The Volokh Conspiracy

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Ukraine War Music

"We Will Never Be Brothers"


I came across this poem yesterday; it was written in 2014 by Ukrainian Anastasia Dmitruk, reacting to the Russian invasion of Crimea. As I understand it, it prompted many pro-Russian poems in response; regardless of what you think of their ideological merits, it seems to me a sign of a lively poetic culture.

But whatever arguments there might have been with it at the time, its prophecy has now been entirely fulfilled. An invasion aimed, at least ostensibly, at the union of closely related peoples has, I expect, deeply estranged them, at least for my lifetime and probably longer. The recently created video, which I include above, captures the message well.

Here's one twist I wanted to add (see this post for a bit more on a related matter): The poem denouncing and renouncing Russia is written in Russian. To be sure, part of this might well have been to get the message across to the Russians, who are after all formally the narrator's addressees. But I expect that part of it is also that Russian the language, unlike Russia the country, remains in the author's heart. (See, e.g., her "the masks are torn off," which is also in Russian though it appears to be addressed at least largely to her fellow Ukrainians.) [UPDATE: Commenter Voize of Reazon pointed me to this interview with Dmitruk, in which Dmitruk reports that she was primarily a Russian speaker when the poem was written, though she has shifted to Ukrainian since then.]

Perhaps relatedly, the audio recording in the video above is by Lithuanian musicians (Virgis Pupšys, Gintautas Litinskas, Jeronimas Milius, Kęstutis Nevulis, Vladimiras Konstantinovas). It of course makes perfect sense that Lithuanians would unite with Ukrainians in their desire to be separate from the Russians. But the language of this opposition to Russian empire has itself been Russian, even in places where language is a major part of ethnic definition and division.

That reality, that common link of language and history and culture, has been a key facet of the Eastern Europe that Russia has built. It was an opportunity, I think, for genuine closeness among those countries, including Russia—economic and cultural and perhaps even one day political. And that opportunity Putin has now destroyed.

I hesitate to offer much of a translation; except in the hands of a truly gifted translator of poetry (such as James Falen's Eugene Onegin), a translation can't capture the aptness of the words, which often stems from their meter and rhyme as much as their meaning. But, loosely (and perhaps incorrectly in places; please correct me if I'm wrong), it goes roughly like this:

You and we will never be brothers
Not by our motherlands, nor our mothers
You lack the spirit to be free
We will not be even your stepsiblings.
You have christened yourself "the elder brothers,"
We're fine being the younger, just not yours.
You are a multitude but, sadly, faceless.
You are vast, but we are great.
You press us, you toil,
You will choke yourself on your envy.
Liberty is a word you do not know,
You from childhood are chained in shackles.
At home you say "silence is golden,"
But in our hands burn Molotov cocktails,
In our heart flows burning blood,
What sort of blind "family" are you to us?
We have no fear in our eyes,
Even without weapons we are a menace.
We grew up and became brave
While we are targeted by snipers.
The executioners pushed us to our knees;
We rose up and corrected that.
Pointlessly the rats hide and pray,
They will be washed in their own blood.
You are getting new orders,
But here we burn the fires of revolt.
You have the Czar, we have Democracy,
You and we will never be brothers.