The life and death of Mike Johansen, Ukraine’s pioneer of magic realism
28 October marks 120 years since the birth of Mike Johansen – poet, screenwriter, linguist, novelist, author of books on grammar, poetics, dictionaries, and translator of "all the world's languages", as he described himself. Although his friends knew him as a witty inventor, prankster and joker, which was all also true. In addition, Johansen loved travelling, hunting and playing football, chess, billiards and tennis.
On his mother's side he was the great-great-great...grandson of legendary Cossack Hrytsko and Anna Saavedra, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's sister. His paternal grandfather Heinrich Johannsen was parish clerk in the village of Eckau, Mitau Governorate, Russian Empire (now Iecava, Latvia), while his father was called Gervasius-Emile-Napoleon. Mike's first attempts at poetry date back to 1904, when the nine-year-old philosopher carved a poem in German about old age and death into the cellar door. We also know that Johansen participated in a debate on the Green Mare, would have liked to be Erasmus's personal secretary in the Middle Ages and "in the middle of his life also wrote outstanding comments on the comments of outstanding philosopher Averroes, once again immortalising his name". Such diverse information about himself Johansen conveyed in numerous mystified autobiographies.
Grammar-school Boy and Footballer
Mykhailo Hervasiyovych Johansen was born on 28 (16, O.S.) October 1895 in Kyiv. His father, Hervasiy Andriyovych (Heinrichovych) Johannsen was descended from the Baltic Germans. After graduating from Moscow University, he moved to Kharkiv, where he got a job as a teacher of German to avoid military service, although he held a degree in history. His mother, Hanna Fedorivna Kramarevska, originally from near Starobilsk (now in Luhansk Oblast), studied at the First Marian Girls Grammar School in Odesa. Johansen said he was born as a result of the chance meeting and marriage of his parents; doctor Romuald Spadeni allegedly suggested they name their firstborn Jugurtha – advice which, unfortunately, they did not follow. He also said that he inherited modesty, his aptitude for creativity, a photograph of Taras Shevchenko, his sharp-nosed profile and shining eyes from his mother. In fact, he was the spitting image of his father. In addition to Mykhailo, Tetiana, Fedir and Margaryta were born into the family.
The strict Hervasiy Andriyovych loved playing "archangels and Sabaoth" with the two oldest children, Mykhailo and Tetiana, sitting them down either side of him and forcing them to read Faust in German. Like all children, Mykhailo at first studied at home, then enrolled at the Third Kharkiv Grammar School, where his father taught. Eminent Russian Futurist poet Grigory Petnikov and well-known geographer and writer Yuri Platonov studied in the same class as him. Back then, they were just inseparable friends who had a passion for the latest trendy game and "clubbed together to buy a wonderful football, saving money on breakfast and other such temptations as doughnuts... and then boots... and kicked it around bits of wasteland," recalled Petnikov. Johansen himself described his early years succinctly: "At grammar school, I did not drink, did not smoke and did not know any women."
Student and Polyglot
From the age of 14, Johansen began to earn money by tutoring. Among his then-students were future luminaries such as literary critic Jeremiah Ayzenshtok, whom he helped with Latin. A conspicuous role in the life of young Johansen was played by his school inspector and Latin teacher Ivan Mezhlauk, a Latvian (and thus fellow countryman) graduate of the University of Leipzig. Johansen was close friends with his sons Valeriy and Martyn, later prominent party figures. He would later describe the entire Mezhlauk family in his last autobiographical novel Jugurtha under the shortened name Lauks (Mezhlauks in Latvian).
Languages in general came easily to Johansen, so the classical department of the History and Philology Faculty at Kharkiv Imperial University was a logical continuation of his studies. Later he would indicate on a form that he speaks German, Ukrainian and Polish, can translate from them as well as Greek and Latin, and can read all Slavic languages in addition to German, French and English.
He defended his dissertation on the exceptionally boring topic "The Ablativus Absolutus and Other Absolute Cases in the Latin and Greek Languages" in the turbulent year of 1917. At the time, he admired Kant and especially Schopenhauer.
A new state was born and at the same time – Ukrainian writer Mike Johansen. Although the name Mike first appeared in the book "How a Story is Constructed" (1928), it was after the two revolutions that Johansen started writing his surname with one "n".
