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

Olena Ott-Skoropadska: “Father believed that independence was the only way out for Ukraine”

A voice from the past – the last interview with the hetman’s daughter
22 March, 2018 - 11:26

As is known, our newspaper has declared 2018 as Year of the Hetmanate. The existence of a Ukrainian state in the form of the Hetmanate (April 29 – December 14, 1918) is inseparable from the name of Pavlo Skoropadsky referred to as “Most Illustrious Hetman of All Ukraine.” It is up to experts to analyze historical facts, while this publication is of a purely biographical nature – its aim is to shed light on the descendants of the one who, by decree of fate and by force of his origin, became the last hetman of Ukraine.

Pavlo Skoropadsky and his wife Oleksandra, who also came from a wealthy aristocratic family, had six children: three daughters and three sons. But personal happiness eluded all the Skoropadskys except for the last one, Olena. Pavlo died aged three, Petro suffered from epilepsy, although he lived for 56 years. Danylo, a public figure, father’s assistant, leader of the hetmanite movement, chair of the Union of Ukrainians in Great Britain, died in London in 1957 under unclear circumstances. The hetman’s two elder daughters – Maria Montresor-Skoropadska (1898-1959) and Yelyzaveta Kuzhym-Skoropadska (1899-1975) – were leaders of the hetmanite movement, the so-called hetmanivny, by turns after the death of their brother and according to the “Acts on the Procedure of Succession of Hetnmanite Power and in our Family by Right of Seniority.” None of them had descendants except for the last daughter, Olena, who was born in 1919 in Germany, where the Skoropadsky family had to move after the hetman’s abdication and restoration of the Ukrainian National Republic in December 1918.

In the 1920s, the hetmanite movement politically led by Skoropadsky continued to develop in exile. Its centers gradually began to function in many European countries, Canada, and the US. In Germany, where most of the emigre hetman followers were staying, the existence of the hetmanite movement was in jeopardy in the late 1930s. It is perhaps for this reason, being aware of Hitler’s belligerent aspirations, Skoropadsky sent his son Danylo to Britain in 1939. Thus, the viability of the hetmanite movement outside Germany was guaranteed, and the hetman’s heir Danylo was its leader to his last breath.

As is known, Skoropadsky used his connections to free many Ukrainians from Nazi concentration camps. The hetman’s elder daughters also rendered help to their compatriots as far as they could. During World War Two, Maria Skoropadska, who resided in Warsaw, helped the Polish Resistance Movement – she was hiding and transferring to the countryside the Jewish children who were rescued from the Polish ghetto. Her sister Yelyzaveta cared about the Ukrainian women deported to Germany for slave labor: she visited camps and saw to it that the women were duly provided with food and clothes. Back in the 1930s she had chaired the charitable Committee for Helping the Famine-Stricken in Ukraine, trying to raise as many funds as possible to help Ukrainians during the 1932-33 Holodomor.

All the children of Pavlo Skoropadsky have already departed this life. Fate gifted family happiness and longevity only to the hetman’s last daughter Olena. She had been rather independent since her green years. After her father’s death in 1945, when her mother, sisters, and sick brother settled in the German town of Oberstdorf, she had already lived separately from the family. In the same year, Olena’s first husband Gerd Ginder, whom she had married less than a year before, died from a wound. He was Swiss by origin, and his parents lived in a country that had always attracted Olena. So the young widow went to her parents-in-law in Switzerland. In 1947 she found a job in Zurich, where she met her future husband Ludwig Ott whom she called in no other way than “mein lieber Ehemann” – my beloved husband. Twin daughters, Alexandra and Irene, were born to them in 1954. Clearly, the name Alexandra was chosen in honor of Olena’s mother Oleksandra Skoropadska. The couple lived in their own house on the outskirts of Zurich. Ludwig worked as commercial director of the Zurich newspaper Tages-Anzeiger. The daughters were brought up in a purely German-Swiss spirit: neutrality, politeness, and correctness. Olena had to admit later that her girls were “very far from political affairs.”

