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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

Mykhailo Starytsky and His Descendants

17 September, 2002 - 00:00


The future celebrated Ukr ainian author, translator, theatrical and public figure was born December 14, 1840, at his mother’s parents’ (Lysenko) estate in Klishchyntsi village in what is now Poltava oblast. His parents, sisters, and brother died, so he was an orphan since the age of six. His legal guardian was Uncle Vitaly Lysenko. The family communicated in Ukrainian, English, French, German, and Russian and the general atmosphere was homely and sincere. Mykhailo was treated as though he was their flesh and blood. The life and creative destinies of the two families were thus closely intertwined. Together with his third cousin Mykola Lysenko, Mykhailo Starytsky performed in amateur drama groups and cooperated with the professional theater. Mykola wrote music and Mykhailo librettos. It was at the Lysenkos’ that Mykhailo met his first and only love. Sofiya, Mykola’s sister, was 14 years Mykhailo’s junior. Despite the family’s resistance (at one point Mykhailo and Sofiya even planned an escape), they got married in a simple ceremony conducted by a village priest (the girl was 14!). Premature or not, the marriage proved a lasting one. The following year they had a daughter baptized as Mariya.

Mykhailo Starytsky came to Kyiv in 1860 and entered the university. After that he would often change places of residence, first renting an apartment at Voitsekhovsky’s (where Mykola Lysenko and his high school mate Mykhailo Drahomanov were already tenants). The future playwright shared the flat with Petro Kosach. The four young people, future pride of Ukraine, often invited friends, students from various higher schools, and eventually formed the Hromada Society. They were united by a great love for Ukrainian literature, language, and music. Mykhailo Starytsky did brilliant Ukrainian translations of Hamlet, Andersen’s fairy tales, Krylov’s fables, and published the Ukrainian Rada almanac. He dedicated his translation of Serbian folk songs to Drahomanov.

“Meeting the sisters Lindfors marked an important period in the lives of Starytsky and Lysenko. The sisters had a family drama group and it was there the men’s operetta Chornomortsi premiered,” says Vira Koziyenko, head of the research department studying Mykhailo Starytsky’s life and creative work. “Their next joint project was the Christmas Eve opera. Everybody liked it very much, so Starytsky and Lysenko rented the city theater for a public performance. Its success surpassed all expectations; they had to give three performances and every night the audience was packed. It was a sensation on a scope that alarmed the local governor general, the more so that Alexander II’s Ems Ukaz strictly forbade “various stage performances and recitals in the Little Russian vernacular, as well as printing such texts and music; and nor shall it be allowed to perform any plays or recitals, or import into the Empire any books or booklets, print or issue original works and translations in the said vernacular...” The only exceptions were historical documents and belles-lettres that could be released after being carefully examined by censors, but using only the Russian alphabet. Itinerant drama groups also faced a lot of obstacles, so the one formed by Starytsky had to stop performing in Kyiv and start touring the Russian empire. They started with backwater provinces [gubernias]. With time, as their popularity grew, they were allowed to perform in St. Petersburg. For long years the Kyiv audiences were denied the privilege. Starytsky’s Couldn’t Sit, Taras Bulba, Gypsy Woman Aza, Talan, Busha’s Defense, Marusia Bohuslavka, After Two Rabbits, Sorochyntsi Fair, In the Dark, etc., proved real blockbusters whose popularity would last for decades.


In 1862, Starytsky’s rich relatives on his father’s side, the aristocratic Rodzianko family, left Russia, bequeathing to him a plush mansion with a huge library at the village of Lybikhivka. From now on he was a real landlord. He loved hunting and even caught a bad cold. The disease was complicated by a cardiac disorder and he would suffer severe attacks of pain for the rest of his life.

It was at Lybikhivka that he wrote his first play, Harkusha. Mykola Lysenko wrote music. It was originally meant as a family performance, with Sofiya singing as Sotnychka [Captain’s Wife] and Mykhailo as Sotnyk [Captain], and Lysenko doing the accompaniment. Mykhailo Starytsky was not destined to enjoy the landlord’s leisurely life and home performances for long. He had to vent his creative nature. Marko Kropyvnytsky and Mykola Sadovsky suggested a new drama group. They talked Starytsky into financing it, so he sold his estate and in 1883 became manager of the Itinerant Ukrainian Theater. Even the awareness that his family’s well- being was at stake did not stop him. In fact, their home in Lukianivka accommodated the costume sewing and stage property workshops and rehearsal rooms. They first performed in Odesa and were a great success. Now they had invitations from all parts of the country.


