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31 August, 2011  ▪  Volodymyr Panchenko

Elysium or Barracks?

Ivan Franko and his vision of the 20th century

One can use various tricks to look into the future. There are irrational ways to go about it which will always remain in demand by the masses: the secret magic of new Nostradamus’ visions and sensations offers a tempting, irresistible opportunity to “see” what awaits us tomorrow, or in the days to come. However, in Ivan Franko’s case we first of all see the possibilities of a “disciplined mind,” as Yevhen Malaniuk described the peculiarities of his intellect.

This thinker’s forecasts were based in his analytics, which relied on logical arguments. Whereas Lesia Ukrainka possessed the gift of the tragic prophetess Cassandra, the magic power of whose imagination would paint eerie scenes of the future before her inward eye, there seems to be very little mysticism in Franko’s “prophecies.” Plunging in the essence of phenomena and ideas helped him comprehend the future of human existence. He could see them change, and thus he was not only interested in their current state, but also in their development and prospects.

In the 19th century — pregnant with socialism — projections into the future were something short of a widespread craze. The young Franko was also carried away by socialist ideas and painted beautiful pictures of the “brave new world” in people’s minds. Thus he, a follower of Mykhailo Drahomanov, was arrested and tried “for socialism” (first in 1877). However, Franko’s intellectual biography reveals a striking evolution of his outlook. Over time he became a sharp critic of social-democratic doctrines. Moreover, his criticism had a prognostic effect, as these doctrines claimed to be guidelines to universal happiness in the nearest history.

Now that the 20th century has passed, Franko’s ideas can be projected on a history that has become fact. First of all, I mean his works written at the break of the 20th century: Socialism and Social-Democratism (1897), Beyond Possible (1900), What Is Progress? (1903), On the History of the Socialist Movement (1904), etc. In Soviet times they were hushed down and kept away from the reading public, since they showed the “revolutionary democrat” Ivan Franko quite different from the icon painted by the Marxist-Leninist literary criticism. Just imagine that Franko criticized Marx and Engels! And he also argued that the implementation of their ideas would lead to barracks instead of paradise.


One of the delusions of youth, abandoned by Franko later, was the faith in the solution of political tasks (such as the change of social order), which would almost automatically eliminate national problems. Socialism comes first and the rest will settle on its own – such was a widespread concept mastering the minds of young socialists in the late 1870s. Retrospectively, Franko also wrote very much about his own frustrated expectations: “Under the influence of undigested socialist theories, one part of the most passionate and capable young men arrived at a total negation of any nationality. They were convinced that in the Elysium of the future, in that future paradise so close at hand (as they believed), each and every national particularity would be washed away, and that overall the solution of economic problems is far more important than any other. /…/

“There was a prevailing conviction in the circles of young– and not only young – Ukrainians that development would result in merging the nations, and therefore the cherishing of a particular national identity was a sign of regress.” (From the Last Decades of the 19th Century, 1901).

The mature Franko wrote ironically of the “Elysium… so close at hand”: in 1901, he was very well aware of WHAT kind of Elysium it was. And if a time machine could transfer those “circles of young Ukrainians” he wrote about to a point in time exactly 100 years later, that is, the late 20th century, it would turn out that their hopes for “the merging of nations” had been inherited by the CPSU leadership, which used virtually the same phrasing in their incantations about the development of socialism resulting in the process of “the merging of nations.” And the communist machine did its best to achieve this “merging.” It unified, assimilated, fought “bourgeois nationalism,” and dissolved all that was non-Russian in the Russian environment.

Franko was able to foresee such grim prospects. Therefore he was strongly opposed to “Pan-Russism,” which took away the best young Ukrainian forces and threw them into the crucible of Russian political struggle. Speaking of Zheliabov and Kybalchych who, just as “hundreds of other Ukrainians,” “went to fight for the all-Russian revolutions,” he sounded bitter: “Had these men been able to find the Ukrainian national ideal, rooted in the same freedom-loving ideas as those they shared, and had they used their great strength to work for this ideal among their own nation, had they sacrificed their lives fighting for this ideal, we would honor their memory now among our best fighters, and the cause of a free, autonomous Ukraine would be an item on the Russian and European agendas as an urgent cause awaiting a solution; and the development of the young Ukrainian generations might have taken quite a different turn!” (Happy End of the Year, 1897).

Franko’s article caused controversy in his environment: Lesia Ukrainka reacted to it with a lengthy passage titled Not So Much Enemies As Good Friends. Speaking of Zheliabov and Kybalchych, she noted that the struggle for “political freedom” is a conditio sine qua non for national liberation. What followed suggested Drahomanov’s ideas again: first and foremost, overthrow the old political system and then introduce the new, socialist one… Franko was convinced that this kind of thinking was typical for “Ukrainian radicals who first of all identified themselves as being socialists, and only then, Ukrainians.”

I reiterate, this was 1897. Chronology does matter here, because Lesia Ukrainka was also changing – and towards Franko. Her admiration for socialist ideas will give way to Cassandrian visions of the 20th century. In 1907, she will write Rufinus and Priscilla, perhaps the first European anti-utopia full of alarmed warnings against that very “Elysium of socialist paradise.” The drama clearly reveals the poet’s national angst and her foreboding of Ukraine’s fate in the years of “shot Renaissance.”

