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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

“I am better off alone”

Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky’s correspondence with his wife
13 December, 2005 - 00:00
MYKHAILO KOTSIUBYNSKY

It appears that the epistolary genre is gradually becoming a thing of the past, giving way to mobile means of communication. Phone calls and short messages vanish without a trace, and researchers of modern literature may someday envy literary historians of the 19th and 20th centuries, who inherited entire epistolary treasure troves from the classics. It is impossible to imagine Gustave Flaubert, Panteleimon Kulish, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, or Lesia Ukrainka without the hundreds and thousands of letters that reflect the history of their lives against the backdrop of their epochs.

Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864-1913) was also from the epistolary epoch: in the most complete, seven-volume collection of his works letters occupy nearly as much space as his prose works. The publishing company Yaroslaviv Val will soon issue a volume of 309 letters that Kotsiubynsky wrote to his wife Vira Ustymivna Kotsiubynska (1863-1921). With a few exceptions they were published in the 1973-1975 academic collection of Kotsiubynsky’s works. Not all the letters were published in that volume. Least represented in this collection are the letters that Kotsiubynsky wrote in the final months of his life, while he was undergoing treatment at a Kyiv clinic. Perhaps the compilers felt that those letters contained too many physiological details and descriptions of his illness and treatment. His letters were also expurgated. Censors expunged mostly Kotsiubynsky’s reminiscences of his friends and associates whom Soviet censorship considered politically compromised. Finally, academic publications traditionally arrange epistolary works chronologically, which means that Kotsiubynsky’s letters to his wife were published among his letters to other recipients. This inadvertently destroyed the integrity of the plotline — the history of the relationship between two people in the form of letters. Meanwhile, the compilation in a single volume of Kotsiubynsky’s letter to his wife Vira can be read as a novel of sorts with its own plot and resolution.

Kotsiubynsky’s correspondence with his wife spans 17 years — from 1896 to mid-1913. It began when Kotsiubynsky was working on a special government- appointed commission to combat the grape pest, phylloxera. The correspondence was preceded by their personal acquaintance. They met in December 1894 (T. Shkurkina-Levytska, Vira Ustymivna’s friend, says they met in the summer of 1895). Kotsiubynsky had come to Chernihiv at the invitation of Vasyl Andriyevsky, his colleague on the grapevine-pest commission. In January 1896 Mykhailo Mykhailovych and Vira Ustymivna were married, and for some time the couple lived in Vinnytsia. However, Kotsiubynsky could only dream of domestic comfort: his winter leave ended quickly, and the vine-pest commission was relocated from Bessarabia to the Crimean Peninsula to wage daily battles against the brown-green plant lice that was ravaging entire grapevine plantations. The separation from his young wife spurred the epistolary dialogue. This was the first, Crimean, chapter of Kotsiubynsky’s epistolary “novel.”

The recipient of Kotsiubynsky’s letters, Vira Ustymivna Deisha, graduated from a Chernihiv high school and went on to take Bestuzhev Courses in St. Petersburg. Her social and civic ideals were influenced by the Populist movement of the 1870s-1880s. In 1893 Deisha was arrested and imprisoned in the Warsaw Citadel for circulating illegal literature. At the end of the 19th century she published several popular-science articles on botanical subjects in Galician journals. Later, as a mother of four, Vira Kotsiubynska also found the time for civic work. She headed a Prosvita [Enlightenment] Society library and was a treasurer in that organization. Like her husband, she also served in a rural elected assembly. Under Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky she was arrested “because of her son” — Red Army commander Yuriy Kotsiubynsky. She was subsequently forced to resettle several times in different towns in Russia and died of typhus with complications of pneumonia.

Memoirists have left few reminiscences about Vira Ustymivna. This is how Oleksandra Aplaksina — her future “rival” — remembered her from their meeting in 1902: “[She had] short hair (rare in those days), tall, with a radiant, interesting face, and determined, somewhat brusque manner.”

There are several motifs in Kotsiubynsky’s letters sent from the Crimea, the main one being the theme of family. In his letters Kotsiubynsky showers his wife with tender words that reflect his penchant for affectionate-diminutive vocabulary and exquisitely gentle forms of address; exalted feelings, intimate cooings that perhaps only lovers can fully understand; concern about Vira’s pregnancy; anticipation of his unborn child for whom they chose the name Yurko; and countless details of everyday life. Kotsiubynsky was an extremely meticulous correspondent: every day he would send between two and four letters to different recipients, not permitting lengthy pauses in his communication with Vira Ustymivna. He even demanded the same of her.