“Few people would be prepared to place their well-being on the altar of Ukrainian culture,” continues Vira Koziyenko. Starytsky’s consultant Abram Mints warned him to be more economical, yet the man would pay the leading performers — Kropyvnytsky, Zankovetska, Sadovsky, Saksahansky — more than they would have received even at the Royal Drama Company. Such heavy spending caused the financial disaster. When the ax fell he gathered the troupe and suggested that they go shares, but the stars said no and left, forming their own company, leaving Starytsky with the younger cast. To sustain the family, he had to do translations. When the censors banned Ukrainian, he wrote Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Karmeliuk in Russian. Both works were carried by the Moskovsky Listok and there were long lines to buy every issue.

People in need were never refused help at the Starytskys. At the time of the pogroms he gave shelter to neighboring Jewish families; he never discriminated between people by their religious beliefs.

He settled in the apartment that would became a museum (on Saksahansky St.) in 1901. People in the neighborhood kept away from the place. His previous landlady, wife of Court Counselor Khondoshko, had six children. Her husband, in a fit of jealousy, had killed her and then himself, leaving six orphans. So now the children lived on the first floor and the second one was rented by the Starytskys. He had to make do with a “haunted house” because of a precarious financial situation. His original drama company had fallen apart and the rent was more than reasonable. In addition, the Lysenkos and Kocachs lived nearby. Starytsky’s granddaughter Iryna Steshenko recalls that the children would run from one house to the next all day and the three families lived as one. In subsequent years, half of the house would be occupied by Mykhailo Starytsky with his wife and younger children, and the second by his daughter, writer Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska with her family. Mykhailo Starytsky died there, April 27, 1904. Even on his deathbed, in his study, he continued working on his last poem Morituri (the manuscript is on museum display). Lines from it, “May Ukraine live happy and prosper, this would be my greatest reward and joy, also,” are inscribed on his tombstone at the Baikove Cemetery.

The house-museum has two sections. One offers the family exposition: the sitting and dining rooms, Mykhailo Starytsky’s study, and his daughter Mariya’s room (she lived with them after returning from St. Petersburg). The second one features Starytska-Cherniakhivska’s apartment and the Steshenkos’ archives. It is titled “Family Tradition Upheld” and it is dedicated to Starytsky’s descendants.

His wife Sofiya lived considerably longer than he did, passing in 1928. They had five children. The eldest daughter, Mariya, was an actress, stage director, and teacher. She was the first in Ukraine to receive a professional training in the dramatic art at the capital of the empire. She toured extensively and performed at many theaters in St. Petersburg, also with the Saksahansky troupe. Subsequently, she worked for Lypnevych-Nosova’s music and drama school, and after Lysenko had organized his own school where he taught.

His second daughter, Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska, was a noted writer. Incidentally, Mykhailo Starytsky wrote in his last will and testament, “I hereby name my beloved daughter Liudmyla as the executor, for she was my guardian angel during my lifetime; she loves her sisters and her brother, and she will not let any harm come their way. I wish all of you my heirs: May the Lord bestow on you a quiet and peaceful life, may your love for the native land live in your hearts forever, because this love has kept my heart warm all my life...”

His middle daughter, Oksana, taught music and her husband, Ivan Steshenko, was the Ukrainian National Republic’s first minister of education (killed in 1918). The youngest daughter, Olha, died at 11. Their son Yuri graduated from the law school of Kyiv University, was arrested because of involvement in 1902 student unrest and then kept under police surveillance until the revolution. Subsequently he headed the Ukrainian Prosvita Society, was a member of the Sochi city council, but was then reported to the police and had to flee to Sukhumi with his wife Varvara Savych. There he practiced law and died in 1936.


Before World War II, the family lived at an apartment at what is now the Honchar St. Under the Soviets practically all members of the family were purged, except Mykhailo Starytsky’s granddaughter Iryna Steshenko who miraculously escaped the terrible lot. All that didn’t were mainly charged with “nationalism.” Starytsky’s grandson Yaroslav Steshenko was the first to be arrested in 1929. He sang with the Dumka Choir and was a bibliologist. Veronica (Rona) Cherniakhivska, Liudmyla’s daughter, poetess and translator, was arrested on charges of espionage simply because she had married a German banker. She was a very beautiful woman. She was sent to different prisons, then released, then the [NKVD] Black Maria would be sent for her again. They would not leave her alone even after she divorced the German. Her mother, arrested twice, was told that her daughter had been exiled to Siberia and then that she was at a psychiatry clinics. In reality, she was executed at the Lukianivka penitentiary in 1938.

