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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 can’t bear other people’s sufferings”

The Arkhangelsk “window” of Nadia Surovtseva
31 January, 2006 - 00:00

Nadia Surovtseva, a woman of unusual destiny, is known among the Ukrainian elite as a translator and civic figure, who had an excellent command of two European languages, French and German. When the Central Rada was in power, Surovtseva worked as a clerk and later as a department chief at the Secretariat of Foreign Affairs. Sometimes she acted as personal secretary to Central Rada Chairman Mykhailo Hrushevsky. During the rule of Hetman Skoropadsky she was chief of the diplomatic department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her job was to prepare accreditation of foreign ambassadors and their meetings with ministers.

In late 1918, when the Directory was in power, Surovtseva was the secretary of the Information Bureau at the Ukrainian National Republic’s diplomatic mission. In 1919-1925 she lived in exile in Vienna, where she completed her higher education and successfully defended her Ph.D. dissertation on “Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the Idea of Ukrainian Statehood.” Disappointed in Ukrainian emigre life, her convictions began evolving in a pro-Soviet direction. In 1924 Surovtseva joined the Austrian Communist Party and wrote for a number of left-wing newspapers. In April 1925 she returned to Moscow and then to Kharkiv, where she pursued literary research. In 1926 the Kharkiv secret police suggested that she become their secret agent, but she spurned their offer. On Nov. 23, 1927, she was arrested and sent to Moscow’s Lubyanka (NKVD headquarters — Ed.). The highest-ranking NKVD officials Yagoda and Artuzov personally tried to talk her into agreeing to become a secret collaborator. She categorically refused and was eventually given a harsh sentence: five years of solitary confinement. Word spread abroad that Surovtseva had been shot, and the Warsaw-based newspaper Ukrainska nyva even published an obituary. But she managed to survive. According to historian Yaroslav Dashkevych, the final tally of her sufferings included 13 years of imprisonment, five of which were spent in solitary confinement in the Yaroslavl jail, and 16 years of internal exile, including eight years under police surveillance and the rest without the right to leave. She spent 29 years of her life in prisons, full of harassment and privations — one-third of her life on earth. Nadia Surovtseva died on 13 April 1985 in Uman, where she was buried.

Amid the tragic years that Surovtseva spent in the Kolyma prison camps and the Lubyanka, Butyrka and Yaroslavl jails, the “Arkhangelsk window” (1933-1937) is especially important. These five years saw the desecration not only of Surovtseva’s body but also her spirit and freedom of expression. Having been arrested in Kharkiv in 1927, she was permitted to return to Ukraine only in 1957, not even knowing that the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party had debunked and condemned Stalin’s personality cult and allowed people like her to return to their Ukrainian homeland.

Surovtseva does not mention a single word about her five-year prison term in Arkhangelsk in her Reminiscences (Kyiv: Olena Teliha Publishers, 1996). In the endnotes we read: “Three years of exile, one year of freedom, and one year in prison — all in Arkhangelsk” (p. 261). However, there are six extant letters that Surovtseva wrote to her former teacher Kira Danilova. She writes very little about herself in them, and the terse lines give just a general outline of this courageous woman’s moods and worries. Although the term of exile was coming to an end, her words carry very little optimism. “Nothing cheerful to write about myself. Even my standard optimism has somewhat dulled: it is easier to endure your own woes and misfortunes; for some reason, the surrounding gloom and the horror of others oppress me much more. Now the main problem is unemployment. You go to the office — a labor exchange of sorts — and suddenly burst into tears. What a nuisance: in theory I am of sound mind, but in practice I can’t bear other people’s sufferings!” she writes in a letter dated Nov. 30, 1935.

Surovtseva was waiting for her future husband Dmytro Olytsky to complete his term of exile. She dreamed of getting married and moving to some other place through her own volition. Meanwhile, she had to teach languages to pre-schoolers because there was a dearth of people capable of teaching. A tragic, painful, and purely feminine note sounds in her words: “The kids love me, and I love them — completely. It’s probably worse for me, because it is hard to love other people’s children when you don’t have any of your own. All the more so if you don’t have any, not because of your own will but ‘by force of historical developments’.” The next letter talks about her fatigue and heart problems, revealing the following: “Almost nothing to say about myself. I work, give lessons, more or less but always (touch wood!) enough to survive” (June 24, 1935).

