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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

Volodymyr Sosiura and the Oppressors of National Spirit

17 February, 2004 - 00:00

“I was shadowed by death. It was wearing yellow shoes, a light chocolate suit, and had the colorless face of a gangster.”
Volodymyr Sosiura

Love for one’s native land under the rule of a despotic and hypocritical government that knows no legal bounds is an inevitable way of the cross, a road of unbelievable physical and mental suffering. The best sons of the Ukrainian people have known this at all times. In an epoch of tyranny, a sincere and deep love for the Fatherland is already an indictment usually followed by a merciless punishment. Tens and hundreds of great twentieth-century Ukrainians, such as Mykola Khvyliovyi and Les Kurbas, Mykola Kulish and Oleh Olzhych, Oleksandr Dovzhenko, and Vasyl Stus (the list is tragically long), could have repeated Taras Shevchenko’s immortal words “I am in agony and torment, but I will never repent!”

The life and sufferings of Volodymyr Sosiura (1989-1965), one of the greatest Ukrainian lyric poets of all time, is an extremely vivid illustration of this. The writer went down a winding and thorny road from the revolutionary romanticism of the 1920s to “the heights of eternity” (the leitmotif of his latest lyrics), from lauding “victory over nature” (Dniprestan, 1926) to being dissolved in nature’s eternal beauty (late poems), from enthusing over the “revolutionary” elan of the masses to understanding the boundless value of each human life... The main thing is that Sosiura’s lyric poetry — tender, naively wise, and seemingly very simple (although this kind of “simplicity” can only be achieved with high and mature mastery) — always had deep Ukrainian roots which strengthened with each passing year. For the poet interpreted Ukraine as a natural given with no temporal boundaries.

It is precisely this that Communist jingoists and Ukraine-haters in power could not forgive him. Sosiura lived a life tragic enough: he was a Petliura army soldier, fighting for an independent Ukraine in the winter of 1918 to the fall of 1919 (which the USSR secret police always remembered); then he was taken prisoner by Gen. Denikin’s White Army, sentenced to death but managed to make a miraculous escape; later he, laid up with typhus in Odesa, was picked up by Red Army combatants in 1920... The 1920s-30s brought Sosiura, already a prominent Ukrainian Soviet poet, not only indisputable creative achievements but also expulsion from the Communist Party (this was done twice; to regain membership, the poet had to write in 1940 an excited and beseeching letter to Stalin with the words, “Father, save me!”), never-ending harassment in the press for “nationalist undertones,” and even “reeducation” at a factory in 1930-1931.

But never had the Stalinist system heaped such merciless, cold, and cruel blows on the outstanding Ukrainian artist of the word as in the postwar period. In 1948 his wife Maria was arrested (she was destined to spend six years in NKVD prisons)... Yet, as it turned out, Sosiura had not yet drained the bitter cup of sufferings. The relentless persecution of the poet culminated in the obscurantist campaign unleashed by the then USSR and Ukrainian SSR leadership over the poem “Love Ukraine,” one of Sosiura’s best works.

Here are the broad outlines of those events. This poem, written in May 1944 in already liberated Kyiv and later included in the collection Let the Gardens Blossom (1947), did not incur the “righteous” wrath of Stalin’s satraps for some time: moreover, the poet was even awarded a series of USSR and Ukrainian prizes for this collection. At first glance, what objections could be raised by the great eternal truth that runs through this poem: only love for the Fatherland can be the moral foundation of human philosophy? (The first version of this poem, “voluntarily” changed later, gives a brilliant definition of patriotism: the poet says about Ukraine, “Without her, we are nothing, we are like dust and smoke that is gone with the wind.” ) But totalitarian critics knew only too well what they were doing.

