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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

The socio-esthetic ideal through the eyes of Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky

3 December, 2002 - 00:00

By his own admission, he quite clearly identified himself as an artist “whose eyes are a bit different from those of other people; deep in his heart, he carries the sun that turns tiny raindrops into a rainbow, pulls flowers from the black soil into God’s world, and converts the black nooks of darkness into gold” (The Cobweb, 1904). This self-assessment of the outstanding Ukrainian man of letters Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky (1864-1913) is far more important for understanding his inner world than dozens of volumes of biographical and literary studies. The more you sink into the boundless spiritual ocean Kotsiubynsky created for us, the more you are struck with his integrity, intellectual finesse and, if you like, spiritual purity (the word the writer repeatedly used in correspondence with his wife, acquaintances, friends, and such Ukrainian cultural figures as Yevhen Chykalenko, Volodymyr Hnatiuk, and Mykola Cherniavsky).

What must be of greatest interest for us today is that Kotsiubynsky was an intellectual of the absolutely high (perhaps now unattainable) level with a heartfelt imperative moral position, such that the individual finds it simply unthinkable to go against his own conscience. It is up to the reader to judge whether this trait is rare today. Maybe in the new millennium as well the example of Kotsiubynsky will arouse inspiration in those who can accept it.


That Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky drastically differed from the overwhelming majority of his contemporary educated Ukrainians is proven even in the way he looked and dressed. This is how Mykola Cherniavsky characterized him, “A well-dressed, genial-faced middle-aged gentleman looking like a white crow in the flock of black ones.” Some of his acquaintances would crack a not so good-natured but very to-the-point joke: look at the unique figure — a Ukrainian writer wearing a stiff collar and a necktie, a true European, an aristocrat, with no embroidered shirt or other cheap attributes of so-called folksiness. It should be added to this that, according to Kotsiubynsky’s relatives, he was also European in his everyday family life: he could not stand slovenliness and disorder, his desk was always in impeccable order, with all things being at their permanent places.

Pedantry? A detail? But is this outer neatness not linked to inner self-discipline, to the acute feeling of a personal and civic debt, to the integral awareness of national identity? It is now difficult for us to penetrate the great artist’s intellectual world better than he did himself, expounding his philosophy in his immortal opuses. But what was and still remains imperative is understanding of an unbreakable unity of the ethical and public ideals, the unity of beauty and kindness that we feel in Kotsiubynsky’s belles-lettres and his political articles (he himself said very well about this, “Poetry cannot live in a garbage dump, while it is a crime to live without it” — A Dream).

Demanding of himself and mercilessly self-critical, the writer was no less demanding of his counterparts; he did not think it was right to “extol to the heavens” things immature and provincial only because they are “our own,” Ukrainian (this was once rightly pointed out by a prominent Ukrainian linguist Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska). For this should only meet truly European criteria. As to the ideal, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky interpreted this as quite a specific and, so to speak, personalistic notion. He realized this ideal in his contemporaries.

This can be illustrated to a certain extent by the following lines from the artist’s political article dedicated to Ivan Franko, “A short but strong man. A high brow, gray and somewhat cold eyes, an energetic and stubborn chin. The reddish unruly hair and the mustache stick out. Dressed modestly, he is quiet and unnoticed while he keeps silent. But once he begins speaking, you will be surprised to see this short figure grow and grow before your eyes as if in a fairy tale. The radiance of his eyes will make you feel warm and bright, and his speech will seem to be not a word but a piece of steel that cuts a flint and sends out sparks. A strong and stubborn personality that has emerged victorious in the battle of life and death” (essay Ivan Franko, 1908). This is simultaneously the ideal of man as such and the national image of a Ukrainian, as he saw it.


To properly assess the measure of the lifetime exploit of the author of Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, let us recall the conditions under which he had to work. The lion’s share of time was taken by the hateful bureaucratic service at the Chernihiv town hall — he only served to earn a living. Although he had to write late at night, he could not imagine living without writing.

What still more tormented the artist’s soul was the Romanovs’ “holy” empire, a state which crudely outraged Kotsiubynsky’s human and national dignity every day with regular house searches, censorial fault-findings, and — what the writer was especially resentful of — bans on the Ukrainian word. Yet, in spite of all the barriers, he still managed to end the speech he was making during the unveiling of the Poltava monument to Kotliarevsky in 1903 precisely in the Ukrainian language!

If we try to assess Kotsiubynsky’s philosophic position as an indivisible whole, we will be struck with the following: it is the position of an internally free person who, instead of touting his patriotism and adherence to democracy, shows this without emotions or publicity by taking some concrete daily steps (it would be good to follow this example today...). Without showing off or speaking for effect, Kotsiubynsky tried to prove the high world cultural importance of the Ukrainian language and literature by creating such masterpieces as Intermezzo, What Is Written in the Book of Life, and A Birthday Present.

This self-denying labor is all the more valuable because the artist had an absolutely sober picture of his contemporary society. “I pin no great hopes on our society. It is still too weak and feeble to demand anything but sacrifices from individuals, while evading any duties and sacrifices of its own” (from a letter to Yevhen Chykalenko). He rabidly hated philistinism, the smug complacency of recent radical intellectuals who, exhausted spiritually, reconciled themselves with everyday life in a bureaucratic state. Tellingly, he writes the following lines in the October 28, 1910, letter to M. Mohyliansky, dealing with the novella Intermezzo which broaches precisely this subject, “My goal is to show the reader all the meanness of a philistine’s anticlimax after a short-time upsurge.”

It is common knowledge that Kotsiubynsky held leftist views. Yet, it is worth pointing out a different thing: simultaneously, this classic, so canonized (privatized!) by official Soviet literary critics, was a strong advocate of the national and political liberation of the Ukrainian people. He took a clear civic stand on this matter.

A little-known fact: in 1906, the writer signed, along with other Chernihiv intellectuals, a welcoming address to the Finnish sejm, which also contains the following lines, “Our heart has always been and will be with you because you defend your rights and freedom. We are firmly convinced that all the peoples of Russia will follow your noble suit to win their inalienable rights and be able to live, at last, in peace and harmony” (interestingly enough, the full text of the now lost address also includes, according to the Chernihiv gendarmes department, a passage about “the historical destiny of Little Russia” and a hope that “the law and the truth will prevail in the life of all peoples...”).

This truly well-bred and soft spoken person was a fighter ready to stand up for his persuasions. Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky managed to combine the ideals of high beauty and social freedom in his life and creative work. And it is precisely this that keeps him close to us today.