Boris Dralyuk: "The only resource Russia has is men, and they are not afraid to waste them."

"My Hollywood and Other Poems," Paul Dry Books.

Boris Dralyuk is the Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a literary translator and holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he taught Russian literature for several years. He has also taught at the University of St Andrews, Scotland. His work has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The Paris Review, The Guardian, Granta, World Literature Today, The Yale Review, The Hopkins Review, New England Review, Harvard Review, Jewish Quarterly, and other journals.

He is the author of "Western Crime Fiction Goes East: The Russian Pinkerton Craze 1907-1934" (Brill, 2012) and translator of several volumes from Russian and Polish, including Mikhail Zoshchenko’s "Sentimental Tales" (Columbia University Press, 2018), Isaac Babel’s "Red Cavalry" (Pushkin Press, 2015) and "Odessa Stories" (Pushkin Press, 2016), Maxim Osipov’s "Rock, Paper, Scissors" and "Other Stories" (NYRB Classics, 2019, with Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson), and Andrey Kurkov’s "Grey Bees" (MacLehose Press, 2020). He is also the editor of "1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution" (Pushkin Press, 2016) and co-editor, with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski, of The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin Classics, 2015). His collection of poems, "My Hollywood and Other Poems," was published in 2022 by Paul Dry Books.

Mr. Dralyuk, we are going into the tenth month of Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine. What is your take on the situation?

I am no military strategist, but my sense is that the Russian Army's chances of defeating the Ukrainian Army on the battlefield are nil. Thanks to its allies, the Ukrainian Army is better trained, more experienced, and far better supplied. Also, we must remember that the war, in which many Ukrainians but relatively few Russian nationals have fought, has been going on since 2014. The Russian Army – like everything in Russia – has been allowed to rot due to the corruption that pervades every Russian institution. Much of the money assigned to defense has lined the pockets of Putin's cronies, and of those cronies' cronies, and so on. The only resource Russia has is men, and they are not afraid to waste them.

So Ukrainians are now mowing down, at great expense and great psychological cost, untrained Russians, including, in the case of Wagner PMC, prisoners. These prisoners are essentially slaves of the Putin regime. What motivation do these Russian men have to fight? The promise of a reduced sentence? Fear of execution with a sledgehammer? Maybe a washing machine? While Ukrainians are defending their homeland, their children, their future. Ukrainian men and women are also dying on the front lines, but the number of Russians killed is staggering. All this is very much in the Russian tradition. There is nothing cheaper in Russia than human life. So what is the Russian Army doing instead of fighting with a modicum of honor and intelligence? Attacking civilians. Also a failing strategy. And also very much in the Russian tradition.

You were born and raised in Soviet Ukraine but emigrated with your parents to the US in the early 1990s. What does the perception of the war in the US look like to you?

I am happy to say that I see near-universal support for Ukraine among the US populace. I have witnessed it in California, Florida, and Oklahoma. There are Ukrainian colors everywhere. There are, of course, isolationist voices on the right and the left and useful idiots with big platforms, but I do not see them having much influence on the state's policies or on the minds of average Americans. Nothing is entirely black and white, but this is as close as we have come to a clear-cut case of good vs. evil.

A considerable part of your body of work is translating the works of Russian authors, and non-Russian writers who write, or at least used to write, in Russian. According to the latest surveys, an ever-increasing number of Ukrainians are now rejecting the Russian language. Even in places such as your native city Odesa, where Russian has been the lingua franca for centuries, this change has become palpable in everyday life. What do you think about that?

I think it is inevitable. It is the price that the Russian language and Russian high culture must pay for the violence done by the Russian state and the Russian people. Russian high culture is not uniformly and unambiguously in defense of imperialism. Still, it has long served to cloak the extreme violence and inhumanity that characterizes Russian society and Russia's actions around the world. The true Russian tradition, say far too many well-intentioned people like Pope Francis, is that of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky. They then turn a blind eye to the violence perpetrated by successive Russian and Soviet tyrants, the mentality of the vast majority of Russian people, and the atrocious conditions of life in the country. Or they may admit that it is precisely due to the great suffering of the Russian people – and those around them – that we have Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Tchaikovsky. To a significant extent, that is true.

Representatives of Russian high culture responded in myriad ways to that suffering. Many of them, like Pushkin and Tolstoy, had the time to compose their masterpieces because they were supported by suffering serfs. The fact that Russian high culture is, in complex ways, a product of and a response to human suffering cannot be used to justify or glorify that suffering. I am convinced that Pushkin and Tolstoy will continue to be read, and Tchaikovsky will never disappear from the repertoire. But their work should not be used to excuse the past and, especially, the present and future actions of the Russian state and the Russian people.

The Ukrainian writer Myroslav Laiuk published a much-read essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books in which he pleaded for Western audiences to be more understanding of Ukrainians, who they often perceive as "too emotional" and "too hateful" towards Russians. One of his main arguments is that "Russian culture has become a weapon that is now working against civilization itself." Where does that leave someone like you, who is clearly in love with some Russian authors and specific aspects of Russian culture but also strongly condemns what Putin’s Russia is doing?

