Fight… and overcome
As the war in Ukraine intensifies, we publish exclusive new translations of two Ukrainian poems that highlight the country’s struggle against invasion and occupation
15 Mar 22

Vasyl Symonenko (1935-1963), a Ukrainian dissident poet, died after a brutal attack by the Soviet police in Smila, Cherkasy Oblast, Ukraine. His death was likely connected to his interest in the mass graves at Bykivnia forest outside Kyiv, where the Soviet regime buried tens of thousands of its victims. His poem To A Kurdish Brother can be read as a call to his Ukrainian compatriots to rise against the Soviet regime. The Soviets had committed genocide against Ukrainians during the 1930s, exterminating millions of them during the Holodomor, a forced famine accompanied by mass executions. In the post war period the regime was slowly choking the remains of Ukrainian identity under the guise of “internationalism” by assimilating Ukraine’s people into Russian culture. Putin’s war is the Russian empire’s final effort to destroy Ukrainian identity, but it relates directly to hundreds of years of oppression.

To A Kurdish Brother

by Vasyl Symonenko

Fight… and overcome! Taras Shevchenko

The mountains cry, drenched in blood,

The battered stars fall down:

The fragrant valleys gouged and wounded,

Where chauvinism’s hunger tears in.

Oh, Kurd, conserve your ammo,

But don’t spare the lives of murderers.

Fall as a whirlwind of blood now

On these pillaging lawless bastards.


Only talk to them with bullets true:

They did not come just to take all you own,

But for your name and language too

And leave your son an orphan.

The oppressor will “rule” while you haul the cart

So you cannot consent to live with them

Drinking the blood of oppressed peoples they grow fat

For chauvinism is our most savage foe.

He will do anything, so that you submit,

He has betrothed treachery with shame,

Oh, Kurd, conserve each bullet,

For without them you won’t save your kin.

Do not lull to sleep the power of your hate,

Until the last chauvinist on the planet falls,

Into their open grave, only then take

Tenderness as your motto, however it calls.

Lina Kostenko was born into a family of teachers on 19 March 1930 in Rzhyshchiv, Ukraine. According to this poem, she wrote her first poem on the walls of a dug-out in World War II. It’s unlikely that this is poetic licence. Kostenko is a poet who is both highly literary, mixing references to Shakespeare and Gogol, but also very honest and accessible. That first poem written as shells fell around her has not survived so what we have instead is a poem about writing a poem. It is a powerful piece that speaks to the plight of children in war. She is currently seeing her country being invaded and shelled by another brutal dictator who, like Hitler and Stalin, wants to destroy the Ukrainian nation. Putin is committing war crimes and has displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees.

My first poem was written in a dug out

On a wall loosened by explosions

When stars were lost in the horoscope:

Though my childhood was not slain by war.

The fire poured its  lava,

Stood in the grey craters of orchards,

Our path choked by water

In deranged barrages with flames

The world once bright now dark

That burning night illuminated to its depth

The dug out like a submarine

In a sea of smoke, fear and flame.

There is no longer rabbit or wolf there

Just a world of blood, carbonised star!

I wrote almost in shrapnel

Block capitals from the child’s primer.

I would still play in the dark and in classes

I flew on the wings of book covers in stories

And wrote poems about landmines

Having already seen death so close.

The pain of first unchildish impressions

What trace left on the heart

Verses do not say what I cannot speak

Have they not left mute the spirit?

The spirit in words is the sea in a periscope

And its memory, light refracted from my temple

My first poem, was written in a dug out

Simply imprinted on the soil.

Both poems translated from the Ukrainian by Stephen Komarnyckyj