твої дерева живі дерева
сплелись корінням з тілами предків
у страсний тиждень з кори б’ють кров’ю
Your trees are living trees
Roots entwined with the bodies of forefathers
In Holy Week, blood is beaten from the bark
And faces emerge
– Myroslav Laiuk, “Дерева” (“Trees”) (2013)
A Russian artillery shell rends the air overhead as it describes a parabolic arc beginning in a howitzer tube, reaching its apex high in the expansive sky above northeastern Ukraine, and terminating at the DMS coordinates 50°09’25.6”N 35°46’04.7”E. The inevitable impact takes place just off Peremohy Street in the modest village of Skovorodynivka, about an hour’s drive northwest of besieged Kharkiv.
As death rains down on the streets of Skovorodynivka, similar arrivals are taking place throughout Ukraine, war crime after war crime, obscenity after obscenity, compounding on an hourly basis. Missile salvos directed at Kostiantynivka kill two and injure nine, airstrikes against Bakhmut destroy 13 houses and kill another civilian, and the wanton bombardment of Pryvillia claims the lives of two boys aged 11 and 14, while wounding two girls aged 8 and 12. An even more infamous war crime is committed this day in Bilohorivka, where of the 90 noncombatants who sought shelter in a school basement, only 30 will emerge alive after the structure is pulverized by Russian projectiles. Further to the west, Mykolaiv is hit by yet another rocket barrage, and six cruise missiles plow into the port of Odesa, with two hitting the international airport, and the remainder leveling a furniture company warehouse and a nearby apartment building. Desperate fighting rages along a frontline 1,500 miles in length, entire cities are reduced to grim heaps of calcined rubble, the list of dead, wounded, and missing grows ever longer, and now this savage war has come to the secluded village of Skovorodynivka.
There is nothing of any strategic value here that could possibly warrant such an attack, unless one counts the carp-filled Koropchatnik pond, or the rustic Muravs’kyy Shlyakh tavern, with its picturesque views of the tree-lined Panski Shtany reservoir. A Russian high-explosive shell comes crashing down all the same, demolishing what mendacious Kremlin propaganda channels will call a “military base,” but which in reality is Skovorodynivka’s lone claim to cultural fame: the National Literary and Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda. In happier times, which is to say just a few months earlier, the museum was a place of pilgrimage where visitors could pay homage to the 18th-century poet, philosopher, and composer of liturgical music Hryhorii Savych Skovoroda, sometimes called the Ukrainian Socrates, who ended his days on the grounds of the Kovalevsky family estate here in what was once the village of Pan-Ivanovka, but was in 1922 renamed in the writer’s honor.
The aftermath of the artillery strike leaves the neoclassical garden pavilion-turned-museum in shambles. Heinz Rein, the post-war German practitioner of Trümmerliteratur, or “rubble literature,” evoked such a scene in his haunting novel Berlin Finale (1947): “the stumps of their mutilated buildings rise naked and ugly among the heaps of rubble, they loom like islands from the sea of destruction, torn and shredded, the spars of roofs which have been blown away like ribs of stripped skin, the windows as blind as eyes with permanently lowered lids, occasionally blinking glassily, the walls bare, having shed their plaster, looking like aging women whose faces have been ruthlessly wiped of foundation and rouge.” The museum’s curators were able to spirit away the majority of the institution’s holdings, including manuscripts, paintings, furniture, and Skovoroda’s cherished violin, but several statues, too heavy to move, were reluctantly left behind. A photograph by Sergey Kozlov, taken in late May, shows one of the sculptures, a full-length portrait, standing singed but unbroken amidst a welter of brick and timber and crumbling plaster. “Observe humankind,” wrote Skovoroda in his fable The Poor Lark, and you will find that “it is a book that is black,” every bit as black as the charred rubble of the National Literary and Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda.