Recently I wrote an essay, yet to be published, on my relationship to the work of the Russian – not Russophone Ukrainian, but Russian – authors I have translated. As part of the reckoning precipitated by the launch of the full-scale invasion, I looked back on the work I had done. It became clear to me that, from the start, I had mostly been drawn to the work of Russian émigré poets. Some of these poets held views or even took actions I find reprehensible. Still, their writing is almost always fearlessly self-interrogative, searingly honest about the contradictory feelings inspired by life in exile. To me, their work is as much a part of the universal tradition of exilic writing as it is a part of Russian literature – especially because, for much of the 20th century, it was excluded from the Soviet canon of Russian literature and was hardly published even abroad.

I have translated very few living Russian authors from Russia proper. One of them, Maxim Osipov, is now in exile; he has joined that universal chorus. I don’t know if I will ever want to translate a living Russian author who has stayed in Russia as this war has unfolded. Still, I hope they survive, look closely and unsparingly at themselves and those around them, and try to depict what it is like to live amid abject depravity. Maxim's brilliant, nuanced stories attracted me precisely because they captured both the inner and outer reality of life in a nation on the edge of a moral abyss, or rather some way down its slope.

One reason I am asking you this is because nowadays, some Ukrainian authors get attacked for having previously written in Russian or published in Russia. For instance, high-profile literary critics and publishers such as Yaryna Vynnytska have accused Andrey Kurkov of harboring "pro-Russian views" and have called him "a long-time collaborator." Another example is Yuri Andruchovych, who tens of thousands of people have harshly criticized on social media for sharing the stage with Russian author Mikhail Shishkin at a literary festival in Norway. Not to mention the constant calls for tearing down the statues of Russian cultural figures in Ukraine and renaming the streets named after them. What do you make of these arguments?

I think they are perfectly understandable. When you consider the centuries-long suppression of the Ukrainian language by the Russian state and the denial of its very existence by many Russian speakers – something we hear a lot today – how can you expect anything else from Ukrainian authors, the carriers, and makers of a culture under constant genocidal assault? That said, I think the Russophone Ukrainian tradition is integral to the Ukrainian cultural tradition. I feel the same way about the Yiddish-language Ukrainian tradition, though the history and power dynamics in that situation are, of course, different. We can discuss how Ukraine can incorporate the Russophone tradition into its cultural history after this war is won. Whether this tradition has a future is another question.

I will say that there is absolutely no good reason to question the loyalty of Yuri Andruchovych or Andrey Kurkov, who have worked as hard as anyone to bring Ukraine's story to the world. Their wonderful novels capture the nation's spirit, and the diversity of the lives lived on its terrain fully and poignantly. These authors have earned the right to pursue the interests of Ukrainian culture in any way they see fit.

Within Ukraine, the culture war around the use of the Russian language is bourne out of a broader debate that often evolves around the question of "collective guilt." High-profile government advisors such as Mykhailo Podolyak and social media influencers like the political activist Maksym Eristavi have built a considerable following preaching the narrative that "All Russians are guilty," no matter where they live and what their attitude towards the war may be. What is your position on the concept of collective guilt?

I can only say that this war was unlikely to happen had the ground not been prepared by centuries of discrimination against Ukrainians. Not only in the form of official imperial oppression but also in the form of countless dehumanizing jokes and Ukrainophobic fantasies. The question of collective guilt is obviously complicated, but it is worth noting that, unlike Germans, Russians have never fully dealt with, much less atoned for, the crimes of the Soviet empire. An even more pressing question than that of collective guilt is: What now? Will Russians of every political stripe continue – to put it mildly – to look down on Ukrainians, to justify the destruction of their culture, and, let's be frank, to justify actual genocide by dismissing them?

Another topic dominating the public debate in Ukraine revolves around decolonization, and literature is no exception. There is now a legion of literary scholars combing through the texts of classic Russian authors like Pushkin, Dostojewsky, or Tolstoy, looking for – and usually finding plenty – of quotes and paragraphs in those writers’ works that appear to support the hypothesis that Russian imperialism is quasi-innate. Are they right?

I am not sure what quasi-innate means, but the Russian authors you name did not emerge fully formed from the head of an impartial deity. They were shaped by the culture around them, whether they opposed or supported the mores of their society or the actions of their state. Consequently, you will find reflections of Russian imperial attitudes in their brilliant and multifaceted work. We should be alert to these reflections and not accept them as holy writ simply because we admire and even love the poems and novels in which they occur or which they permeate.

According to Ethnologue, a US-produced language reference guide, today, there are roughly 260 million Russian speakers worldwide. What impact will Russia’s war on Ukraine have on the future use and perception of the Russian language globally?

It will generally hurt it for some time, but it will also make it fashionable in certain quarters – say, among useful idiots who fancy themselves warriors against Western imperialism. In the end, the users of Russian will determine the reputation of their language in the world. It is up to them to win respect for their tongue.

Despite growing up mainly in the US, you have kept strong intellectual and emotional ties with your Ukrainian roots throughout your life. Is there anything you have learned about yourself since February 24 you did not know before?

I learned that I should be clear about my self-identity and never miss an opportunity to counter deluded Ukrainophobia and blind Russophilia – both of which were far too commonly accepted for far too long. (Klaus Stimeder, 30.12.2022)