In all probability, the ideologists of Stalin and Kaganovich intuitively felt what motives in fact guided Sosiura (incidentally, a Ukrainian poet born and raised in an Eastern Ukrainian family, where everybody spoke almost exclusively in Russian). The artist himself frankly described these motives in the autobiographical novel The Third Company (1926—1959). One of the chief reasons was a hurt (and hence eternally awakening) sense of national identity. Take but two examples given by Sosiura himself. “Back in Bashkiria, in Ufa, when Ukraine was being crucified by bloodthirsty invaders (in 1942 — Author), a lady said in the presence of Yury Kobyletsky (a prominent critic — Author) and me, ‘How I miss Ukrainian fatback!’ Kobyletsky said in reply, ‘Don’t you miss the Ukrainian people?’” Another episode of those years: “In Moscow, too, a lady said when we, in the company of a young Western Ukrainian prose writer Tkachuk, strolled down Gorky Street, ‘I think where I feel good, there is my homeland.’ In response to this and to what was before, I wrote Love Ukraine,” the poet concluded. The “masters of ideological torture” understood this only too well.

On July 2, 1951, the USSR Communist Party’s official organ Pravda carried the editorial “On Ideological Perversions in Literature” that focused much of its attention on the poem Love Ukraine. Let me quote (without comment) some of the most eloquent extracts from this article (it is perhaps needless to explain what it meant that the article came out in 1951, when the omnipotent NKVD ruled, and the never-ending Stalinist terror kept rising or, a times, subsiding): “This poem could have been signed by such foes of the Ukrainian people as Petliura and Bandera ... For Sosiura writes about Ukraine and the love of it outside the limits of time and space” (incidentally, it is sometimes a good idea to read old Pravda files Maybe this is just what we need so badly today — love Ukraine not for what it did or did not give us but precisely “outside the limits of time and space,” — Author). Further on: “This is an ideologically vicious work. Contrary to the truth of life, the poet sings praises of a certain ‘eternal’ Ukraine full of flowers, curly willows, birdies, and waves on the Dnipro.”

Just think of it: it verged on a nationalist crime to “simply” love your homeland — you were to love Ukraine “in a class-related socialist manner.” Moreover, the words “Love your Ukraine from your heart, and she and we will live forever” smacked of a “hostile Banderite spirit” (even though Sosiura gave in the same poem an all-time clear definition of internationalism and national dignity: “You can’t love other nations unless you love Ukraine!” ). It is high time we asked ourselves: is love for Ukraine now sort of a scarce commodity just because precisely this interpretation of so-called “patriotism” was imposed on several generations of Ukrainians for decades on end?

Sosiura failed to avoid being criticized in the press even though he had revised the poem’s first version by making it far more “internationalist” well before Pravda published the article mentioned (in particular, he deleted the lines about the Ukraine without which we are all dust that has gone with the wind...). Nor was the poet saved by the fact that he was awarded a Stalin Prize first degree for the collection Let the Gardens Blossom, which contained the poem “Love Ukraine.” They beat a man who suffered unbelievably from the arrest of his beloved wife, they in fact beat a man who was already down. The most terrible thing is that among those who hounded Sosiura were some very talented people and leading figures of Ukrainian letters (for instance, Andriy Malyshko contributed an “indignant” article to the newspaper Radianska Ukrayina, in which he said, “Have you forgotten that Sosiura was once in Petliura’s bands? How can we believe him if he was against us at every decisive stage of Soviet power in Ukraine!” Oleksandr Korniychuk was among them also; he asked the outstanding poet, “How many nationalistic pieces of silver did you sell yourself out for?” Does this “small episode” of history not explain the enormous degree of spiritual deformation in Ukrainian intellectuals, even talented ones? Have envy, fear and perfidy vanished now?

Volodymyr Sosiura assumed he might be arrested any day. He confessed later that what helped him survive were the examples of entirely different things, such as true courage and dauntless spirit. At the Stalino (now Donetsk — Ed.) oblast Young Communist League conference, the audience, which was supposed to morally destroy the “nationalist” Sosiura, gave him a thunderous ovation, and a completely unknown passerby, who came across the poet on a Kyiv street, gave him a silent, warm handshake and went on.

The right to love Ukraine was given by God and bought at a boundlessly high cost. It is thus time to stop labeling people as nationalists and collecting signatures (including those of Donetsk residents, Sosiura’s compatriots) under trumped-up “appeals of the working people.” It would be better not to forget the beautiful words of Volodymyr Sosiura, “He who, like an ungrateful son, forgets his mother tongue is just a leaf which the wind has torn away from a tree and blows over the ground...”