Ukrainian and Marxist
In January 1918, the Borys Hrinchenko Ukrainian Grammar School opened in Kharkiv. It was the first secondary school where boys and girls were taught together and Ukrainian was the language of instruction. Mykola Plevako was its director, linguists Oleksa Syniavsky and Mykola Sulyma also worked at the school, as did well-known educationalist Oleksandr Popov; writer Khrystia Alchevska taught French. All this explains the short phrase in Johansen's autobiography: "I started writing in Ukrainian under the influence of the teachers at the Hrinchenko School in Kharkiv."
Another time he described his political preferences: "In 1919, I became interested in sociology after Denikin's invasion. The first Marxist book I read – The Ideas of Marxism in the German Workers' Party – led to careful reading of Kautsky, Lenin and Marx. I even prepared a course in Marxist political economy that I taught at the Skovoroda School. At the same time, I made an attempt to write poetry in the Ukrainian language."
Times were hard and unfavourable, power changed hands several times, the country was dominated by ruin and disorder. Vyacheslav Davydenko recalled how in December 1918 his older school pupils and students "went to see Bolbochan" (colonel of the Ukrainian People's Army) and "future poet Mykhailo Johansen was with them, but returned a few days later". He planted potatoes with his father to try to somehow provide for the family. Hervasiy Andriyovych, sister Tetiana and brother Fedir died from hunger, deprivation and disease. Johansen went to Poltava and worked as managing editor of the local state publishing house, in addition to being a lecturer in the Ukrainian language at the Historical and Philological Faculty. He passed his exams for the Philological Department of the Kharkiv Academy of Theoretical Knowledge, as the university was then called, but did not receive a diploma.
In June 1920, the senior classes of the Hrinchenko Grammar School were reorganised as the Skovoroda Pedagogical Professional School. Johansen was to gain more teaching experience both there and at the Kharkiv Education Institute's Faculty of Social Education. In parallel, he started postgraduate studies at the Linguistics Research Department of the same establishment. This was Head Professor Dmytro Zelenin's assessment of Johansen: "Above-average abilities. The variety of his interests leads to incoherence. Due to how busy he is, gives the department less attention than he should."
Poet and Novelist
It was to be expected: literature won over linguistics and deprived science of Johansen forever. He started to write poetry early on, in both German and Russian, but, as he later admitted, "these poems did not satisfy the author and were all burned in around 1916". He started writing in Ukrainian "for print" in 1920. The very next year, he became a most active participant in the literary life of the new Ukrainian capital. Johansen, board member of the Political Education Committee's artistic sector, taught the history of the Ukrainian language as part of the School of Artistic Expression at the Communist Club, led practical sessions on poetics and versification with poet Volodymyr Sosyura, gave talks on Literary Wednesdays and presented his own poetry.
It was then that Johansen finally made his debut as a poet with the work "Hunger" in a government newspaper and as a poet and literary critic on the pages of newly established literary and art magazine "The Ways of Art". At the same time his poems and articles were published in the anthologies October and Stack. The latter consisted of works by Khvyliovy, Johansen and Sosyura, while the former opened with the manifesto "Our Universal", signed by same trio, who proclaimed themselves the creators of a new proletarian art. And most importantly, Johansen's first collection of poems was published in 1921.
Two more poetry collections swiftly followed in 1923, as did popular textbooks on versification and the Ukrainian language, dozens of articles, reviews and translations from various languages. Johansen himself considered his first poetic book to be Developments (1924), which included texts from 1917-1923. In 1924, readers were introduced to him as a prose writer through excerpts of an adventure novel printed in periodicals, then the following year came in short succession "17 Minutes", a collection of short stories, and novel "The Adventures of McLaiston, Harry Rupert and Others" authored by Willy Wetzelius – Johansen's first attempt at mystification.
Johansen had decided on his literary reference points by the beginning of the 1920s. When the Hart (Hardening) Proletarian Writers Union emerged in 1923, he was one of its founders and part of the organisation's Central Bureau. At this time, he was often published, gave talks, directed the Hart studio, travelled to Kyiv to establish links with the local branch and represented Ukrainian writers at the congress of Belarusian literature organisation Maladnyak in Minsk. When conflict broke out within Hart, Johansen sided with Khvyliovy: he first joined the Urbino group, then in October 1925 left Hart along with others to create VAPLITE – the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature.