When sister Yalyzaveta died in 1957, Olena Ott-Skoropadska automatically took over as leader of the hetmanite movement. The hetmanivna first visited Ukraine in 1991 immediately after the proclamation of political independence. After acquainting with the homeland of her ancestors, during the next visits to Ukraine, Olena aimed her efforts at spreading information about her father, Hetman Skoropadsky, and promoting research into the history of their lineage. In 2004 Ott-Skoropadska handed over some things that belonged to her father and seven portraits of the Cossack-era figures painted by Olga Mordvinova, a close friend of Olena’s mother, to the Museum of Hetmanship in Kyiv.

In 2008 Ott-Skoropadska and her husband moved from their house in Kuesnacht to a retirement home near Zurich. They needed medical care owing to the old age. The last hetmanivna died in 2014 at the age of 95. Her husband passed away a year later, only three months before his centennial.

Olena’s two daughters still live in Zurich. This year they turned 64, the retirement age for women in Switzerland. One of the twins, Irene, once studied foreign languages and playing the violin. She did a secretary training course. Her husband Roger Cahn, a university-trained journalist, worked for the well-known Swiss German-language newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung and at the culture department of Swiss television. After retiring, he opened Culture Link, an agency that organizes music and culture events. Irene helps her husband. They have no children. I once called Irene Cahn-Ott to speak about her mother and her childhood reminiscences. Unfortunately, the conversation was short. Irene rejected the idea of any interview. I also failed to get in touch with the other daughter, Alexandra. As far as I know, she gained a medical education, is married, and has two children. Her husband Martin Koenig, a lawyer by profession, runs a consulting company of his own. Their younger son Dmitri, 29, was born sick and is in fact disabled. The elder daughter, Vanessa Koenig, 33, married a Colombian last year. The young couple went to live in Colombia.

In 2003 the Lviv-based Litopys publishers printed the Ukrainian edition of The Last of the Skoropadskys, the book of Olena Ott-Skoropadska’s reminiscences. Frankly speaking, the book’s title proved to be prophetic. Only the hetman’s last daughter had children, but, owing to their upbringing, education, socio-cultural milieu, Pavlo Skoropadsky’s granddaughters have only a biological link with the hetman of Ukraine. “The last of the Skoropadskys” was aware of this state of affairs, and she decided to write about her childhood and youth reminiscences of the father and family. As a result, we received an invaluable nonmaterial legacy – information about the last hetman of Ukraine from the last representative of the hetman’s lineage. Olena was an active member of the Ukrainian Association in Switzerland. This association, which has existed in Switzerland since 1945, publishes a small informative trimonthly newspaper Trembita Helvetsii. After the publication of The Last of the Skoropadskys in Ukraine and the last visit of the hetmanivna to this country, this newspaper printed an interview with Olena. But the readership of Trembita Helvetsii is incomparable to that of Den/The Day, which numbers many thousands. By courtesy of Andrii Luzhnytsky, president of the Ukrainian Association in Switzerland, we offer you, in memory of the family of Ukraine’s last hetman, the last interview with the hetman’s daughter Olena SKOROPADSKA as a “voice from the past.”


Ms. Olena, what prompted you to write this book of reminiscences?

“I wanted to leave reminiscences of the life of my family and me to my own children and grandchildren. So I first told about my childhood, nanny, and school. Then there was a story about my sister Marika who lived a very tragic life. Going on, I realized that I was now writing not for my children but for myself, recalling and reliving the events of bygone years. I understood that if I did not narrate some periods of my lifetime, nobody else would ever do this. This is why I added chapters about our life in Wannsee before World War Two, wartime details, the circumstances of my father’s death, the life of my mother and sisters thereafter. When I was examining my parents’ notes, I clearly pictured their life before and during the Hetmanate.”

Who helped you write the book?

“Nobody did. I wrote everything by myself in German. Even in my school years I had a gift for writing compositions very well. I must have inherited this ability from my father who could describe any event very expressively.”