On Nov. 12, 1935, Surovtseva registered her marriage to Olytsky at the Arkhangelsk Registry Office. Understandably, her soul, filled with the most wonderful feelings, swooned with such joy that she could not say more than she wrote here to Danilova: “My dearest one! On this day I’d like to give you a big hug, hug you hard or at least tell you about this. That’s all-from your northern daughter” (Dec. 1, 1935).

There are very few letters and facts about Surovtseva’s five-year term in Arkhangelsk. Many letters were burned, while others were withheld by the punitive organs that carefully censored every postcard and note. What is written in the letters is just the tip of the iceberg, like a particle of sand blown through the “Arkhangelsk window.”

When Surovtseva was writing her memoirs, she admitted that she was guided by the “need to tell the truth.” This was the way she wanted to reveal the whole truth about herself. But we never learned the entire truth because there are many lacunas in the reminiscences. The gap we are talking about has been filled to some extent by the Arkhangelsk-based historian Yuriy Doykov who has just published a small book, Nadezhda Surovtseva. In Exile in Arkhangelsk (1933-1937).

The first chapter of the book deals with the above-mentioned letters to Danilova. These are in fact the original letters that the author received from Lesya Padun- Lukyanova (Kyiv) in 1997. Four years later these letters — the only thread linking the convict with the outside world — were published in a book by Olena Teliha Publishers. The letters are full of reflections, dreams, and worries about her former teacher, the only one who corresponded with Surovtseva for a long time and supported her as much as she could. Yet the Arkhangelsk letters say very little about her life in the strange, cold land. Doykov draws a far more detailed picture in his study. Closely analyzing the document, he examines the case of Surovtseva-Olytska and the destinies of the people she communicated with. We thus learn that Surovtseva worked for three years as a proofreader at the Sklepin Print Shop and as a research associate at the local ethnographic museum. But denunciations and persecution would make bitter and painful changes to her destiny. Surovtseva and Olytsky lived together for only seven months in an apartment that was often visited by other Ukrainian exiles. This was enough for her ever vigilant guards to fabricate a case of the “Ukrainian counterrevolutionary nationalist group in Arkhangelsk,” which included P. A. Khrystiuk; the brothers Yevhen and Mykola Fylypovych, activists in the cooperative movement; a writer from Halychyna, P.Y. Olenchenko, and his wife O. P. Yakovleva; P. I. Tsapenko from Kharkiv; and Nadia Surovtseva. The latter was arrested and interrogated. The jailers persistently demanded that she reveal her counterrevolutionary activities.

Surovtseva endured eight interrogations. Her reply was categorical: “No. I do not consider myself guilty. I have not conducted any counterrevolutionary activities since I came to Arkhangelsk. As for the exiled Trotskyites, “right” Socialist Revolutionaries, and Ukrainian nationalists, I was acquainted with them. And the acquaintance was of an everyday character.” In the petition that Surovtseva sent to the Moscow- based NKVD headquarters on Feb. 5, 1937, she showed the same persistent and intractable attitude: “Throughout my exile in Arkhangelsk I have been absolutely loyal to the authorities and dealt exclusively with my family and work. After my term expired, I remained in Arkhangelsk because my husband, D. L. Olytsky, was also serving his sentence here — he is the only family I have.” The investigation must have been a very long one because the NKVD Special Board handed down a ruling in the case of the “Ukrainian nationalist group in Arkhangelsk” only on Sept. 3, 1937. Khrystiuk and Yevhen Fylypovych were sentenced to eight years of prison camps, and Surovtseva-Olytska, Mykola Fylypovych, Yakovleva, Olenchenko and Tsapenko got five years.

The open “window” of Nadia Surovtseva’s Arkhangelsk “vacation” is a harsh truth from the life of an unbreakable Ukrainian woman whose image in the documentary evidence rises up like a monument to a loyal daughter of Ukraine.

By Andriy ZYL, journalist, Boryspil