Fire may have engulfed the museum, but thankfully some of the most important features of the site escaped the inferno. The 700-hundred-year-old oak tree with its cavernous tree hollow, inside which Skovoroda liked to place his writing table and chair, was damaged during the Second World War, but the remaining snag survived this round of fighting, as did the nearby granite bas-relief of the poet and the sign informing visitors that this is indeed “the giant oak under which G.S. Skovoroda loved to work.” And, most importantly of all, Skovoroda’s famous gravesite was unscathed. Three days before he died, the Ukrainian Socrates is alleged to have experienced a premonition of his imminent demise, and set about digging his own grave, the better to lessen the burden on his fellow men. When he indeed passed away on the appointed day, November 9, 1794, at the age of 48, he was laid to rest in his garden burial plot, beneath a tombstone bearing the words he had requested be engraved thereupon: “The world tried to catch me, but never could.” Another tree grew over Skovoroda’s resting place, its roots entwining with his remains, its leaves providing shade to devotees over the years, though it too has been reduced to a limbless snag.
In his nightly address, President Volodymyr Zelensky informs his listeners of the news from Skovorodynivka, and draws the appropriate conclusion:
Last night, the Russian army fired a missile to destroy the Hryhorii Skovoroda Museum in the Kharkiv region. A missile. To destroy the museum. A museum of the philosopher and poet who lived in the 18th century. Who taught people what a true Christian attitude to life is and how a person can get to know himself. Well, it seems that this is a terrible danger for modern Russia — museums, the Christian attitude to life, and people’s self-knowledge. Every day of this war, the Russian army does something that is beyond words. But every next day it does something that makes you feel it in a new way. Targeted missile strikes at museums — this is something not even a terrorist can think of. But such an army is fighting against us.
The campus of the H.S. Skovoroda National Pedagogical University in Kharkiv has just been hit by a Russian missile, this time launched from a base across the border in Belgorod. Three floors of the building at Valentynivska Street have collapsed, concrete and steel girders are strewn everywhere, and a nightwatchman will eventually be pulled lifeless from the rubble. Before the strike, the entrance to the academic building had been graced with a bronze sculpture of Skovoroda in a contemplative pose, situated next to a wall featuring the poet’s enjoinder that “We will build a better world, we will make a brighter day come.” Leo Tolstoy considered Skovoroda to have been a “wise man,” “intelligent and learned,” and begged his personal secretary to send him material related to his intellectual precursor; the Russian symbolist writers Viacheslav Ivanov and Andrei Bely lauded his writings; and Joseph Brodsky considered him to have been “the first great Slavic poet.” How different are the Russians of our day, with their senseless attacks on Skovorodynivka and Kharkiv, as they instead systematically efface monuments to Skovoroda from the face of the Earth.
Again in his nightly address, President Zelensky is obliged to address the consequences of the Russian strikes:
Today in Kharkiv, the Pedagogical University was destroyed by a Russian missile strike — the main building, lecture halls, university museum, scientific library. This characterizes the Russian invasion with one hundred percent accuracy. When it comes to the definition of barbarism, this strike fits the bill the most. Only an enemy of civilization and humanity can do such things — strike missiles at a university, a pedagogical university. Already the second object dedicated to Hryhorii Skovoroda was damaged by this strike — a monument that was on the square in front of the university. It was covered with debris, but still the monument is not broken. And the Skovoroda museum located in the Kharkiv region burned down after Russian shelling back in May. However, paraphrasing the most famous words of Skovoroda, no matter how hard the occupiers try to catch us, they will fail. We will endure. And we will restore everything.
On the occasion of Ukraine’s Independence Day, the Sokil Philharmonic in the city of Kolomyia stages an adaptation of Skovoroda’s The Poor Lark, with proceeds benefitting the reconstruction of the museum in Skovorodynivka. “At a feast for birds, among larks and grouse,” the organizers warmly announce, “the Philosopher gives us the keys and practical guidelines for a happy life. So, since the winter of the war has been going on for half a year, let’s listen to the words of Skovoroda himself: ‘I give you my Poor Lark. He will sing to you even in the winter, not in a cage, but in your heart, and will help you a little to save yourself from the catcher and the trickster, from this evil world.’”
