She saved the diary of a Ukrainian writer killed by Russia. Then she was killed, too
KAPYTOLIVKA, KYIV AND LVIV, Ukraine — Last fall, the novelist Victoria Amelina found herself frantically digging up a fellow writer's backyard in northeastern Ukraine.
She was looking for a diary belonging to children's author Volodymyr Vakulenko. He usually wrote offbeat, deeply empathetic poems for children but his diary was about life under Russian occupation.
After hours of fruitless digging alongside the writer's father, Amelina felt a twinge of grief and panic.
"The moment when I thought we wouldn't be able to find this diary perhaps is still the scariest moment for me," Amelina said late last May. "At this moment, I felt my head spinning, thinking about all the Ukrainian manuscripts that have been lost over the past centuries, and this might be another one."
In an essay for the literary and free expression group PEN Ukraine last year, Amelina wrote that imperial and Soviet Russia had long suppressed Ukrainian culture. She described how, in the 1930s, Soviets murdered Ukrainian writers and intellectuals, destroying their manuscripts and confiscating literary magazines that published their work.
Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, she said, she felt like it was happening all over again.
"The Russians want to exterminate Ukrainian culture," she told NPR last May. "They want to kill those they cannot turn into a Russian."
She had seen it happen to Vakulenko, who was taken from his home and murdered by occupying Russian forces.
Six months later, Amelina would lose her own life while trying to document the atrocities of war. She was 37 years old.
"Like pages reshuffled in a book"
Born in the western city of Lviv, Amelina studied computer science and worked in information technology before becoming a full-time writer. She wrote award-winning novels, children's stories and essays, becoming one of Ukraine's most promising authors.
After Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022, she also wrote a lot of poetry. The lines of one poem described the reality of war as "devouring all punctuation / devouring the plot coherence / devouring."
She hosted displaced Ukrainians in Lviv and delivered humanitarian aid. But she wanted to do more. She recalled walking around her hometown, where the human rights lawyer Raphael Lemkin once studied, years before he coined the term genocide.
"I saw a plaque dedicated to him, and that made me stop and think that maybe I can do more than moving the boxes of humanitarian aid," she told me when we last saw each other in early June in Kyiv.
So she trained as a war crimes researcher, joining Truth Hounds, a Ukrainian organization documenting such crimes. It was founded in 2014, after Russian proxies forcibly occupied parts of the eastern region of Donbas. After Russia's full-scale invasion, they needed help more than ever.
"When you talk to survivors and eyewitnesses, these are people who are, first of all, deeply traumatized," she said. "Their memory keeps jumping from one place to the other."
Their stories were out of order, like pages reshuffled in a book. She tried to piece together a narrative using the novelist's creed — "show, don't tell" — asking what the person saw or heard or felt. Sometimes she would try to jog their memory by asking them about the weather or what clothes they were wearing that day.
"At the same time, there was a danger I was trying to avoid because, thinking as a novelist, I might try to make the story too small, because novels often have some perfect storyline," she said. "In real life, not all questions will have answers."
The other writer
Amelina traveled to the eastern district of Izium last fall, not long after Ukrainian forces had recaptured it. In Kapytolivka, a low-key village in Izium with unpaved roads and a white-washed, light-blue church, the parents of Vakulenko, the children's author, were waiting for news on his whereabouts after he had disappeared on March 24, 2022.
"We don't know what was said about our son," his mother, Olena Ihnatenko, told NPR late last year, after Ukrainian forces liberated the village. "Maybe people identified him as a nationalist to save themselves."
Vakulenko didn't hide his disdainful views on Russia. In a 2018 interview, he called for Ukrainians to break free of Russian influence.
"I lived through the Soviet Union, and I hated it with all my heart," he said. "We don't need them or their matryoshka dolls. We have to rebuild our own culture."
After the Russians invaded and occupied Kapytolivka in early March 2022, Vakulenko started writing down what he saw in a thin, flimsy notebook of graph paper. Less than a month later, Russian forces raided his home. The next day, he rolled the notebook into a cylinder, wrapped it in plastic bags and buried it in his backyard. And the day after that, Russian paramilitaries, dressed in black, dragged him out of his home.
"He wanted to save [the diary] from the Russians," his father, who shares his name, told NPR. "He wanted Ukrainians to read it."
Under the cherry tree
Amelina arrived in Kapytolivka late last year to interview residents for Truth Hounds, and spoke to Vakulenko's parents. She told them that she had met Vakulenko at literary festivals in eastern Ukraine, where he read his poetry aloud to children near the front line.
That's when his father told her about the diary.
"We eventually found it under a cherry tree," Amelina said. "And it was a very emotional moment. This was a short diary that was hastily made, but it was the last work of a Ukrainian writer killed by Russians."
The diary's pages were damp after being in the ground for months. With his family's permission, Amelina took it to a literary museum in the northeastern city of Kharkiv. Conservators there restored it.
