Sixty-three years ago, on February 21, the Gestapo shot Olena TELIHA, a noted Ukrainian poet and civic activist, together with other members of the Ukrainian underground, in Babyn Yar [Babiy Yar] ravine in Kyiv. Recently a memorial rally took place on the site of this tragedy.
Olena Teliha’s name is gradually returning to Ukraine. This is primarily explained by the fact that she lived most of her life far from her homeland. She was born in Illinsky, a town near Moscow, in the family of the Ukrainian hydrologist Ivan Shovheniv. Eventually, the family moved to Moscow and then to St. Petersburg. When the national-liberation struggle began in Ukraine (1917-18), they settled in Kyiv. Her father became a member of cabinet of the Ukrainian National Republic, with whose members he would later immigrate to Czechoslovakia. There Olena befriended the poets and writers of the so-called Prague school, among them Yevhen Malaniuk, Oleh Olzhych, Natalka Livytska-Kholodna, and Halyna Mazurenko. In 1941, as a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Teliha returned to Kyiv where she headed the city’s Ukrainian Writers’ Union. She was executed there at the age of 35. From time on, throughout the Soviet period, her name was not only taboo at the official level, but her very name was eradicated from Ukrainian culture. After the Second World War NKVD agents brought most of the Ukrainian ОmigrО files from Czechoslovakia, while some files ended up in Moscow and Leningrad archives. Some valuable materials still remain abroad: in Russia, Western Europe, and North America. Kyiv-based periodicals first began publishing information about her in 1989, and Ukrainian archives became accessible to the public in the early 1990s.
The Day asked Kateryna KRYVORUCHKO, a researcher who has been studying Olena Teliha’s life and creative work for some 15 years, to comment on the latest discoveries.
“In the last couple of years I visited places where the Shovheniv-Teliha family lived in different periods. I have unearthed local archives and interviewed eyewitnesses (some of them remembered Olena well). I discovered some interesting facts that shed light on several periods in the poet’s life, which were previously unknown. Until recently, scholars knew next to nothing about her childhood. In 2002-03 I located the buildings in Moscow and St. Petersburg where Ivan Shovheniv and his family had lived. The one in the Russian capital was a luxurious apartment building dating from the nineteenth century and located at 15 Lukovy pereulok, in the most prestigious downtown area. In St. Petersburg they lived at 2 Klinsky prospekt and at 4 Vereteysky St.,” says Kateryna Kryvoruchko, explaining that the family rented apartments and had never had a private home, although Ivan Shovheniv was a renowned scientist and generally considered a man of means. Olena’s mother, Yuliana Kachkovska, whose name until recently was unknown to researchers, came from a respectable and devout family in Podillia and was a graduate of the prestigious Beztuzhev courses for ladies. Olena’s parents wanted their children to be well educated and made sure they were taught French, German, and Russian. Their sons and one daughter had private tutors. “Olena’s style and taste were apparently cultivated since childhood. She was being groomed to become a lady, well educated, with a good grasp of literature. Later I wondered for a long time how that aristocratic woman managed to endure life in the remote Polish village of Zelazna Zadowa, where she moved from Warsaw in late spring 1931 and remained there until 1933. Olena Teliha’s husband Mykhailo was a land-surveyor, who had been sent there to drain the marshes. And then it dawned on me that Olena was an aristocrat of intellect rather than real estate.”
In the Kyiv Photographic Archive Kateryna Kryvoruchko accidentally came upon a faded picture marked “Mykhailo Teliha” and an inscription on the reverse side: “I spent three summers with Stanislaw Prusik’s family in Zelazna Zadowa.” Soon afterward she set off in search of that village in Warsaw province. The house is now inhabited by the owner’s son. He had heard about the former tenants from his father’s stories, but his sister still remembered them, for she was around 11 or 12 years old at the time. According to Kateryna Kryvoruchko, Mrs. Sofia, now an elderly woman, fondly remembers Olena Teliha: she was an avid reader and asked local laborers, who often traveled to the neighboring town, to bring her new books from the local library in exchange for the ones she had read and was now sending back through them. She remembers Olena sitting on a bench watching her (Sofia’s) mother start the fire in the stove, and gazing at the flames. In fact, fire is Teliha’s element, judging by her verse. Later it transpired that her poems “Summer,” “The Turning Point,” “A Sunny Day,” “The Everlasting,” etc., were composed in Zelazna Zadowa. According to an eyewitness account, Mykhailo Teliha bought a camera in 1932. This explains why the largest number of pictures dates from the mid- and late 1930s. The only articles in the house from those times are a wooden crucifix and a porcelain figurine of the Virgin Mary.
Then came the sensational discovery of another poem by Olena Teliha: “I Drained That Goblet Thousands of Times.” Altogether that makes 40 poems written by Olena Teliha, the last one dated 1939. Kateryna Kryvoruchko has reason to believe that this latest one was also written in late 1939 or early 1940. “I Drained That Goblet Thousands Of Times” is a symbolic poem written in response to the allegation that the poet led on the theoretician of Ukrainian nationalism, Dmytro Dontsov. It is true that Olena Teliha was an extraordinarily feminine woman, imposing and slender. It is small wonder that men, among them the journalist Oleh Shtul-Zhdanovych, the writer Ulas Samchuk, and Yuri Stefanyk, the son of the famous Ukrainian novelist, were in love with her. The newly discovered poem contains a response to Olena’s ill-wishers: she and the unnamed man (most likely Dontsov) are friends, comrades in arms, and nothing more. The researcher discovered this poem in an archive in North America, along with some 300 photos and some of the married couple’s personal effects: Olena’s husband’s notebooks and insignia, and both of their student documents. The new discoveries and other materials will be included in Kateryna Kryvoruchko’s book Olena Teliha, which will appear in print at the end of this year.