Today is the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of Hryhorii Skovoroda, and the occasion is being marked by the opening of the “Svit Skovoroda,” or “World of Skovoroda,” exhibit at the Ukrainian House exhibition center in Old Town Kyiv. President Volodymyr Zelensky and First Lady Olena Zelenska are in attendance, along with hundreds of others celebrating the life and achievements of one of Ukraine’s intellectual luminaries. The exhibition features a number of artifacts rescued from the National Literary and Memorial Museum of Hryhorii Skovoroda, foremost among which is the full-length statue that was once a gleaming white, but is now pitted and flecked with brown splotches, yet still recognizably Skovoroda, a charmingly wry expression on his disfigured face. Visitors can view his manuscripts, listen to his Baroque compositions, and even take a 3D tour of the village of Skovorodynivka. President Zelensky uses the occasion to connect Skovoroda’s intellectual struggles with the ongoing Ukrainian struggle for national survival. “It is very important,” he says, “that such exhibitions are organized even during a full-scale war. ‘Svit Skovoroda’ is about the idea of freedom in its various dimensions. And today we are fighting for our freedom.”
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a statue of Skovoroda is being unveiled in front of the Ukraine House in Washington, D.C. Created in 1992 by the American artists Mark Rhodes, it depicts the philosopher mid-stride and lost in thought, with a walking stick in one hand and a bible in the other. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, observes that “for a long time, the monument, like Hryhorii Skovoroda himself, was traveling in search of its place, and today it found it in the Ukrainian House,” adding that the monument has been oriented so that the philosopher’s gaze is directed eastwards, towards his beloved homeland.
If the invading Russians thought their campaign of cultural destruction and genocide could expunge Skovoroda’s legacy, they were quite mistaken. The itinerant philosopher is perhaps better known than ever, serving as something of a beacon in these dark times, almost rivaling the great nationalist poet Taras Shevchenko. We tend to think of Skovoroda as an otherworldly figure, viz. his memorable epitaph, but he was not blind to the age-old Russian oppression of his native country. He viewed Catherine II’s abolition of Ukrainian political institutions with horror — “you profane when you introduce the slave yoke and hard labor into a country of perfect peace and freedom” — and his poem about the Cossack Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, De Libertate, is even more explicit:
What is freedom? Is it any good?
Some say it is like unto gold.
But freedom is not like gold at all,
For freedom to gold is like wine to gall.
No matter how one embroiders it, My freedom I shall never forfeit.
Glory forever, O chosen one,
The father of freedom, heroic Bohdan.
In their 2022 article “The Spirituality of Hryhorii Skovoroda’s Work in Taras Zakydalsky’s Research,” published in the journal Anthropological Measurements of Philosophical Research, the Ukrainian scholars Mariya Alchuk and Andrii Pavlyshyn, both of Lviv’s Ivan Franko National University, persuasively argued that
Today Ukrainian people are in a difficult period of losing spiritual landmarks. The country’s leading elite, with which most Ukrainians agree, social media bloggers, politicians, and wealthy businessmen promote dubious ideals of life and sometimes lack moral and ethical guidelines. A new generation, which is drifting away from the established norms of society, has grown up, and this may lead to the moral degradation of people. The loss of universally recognized human values by Ukrainians is a real threat to society’s self-destruction. We believe that the spiritual shield that can stop such a process, may be the philosophy of the strong personality – Hryhorii Savych Skovoroda – with a unique intellectual potential, and true faith that can change the minds of every Ukrainian with a good heart. His philosophy has not lost its importance for three centuries and is topical to this day. In his work, a special place is occupied by the problem of the man – his meaning of life, true happiness, and congenial work. The teachings of the “Ukrainian Prophet” are relevant to us today, because they are aimed at improving the inner life of people, which the modern globalized world levels.
