “This is what our country used to be.”
The classics of Ukrainian speculative literature became staples and were taught in schools. Gogol’s impetus to describe the essence of his land and his people through the prism of folklore was still present eighty years later, in the time of modernism. In 1912, two very different works by two very different classic authors appeared on the pages of the same magazine: Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s novella Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and Lesya Ukrainka’s poetic play The Forest Song. Both of these works are tragic love stories where ordinary people coexist with magical beings from Ukrainian mythology. This strange coincidence was really no coincidence at all; it was the path Ukrainian literature traversed toward fantasy.
However, science fiction was not faring as well. For Ukrainian culture, the most important goal was to preserve a thousand-year-old continuity, our version of Númenor. It was only in the time of national rebirth, in the 1920s, that it began looking toward the future, building upon the West-European works by Wells and Čapek. This gave us a variety of works. The Sun Machine by Volodymyr Vynnychenko (1928), where a machine turns any organic matter into “sun-bread.” The March of the Robo-Workers by Volodymyr Vladko (1929), where an attempt to replace workers with robots leads to a socialist uprising. In Figurehead by Yuri Yanovsky (1928) an old cinematographer who lived to see the victory of Communism writes about the life and times of a 1920’s movie studio in Odessa, and from his manuscript we learn about the distant future of the 1970s.
Science fiction didn’t disappear in the 1930s, but most of it became ideologically driven. Much of these later attempts to write Ukraine into the cosmic context via standard genre models were far from successful.
Yet, it seemed that everything had changed in 1991. There was no more censorship, private publishing houses mushroomed everywhere, and the reader demand was stupendous. The Soviet empire had collapsed but the marketplace and the cultural field had remained uniform. Russian was the dominant language, as it allowed for print runs in the hundreds of thousands, to be sold everywhere from Magadan to Chisinau.
There was a handful of authors writing in Ukrainian at the time—Yuriy Vinnichuk, Volodymyr Yeshkilev, the Kapranov brothers—but they kept away from fandom and didn’t truly consider themselves to be genre authors.
While the Ukrainian language was the only official language of the country, SFF texts were written primarily in Russian. It was a paradoxical situation, but perfectly logical, when you consider that Ukraine had only just escaped the imperial gravity well.
That’s when the first arguments began as to which authors could be considered Ukrainian. This was proof that readers and writers alike no longer considered themselves culturally Russian.
After all, a writer is not removed from everyday life. A writer responds to it, if not by directly referencing events, then at least through stylistic choices—idioms and cultural coding.
When politics become an integral part of daily life—a time when parts of the country are occupied or there’s an ongoing war—artistic expression resonates with what’s important to readers. In that sense, declaring that “culture is outside of politics” itself becomes a political choice. Such a culture targets an audience that doesn’t exist; it doesn’t exist anymore (with the author writing by inertia) or it doesn’t exist yet (with the author addressing the future generations).
It takes time to shed the influence of and walk away from colonial politics. Ukrainian fandom has walked this path over the course of three decades. This was helped along by the emergence of the new generation of readers who didn’t experience the Soviet rule, weren’t read in on the corresponding cultural codes, and—most importantly—had a different set of expectations when it came to genre literature. Equally important was the fact that Ukrainian was generally becoming the language of everyday communications, even in the Eastern and Central regions of the country. The claim that everyone in Ukraine is a fluent Russian speaker became outdated.
This evolution is especially evident when it comes to fantasy. This subgenre was forbidden in the USSR because, unlike science fiction, it had no practical applications, according to the Soviet ideologues. In Ukraine, fantasy bloomed in the 1990s.
Kyiv residents Marina and Sergey Dyachenko began their career as fantasy authors by writing made-up, often fairy-taleish Neverlands. Echoes of Ukrainian folklore and literature appeared more and more frequently in their later work, such as the novels Scrut (1997) and Age of Witches (1997). Their 1999 novel Armaged-Home about recurring “ends of the word” is a precise portrait of Ukraine of the 1990s from the point of view of Russian-speaking Kyivan intellectuals.
