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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

Remembering Mykola Khvyliovyi

16 December, 2003 - 00:00

On December 13, 1893, 110 years ago, Nikolai FitilСv, who would make history under the penname of Mykola Khvyliovyi, was born. Ukraine has never asked many questions about where one came from, in this case of a writer of clearly Russian origin, if only one wanted to traverse the road together with Ukraine. Of the many tragedies Ukraine suffered in the terrible year of 1933, one of the greatest happened on May 13 of that year, when Mykola Khvyliovyi put a bullet through his head, symbolically marking the end of the period remembered as the rozstriliane vidrodzhennia, literally the renaissance that was put in front of the firing squad. The literary rebirth that accompanied the decade of Ukrainization (1923- 1933) was intimately bound up with a phenomenon, still poorly understood in Ukraine, that of national communism, through which Ukrainian Communists sought their own national road to socialism within the context of the early Soviet Union. Both ended tragically in the whirlwind of the Holodomor famine-genocide of 1932-33.

Khvyliovyi ended his life six months short of his fortieth birthday. It was a terrible time, a time of death and destruction that only be described as the murder of everything productive and creative in the Ukraine that had hitherto existed in what was then the Ukrainian SSR. There is a phrase that occurs over and over in the Ukrainian literature of the 1920s; morituri te salutant, the ritual Latin phrase of the Roman gladiators, those who go to their deaths salute you. Not only Khvyliovyi went to his death. Almost all of the literary revival of his generation were either killed, repressed, forced into emigration, or otherwise silenced. Yet, one of the handful that survived, Yury Smolych, wrote over thirty years ago that all of his generation recognized Khvyliovyi as their elder brother, elder not in years but in talent. The Ukrainian Revolution produced a situation reminiscent of Dickens’ description of the French: the best of times and the worst of times. Khvyliovyi led a generation that tried to create a new world only to be offered up to the idol they had created.

The rozstriliane vidrodzhennia was a golden age for modern Ukrainian literature and in general for what was called the Ukrainian cultural process. Essentially what had happened was this: in 1923 at its Twelfth Congress, the All-Union Communist Party (bolshevik) (VKP{b}) made a major bid for non-Russian support by adopting a policy called indigenization (korenizatsiya) by literally taking root in soil inhabited by non-Russian peoples, and since the Ukrainians were by far the largest of those peoples and their country the most important, the Ukrainian version of that policy, known as Ukrainization, went farther and deeper, which is one reason why its suppression cost the destruction of the hitherto existing Communist Party cadres in Ukraine, the intelligentsia that had grown up loyal to the national communist regime, and the millions of innocent villagers who were starved to death in the Holodomor.

In any case, when the Communists in Ukraine were ordered to make themselves more Ukrainian and support things Ukrainian, they did it in their typically authoritarian bureaucratic fashion. People were literally ordered to learn Ukrainian, and not a few resented it. Yet, a new generation of literary lions produced a whole of constellation of new talents unprecedented and still without equal brilliance in the entire firmament of the history of Ukrainian literature. And no star shined brighter than that of Khvyliovyi, who reigned as unchallenged king of the literary pride of lions that was Ukrainian literature in the 1920s.

After eighty years we can only imagine the golden opportunity that they must have felt in the very air they breathed. Their nation, suppressed for centuries, suddenly confronted the modern world. Those who worked with words were true pioneers who had to find the words to express, in a language hitherto largely confined to the mundane life of the villager, the subtleties of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the ideas underlying their efforts to build a new world in which their nation and language had got the chance to take its rightful place. The members of that generation asked and tried to answer questions as broad as some god might when pondering what kind of world to create, for they felt themselves engaged in creating a whole new cultural universe. How ought Ukrainian culture to develop. In what direction? With what models to guide it? What kind of culture should it be? The very fact that such questions were asked can only begin to indicate the enthusiasm of those who felt themselves to be creators of a new world.

