Ukraine Is More Alive Than Ever, While Its Enemy Is Rotting From the Inside Out - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Ukraine Is More Alive Than Ever, While Its Enemy Is Rotting From the Inside Out
Kyiv, Ukraine (Ruslan Lytvyn/Shutterstock)

The dark shattered wicked winter

silence waits at the door like death.

What will remain of this winter

will be the words and how you said them.

– Serhiy Zhadan, “The Dark Shattered Wicked Winter” (2015)

The Budynok Slovo, or Word House, stands on the corner of Kultury and Literaturna streets in Kharkiv’s northern Shevchenkivskyi district, a C-shaped pile of brick, plaster, and reinforced concrete looming large over the surrounding cityscape, and even larger over Ukraine’s collective consciousness. Built in 1929 to accommodate members of the nascent Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic’s literary elite, Slovo House is rather unprepossessing in its current state, its decaying constructivist exterior pockmarked by weather-blotched stucco, discolored paint, spalled concrete, and corroded railings. A Russian missile salvo on March 7, 2022, further disfigured the structure, blowing out windows and gouging deep shrapnel scars into its already time-worn façade. When it was inaugurated on Dec. 25, 1929, however, Slovo House was an altogether desirable residence, containing 66 apartments of three, four, or even five rooms, and featuring private lavatories, spacious living areas and kitchens, high ceilings, central heating, laundry facilities, and individual telephones. There was a solarium on the roof, a nursery school (and a bomb shelter) in the basement, and even a beauty salon on the premises.

Ukrainian writers had grown accustomed to privation in the early days of the Soviet Union. The poet Pavlo Tychyna, for example, was obliged to live out of his office at the Chervonyi Shliach magazine headquarters, while others eked out meager existences in unheated homes, concealing their manuscripts in lidded pots overnight, lest their precious papers end up lining the walls of mouse nests. When Slovo House opened, offering congenial apartments tailored to the needs of Ukrainian intellectuals and their families, there were consequently dozens of novelists, playwrights, theater directors, poets, essayists, journalists, historians, and philosophers eager to move in. It must have seemed too good to be true, and indeed it was. Little did the new tenants, the so-called Sloviany, suspect that they were falling into a Soviet trap from which few if any would emerge unscathed.

Within a matter of months, residents of the Budynok Slovo had a new name for their apartment block: Budynok Poperednioho Uviaznennia, the House of Preliminary Imprisonment. The telephones were tapped, plainclothesmen from the Soviet secret police stalked the grounds, and the façade entrances were permanently locked to prevent unsupervised ingress and egress. Then the arrests started, beginning with the actress and writer Halyna Mnevska, who was taken into custody on Jan. 20, 1931, after bravely refusing to denounce her ex-husband, the poet and Klym Polishchuk, who himself had been jailed on vague charges of “bourgeois nationalism.” After Mnevska came the historian Pavlo Khrystiuk, who would perish in a Sevvostlag forced labor camp in the Russian Far East, and then came Ivan Bahrianyi, whose provocative historical verse novel Skelka told the story of an 18th-century Ukrainian peasant uprising against tyrannical Muscovite monks. Bahrianyi was convicted of “counter-revolutionary agitation,” but somehow survived an 11-month stint in solitary confinement, six years in eastern penal colonies, and further stretches in NKVD prisons, managing to die peacefully in 1963, albeit in Bavarian exile.

When the daring futurist poet Mykhailo Yalovy (pen name Yulian Shpol) was abducted by agents of the Kharkiv State Political Directorate, his friend and neighbor, the equally talented poet and essayist Mykola Khvylovy, fell into despair, scribbled out a suicide note lamenting “the murder of an entire generation,” and shot himself in the head. Yalovy, the theater director Les Kurbas, the playwright Mykola Kulish, the novelist Valerian Pidmohylny, and the journalist Hryhorii Epik would all meet their ends in the infamous Karelian killing fields of Sandarmokh. Some of the Sloviany would be sent to the Solovki Special Purpose Camp, others to the Baikal Amur Corrective Labor Camp, still more into exile in Kazakhstan or the Far East. And then there were those spared such a fate, but only when they succumbed to tuberculosis, experienced mental breakdowns, or took their own lives, as in the cases of Mykola Khvylovy and Ivan Mykytenko. Two former residents of Slovo House, the Yiddish poets Itsyk Fefer and Leib Kvitko, held out until 1952, when they were executed by the Soviet authorities on the infamous Night of the Murdered Poets.

