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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 Vynnychenko’s Prison Odyssey

19 March, 2002 - 00:00

Should a history of Kyiv’s prisons be ever written, it will undoubtedly include several pages dealing with such a renowned inmate as Volodymyr Vynnychenko. In February 1902, arrested for the first time, he was a militant of the recently-founded Revolutionary Ukrainian Party (RUP), a young man of letters often attending soirees held by philanthropist and public figure Yevhen Chykalenko at his house on Mariyinsko-Blahoveshchenska Street. The 22-year-old Volodymyr had just been expelled from Kyiv’s St. Vladimir University, where he had completed three semesters of studying law, for participation in antigovernment student strikes.

In the early twentieth century, the student was a key figure in Russia’s political life. RUP was formed by none other than university students who, unlike their parents’ generation of Ukrainophiles from the Stara Hromada (Old Community), set quite radical political goals. What Vynnychenko’s peers strove primarily for at the turn of a new century was socialism and Ukrainian autonomy. Thus yesterday’s would-be lawyer had to leave the classroom and do a few-month term in the Lukyanivka Prison for “participation in disturbances aimed at the violent blocking of lectures.”

This first jail of Vynnychenko’s was quite short: in the summer of 1902 we see the indefatigable young man in the Poltava region, the place of a recently erupted peasant strike. V. Korolenko, the chronicler of the then Ukrainian countryside, called these revolts robbery. The radical youth, of course, plunged into the whirlwind of events, spreading propaganda. Volodymyr moonlighted as a private tutor in the family of a landlord, but this was just a part-time job, with his main efforts being concentrated on RUP, which also provided ample material for his stories. The artist’s imagination sometimes ran ahead of the time, putting a touch of unreality to his political projects. Vynnychenko’s friends reminisced that he was once obsessed by the fantastic idea “to organize throughout Ukraine, in a single night, the arsons of landlords’ manors and was very angry when the idea was rejected.”

Meanwhile, it was time for military service. Vynnychenko spent the last months of 1902 and the beginning of 1903 in the barracks as “volunteer of the Fifth Engineering Battalion” stationed in Kyiv. He was not about to drop revolutionary propaganda, this time among soldiers, which meant he was up for a new arrest. It would have happened exactly so had Volodymyr, aware of the danger, not fled the battalion on February 1, 1903. Early that night he ran to his friends, the Levytskys, threw off his trench coat, changed into civilian attire, and was soon across the border in Lviv. Prince Urusov, then minister of internal affairs and police, had to sign a circular instructing to “immediately apprehend” the deserter Vynnychenko. Meanwhile, the fugitive, once in Galicia, actively contributed to RUP newspapers, writing articles and stories, then smuggling illegal publications to Dnipro Ukraine. During one of these transfers near Volochynsk, the gendarmes recognized “an old acquaintance of theirs,” although he had the passport of an Austrian subject with a different first and last name. Vynnychenko thus became inmate of the Kosyi Kaponir Military Prison for two years until the Revolution of 1905.

In a Solomyanka archive, you can take a paginated and sewn-through copybook bearing the Kyiv Fortress Staff wax seal and the signatures of Colonel Gavrilov, the chief of staff and the fortress lieutenant, which was issued to Vynnychenko for “written exercises.” The copybook contains a novella called Holota (loosely, White Trash), one of the writer’s prison opuses written in a bold but expressive hand. Another copybook holds the young writer’s Ukrainian translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Also intact are the extremely interesting letters that Volodymyr wrote in the fall of 1904 to Borys Hrinchenko. These are sort of case studies from captivity, which enable one to picture the daily life of an inmate. In fact, Vynnychenko had managed to get transferred by that time to a Kyiv military hospital ward due to a feigned illness. “I hereby inform you that my good self has already been dressed in a long yellow smock, number-tagged, and almost sewn through,” Vynnychenko wrote not without irony about his daily routine. ... “It is now the time for the doctors’ rounds. They may call on me too. I wish I had some face powder to make me a bit pale!”

