Courtesy of Maria Genkin

On Friday, Olena Stiazhkina, a Ukrainian historian and writer, visited Yale to give a human face to the war in Ukraine. 

Stiazhkina visited the University to present her two books, which were recently translated into English. She talked about humor during the war, Ukrainian fighters and language politics in the country, highlighting what she called the successful resistance to Russian colonialism. The event, titled “The Last Words in the World: Ukrainians and the War Experience,” was hosted by the European Studies Council and moderated by history professor Marci Shore.

“In Ukraine, now we still live in the world of the last words. It is [a] common feeling we don’t discuss, but all our words could [become] last [as] … at any moment, in any town, village … Russian rockets could strike,” Stiazhkina said. “We want our last words to be honest, kind, encouraging and funny. The last one is very important.”

Stiazhkina spoke about a friend of hers who is currently fighting on the frontlines and how he instructed friends and loved ones not to “bury [him] in [his] uniform” but in a new tuxedo from his wardrobe. The author recounted how he said that he had never worn the suit but believed his death would be a good opportunity to try it on. 

Sharing another friend’s will to be buried naked, Stiazhkina joked that she should be more modest, making the audience laugh.

“We do not want to be remembered as [a] weak, helpless people, because we are not victims. We are fighters,” Stiazhkina said. “Most of all I want to write, but I am [a] fighter. We are ready to die as grateful, conscious fighters.” 

Stiazhkina thanked Ukrainian soldiers for the opportunity to be alive and for protecting her children. She said that she learned the phrase “Thank you for your service” from Americans and now uses it daily on the streets of Ukraine. 

She also thanked Americans, whom she called Ukraine’s biggest allies, for aid, thoughts, prayers and attention to those suffering in the besieged country.

In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. However, the war started years earlier, when Russian troops occupied Crimea and parts of Donbas in 2014. 

“Ukraine, War, Love” is an edited version of Stiazhkina’s diary from that time. In the book, she depicts day-to-day developments around her hometown as Russia occupied it. 

She told the News some people in the United States are not aware that Russia initially invaded Ukraine in 2014, starting the war she witnessed as a history professor in Donetsk. 

Stiazhkina said she believes knowing that the war started in 2014, not 2022, helps foreigners understand the strength Ukraine has demonstrated for the last nine years. It also shows, she argued, that Russia will not stop its imperial expansion willingly. Stiazhkina said that the Russian army writes “to Berlin” and “to Washington” on their tanks.

In the personal account, Stiazhkina narrates how she was captured by pro-Russian separatists while browsing for books. One of her captors turned out to be her former student. 

Within the pages of the diary, Stiazhkina offers an introspective examination of her unintended and unexpected role within a guerrilla group. Although she was a university professor, she explained, circumstances placed her at the heart of war and made her a member of the Ukrainian resistance. 

“We were different. There were adults and kids and elderly and Jews and Greeks and Syrians. One common feature was we were Russian native speakers, but we fought for Ukraine,” Stiazhkina said of the guerilla group. 

Language becomes especially important in the author’s second book, “Cecil the Lion Had to Die,” which explores what it means to be a native Russian speaker in Ukraine through the lens of a Ukrainian family. Originally, the book was written in a mix of Russian and Ukrainian languages — it nonlinearly transitions from Russian to Ukrainian. In the book’s English translation, this transition is demonstrated in color as the pages switch from black to white. 

For Stiazhkina, this transition is not merely linguistic but also inherently personal and political.

“It’s about the transition from a Russian Dostoyevsky little man to Virgil’s or Kotliarevskiy’s Aeneas, who was able to fight, recreate his world and be free … We celebrate Aeneas, not [the] little man of the status quo,” she argued. 

Stiazhkina stated that her personal transition from speaking Russian to Ukrainian felt like returning home. 

The story follows the story of the family through radical transformation: when the Soviet Union unexpectedly implodes, an independent Ukraine emerges and neo-imperial Russia occupies Ukraine’s Crimea and parts of the Donbas. It attempts to demonstrate how Ukrainian history and local identity shaped the war with Russia and the personalities of those who fought against it. 

Stiazhkina told the News she came to the United States primarily to explain Ukraine to foreigners, not to promote her books. By telling Americans about the people who live there, she said, she wants to make support for the country more conscious and strong. 

Still, Stiazhkina expressed that she hopes readers of her books will feel as if somebody is hugging them, despite the brutal and bloody life circumstances they detail. 

“It is all about love,” Stiazhkina said. “I want a reader to close the book with the feeling that life is worth living.” 

Arvydas Grisinas, a Fulbright visiting researcher from Lithuania, told the News that Stiazhkina’s speech was, “very emotional, personal and value-driven,” and brought a sense of humanity into the geopolitical conversation surrounding the war. 

Olena Lennon, a professor at the University of New Haven who is also from the east of Ukraine, thanked Stiazhkina for bringing attention to the story of those affected by the Russian invasion since 2014. 

“She’s a soldier in that role because she’s raising awareness and informing audiences abroad about the kind of a fight it is, [which] includes all of us, humans, Ukrainians, Americans,” Lennon said. 

Oleh Kotsyuba, manager of publications at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute — which translated Stiazhkina’s books into English — also spoke at the event, where he read an excerpt of the novel. He told the News that the institute translates Ukrainian literature not only to bring it to regular readers but also to provide professors in American universities with materials to teach about Ukrainian culture. 

Katja Kolcio, a professor of dance at Wesleyan University, came to Yale to hear the presentation. She told the News she will use Stiazhkina’s novel in her class on culture and identity in Ukraine next spring. 

The presentation was hosted with the help of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and Razom for Ukraine.  

Yurii Stasiuk is a Managing Editor of the Yale Daily News. He previously covered City Hall as a beat reporter. Originally from Kalush, Ukraine, he is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College majoring in History and Political Science.