Memory’s Wristwatch: VSESVIT as an observer of the contemporary literary world

Dr. Dmytro Drozdovskyi,
managing editor-in-chief of, VSESVIT magazine

The existence of culture as a constantly changing phenomenon is always located within a cultural context. Above all, culture takes place within the boundaries of a community containing a ‘genetically’ arranged tradition. However, culture is also built upon the impulse of the contemporary, which contains the inherited experience of the past. This inherited tradition is still active within the present. Therefore culture is only possible within the interpenetration of three chronological spaces: the inherited traditions of the past, human artistic endeavour in the present and the continuously emerging future.

This approach towards culture is in accord with the principle of human perception, that human perception which is held within the individual history of each one of us. The nature of our human condition, our human perception of the world is explicated only within real time (although perceptual substrata can occur within both the ‘real past’ and the yet unrealised future). By means of our perceptual faculties are continuously analysing the contemporary cultural situation while taking into account those constants derived from the past in order to create a potential model for the future development.

When speaking about culture today it is necessary to understand this same external matrix, which indisputably has an influence on human consciousness and on the model of the acceptance and the interpretation of the world which is more or less personal. We live in a time when it is almost impossible to define universal values, when hierarchies of meaning have ceased to exist. Where, only fifty years ago there was a boundary, now there is an abyss which has arisen out of the split of the historical hierarchies of value and meaning from the contemporary world. This approach is necessary in order to understand the core principles of how a culture unfolds and what defines its fundamental elements.

January 15th, 2015 marked ninety years since the Ukrainian journal of world literature, Vsesvit, began its existence in Ukraine. Vsesvit was initiated in 1925 in Kharkiv, the capital of Ukraine at that time, as a pictorial «universal» magazine which presented novels and poems of Ukrainian and foreign authors, home and international information; it was published two, three or four times a month.

Vsesvit (which means in Ukrainian ‘All the World’ or ‘Universe’) is the only Ukrainian periodical that publishes exclusive translations of world classics and contemporary works of literature, covers different aspects of cultural, artistic, social, and political life in all parts of the world. Vsesvit monthly is the oldest and the most widely recognized Ukrainian literary journal founded in 1925 by the prominent Ukrainian writers — Vasyl Ellan-Blakytnyi, Mykola Khvyliovyi and Olexander Dovzhenko. More than 500 novels, 1000 poetry collections, short stories, and plays, hundreds of essays, reviews, and interviews with prominent writers from more than a hundred countries were translated from more than 84 different languages and published in Vsesvit during the 80 years of its existence.

Due to political reaction in the USSR the magazine was seized to exist in 1934 and its editorial staff was repressed. In 1958 Vsesvit was resumed, in Kyiv as a literary monthly, fully dedicated to foreign literature and culture, as well as to international events. During all further decades this review was the single source of information in Ukraine about world literature and culture. The centre of translation lore, it gathered and reared a new generation of translators, literary and art critics, world literature and culture scholars, journalists-experts in foreign affairs. It became an important medium for cultural relations of Ukraine with the world.

It was Vsesvit that made available for Ukrainian readers over 4,000 works of fiction that represented 98 literatures of the world. It published more than 12,000 articles, essays, reports, interviews, information of foreign and Ukrainian authors on problems of literature and art, sociology, politics, international links of Ukraine. Alongside the translation the world classics of the past into Ukrainian (e.g. Gilgamesh epos, Rigveda, Bhagavadgita, Lao-tzu, Aristophanes, Homer, Herodotus, Horace, Dante, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Chaucer, Hugo, Mickiewicz and many others). Most of its emphasis was devoted to contemporary foreign literature.

Its pages featured works of 51 winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature, a great number of both world famous and new authors in translation from 81 languages of the world. They represented practically all European and Latin-American literatures (including lesser known languages in Ukraine such as Gaelic, Catalan, Serbian, Rhaeto-Romanic, and Frisian). A lot of attention was given to novels, stories, poetry of English speaking countries as well as to French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish and other authors.

At the same time the review was far from ignoring literatures of Asia and Africa; works of contemporary writers from 82 countries of these continents appeared in Ukraine for the first time in Vsesvit in translation from Arabic, Vietnamese, Hindi, Hebrew, Indonesian, Chinese, Persian, Urdu, Japanese and other languages.