In 1929, Kharkiv saw a show trial over 45 members of the SVU (Ukr. abbr., Ukrainian Liberation Union), among them writer Liudmyla Starytska-Cherniakhivska and her husband Oleksandr Cherniakhivsky, M.D., professor with the medical institute, a noted oncologist. Each of the two received five years, then the sentence was commuted to 2.5 years of exile in the town of Stalino (a medical institute was being set up there). They were allowed to return to Kyiv in 1935 and Oleksandr Cherniakhivsky received a job at the Bohomolets Medical Institute. In 1941, Starytsky’s daughters Liudmyla and Oksana were arrested again and sent to a prison camp. Liudmyla died in the boxcar on the way and the guards threw away the body, so no one knows where she was buried, if ever. Oksana died at the camp in 1942. Her son Yaroslav Steshenko also died in Norilsk.

After the war Iryna (Orysia) Steshenko was the only surviving member of the Starytsky family. She was an actress with the Les Kurbas Theater and translator. She raised the matter of the Starytsky descendants’ rehabilitation in the 1950s, but only her brother Yaroslav was posthumously acquitted. The rest were rehabilitated only in the late 1990s.


Vira Koziyenko (former curator of the theatrical museum who has also helped set up the Lysenko and Starytsky museums) was the first person whom Iryna Steshenko allowed to study the family archives.

When Iryna returned to Kyiv in 1945 she found the apartment marauded, numerous items missing from the family collection. She wrote to Academician Oleksandr Biletsky, asking to collect the Starytsky archives, as it was originally planned to found the writer’s museum at the Institute of Literature. In the 1950s, the documents were transferred to the Shevchenko Museum where one of the rooms was to be converted into the museum. Ten years later, the Lesia Ukrainka Museum was instituted and the family archives were transferred there. In the early 1970s, the ministry of culture ordered the creation of a museum complex dedicated to the famous Ukrainian cultural figures Mykola Lysenko, Mykhailo Starytsky, and Lesia Ukrainka.

“I had to fight a war to have 11 families moved out of the house at Saksahansky St. and into new apartments,” recalls Vira Koziyenko. “The military resisted for a long time, because it meant transferring the military registration and enlistment office to a new address. They vacated the premises only in August 1990. I told them it was a gift commemorating Mykhailo Starytsky’s 140th anniversary. All of us workers of the Mykola Lysenko Museum gathered at the writer’s study and prayed, offering up thanks for the opening of the Starytsky Museum and placing flowers.

“After I retired I spent two years visiting Iryna Steshenko every day and studying the archives. She passed away in 1987, naming in her will two executors to dispose of all Starytsky property: Lidiya Hrabovetska, a physician who looked after her for several years, and Liudmyla Rezunova, ex-head of the museum department of the ministry of culture. Part of the collection, some 12,000 items (furniture, part of the library, archives, some personal effects) were meant for a museum to be founded in 1987. Hrabovetska gave away all the Starytsky property she had [inherited], but Rezunova didn’t. She had collections of works of art, china, and parlor furniture. She kept everything in the storerooms of the Ukrainian Museum, just in case. And everything seems to have vanished into thin air. Too much time has elapsed. Now different people are in charge of the storerooms. Liubov Rezunova claims she was forced to take away the collection, but she is in no hurry to give it back. When we were arranging Steshenko’s jubilee exhibit and marking her 100th anniversary, Rezunova asked to make out a list of what the museum would need in the first place, but then gave us very little. After that she started avoiding me... I’ve been beating the alarm for the past several years. You see, Rezunova won’t let anyone into her apartment and her daughter left for America. For all I know, her share of the Starytsky collection could no longer be in Ukraine. Is it that I’m the only one concerned about its fate? It is state property! Sue her? The museum can’t afford it. Perhaps the situation would be different if the ministry of culture and the mayor’s office stepped in. Maybe it’s not too late.”

As the Starytsky legacy dispute continued, the house was restored, then laid up, funds suddenly appeared and then as suddenly disappeared. At long last the museum was opened by the Independence Day. Too bad Iryna Steshenko, the last of the Starytskys, did not live too see it.

The day before the tape-cutting ceremony it was all hands to the pump, with construction workers and electricians applying finishing touches, museum experts pasting tags to items on display, workers out in the street welding and painting the fence and making flowerbeds. Never mind, the main thing is that the Starytsky House Museum is open. Now people fond of the theater, literature, and Ukrainian culture have a place to go to learn a lot of interesting things about the winding life path of Mykhailo Starytsky and his descendants.

By Tetiana POLISHCHUK, The Day Photos by Anatoly MEDZYK, The Day