As millions of Ukrainians head either to the front or are forced to find refuge abroad, Hryhorii Skovoroda’s life and work provide at least a modicum of solace, for the wandering philosopher understood as well as anyone that “not worrying about anything means not living, but being dead, for caring is a movement of the soul, and life is a movement.”
Hryhorii Skovoroda is presently residing in Kharkiv, where he is a professor of poetics, ethics, syntax, and Greek at the Kharkiv Collegium. Taking time out of his busy teaching schedule, Skovoroda writes to his lifelong friend Mykhailo Kovalynsky with some advice, “especially about the kind of friends you should seek out.” Skovoroda’s suggestion is to associate “with good ones, I answer in short. And of the good ones, only those with whom you feel an affinity in the secrets of the heart.” Yet “a truly good human being, a Christian, is rarer than a white raven. In order to find such a human being, you will need many lanterns of Diogenes. What then is to be done?” Drawing on his own unpleasant experiences at the court in Saint Petersburg, Skovoroda warned his friend that “‘the world,’ according to the songs of Palinginius, ‘is a refuge for fools and a showcase for vice.’ Therefore I consider it best to acquire dead friends, by which I mean sacred books.” He concludes his letter hastily:
But the bell is calling me to Greek class. Therefore, if you would like to continue our conversation at a different time, then write to me soon. In this way we will continue our discourse about sacred matters, and at the same time develop our style.
Your greatest friend Hryhory Savych
23rd of November, from the museum
In 1769, worn out from backbiting university politics and intractable theological debates, Skovoroda will leave the Collegium with nothing but his knapsack, a flute, and a bible. His travels will take him across the length and breadth of northeastern Sloboda Ukraine, a journey that will end in the garden of Pan-Ivanovka, now Skovorodynivka, and in immortality.
It is eventide on the darkest day of the year, the hibernal solstice, and President Zelensky will soon be speaking before a joint meeting of Congress. In the meantime, I am engaging in a bit of harmless bibliomancy. Beneath the gaze of the busts of Taras Shevchenko and Lesya Ukrainka that rest on my mantelpiece, I walk over to the glass front bookshelf that holds our volumes of poetry — rows and rows of dead friends — and I select Skovoroda’s The Garden of Divine Songs. Opening it at random, I find his 23rd song, which laments how “the dumbest creature in the world is man,” and how “the more he lives, the worse of a fool he becomes.” On the opposite page is the even more suitable 24th song, which protests against the depredations of earthly powers:
O heavenly peace of ours!
Where have you hidden yourself from our eyes?
You are beloved by everyone as a rule,
You have divided us to take different paths.
Behind you sails billow in sailing ships,
So that these wings might find you in foreign lands.
They march behind you, tearing cities asunder,
They bomb for a whole century, but will they ever reach you?…
Sadness flies everywhere to weave its way,
Along the earth, along the water,
Faster than any lightning,
This demon can find us anywhere….
Glorious, for example, are heroes, but they lie killed in the fields.
If someone lives long in peace, he suffers in his old age.
God blessed you with good land, but in an instant it can be gone.
My lot is cast with beggars, for God gave us part of his wisdom.
Nihil est ab omni Parte beatum.
There is a chalice for all people.
A few days earlier, the head of the City of Moscow’s Department of Culture, Alexander Kibovsky, was asked by an interviewer to “end our conversation with a short, light poem,” to which the genocidal apparatchik responded by declaiming the final lines of Konstantin Simonov’s war poem “Kill Him!”
So kill at least one!
Kill him quickly.
As many times as you see him,
So many times must you kill him!
As is the case with living friends, not all dead friends are equal, and you must choose carefully between them. You cannot do any better than that rarest of white ravens, Hryhorii Skovoroda, a man whose legacy must be preserved at all costs.