In one of the entries, Vakulenko tried to find hope in his circumstances. "I have pulled myself together and even worked in the garden a little, bringing potatoes into the house," he wrote. "The birds chirp only in the morning. Today, a small flock of cranes greeted me from the sky, as if to say, 'I believe in victory.'"
Last September, seven months after Vakulenko wrote those words, Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass grave in the woods near his village. A ledger listing the dead indicated that Vakulenko was buried there, and DNA tests confirmed it. Police said Vakulenko had been shot to death shortly after his arrest. He was 49 years old.
Amelina was at his funeral, comforting his mother, who was inconsolable as she embraced her son's coffin.
Ukrainian culture erased
Amelina told and retold Vakulenko's story, saying Russia should not be allowed to get away with killing Ukrainian writers again, as they had in the Soviet purges of the 1930s.
"I hope the entire world sees what's going on, that Ukrainian culture is being systematically erased by our neighbor," she said.
In May, Vakulenko posthumously was awarded a special prize from the International Publishers Association. Amelina accepted the award on his behalf at the ceremony in Lillehammer, Norway.
"I am a Ukrainian writer speaking on behalf of my colleague who, unlike me, didn't survive another attempt of the Russian Empire to erase Ukrainian identity," she said at the time.
Later that month, NPR joined Amelina in Kapytolivka as she brought the award to his parents. His mother embraced the plaque and wept. His father closed his eyes and spoke to his son, as if he was still in the room. "We are so proud of you," he said in a broken voice.
They huddled with Amelina, who wiped away her own tears. "Every time, when they talk about their son, they are crying again," she said. "No awards can substitute for your child."
The three then walked to a large garden dedicated to Vakulenko at the entrance of the village. They planted more flowers there together.
With Amelina's help, Vakulenko's diary was published last month under the title, I Am Transforming: A Diary of Occupation. It includes his selected poems and a preface by Amelina. Vakulenko's mother joined Amelina in presenting it at the Kyiv Book Arsenal, a large literary festival in Ukraine's capital.
Also there was Tetyana Teren, executive director of PEN Ukraine, who told the festival that the main task for Ukraine's culture in the decades to come will be "preserving the memory of our fallen fellow Ukrainians, continuing their work and developing their ideas."
"She was happy"
Amelina was recently awardeda yearlong residency in Paris for Ukrainian writers. She planned to move there this fall with her 12-year-old son and finish her latest book, which she described as "a diary of about a dozen women, including myself, pursuing justice."
"When I started writing, I wasn't sure that justice was even possible," she told NPR in June. "Now I have much more hope."
She said she felt torn about leaving Ukraine and was intent on continuing her work there until it was time to go.
At the end of last month, she returned to Kapytolivka with a group that included Colombian novelist Héctor Abad Faciolince and journalist Catalina Gómez. Abad, who wrote a best-selling book about his father's murder at the hands of paramilitaries, had invited Amelina to a literary festival in Cartagena and has strongly campaigned for Colombia and other Latin American countries to support Ukraine.
Gómez recalled how Amelina and Abad stood together under the cherry tree where Vakulenko's diary had been buried. Amelina retold his story for Abad, sparking an emotional conversation.
"It was a conversation between two writers, two people affected by war," Gómez said. "And they talked like this for a long time."
Gómez also noticed how close Amelina seemed to Vakulenko's parents. "She felt responsible for taking care of his father, his mother, even his son," she said. "She was part of the family."
On June 27, the group eventually ended up in Kramatorsk, in eastern Ukraine. It's about an hour's drive away from an active front line but is a major hub for humanitarian workers and journalists. Gómez said they stopped at a popular restaurant sometime around 7 p.m. They were about to raise their glasses for a toast.
"Victoria was laughing," Gómez said. "She was happy."
And then, about 15 minutes later, there was an explosion. Gómez remembers nearly everyone around being knocked to the ground. Abad, who was slightly injured, told the Argentine newspaper Clarín in an interview that when the dust cleared, Amelina was the only one still sitting in her chair, "pale as a wax candle."
"She was not moving," Gómez said. "I shout her name many times in order to see if she react."
She never woke up. Victoria Amelina died on July 1, on what would have been Volodymyr Vakulenko's 51st birthday. That missile claimed 12 other lives.
A few days later, Amelina was buried in her hometown, Lviv. As a hearse carried her coffin to the cemetery, mourners along the streets fell to their knees. It's a sign of respect Ukrainians usually reserve for fallen soldiers.
Her family and friends, tear-stained and clad in black, huddled around her flower-covered grave as a band sang verses from Vasyl Stus, a Ukrainian poet who died in a Soviet labor camp in 1986.
His poem is about trying to find light in a graveyard of souls. Amelina carried the light for the legacy of a Ukrainian writer killed by Russia's war. Now her loved ones are tasked with doing the same for her.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.