“My Ithaca Burned Down, Too.” A Letter from a Teenage Joycean and Ukrainian Refugee
“I’m Ruslana from Severodonetsk, a now disappearing city.”
Sergei Khoruzhy, the Russian translator of Ulysses and my “friend in Joyce,” often talked about a phenomenon he called the “Joyce field.” By this he had in mind not the academic world, but rather a more general term for those invisible but very strong threads that link together people who come in close contact with the world of Joyce’s texts. I’ve been repeatedly convinced that this “field” works better than any magnet and is more reliable than a Swiss watch somewhere near Zürich.
2022 revealed itself to be yet another confirmation that the “Joyce field” is real. When the war unleashed by the Russian army in Ukraine tore apart connections between families and friends, it turned out that the threads woven by Mr. Bloom’s path are stronger than others. Thousands of Ukrainian viewers of my Russian-language literary YouTube channel “Armen and Fedor” who read Ulysses with us in 2021 as part of the 18-week-long “Joyce Project” suddenly found themselves in a horrible, cruel, full-scale war. And hundreds of them wrote letters and messages, shared their innermost fears and feelings, because they trusted us. After all, James Joyce “introduced” us.
We’d like to share one such letter—with the author’s permission—with you today. It was sent to me by a Ukrainian girl from Severodonetsk, one of our channel’s viewers, one of Joyce’s readers, and one of the many victims of this terrible war. Special thanks to my friend in Joyce José Vergara for the idea to share this letter not only with our channel’s viewers but also with fellow Joyceans—and beyond.
–Armen Zakharyan, philologist and translator, creator of the literary YouTube channel “Armen and Fedor,” and author of the “Joyce Project”
“Hello, Armen. I’m Ruslana from Severodonetsk, a now disappearing city. I’m almost 16, and a year ago, on June 16, I finished reading Ulysses. You were present at this moment, but, of course, you don’t remember it. But I remember this moment. At that time, I was keeping a reading diary about Ulysses in my now burned down room, in my Ithaca. My Ithaca burned down, too.
I remember how I fell in love with Dublin, even though I wasn’t there. How I learned to analyze books. How I learned to see details. And so I listened to the murmur of the Black Sea that day. The sun-drenched veranda and tea on the wooden table. How many books have been read on the shore of this very sea! Thinking about my upcoming trip to Kyiv, I wanted to wander around the courtyards of Kyiv, just as Bloom wandered through the streets of Dublin. And it was a beautiful summer a year before the war.
I brought my books and drawings from Kyiv and thought that my love for the city and for life would be preserved in them. But, apparently, the only thing in which a person can keep precious memories and love is their heart. Any physical form disappears—and all too quickly.
My grandfather, grandmother, and cat stayed behind in Yepifanivka, a village not far from Severdonetsk. My mom and I couldn’t make my grandparents go with us to the bomb shelter, but I should have insisted and kept my cat with me. They took her to the village. I’m guilty of not being able to protect the animal I tamed.
They started shelling Severodonetsk on the same night they began bombing Ukraine. After four days, it was impossible to leave the bomb shelter. When there was an opportunity, we stood in line for bread, but they quickly ran out of bread, and we lived on candy. I didn’t have time to take any books or mementos from trips that were dear to my heart: travel notes, tickets, clay figurines of goddesses, bronze Cretan Bulls.
We sat in a bomb shelter for two weeks. People around us cried, someone had constant panic attacks. But I turned to stone. It’s strange, but I thought that if I survive, lucky me, but if I don’t survive, then oh, well. I repeated: “This, too, will pass.” Every time it fell nearby, I thought, “This will pass.”
I slept in a jacket on chairs placed together under the wall, and through a dream I heard people sitting and waiting for it to arrive. We learned to distinguish between when they’re hitting us and when we respond. I read Fitzgerald all day; at night, I slept and waited for “it to pass.” It was no longer possible to go home. Then my brother called from abroad (it was a miracle he got through) and said: a car is on its way, it’ll take you to the train station, leave your blankets, take Mom and run.I repeated: “This, too, will pass.”
And we ran. I didn’t feel anything, I remember the car and the explosions and the roar and the tanks, then the train, people in the aisles, fifteen people in the compartment. Children crying, deathly silence when we stopped in Kharkiv, a shot, another day, Kyiv, my beloved Kyiv, sirens, the photo of the bombed-out bomb shelter where I sat with my mom, the photo of my bombed-out school, the photo of my destroyed home, forgotten in the bomb shelter, the photo of my cat, Lviv, I’m dragging a box with someone else’s cat from the station, thinking, “My Kitty stayed behind, here I am dragging someone else’s,” Uzhhorod, hours at the Slovakian border, the guilt that I’m alive while others are not, mountains, a visa to Australia, guilt over Kitty, the plane, attempts to bring Mom out of the stupor into which she fell all the way back in the bomb shelter, guilt over my grandparents, a day of flying, the realization that my city no longer exists, that thousands have lost their lives, Australia, lost contact with my grandparents, the new school, English, calls with my classmates from Severodonetsk on Saturdays, months of not knowing what happened there in Yepifanivka, exams, the understanding that I’m on the other side of the world, the thought “I miss Ukraine so much, the horses, Kitty, my books, everything that I can no longer bring back.” What’s become of my country now?
Whether or not you read this, thank you. I send my love. But if you do read it after all, tell me whether you’ve seen Vrubel’s The Seated Demon. It was my dream to spend time beside him.”
–Ruslana (Translated from the Russian by José Vergara.)
Yes, I saw The Seated Demon, dear Ruslana. However, it’s you who could teach me about demonology: I saw only one, while you saw hundreds, flying ones at that. But I want to believe that we’ll all soon be able to see the vanquished demon.
 This line was written in Ukrainian.