Despite czarist domination and cultural suppression, bloody civil and world wars, and Soviet campaigns of cultural and physical genocide, Ukrainian culture has time after time proven itself inextinguishable, always ready to renew its life-affirming mission.

What started out as an upmarket “House of Writers” had devolved into a glorified pre-trial detention facility. By the end, it was just called the “crematorium.” Olga Bertelsen, in her comprehensive 2013 paper “Spatial Dimensions of Soviet Repressions in the 1930s: The House of Writers (Kharkiv, Ukraine),” noted that “in Budynok Slovo there were 66 apartments. Three of them were not residential and belonged to the cooperative’s administration, kerbud (the chief of the building) and the kindergarten. The arrests in 63 apartments of the building lasted relentlessly until the beginning of the Second World War. A decade of terror wiped out 59 people who lived or used to live in the House of Writers … Only 7 former residents of Budynok Slovo miraculously survived the gulag.” Mykola Khvylovy and his fellow Sloviany had the temerity to adopt the slogan “Away from Moscow,” declaring their young country to be “in the ascendant,” and one whose cultural “orientation is to Western European art, its style, its techniques.” They would be punished severely, their tragic generation posthumously given the name of Rozstriliane vidrodzhennia, the “Executed Renaissance.”

The death toll extracted from Slovo House might pale in comparison with the millions of lives lost in the man-made Holodomor terror-famine that was engineered by Joseph Stalin around the same time, but there remains something particularly terrifying about the dark, doom-haunted corridors and crumbling visage of the utopia-turned-prison that was the Budynok Slovo. Serhiy Zhadan, Ukraine’s modern-day national poet and a resident of Kharkiv, memorably described the dreaded building in one of his most poignant works, “The End of Ukrainian Syllabotonic Verse,” which begins by recounting how:

they once lived in this building

see the fading red paint blistering on the window frames

it’s from those times when someone decided to put

them all into one building so that their breath could be heard

in the hallways

and which concludes:

it’s simple, such buildings exist

where the final border is particularly grim

where hell and the veins of underground ore are unexpectedly close

where time sticks out like lumps of coal from the ground

where death begins and where literature ends

Just as eloquent, perhaps, is the bit of graffito scrawled on Slovo House’s stuccoed exterior, proclaiming “мою культуру розстрілялй,” “my culture was executed.”

Present-day Russian chauvinists, their bloodthirst evidently still unslaked by the monstrous crimes being committed in their name in Ukraine — and as I write this, a Russian 122mm rocket has just landed on a bus stop in liberated Kherson, killing at least six and wounding 12, bodies and blood and bone fragments and brain matter and bits of shrapnel spread all over the street, an everyday occurrence for a year now — like to speak oh so highly of the myriad benefits of membership in the “Russian World.” The war correspondent and propagandist Dmitry Steshin, for one, having determined that “[Y]ou can’t consider them [Ukrainians] as people with full-fledged morality and normal mental apparatus,” has declared that “[W]e need to take what’s ours and make it so that they’re afraid to even think about so much as to breathe the wrong way towards Russia… We’ll see what kind of a beautiful life we’ll create for them and how they’ll want to again rethink their identity.” The best way to see what that “beautiful life” entails is to observe the footage of crimes against humanity from Kherson, Dnipro, Kramatorsk, or Bucha, if your guts can confront it, or your conscience, if you happen to be a Russian fascist or one of their tiresome fellow travelers abroad. Another place to witness Steshin’s “beautiful world” is Slovo House, that sinister lieu de mémoire whose very walls, as Olga Bertelsen put it, “preserve the memory of unmatched state violence that was disastrous for Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian citizenry,” a violence that has, since the Russian invasion of Feb. 24, 2022, again been visited upon Ukraine with renewed vigor and an avowedly genocidal agenda.

