Mykola Khvylovy’s Two Ribbons

Culture & Science
29 April 2011, 17:04

The Ukrainian Weekcontinues its series of publications on prominent Ukrainian historical and literary figures who came under pressure from the communist state’s repressive machine and were forced to make a choice between protesting, dying or breaking down and facing the death of their souls. The first installment covered Mykola Zerov (see UW, Is. 12, March 25). Now The Ukrainian Week's Volodymyr Panchenko looks at Mykola Khvylovy.

Mykola Khvylovy wrote in his autobiography that in 1917, soon after the February Revolution, he came to a congress of soldiers, as a combatant and member of an army council, with two ribbons pinned to his suit: a red one and a yellow-and-blue one. He offered a simple explanation for his dual political views: “I wanted to be a Ukrainian Bolshevik.” The drama of being divided ended in suicide: on May 13, 1933, Khyvlovy shot himself in his apartment. The revolution was devouring its children. The day before on May 12, one person who had remained close to Khvylovy for a long time, Mykhailo Yalovy, was arrested. Khvylovy rushed to the Central Committee and the GPU to save him but when he arrived, it became immediately clear to him that this was the beginning of the end. Beginning with Yalovy, the new Soviet authorities set out to destroy an entire generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia – and Khvylovy was one of their leaders. And as a leader and ardent communist, he could not fail to feel his responsibility for the unfolding tragedy…


In the early 1920s, Mykola Fitilev (Khvylovy's real name) sincerely believed that the October Bolshevik coup was the beginning of a new era, a new starting point in the calendar of history. In 1921 with the zeal of an “ardent revolutionary”, he supported the leftist slogans of Proletkult,which declared a break with “all previous traditions” and called for “pure” class proletariat culture to be created by workers themselves. Loud, overly ambitious and intolerant, Proletkult activists wanted to monopolize literature and sought top posts. To accomplish this, they needed close ties to the government. Consequently, they presented themselves as “orthodox” revolutionaries and searched out “enemies” who had departed from the party line.

Khyvylovy’s literary debut was precisely in the vein of the Proletkult. Later, in 1924, he would ridicule himself saying: "What a worker was I!" Indeed, born in Trostyanets in what is now Sumy Region, he was the son of a teacher and while still a gymnasium student, he joined student revolutionary circles influenced by Ukrainian social revolutionaries. His reputation of a “crazy student” and rebel interfered with his studies. After completing just four years of schooling, the young Khvylovy himself said he "loafed here and there", traveling across Sloboda Ukraine and the Donbas. He worked as an unskilled worker and loaded coal. To him, this was a time of self-education in which he acquired an incredibly eclectic worldview.

In December 1914, he turned 21 and was soon mobilized. Three years of warfare became seared into his memory as “years of marches, starvation and true horrors which I don't dare describe. Three years of Golgotha squared in the remote fields of Galicia, the Carpathians and Romania.” His political sympathies at the time lay with the Ukrainian socialist revolutionaries. In 1917, he began to contribute poetry and essays to a frontline newspaper. This was when he began pinning two ribbons to his suit.

Fitilev took a very critical attitude to the Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky government. Together with his brother Oleksandr, he even organized a squad of "free Cossacks" which joined the anti-hetman insurgencies in late 1918. However, their relationships with the Directory, which eventually toppled Skoropadsky, were not easy. Around Christmas time in 1919, Symon Petliura's fighters arrested the "unruly" Fitilev and two of his men. The "free Cossacks" tried to release him, and he ran away during the skirmish. In the first half of 1919, he worked in Bohodukhiv as an educator and joined the CP(B)U. It was at this time that he married Kateryna Hashchenko, who was a teacher. Being a converted communist, Fitilev flatly refused to be married in church and thus incurred the wrath of his mother-in-law.

Family tensions were dramatic, because they involved collisions of "morals and class". Kateryna's father was a wealthy planter. Dania Hashchenko, Kateryna's younger sister, remembered: "Every time he came, he irked our mother as he tried to persuade her not to keep her maids Olena and Nastia and the groom, Varivon, at work so late, so that they could attend  improvised courses and learn to read and write. Her mother was most hurt by the fact that a son-in-law, who had not even been married in church, was interfering with their family 'kingdom'. "Another thing my parents didn't take well was that Mykola Hryhorovych always held 'rallies' at home, speaking about the 'paradise' that would come with communism, when people would live in communes as bees in our frame hive in our blossoming orchard. He always spoke so passionately that even we small children hung on every word as if it were a fairytale."

Ukraineat this time was occupied by General Denikin's White Army. Fitilev again found himself on the frontline, now in the Red Army where he served in the headquarters staff and then in the editorial office in an army newspaper. His biography also mentions working in the political department of the Southern Front and the Second Cavalry Army and his being engaged in battles against General Wrangel's forces. Around this time, Khvylovy remarked tongue in cheek that he had to write "propaganda pieces for placards and newspaper in the style of Demian Bedny."


