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Les KURBAS: “No decrees can kill the strength of a nation”

From declassified archives
08 ноября, 00:00

“The revolution rolled
thunderously over
intellectuals’ souls...”
SLON magazine (1924)

For the past several years, residents of Kyiv have been gathering near the monument to the famous Ukrainian theater director Les Kurbas, located on the corner of Prorizna and Pushkinska Streets. They assemble on Oct. 27, the day marking the beginning of the mass executions of political prisoners at Solovky, in order to commemorate their fellow countrymen who were killed during the “Great Terror.” While examining publications containing archival materials of files of inmates of the Bilomor-Baltiysky Complex of the NKVD of the USSR, I spotted an unsigned document, a copy of which is stored in the State Security Service Archives of Ukraine in Kharkiv. This is an operational report dated Oct. 2, 1934, written in the form of recollections by a person who knew Kurbas well.

By comparing the date of the report with facts from the life of the theater director and his fellow prison camp inmate, the playwright Myroslav Irchan (real name: Andriy Babiuk), I arrived at the conclusion that Irchan is the author of the recollections about the imprisonment of Kurbas, the founder of the Youth Theater. Other declassified sources included in the three-volume collection Ostannia adresa (Last Address) indicate that Irchan told another inmate, Mykhailo Yashchun, about his conversations with Kurbas (“in fact, these conversations were recorded by inmate Irchan for the sake of accuracy” as a dialogue between him and inmate Yashchun; I have preserved the language of the archival documents — Author). In Segezh Irchan associated with the prisoners Knyshyk, Kham, and Tiutiunnyk and described his conversations with them concerning the recent assassination of Sergei Kirov. He also had friendly relations with Kurbas (“Irchan is the only person with whom Kurbas maintains close contact”). The camp files contain documented testimonies to all this.


Irchan, who was in a prison camp in Karelia in the fall of 1934, recalls: “I was still in the lower grades of high school when Oleksandr Kurbas was already an acclaimed actor in Western Ukraine, then under Austria. The young Kurbas, who was extremely talented and a graduate of a university philosophy faculty and Vienna’s drama academy, immediately became the premiere actor in Ukrainian theater. An active participant in the national revolutionary movement, Kurbas was part of a group of young Ukrainians who sought to establish an independent, united Ukrainian state, of course under the protectorate and with the aid of Austro-German imperialism. In fact, it was almost an entire generation of Ukrainian youth, by their convictions — fanatical nationalists — whose goal, incidentally, was to place the Ukrainian question and Ukrainian culture in the European arena. In particular, young Kurbas waged an open struggle in the sphere of dramatic art against the old nationalist theater, trying to create a new European-type theater. The imperialistic war found Kurbas in the first stages of organizing a small group of like-minded young actors. At start of the war in 1914 Kurbas enlisted in a Ukrainian legion fighting on the Austrian side, but for certain reasons remained in Eastern Galicia (Halychyna) occupied by the Russian (tsarist) army; it was only in 1918 that I encountered Kurbas’s name in Kyiv newspapers and on posters as the organizer and chief director of the new “youth theater.” This was during the time of the c-r (counterrevolutionary — Author) Central Rada, later Skoropadsky’s monarchist hetmanate, and Ukraine’s occupation by the Austro-German army.”

When the First World War broke out, Irchan-Babiuk enlisted in the Sich Sharpshooters as part of the Austro-Hungarian army. Second Lieutenant Babiuk’s creative talent first manifested itself in a handwritten humor magazine entitled Samokhotnyk (The Volunteer); eventually the young writer ended up in Kyiv. He continued to write and in 1918 his youthful military impressions were included in the first literary collection Smikh Nirvany (Laughter of Nirvana).

In February 1920 Irchan went over to the Reds in February 1920, together with soldiers of the Ukrainian Galician Army. A month later he joined the Bolshevik Party, was appointed commissar of a propaganda train, and began editing the rural newspaper Bilshovyk. After returning from the front, he worked in a Red Army officers’ school and the editorial office of the periodical Halytsky komunist. At the time Kurbas’s theater was truly revolutionary. Its repertoire featured works by the most “left- wing” dramatist and writer, Volodymyr Vynnychenko; the author of the memoirs believes that the theater’s revolutionary spirit was based on a rejection of the national romanticism (historical plays) of the old bourgeois Ukrainian theater and on the creation of a new romanticism germane to theaters in the West.