Nevertheless, literary politics was not for Johansen. His participation in literary discussions was limited to one article – October in Ukrainian Literature (1925) – and a never-recorded speech at a debate on 19 February 1928 at the Vasyl-Ellan Blakytny House of Literature. When VAPLITE was forced to break up, it was Johansen who came up with the idea of an independent almanac not associated with any group. So came into being Literary Fair, one of the most original publications of the 1920s. Two parts of "The Travels of Scientist Dr. Leonardo and his Future Lover the Beautiful Alchesta to Slobidska Switzerland", Johansen's most playful book, were published for the first time there.
Journalist, Screenwriter, Translator
Apart from his schoolboy enthusiasm for football, he had many interests. Johansen loved to hunt, play tennis, billiards and chess, swim, take photographs and cycle, as well as taking a keen interest in scientific and technological innovations. He tried to combine all his interests in Techno-Artistic Group A, which was formed on his initiative in 1928. The unofficial organ of the group was UZh (Universal Journal), "a merry mirror of our cheerful era". Its slogan "There's nothing in the world you can't talk about in an interesting way" was actually Johansen's.
UZh vanished, according to the official explanation, due to a lack of paper. Techno-Artistic Group A also ceased to exist. Johansen remained an unofficial "fellow traveller" until 1934, when he joined the Union of Soviet Writers of Ukraine. By that time, he had seven collections of poetry and two dozen of prose under his belt, including humour, satire, essays, children's books, the infamous guide "How a Story is Constructed", the script for Dovzhenko's Zvenigora, a pop revue for actor Les Kurbas, a Russian-Ukrainian dictionary and translations from German, English and Russian, in particular Shakespeare, Schiller and Edgar Allen Poe. The "Ballads of War and Reconstruction", "Poems" collection and two books of essays came out during 1933, the year of famine. From then on, there were only a few separate publications of translations, works for children and the inarticulate report "Kos-Chagil on the Emba River" (1936).
Traveller and Philosopher
So begins Mike Johansen's best work. Although there were dreams "to go to America to see how people live, look at New York, the Ford plant, the transoceanic railroad", these travels did not take him too far: to Bulgarian and Jewish colonies in southern Ukraine, Dagestan and the Caspian steppes.
The fantastic colonies of Jews – when and where on the planet did the perpetually persecuted children of Israel ever have colonies?! – were just settlements in Nikopol District. Soviet Bulgaria was as close as the villages of Kolarivka and Radolivka in Zaporizhia Oblast. Johansen made the romantic journey "Under Sail on an Oak" to the Dnieper-Bug Estuary during fishing season. Well, and everyone knows that Dagestan is in Dagestan.
Yuri Smolych recalled: "Mike Johansen has set a sort of standard for the qualification of an essayist: they should be able to write a compelling 'Journey Around Your Own Room' and a book about a box of matches. Mike, of course, was too lazy to write either a journey around his room or a book about a box of matches, but in a good mood over a cup of tea he could really tell you about his room in a fascinating way (geography, history, technology, the social role of each item: furniture, appliances, clothing, books, etc.); he could really talk non-stop late into the night about the same box of matches or a pack of cigarettes (the plant, production, social relationships, the people who make them and so on). The young authors of UZh readily listened to his advice, while Mike was true to himself and his brilliant talent in all his numerous travel brochures about collective farms, factories, new buildings or simply hunting trips."
However, travel for Johansen was not just a literary genre or a period of time spent away from home. It was an entire philosophy of life as a movement, because "even a stone, cracked and sleepy, lying between two old oaks on the sad bank of the forested Donets River, along which very active reddish ants travel towards it – that stone travels too". It could be a movement in space and time – or just any change in time-space coordinates. Travel is the essence of things and phenomena; and life for Johansen was also a journey from birth to death.
Joker and Hunter
The first travel work in Johansen's oeuvre, Journeys of a Man in a Cap, was based on a real trip to South Ukraine and packed with plenty of anecdotes and pseudo-philosophical adages like "Everything passes, everything appears in a moment and in a moment disappears: yesterday we were in Kharkiv, today we are in Oleskandrivsk". No wonder the writer later changed its name to "Journeys of a Philosopher in a Cap".
