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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

“Tales passed on from ancient times”

Ivan Franko’s Zakhar Berkut: Romantic legend or historical reality?
2 August, 2011 - 00:00

Ivan Franko, this giant of the Ukrainian culture, always took a keen, genuine interest in world and national history. Doubtlessly, his novel Zakhar Berkut ranks with the most important achievements in this realm (in fact, the author’s subheading read: “A Portrayal of Public Life in 13th-Century Carpathian Ruthenia”). This is truly a classical literary work, a case study in Franko’s inimitable ability to harmoniously combine latter-day politics with enticing sunlit Romanticism (all this against the background of severe historical realities while generously borrowing from folk stories and legends). He coped with this task brilliantly.

“A historical novel has value,” Ivan Franko wrote in his foreword, “when its fundamental idea can move contemporary people, which means that it must itself be contemporary and alive.” He had this in mind working on Zakhar Berkut. The main idea of this novel is simple and eternal: how to preserve one’s spiritual, political, and economic freedom (in other words, the right to believe in something which restores the life of a people, the right to establish and champion one’s own free social order, the right to land and all the fruits of one own’s labor, the right to “one’s wealth”) both of every individual and the community in general. The search for the answer to this question is what inspired the brilliant writer to write his novel (Franko delved into the distant 13th century, the times of Red, Halych-Volyn or Carpathian Ruthenia. He must have enjoyed creating all those physically and above spiritually strong characters, people who lived in the lap of Mother Nature, who would fight a giant bear and the Mongol aggressor with matching prowess, especially when it came to defending their freedom.

A few words about the creative background of Zakhar Berkut. In 1882, Lviv-based magazine Zoria launched a competition for the best story/novel. At the time the editor-in-chief was “Gymnasium Professor” (i.e., high school teacher) Partytsky, whose political and aesthetic preferences differed in many respects from those of Ivan Franko, yet the latter decided to take part in the competition. If he won it, Franko would be able to improve his financial situation that was getting from bad to worse. He was then also persecuted by the Austro-Hungarian police; he lived in his native village of Nahuievychi, under constant surveillance by the local gendarme, and earned his living by what he would subsequently describe as grinding cereals and herding horses, while being denied access to [public] libraries or literary quarters; while his stepfather fed him, Ivan Franko had to pay for his clothes and footwear. “I have no clothes, no boots, just outstanding debts. There is snow and slush outside, therefore no work in the field. The snow covers the aftermath, the potato and spring crops plantations in the kitchen garden; the soybeans had frozen, so we fed them to the cows. The situation in the countryside is bad.” This excerpt from Franko’s letter, written in the fall of 1882, gives one an idea about the way he lived at the time. It was also then Franko conceived the general idea of Zakhar Berkut. In a letter to his friend Ivan Belei (May 1882), he admitted, “I first thought of writing this novel in German, making it a historical blockbuster based on hard facts, but over the past couple of months I have fussed over it like a child over a new toy. In fact, I haven’t even started writing it. Will I finish writing it till the fall? Will it prove its worth?”

Franko answered his own question when he had completed the novel in the fall of 1882, when it was published in Zoria (No. 7-15, 1883), and when he was conferred the prize, thus, becoming one of the most popular Ukrainian writers.

Working on Zakhar Berkut, Franko paid attention to the best European literary achievements, as evidenced by the following excerpt from his letter to Mykhailo Pavlyk, his closest like-minded friend (Nov. 12, 1882): “I am writing a historical novel set in the 13th century (the Mongol invasion), and an ideal one (in the understanding of characters), although realistic in terms of literary style, like Flaubert’s Salammbo, in which I am trying, on the basis of scarce historical acts about the ancient community life, to portray the self-governing, leaderless, and federal life of our communities, the struggle of the popular assembly-federal element with the destructive princely-boyar [element], and finally with the destructive force of the Mongols.” This was the first “draft” of the novel. How was it brought to life?

Being a top-notch man of letters, Ivan Franko must have realized that his Zakhar Berkut would impress the reader only if the plot included realistically attractive, controversial characters. There are many, among them Tuhar Vovk (who eventually turns traitor to Prince Danylo of Halych and becomes a loathsome lackey of the Mongols who invaded the Halych-Volyn Principality in the spring of 1241), the intrepid warrior Maksym Berkut who is prepared to fight a bear about to jump at him from several feet, and succumb to the charms of Myroslava, Boyar Vovk’s beautiful and courageous daughter, and dozens of others. However, the emphasis is on the main hero, Zakhar Berkut.

This man is about 90 years old, tall, looking stern (somehow resembling the biblical Moses, an image Franko will take up 22 years later). He is described as “strong and indestructible” despite his age. He epitomizes the best features of that legendary (yet historically real) Carpatho-Ukrainian ethnic group. Ivan Franko was convinced that it had helped the Ukrainian people withstand all types of invasions for hundreds of years.

For Zakhar Berkut, life is worth living for as long as one can help others. He says the Berkuts have always kept their promises, even if given to an enemy or traitor; that they have never smeared their hands or hearts with one’s blood by a stab in the back. Such is the code of honor of this man whom Tuhar Vovk and other bloodthirsty boyars regard as another muzhik. These people are somehow sure that they are entitled by God to seize public plots and trample on others’ lives. Zakhar Berkut, chieftain of Tukhlia, a Carpathian village, the most respected and experienced member of that highland community, conveys to his fellow communal members his sincerest beliefs that unity is the only way to secure the common folk against Mongol or [Russian] boyar, or other feudal slavery.

