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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Ukraine under the Soviets
by Clarence Manning

published by
Bookman Associates
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7

 p65  Chapter Six

The Literary Renaissance

At the beginning of the Ukrainian struggle for independence, the time was ripe for a new period in the literature. There were still living some of the old masters of the nineteenth century as Ivan Levytsky-Nechuy, who died shortly after the establishment of the Ukrainian National Republic. Lesya Ukrainka and Kotsyubinsky, the two foremost of the writers of the next generation, had died in 1913 and Oles, the representative of the generation of 1905, was in retirement.

This cleared the way for a younger group, as Tychyna and Rylsky, who were already testing their abilities when the First World War broke out.

The outbreak of the struggle in 1917 called back into life such publications as the Literary-Historical Journal which had been suppressed in 1914 by the imperial Russian government. It attracted to its pages the leading men of the older generation who were largely populist in their political views and in it appeared the writings of such men as Professor M. Hrushevsky, Vynnychenko, Samiylenko, Oles, Vorony, G. Chuprynka and L. Starystka-Chernyakivska. The list of contributors includes most of the people who had already established their reputation and the journal had a short but distinguished career.

When the Ukrainian National Republic finally was overthrown and the Soviet regime established, many of these older writers disappeared from Ukraine. Oles retired to Prague, and Vynnychenko and many others made their way to Western Europe. Even those who remained in Ukraine found themselves out of sympathy with the new government and relapsed into silence, but even this  p66 did not save them for many were arrested and executed at various times.

It was only natural that the period of the civil war was not conducive to the production of artistic literature. For those who were willing to cooperate, there were many posts open in the government, but the pressure of public affairs distracted them and left them little time for belles-lettres. For others who had less taste for political and public life, the obvious course was to retire to the villages and there meditate and work in silence with scanty hope for the immediate publishing of their works. This was the course largely pursued by Tychyna and Rylsky and their friends together with many of the Symbolists.

However, during 1917 and 1918 new almanacs and journals put in an appearance and these could hardly fail to express the political struggles, for some of them, as Mystetstvo (Art), were definitely leftist in character and others were the product of various groups and schools of writers.

With the final establishment of Soviet power, the literature lost most the freedom which it had acquired in the years of struggle. The Communists lost no time in suppressing all the old publications and in establishing their own. These were more or less strictly censored, and it was impossible from the beginning to publish any work which might awaken the suspicions of the new regime.

At the same time in Ukraine, as in the RSFSR, the Communist attitude toward literature was not clearly defined. The new authorities spread over the country a whole chain of Proletkult (Proletarian Art) centres with the idea of a speedy development of a new proletarian art. Yet the experiment was not too success­ful and, as an outcome of the similar developments in Petrograd and Moscow, these were soon suppressed but not until they had created a taste for writing in many of the younger and often uneducated generation, who were attracted by the slogans and the hopes inspired by the Communists.

This marked a definite break with the past and it was sufficient to eliminate from their commanding positions most of the older  p67 men. However, there was no official attitude adopted toward literature, no definite command to write in accordance with a definite style, provided that the authors stayed away from subjects that seemed to be openly anti-Communist.

The authors who were closest to the new regime were those that had approached Communism through the Left Social Revolutionists (the Borotbisty) and who considered themselves a "proletarian" group in the new terminology. Many of the earlier members of this group, as the impressionistic poet Vasyl Chumak and the prose impressionist Andry Zalyochy and also Hnat Mykhaylychenko, were killed during the civil wars or in various uprisings. In a sense they were fortunate and so was the outstanding novelist, Vasyl Blakytny, who died in 1925. Blakytny's death was widely lamented as the death of a distinguished author of revolutionary romanticism, but it was only a few years later when he, like the other Borotbisty, was accused of "unreliability," his works were officially banned and the plaque which marked the house where he died was removed.

Artistically, the Symbolists, as Tychyna, were technically the most advanced on the literary side. They were consciously trying to adapt the Western, and especially the French, conceptions of Symbolism to Ukrainian and without going into the decadent features of French Symbolism, they sought to acclimate in Ukrainian many of the devices and the metres that had been worked out in the West.

Close to them was the group of the Neo‑Classicists headed by Mykola Zerov. The members of the group, too, endeavored to produce high art with as few political overtones as possible. The group, which also included the poet Maksym Rylsky, sought to draw their inspiration from the classical world and they stressed the ancient connections between the Black Sea and the classical world of the Mediterranean.

Both the Symbolists and the Neo‑Classicists were in their hearts more or less hostile to the revolution, in so far as it was a destroyer of cultural values but they were anything but reactionaries or anti-Communists in the ordinary sense of the word. They were  p68 rather far removed from the developments of the present, interested in literature and literary criticism and standing for the preservation of cultural values.

