Borys Humeniuk: ‘The Tank of Ukrainian Literature’ in the Netherlands

Borys Humeniuk: 'The Tank of Ukrainian Literature' in the Netherlands

Borys Humeniuk: 'The Tank of Ukrainian Literature' in the Netherlands

The Ukrainian poet Borys Humeniuk is angry. Angry at the Dutch media. Not because his poetry was badly received, but because he was portrayed as a member of a militia and an art-robber. “I am predominantly a writer and not a fighter,” Humeniuk stated in an interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw. “I have an interest in art, I wrote about it for years.”1 Who is this poet from Ukraine of whom it is said that he has “run over the entire Ukrainian literature with a tank”?2 And how did he get this press coverage in the Netherlands?

This is where my war began

Not a lot of information can be found on the early life of Humeniuk, except that he was born in 1965 (according to his Facebook account in Ternopil, Ukraine), published a collection of poetry in 1993, and has written two novels called Lukianivka and Island.3 But in 2013 history hit Ukraine: the Maidan protesters shoo-ed away the Ukrainian president Janoekovitsch, Russia annexed the Crimea in response, and separatists started their own republics in the East of the country. For Humeniuk, these events changed everything.4

In a town called Berdlansk on the 22nd of June 2014, Borys became aware of his mission when he witnessed a Ukrainian soldier trying to text his girlfriend while holding an automatic gun. In Humeniuk’s words: “this is where my war began”.5 Humeniuk wrote a poem about the young man “not caring for rhymes when texting his girl” and that was the beginning of a collection that would be called Poems from War. His mission statement: “I am a witness, I write what I see.”6

Today again we dig the earth

Let’s have a look at the poetic qualities of this witness. Some translations can be found on the internet, provided by teacher and Greek Catholic Priest Jeffrey Stephaniuk. One is called “Testament” and begins with the following lines:

Today again we dig the earth
This dreadful Donetsk land
Barren and petrified earth
To which we are drawn
Within which we hide and prove
That we are still alive7

The poem takes a dark edge from here: stating that all but some of poem’s subjects will be dead soon, and from then on the poem elaborates on how they should be remembered:

As for memorials, crosses, markers of remembrance
Our wish is that we do not need them8

So, no big memorials are wished for. Humeniuk envisages that the corpses of the dead will be left rotting in the soil they defended:

In remembrance of us consume the bread
From that land where we’ve been laid to rest9

It is quite clear, this is war poetry (such a brilliant analysis, considering the unmistakable title Poems from War). But why is Humeniuk described as a militia fighter and an art robber in the Dutch newspapers?

Knocking on the embassy’s door

Last week, the Dutch news stated that Humeniuk appeared at the Dutch embassy in Ukraine in July this year, willing to share information on an infamous art theft that happened years ago. On January 11th 2005, an employee of the Westfries Museum in the Dutch city of Hoorn was ready to embark on his daily routine but soon discovered that the floors of the museum were covered with the glass of shattered showcases. Twenty-three 17th century paintings and several pieces of silverware, the heart of the museum collection, were missing.10 The usual rumors about the nature of the art theft started buzzing, but for the next ten years nothing was heard of the whereabouts of the stolen art. Until Borys Humeniuk knocked on the door of the Dutch embassy…

Newspapers soon announced that the stolen art was in the hands of the militia that Humeniuk was a member of. Dutch art detective Arthur Brand was dispatched to Ukraine and stated that the militia demanded an absurd sum of money for the booty’s return.11 Rumors about Humeniuk started to appear: he was supposedly a member of the OUN militia. This Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists has its roots back in 1927 and has been dedicated to the creation of an independent Ukrainian state since then.12 After fighting the Soviet-Union, the people that claim its inheritance are now spearheading their forces against Vladimir Putin and are one of the factions in the complicated situation of today’s Ukraine.

The OUN, however, soon demented that Humeniuk was still a member of their faction, making clear that he got fired because of indiscipline long before he made an appearance at the Dutch embassy. Humeniuk himself claims that he never stated he was a member, and that he just transferred information that was openly available in Ukraine anyway. Brand, in his opinion, is “making a scandal, to become a hero in the Netherlands.”13 Quite a surreal situation, maybe Humeniuk should write a poem about it. Let’s have one excerpt of his poem “Fallen Soldier” for inspiration:

Commander, what do you mean to say
My chances of survival, of remaining whole
Through this war
Are 50-50?
Which 50% of myself am I expected to sacrifice
For my native land14

Meanwhile in the Ukraine the poems are nominated for the highest state award for art and culture: the Shevchenko Prize. Something tells me the Dutch haven’t heard the last of Humeniuk, but my gut feeling says chances to receive a Dutch prize for his poetry are next to none.

Zingo Poetry Slam
Oom Oswald
Mijn stem brandt in mij

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders
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  1. ““Kunstrover” woedend: collectie in gevaar”, in Trouw December 12th 2015 

  2. Poems from War, in Day (Denb) February 12th 2015, http://www.day.kiev.ua/en/article/culture/poems-war, last seen December 12th 2015 

  3. Ibidem 

  4. Ibidem 

  5. Ibidem 

  6. Ibidem 

  7. http://www.kalynareview.com/borys-humeniuk/4589343921, last seen December 12th 2015 

  8. Ibidem 

  9. Ibidem 

  10. “Het hart van het Westfries Museum is geraakt”, in Trouw, January 11th 2005 

  11. “Hoorn probeert gestolen kunst terug te krijgen uit Oekraine”, NRC, December 8th 2015 

  12. http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages\O\R\OrganizationofUkrainianNationalists.htm, last seen December 12th 2015 

  13. ““Kunstrover” woedend: collectie in gevaar”, in Trouw December 12th 2015 

  14. http://euromaidanpress.com/2014/11/11/poetry-from-the-front-2/, last seen December 12th 2015