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Victoria Amelina: Remembering a Ukrainian Writer Killed by a Russian Missile
After Moscow's full-scale invasion, the acclaimed writer started documenting war crimes. Her death is also one.
The writer Victoria Amelina had a granular knowledge of Ukraine. Last fall, at the Lviv Book Forum, I heard her give an impressive presentation in a panel about women and the war. She described how she had witnessed female mayors of occupied towns organize evacuations to safer big cities. She said these evacuations showed how Ukraine's decentralization reforms worked to keep the country functioning as Moscow controlled wide swaths of its territory. Her insights were original and gained from on-the-ground knowledge. I came up to her afterwards and said that I'd like to keep in touch. We exchanged a few messages over the winter; I was going to text her for coffee when I got to Kyiv. Instead, I went to her memorial.
Amelina, 37, died on July 1 of injuries from a June 27 Russian missile attack on a popular pizza restaurant in Kramatorsk, about 20 miles from the frontlines. She is survived by her husband and 12-year-old son. 12 other civilians were killed in the attack, including three children. Amelina was traveling with a group of Colombian journalists and writers who were trying to bolster ties between Ukraine and Latin America. (The Colombians survived the attack with minor injuries.) The attack is a war crime; there is no military value to striking a restaurant full of civilians. While Kyiv is protected well by air defenses from missiles and drones, the same is not true for frontline towns like Kramatorsk in range of Russian rockets.
Amelina was gentle, generous, and intelligent; she had a welcoming smile and spoke in a soft voice. She also had a sense of dark humor, which comes through in the quotes that she gave to the New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson: "As for me, I don’t hate Russians at all; I’m so exhausted by the war they have waged on us that I cannot feel anything. I am numb. There’s a beautiful song by the Ukrainian band Kozak System, a wartime song with many profanities but no hatred. It starts like this: ‘Our national idea— fuck the hell off!"
Amelina was in Egypt trying to board a plane to her native Lviv when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. She was able to return to her hometown and began volunteering at humanitarian aid sites. The atmosphere in the city was tense; thousands of people were fleeing from Kyiv and points East and rumors were rife that Russia might try to attack the city by land from Belarus. The windows in her mother's apartment shattered after a missile struck nearby.
In late March, she decided to train as a war crimes researcher with the organization Truth Hounds. She finished training in late May and then began collecting testimony of survivors of Russian war crimes in deoccupied territories such as Kherson and Kharkiv. (Kate Tsurkan of the Kyiv Independent wrote an excellent account of her war crimes work.)
"She was always adding new roles and new commitments," Volodymyr Yermolenko, president of PEN Ukraine, who was with Amelina in the hospital before she died, told me after the Kyiv memorial on July 4. He described how in 2015 she quit a successful career in information technology to write two award-winning novels, which dealt with memory and the "difficult past of Ukraine."
Another commitment of Amelina's was founding the New York Literature Festival. But the festival wasn't in New York City or New York State, it was in New York, Ukraine, a small town in Eastern Ukraine where her husband hails from. Even prior to the full-scale invasion, the town of about 10,000 was close to fighting. In 2021, about 600 people from the town showed up to hear Ukrainian writers like Serhiy Zhadan and Olena Styazhkina. Amelina went to New York in April 2023 after the festival site had been destroyed by a Russian missile.
Yermolenko told me that Amelina described her career as going from "fiction to nonfiction;" she was working on a book about women and the war, and gave the final copy of the manuscript to friends a few days before her death. At the same time, Amelina continued to write poetry, because, as she put it in an interview with the Goethe-Institute, "that's what war leaves you." Her poem "Sirens" exemplified the horrors of war:
Air-raid sirens across the country
It feels like everyone is brought out
But only one person gets targeted
Usually the one at the edge
This time not you; all clear
Amelina had been warning about how Ukraine's literary community faced the same fate as a group of Ukrainian-language writers of the 1930s known as the Executed Renaissance, who were murdered by Soviet Russians. In a March 2022 Eurozine essay, she wrote: "Now there is a real threat that Russians will successfully execute another generation of Ukrainian culture – this time by missiles and bombs. For me, it would mean the majority of my friends get killed. For an average westerner, it would only mean never seeing their paintings, never hearing them read their poems, or never reading the novels that they have yet to write."
Just a few weeks before her death, the Harriman Institute at Columbia University announced that Amelina would be a writing fellow at the school's Paris branch for 2023-24. Russia has not only robbed the world of the novels and poems that she had yet to write; it has robbed a child of his mother, a husband of his wife, and countless others of a warm person who exuded life amid immense suffering and death.