The following is an extract from a journal of Morelle's trip to Ukraine in 2014:
Thursday 23 October
The season rolls over, turns cold the next day, in Zhytomyr. The air is damp and icy, we have become frost-framed, edged and draped with chill. The autumn eternity is left behind in Ostroh and winter pours into our opened palms. Mutely, we let it in and walk quickly to heated buildings.
At the university we are greeted by the rector, then we separate, go into different rooms to give readings to the students. My class of students, along with their teacher, are alert, welcoming, curious, full of questions... Do you think that poetry cannot come from a state of happiness? (i.e. do you have to be miserable to write poems?) What inspires you? What is your favourite poem? Do you have a regular routine in your day? Is your style different now from what it was when you started out writing? If you weren't a writer, what would you be? Have you read Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita?
(Yes, I have.)
Afterwards, we walk to the restaurant on Mykhaylivska, the pedestrian area, the piano of freedom painted in blue and yellow. Wide tree-lined streets of Zhytomyr, the trees losing their leaves, some bare patches, with splashes of red among the yellow, in front of the gold dome of the cathedral. Façades of buildings in blue and green and rose, the restaurant interior with red and white design and smell of coffee, warm warm people...
In the evening there is another reading, this time in the Cosmonaut Museum, the aeronautical and space museum (I want to give it all the adjectives and more, because of its dim lighting, because the penumbra obscures the ceiling, which surely must be there). From this invisible ceiling hang enormous pieces of a spaceship engine, like a giant floating fish, and chairs too are suspended, so you can lie back and swing, and feel that you are weightless, near disembodied in the semi-darkness and the muted sounds, and in the dim regions beyond the stage and audience, the way that people move around like peaceful quiet shadows... And the reception afterwards, the plates piled high, short speeches, one toast followed by another, champagne, wine, cognac and clinking glasses.
The chairman of the Writers' Union says: 'On the day the festival comes here to Zhytomyr, on the day that poetry sounds out, the guns fall silent' (no Ukrainian soldier was killed that day). We raise our glasses.
Piled with presents, books, pens and notebooks, magnets of Zhytomyr, wall plaques with the symbol of Ukraine, and personal books from friends we've made, we climb into the bus, head back to Kyiv.
Friday 24 October
In the morning, a visit to the Cathedral of St Michael. Beneath the entrance arch, a woman sells postcards and fridge magnets. She wears a woollen hat but her hands are bare. She rubs them together, thrusts them into her coat pockets. It is bitterly cold. I look at the magnets and buy two. The small cathedral shop is much warmer and we move around among the icons, picking treasures to take home with us, to protect us in the chill nights, to keep us warm.
In the Academy of St Michael, we are welcomed by a priest who tells us a little of the church's history, how it was destroyed during the Communist times but restored after the break up of the USSR. The nearby St Sofia was saved from destruction by the French writer Romain Rolland. Apparently Rolland's sister had heard of the planned destruction of St Sophia cathedral and asked her brother to make a special request of Stalin – that he not destroy the cathedral. I did not get the details or background to this intervention – yet Stalin was clearly affected by Rolland's request or perhaps saw an opportunity to impress this ambassador from the West and through him, the entire and gullible Western European world.
Or perhaps he was simply feeling magnanimous that day. Whatever the causes of his decision, he granted Rolland's request and St Sophia remained unscathed.
Morelle Smith is a poet and writer