Vsesvit’s publications form a significant part of cultural and social life in Ukraine, and permanently attract attention of readers and scholars, though the access to them is difficult as its annual records for the 1920-1970s are a rarity; moreover the guide-book for all the 864 issues published from 1925 till 2000 is still lacking.

Vsesvit is known for featuring ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia-Marques; ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Last Don’ by Mario Puzo, or brilliant Ukrainian translations of Sir William Golding, George Orwell, as well as works by Kafka, Zweig, Bekket, Faulkner, Joyce, Hemingway, and bestsellers of Christie, King, Vidal, Haley, along with works of other lesser known writers. Thanks to the titanic endeavors of our staff, Vsesvit was the first to introduce these writers to the Ukrainian public (as well as the former Soviet public in general) and to publish Ukrainian translations.

Nowadays we live in the open area of humanitarian problems that has no borders and limitations. Clearly, we are involved in a new discussion of the XXI century based on the eco-informatics consciousness. International co-operation in the realm of humanities studies (modern national trends in literature, philology, arts, linguistics, and philosophy all over the world) is extremely important.

The main contents of the magazine are: fiction, literary criticism, art, literary links, philosophy and psychology, social problems, politics and international life. In truth Vsesvit has a much longer history, having been founded in 1925, so that 2005 saw the eightieth anniversary of its establishment. At the same time as marking this anniversary we have to reflect on the history of Vsesvit and its current situation and answer the following questions:

  • What was the ‘real’ history of global culture and literature in the 20th Century, and what elements of that history were represented in Ukraine (and also in the URSR), in the Ukrainian language?
  • What is the function of a literary journal with regard to the new social and cultural realities; and how does the journal have to adapt to a cultural paradigm that does not have a recognised place within a world where information technologies are valued, but aesthetics and history are not valued?
  • What is it necessary to do in order to make the journal not just a window on to the world of literature, but to make it actively engage readers with other cultures?
  • Must the journal, together with literary text, propose interesting discussion and scientific material and interviews about new approaches towards the comprehension and interpretation of literature, given that there is for instance an extremely strong interest today in neuroaesthetics, which has even a department at Oxford University?

It is worth trying to look for answers to all these questions, but above all we have to understand that in the modern world no journal is able to represent the total scope of world culture. While the Ukrainian journal, Vsesvit, does represent works of the worldwide literary canon and contemporary culture, it is worth thinking that no journal is able to represent the full scope of global culture and that the view of the world through the pages of this journal is bound to be selective.

How we, as representatives of its editorial board, have to consider which elements of world literature are to be grafted within the Ukrainian cultural sphere in translation. Furthermore, the work of Harold Bloom, ‘The Western Canon’, is extremely important in the context of the twenty first century. Bloom’s book concludes that, in spite of the fact that the post-modern epoch seems like an endless labyrinth with no standards against which we can judge culture, there is still a finite category of historical literary works which we need to appreciate, understand and study. In the postmodern world it seems that we literary critics and editors must take on ourselves the formation of a canon of world literature.

But even if we accept that Bloom has already placed within order the best works from the period of the Middle Ages to the twentieth century , then what is to be done with modern literature that is being created here and now? Can a journal function within the mainstream of world literature which does not translate modern authors or at least present news about contemporary literature?

I realise that it may seem to many of you that the possibility of finding a firm answer to this question is illusory, given that in various countries there are different publishing infrastructures that are actively engaged in the promotion of their own literature, particularly in those countries where there are powerful publishing empires such as Penguin or Random House and many good authors may not see their work appear in the world publishing market. We can also say that much of the literature of the Eastern region or Africa or Polynesia remains an exotic substratum about which we know practically nothing.

However, I will share with you personal experience of literary activity that is relevant to this discussion. For the past three years I have had the honour to be the editor of a regular feature in Vsesvit, ‘Literature Sphere’ (‘literary dialogues’). This feature consists of interviews with well known writers from various corners of the earth, with professors of literature and with cultural figures, translators etc. Within the last two years the feature has included conversations with the head of the Basque Pen Centre (in Spain), the Macedonian Pen Centre, writers from Malta, New Zealand, Hungary, and the U.S.A. (in particularly with representative of Hawaiian literature). During the last two years the participants of this project were A.S. Byatt, Janet Paisley, John Waddington-Feather, Trezza Azzopardi, Vera Rich, David Lodge, Eric Chock, Immanuel Mifsud, Adrian Grima, Don Monkerud, John Durham Peters, and others.