Vynnychenko simulated mental disease. Still in solitary confinement, he simulated suicide to make his way to a hospital, which nearly ended in tragedy: he was taken out of the noose almost unconscious. The prison, solitude, and inability to live a full life put a heavy burden on his soul. It is no accident that three or four years later emigre Vynnychenko would repeatedly complain of nervous exhaustion... He wrote in a 1908 letter, “I once shot myself. I decided to die. A friend of mine and I went to the city outskirts... I took out the revolver, gathered all my willpower in a knot, mustered all my gloomy and wicked thoughts, composed all my pride and, trampling on the horror of death, pushed the knot, brought my hand up to my temple, and, ringing with a wild mad strain in expectation of something mysterious and huge, pulled the trigger... The steel clicked feebly... And that’s that: a misfire. This occurred three times... In the fourth attempt, raising a quivering and powerless hand, I managed to wound myself in the head.” Vynnychenko challenged life, playing Russian roulette with fate. What a stormy nature, raging character, boundless ambition, an eternal strain of extremes were his! Is it then surprising that his works are so full of fatal outcomes, especially suicides?

Vynnychenko never broke loose from Kosyi Kaponir. Even the birth of son Aleksei into the family of Tsar Nicholas II in 1904 and the amnesty granted in celebration did not relieve him from punishment. Vynnychenko was sentenced to a year and a half in a punishment battalion for desertion. Then the turbulent events of 1904 and 1905 events must have played their role: Russia’s ignominious defeat in the war against Japan, social unrest, and the authorities hesitation. In any case, in the fall of 1905 Volodymyr was back in Lviv. Again, like two years earlier, he was up to his neck in his political and literary pursuits.

There seemed to be no place that Ukrainian Social Democratic Labor Party (the renamed fraction of RUP that continued to demand an autonomous socialist Ukraine – Ed.) Central Committee member Volodymyr Vynnychenko did not visit at the time! Many years later, when Semen Petliura was assassinated in Paris, he recalled the 1905 Poltava Jewish pogroms in one of his letters, “I can be proud that in 1905 the pogroms were stopped in Poltava chiefly thanks to my efforts. Russian and Ukrainian anti-Semites, who then ‘mercilessly’ fought Jewry,... searched several days for me in order to kill me...” This would seem quite an interesting plot for the curious historian.

And, in the midst of all this commotion, he continued his strenuous literary efforts. How could he possibly do all this at the same time? In 1906 the Kyiv publishing house Vik (Century) turned out a volume of Vynnychenko’s prose, including six short stories and the novella, Holota. In the same year, Disharmony, the writer’s first play, saw the light of day in Petersburg... And in the summer of 1907, “hiding” in Liubech, Chernihiv region, Vynnychenko wrote the drama Steps of Life, his most scandalous opus, whose hero professes a new morality. “I have written a play... and am suffering now, for I can clearly foresee torrents of abuse from our ‘thinking intelligentsia’,” the author confessed in a letter from Liubech. He saw through things: the preaching in Steps of Life of the idea of “honesty with oneself,” which was to replace hypocritical bourgeois morality (as well as the two-faced and disharmonious morality of revolutionaries!), triggered the abrupt reaction of Petliura and Chykalenko, people from his own milieu. They considered Honest with Oneself cynical and licentious. And not without reason.

Meanwhile, the writer once again languished in Lukyanivka. In September 1907, he was arrested for the third time on a charge of a Ukrainian conspiracy. Vynnychenko found in the prison cell his friends Serhiy Yefremov, Andriy Zhuk, and Volodymyr Stepankivsky. The trial was to begin on October 12, portending no good, for reaction was on the rise. Yefremov and then other inmates were bailed out (Yevhen Chykalenko stood bail of 500 gold rubles for Vynnychenko), but the prisoners chose to jump bail. On the day when the court was to decide their fate, the friends secretly crossed the Austrian border.

This was the end of Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s pre-Revolutionary prison Odyssey, adding that his emigration after escape from Russia dragged on until 1914. He would occasionally arrive in his native places, bearing a fake passport. Then the W orld W ar broke out, then came March 1917, when Kyiv saw the establishment of the Central Rada in which Vynnychenko was Chairman Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s deputy (along with later stints as head of the People’s Secretariat and Directory governments of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic along with a few ill-fated weeks of vice chairman of one Soviet Ukrainian government – Ed.).

But there would be two more unpleasant episodes in the life of Vynnychenko: in April 1918 he would be detained by Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky’s soldiers at Princely Mountain near Kaniv. Luckily, the incident was cleared up fast. A far more difficult situation would arise during Word War II, when the political exile Vynnychenko would live at Mougin, southern France. He was consigned to a concentration camp for a few weeks. German authorities suggested that he head a puppet Ukrainian government to be formed in Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Vynnychenko refused. The camp was payment for this refusal. But that is an altogether different story.

By Volodymyr PANCHENKO, Doctor of Philology, Professor, Kiev-Mohyla Academy National University