We asked her about her reflections on the creative process of working on the book, influence of the Ukrainian heritage on her work and future plans concerning the story – a planned movie based on the book.
Andrea’s book tells the story of her Ukrainian grandparents who went through the nightmare of living in the Soviet Union during the first half of 20th century. People who decided to leave the Soviet Union after the World War II quite frequently carried with them the experience of post-war refugee and displaced persons camps.
Andrea’s grandfather wrote memoirs of his life – and his stay in such a camp – during those times, which left him even stronger than before. One of his prominent memories was the Ukrainian translation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” by Ihor Ševčenko, spread among Ukrainians who were to leave the Soviet Union and face the reality of the Western world.
Orwell’s book, originally published in English in 1945, become a symbol of the truth behind the scenes of the Empire of Evil and helped people to understand the universal cruelty of a regime.
Ihor Ševčenko, a Poland-born Ukrainian scholar, who also went through a post-war camp for IDPs before arriving in the US, was given Orwell’s official support in popularising “Animal Farm” in Ukrainian among the translator’s fellow refugees. Upon Ševčenko’s request, the author wrote a personal introduction to the Ukrainian version and for his Ukrainian readers.
2000 out of 5000 printed copies of the translation with the unique introduction were distributed in the camps in 1947, only 2 years after the publication of the original. One of the rare nowadays copies reached Andrea’s grandparents and has been kept in the family by the brother of her grandfather.
Deeply moved and inspired by her grandfather’s memories and impact of Orwell’s book, Andrea decided to bring it to a wider audience. Strengthening it by her own research into the black pages of the history of Ukraine – Holodomor and World War II, refugees, displaced persons and migrants, and the real history of the USSR through the lenses of its citizens – she wrote “Orwell and the Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm”.
How did you reach the decision to write about such complicated and sensitive topics as genocide, refugees and war?
All of my work is inspired by my grandfather Olexji Keis who was born in Donbas [today in Ukraine – ed. note] and survived the horrors of Stalin’s rule, including the Holodomor [ a man-made famine in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1932 and 1933 that killed an estimated 2.5–12 million Ukrainians – ed. note; source]. I’m very blessed that my grandfather had the courage to write down his entire life in Ukrainian, and leave me his book. Now I can spread his story, which also represents what millions of Ukrainians suffered.
Why George Orwell and his “Animal Farm” become such a strong keynote focus in your work?
It’s typical in the US to read Orwell in high school. So I read him for the first time then. But it wasn’t until after university when I read Animal Farm again, for inspiration for my film, when I realized what a miracle the book was, and how Orwell struggled for years to expose the truth about the Soviet Union. He was brilliant to tell the horrors of Stalin using cute talking barn animals; that way, the world could more easily absorb the message. Orwell’s story is a powerful triumph of art.
The Holodomor and World War II meant big movements of citizens. Refugees’, IDPs’ and migrants’ lives are usually not the greatest source for an entertaining story. What was your inspiration to decide that you nevertheless should focus on it, publish a book and – furthermore – make a film?
Sadly, most people in the West have never heard of the Holodomor. [Right now] There is a lot more scholarly research, finally, on the subject. But entertainment is a wonderful way to reach people and inspire them to learn more about the famine through books, articles, etc. A fictional film like mine will serve as a gateway.
Numerous people did a lot for Ukrainians touched and hurt by the War in those days. But the stories of their deeds vanish with time. Ihor Ševčenko, translator of Orwell’s book and a prominent figure in your story, was undoubtedly one of those unsung heroes.
Ihor Ševčenko was as much of a giant as George Orwell was. He co-founded the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, where I studied shortly before his death. In his work as a renowned Byzantine scholar, his research and travels helped popularize the Kyiv Rus in academia. To think that he did all this after surviving World War II and struggling to feed his family as a refugee! He also had the heart and intelligence to identify George Orwell as a talent before Orwell was extremely famous. Ševčenko had an eye for what was real.
Orwell in Ukraine
Is the translation of your book into Ukrainian an important step on the road to spread the story or just a special thing for you?
I think the Ukrainian translation of Orwell and “The Refugees…” is an important resource for understanding the Holodomor as a social justice issue. It’s also a tribute to how Ukrainians became the earliest fans of one of the coolest writers in the world.
The book covers Orwell’s fight to become the Orwell we all read and admire, which reminds us that any of us have the power to use our voice like Orwell did. It also shows the real “animal farm” through excerpts of my grandfather’s memoir of how Donbas transformed from the Russian Revolution to the Holodomor to Stalin’s purges – Ukrainians lived the real Animal Farm. How Orwell knew that without ever having traveled to Ukraine is explained in my book.
Do you follow the current events in Ukraine and the dealings with citizens – IDPs, migrants – from occupied areas?
It’s emotionally hard to Google the names of villages and cities in Donbas my grandfather wrote about in his memoir and see them now under Russian occupation, with many civilian deaths. Putin is very much continuing the work of Stalin in Ukraine, and it’s important for books like “Animal Farm” to remind people of that. The Soviet Union is being glorified in Russian-occupied Donbas and in Putin’s Russia: Orwell’s writings – from his books to his articles on Stalin’s Russia – sound like they were written today.
What does the word Ukraine mean to you?
Ukraine, to me, means an ancient culture of innovation: the Kyiv Rus was an advanced civilization, with high literacy rates and generous rights for women at that time. The Kozaks had the first Bill of Rights, declaring that all men are equal, nearly a century before the American Bill of Rights. In the 20th century, Viktor Zhdanov, Ukrainian virologist, eradicated smallpox globally – the only disease ever to be eradicated – earning him the title “The Best Person Who Ever Lived” by a popular tech blog in the US. Innovation is the history of Ukraine.
“Power of your voice”
We know that you are currently working on a film based on your book.
Hopefully there will be a press release soon that can tell you all about the film production. Until that happens, there’s not much I can say, other than that the team working on the film is very passionate and dedicated.
Which part of the book is most valuable for you?
My favourite section is the one that shows excerpts of my grandfather’s memoir matched to quotes from “Animal Farm”, so that you see the real Animal Farm through the eyes of one Ukrainian who lived the historical events Orwell allegorized in his book.
Has your book – published in 2006, almost 10 years ago – changed your life?
Working on my book and the fictional film have completely changed it. I met my husband during the process of researching my script and made many close friends, lived many adventures that I would have never imagined. Just the process of “making of” could be its own story!
The whole process has taught me that even in the darkest of history there’s a very strong force for life and creativity that will always shine through. Death cannot defeat life.
What is the main lesson which your book can give to the world?
The main lesson is that there is always hope and that even if you feel alone in the world, you must use the power of your voice, because you never know who will hear you. It’s really quite incredible: we’re far more powerful than we realize.
Andrea Chalupa is a journalist and producer with literature and history of Ukraine being just one part of her various interests. She works for the Huffington Post and is known for her on-camera interviews for CBS.
After graduating from the University of California, Davis, Andrea worked as a community organizer in the 2004 presidential election, wrote for the Portland Mercury in Portland, Oregon, attended the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, and lived in Kyiv, where she auditioned to be a national news anchor.
These days, she is promoting her book “Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm”, which will be released in Ukrainian.
Find her on Twitter