It was the Dyachenkos, along with Kharkiv-based Henry Lion Oldie (the pen name of Dmytro Hromov and Oleh Ladyzhensky) and Andriy Valentynov, who represented Ukraine to the greater SF community up until the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. It is notable that in shared-world projects (The Border, 1999; Pentacle, 2005) they intentionally wrote in the style of Gogol, the only Ukrainian classic well-familiar to the Russian reader, and accepted as Russian, as “one of theirs.” «Гоголевщина» (a coined term, meaning Gogol-style writing) was literature-for-export; it primarily relied on stereotypes familiar to the reader, often building artificial contrasts of “Ukrainian village vs. Russian, imperial city.”
Andriy Valentynov, a professional historian, made some attempts to examine rather than tamper with Ukrainian history. He did so both in shared projects and his solo novels, such as The Triumph of the Heavens (2000). It was Valentynov who, in his 2007 book The Epic Poem that Doesn’t Exist, tried to collect seventeenth century Cossack dumas (epic ballads) into a single text. He was also the only one among those five authors who sharply and publically condemned the annexation of Crimea, the occupation of Donbas, and the unsuccessful attempt of establishing a marionette “republic” in the Kharkiv region. Although Valentynov continued to write in Russian, he severed his relationships with publishers in the Russian Federation. His 2005 novel Omega is an alternate history of a war in Crimea in the 1990s. His latest series Argentina (2017) is also alt-history, with references to recent events.
The most successful of Henry Lion Oldie novels were written in the 1990s. These were interpretations of world mythologies and cultures, from Ancient Greece, to Tatras, to Arabia, to China. Their subject matter had been timely in the 1990s: an individual vs. the system—gods or fate. But it wasn’t enough for the twenty-first century. Oldie made a point of keeping “out of politics.” It was only after surviving two weeks of bombings in Kharkiv and moving to Uzhgorod that they condemned “the actions of the Russian government” for the first time.
From its inception, the new wave of Ukrainian fantasy has attempted to rethink the past in a different manner from the one found in Soviet textbooks. Stylistically, it is almost always a departure from Gogol and an attempt to establish new, unique voices.
Volodymyr Arenev was among the first to explore the age of the Cossacks, melding historical background with a variety of folklore motifs. His duology The Enchanted Ones (2001–2020) weaves together Viking-era Scandinavia, Ancient Rus, Ukraine circa 2014, and the nether realms. His current series-in-progress The Cinnabar Age follows the adventures of teenagers from an unnamed country ruled by a tyrant that engages in an undeclared war against its neighboring state. “Officially, we’re not there . . . ”
Fantasy romance is in demand and has a loyal fan base. One of the first Ukrainian SFF bestsellers is Honihmarnik (2010) by Dara Korniy, written as a counter to Twilight by Stephenie Meyer. Dara was incensed that none of the Ukrainian authors were writing those types of stories based on the native mythology. Other authors, such as Natalia Matolinets and Yaryna Katorozh, have since written successful works in this subgenre.
However, some of the most interesting works can be found at the intersection of genres.
In Lazarus (2018), Svitlana Taratorina imagines an alternate early twentieth century Kyiv where alongside the humans there live mythological creatures (in a ghetto, as per Imperial custom). This noir urban fantasy reimagines historical events and ultimately progresses from smaller subplots to a grander scale, foreshadowing a great war.
In Pavlo Derevyanko’s books the war is already going on. His grimdark fantasy trilogy with alternate history elements, Chronicle of the Gray Order (2019–2022), is filled with adventure, magic, and gradually grows darker as the story progresses. The author finished writing the third volume on February 23, 2022. Its publication date is uncertain at this time.
Much like fantasy, Ukrainian horror owes a great debt to Gogol. His writing tradition, continued by the other authors in the nineteenth century, was interrupted for nearly one hundred years. Horror did not exist as a genre in the Soviet Union.
