A golden pectoral saved poet and archeologist Borys Mozolevsky from prison in Mordvia
The life of Borys Mozolevsky (1936-1993) took such whimsical turns that it can only be explained through the cast-iron logic of providence. Born in a village in Mykolaiv Region on the Black Sea coast, Mozolevsky decided to become a pilot when he was in his teens and entered the Special Naval School in Odesa. Then he studied in Yeysk Higher Military Aviation College, but things suddenly went awry: cuts in the Soviet Army forced him, aged 20 at the time and not in very good health, to make a fresh start in life. But how?
A STOKER AND THE SCYTHIANS
He worked as a stoker for nine years from 1956-65 under Khrushchev and in the early Brezhnev days. Mozolevsky and his generation witnessed the iconoclastic and painful evaluation of the tragedy of Stalin’s rule. The young man was searching for answers to difficult questions, and the circumstances were conducive. He had plenty of time to think in the solitude of his boiler room. A desire to decipher the meaning of life brought him to the extramural department of the Faculty of History and Philosophy at Kyiv University, where he received his university diploma in 1964.
The following summer, he found a job with archaeological expeditions led by Aleksey Terenozhkin and Varvara Illinska, noted researchers of the Scythian era. He worked for a while as an editor in the Naukova Dumka Publishing House but was fired on orders from the KGB in 1968 and returned to the boiler room. He was watched by the special services because of his poetry which he recited to his public audiences. Some of his poems were clearly doubtful of the communist doctrine, such as these Mayakovsky-style lines:
Friedrich Engels! We took paths
To rise to abysses and came down,
To once learn that it was a utopia –
The communism Marx brought forth in travail.
“He is polemical in everything. He is fussy over the purity of his truth”, Ivan Dziuba wrote in reference to Mozolevsky’s early poetry with its “stormlike Romanticism”. His first three collections of verse – Nachalo marta (Early March, 1963), Shypovnik (Dog rose, 1967) and Zarevo (Glow, 1971) – were written entirely in Russian. The “linguistic turn” in his consciousness, and hence writing, came in the late 1960s when he discovered Ukraine in himself. Since then, the “Ukrainian issue” was his greatest passion, a fact clearly reflected in his poetry.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mozolevsky balanced between freedom and prison – he could have easily found himself in a Brezhnev-era camp rather than on another scientific expedition. He would later write in the essay “Shliakh do sebe” (A Way to Yourself): “When the noose was about to tighten around my neck, […] I realised that the only thing that could save me was a world-level discovery. This is how I dreamt and suffered for my Tovsta Mohyla. […] My boldness was rewarded with a gorgeous pectoral. […] Instead of Mordovia, I found myself in the Institute of Archaeology, Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, to which I was accepted retroactively”.
Tovsta Mohyla is a nine-metre-high Scythian burial mound standing right amidst buildings in the city of Ordzhonikidze, Dnipropetrovsk Region. The ancient mounds had previously revealed to Mozolevsky “their mysteries embodied in the most exquisite gold objects”, as he put it. But his biggest prize came in June 1971. He described the story of his finding in great detail in a marvellous book, Skifskyi step (The Scythian Steppe), in which he combined the styles of a diary, research article, poetry and psychological thriller.
The book opens up the soul of the researcher himself: faith bordering on obsession and doubts, or even despair (there were moments when it seemed that looters had completely emptied the mound leaving nothing behind). And there was the joyful stupor over the miracle that opened before his eyes, followed by great fatigue. There were mystical feelings and sudden longing which led Mozolevsky out of the hotel and back to Tovsta Mohyla in the middle of the night. He had a silent “talk” with a blue star that suddenly shone through a wooden shield in the catacomb – for the first time in over 2,000 years.