It is one thing to attempt to execute an entire culture, but it is quite another thing to actually succeed. The anti-communist Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, in his 1947 treatise Society, Culture, and Personality: Their Structure and Dynamics, asserted that “[O]nly petty and relatively valueless cultural systems and congeries fail to revive (and there are exceptions even to this rule). Truly great cultural systems and supersystems are virtually indestructible. They may be enfeebled, suppressed, or temporarily extinguished; but ultimately most of them reassert themselves and renew their development until they have achieved their creative mission.” Despite czarist domination and cultural suppression, bloody civil and world wars, and Soviet campaigns of cultural and physical genocide, Ukrainian culture has time after time proven itself inextinguishable, always ready to renew its life-affirming mission.

Thus when the death of Stalin paved the way for the khrushchovskaya ottepel, the Khrushchev Thaw, a new generation of Ukrainian writers and thinkers stood ready to take advantage. Formed in 1960, the Klub tvorchoi molodi, or Club of Creative Youth, constituted a tightly knit collection of Kyivan writers, visual artists, and filmmakers who would become famous for what the historian Benjamin Tromly characterized as its “independence from top down regulation, its spirit of youthful equality, and its ethos of creative freedom, marked by the bold challenges to artistic and ideological conformities that were staged under its aegis.” Those shistdesiatnyky, or “sixtiers” exclusively spoke and wrote in Ukrainian, organized lectures on Ukrainian history, held solemn memorials for victims of Stalinist repression like Les Kurbas and Mykola Kulish, and even formed a committee to investigate rumors of Stalin-era mass graves in the Kyiv environs. On May 22, 1964, the club organized a torchlight parade ending at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko monument in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the poet’s birth, an event that became a yearly tradition and a focus of Ukrainian dissent. To mark the occasion, the Club of Creative Youth commissioned a stained glass window depicting Shevchenko, his arms enclasping a young girl representing the Ukrainian nation, accompanied by his immortal lines:

I will exalt these small, mute slaves

I shall put the word on guard beside them

V.A. Boichenko, the Kyiv Provincial Party Committee’s Secretary for Agitation and Propaganda, ordered the stained glass window removed and destroyed, and by 1972 the club’s patriotic annual parade would be frustrated by a wave of arrests.

While the shistdesiatnyky had succeeded admirably in once again reviving Ukrainian culture, their actions had provoked an equal and opposite reaction. The 1970s would be known as a zadushenym desyatylittyam, a “strangled decade,” marked by the imprisonment of dissident writers like Vasyl Stus and Sviatoslav Karavansky, the tragic suicide of another persecuted writer, Hryhir Tiutiunnyk, widespread censorship, crackdowns on publishers, and the removal of Ukrainian artifacts from museums. When the composer Yevhen Stankovych’s 1977 lush folk opera When the Fern Blooms, based on the works of Mykola Hohol, was set to premiere at the Kyiv National Palace of Arts, theater-goers were surprised to find that the performance had been canceled at the last minute, presumably on the orders of Valentyn Malanchuk, the ideology secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party’s Central Committee, a figure described by Maksym Strikha as possessing “a pathological hatred of Ukrainian culture and its representatives.” The sumptuous folk costumes designed by Yevhen Lysyk for When the Fern Blooms were treated with a chemical powder, reducing them to dust. Stankovych would redirect his energies toward his magisterial 1981 ballet Princess Olha, a riveting tale of revenge and religious conversion, of barbarism and civilization, set in the time of the Kyivan Rus, but his works would consistently be denied the acclaim they so richly deserved.