Thus, as early as at the close of the 1890s, Franko was clearly aware of the self-sufficiency of national problems, which should never be dependent on the results of “class struggle.” The history of the USSR, with the eventual collapse of the Evil Empire, proved that he was right. The apologists of “the merging of nations” were defeated. This suggests the last interview of the first and only President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev, which he gave soon after the signing of the Belavezha Accords in December, 1991. The budding journalist Dima Dibrov, who had just arrived from the provinces to conquer Moscow, asked him, “What do you believe to be your major mistake?” To this Gorbachev answered, “We underestimated the significance of the national question.”

A truly revealing admission. Following Marx and Engels, communists always believed that “the proletariat has no fatherland.” Surprisingly, it does! And should they have read Franko (and Drahomanov), they would have seen it earlier.


In his articles written at the break of the 20th century, Franko often submitted the major postulates of Marxism to critical analysis. Proceeding from a wide range of European political ideas of the first half of the 19th century, he showed the history of ideas, their ripening and collision, and concluded that “it will benefit the present and future generations if the myth of their (Marx and Engels’. – Auth.) messianism and faultlessness is busted, along with the legend of their creating ‘scientific socialism’ from scratch and giving in their writings a new revelation, a new gospel for the working people of the entire world.”

Franko adduced ample examples to the effect that the authors of “the new gospel” did not spin their ideas out of thin air. They relied on the work of their predecessors, and “modified them according to their mentality, and their time and age” (Cf. Socialism and Social-Democratism andOn the History of the Socialist Movement, Ivan Franko). However, it is not only the matter of denying their “messianism.” Franko also warns against the threat of “party ardor and fanaticism.” Franko must have had second sight. Later, when “scientific socialism” became political practice in the USSR, the course of events would prove that Marxism-Leninism had indeed turned into a new religion, and the slightest violation of its dogmata could cost the perpetrator his life.

Franko’s critical analysis is actually valuable due to his warnings to the “generations to come.” He would not agree with economic fatalism arising from the law of the concentration of capital. He dismissed the idea of an inevitable “happy future” ensuing from it as pure illusion, and believed that the role of economic factors in history was greatly exaggerated. He saw economic fatalism as an underrating of spiritual factors, an artificial cultivation of the role of masses and thus an underestimation of personality and individual ego.

Yet Franko aimed his most severe criticism against the idea of “the omnipotent state,” which was supposed to guarantee justice in the immense socialist dispensary. His diagnosis is impeccably accurate. In the article What Is Progress (1903) Franko virtually foresaw the sinister scenarios of the 20th century. I know of no other European thinker of the early 1900s who would give such a vivid depiction of a society affected with totalitarianism. The reader may judge for himself:

“Life in Engels’ people’s state would be regular and smooth like clockwork. Yet in this view there are certain flaws, which give raise to serious doubt. First and foremost, this omnipotence of state would weigh down on every individual life. An individual’s will and opinion would have to disappear, fade away – for what if state deems it harmful or useless? Education, aimed at breeding useful members of society rather than free men and women, would become lifeless, formal drilling. People would grow up and live in such dependence, under such supervision which even the most absolute police states of today can only dream of. The people’s state would turn into a huge people’s prison.

But then, who would be its guards? Who would rule that state? Social democrats are not clear about this. But at any rate, those people would concentrate such huge power over the lives and fates of millions of their compatriots as the world’s greatest despots have never had. By hook or by crook, the old troubles would return: there would be no exploitation of workers by capitalists, but instead there would be the omnipotence of leaders, albeit noble or elected, over millions of citizens of the people’s state. Getting a grasp on such unlimited power for just a short while, how easily would those leaders usurp it forever!”

How precise was Franko in reading the future! Despotism instead of liberty, slavery instead of social justice, prison instead of paradise… When in 1948 George Orwell wrote his famous anti-utopia 1984, he had already seen the evidence of Stalin-style socialism, whereas Franko only proceeded from the arguments of his own “disciplined mind.” And his conclusions were corroborated by history itself and, eventually, by the painful experience of not only the USSR alone, but also the entire socialist camp.


The poem Moses (1905) is Franko’s another attempt to peek at the future. I often quoted it at the end of 2004, when the Orange revolution was in full swing. I told my students, “After Christmas, we are going to discuss this poem in class, but you’d better read it now. Then it will be easier for you to understand what’s going on.”

In Franko’s poem the Jewish people, led by the prophet to the Promised Land, hope that when they reach their destination, they will live in paradise. And only the prophet alone knows the bitter truth: there will be no paradise. And then he starts to have doubts. If there is no paradise, why look for the Promised Land? That is exactly where the tragedy of Franko’s Moses lies, this knowledge and this doubt. Still, prophets have no right to question their goals, otherwise who will follow them? That is why God punishes Moses, and this is a hard punishment: he is not to see the land of his dream. And what about the Jewish people? They keep going, and the prophet’s place is soon taken by another.

This picture unfolds a universal model of human progress (although the poet was certainly thinking about his own nation, which was “like a poor cripple at the cross-roads lying”).

There is no paradise ahead, but we must keep going. This is the poet’s message. And when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The point in keeping going is not the expectation of paradise, but an eternal quest of a dream, this pushing ahead called progress. That is why the poet concluded his Moses with words about history as a grandiose drama without end:

They will go into centuries unknown,

Filled with longing and terror,

They will make straight the way of the spirit,

On the pathway will perish. . . .


Elysium - in Ancient Greek mythology,  was an island where the souls of the righteous dwelled in the afterlife, the kingdom of bliss and beauty, paradise

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