Khvyliovyi himself is a joy to read. The late George Shevelov (Yury ShevelСov) mentioned how Khvyliovyi loved the smell of word, weaving them into arabesques, ordering them in melancholic processions and arraying them in dancing groups. He could be humorous as in his satire on a local Proletsult group whose members were so militant that they imagined the trains tooting ka-pay-bay-oo, the initials of the Communist Party (bolshevik) of Ukraine, or tragic in exploring the tensions of his own ambivalence toward the revolution that had promised and taken so much but yielded so little of that promise, the theme of his “Ya (Romantyka)” and his partially destroyed novel, Valdshnepy (The Woodsnipes).

A Party member and the most popular Soviet Ukrainian writer of his day, Khvyliovyi took it upon himself to be the spokesman for his creative clan, challenging the restrictions that writers always find so hateful and enunciating their collective vision of a Ukrainian proletarian culture that would be European and break with the tutelage of Russian culture. He defied the restrictions he felt had been imposed by the traditions of Taras Shevchenko, who had more than anyone defined what it means to be Ukrainian, and of the Prosvita network of village self-improvement societies that sought to bring Ukrainian culture to a peasant people, even if that sometimes required watering it down to a level accessible to those the village. His antidote to the lowering of the level of Ukrainian culture was to assimilate the highest attainments of European culture without going through the mediation of Russian culture that had so limited things Ukrainian in the past and perhaps even today continues to do so.

Perhaps in a stratagem to find some ally to counter the dominance of Russian culture in the Ukraine of his day, Khvyliovyi even articulated a novel theory Ukrainian cultural messianism, based on the argument that Ukrainians were in a unique position. On the one hand, they were a formerly colonial people that had now been told they had achieved national liberation as part of the Soviet Union and had their own national minorities, whose rights they had to protect. On the other hand, they were a European nation able to master all the attainments of European culture, which he recognized as the highest attainments in all human history, the attainment of a West that was now — and here he followed and modified Oswald Spengler — in decline caused by its decadent capitalism and would inevitably be forced from center stage by the youthful energy of the rising colonial peoples of the East. As a European country armed with all the greatness of European cultural history, Ukraine could then act as something of a transmission belt in conveying this greatness to the East, thereby leading an Asiatic renaissance of peoples united in the anti-imperialist struggle for world communism, which he understood as social justice, albeit flawed in how it was being carried out. This did not, Khvyliovyi argued, imply any disloyalty to the Soviet Union, which he argued was a military and political union joined in the defense of socialism against a hostile capitalist world. But, in his view, this did not extend to culture, where Ukraine had its own unique and historically progressive role to play.

This quite novel view did exactly win friends and influence people in Moscow, where Yosip Stalin on April 26, 1926 wrote and sent a letter to “Comrade Kaganovich and Other Members of the KP(b)U Central Committee Politburo,” denounced Khvyliovyi’s views as representing the “dark side of Ukrainization,” views that could lead to a struggle against Russian culture as such and “its highest attainment, Leninism.” Having been denounced from the very summit of political power in the Soviet Union, Khvyliovyi had to admit that he had fallen prey to a national deviation, khvyliovism, but protected by his own influential friends in Ukraine’s Party establishment, especially the Commissar of Education and self-proclaimed Commissar of the National Question Mykola Skrypnyk, he continued to play a central role in his nation’s cultural process and continued to be the Soviet Ukrainian writer with more readers than anybody else writing in Soviet Ukraine at the time. A survey of book-lending institutions published as Kost Dovhan, “Ukrainian Literature and the Mass Reader” (Ukrainska literatura i masovyi chytach), Krytyka, 1928, No. 8, tells us so.

The fire in his literary output was put out about that very same time, when as part of the orgy of officially orchestrated paranoia and forced orthodoxy that accompanied a so-called Cultural Revolution imposed in connection with the coming collectivization of agriculture and “liquidation of the kulaks as a class,” literature and culture were straightjacketed along with just about everything else and everybody had to think and write pretty much the same things. A year earlier he had been invited abroad by dissident members of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine with the suggestion he serve as their ideologist. He declined, and perhaps this was what made his untimely end inevitable. Still he remained influential and was appointed to the organizing committee for the Union of Soviet Writers that would be created the year after his death.

