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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

On the 225th birth anniversary of Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko

9 December, 2003 - 00:00

When son Hryhory was born into the family of Fedir Kvitka, representative of a well-known and respected senior Cossack and later noble landlord Northern Ukrainian clan, in his lordly estate of Osnova near Kharkiv on November 29, 1778, nobody knew what kind of destiny awaited the boy. The newborn was destined to become the first prose writer of a new Ukrainian literature, a God-graced past master of the native-language word, as well as a talented actor, political journalist, and a fine poet by the standards of the time... And what primarily makes Hryhory Kvitka, who immortalized his name with works written under the pen-name of Hrytsko Osnovyanenko, worthy of the grateful memory of his descendants is his major contribution to reawakening the sense of national identity in Ukrainians. Born into a family which, like the overwhelming majority of top-level Cossack families, had obeyed Catherine II’s imperial rules of the game, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko was one of the first in our modern culture to be able to brilliantly describe the Ukrainian national character and not only from the positive standpoint. Paradoxically, Osnovyanenko, a landlord, Marshal of the nobility, chairman of the Criminal Court’s Kharkiv Chamber, bearer of Orders of St. Anna and St. Vladimir, and a royal counselor, perhaps underestimated the importance of what he had really done to shake the foundations of Nicholas’ empire and blaze a trail to the spiritual liberation of his people.

The young Hrytsko had to walk a long and winding road to literary fame. It took the young man more than one year to seek out his niche. By the time he turned 26 he had already been an army captain (without in fact serving because in those times children of the gentry were formally assigned to a regiment, where they were regularly promoted), an amateur comedian, a heraldry department clerk; he had also taken part in establishing Kharkiv University (1802-1803)... In 1804 Kvitka, to quote his own phrase, “dashed and galloped to the abode of the saints” and took monastic vows at the Kuriazh Monastery near Kharkiv.

Yet, cloistered life could not appeal to a young man vested with an inquisitive, optimistic and free nature. “By virtue of specific circumstances and weak health,” Kvitka soon requested that he be struck off the list of that monastery’s monks and the previously submitted documents be “sent back and reconsidered.” Thus was Hryhory destined to be one of the creators of the nineteenth century Ukrainian culture rather than a servant of the Lord.

Contemporaries admired this person’s multifaceted talent. Somebody composed this friendly epigram about Osnovyanenko:

“I still wonder, my Creator, at our enlightened age: the same man is an actor, a poet, and a judge.”

These lines do not say that Kvitka was a prose writer, a classic of Ukrainian literature. The point is that he finally decided to devote his life to belles-lettres only in 1827, when he was almost fifty. This was a well-considered, responsible and, in a way, courageous decision, for he became a Ukrainian writer (although Russian literature also has ample grounds to consider him one of its own figures) precisely at a time when the vast iron empire of the Romanovs intensified crude propaganda of chauvinism in the spirit of Uvarov’s notorious triad of autocracy, Orthodoxy, and Nationality. All things Ukrainian were either an object of loutish sneers or, at best, a condescending ethnographic vogue. It is precisely at this time that Osnovyanenko created his classic, unforgettable Ukrainian burlesque-realistic and sentimental novellas and short stories A Soldier’s Portrait (1833), Marusia (1833), The Witch of Konotop (1833), Hapless Oksana (1838), and The Trump Girl (1836).

The point is not only in that these works laid the groundwork for modern Ukrainian prose. What is important is their high artistic value. A well-known Ukrainian and Russian philologist and writer Osyp Bodiansky pointed out such features of Kvitka’s oeuvre as “simplicity; natural-style narration, and a sense of wholeness; the right relationship between parts; live, bright, and fresh pictures; a cheerful humorist tone; witty hints as if made at random and accidentally; rapid transitions; masterly digressions; a correct and predominantly pure language; and numerous catchy folksy phrases and expressions.” Kvitka-Osnovyanenko himself thus explained the reasons why he chose to write Ukrainian novellas, particularly, Marusia, “I once had a dispute with a writer in the Little Russian dialect. I asked him to write something serious and touching. He tried to persuade me that the language was clumsy and utterly unacceptable. Yet, knowing that he was wrong, I wrote Marusia and proved that the Little Russian language can move you to tears.”

