"These texts give me strength": Olena Styazhkina on the Encounter Literary Prize initiative

Olena Styazhkina. Photo: Daria Reshetniak

We talked about “Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize": senses and meanings with Professor Olena Stiazhkina, a member of this year's jury. She holds a doctorate in History and is also a writer and journalist.

“Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize" ™ was launched in 2019 by the Canadian charitable organization Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter with support from the NGO “Publishers' Forum” (Lviv,Ukraine). The aim of the prize is to celebrate the shared experience of Ukrainians and Jews over the centuries. Every year, the prize is awarded to the most influential work of fiction and non-fiction (in alternate years) that fosters Ukrainian-Jewish understanding.

Olena Stiazhkina: During the ongoing war, all of us have acquired the ability to engage in magical thinking. I think that this ability is part of Ukrainianness as such. We see this in nature, in our buildings. These are important symbols, signals, and markers for us. It was both an honor and a surprise to be invited to become a member of the jury of the ‘Encounter’ literary prize. That was when I thought about my Dad. Officially, he is my stepfather, but he raised me from the age of five. We moved from Donetsk in 2014, and I promised him that we would definitely come back home, but I did not keep my promise; he died in Kyiv, before the full-scale invasion. I constantly thought that he was angry with me, mad that I hadn't kept my promise. But when I was invited to the jury, I realized that he is no longer angry. The point is that my Dad was Jewish. The best thing that he and I read and which I know about love comes from the works of Sholem Aleichem. The most important thing that I know about love is the books that I got from my Dad. It was a Ukrainian translation, the Ukrainian version of Sholem Aleichem's Gentle Night and Love. This was about my Dad.

When I realized that the initiative to which I was being invited is called ‘Encounter’ and that it is about Ukrainians and Jews, I thought that maybe this is precisely the magical signal that I am supposed to interpret as forgiveness for the fact that my Dad and I never returned to Donetsk.

"We live together, not alongside each other"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: One of the guests on our Encounters Program said that it is very important for us to understand that Jews and Ukrainians did not live alongside each other; they lived together. When we start realizing this, a different perception emerges. As for this prize, when we are talking about literary heritage, what is important for us to remember, realize, and record?

Olena Styazhkina: I completely agree with the thesis that we live together, not alongside each other. This is my familial, personal experience. When I was very little, I thought that people lived like this everywhere. For example, that matzah and paska were one and the same thing, because in our home, we had both. For me, this is part of my happy experience — happy because, in my experience, there was nothing freer, more creative, and better than this living together. This is about the coexistence of two cultures that lived and live as one. I think that this is precisely what we must try to research and understand: the coexistence of two that live as one; live so naturally that it seems that only this is the norm; that only this is possible. Only this spells happiness.

"Imperial Russia did not anticipate coexistence"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Can we say that the common life experience of Ukrainians and Jews cannot be compared to what Russian culture represents?

Olena Styazhkina: For an accurate reply, some excellent facts, information, and comparisons based on real documents are necessary. That's the historian in me saying this, but not just she. I can speak a different way.

Imperial Russia did not anticipate a life lived together; it envisioned life alongside. Jews lived in Russia and still do, but they were supposed to become Russians. Above all, they are Russians, carriers of the Russian culture. I know for certain that Ukrainians, Ukraine, and Ukrainianness never proposed that Jews become Ukrainians — political Ukrainians, of course. But change their identity — never.

I think that all this Russian imperialism reveals a story about hierarchy, about the supremacy of some over others, about the addition of some to others; about the impossibility of being oneself, about the impossibility of a combination in which there would be no discord and conflict. I think that this is the key difference between Ukrainians and Russians.

The Encounter jury's responsibility

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: How does the role of a person whose rating will affect who will receive this award and who will not appeal to you?

Olena Styazhkina: It is an awfully big responsibility. The only thing that calms me down is that I am a rank-and-file member of the jury and that I have one vote. Although I totally realize that even a single vote carries great importance. I am afraid that some brilliant text may not end up on the shortlist or will not become the winner. I am reading all the texts. I am rooting for each of them. I can definitely say that what I am doing right now is a happy person's work. If I had been asked in my youth, "Who do you want to be?" I would have said that I want to be a reader. And my dream is coming true. I definitely know that I got lucky.

There are many texts. They are long. They are honest, subtle, fragile — and strong. I feel not just satisfaction. I feel a certain resource availability. Right now, we all understand how tired we have become. Of course, I am not in the war. I don't have the right to say this. But. right now, I cannot not feel exhaustion. And these texts provide the resource and strength to tell myself, "Stop. You, lady, are not at the front. You have strength. You can." For me, the texts written by the prize contenders are messages of fortitude. For me, they are reading, on the one hand, and on the other, letters for restoring strength.

Why is the Encounter prize important?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Do you think that the Encounter prize and other similar measures are helping us understand our multifacetedness?

Olena Styazhkina: Yes and no, because there must be a demand for multifacetedness. In other words, a person must be ready to say to himself or herself: "I am missing something. Some small picture of the world or piece of a puzzle. And I can't answer some important questions for myself if this puzzle piece is not in the place where it should be." We are living in a world where words and information are very important. This prize can be that piece of the puzzle that will help us understand the problem of people who live together. These people may belong to other ethnicities and nations. But they have been living together for centuries.

This prize is important simply because it exists and because we are talking about these important books. We are switching on important social mechanisms. In addition, this prize is very important in the context of that terrible disinformation which the Kremlin has adopted in order to accuse Ukraine of Nazism and of everything else that they have thought up to accuse us — to which we responded even before the full-scale stage of the war. The story that "everyone in our synagogues is a Banderite" is an important part of our war today, even if not everyone in a synagogue is a Banderite.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: In working on the Encounters Program, I have come to understand that the history of Kyiv's Jews is also my history, although I don't know whether there are Jews in my family. But I realize that this comprises part of my identity. Who is responsible for the situation that we have little knowledge of or that it is not accurate?

Olena Styazhkina: We can really change only what we can change. First of all, we change our attitude, our work, our activeness. If we arrive at this level and see that next to us are people who are also ready to do this, then we are taking a step and uniting. And sometime later, an institution emerges. I think that I have not done enough. I think, "Why did I never write about this?" "Why do I not have my own text about happiness?" I probably should have done this. My answer is simple. It is our fault, but we can handle it.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk