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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 hidalgo of Kachanivka

Glimpses into the biography of Vasyl Tarnovsky Sr.
13 February, 2007 - 00:00

The name of Vasyl Tarnovsky Sr. is most often mentioned in connection with the life of Taras Shevchenko, although he is a self- sufficient figure in his own right. This serene personality deserves the grateful memory of his descendants if only because the Great Land Reform, which abolished serfdom in the Russian Empire in 1861, would have been impossible without his professional and civic efforts. And, naturally, Tarnovsky means Kachanivka, mingling and making friends with a wide circle of the finest of his contemporaries; it means a ray of nobility that will be in demand as long as the human race continues to live on the earth.

“His entire lifetime was irreproachable,” said the well-known Kyiv civil servant Mykhailo Yuzefovych, whose sister Liudmyla was Tarnovsky’s wife. A man of exceptional probity and modesty, Tarnovsky devoted his life to the pursuit of noble social goals: the emancipation of the peasants was his cherished dream. After inheriting a vast fortune from his uncle Hryhorii, Tarnovsky chose to share it with his relatives as well as those who were close to the previous owner of Kachanivka. Out of 6,000 serfs, more than a third was handed over to his brothers, sisters, and cousins, who were also given 150,000 rubles. He also cleared the estate’s 100,000-ruble debt.

Tarnovsky came from a noble family of modest means, which owned a manor in the village of Antonivka in Pyriatyn district. Gogol recalled that they used to “eat borshch together” — they were peers and fellow students at the high school in Nizhyn. A lawyer by profession, Tarnovsky was eager to take up research after graduating from Moscow University, but owing to material hardships, he had to take up teaching at a school in Zhytomyr in the early 1830s. After Gogol traced him there (by mean of letters), he requested the rector of Kyiv University, Mykhailo Maksymovych, to employ Tarnovsky. Maksymovych then offered Gogol’s friend the post of assistant professor of Russian letters. However, these efforts were thwarted by Bradke, the trustee of the Kyiv Educational Authority, who refused to accede to the rector’s petition about Tarnovsky. (More than 30 years later Maksymovych recalled this episode in a letter to the historian Mikhail Pogodin as a personal humiliation: this seems to have been the last straw that led Maksymovych to resign his post as university rector.)

After his parents’ death, Tarnovsky had to manage the family estate in order to support his three brothers and five sisters. Hryhorii Tarnovsky suggested that his nephew run his estate in the village of Potoky in Kaniv district, and Vasyl agreed, obviously out of material considerations. But estate management did not fire his enthusiasm. It would not be out of place here to quote Gogol’s appraisal of his friend in a letter to Maksymovych, “He is kindhearted and fresh in feelings like a child, a bit dreamy and always prepared to sacrifice himself. He doesn’t care about ranks, promotions, or ambition.”

That was true. Convinced that serfdom was slowing down moral, economic, and political development, Tarnovsky began studying the rural question. He wrote a number of articles on law and ethnography, some of which were published. The example of the Kyivan statistician D. Zhuravsky, who had bought freedom for his serfs and willed that his inheritance be spent on their emancipation, showed that it was possible to resist circumstances even if they did not lead to noble causes. When Dmitrii Bibikov was governor-general, Tarnovsky drew up the Inventory Guidelines that curbed landlords’ arbitrary rule through compulsory work reduction and inviolability of land plots, thus laying the groundwork for the peasants’ freedom. (Some time later Tarnovsky opened public schools in Antonivka, Kachanivka, and Parafiivka, and even taught in them.)

The stormy events of the mid- 19th century — the Crimean War, the death of Nicholas I, and the reforms of Alexander II — gave Tarnovsky an opportunity to realize his lifelong dream. His brother-in-law Yuzefovych recalls Tarnovsky’s trips abroad, where he secretly met those who were engaged in drafting the land reform. He was soon invited to work in the Editing Commission that Alexander II had set up to draft relevant documents. According to Yuzefovych, Tarnovsky was the author of “many fundamental articles” in the collection of the commission’s work.

After Feb. 19, 1861, Tarnovsky was appointed government representative in the Poltava-based “office for peasant affairs,” where he was supposed to implement the reform. This job proved to be his undoing. Responsibility for community affairs kept him in a state of constant tension. An open session of the Chernihiv zemstvo committee resulted in an outburst of passions (“inevitable disputes,” to quote Yuzefovych) and a “nervous stroke” that led to Tarnovsky’s death.

