A TRIBUTE TO HER
LIFE AND WORK
1st August 2023
"Now it is the time to let Ukrainians speak"
Photo of Victoria taken from Victoria's Twitter account and posted by the text:
"It's me in this picture. I'm a Ukrainian writer. I have portraits of great Ukrainian poets on my bag. I look like I should be taking pictures of books, art, and my little son. But I document Russia's war crimes and listen to the sound of shelling, not poems. Why? #StopRussiaNow"
It’s one month since Victoria Amelina was killed in a targeted rocket attack on a busy pizza restaurant, in the Eastern city of Kramatorsk, Ukraine.
Like many internationally, it was through social media that I first came across her work as a writer turned war crimes researcher.
Her Twitter page provided a detailed day-by-day account of the full-scale invasion. Each post documented a different aspect of what those in Ukraine were experiencing, from the murder of two children on National Children's Day, to how those forcibly displaced from Kharkiv missed its unique style of Pizza,
Working with Veronika Skliarova on With Fire And Rage, the project explored the role of artists both historically and presently in resisting Russian colonialism. It was Victoria’s knowledge and documentation of the attempts to destroy Ukrainian cultural identity, that prompted us to meet and ask her to contribute a testimony to the project.
Right from the offset Victoria explained that she saw her role whether as a writer or volunteer, as connecting pieces of a puzzle together.
Her family came from East and Central Ukraine and had experienced historical events like the Holodomor - the great famine, “it plays an important part in understanding myself”. Born in the Western city of Lviv she soon learned to find connections between the different parts of Ukraine that made up her identity and in turn her work.
Victoria started her career in tech, after completing a master’s in computer science. She spoke with pride of Ukraine’s talent and innovation in engineering, and how the country’s leadership in tech had continued even during the full-scale invasion.
Advocating the skills and achievements of fellow Ukrainians and centring their narratives, was something she did throughout our conversation and through the various platforms she had cultivated.
After ten years, Victoria left tech to begin writing novels, out of a desire to fully realise her potential and to create something she felt could be more meaningful. Her debut novel The Fall Syndrome: about Homo Compatiens, achieved both these aims, exploring the events of the 2014 Maidan and receiving several literacy awards.
As she developed into an acclaimed writer, she used her success to advocate for those who did not have freedom of speech. Joining Pen International she was Ukraine’s delegate at the 84th World PEN Congress in India. Here she made a speech on Ukrainian filmmaker and political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, who had been sentenced by Russia to 20 years in prison on fabricated charges of terrorism.
Highlighting the rise in creativity since the 2014 Maidan revolution, Victoria was one of many in Ukraine who believed writing and arts could be a means to resist.
In 2021, she founded a large-scale cultural event called The New York Literary Festival, a play on the small town’s unlikely name. Inviting artists across the country to hold exhibitions, give readings and perform, it was a bold act of solidarity that bought Ukrainians together through culture on the frontline.
The 24th February 2022 marked the moment Victoria put writing fiction to one side and used her skills to document war crimes “because it’s a time to listen… and it's not like there's a need to make up stories, the reality is so much more intense.”
Working for the Ukrainian NGO Truth Hounds, she focused on “finding eyewitnesses and survivors and recording their testimonies”. This dangerous but crucial job took Victoria across Ukraine, often to the most affected areas. It was also how she started documenting the destruction of libraries, theatres, art museums and the murder of artists like Yuriy Kerpatenko, Principle Conductor of the Kherson Music and Drama Theatre, he was killed after refusing to participate in a concert by Russians in occupied Kherson.
Much of our conversation was focused on the famous writer and single father Volodymyr Vakulenko who was abducted and killed during the occupation of Izyum.
Victoria found Volodymyr’s war diary hidden under a tree in his garden, describing how his writing showed “incredible resilience, faith and hope”. That even as his village was occupied, his home searched, he was beaten, tortured and his life threatened, Volodymyr still wrote “the birds are singing, everything will be Ukraine, I believe in victory”.
Victoria also shared Vakulenko’s trait of finding hope and lightness despite the cruelty and violence she was witnessing.
When I asked her where was based, she replied “a train” describing how unlike in many bombed Ukrainian cities “it’s warm, cozy, and always has electricity”.
When I asked about the destruction of cultural buildings, she reassured me it could be a lot worse but “Russians are so unexpectedly bad at everything”.
When I asked how she dealt with documenting so many harrowing stories, she joked she had accidentally started writing poetry and now despite being a novelist for several years, it was a handful of poems that bought her international recognition in the New York Times and The Guardian.
As we spoke, Victoria continue to put different aspects of the full-scale invasion together - her concerns as a feminist, the importance of social media, the power and limits of empathy. She spoke of the future and the senselessness of Russia committing ecocide during a climate crisis - the energy it would take to rebuild, which could’ve been used to improve and transform.
We discussed the similarities of British colonialism to Russia's, including stealing, claiming and then displaying artefacts in national museums. “It’s not a coincidence that those countries that happen to be empires, were also empires that promoted they have “great culture”.
She spoke passionately about the role Ukrainian artists are playing in international advocacy and the need to shift the understanding of the region from a Russian-centric point of view, “now it is time to let Ukrainians speak.”
Victoria’s mission to piece together and connect Ukraine’s history, geography and culture, in turn, built connections and solidarity with those internationally, including myself.
Returning again and again to the frontline, it was in Donbas, accompanying a delegation of Columbian writers and journalists where she was killed. Victoria had volunteered to be their guide and they later spoke in the New York Times, of how she helped them learn more about a fight for sovereignty that “echoed the struggles of many South American nations”.
It was as they ate dinner together at a pizza restaurant popular with locals, Ukrainian and international delegations and journalists, that they were attacked by a highly accurate Iskander missile.
Just a couple of months earlier Victoria wrote on Twitter “If Russians hit my home in Kyiv, please consider it a deliberate murder of another Ukrainian writer.”
At the time she was killed, she was writing a book War and Justice Diary, “looking at women, looking at War”. This book is set to be published and this along with her war crimes research, poetry, award-winning novels and everything she documented on social media are powerful legacies that speak for themselves. But perhaps most meaningful was how she used her skills and platform to celebrate Ukraine, and project the voices of those she met and fought alongside.
Therefore it’s hard not to imagine, that if she saw the global tributes and acknowledgements of her life and work, she would urge us to also remember the people she was killed alongside
Twin Sisters, Yulia and Anna Aksenchenko
Victoria is survived by her partner Oleksandr, their son, and her parents