In early 1921, Fitilev left his wife and their little daughter Iraida in Bohodukhiv to go and "capture" Kharkiv. (Incredibly, his daughter is still among us, and the present author met with her in Kharkiv in 2009.) This was the end of Fitilev and the beginning of Mykola Khbylovy. From then on, he committed himself completely to literature. He wrote in his autobiography that he was demobilized under a "Central Committee decision" in February 1922 after serving "over seven years in essentially two armies – tsarist and the Red Army."

In 1923, Khvylovy the poet was one of the leading members of Hart — an Association of Proletarian Writers set up by Vasyl Blakytny, a prominent party figure and poet. His first prose collection, Syni etiudy (Blue Etudes), was published around that time. Critics wrote about him as "the founder of the new Ukrainian prose"! The year 1923 was a turning point in Khvylovy's intellectual career. That year he wrote Ya (Romatyka) in which his protagonist, a Cheka officer, experiences tragic choices when he sacrifices his own mother to the "foreign commune." Mother Maria easily suggested Ukraine, and this could mean only one thing: Khvylovy sensed that the Bolshevik regime was destroying his nationalist dreams. And even he himself, a Ukrainian, communist and co-creator of this foreign commune – was he not killing his Mother?

When this short story was published, some surmised that the author was indeed a former Cheka officer. The quasi-historian Dmytro Tabachnyk still claims categorically that "the main ideologue of the Skrypnyk Ukrainization, writer Mykola Khvylovy, had … a butcher's past. As deputy head of the Bohodukhiv District Cheka Office, he was involved in mass executions of hostages and implemented the policy of red terror." All of this is fiction, starting from the allegation that Khvylovy was "the main ideologue of the Skrypnyk Ukrainization." There is no documentary evidence to confirm this.

In December 1923, Khvylovy read his short story Ya (Romantyka) from the stage of the Opera Theatre in Kyiv. He was a member of a delegation of Kharkiv-based Hart members who were brought to Kyiv to "proletarize" the local literary elite. One of his listeners was the neo-classicist poet Mykola Zerov. When the two men got acquainted, it literally turned Khylovy's world upside down: the name of Zerov was a synonym of culture to him from then on.

1923 also saw the beginning of the indigenization policy. Implementation efforts revealed how acute "the struggle of two cultures" — Ukrainian and Russian — was. Khvylovy took the dramatic clashes linked to the zigzagging national policy very close to his heart. "Am I an unwanted man because I love Ukraine to distraction?" he said through one of his protagonists, editor Kark (Redator Kark, 1923). His two natures – communist and Ukrainian – were battling in Kark's soul, and this tumult could end with a Browning shot, the author hinted. Suicidal thoughts were haunting Khvylovy at the time. "In a word, it's Dostoevsky style, pathology, but there is no way I can shoot myself," he wrote to Zerov. "I went out into the field twice but came back safe and sound both times: evidently I'm a big coward and good for nothing," he said, his conduct pointing to an inner conflict.

An extremely hot debate in the party of which Khvylovy was a member exacerbated his oppositionist attitude. The discussion was inspired by Leo Trotsky who headed the "opposition in 1923." Trotsky wrote an open letter to the Central Committee sharply criticizing the bureaucratization of the party and the suppression of democracy within the party itself. He was supported by "the revolution's generals": Pyatakov, Antonov-Ovsienko, Preobrazhensky, Muralov, and others. With whom did Khvylovy side with at the time? I am in no doubt that he supported Trotsky. He also perceived the "tyranny of the apparatus" and the moral degradation of many leading communists. Not only did he see it, he also wrote about it with his "red-hot pen" in his prose (Ivan Ivanovych).


In 1925, Khvylovy joined the discussion about the "struggle of two cultures." The main target of his criticism was Pluh-style literature with its mass appeal, provinciality, lack of culture, and inferiority. Khvylovy understood what was happening: boors were coming under the slogans of "proletarian art." He himself was seeking alternatives and found them in artists of Zerov's caliber, those who cried: Ad fontes!, i.e., to the classics. Khvylovy identified a "psychological Europe" as an alternative to the literary "Moscow." The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature (VAPLITE), which was founded on November 20, 1925, was to become the embodiment of this ideal.

In February and March of 1926, Khvylovy's most piercing pamphlets – the series 'Apolohety pysaryzmu' (The Apologists of Scribbling) – were published in the press. Soon thereafter, in April, Stalin interfered in the discussion. In his letter to Lazar Kaganovich and Politburo CP(B)U members he criticized the nationalist deviations of "communist Khvylovy." He emphasized that the party's goal in the spiritual and national spheres was to merge national cultures into a Soviet culture. Why was he so alarmed? The answer is clear as day: he grasped that the USSR could lose Ukraine. The danger was not even in the political slogans of Ukraine's separation and independence. It was manifest in Ukrainians' very desire to be a highly-cultured nation. Thus, cultural issues became politics. The fear of losing Ukraine prompted aggression on the part of the VKP(B) and its "punitive sword."