There is an interesting dialog between Zakhar Berkut and Tuhar Vovk in the course of the kopa communal court hearing. This seems to be the novel’s conceptual main point. Zakhar Berkut says, before the appearance of Tuhar Vovk, that this bloodthirsty boyar boasts of the plots of their land granted him by Prince Danylo of Halych, along with their freedom, their people. Zakhar points to the man’s gait, his arrogant stance as a slave made a fake nobleman by a whim of his prince, that deep inside he remains what he truly is, a slave. Zakhar insists that the Tukhlia community needs no favors from that boyar, and that they will never allow him to turn them into slaves. Everyone knows that this boyar is a slave to his own vanity; that a truly liberated individual is not vain but calm and reasonable. Zakhar urges the community to conceal their dignity and intellect, so they can make Tuhar Vovk reveal his true self, so he can be defeated and realize that he is on the losing rather than the winning side.

Zakhar Berkut asks who has ordered Tuhar Vovk to come and the latter replies that he is acting on orders from the Prince Danylo of Halych, stressing his authority over both of them. Zakhar Berkut says in a calm and confident tone of voice (something we badly need in today’s Ukraine) that Tuhar Vovk can only speak on his own behalf because he is facing a free community that recognizes no power beyond its own. The boyar is livid at hearing this. Franko portrays Tuhar Vovk as a scoundrel, albeit raised in a prince’s court as a knight. Naturally, he declares that every communal member, everyone is the property of the prince; that they are all slaves of the prince, that the prince is their sole master whose orders are to be carried out unquestioningly. Listening to this bootlicking boyar soliloquy, Zakhar Berkut’s face brightens, he lifts his hands up to the sun and utters a prayer, addressing the life-giving sun, asking it to spare the utterer of all those abominable words and forget all about him and his presence on their land. He begs the sun to forgive them for allowing that sinful presence, asking the God to wipe off the face of the earth all such characters, if any, in the entourage of Prince Danylo of Halych, and to spare his people, all innocent people.

Zakhar Berkut shares with the boyar his and his community’s view on the prince, saying the prince can’t be regarded as their loving father because the latter knows all about the needs of his child. “This prince, by contrast, knows and cares nothing about this community. True, he keeps declaring he will protect us from Hungarian raids. The big question is how, considering that he keeps sending his ever-hungry boyars with their druzhyna troops. They are worse than the Hungarians because the latter attack, grab what they can, and leave. Boyars are a different story. They come and they stay. Their greed is immeasurable. They want to have all of us as their slaves. Therefore, we do not regard your prince as a loving father but as a divine scourge, His punishment for our sins for which we pay a yearly tribute. The less we know of him, the better for us. If only Rus’ could rid itself of him and his bandits, it would become a great and prospering country.”

Franko comments on this remarkable monolog (which may well remind one of what is happening in Ukraine, except that we don’t have boyars, do we?), saying that Zakhar Berkut’s views could be regarded as ones reflecting the popular attitude to the princes and their blood feud as harbingers of feudalism; that similar views are found in a chronicle that tells about a singer by the name of Mytus, whose dissenting soliloquies and general aggressive attitude toward the powers that be forced Prince Danylo to order his execution. Needless to say, these views can’t affect the overall positive image of Prince Danylo as a ruler of the Ruthenian-Galician lands, known for his humanness and political wisdom, something rarely found at the time.

Ivan Franko offers an insight into Tuhar Vovk, particularly when he reaffirms his loyalty to Prince Danylo. Franko points out that he was not sincere saying that the prince had unlimited authority, that deep inside Tuhar Vovk resented that authority, that he, in this particular case, wanted to use this authority to assert himself. Remarkably, the boyar Tuhar Vovk theoretically justifies his bow-and-scrape attitude by the severe requirements of the new times. He says to Zakhar Berkut that bygones should be left bygones; that his youthful dreams of freedom are also bygones; that there are hard times coming, when an old one will have to step down; that someone capable of keeping in hand the whole people’s strength when faced with imminent aggression (i.e., Mongols. — Author) should take over. Tuhar Vovk says that Zakhar Berkut is too old to know and control the situation, insisting that for Zakhar nothing has changed, that he keeps living in the past.

Zakhar Berkut’s reply is quick and to the point. He knows more about the imminent Mongol aggression than the boyar. He also knows that the Ukrainian communities of Podillia and Pokuttia will not offer any resistance because of the arbitrary rule of the local princes and boyars who forbid them to use, make weapons or to practice using them in any way. “Now take a closer look,” Berkut says to Tuhar Vovk, “see what it means to have the strength of the entire people in your hands, so there is one person who can make decisions that are carried out to a tee. Having this authority means devastating public relations, silencing public opinion. Then the Mongols and others will have free access to our land.” Thus says Zakhar Berkut who knows only too well that the boyars (they didn’t know the term oligarch at the time) would destroy the state and/or let in all kinds of invaders and rampant corruption. Zakhar Berkut knows that a single member of a community is weak compared to the rest, just as a community is weak and ineffective compared to the government machine. There is only one solution to this problem: concerted effort on the part of all these communities. This could improve our law and order.

* * *

Ivan Franko is doubtlessly a brilliant man of letters. Rather than paying lip service to his great achievements, it would best serve the cause by taking a closer look at his Zakhar Berkut, an ordinary Carpathian highlander. Obviously, the author puts his words into Zakhar’s mouth when he says that all those princes and boyars worked hard to disunite and antagonize all such communities, so they could turn all those people into slaves. For Zakhar Berkut, the only hope was proper public management, proper public relations, understanding and accord between the ethnic communities. Food for thought these days.