Vasyl Tarnovsky was an extremely selfless and modest individual, who “shunned the attributes of attention and respect.” After the abolition of serfdom, he was supposed to be awarded an order, but he refused on the grounds that he had worked on the draft laws by his own persuasion. According to a family legend, when Alexander II learned of Tarnovsky’s refusal, he said, “I didn’t expect anything else from him.” During his funeral in Kachanivka somebody asked the priest why no decorations of the deceased were being carried before the coffin. The priest answered, pointing to the widows, orphans, and poor civil servants walking in the procession, “Here are his medals, he doesn’t need others.”

While Tarnovsky Sr. was in charge of the estate there were very few changes. The landlord cared more about public affairs and charity than construction and management. Tarnovsky tried to support talented people “quietly,” without pomp. In 1854 he invited Opanas Markovych and his wife Maria, the well-known writer Marko Vovchok, to Kachanivka — ostensibly “for a statistical survey” The Markovyches and their son Bohdan spent August and September at the manor. “Opanas Vasyliovych was mostly busy collecting folk songs and proverbs instead of conducting the survey. He would spend days near the mill, talking to the millers,” Tarnovsky’s son reminisced. “Maria Oleksandrivna was also recording the local residents’ folklore. Tarnovsky’s proposal about statistical work was in fact charity. Markovych understood this and abandoned the ‘service.’”

Had it not been for Tarnovsky’s support, Panteleimon Kulish would not have managed to carry out many of his projects as an author and publisher. Several times he mentions Kachanivka in his letters to Tarnovsky dated 1855-58. Kulish had just returned from exile in Tula, and Tarnovsky had recently (1853) become the owner of the manor. Living the life of a recluse in Tula, Kulish worked feverishly and now he wanted to make his works known to the public. He plunged into activity and set about publishing the novel The Black Council, a collection of ethnographic materials entitled Notes on Southern Rus’, and The Stories of Boris Godunov and Dmitrii the Pretender. Kulish also planned to publish the journal Khata and began translating the Gospels into Ukrainian.

He could not have done this without Tarnovsky’s help. This is not surprising, as money is one of the central topics of his letters. Kulish did not feel very remorseful about dropping a rather broad hint that he was in dire straits. He complained about his poverty (“I have only one cutaway suit”). After purchasing a hamlet near Lubny, he lamented that he and his wife have to live in an ordinary mud house, unlike “big landlords,” and it is not clear whether he will be able to settle even in this kind of residence. At times he wrote bluntly, “Mail me some money.” As agreed upon, Tarnovsky would mail 1,000 silver rubles for the publication of his Notes on Southern Rus’. Kulish had a very original way of expressing his gratitude. “You are doing a very good thing, helping me to work. I have a feeling that you and I will leave a good memory of ourselves.” He, Kulish, was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt of his exalted mission.

The Tarnovsky family maintained a friendly relationship with Taras Shevchenko for about 20 years. They first met in 1845 in the village of Potoky, where the poet had come at Tarnovsky’s invitation. Later Shevchenko visited Tarnovsky’s apartment in Kyiv, where literary soirees were held on Saturdays, with Mykola Kostomarov, Vasyl Bilozersky, and H. Halahan in attendance. That was the time when the Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius was being formed. When Shevchenko was arrested, Governor-General Bibikov warned Tarnovsky of a likely search. This was no laughing matter because Shevchenko had left some of his manuscripts with his “dearest soul sister” (Tarnovsky’s sister Nadia).

Tarnovsky and Shevchenko continued their friendship even when the poet was in internal exile; it is not ruled out that the former materially supported the latter. They corresponded with each other. After serving his term, Shevchenko met Tarnovsky several times in St. Petersburg. He also visited Kachanivka in 1859. At the end of that year Tarnovsky wrote a puzzling letter in which he beseeches the poet “to burn...the manuscript” of his new work. “It would be bitter for us if a fleeting error put a stain on your glory and, at the same time, on our people’s literature.” Some researchers believe that this is a reference to one of Shevchenko’s novellas, but what really worried Tarnavsky was the poem “Maria,” which some contemporaries considered “blasphemous” because it allegedly questioned the dogma of the Holy Virgin’s Immaculate Conception.

The funeral of Tarnovsky Sr. took place at the Resurrection Church in Chernihiv, and he was buried in Kachanivka. His body was placed into a marble sepulcher designed by Ippolit Monighetti, in the crypt of St. George’s Church. Taking into account the 20th century’s tragic cataclysms, it would have been a miracle if it had survived.

The author of the article is a professor
at National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

By Volodymyr PANCHENKO