Ukraine’s 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union provided an unprecedented opportunity for its culture yet again to reassert itself and renew its development. The arts gradually began to flourish, given a further impetus by the momentous events of the Orange and Euromaidan revolutions of 2004 and 2013–2014. Youth arts groups like the Revolutionary Experimental Space and SOSka formed in Kyiv and Kharkiv, respectively, writers like Taras Prokhasko and Serhiy Zhadan emerged and achieved international recognition, and brilliant visual artists like Katerina Kosianenko carried on the tradition of Boychukism, a movement named after Mykhailo Boychuk, the painter who so expertly fused neo-Byzantine and Ukrainian folk motifs before being murdered in Stalin’s Great Purge.

Museums and monuments dedicated to the victims of the Holodomor, meanwhile, were established or erected all across Ukraine, from the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv to the “Barrow of Sorrows” monument in Mhar, and from the towering pietà-style memorial in Dnipro Ukraine to the Monument to the Victims of Holodomor in Mariupol, which was dismantled by the Russian occupiers in late October 2022 in a grotesque act of vandalism and denialism. Part of the infamous Slovo House was turned into a writer’s residence, thanks to cooperation between the Kharkiv Literature Museum and PEN Ukraine, and would host literary luminaries including Serhiy Zhadan, Oksana Zabuzhko, Lyubko Deresh, and Lyuba Yakimchuk, the latter of whom wrote the script for the 2017 documentary Budynok Slovo: Neskinchenyi roman, or Slovo House: Unfinished Novel, winner of the 2018 Golden Dzyga award for best Ukrainian documentary.

Independence likewise allowed for a revival of Yevhen Stankovych’s marvelous folk operas and ballets. When the Fern Blooms finally saw the light of day on April 8, 2011, premiering at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine when it was performed by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine and the Folk Choir of Veryovka; a complete director’s version, with added choreography and video projection, debuted at the Lviv National Opera in 2017. Princess Olha was revived by the Dnipropetrovsk Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in 2010, and performed again in 2020, in commemoration of the 1075th anniversary of the birth of Anne of Kyiv, queen consort of France and Princess Olha’s great-granddaughter. As it happened, on the eve of the Russian invasion a year ago, it was When the Fern Blooms that was playing at the Lviv National Opera, and another one of Stankovych’s ballets, Evenings on a Farmstead near Dikanka, that was being staged at the Taras Shevchenko National Opera and Ballet Theatre of Ukraine in Kyiv. And on Feb. 24, 2023, the one-year anniversary of Russia’s illegal, unconscionable invasion, the Lviv National Opera will be premiering Stankovych latest work, The Terrible Revenge, based on a Mykola Hohol short story loosely inspired by the tale of Cain and Abel. “The performance,” the opera has announced, figures to be “highly relevant in the context of our collective revenge for the barbaric crimes of rashism.”

Those barbaric crimes of rashism, of Russian irredentism and ressentiment-fueled fascism, have been accompanied by genocidal rhetoric of an outrageous, almost operatic grandiosity. Karen Shakhnazarov, a pundit, filmmaker, and Putin lickspittle, has warned Ukrainians that “if they are counting on mercy, no, there will be no mercy for them. It all became very serious. In this case it means concentration camps, re-education, sterilization.” Sergey Aksyonov, head of the Crimean occupation authority, has similarly spoken of how the Ukrainians must be made to come “crawling on their knees into captivity and then under the tribunal or into hell. There are no other scenarios for them and cannot be.” State-funded RT’s Anton Krasovsky infamously conjured up the image of murdered Ukrainian children — “you throw them in the river with a strong undercurrent … Shove them right into their huts and burn them” — while Putin ally Dmitri Medvedev has been ranting incessantly on Telegram about how “I hate them. They are bastards and geeks. They want death for us, Russia. And as long as I’m alive, I will do everything to make them disappear,” expressing his animosity toward “pseudo-Ukrainian rabid mongrels with Russian surnames, choking on their toxic saliva … Rabies has no cure.”