“I know that Kurbas lived in Kyiv in 1918-19 and that he never fled the city during the Red Army offensives (as we know, there were several), unlike the majority of the Ukrainian nationalist intelligentsia,” notes Irchan, adding, “As for his attitude to the socialist revolution and Soviet government, I can quote him. He told me later: ‘The national revolution, all those Central Radas, the hetman, the Directory, have made Ukraine awaken to a new life, but at the same time they built this great renaissance on open Cossack graves, digging in the distant past, including historical costumes taken from museums. The great idea turned into a cheap operetta. The socialist- Bolshevik revolution brought something new, something I couldn’t quite understand, but most importantly it was a fresh and great thing. True, I could feel that the Bolsheviks were bringing with them much that was hostile to the Ukrainian nation and its rebirth, but I believed that this would pass with time. No decree can kill the strength of a nation. I couldn’t agree that the Russians, even the communists, would bring anything good to Ukraine, but I believed in one man, who would not allow the great idea of communism to be compromised. That man was Lenin.’”

In 1919-1920, Kurbas organized a theater catering to Red Army units of the 12th and 14th Armies. This was a continuation of the Youth Theater’s traditions, but with a certain proletarian bent and futuristic touch, along with a higher level of stage direction and acting, according to Irchan’s assessment of Kurbas’s productions. He first met Kurbas in 1922 when the latter was organizing a new revolutionary theater in Kyiv, which would later evolve into “Berezil,” Soviet Ukraine’s largest theater.

“The NEP (New Economic Policy) was in its infancy, and Kurbas regarded it as an evolutionary transition from the dictatorship of the proletariat (as a state form) to a democratic labor republic in which Ukrainian culture would flourish, the Ukrainian question would cease to exist, and Ukraine, this “sphinx of the East,” would make Russia reckon with it,” the dramatist wrote in prison camp.


Myroslav Irchan is the author of the dramas Buntar (The Rebel), Bezrobitni (The Unemployed), Dvanadtsiat (The Twelve), Rodyna shchitkariv (The Brush-Maker’s Family), Tovarystvo Pshyk (The Zilch Society), Pidzemna Halychyna (Underground Halychyna), and Otruta (Poison). The most productive period of his creative life was when he lived abroad, where he published a number of books. In Czechoslovakia Irchan attended university, and in October 1923 he went to Canada at the invitation of a Ukrainian organization. Across the ocean he edited the journals Robitnytsia (The Female Worker) and Svit molodi (World of Youth), and was among the organizers of a branch of the [literary organization] Hart in Winnipeg. He returned to his native land in 1929.

“Before my arrival in the Ukrainian SSR in 1929 I hadn’t seen or corresponded with Kurbas, but I know that Kurbas, starting in 1922 as a director and theoretician of the theater, was making a head-spinning career, if one can use this expression,” reads the operational report. “His productions were masterpieces of new theatrical art. The theater was transferred from Kyiv to Kharkiv. Kurbas was awarded the title ‘People’s Artist of the Ukrainian SSR,” one of the first in Ukraine. It should be noted, however, that Kurbas and his theater were in every way actively supported by a group of nationalist-minded writers, artists, journalists, party workers, members of the VUTsVK (All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee), and members of the government. In his work Kurbas enjoyed the strong support of former members of the Ukrainian Communist Party (Borotbists) which merged with the CP(b)U [Communist Party (Bolsheviks) of Ukraine] in 1920. At the time, Shumsky, the leader of that party was the People’s Commissar of Education and a member of the Politburo of the CP(b)U.”

In 1922-1925 the repertoire of Kurbas’s highly artistic theater consisted mostly of works by foreign playwrights: the expressionist George Kaiser, Kare l я Capek, and others. Later, during the period of “Shumskism,” the leading works were those by contemporary Ukrainian playwrights (the so-called “national deviationists”). In 1926-1927, the literary association VAPLITE [Free Academy of Proletarian Literature] was founded in Kharkiv, led by Mykola Khvylovy, Oles Dosvitny, Mykhailo Yalovy, and Mykola Kulish. “It was actually a counterrevolutionary nationalist organization with the motto ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians. Away from Moscow. Everything Russian is bad. Everything that is healthy and good is only in the West. Our orientation... is Europe, not Asiatic Russia,” notes the operations report, which clearly demonstrates the rhetoric that was required by the Cheka. “The patron of that organization was Shumsky, the People’s Commissar of Education. Kurbas was an active participant and the soul of theatrical art. Even after VAPLITE was destroyed (which unsuccessfully in all ways had struggled against proletarian culture and literature) and after its leaders admitted that VAPLITE’s work was hostile to the Soviet government and the party, Kurbas remained on the old positions of that organization. Formally until 1932, but actually until 1933, when VAPLITE still existed and after its destruction, Kurbas staged the antiparty, thoroughly nationalistic plays of a party member, the dramatist Mykola Kulish, which ridiculed the Leninist nationalities policy, completely ignored socialist construction, and expressed a most hostile attitude to everything Russian. “Kurbas made the state theater “Berezil” a mouthpiece of Ukrainian nationalism and did not abandon these positions until October 1933, when he was removed as chief director. In December 1933, prior to his arrest, Kurbas was stripped of his title People’s Artist of the Republic.

