We came out of the past and now long for it. Loving a nation is also longing for the past. Reminiscence is the core of a nation. Only he who is psychologically linked with the past of a nation can be part of it.
Nevelychka drama (A Little Drama)
November 3 marked the 71st anniversary of the tragic death of our compatriot Valerian Pidmohylny, a prominent Ukrainian writer, the founder of the Ukrainian school of translation, and one of the most illustrious representatives of Ukraine’s “Executed Renaissance.”
He was born in an ordinary peasant house that stood on the bank of an eternal river in the middle of a boundless steppe. He spent the greater part of his short life in a city but was destined to die from an NKVD bullet in a primeval forest in the Far North.
Pidmohylny was arrested on Wednesday, December 8, 1934, at a writers’ country retreat in Zankiv (Zmiiv district, Kharkiv oblast), on the bank of the legendary Greater Don (as the Donets was called at the time) that had witnessed the notorious battle between Prince Ihor’s army and the Cumans. According to Mikhail Goigel-Sokol, a researcher of The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign, it is here, on the bank of the legendary Kaiala River, that this historic battle ended.
The Tale’s tragic message pierces, like a deadly thunderbolt, through our entire history. The fight against the pagans, which our distant forefathers launched, has been raging for centuries on end. It is still going on. On that day, the pagans came to take his soul and sacrifice it to their ideological idol. For Pidmohylny, this tormenting rite of sacrifice lasted for almost three years.
In the last moment of his life on this earth, he could only see a deep and wide pit, already filled with his mates executed at the Solovki camp, tall pine-trees, and the sky. We cannot say for sure if he saw the sun and if it was shining on his last path, but we do know that he could not look his executioner in the eyes, for he was shot in the back of the head. The butcher loosed into Pidmohylvy the 188th out of the 265 bullets he had shot from his revolver that day.
Pidmohylny was executed on Nov. 3, 1937, in a locality named Sandormokh, near Medvezhegorsk, Karelia. In five consecutive days, Security Forces Captain M. Matveyev personally shot 1,111 Solovki prisoners whom a special troika (three-member board) of the Leningrad Regional Directorate of Internal Affairs had sentenced to death on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the October Revolution.
There were 190 ethnic Ukrainians among the executed, including such figures of Ukrainian literature, art, and scholarship as Les Kurbas, Mykola Kulish, Mykola Zerov, Marko Vorony Jr., Pavlo Filipovych, Hryhorii Epik, Valerian Polishchuk, Myroslav Irchan, Oleksandr Slisarenko. Mykhailo Yalovy, and Matvii Yavorsky. The UNR minister Anton Krushelnytsky and Soviet Ukraine’s Finance Minister Mykhailo Poloz also met their death in the Karelian forests.
The Sandormokh mass grave was international indeed. Among those who found their last refuge in it were people of all the ethnic groups that populated the USSR: Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, Jews, Georgians, Tatars, Udmurts, Germans, Circassians, Koreans, etc.
Resting eternally in the Karelian soil are such representatives of Dnipropetrovsk oblast as the Ukrainians Valerian Pidmohylny and Hryhorii Epik, the Russians-Ivan Petrov, the chairman of the Nikopol Raion Executive Committee, and Oleksandr Prokhorets, a peasant from the village of Nikolske; the Jews-Yurii Kahn and Yosyp Steinberg, a metalworker at the Krasin Plant; and the German Mykhailo Wolf, a Roman Catholic priest.
“By mid-1937, Solovki had gathered the entire cream of the Soviet Ukrainian intelligentsia and Ukrainian Communist circles,” Semen Pidhainy, an eyewitness to those events, wrote in his memoirs.
In the same year, the Bolsheviks celebrated the 20th anniversary of their revolution. By human logic, the authorities should have declared an amnesty for their political adversaries on the occasion of this date, but Stalin and his henchmen had a logic of their own about this. So, instead of offering prisoners an amnesty or easing their treatment, they decided to eliminate them in order “not to overstrain the state budget.”
The Solovki inmates called this White Sea archipelago a country of torment and desperation. Fortune smiled on very few Solovki prisoners, who managed to survive inhuman horrors. The vast majority of the convicts were doomed to death.
Ukrainians were first exiled to the Solovki islands as far back as in the 18th century. Among the high-profile captives of the Solovki monastery was the last Zaporozhian Sich kish otaman Petro Kalnyshevsky who was imprisoned there on Catherine II’s orders. The chivalrous hero languished in subhuman conditions for a quarter of a century. Fate decreed that he live to be 112. His ashes rest in the monastery.
Prisoners in Bolshevik camps did not have this chance of longevity. Their life was prematurely cut short by either an incurable disease (as it happened to Pidmohylny’s friend, poet Yevhen Pluzhnyk) or a bullet discharged by an NKVD executioner. The creators of the first Soviet concentration camp offered the inmates no alternative.