There was evidently some divine justice in the pectoral being found by a poet following his own peculiar intuitions and obsessions. The reader cannot fail but to be taken in by the author’s excitement when he reads about the joyful moment of discovery: “My fingers painfully caught on something. I caught a glimpse of glistening gold and somehow knew that it was what I had been looking for. It was big and lay clearly in its initial place, unmoved by plunderers. I was in a stupor for a split second…” Mozolevsky called his colleague (Yevhen Chernenko), and together they extracted the pectoral from the floor, “washed it, brought it out to the entrance to the light and began to kiss it with joy like children. We held a truly unseen thing in our hands. The pectoral weighed 1,150 grams and was 30.6 centimetres in diameter”.
It seemed to Mozolevsky the poet that “a star” had came down from the skies and turned into gold. Mozolevsky the archaeologist carefully studied the masterpiece of the unknown artisan and concluded that the pectoral was a “cult object” whose symbolic elements reflected the “cosmogenic ideas of the Scythians linked to the concept of three spheres making up the world”. He also concluded that it was made “under the direct influence of the Parthenon”. (This means that, although made by the Scythians, it was, in fact, a sample of Ancient Greek art, which is not surprising, as the Greeks living in the Black Sea Region were neighbours of the Scythians.)
Tovsta Mohyla, in which “a young Scythian princess” was once buried, entered the annals of world history due to Mozolevsky. A lot was written about his sensational discovery and Mozolevsky himself, who had been a candidate for a Mordvinian camp only a short time earlier, was received by Petro Shelest, a top Ukrainian Communist Party functionary at the time. The pectoral stayed in Kyiv despite pressure from Moscow. It is now kept in the Museum of Historical Treasures of Ukraine where the name of Mozolevsky is mentioned by guides on a daily basis.
“RISE, MY POETRY”
The most complete collection of Mozolevsky’s poetry, Poeziyi (Poems), was published by Tempora Publishers in 2007. Its first chapter includes poems in which the author "speaks" with Ukraine and ponders its history. The thoughts are painful because they are centered around janissaries and the struggle for the natural right to have patriotic feelings and Ukrainian identity. However, Mozolevsky is equally straightforward in describing the shortcomings of the Ukrainian character, above all, the incredible proclivity to squabble and trample down others in order to rise to power. He writes about people’s indifference to their mother tongue and mercenary kowtowing to the enemy (“The Death of Ivan Sirko”). His tone is gloomy when he speaks about the tragedy of Ukraine losing its identity.
Another group of poems is politically charged. The strongest irritants that prompted him to address political issues were above all the lack of a national memory, the “sleeping” will and the grimaces of “developed socialism”: hypocrisy, demagoguery and disregard for human lives and elementary freedoms. Some of his works are poignant in their political invectives hurled at not only leaders but also the “middle” party class (“On a Volcano”). It is unlikely that the poet wrote them after the fact. Judging from his tense and desperate intonation, he was in the centre of deadly peril, but it was not in his manner to put the truth off until better times. Mozolevsky was a maximalist with quixotic openness and “tormenting” conscience that constantly prodded him to resolute actions.
His numerous poems are a guide to the Scythian world. Mozolevsky had a penchant for political writings, and it came through even in his “archaeological” poems. A mixture of epochs on a great historical vertical is perceived by the author as an integral process with unexpected cause-and-effect links. The poet transplants the Scythians from their historical niche into universal time. He calls Scythia “our native land” in one of the texts (“The Voice from Tovsta Mohyla). The area known as Herry (now in the Nikopol area) is inserted into historical memory and the history of the steppe as a fragment of the great life of our ancestors. The effect of universal time and the unbounded historical space is produced also by Mozolevsky’s masterpiece, poem “Herry”. “I am a Scythian tsar, lying in Herry over the Dnieper. Centuries are wailing over me…” – these are some of the most memorable lines in all of his poetry.
