December 18, 2020

My Ukrainian literary dinner party


The election is over and I have a few thoughts, but I’ll wait until Joe Biden’s inauguration to share those. For now, I’d like to reflect on a favorite topic: Ukrainian literature and the beauty and complexity of the Ukrainian word, as well as the horrific associated politics, with the language frequently banned, writers arrested, indeed killed.  And revel in how the culture, the literature has nonetheless survived and is blossoming today.

So, for respite from the most horrible American election (and post-election) I’ve ever experienced, allow me to share a Sunday relaxation:  The New York Times Book Review, where authors relate their reading history, the interview ending: “You’re organizing a literary dinner party.  Which three authors, dead or alive, would you invite?”  Invariably, the list includes those whose works I’ve read with pleasure: Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Virgil, Emily Dickenson, James Baldwin and others.

It’s not likely The New York Times will ever publish my selections, but, just for fun, here’s my Ukrainian list. Given how consequential Ukraine has been over the past 30 years, and for centuries prior, the attendees would have a lot of weighty issues to discuss over vodka, caviar, salo (bacon fat), bread baked from Ukrainian wheat and, of course, varenyky (pierogis), maybe herring.

Taras Shevchenko is a no-brainer. I’m sure he’d be a fun person to meet.  He was friends with African-American actor Ira Aldridge when he was in St. Petersburg in 1858 performing Shakespeare – the two sharing a bottle, discussing issues of slavery and serfdom, singing songs, etc. Shevchenko also knew some of the greatest figures in Russian culture at the time.  He was briefly roommates with Armenian-Crimean painter Ivan Aivazovsky.  Fyodor Dosteyevsky spoke at Shevchenko’s funeral in 1861. Ivan Turgenev wrote an introduction to the first complete edition of Shevchenko’s “Kobzar,” published in Prague in 1876, 13 years after the tsar had banned the language in Russia.  What stories Taras could tell!  How he felt empowered to invoke a mystical connection to all Ukrainians who had ever lived, or would someday, on how the words he wrote and the defiant example he set mobilized tens of millions of Cossack and serf descendants, culminating with independence in 1991 and in the process bringing down the 20th century version of the Russian Empire.

I’d also invite Mykola Khvylovy, born near Kharkiv in 1893 during a time when Ukrainian culture was again artificially kept at a provincial level, the language banned from publication, even as it was burgeoning just across the border in Hapsburg-governed Galicia.  Khvylovy was in his teens in 1905 when Russia, convulsed by revolution, was forced to lift the ban on the Ukrainian language and cultural expression was opened. Mykola was 20 in 1914 when Ukrainians joyously celebrated Shevchen­ko’s centennial with a World War “exploding” months later and the Russian Empire collapsing in another revolution three years after that. In those tumultuous years Khvylovy joined the Bolshevik Party and, still in his 20s, became chief of the local political terror police organization Cheka, and at the same time a published writer of Ukrainian poetry and prose, becoming a leader of the 1920s Ukrainian Renaissance and espousing three astounding cultural/political slogans that energized Ukraine’s cultural and therefore political sector generations after Shevchenko first published his “Kobzar.” Namely:

— Away from Moscow!

— Move toward Europe!

— Give rise to a Ukrainian working class proletariat!

Like Shevchenko, Khvylovy sacrificed his personal well-being for the greater cause, becoming one of the most prominent victims of Stalin’s cultural purge, dramatically committing suicide in May 1933, a public and irrevocable response to the mass imprisonment and massacre of Ukraine’s creative/political sector.

And surprise! As a third invitee I would ask Alexander Solzhenitsyn. His mother was Ukrainian, his father Russian.  The Nobel Prize-winning author is best known for exposing the horrors of the Soviet slave labor network he famously labeled the “Gulag Archipelago,” in a massive three-volume opus inspired by his own ordeal as a political prisoner.

Solzhenitsyn came to know and admire Ukrainians in the post-World War II Siberian camps, crediting young UPA soldiers – “fresh off the guerilla paths” – for organizing the revolts that largely dismantled the Stalin Siberian labor camps – they saw the slavery around them, he wrote, and reached for their knives.

Solzhenitsyn also endorsed Ukrainians’ aspirations for independence:  “…we must realize that the feelings of the whole people are now at white heat…the time is at hand when we must pay on all our promissory notes guaranteeing self-determination and independence…”  And yet when independence for Ukraine actually came in 1991 he became a typical Russian chauvinist advocating for a united Slavic state encompassing Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and led by Moscow.

If I were at the dinner, I would point out to Shevchenko how the Ukrainian diaspora erected a monument to him in Washington inscribed with his plea: “WHEN WILL UKRAINE / HAVE ITS WASHINGTON / WITH FAIR AND JUST LAWS? / SOMEDAY WE WILL!”   How today, his now-independent land is America’s close friend and an ally against a mutual Russian adversary.

As for Khvylovy, I would point out how three massive Maidan demonstrations in the last 30 years were based on his very slogans:  Independence in 1991 – “Away from Moscow!”; the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution announced to the world: “Maybe you didn’t hear us – ‘Away from Moscow!’”; 2013-2014 – Revolution of Dignity – “Away from Moscow;” “Face Toward Europe.” These slogans are prophetic seventy years after Khvylovy first promulgated them.

What would Solzhenitsyn make of this massive, elemental rejection of Russia?  Unhappy to be sure, but I would point out to him that Ukrainians have repeatedly shown they want to be their own nation, separate from Russia and would encourage him to embrace his Ukrainian roots.  With Solzhenitsyn and other Russians railing against Ukrainian “separatism,” the dinner might end with a food fight, but Shevchenko and Khvylovy would more than hold their own, pointing to the overwhelming 90 percent vote for independence in 1991, the heroic resistance to Russian aggression today, how Ukraine has overcome its Russian past to become a civil society, not only independent but also free. Hopefully, we might all agree, Russia will also be free someday.

There’s no time machine, but there are books. Your post-dinner evening relaxation can well include an encounter with the greats in Ukrainian history and culture. All the best for Christmas and the New Year!


Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is