Your parents come from very old noble families…

“That’s right. The Skoropadsky lineage dates back to the 17th century. There were a lot of outstanding figures in this lineage. The best-known one was Cossack Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky. Pavlo Skoropadsky’s aunt Yelyzaveta Miloradovich helped found the Shevchenko Scientific Society in Lviv, donating enormous funds for this purpose.

“Besides, the Skoropadsky family was matrimonially linked to other noted Ukrainian families. The ancestors of my mother Oleksandra Skoropadska (nee Durnovo) also belonged to the nobility. In the male line, it is the Durnovo family which began from Sviatoslav II, the son of Yaroslav the Wise, and the female line begins from the Kochubeis. Yes, the Kochubei who betrayed Mazepa.

“It is my mother who did the entire research of our lineage in the last years of her life in Berlin. She spent all of her free time in the library, gleaning information bit by bit.”

Ms. Olena, you were brought up in a noble family that cherished values typical of people of a certain social status. What directives were your parents giving you, with due account of their aristocratic origin?

“In any case, my parents were guided by the principle that one must respect people regardless of their social status. They applied this principle throughout their lifetime. But, at the same time, father always said you should behave as befits the role model.

Photo from the book The Skoropadskys: Family Album

“After 1917, aristocratic origin ceased to be of any importance in human relations. The proof of this is that my first husband was the grandson of my grandfather Durnovo’s gardener in Petersburg.”

What kind of a relationship was there in your family?

“Very confidential. There was no ceremoniousness in communication, parents called each other by first name, and children were on familiar terms with them. Mother was the linchpin of our family, who shouldered all everyday cares. Her life was very hard. Accustomed to sheer luxury, in which she was born and raised, mother had to get used to the new lifestyle that emerged after the Bolshevik revolution. For the life that had existed before those events was gone. However, she bore all the hardships silently, without complaining, and gave father all kinds of support.”

How was the attitude of the members of your family to life in Germany?

“As I have already said, my mother quite easily adapted to the new living conditions. She was a realist and took life the way it was. But sisters felt very difficult from the moral angle. Having grown up in entirely different conditions, they found it hard to live in a new milieu. Besides, they were hetmanivny, the daughters of a hetman, which left a certain imprint on their relationships with people. As for me, I was born abroad and was not brought up as aristocratically as my sisters were. I grew the way other children around me did.”

What language was spoken in the family?

“We spoke Russian. Everybody in the family knew Ukrainian very well. My elder sisters and brother Danylo learned the language in childhood, when they spent the summer in our Ukrainian estate. In exile, too, all members of the family could hear Ukrainian because many Ukrainians used to visit father and put up at our place for some time. I can clearly remember a big dinner table, at one end of which my mother, nanny, and sick brother Petro sit and speak Russian, and on the opposite side – my father, his secretary Shemet and several Ukrainian guests argue loudly about something in Ukrainian.”

Your father, Pavlo Skoropadsky, carved out a brilliant military career in the tsarist army, rising to the rank of a life-guard general. What caused him, a former tsarist officer, to stage a coup and take power in Ukraine by proclaiming the Hetmanate?

“Father could not put up with ruin and chaos in Ukraine at the end of the Central Rada’s rule. He could see its incapability. Besides, there was a threat on the part of Germany which viewed Ukraine as its likely province. He could not allow this to happen. Moreover, father knew very well how to set up an adequate and full-fledged state apparatus.”

Your father opted for a Russian-Ukrainian federation. Did he change his viewpoint later, in exile?

“In that difficult period, many politicians favored, one way or another, the idea of a Russian-Ukrainian federation. Even the Central Rada included a clause on a federative link with the former Russian state’s republics into its 4th Universal. Father viewed a federation as a union of separate states with totally autonomous structures, equal rights, etc.

