Life Without Illusions

26 October 2011, 22:20

The Ukrainian Week continues its series of articles about landmark figures in Ukrainian history and literature who were forced, under the pressure of the repressive communist government, to choose between protest and death. This instalment is about Serhiy Yefremov, a symbolic figure in the national revival of 1917-22. He refused to emigrate, destining himself to persecution and death.

When the Bolsheviks entered Kyiv in the last days of January 1918 and began their bloody “management,” Serhiy Yefremov published an open letter to Yuriy Kotsiubynsky, 23, commander in chief of the army which brought “new power” to Ukraine in the newspaper Nova Rada. “Mr. Kotsiubynsky, among the names whose bearers boasted that they would ruin Kyiv, the heart of Ukraine and the beauty of our land, turn it into a heap of muck and rubble – and have partly fulfilled their threats – there is one name that catches one’s eye and terrifies one most profoundly. It is your name, Mr. Kotsiubynsky. Morally, it is all the same to us what your comrades did to Kyiv. But it is not the same to us that the heart of Ukraine is being squeezed in an iron vise by a man who bears the name Kotsiubynsky. […] For 10 days, a city of a million citizens, a city of unarmed and unprotected children, women and peaceful civilians, has been writhing in mortal agony. For 10 days, death has been hovering over the heads of innocent people. For 10 days, atrocities have been committed — and I have seen them, Mr. Kotsiubynsky — that make people lose their minds. For 10 days, Ukraine’s freedom has been in the throes of death… And you, a son of a great father who loved – I know it – this city, have failed to protect it… Not only do you cover up crimes – you yourself commit new ones.”


April 1919 sees the second Bolshevik occupation of Kyiv. Yefremov is perfectly aware that the new authorities are using  slogans of “national self-determination” as a cover, while actually implementing a “red empire.” He writes in the magazine Knyhar that Lenin “has evolved to Bolshevism and is now heading Soviet Russia, theoretically and practically preaching another form of imperialism – red imperialism.”

Many revolutionary Ukrainian youth are still delirious with socialism at this time: Mykola Khvylovy (Fitilov) joins the Bolshevik party in April 1919, while Vasyl Ellan-Blakytny, sitting in the office of Vitaliy Shulhyn, former editor of the newspaper Kievlyanin, publishes the socialist-revolutionary newspaper Borotba. One year later after a meeting with Lenin, he will initiate the self-dissolution of the socialist revolutionary party, calling on its members to join the CP(b)U. Neither Blakytny, nor Fitilov know anything about the “red empire” at this time. Only much later, in 1927, will Khvylovy issue the call: “Away from Moscow!” Meanwhile, he and many others are dreaming of a commune, a Ukraine in a sea of red and blue flags.

Yefremov did not have any illusions about the new authorities. After the defeat of the UNR, he, as the former deputy head of the Central Rada and secretary general for international relations, could emigrate but chose to stay in Bolshevik-occupied Kyiv. Did he realize that by doing so he destined himself to certain death? Yefremov certainly expected nothing good from the Bolsheviks. From June 1920 until April 1921, he hid from persecution in Kyiv’s suburbs (Priorka), in Boyarka and Hlevakha and wrote his memoirs about the first three decades of his life. But things seemed to settle later despite the wary attitude of the government, and Yefremov worked in the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences for the next eight years until his arrest in 1929.

He could have been exiled from Ukraine in 1922 when the GPU was compiling a list of passengers for a “philosophical steamer” in order to get rid of disagreeable intellectuals. The academician Yefremov was one of the candidates. But the party and Cheka mechanism stopped in its tracks. Evidently, the issue was decided by Khrystyian Rakovsky, chief of the Ukrainian SSR Council of People’s Commissars, to whom Yefremov had spoken. In 1929, the situation changed and there was no more hope for rescue. The government set out on its crusade against all things Ukrainian.


Yefremov, born on October 5, 1876, was a son of a priest from the village of Palchyk in the southern part of the Cherkasy region. Many of his peers who left an imprint on Ukrainian culture in the 20th century came from the families of priests. Vasyl Domanytsky, Pavlo Fylypovych and Yevhen Borysov also spent their childhood years in villages close to Palchyk. Children of the clergy had access to books and education, while the rural Ukrainian environment shaped their national identity. Yefremov was a case in point. As he studied in a theological seminary in Uman (1886-91) and a seminary in Kyiv (1891-96), he read voraciously and many books left a deep imprint on the young man. While in seminary, he experienced a “severe crisis” when the religious dogmas he absorbed in his childhood were shaken to the core. The illusion that autocracy was a perpetual given in political order was dispelled. He was most profoundly influenced by Alexander Herzen's sharp criticism of tsarist despotism.