Usually such work requires a great deal of effort but it is possible, through dialogue, to reach an understanding of the contemporary literary scene which is extremely interesting for readers. The opportunity to read the thoughts of an author from another country or region is very valuable in the situation when cultural boundaries are continually expanding.

In the literature of every country there are two opposing but complementary processes: the creation of a national literature which reflects national concepts of history, culture; and the powerful interchange of national and global cultures. A national culture is created within the context of different cultural streams operating together in a nation at the same time. The independent journal of world literature, Vsesvit has always wished to be a prism through which Ukrainian literature would be able to see itself within the context of world literature. I will give just a few quotes from the many letters that have come to us from representatives of various cultures and well-known writers who knew about the journal Vsesvit and valued its mission:

The birth of Vsesvit was a great event for me because the appearance of this journal created a direct connection between Ukraine and my country which until now existed only in our hearts.” Louis Aragon, writer, France, 1958

Not one of my twelve published books resulted in as many letters from readers.” Jorge Amado, writer, Brazil, 1974

Authors, people of creative work, are always for youth the bearers of the best achievements and traditions of the cultural and communal life of the people.” Mario Grazio, writer, Italy, 1987

Vsesvit needs to work, to work, to work.” Graham Greene, writer, Great Britain

Dear Ukrainian friends! What a pleasure it was to know that ‘illusion’ is published in Ukraine and that you are going to have the pleasure to meet with my friend – ‘The Reluctant Messiah’ …that on the other side of the earth I am holding my breath and waiting for your judgement… it is a similar feeling that I experienced on the occasion of my literary debut in my country.” Richard Bach, writer U.S.A. 1989

Interpersonal and cultural relations between all the countries of Europe are so important. This special edition of Vsesvit has made an important contribution in this matter which can only be welcomed.” Otto Shtich, President of Switzerland 1994

Vsesvit’s idea to dedicate one of its issues to Israel….is a wonderful initiative which is well worth praising … I do not have a doubt – this is an important step in the development and deepening of our dialogue.” Shymon Peres, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jerusalem 1995 and later the President of Israel.

These quotes illustrate that historically the journal Vsesvit has played an unusually large role for the country and for the state, not only, but within the frame of our national culture but world culture as well, by securing cross-cultural relations. But now it is worth asking the questions, what role does the journal have to play in today’s globalized world? Is it able to be strongly competitive in the world of information technology and to secure connections between Ukrainian culture and world culture? What is it necessary to do so that the journal carries social and cultural weight in the world — not just in Ukraine? How can we build up the legacy of the journal?

Vsesvit began to develop its current civic stance at the beginning of the period of Perestroika (Ukrainian: Perebudovy) and finally completed this process in 1991. From that year onwards the journal has had been an independent publication which consciously set itself the goal of assisting the national renaissance of Ukraine. The journal has regarded it as obligatory to meticulously expose the internationally publicised mountain of lies and disinformation about Ukraine that had accumulated across a period of previous 73 years. With regard to the participation of the journal in daily political life we step to one side but fully take on board those functions that are appropriate in the sphere of mass media.

If we discuss the future of Vsesvit from the economic point of view it is not necessary to be regarded in dark, pessimistic aspects. For 60 years Vsesvit worked within the conditions of a socialist economy; for 10 years the journal has existed in a period of transition — from a socialist planned to a market economy and, we anticipate, the lessons learned in the socialist quasi-market will help the journal function within the conditions of a genuine market economy.

It is unlikely that the character and direction of Vsesvit as a herald of foreign literature will change in the next decade – although, with regard to such areas of the journal’s working with commercial advertising, we will try and extend our scope.

The question of the journal’s orientation on the reading public is first of all connected to the character of the publication. In the post-war decade Vsesvit was reckoned as the journal with the most varied circle of readers in every section of Ukraine society — the technical intelligentsia and workers, teachers and workers in rural agriculture, scientists and housewives, military personnel and students, senior school pupils and pensioners artists and business people.