We can assert with 100-percent probability that Mykla Kulish and Les Kurbas, the pride of the Ukrainian theater, were shot before the eyes of Pidmohylny because they were 10 prisoners ahead on the hit list. A few minutes later, Finance Minister Mykhailo Poloz witnessed the death of Pidmohylny and was shot next. Their ashes rest in the same pit which the NKVD men probably forced them to dig.
Shortly before his arrest Pidmohylny wrote:
“There must be people who can remember their lifetime as an uninterrupted streak of joy. There are people whose life is full of both joy and sadness. They are perhaps the happiest people because only he who has suffered grief can know what true happiness is.
“I am looking back on my life. Where are my joys? The life I have lived is like a mud-swamped path on which one does not walk or ride but trudges, slowly moving his feet, too weak to shake off the heavy coat of mud. Tired in the first step and exhausted in the next ones, I am looking for a bright spot on the path I have walked but cannot find one.”
These words were written by an individual who reached the age of Jesus Christ and, maybe, like the Savior, had a presentiment of his further destiny and its tragic finale. The epoch he lived in afforded him less than half of average life expectancy. He belonged to the generation of the doomed.
His generation, like no other, was doomed to death as is vividly evidenced by the history of the first half of the terrible 20th century. These people died in the First and Second World Wars, the Civil War, and the man-made famines of 1921 and 1933 and were exterminated in Stalin’s torture chambers and prison camps.
This generation also included my grandfathers, Nikandr Pshenychny and Platon Chornovil, who vanished in the dark age of Stalinist repressions in 1938. My grandmothers Ustynia and Maria had to raise my parents and their brothers and sisters in hardship. I know about those tragic years from my grandmother Maria and her next of kin rather than from books or films.
Still, in spite of hardships, they had a place to live in and did not have to eke out an existence, as it happened to Pidmohylny’s family after he was convicted. His wife Kateryna Chervinska and son Roman did not have a place to live and were forced to live outside Ukraine. The same lot befell the families of other convicts.
The system tried to do all it could to have this person’s name forgotten. Even after the official rehabilitation during the thaw, literature barons did their utmost to keep the writer’s works away from the reader.
It was only during perestroika, shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, that our compatriot’s books began to come out. His creative legacy consists of two bigger and two smaller novels and several dozen short stories. Pidmohylny could only live a full-blooded literary life in the period of Ukrainization which was cut short in the late 1920s. After his novel Misto (The City) appeared in print and its Russian translation was published in 1930 in Moscow, the newspaper Pravda carried a devastating review and the writer’s books were published no more.
Pidmohylny could only keep his family afloat by translating classical and contemporary French literature. He was a past master at this. If his life had taken a different course and he had lived to be over 80, as his elder sister Anastasia did, we would have translations of nearly all of French literature — from its beginnings to modern times — because Pidmohylny was remarkably industrious.
Pidmohylny’s oeuvre is one of the brightest pages in Ukrainian and European literature. He is a reputed master in the genre of psychological prose. The writer gave a talented portrayal of the epoch he lived and worked in. But the system did not need artists who could not fit the Procrustean bed of communist ideology. People with a different outlook stood in the way of the system, so the latter would destroy them.
Pidmohylny loved cities and was an urbanist writer. His lifetime and creative path are linked with Ukraine’s three largest cities: Katerynoslav, Kyiv, and Kharkiv. He portrayed these cities and their residents on the pages of his books.
Yes, he loved cities, but cities did not love him, especially Katerynoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), where he began his life and career. It would be profanation of Pidmohylny’s blessed memory to call this megalopolis the writer’s native city.
Neither Dnipropetrovsk nor Kyiv or Kharkiv, the two capitals of Ukraine at different times, have commemorated him with at least a simple plaque, let alone a monument, which would indicate that the writer lived, studied, and worked in a particular building. And yet in each of these cities there are buildings associated with his life.
In his short lifetime, Pidmohylny suffered from many injustices, but the biggest injustice occurred in our times, when Ukraine emerged as an independent state. And you cannot shift the blame to Stalin’s cult in this case. The city of his childhood and youth does not want to remember its outstanding resident, and this loss of memory is nothing but mankurtism (a term popularized by the Kirghiz author Chinghiz Aitmatov in a tale about what happens to those who forget their motherland and history — Ed.).
P. S. This writer is sincerely grateful to the individualswho have supported his idea of marking the centenary of Valerian Pidmohylny’s birth: Valentyna Talian, former head of the Department of Culture at the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast Administration; Leonid Hamolsky, former editor in chief of the newspaper Zoria; and Mykola Zhylynsky, director of the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature, who held the office of vice premier for humanitarian issues at the time. Thanks to the effort of these and many other people we were able to celebrate this landmark date in a worthy fashion.