Khvylovy's pamphlets – "a midnight cry in a faraway region" (Zerov) – challenged the "Red Empire." However, the writer's rebellion strangely alternated conformity and fresh thinking with dogmatism. His ups and downs, surges of free spirit and "ritual" self-flagellation, as well as attempts to flee from himself were caused by the tragic contradictions in his character and his division. He was a doctrinaire; the party was his idol, regardless of any evidence to the contrary, and communism the loftiest sense and ideal. His greatest pain was Ukraine, which was being taken over by VKP(B) at the time. "I often waver where I have to act resolutely. All of this is tormenting me," Khvylovy wrote in a memo for a party-purging troika in 1924.


For a while he seemed to believe that he could outmaneuver the system. The first letter in which Khvylovy recanted his views was written under the pressure of scathing party criticism (December 4, 1926) and appeared to be a tactical move. For a while, he was left alone. And he began to publish new pamphlets in 1927. The Vaplite journal (Is. 5) carried the first part of his novel Valdshnepy (The Woodsnipes). The next issue, which was to contain the ending, was confiscated by authorities, and the treatise "Ukraine or Little Russia?" was banned from publication altogether. In November that year, Kaganovich, speaking before the 10th Congress of the CP(B)U leveled damaging criticism against the "deviations" of Khvylovy and former People's Commissar for Education Oleksandr Shumsky.

The GPU (Chief Political Directorate, later NKVD) started a dossier on the writer and a true hunt for Woodsnipe (Khvylovy's nickname in Cheka) was launched. Khvylovy had an established reputation of a "noted Ukrainian chauvinist." The GPU carefully studied the second part of The Woodsnipes, a novel about "a vacillating communist and a nationalist Ukrainian woman who tempted him," and noted that via the female character, Ahlaia, the author quoted "entire leading articles from Petliura's Tryzub." This could not be otherwise: the GPU's informers, including a number of writers, wrote reports virtually everyday, recording every step taken by anyone thought to be unreliable or suspicious. Perhaps in order to make surveillance easier writers were placed in one building??

However, in December 1927, Khvylovy, his second wife Yulia Umantseva (he divorced Kateryna Hashchenko in 1922) and their adopted daughter were allowed to travel to Austria for medical treatment. Khvylovy suspected he was simply being exiled. There is evidence that he was dealing with a complicated worldview and a psychological crisis during this period. "Bourgeois" Europe was a disappointment. The party press continued to lambast "Khvylovism." Not surprisingly, on January 28, 1928, VAPLITE disbanded itself, and Khvylovy's second repentant letter was published on February 22. The same old pattern could be observed: Khvylovy published a "ritual" letter, while repeating his old appeals to his friends: "We must take our literature to the wide European arena at any price. … The Free Academy of Proletarian Literature is dead; long live the State Literary Academy." What was it – a clever maneuver or a sign of his even greater confusion?

Upon returning from abroad, Khvylovy set about publishing the journalLiteraturny yarmarok (Literary Fair, 1928–30) and rallying former VAPLITE members around it. Unfortunately, the time of his surrender was imminent. He passed the point of no return, I believe, when he spoke publicly against Serhiy Yefremov at the SVU (Union for the Liberation of Ukraine) trial in March 1930. Khvylovy was broken. Worst of all, he was sincere in his denunciation of Yefremov in articles he published in the newspaper Kharkivsky proletar (Kharkiv Proletarian). The group of people who stood before court in the SVU trial was deeply alien to him: those were representatives of the old Ukrainian intelligentsia, while he was from the generation of "rebellious" revolutionaries.

Khvylovy set up one more, quite loyal literary organization, Prolitfront (1930-31), and a journal under the same name, but Stalin's "Great Turn" demanded that everything be strictly subordinated to the party. And there he was again, criticizing "Khvylovism" and repenting for the third, and last, time at a meeting of the VUSPP, a Kharkiv-based and party-inspired literary organization. In February 1931, under the pressure of damaging criticism against Prolitfront, Khvylovy, Pavlo Tychyna, Mykola Kulish, Yuriy Yanovsky, and another 14 writers joined the VUSPP. This essentially signalled capitulation. Khvylovy would shoot the fatal shot a little more than two years later.

Khvylovy's story is tragic not only in that it illustrates the cruelty of Stalin's totalitarian regime, which, by the way, skillfully played on contradictions among writers, fuelling the ambitions of some and disciplining others, which made infighting between literary groups look like self-destruction. The problem was also with the political illusions of an entire generation of Ukrainian national communists who hoped that Ukraine could be built together with the Russian Bolsheviks. When their eyes were opened, they mounted resistance against the "Red Empire," but it was too late.

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