“How is Kurbas enduring his imprisonment and how does he understand it?

“He regards his imprisonment as a natural fact and admits that he deserves his punishment, but that it is the work of the Russian chauvinists, the Black Hundreds.

“‘I am suffering for the fact that I love the Ukrainian nation, Ukrainian culture, art,’ he says. ‘I was too frank and I wasn’t a politician or diplomat. I will never again return to political life, whether when I am free or in exile, and I will never cause the Soviet government the slightest harm. I can see that everything that I am doing is a futile attempt to swim against the tide. I do not understand the great strength of the Bolshevik revolution, but I can feel that it is great and strong, and that it will ruthlessly wipe out the slightest scruples.’”


In the early 1930s Irchan headed the revolutionary writers’ union Zakhidnia Ukraina (Western Ukraine). As the editor of the eponymously-named magazine and a public figure, he had access to the offices of high-ranking members of the CC CP(b)U. His creative affairs were progressing splendidly. For his last play Platsdarm (Bridgehead) staged by Berezil, Irchan received a large royalty (32,000 rubles for a work that, in the eyes of the nationally conscious viewer, was low-quality propaganda permeated with the tendencies of a “loyal subject”). In Kharkiv the dramatist often played host to colleagues and friends, actors, and journalists. However, toward the end of 1933 he had to pay a visit to Pavlo Postyshev, leader of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks and appointee of the Muscovite Kremlin, inasmuch as the mass arrests on political charges had not bypassed Zakhidnia Ukraina.

On Dec. 28 the editor of the magazine visited the secretary of the Central Committee, described the situation to him and explained that the magazine would have to be closed because there was no one left to work (in fact, two days before this conversation the OGPU arrested Kurbas in Moscow). Postyshev, who had recently returned from Moscow, was very friendly and assured the editor that he would definitely help and provide the personnel. After the audience, as Irchan was leaving the building, he felt someone take him by the arm and ask for his name. The editor identified himself and the stranger invited “comrade Irchan” (“citizen Irchan, to be precise) to get into the car. Another “enemy of the people” was thus brought to GPU headquarters. The archival materials of the criminal case indicate that the question of Irchan’s arrest had been coordinated with the CC CP(b)U. Later, the Chekists wrote the following descriptions of both camp inmates. Kurbas “did not manifest any activities in public life, the tendency to be relieved of work without valid reasons was noted...He gives the impression of a man who has much knowledge and talent, but keeps himself markedly above the masses surrounding him. He regards the corrective labor policy as oppression of humanity and coercion. He treats the workers of the cultural educational division with ill will because of their instructions on how to build cultural mass work in the conditions of camp realities.” Irchan was assigned general work and “fulfilled his quota but showed no desire to overfulfill it. He was indifferent to and looked down on every public initiative among the camp masses, social competition, and shock work...The political importance and topicality of his plays for the club were insignificant...He is companionable and unpretentious in his dealings with other camp inmates.”


If one is to believe the secret service memorandum of April 14, 1936, Irchan fell into depression on the Bilomor Archipelago and reached the sad conclusion, “We are as good as dead; they have made short work of us, once and for all.” On the Solovky Islands Kurbas would work in the “temple of Melpomene” and his theater troupe included quite a few Ukrainian prisoners. In October 1937 a large convoy of inmates was sent to Karelia. Over 1,100 inmates of Solovky would pass through the isolator at Medvezhya Gora and all would be sentenced to death by a special troika of the Leningrad Oblast Directorate of the NKVD. For five days and nights (Oct. 27 and Nov. 1-4) the executioners would drive truckloads of the doomed beyond Lake Onega, to the tract of land known as Sandarmokh, where a captain of state security, Mikhail Matveev, would shoot them with his regulation revolver.

Les Kurbas and Myroslav Irchan would die on the same day: Nov. 3.

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