The first works of Ukrainian horror published after 1991 were clearly inspired by Stephen King and the post-King tradition. One of the first exclusively Ukrainian horror novels was Babai (2005) by Borys Levandovsky. A babai is a Ukrainian equivalent of a boogeyman. Yet, attempts to directly imitate popular genre tropes weren’t especially successful. The genre bloomed later, after 2015, with the launch of fanzines The Little Shop of Horrors and Babai. A variety of writing contests and anthologies provide an opportunity for authors to practice writing short fiction and explore the various themes and types of horror.
For example, notable and contemporary horror author Oleksiy Zhupansky’s prose is rich, languid, and carefully constructed. His horrors arise from the Soviet reality, the same social experiment from which the ramifications are responsible for Ukraine’s current predicament.
Also noteworthy is Vlad Sord’s collection The Abyss (2019), a mix of horror and military fiction. Sord is a veteran who currently took up arms again, but in civilian life he’s the owner of an indie press, Chimeras House, which specializes in horror and dark fantasy. The genre labels are, of course, arbitrary; horror and mysticism often transcend into something better-accepted by the highbrow critics.
To be more specific, they often are labeled as magical realism.
Magical realism has its own name in Ukraine. Since the 1970s, it’s been called the chimera prose. Among the Soviet classic authors, it’s worth remembering House atop a Hill (1983) by Valeriy Shevchuk. The latter half of this book is a short story collection set in the times of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569–1795)—romanticized but told through the prism of what was permitted in the USSR (i.e., practically without the religious elements). There are modern mainstream authors who dabble in chimera prose, such as Serhiy Zhadan.
Zhadan is a key figure in twenty-first century Ukrainian culture. He’s the country’s most popular contemporary poet, a prose author, a rock star, and an opinion-maker. His novel Voroshilovgrad (2010; tr. by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, Deep Vellum Publishing, 2016) is a story of self-discovery and exploration of one’s homeland that involves playing soccer with dead friends and meeting nomads traveling from distant parts of Asia to the European Union. In his collection of short stories and poems Mesopotamia (2014; tr. by Reilly Costigan-Humes, Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps, Yale University Press, 2018), ancient myths play themselves out on the streets of modern Kharkiv, while Devil and Death walk the streets incognito. Magical realism is an important tool Zhadan uses for his characters to better understand themselves and their nation as a whole.
In his novel Magnetism (2020), Petro Yatsenko of Lviv considers the phenomenon of Donbas and its occupation via the story of Maria, a young girl with the magic talent for detecting metals. The novel straddles the borders of chimera fiction and urban fantasy, but it’s too unconventional for the latter; here, the psychological study is more important than the adventure elements, and the resolution isn’t meant to be cinematic.
Oleksiy Hedeonov’s Russian language novels celebrated Kyiv (Apple Days, 2019) and Lviv of the Soviet era (To the Accidental Guest, 2011). Examining the childhood of a magically gifted boy is a familiar trope. However, his books draw upon various urban legends, folklore, and fairy tales—and demonstrate just how much Ukrainian cultural space, even the Soviet-era one, influences and enriches other cultures. Notably, in Hedeonov’s world it is the Ukrainian language that is presented as ancient and magical, used by gods and other supernatural beings. Hedeonov, like many other authors, has switched to writing in Ukrainian in recent years.
Soviet literature was virtually devoid of alternate history. History was perceived as controlled by the laws of Marxism, and random events couldn’t change its victorious march. Even in modern times, alternate history works didn’t emerge right away; in order to be speculative on the theme of “what would happen, if . . . ” one would have to know what actually happened. The main attitude in Ukraine in the 1990s was that we didn’t know our history; we were robbed of our past, and it was imperative that we remember it. It’s no surprise that secret history works were more commonplace than alternate history.