A large part of Mozolevsky’s heritage consists of “memoir” poems, inspired by childhood memories, a number of excellent poems for children and intimate lyrics brought together in the chapter “My love, my bitter comfort”. The atmosphere of these poems is dominated by purity and holiness, particularly when an erotic motif takes over. These poems have a distinctive elegy-like tonality whose source is the “bipartite nature of torment and happiness.” The author poeticises moments of bliss, spontaneous outbursts of feelings and the festive and romantic appearance of nature (most often the steppe).
Mozolevsky’s poetry breathes with authenticity. It is a reflection of the painful work done in the poet’s soul, a soul for which the ideal was not abstract, a soul that believed: making this world at least a little better is desirable and possible.
Mozolevsky lived for another 22 years after the excavations at Tovsta Mohyla. In the early 1990s, he was working on a doctoral thesis entitled The Ethnic Geography of Scythia. He was not able to complete it but still put forward a number of fundamental ideas and among other things produced his own map of the lands once inhabited by the Scythians. His conclusions about the geographical spread of the “Scythian peoples”, the identification of rivers mentioned by Herodotus, the location of the area known as Heros and sharp debates with the academician Boris Rybakov (whom Mozolevsky accused of “manipulating Herodotus” geared towards “identifying the tribes around the Middle Dnieper River as proto-Slavs”) belong to the scientific arsenal of contemporary Scythian studies.
I was fortunate to meet Mozolevsky in 1987 at a research conference in Kirovohrad dedicated to Terenozhkin. Mozolevsky was invited to meet with students and then come to the Chair of Ukrainian Literature. I remember how open he was – people like him attract others immediately. I also vividly remember the poems he recited: “On the Grave of Ivan Sirko” and “Chimera”.
The former poem begins with an imaginary conversation with the great otaman whose peace was disturbed in the 1960s when the waters of the Kakhovka Reservoir came dangerously close to his grave. He was reinterred near village Kapulivka in a burial mound dating back to the Bronze Age. His skull was taken to Moscow for an anthropological study, and a different skull was put in his grave. “Some say it was a Turkish one,” Mozolevsky adds in a scholarly prologue to the poem. He uses the image of the otaman lying in his grave with “someone else’s head” to speak, with a romantic and sorrowful motif, about the horror of a nation that has lost its memory. He goes on to deprecate its “rotten grandchildren” and “traitors”. The finale of the poem praises the Zaporizhia Sich and “evokes” hope that Ukrainians will ultimately restore their historical memory and pride.
As far as “Chimera” is concerned, it is one of Mozolevsky’s numerous phantasmagorias permeated with satire. Baba Hapka sees in a dream a clandestine “meeting” of old Scythian women somewhere near Kirovohrad. In reality, it is a meeting of provincial party functionaries who are scared of Gorbachev’s perestroika which has caught them by surprise. The attempted coup and the breakdown of the USSR were still several years away, but Mozolevsky’s “chimerical” poem prophesied that another “thaw” was coming and that political conservatives did not stand a chance of stopping it, no matter how fierce their resistance.
“Enchanted, I was afraid to move for fear that the star would disappear. And then I grasped that this was something to which I could compare the pectoral, a comparison I had been searching for so long. The pectoral was as if not made by human hands; it was a star that fell from the skies and turned into gold, a piece of lightning, a once-in-a-lifetime miracle that forever reveals its secret to a person. I stood there at night – blinded by the light of Scythian gold and pierced by the ray of a blue star.” Borys Mozolevsky
A FRAGMENT FROM A POEM
You are in red – like a canna!
Violins are crying in white asters.
Grey birds are flying across
The sky of eternal roaming.
Are you passing by?
Reveal yourself one more time to me!
I love you in red!
Don’t stop –
This is the ending of Mozolevsky’s poem “Portret u chervonim” (A Portrait in Red), which was a piece of poetic rivalry with Federico Garcia Lorca’ “Romance Sonambulo.” The poem is wrapped in light sorrow for love, which is eternally alluring and elusive as infinity itself, and has a worthy place in the most selective anthologies of love lyrics.