The readers of Vsesvit even included people who were behind bars and sent letters requesting help with arranging subsidies for the payment of subscriptions to the journal which had helped them endure years of imprisonment. The universality of Vsesvit’s readership is asserted by some surveys, undertaken by the editors of the journal. We are proud of the universality of the journal’s readership and do not want to be re-orientated on some narrow category of readers. And why should we redirect the journal towards some limited group of readers?

To stimulate the interest of Vsesvit’s readers is the aim of the journal, whose obligation was and is to illuminate past and modern literature, as well as the literature of the world; to connect ideas of authors; to voice art and, the varied nature of different countries, places and people; to publish interesting and enigmatic facts in the sphere of history, politics and science. These directions in the work of the journal have been tested by time and highly valued by the journal’s readers.

We believe that in these turbulent times for our nation Vsesvit will not only seek but will find her personal, centrist, and somewhat right wing/ conservative path within a democratic, all Ukrainian context. Our journal, while conveying a broad range of information about the world literary process, about the global experience of the shared lives of people and countries, also addresses every citizen of independent Ukraine in whom wisdom has not fallen into a stupor. We address all these citizens irrespective of age, profession, origin, nationality who recognise that Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine and who read Ukrainian language texts.

This aspect of the journal provides an answer to the question of whether our publication is orientated towards a mass or an elite readership. It is a deeply held conviction of Vsesvit’s editors that Ukrainian society needs a raising of a general spiritual level which has been reduced or wiped out through several decades. Vsesvit as the channel of world literature has to orientate itself towards the broadest circle of readers while simultaneously printing the most accomplished products of world literature. To put it another way, the journal is obliged not  to widen the rift between popular and elite cultures in our society, but to bridge this gap by ensuring that the most accomplished cultural achievements are available for a wide circle of readers—in other words the journal is an elite publication aimed at a mass readership.

Although acquainting readers with world literature, art and philosophy, we hope to broaden the intellectuality of our contemporaries. The building of a cultural and national life in an independent Ukraine is our most important goal but it is not the sole aim of Vsesvit. No less important is the repair and development of cultural connections between Ukraine and the world beyond her borders by providing translations of the works of foreign writers, or by personal communication with writers, with people active in the fields of art and science and editorial, publishing cultural and scientific institutions.

The reputation of Vsesvit, however, like every literary publication, will be recognised not by its declarations but by its contents.  In order to show how the journal achieved the work described above in the conditions of economic crisis that affected Ukraine in the 1990s, in order to show the unchanging creative potential of the journal, we will provide an account of the works and authors that appeared in the publication and characterise its work between 1995 and 2000- the last years of the twentieth century.

Mykytenko and Hamaliy (2004) describe that during this relatively brief period in the regular features of Vsesvit were published: ‘From the Past Years’, ‘Treasuries’ ,’Literary Illustrations’, ‘Fantasy Fan Club’, ‘Masters of the Detective Story’ were printed 53 novels and stories, 152 narratives, 6 plays, over 25 tracts, various authors, including the classics, well-known masters of the beginning of the twentieth century, well-known modern poets, young authors, from a single verse to a substantial selection (Vsesvit, 2004)

These works represent the literary life of 47 countries; in Europe: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Great Britain, Greece, Georgia, Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Italy, Latvia, The Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, and Montenegro; in The Americas: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, The U.S.A., Uruguay and Chile; in Asia: Vietnam, Israel, India, Indonesia, Iran, China, Korea, Lebanon, Japan; in Africa: Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa, and also Australia and the Ukrainian Diaspora.

It is not easy to evaluate which of the publications from this period are better and which are weaker. Therefore we pay great attention to the place of an author in world literature, the artistic worth, the first creation, the artistic level of the translation, the resonance of the work in the Ukrainian language and other criteria. First of all we recognise that on the pages of the journal were such sparkling literary diamonds as the creations of the Nobel laureates, R. Tagore, B. Shaw, L. Pirandello, H. R. Jimenez, St. John Perse, C. Milocz, N. Matthews, V. Shymborcka, etc. (the names are given in the chronological order in which they were awarded the Nobel Prize).