The first influential works of alternate history appeared only at the turn of the millennium. Their author, Vasyl Kozhelyanko, was more interested in poking fun at the new historical myths that replaced the old than he was in building believable models. His most popular novel, The Moscow Parade (1997) portrays a powerful Ukraine created by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists together with the Third Reich. This is no utopia: like other works by Kozhelyanko, it is a sarcastic contemplation of methods that can’t lead to true independence and dignity, and a contemplation as to why the freedom of Ukraine is worth fighting for.
Alternate history often becomes an open metaphor. In Oleskandr Irvanets’ Rivne/Rovno (2001) Ukraine is divided, as Germany had once been, into the Eastern Soviet and Western Democratic parts, with the dividing walls passing through the town of Rivne. In the end, it is revealed that the divided parts of Rivne are the two halves of the protagonist’s consciousness. Like all Ukrainians, he must demolish this wall to achieve being whole.
In the past decade, most alternative histories either tend toward fantasy and steampunk or, paradoxically, become a tool for popularizing real history.
Science fiction is less popular in Ukraine than other speculative genres. Therefore, it tries very hard to masquerade as something else.
For example, The Mutiny (2020) by Volodymyr Kuznetsov resides at the intersection of military SF, space opera, and horror. This book features a complex, nonlinear structure. This tale of human resistance against the alien invaders from the Lovecraftian mythos contains indirect references to the events of 2014.
Other Ukrainian authors have also flirted with this genre but perhaps the best-known of them is Max Kidruk, who never called himself a science fiction writer. His 2012 novel Bot was marketed as a technothriller, but it’s SF in the vein of Michael Crichton. Kidruk returned to SF in 2022 after a lengthy pause, with the first book in the New Dark Ages trilogy. In this highly detailed futuristic setting, Mars is colonized and Earth suffers a series of cataclysms. Its characters inhabit different parts of the solar system and cross paths due to a series of extraordinary events. This novel was slated for publication in September 2022.
It should be noted that many of the authors mentioned here were forced to leave their homes or were caught in the blockades at certain cities at the time this article was being written (March, 2022). Some have no homes left to return to. Others are fighting at the front or supporting the war effort.
Tragically, Númenor is gone. Several of the cities that sprung up where its residents had settled have been damaged or destroyed. But, as we know, the White Tree of Númenor has survived and has bloomed in early June.
Our country will likewise survive. Ukrainian genre fiction will delight readers with new, exciting books very soon.
Volodymyr Arenev is a Ukrainian author of fantasy and SF for adults and teenagers, screenwriter, and teacher of creative writing. Arenev has written more than thirty books, including an urban fantasy trilogy on Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. His books are recommended for reading at school by the Ministry of Education of Ukraine. Volodymyr’s works have been published in Ukrainian, English, French, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian, Chinese, and Russian.
Volodmyr’s novels include Soulhold (2014), Dragonbone Powder (2015), Doghead’s Child (2018), and Sapienses (2019). His work has been recognized by various literary awards including Best Creator of Children’s Science Fiction or Fantasy Books“ (ESFS Awards; Dublin, Ireland 2014), Best Fantasy Novel for YA (2018) by Barabooka, and BBC Book of the Year (Nomination Book for Children) (2019). His novel The Sworn Sword, or the Voice of Blood reached the finals of the most prestigious Ukrainian award, the Taras Shevchenko Prize.
Mykhailo Nazarenko is Assistant Professor in the Department of East Slavic Philology and Practical Information Studies at the Educational and Scientific Institute of Philology of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. His books include The Reality of Wonder (On Books of Marina and Sergey Dyachenko) (2005), Buried on a Mound: Shevchenko in Folklore and Fakelore (2006, 2017), The New Minotaur (a collection of fantasy stories, 2007), and Besides “Kobzar”: An Anthology of Ukrainian Literature, 1792-1883 (2021). He has edited and annotated Ukrainian and Russian translations of works by Susanna Clarke, John Crowley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Terry Pratchett.
Alex Shvartsman’s translations from Russian have appeared in Clarkesworld, F&SF, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and many other venues. He’s the author of fantasy novels Eridani’s Crown and The Middling Affliction.