According to an article by Arkady Liubchenko, secretary of Khvyliovyi’s Vaplite (Free Academy of Proletarian Literature) group of writers, in 1933, in the midst of the terror in anti-Ukrainian terror associated with Pavel Postyshev, Stalin’s newly appointed satrap of the second Soviet republic, Khvyliovyi was sent to the countryside and saw for himself all the horrors of the Holodomor. He returned and tried to explain to his friends in the Party that it was a mistake, only to discover that it was no mistake: the manmade famine was a deliberate policy. And it was this realization that cast the writer into the despair that led him to suicide. His own letters, published only after Ukraine became independent, indicate that he saw more and more the how the pattern of arrests of like-minded Ukrainian writers was clearly directed at the destruction of everything he had worked to create and develop. For whatever reason, and it was most likely a combination of both, the writer committed suicide on May 13, 1933. His romantic vitaism, his praise of life in all its romantic splendor, was replaced by the straightjacket of socialist realism, the Soviet commandment to portray life the way it ought to be in the eyes of the rulers, a way those who were ruled over knew it could never become and was the exact opposite of anything that existed in real life.

Khvyliovyi’s works, so beloved by his countrymen, were banned, and it was pretended that he and those like him had never existed or that everything they had created had been somehow a bane concocted by the enemies of what came to be known as real socialism. Thus, Ukrainian culture was cut off its richest treasures, and only after independence could that treasure be unearthed. The process of restoring that history, the continuity of the process that was so violently halted in literature as in so much else, continues in this postgenocidal society. It is part of a healing process that will take no one knows how much time. But at least the process of restoring what was taking away is taking place, and remembering Mykola Khvyliovyi is a vital part of that process. His Tvory (Works) published in two thick volumes by Dnipro Publishers in 1991 is must reading for all who wish to understand the full meaning of what Ukraine could have become and of what the world was denied in its being prevented from so doing. The crime of genocide consists not only in the deaths of millions but also in the deaths of those individuals who gave those millions voice. The clearest and most resonant voice of Ukraine in the 1920s was that of Mykola Khvyliovyi.

Real socialism actually began to come to an end at the end of the 1980s when Ukrainian scholars like Mykola Zhulynsky first dared to seriously discuss figures like Khvyliovyi in newspapers like Literaturna Ukrayina. Other figures like Mykhailo Hrushevsky, not only Ukraine’s greatest historian but also president of the Ukrainian Central Rada in 1917-1918, and Oleksandr Shumsky, the tragic leader of the Borotbist Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionaries who left the Ukrainian cause for the Bolshevik one, was arrested in 1933, and later, upon his release from the Gulag, murdered on the personal orders of Stalin and his most trusted lieutenant, Lazar Kaganovich. In order to understand the full tragedy of what happened to Ukraine in the twentieth century, one must first understand the height of their hopes and only then the depth of their betrayal. In Khvyliovyi one can find how he saw things starting to go wrong in the 1920s with its omnipresent informers and OGPU, and his vision influenced even such implacable anti-Communists as Dmytro Dontsov and Stepan Bandera. Khvyliovyi placed the choice squarely: Ukraine in Europe or Little Russia. Now on the 110th anniversary of his birth, it is worthwhile to reread him, attempt to understand the tragedy of his life and times in the terrible contrast of his vision of the beautiful commune just over the hill and the reality of national matricide, starving millions, and the omnipresent repression of any independent thought that might come from anywhere but Moscow, enshrined in a 1934 Pravda editorial as the capital of the workers of the whole world. Moscow, of course, bears no blame for this — those who live there are for the most part fine people — but those who ruled in its name bear much blame as do those who so recently attacked the action of The Day and so many others to light a candle for those who died before their time in the 1930s. Not all of them were of the village. Mykola Khvyliovyi deserves a candle not only in the window but a flame that burns eternally in our hearts.

By Prof. James MACE, Consultant to The Day