The narodnyks (populists) had a great formative influence on Yefremov’s worldview in the 1870s and the 1880s. He spoke about Nikolay Mikhaylovsky with great fondness as his “favorite writer.” However, there was a drastic difference between Yefremov’s generation and narodnyks like Volodymyr Debahoriy-Mokriyevych who were “fundamentally removed from the Ukrainian environment.” The populists did not have any specifically national agenda, focusing instead on political struggle. Ivan Franko wrote about them in 1897: they “acknowledged themselves, above all, as socialists and then as Ukrainians.” Unlike the narodnyks of the 1870s, Yefremov’s generation closely tied the ideals of democracy and social equity with the struggle for national liberation.

In seminary, Yefremov was actively involved in the activities of the Ukrainian community – the Eldorado group whose members gathered at young deacon Luka Skochkovsky’s home on “Kyrylivska street near the Church of Jordan” , but the “severe crisis” ended in Yefremov withdrawing from the seminary in 1896. He subsequently enrolled in the law department at the Saint Volodymyr Kyiv University. This marked the beginning of his political biography – active participation in the Ukrainian movement, arrests, party work and, eventually, the Central Rada and the General Secretariat.


In 1923-39 while working in the Academy of Sciences, Yefremov kept a diary. His entries are filled with a great deal of melancholic sarcasm: it was, in a way, a chronicle of Bolshevik absurdities. The author recorded events and supplied caustic commentary. An amalgam of social sentiments in the 1920s presented on several pages is of special interest. Yefremov captured people’s attitudes not only in conversations with his colleagues and acquaintances but also in jokes, which were a reaction of mass consciousness to the wretched realities in which they lived. However, most of his entries were naturally about what was occurring within the Academy of Sciences. It is hard reading: the intellectual environment Yefremov described was contaminated with selfish ambition, narrow interests and mean intrigues. His most resentful remarks were directed against Mykhailo Hrushevsky. The atmosphere of discord and servility played into the hands of authorities which successfully applied the old method of “divide and conquer.”

It was clear in the late 1920s that the Bolsheviks were gradually taking control over the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences (VUAN). The situation was especially aggravated when Mykola Skrypnyk was appointed the people’s commissar for education in 1927. A mechanism was put in place to essentially subordinate the academy to him personally. The leadership of the academy was replaced. Government officials, including Skrypnyk himself, joined the ranks of academy members en masse. Yefremov fell out of favor: an avowed critic of Bolshevism, he had long ago become a major irritant to the communists.

The noose tightened around Yefremov’s neck with each passing day. His article “On two knights” in the Lviv newspaper Dilo on July 25, 1928, served as a pretext to start a mud-slinging campaign against the recalcitrant scholar. The article was a reply to Academician Kyrylo Studynsky and some “Professor Livobichny” (an anonymous writer). Two months earlier, immediately after the re-election of the VUAN leadership, these men published a scathingly critical piece in the same newspaper against the “triumvirate,” i.e., the previous leaders of the academy (Volodymyr Lypsky, Serhiy Yefremov and Ahantanhel Krymsky). The letters of Studynsky and “Livobichny” were published under the general heading “For the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences” and looked very much like an intrigue that could be traced to (surprise!) Hrushevsky. The deposed leadership was accused of the fact that there were few Ukrainians in the academy, that Mykhailo Hrushevsky did not have a place to live after his return from abroad and that his brother Oleksandr still did not have the title of an academician. Dilo’s editorial office joined in the discussion and accused Yefremov and Krymsky of having allegedly turned into “fierce supporters of Muscovite predominance in the Academy.” In the same breath, the editors expressed their surprise that biologist Danylo Zabolotny, who had been invited from Leningrad, rather than Mykhailo Hrushevsky became president.

Yefremov denied the accusations and finished his response with the sad conclusion: “We are not mature enough to have an academy if we can say such things about it in this tone. We are not even mature enough to refrain from keeping out of a big cause trifling grudges that can only be harbored by a soul ‘small in appearance and not immortal’. We make a patriotic uproar when we should retain at least a small measure of national and simply human dignity.” The rows in the Academy made things easier for those who wanted to tame it. A large-scale campaign against Yefremov was launched on the Central Committee’s orders in the spring of 1928. Even state farms, schools and opera theaters joined in the chorus of voices stigmatizing the academician who was declared a Petliurite and an ideologist of the kulaks. A short time later, the government and its lieutenants began actively preparing a trial of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU).


The SVU case was inspired by the “red gendarmes,” as Yefremov described them, to wipe out the national intelligentsia. “We need to get the Ukrainian intelligentsia on its knees. Those who will refuse to kneel will be shot,” investigator Solomon Bruk said without concealing the intentions of the masterminds behind the persecutions. There were 45 accused in the SVU case – scholars (including 26 from VUAN), writers, priests and so on. Researchers now say that the number of the convicted in this case eventually reached 30,000. The attack followed the logic of genocide: in order to eliminate a nation, its head had to be removed first. Then they cut off the “hands” — collectivization and the Holodomor would soon claim the lives of millions of Ukrainian peasants. The rest of the population could be dealt with in the final stage.