In view of the relations between the Communists in Ukraine and those in the RSFSR, it was only natural that all of the literary debates that went on in Moscow should find an echo in Ukraine. This was the period when Bukharin, Trotsky and Lunacharsky were debating very seriously the relations between the Communists, the proletarian writers and the so‑called "fellow-travellers" who sympathized more or less sincerely with the revolution but who had not taken the full step and become members of the Communist Party. It was in this latter group that the greater Russian writers of the day were to be found and many of them had already achieved fame before the revolution. In 1925 they succeeded in obtaining what seemed to be a certain recognition by the party and it was on the basis of these decisions and this standard that both the Symbolists and the Neo‑Classicists continued to be able to publish.

At the same time Ukrainian literature could not be considered as a mere reflection of any of these groups. There was still too much consciousness of Ukrainian independence to make the more able authors merely blind imitators of a foreign literature. Besides, the contacts which still existed with Western Ukraine under Polish rule brought it about that even the Eastern Ukrainians were influenced both by the Polish and Austrian developments and writers as Stefanyk were read almost as much in Kiev and Kharkiv as they were in Lviv and Stanislaviv.

The taking over by the Borotbisty and the Ukapisty of the Commissariat for Education could not fail to have a definite effect upon the leftist writers who dreamed of establishing not only a proletarian literature but also a Ukrainian proletarian literature, and with this purpose in mind there developed at the capital of Kharkiv and also in Kiev and elsewhere a new series of literary schools and movements, each of which based itself upon its interpretation of the revolution. They started in general from two contradictory positions, depending on whether they stressed  p69 the revolutionary ardor of the peasants or that of the proletariat and this was roughly parallel to the division between the peasant and the factory writers in the RSFSR.

Thus the organization, the Plough, as its name implies, was the organ of that group which emphasized the role of the peasants and their connection with the proletariat. They admitted to member­ship every one who wished to write, provided he belonged to the "laboring element." Naturally, with such a slogan, much of their work was not of a high order but the leaders considered their work as educational and they did not object when the more competent and trained writers dropped away or joined other organizations.

Opposed to them was the Hart (the Tempering of Steel) which existed from 1923 to 1925. This based itself far more solidly on the proletarian writers of the cities. It stressed urban and factory life and saw the triumph of Communism transforming the peasantry into a type far more like that of the city proletariat than that of the old, independent farmer. Yet this group, too, was very soon torn by questions over the relations between the Russian and Ukrainian Communists and it split up after the publication of its first almanac.

The sharpest defender of a definite Ukrainian line in the Hart was Mykola Khvylovy and he very soon split away from the more moderates and those seeking a closer alliance with the Russians. He formed the group Urbino in 1925 and out of this grew the Vaplite, the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature, which became the rallying ground for all of the more consciously alert members of the leftist and Communist groups. It was with the Vaplite that there were associated most of these men, as Arkady Lyubchenko, Yury Yanovsky, Petro Panch, the dramatist Mykola Kulish, the theatrical producer Les Kurbas and such poets as Tychyna, Mykhaylo (Mike) Yohansen and Mykola Bazhan. This was the outstanding literary development of the period of Ukrainization and under the leader­ship of Khvylovy, they took a definite political stand on all the questions of the day.

There were similar groups in Kiev. Thus there was formed  p70 the Aspis (Association of Proletarian Writers) in 1923 and from this, in its turn, was developed the Lanka or Link in 1924‑6 and later the MARS (the Workshop of the Revolutionary Word), 1926‑8 with such members as Evhen Pluzhnyk, Dmytro Falkivsky and T. Osmachka. They sought to keep themselves somewhat free from excessive flattery of the government and in general shared the general attitude of the Vaplite in Kharkiv.

Another movement which had appeared just before the revolution was Futurism which, in the person of its leader, Mykhaylo Semenko, denied totally the artistic value of all preceding literary schools. The revolution gave this, too, the possibility of boasting that by its denial of the past it was the true mouthpiece for revolutionary art, even though its successes were relatively slight and many of its productions were almost unintelligible to the general public. The Futurists, too, engaged in the usual process of splitting and recombining during the height of this period, when the authors were still relatively free to express their own thoughts.

Beyond these again was the great mass of the proletarian authors. These were men, usually of less artistic ability, who listened eagerly to the general slogans put out by the Communists in Moscow and Kharkiv. They followed blindly the established formulas for the production of Communist literature. They had, in fact, the general attitude of the Russian On‑Guardists and they were more renowned for their reliability and skill in following the general line of the Party than they were for their literary originality or their moral and artistic integrity. They were in general the literary hacks of the day, often with slight primary education, and proletarian in more senses than one.

Thus during the period of Ukrainization, the literature moved along two distinct planes. Leaving aside those authors who endeavored to work in an anti-political world, there were those who blindly followed the political line and those men who ventured to think for themselves but along the lines of Communist thought. These latter were the logical outcome of the ideas of the Borotbisty and the Ukapisty and the proclamation of the independence of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. At times they could even  p71 be critical of the actual developments of the day but in their hearts they accepted the general articles of belief and sought to give them a fuller significance. The way was open to make them a loyal opposition to the regime and for several years they seemed to be attaining the position which they desired.

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