The letters from the Crimea are written by a happy man: “Now my advice to everyone is: do not marry...if you want to be an egotist, if you do not want to experience great and sweet happiness — to live with the happiness and sorrows of another person, to have a friend — a woman, to await the birth of a Yurochka.” (Oct. 19, 1896). Kotsiubynsky experienced a great need for intimate conversations at a distance. He often complained of loneliness, which exhausted him. In time this state would be transformed into a sense of existential loneliness, the kind that Mykola Cherniavsky interestingly described in his reminiscences entitled Chervona lileya [Red Lily]: “I feel lonely. Completely and utterly lonely! Whatever I do, whatever I think about, whoever I am with, I am always lonely.”

A second motif in his letters is the civic theme. The grapevine-pest commission was largely composed of members of the “Bratstvo tarasivtsiv” [Brotherhood of Taras]. To join this society, Kotsiubynsky needed references from the Odesa-based lawyer and member of the local Hromada chapter, Mykhailo Komarov. Vitaliy Borovyk, a graduate of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, poet, translator, and one of the Brotherhood organizers, was an aide to expert Panas Pohybka, on whose phylloxera team Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky worked as an investigator. Among the other investigators were many students from Odesa, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, and public school teachers whose interests went far beyond phylloxera. The majority of the workforce of these commissions consisted of young peasants from Poltava gubernia. Wherever possible, the Brotherhood members combined their professional duties with Populist work. The circumstances were propitious for this. In their goals they followed the Brotherhood’s agenda, which was published in 1893 in the journal Pravda. They proclaimed their ultimate goal as the creation of a “system in which there would be no place for masters or servants, exploiters or the exploited, only for a complete national family made up of nationally conscious brother-workers with equal rights and perhaps even equal security.”

As we can see, the socialist and Populist components in their agenda were complemented by the idea of national liberation. “This society was quite independent in nature,” recalled the poet Volodymyr Samiylenko. “[It] had the goal of raising the Ukrainian question to its height and breadth in order to move Ukraine closer to a cultural and political revival. The members of this society made a commitment to manifest their Ukrainian character everywhere; to speak Ukrainian in public places, with each other, and with strangers, in order to accustom the general public to the idea that the Ukrainian language was not only the language of peasants, as it was described at the time. Whenever they stayed in a village, every member of the Brotherhood of Taras was duty-bound to teach several children to read Ukrainian grammar books, circulate Ukrainian books, and care about the Ukrainization of life in general. Ivan Lypa, Vitaliy Borovy, and Yevhen Tymchenko were also members of the Brotherhood of Taras” (Volodymyr Samiylenko, Works, Kyiv, 1990, p. 592).

Samiylenko’s reminiscence sheds additional light on Kotsiubynsky’s activities apart from his duties as an investigator on the phylloxera commission. Socializing with the local population provided an opportunity to conduct propaganda in the spirit of the Brotherhood of Taras. In one of his letters Kotsiubynsky recalls his argument with fellow commission member A. Sizemsky about the independence of Poland, the Caucasus, the Crimea, and Ukraine. For this “Russian” liberal, they were no more than “beautiful lands that Russia needs.” “If most katsaps (I know only a few of them) are like that, they can go to hell,” Kotsiubynsky sums up. The following is a characteristic detail concerning the Ukrainian language: “That wretched Lize still has not sent me Ukrainian postcards, and I am forced to write on a Russian one, which is downright unpleasant.” (Oct. 10, 1896). Oleksandra Aplaksina recalls, however, that while he was working at the Chernihiv zemstvo, Kotsiubynsky used the Russian language exclusively in his official capacity.

The Brotherhood members resolutely distanced themselves from “Ukrainophiles” and instead called themselves Ukrainians. They viewed the Ukrainophiles as no more than pusillanimous Little Russians (Kotsiubynsky mocked this type of coward in his story “Kho.” In another story, “Dlia zahalnoho dobra” [For the Common Good], he contrasts these dreamy, sleepy “patriots” with the character of an active Populist named Tykhovych, who conveys many of Kotsiubynsky’s own thoughts, doubts, hopes, and character traits).

His letters mention many names, not just those of his relatives. When he served on the phylloxera commission, Kotsiubynsky maintained close ties with numerous contemporaries with whom he shared activities in the civic or literary fields. The following are only a few individuals who are mentioned in his letters from the Crimea: the Kharkiv-based lawyer Mykola Mikhnovsky, the future author of Samostiina Ukraina [Independent Ukraine]; the poet and translator Volodymyr Samiylenko; the statistician and ethnographer Valerian Borzhkovsky; the writer Borys Hrinchenko, who was jokingly referred to as “The General;” the linguist Yevhen Tymchenko, the Bukovyna publisher and writer Osyp Makovei, the Orientalist Ahatanhel Krymsky, the “father of the cooperative” Mykola Levytsky, the student Taras Maliovany, Vitaliy Borovyk, and others. For the most part they were “brothers,” people who shared Kotsiubynsky’s ideas. He addressed his wife as a like-minded person, who was interested in everything that was part of her husband’s life. He broached political, national, and cultural issues, frequently referring to manuscripts and books he had read or reviewed, and sharing his opinions and impressions of his lectures. In my view, Kotsiubynsky’s letters of the Crimean period are by far the most brilliant reflection of the intensity of his spiritual communication with his wife.