Authorities assigned the role of the SVU’s leader to Yefremov. Before staging a public trial the communists did all they could to stain his name. At one point, the Academy of Sciences joined in the chorus of the “outraged”: the VUAN Council adopted a resolution on November 28, 1929 condemning “the counterrevolutionary attempts made by the dregs of society and surviving Ukrainian counterrevolutionaries” and blessing the show trial: “A public trial will reveal how utterly shameless this affair is.”

Investigator Bruk succeeded in breaking Yefremov himself. The latter eventually admitted that the “counterrevolutionary organization” did exist and he was indeed involved in it. The Cheka officer managed to convince the academician that this “honest confession” would save others. If Yefremov had not signed the transcript of the interrogation, Onysia Durdukivska, who was his de facto wife, would have been arrested.

A “public trial” in the SVU case took place March 9 through April 19, 1930, in the Kharkiv Opera Theater. The authorities imitated the administration of justice, a practice that has continued to our day. The chief “stage director” for the political action disguised as a court trial was Stalin himself: a month before the beginning of the proceedings he held a special meeting of the Politburo which discussed the Kharkiv “scenario.” Comrades from Ukraine – Vlas Chubar, Panas Liubchenko, Vsevolod Balytsky and Mykhailo Mykhailyk – were summoned to Moscow.

Yefremov received a capital sentence which was replaced with 10 years in prison. Natalia Pavlushkova wrote in her memoirs that at one point, he was taken to Moscow, placed in a comfortable apartment and soon transported to the office of Stalin himself. The chief “tempted” Yefremov with release and employment in Moscow for which the latter “only” had to address through the communist press his “compatriots in villages” with agitation in favor of the Soviet power. Naturally, Yefremov declined.

He was sent to Yaroslavl and put in solitary confinement. Yefremov wrote in his letters there that he was working on a comparative dictionary of Shevchenko’s and Shakespeare’s works and engaged in translating. Pavlushkova reminisces that she took his translation of 12 Chairs by Ilf and Petrov to the State Publishing House. But when it was published, the name of the real translator was nowhere to be seen.

Yefremov’s life came to an end in the infamous Vladimir Prison on March 10, 1939. By then he was almost completely blind. The burden of his diseases left him without a chance.

The Durdukivskys’ apartment on 27 Gogol Str., where Yefremov once lived, was raided by the “red gendarmes.” Nearly all its residents were repressed. Onysia Durdukivska was fortunate to escape to Prague, where she died in 1951. Before her death she left instructions to have Yefremov’s letters and family pictures put into her casket.


“God gave you a great talent. […] You have a high mission. Your name must come to stand next to those of Drahomanov and Franko, because you have done everything for this.”

From Yevhen Chykalenko’s letter to Serhiy Yefremov of October 10, 1903


From Yefremov’s diary

May 13, 1924. Suicide is now quite common among the Bolsheviks, especially young ones. This is a natural consequence of excesses in ideology and practice which Bolshevism has come to generate. They took out people’s souls without putting anything back as a replacement. There was, then, nothing to live by. Whoever is not a self-seeker and striving for something higher must often suffocate in this stifling atmosphere in which putting a gun to your own head is the only solution.

June 12, 1924. What is happening to the school system is the same that has already happened to politics, economy, books and theater. All things Ukrainian are being ruined for being “bourgeois” by Ukrainians themselves, by the likes of Kasianenko and Desniak. Meanwhile, Moscow is not nearly as rigorist: it has kept the universities, has an artistic theater, publishes its classics and is showering all this on a culturally weakened Ukraine to boot. Official “Ukrainization” is not helping a bit here; since its inception, its essence has been to Russianize. I would think that this is some kind of a devilish plan dictated by a very far-sighted mind. Meanwhile, our blockheads are bending over backward to fight their own “bourgeois” culture, which was never there, and helping a true bourgeois culture – that of Russia – gain one position after another against us.

August 24, 1924. In the evening, I often take a tram across Lukianivka. And every time a red star gently and friendly shines to me from a high prison chimney… You really have to make a point of it to attatch it up there! And this is true also of other cities besides Kyiv.

December 11, 1924. Some communist called the Academy: “The state committee is gathering together tomorrow. The party committee has considered the matter and decided that the Academy must deliver a welcoming address. Moreover, it should not be some general words but a certain statement about the relation of science to Soviet power. In our opinion, Academician Tutkivsky can do this the best.”

They are already simply ordering welcoming addresses for themselves, formulating their contents and even picking the delegate. Tutkivsky will go and say what they put in his mouth. The simplicity of their morals and manners defies description…

June 19, 1927. I heard an interesting story about H. Odynets, a peasant who was once popular in Ukrainian circles in Kyiv and is now a communist. At some gathering he dared speak about Moscow’s policy as being colonizing with regard to Ukraine. He was scolded and reprimanded. Then he was dispatched to Moscow and kept there. An exile, albeit an honorary one. You can only be happy for him: he has earned himself such gratitude for his sincere service to the communists.

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