His texts are full of jokes and puns: "...two bottles of sparking water from Myrhorod; it's medicinal water, because it contains clay and lime and salt – everything you need to make a nice brick." The stylised exhortations following serious themes sound cheerful and comical: "There is a reason it was said in the Scripture: thou shalt not put new springs on old Dodges." Many of his jokes were provocative in nature: "They say that in one Peloponnesian city there was once what we call 'martial law' – to put it simply, there was not enough bread."
Then between witticisms and jokes, Johansen concludes that the difference between Ukrainians and Russians is... "Firstly, dear friend, Ukraine is not Russia. So the port of Leningrad is not a Ukrainian city, although the Ukrainians lay claim to it as it was supposedly built on their bones – this claim is unfounded, because Leningrad, as we all know, stands right on top of a peat bog. But the biggest difference between Ukraine and Russia does not lie in the way they make borscht, cook sausage or drink vodka. The cardinal difference between Russia and Ukraine is, after all, in the way they hunt."
Mike Johansen's trip through life was too short, but extremely interesting. In the introduction to his last book about travelling, he talks about the eloquent odes to horse-drawn carriages written by Thomas de Quincey and Charles Dickens: "Perhaps their contemporaries read these essays on such familiar, everyday things with some surprise, perhaps they thought that the authors simply used the carriage as a way to tell an interesting story about people, and only now, when these carriages are long gone, it becomes clear that de Quincey, Dickens and Daudet were not just wundermasters, but also people who were able to see the extraordinary in everyday life."
Johansen himself was an equally talented wundermaster. Forever in love with him, Smolych wrote: "...a conversation that Mike took part in was a real pleasure – whatever he spoke about. Mike's sparkling, brilliant mind, his versatile, all-round talent, his generosity in spilling pearls of wisdom and talent, the way he would squander them – all this was captivating: you could talk to Mike all day and all night."
The young literary generation was attracted to Johansen: it was interesting to have a conversation, travel, hunt or just kick a ball around with him. Many years later, poet Ihor Muratov admitted: "...from my first more or less lengthy meeting with him, I wanted to be like him." Muratov gave his memoirs the laconic title Simply Talent.
In the summer of 1933, his students and younger friends organised a publication for him in Komsomol journal Molodnyak: three whole poems (over the next four years, Johansen would only be able to get another two printed!). A reviewer wrote about one of them: "You get to know the Johansen of old – traveller, hunter, philosopher."
"...everything that remains of me"
"I know, I will die, high in the clean, blue air. – I will hang over the city: to look the dawning daybreak in the eye, in its cold eye," Johansen wrote a long time ago. From the beginning of the repressions he, of course, knew they would come for him. He was arrested on 18 August 1937 by the Kharkiv NKVD as a member of a Ukrainian nationalist terrorist organisation. Nothing threatened the poets and writers whose names he mentioned during questioning – Serhiy Yefremov, Mykola Khvyliovy, Mykhailo Yalovy, Ostap Vyshnia, Oleksa Slisarenko, Mykola Kulish, Levko Kovalyov – they were all already in Gulag camps except Khvyliovy, who committed suicide as an act of protest in 1933. On 26 October, Johansen was found guilty and sentenced to death. The writer was executed by firing squad in Kyiv.
At the age of 30, he wrote: "...I'm young and healthy. I smoke a pipe, have a clear heart and bright eyes... My profession is playing tennis, billiards and some other things. These 'other things' will be everything that remains of me when I die and will not be able to play either tennis or billiards."
So, dear readers, open Mike Johansen's books and launch yourself into an infinite, curious and exciting journey with the author in space and time, across pages and landscapes, around own room or to the other end of the earth. As for Mike, he is probably keeping his old promise: "...having settled in the kingdom of shadows, I will have a sensible conversation with Hesiod, Heine and Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. But I will speak to them in Ukrainian, because I believe that our flowering homeland is a diamond amongst the free nations of the world. And I will say there, in the kingdom of shadows, that I, Mike Johansen, was in my lifetime and will remain after my death one of the best poets of the renewed Ukrainian land."