Another theme in Kotsiubynsky’s Crimean letters is his sightseeing trips. Vira Ustymivna often got to read her husband’s travel notes in which he provided detailed descriptions of the places he visited, committing his impressions to paper. The narrow little streets of Alushta, Tatar houses, the sea (“so blue that it is almost black,” “hitting the shore with its white foam”) — everything he saw stimulated Kotsiubynsky to indulge in verbal painting. Consciously or not, in his letters he always remained an artist making sketches of his future great canvases. His account of a trip to Kuzma and Damian Monastery near Alushta is especially impressive and spans four letters. In the 1990s literary critics reproached Kotsiubynsky for his fondness for “gastronomic lists.” Meanwhile, there are far more botanical references in his letters. A royal road leading to a beech forest, mountain panoramas, tree roots gripping rocks, the green light of a forest, which resembles a sparkler, saffron blossoms underfoot, and the rustle of beech nuts raining down — these are some of the many images and botanical details that Kotsiubynsky captured in his traveler’s “binoculars” and “microscopic eyepiece.” In these epistolary notes you notice the touch of a landscape artist and seeker of beauty, whose neo-romantic prose is full of contrasts between beauty and ugliness. These contradictions are found in his descriptions of the monastery, which disappointed the writer (“against the luxuriant purity of nature the monastery, with its “brothers,” sanctities, and superstitions appears as an ugly stain, a stinking heap of dung”).

In the spring of 1896 Vira Ustymivna visited her husband in the Crimea. The birth of his son strengthened Kotsiubynsky’s desire to move to Chernihiv. “Oh God, when will I finally leave here? I so much want to be next to you, I am so tired of this loneliness that has cost me so dearly, especially when I know that you are not doing very well without me, that you need a dear and close soul!” he wrote on Nov. 3, 1896. However, in order to settle in Chernihiv he needed permission from the governor, who in turn was waiting for permission from the police department. While waiting for the bureaucratic wheels to turn, Kotsiubynsky moved to Zhytomyr. There he found employment as the office manager of the newspaper Volyn and later became the editor of the “Current Events” and “Lights and Shadows of Russian Life” columns at this paper.

Kotsiubynsky lived in Zhytomyr for six months: from November 1897 to March 1898, during which time he wrote nearly 70 letters to Vira Ustymivna. These letters contain numerous complaints about his routine editorial work, about his publisher Kohen, from whom Kotsiubynsky had to virtually wrest his salary, and about censorship. It appears that he quite deliberately cultivated an “internal censor” in himself. It is no accident that on many occasions he confided in Vira Ustymivna that Volyn was not the kind of newspaper where one should “reveal oneself.” Still, Kotsiubynsky tried to use even such a “lousy organ” as Volyn to serve the Ukrainian cause. He ordered articles from Hrinchenko and promoted the journalistic writings of D. Mordovets, who wrote about national and cultural issues. He rejoiced when the bibliographic section carried information about Ukrainian publications. He contributed his own articles. Sometimes he would be satisfied, as was the case with his article about Panteleimon Kulish, which was reprinted soon after in newspapers in other cities of the Russian empire, including Odesa. For some time he hoped to write a novel about a newspaper. Finally, the moment came when Kotsiubynsky realized that his efforts were not all in vain: sales of the newspaper began increasing.

However, Kotsiubynsky found nothing comforting in his days in Zhytomyr. The lack of money is a recurring theme in his letters. “Nothing to pay” his hotel room with — he complains to his wife; “I have enough money to last me for only two suppers, and no tobacco” (Nov. 21, 1897). He did not make any close friends in the editorial office. But V. Kravchenko, who considered himself a writer, bored Kotsiubynsky by reading his clumsy writing for many hours, and he could never catch the other one at home (Grigorii Machtet). Still he established some friendships, and Kotsiubynsky felt good in Machtet’s home. He had occasional nights out: a concert, after which he “dreamt all night of music, especially the violin,” an opera based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House, or the miracle of cinema, which was brought to Zhytomyr for only one screening.

To be continued in the next issue in the “History and I” column.

By Volodymyr PANCHENKO, Ph.D., vice president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy National University
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