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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

At the Juncture of Two Cultures

Yevhen Hrebinka’s Path
15 February, 2005 - 00:00

History is not always a merciful and fair judge, nor does time always set the record straight, recognizing honest and noble service for one’s people and native culture and discarding all passing, vain, and sham things. If this were indeed not the case, we would not have forfeited the spiritual legacy of many of our predecessors, a legacy that would now be a living and dynamic factor in today’s cultural and esthetic processes, and the focus of attention of those who appreciate our national history and language.

A truly illustrative example of one such loss is the life and works of Yevhen Pavlovych Hrebinka (1812 — 1848), a prominent Ukrainian and Russian writer of the 19th century. The heritage of Hrebinka, a brilliant writer, fabulist, and lyric poet, who was equally prolific and successful in the language of both Kotliarevsky and Pushkin — whom he knew in person and whose poem Poltava he translated into Ukrainian — was ill-fated. Hrebinka’s writings offered ample grounds for him to be considered if not a classic, then at least a distinguished literary figure in both Ukraine and Russia. Unfortunately, things turned out somewhat differently. Even though certain indisputable literary authorities had a deep appreciation of Hrebinka’s works, among them Anton Chekhov, who was in raptures over his Russian-language novel Doctor, Hrebinka’s works never gained proper recognition among critics and the public at large. Was Hrebinka paradoxically “too Ukrainian” for Russian culture and vice-versa?

To explain and resolve this paradox, let us look at the specifics of this era and Hrebinka’s biography. The first half of the 19th century was a time when imperial cultural circles showed a certain interest in Ukrainian history, traditions and customs. Despite this interest, the Ukrainian language was considered a “dialect”, so a Ukrainian writer before Shevchenko could only achieve public recognition and success by using the Russian language. Yevhen Hrebinka was born on February 2, 1812, on the Ubiezhyshche estate near Pyriatyn, in the Poltava region. His father was a retired officer, who was known for “breaking through Turkish columns” during the reign of Catherine II and as a “swashbuckling cavalryman during the Patriotic War of 1812” (quoted from the partly autobiographical novella Diary of a Student). He quickly turned into an ordinary, petty landowner. The unforgettable natural beauty of Poltava, Ukrainian folk songs, legends, and tales left a lasting imprint on Yevhen, and became the standard of beauty, kindness, and eternal wisdom. This was the source of his brilliant command of the spoken language, which Hrebinka displayed in his earliest works.

His years in the Nizhyn high school (1825-1831), the alma mater of Nikolai Gogol, who was a student almost at the same time as Hrebinka, were an extremely important stage in the making of the future writer, who wrote his first original works in Ukrainian and Russian, and edited the school’s handwritten magazine Amatuzia. Based on his signatures, researchers have established that already in 1830-1831 Hrebinka had written the fables that eventually became a classic of Ukrainian literature. One of his most famous fables is “The Bears’ Court” (“And the Ox confessed to the Fox that he had eaten hay, salt, oats, and all kinds of sweets. So for these sins he was quartered and equal parts of his flesh were given to the judges, leaving the Fox to make do with just the bare bones.” (This is truly an immortal example of a “fair” trial). Among his other fables were “The Fisherman,” “The Wolf and the Fire,” “The Sinner,” “The Vicious Horse,” and many others. In 1834 the publication in St. Petersburg of 23 fables entitled Y. Grebenka’s Little Russian Narratives, and a collection of lyrical poetry entitled A Boat, showed that a promising young writer had entered Ukrainian literature. After completing his military service in the “8th Little Russian Cossack Regiment” (1831-1834), Hrebinka moved to Petersburg, where he began moving in the literary circles of the imperial capital and establishing contacts with Vladimir Dahl, Ivan Panayev, Aleksandr Pushkin, Ivan Krylov, and Vasily Zhukovsky. (After hearing Hrebinka read the fable “The Wolf and the Fire,” Pushkin considered translating it). At the same time the young writer was employed as a functionary working for the Commission for Theological Schools and later taught natural sciences at St. Petersburg’s Institute of Mining Engineers. This Ukrainian-Russian author, who worked honestly and selflessly for the benefit of his native culture, was living the life of an unassuming raznochinets, an intellectual of non-noble origin. (To be more precise, Hrebinka served two native cultures, Ukrainian and Russian. This duality, which only Shevchenko managed fully to overcome, is a subject for a separate discussion).

Nevertheless, Hrebinka the intellectual made a lasting contribution to literature. His Russian- language works, including Chaikovsky, an historical novel set in the Cossack era (1843); the “historical chronicle” Zolotarenko, the Colonel of Nizhyn (1842); the socio-psychological novellas Kulyk (1840) and Diary of a Student (1841; in this work, which reconstructs some events from his childhood and teenage years, Hrebinka seemed to prophesy his premature death from illness); and The Adventures of a Blue Banknote (1847), are still being read with interest and have not lost their cognitive, cultural, and esthetic value. Many readers will also be surprised to learn that the famous love song “Black Eyes” is not a work of folklore but part and parcel of Hrebinka’s oeuvre.

However, here we are more concerned with Hrebinka’s achievements in the field of Ukrainian culture. In addition to his series of brilliant fables, he was also the author of superb lyrical poems, such as “No, Mum, You Can’t Love the Unloved One (“a Ukrainian melody”), and “The Forest.” Hrebinka was also a dedicated civic activist, who gave his unstinting support to Ukrainian letters, as well as a faithful correspondent of Hryhoriy Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Levko Borovykovsky, Petro Hulak-Artemovsky, Viktor Zabila, and other literary figures. Hrebinka also proposed a number of Ukrainian cultural projects, including the publication of a Ukrainian-language literary supplement to the journal Otechestvenniye zapiski, which, regrettably, were never realized. An historic milestone in Ukrainian literature was the 1841 publication of the anthology Lastivka (The Swallow), which included works by Shevchenko, Kotliarevsky, Kvitka-Osnovyanenko, Borovykovsky, Zabila, and Hrebinka.

Yevhen Hrebinka will undoubtedly forever occupy a place in the history of Ukrainian spirituality as the individual who made possible the publication in 1840 of Taras Shevchenko’s Kobzar, to which he gave both material and moral support. We should also remember that in 1838 Hrebinka helped the serf Shevchenko to purchase his freedom. The two writers became close friends, proved by the eloquent fact that Shevchenko chose none other than Hrebinka to accompany him on his trip to Ukraine in 1843. Hrebinka, who was a gentle and courteous man by nature, was quite capable of displaying civic courage when he deemed it necessary. For example, he was not afraid to use Shevchenko’s verses as epigraphs for several chapters of his novel Chaikovsky and to retain them when the book was republished in 1848 (without mentioning the author’s name), when it was most strictly forbidden to quote the exiled bard’s works.

Yevhen Hrebinka died in St. Petersburg on December 15, 1848, at the age of 36 and was buried near his ancestral manor in the village of Maryanivka, Poltava. This literary figure truly deserves the right to be gratefully remembered by his descendants.