The hetmanite movement was an organization that stood above the parties. It is Viacheslav Lypynsky who worked out the movement’s ideology. The main idea of the movement was to rally Ukrainians together under the guidance of a hetman, and the ultimate goal was independent Ukraine. Father believed until his death that Ukraine would be independent. The movement offered assistance to everybody who needed it, regardless of ideological views. Father had connections in the German government, which he widely used for resolving all kinds of Ukraine-related problems.

“I want to emphasize that all figures in the Central Rada, the Directory, and my father wished Ukraine well, but they had different visions of achieving this by force of their persuasions and views. Staying in exile and knowing the situation in Soviet Ukraine – mass-scale repressions and a terrible famine, – father believed that independence was the only way out for Ukraine.”

With which figures of the Central Rada or the Directory did Skoropadsky maintain relations in exile?

“With Hetmanate-time comrades-in-arms. He maintained no relations at all with Vynnychenko, for he totally rejected this man’s human qualities. Father respected Petliura despite the fact that the latter had staged an uprising and in fact toppled him. He even attended his funeral in Paris.”

In exile, Pavlo Skoropadsky founded the hetmanite movement which won certain popularity and attracted some followers. After some time, its centers opened in other countries. What kind of activities was this movement engaged in?

“The hetmanite movement was an organization that stood above the parties. It is Viacheslav Lypynsky who worked out the movement’s ideology. The main idea of the movement was to rally Ukrainians together under the guidance of a hetman, and the ultimate goal was independent Ukraine. Father believed until his death that Ukraine would be independent. The movement offered assistance to everybody who needed it, regardless of ideological views. Father had connections in the German government, which he widely used for resolving all kinds of Ukraine-related problems. In 1926, a Ukrainian Scientific Institute was established at Berlin University, which promoted the development of Ukrainian sciences. During the Holodomor in Ukraine, the hetman’s followers set up a committee for helping the famine-stricken, in which my sister Yelyzaveta took an active part. As World War Two was drawing to a close, Skoropadsky helped release from prisons such OUN figures as Bandera, Melnyk, Stetsko, and others. Today, there is also a hetmanite organization in the US and a small association of hetmanship followers in Kyiv.”

Where is your father buried?

“Father was first buried in the Bavarian town of Metten, where he died in the abbey hospital from the wounds he received during a bombing. He was reburied later in the commune of Oberstdorf, Bavaria. There is our family crypt there, in which all members of our family were buried, except for brother Danylo who was buried in London.”

Why was your father reburied in Oberstdorf?

“When the Soviet army was near Berlin, it was impossible to stay behind in Wannsee for obvious reasons. So it was decided to move to Oberstdorf. Mother’s childhood friend Olga Mordvinova lived there, and we could put up at her place for some time. Mother, sisters Maria and Yelyzaveta, and sick brother Petro stayed on in this town. I lived separately at the time.”

How come you found yourself in Switzerland?

“The point is that the parents of my first husband Gerd Ginder lived in and were citizens of Switzerland. So I went to stay with them after his death on quite legitimate grounds – as the daughter-in-law. I began to work and then moved to Zurich. I met there my current husband Ludwig Ott, and we got married in 1948.”

A few years ago you handed over a bronze bust-relief of Pavlo Skoropadsky and portraits of some Ukrainian hetmans to the Ukrainian Museum of Hetmanship. What kind of pictures were they?

“These portraits are an almost a true copy of the pictures that hung on the walls of our Ukrainian manor in Trostianets. The originals were destroyed during the revolution. Fortunately, my mother had a hobby – photography – in her young years. Among her photographs there were images of the rooms with the entire interior. On the basis of these photos and the existing engravings, mother’s artist friend Mordvinova reproduced these pictures.”

Ms. Olena, do you visit Ukraine? What are your impressions?

“I first visited Ukraine in 1991 at the invitation of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. From then on, Ukraine became second life for me and my husband. I found a lot of friends there. I noticed in Ukraine that young people take a keen interest in their history and the national identity of Ukrainians is much higher now than it was in my father’s times.”

By Emilia NAZARENKO, Switzerland, special to The Day