Amongst the novels and stories, which received the greatest attention from readers, were masterpieces of the creative work of the twentieth century: ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’, Umberto Eco’s; ‘On the Marble Rocks’, Ernst Junger’s; ‘Journey on the Edge of the Night’, L. Celine’s; ‘On the side of Swann’, Marcel Proust. In addition to these works, the Ukrainian reader was presented with the striking novels and stories of J. Amado ‘Big Trap’, K. Asymakopulos ‘The tree that dances’, R. Bach ‘Bridge to Eternity’, M. Ventura  ‘Lie and Die’ and ‘8 Gorky Street’, S. King ‘Apt Pupil’, N. Koroleva ‘Quo vadis?’, Ya. Parandovckyj ‘The King of Life’, J. Fowles ‘Mantis’, and many others. Theses works are extremely varied and represent different tendencies, styles and dramatic groups.

In each issue of the journal, artistic literature occupies two thirds of the printed material, with the rest of the publication being devoted to literary, artistic and political features. Over the past six years in the tradition of Vsesvit appeared nearly 300 Ukrainian and foreign authors whose 450 articles, narratives, views, interviews excerpts from books (plus a few short informative features) constituted a brilliant international window.

This length of this article does not permit me give the names of all the authors. I can just make you aware that within the regular feature ‘Writer. Literature. Life’ from the history of world culture’, ‘Translation Studies’, ‘In the View of the Editor’, the journal has tried to illuminate the names of world literature process and the literary masterpieces of the past particularly in a comparative, historical nature. Important articles appeared here by D. Nalyvayko V. Skurativckyj, M. Sokolyanckyj, Ya. Polotnyuk, S. Kapranov, D. Gorbachov, O. Pachlovska, I. Limborckyj, R. Zovirchuk, M. Novykova, J. Kobiv and foreign literary experts Steve Connor, Susannah Shedl, Khamutal Bar, Yosef, Korrado Kolabro, and also important articles in the field of translation by V. Radchuk and others.

Many thought-provoking articles were represented in the feature ‘Ukrainica’ where literary experts, historians, politicians, writers, diplomats, artists, journalists from Ukraine appeared e.g. T. Bovsunivka, M. Varvartsev, I. Drach, Yu. Zavhorodnij, Ya. Isayevych, Yu. Kochubey, I. Kravchenko, L. Kutsenko, V. Markus, Yu. Mykytenko, Yu. Mytsyk, L. Mushketyk, V. Panchenko, I. Parkhomenko, F. Pohrebennyk, Yu. Pokalchuk, M. Ryabchuk, M. Sevilachov, V. Serhiychuk, Ya. Sobko, A. Strilko, P. Usenko, V. Shevchuk and others. The Ukrainian Diaspora was represented by I. Kaczurovckyj, M. Kostash, I. Koshelivets, V. Marcus, Ye Stetskiv and others.

To conclude, what has to be the strategic functioning of Vsesvit in the new era? Above all it is worth orientating towards eco-information. Therefore, every issue of the journal has to demonstrate co-operation between global literatures and only then it can be said that it represents the world literary process, or at least the mainstream. In this instance on-line communication is a godsend. With it at least you can secure a constant supply of material for the feature ‘Literary Dialogue’ and the appearance in Ukraine of interviews with writers from other countries, which is a wonderful stimulus for the promotion of that literature and that country.

Close working with Ukrainian and Foreign Embassies is essential to achieve this aim. It is also necessary to establish a system of international cooperation for the conduct of annual conferences in various countries aimed at high-lighting real questions of the world literary process. The International Council of Vsesvit may be one of the key moments in the preparation of this project; although it is also important to form a council (international editorial board) of experts, literary critics, scientists, who would be able to prepare panoramic views of the literature of their own country or region for the journal.

The journal is, for its own part ready to provide annotations for the work of foreign authors in English or the author’s native language, in order to secure some representation for the journal in countries across the world. A similar political strategy will secure the journal’s powerful participation in the formation, systematization and study of the world literary process.


I would like to credit Steve Komarnyckyj, Svitlana Shlipchenko and John Waddington-Feather for help with stylistic recommendations and revising the paper.


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