Let us not be misguided by a seemingly modest and humble goal the writer allegedly set to himself, to “move” the reader. Ivan Franko highly appreciated Kvitka’s oeuvre, noting that he is “creator of the real- life novella, one of the first creators of this genre in European literatures.” Contemporaries were delighted at the way the author of The Witch of Konotop, Hapless Oksana, well-known plays Match-Making at Honcharivka (1835) and Shelmenko the Batman (1836) could portray with unsurpassable naturalness the common Ukrainian person almost never depicted in literature before. But for Osnovyanenko’s creative achievements, humanism and sincere anguish for the future of a hurt individual, there would have been no Shevchenko, Marko Vovchok, Panas Myrny, Nechui-Levytsky, and other classics of Ukrainian letters.

Kvitka-Osnovyanenko was a person of meek disposition, who tenderly loved his wife Anna Wulf (1800-1852). He wrote in a letter to P. A. Pletnev in February 1841, “Anna and I are one person with the same feelings, thoughts and actions.” Yet, Kvitka was always able — quite clearly and “naively” (in reality, wisely) — to call things by their proper names: he never spared the flaws and defects of society. He once said “there are many apes but few humans” in high society (incidentally, this comes down from Skovoroda venerated in Kvitka’s family; the prominent wandering philosopher was the first to compare contemporary society with a painted ape). And here is an very expressive quotation from The Witch of Konotop, “It is common knowledge, you know, that the sillier the boss is, the prouder he is, so he puffs up like smoke out of a chimney.” No, this artist, who kept his true thoughts and feelings under the guise of a provincial simpleton Hrytsko Osnovyanenko (the novellas were written on his behalf), was not simple at all.

Kvitka generously gave (not necessarily in the literal meaning of the word) plots of his works to his young talented contemporaries. For example, Shevchenko created his Kateryna (as philologist Yury Ivakin proved) under the strong impression he gained from the novella Hapless Oksana, while Gogol’s Inspector General surprisingly resembles Kvitka’s comedy, A Visitor from the Capital, or Turmoil in a Provincial Town. Incidentally, Shevchenko also developed another of Kvitka’s glorious traditions, scathing national self- criticism, exposing all those Shpaks (a character who entertained the hetman, chirping like a starling, or shpak in Ukrainian) and Khaliavskys (this one “victoriously” brandished his boot to swat the mouse that irritated the king).

The outstanding writer always set high moral and ethic goals for literature. Consider his words: “However nicely you write, all this is nonsense unless there is a moral and edifying goal.” Or, “Write about the people you see around you, don’t invent unnatural, bizarre, savage, or terrible characters.” Self-denial, humanity and creative mastery helped Kvitka occupy an honorable place in the Russian literary process in which he took an active part. This was confirmed by rapturous comments from contemporary leading Russian critics. For instance, Pletnev wrote about the novella Marusia the Russian translation of which was printed in Sovremennik (1838), “We would wish not only all Russia but also Europe to relish this treasure.” It is very interesting, incidentally, that the French translation of Hapless Oksana saw the light of day in Paris in 1854, eleven years after Kvitka’s death.

Still, Osnovyanenko occupies a special place in our literature and culture as a whole. Shevchenko was absolutely right when he sent a passionate appeal to him, an imperial court counselor:

“See to it, father, that the whole world knows what happened in Ukraine, what people were dying for, why Cossacks won global acclaim! See to it, father, our daring eagle! (“To Osnovyanenko”).

For there would not have been Shevchenko himself if there had not been the one whom the Bard called “my father and friend,” who tried to instill in Ukrainians the sensation of human (and hence national) dignity. What Hryhory Kvitka-Osnovyanenko deserves for this is eternal respect and gratitude.