The result of this outpouring of unadulterated hatred and eliminationism has been catastrophic: tens of thousands of military and civilian casualties, millions of refugees, entire cities reduced to rubble, mass graves in the forests, and 1,271 cultural infrastructure facilities, including 479 libraries, destroyed or seriously damaged. Members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia have been slain in cold blood, including the historian and classicist Oleksandr Kysliuk, who was gunned down in Bucha; the children’s book writer Volodymyr Vakulenko, whose body was disinterred from grave No. 319 in the killings field outside Izyum; and the composer Yuriy Kerpatenko, who was murdered in Kherson after refusing to participate in a concert organized in honor of Russia’s alleged “improvement of peaceful life.” In the martyred city of Mariupol, the sociologist Bohdan Slyushchynsky, founder of the literary journal Mariupol and adviser to the student literary association Pearls of the Word, died at the hands of Russians, as did the writers Natalya Kharakoz and Serhiy Burov. A member of the shistdesiatnyky, the renowned artist and fashion designer Liubov Panchenko, starved to death in Russian-occupied Bucha. Olena Lodzynska, director of the Ukrainian Sixtiers Dissident Movement Museum, later recounted that “what we saw at the hospital was a skeleton covered with skin,” with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, adding that Panchenko “was not broken by the KGB during Soviet times, but the Russian occupation broke her.”

Ukraine itself, however, did not break. Ukrainians inhabit a land where, to borrow Serhiy Zhadan’s words, “time sticks out like lumps of coal from the ground,” and they are determined not to let history repeat itself by succumbing to Russian domination. Their country will not become, like Slovo House once was, a vast, open-air budynok poperednioho uviaznennia, a house of preliminary imprisonment “where death begins and where literature ends.” During the Executed Renaissance, Ukrainian cultural figures were caught in a death trap before being dispersed to various killing fields and forced labor camps, but now they are serving in the armed forces, and sacrificing their lives, in this war of national survival. Over the course of the last year, we have seen ballet dancers Vadym Khlupianets and Oleksandr Shapoval killed at the front, alongside the actor Oleksandr Snihurovskyi, the director Oleh Bobalo-Yaremchuk, the Vanishing Kyiv blog author Serhii Myronov, the Kharkiv antiquarian and associate professor of the Department of Cultural Studies of the Kharkiv State Academy of Culture Valerii Romanovskyi, the Korean language professor and translator Denys Antipov, the historian Vadym Stetsiuk, the archaeologist Viacheslav Zaitsev, the Zhytomyr librarian Vitalii Pyvovarov, and far too many more to name here. (PEN Ukraine is maintaining a valuable, if heart-wrenching, continuously updated database of “People of Culture Taken Away by the War,” thereby documenting the horrific toll this war has taken on Ukrainian culture as well as the Ukrainian people.) Through their sacrifice, these heroes have done their utmost to prevent the murder of yet another generation, and the execution of yet another cultural renaissance.

The much-awaited Feb. 24, 2023 debut of Yevhen Stankovych’s The Terrible Revenge at the Lviv National Opera figures to be a bittersweet occasion, a celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday and his lifetime of artistic triumphs, achieved all too often in the face of totalitarian oppression. But the war will never be far from the audience’s thoughts, and the libretto is a disturbing one, based on a gothic horror story full of witchers, demons, nightmares, murders, and cossacks crying out from their graves, culminating in the tale of two brothers, Petro and Ivan, who fall into a fratricidal conflict. In Hohol’s telling, the villain Petro is eventually cast “into the deepest chasm,” where “all the dead men, his grandfathers and great-grandfathers, wherever they lived when alive, be drawn from all ends of the earth to gnaw on him for the torments he caused them, and gnaw on him eternally.” This punishment “will be the most terrible for him: for there is no greater torment for a man than to desire revenge and be unable to get it.”

One year ago, Putin’s revanchist regime invaded Ukraine for reasons it could never really explain — something to do with NATO, or protecting Russian-speaking Donbas communities (by demolishing their cities and murdering them by the thousands), or secret biolabs, or flocks of terrorist birds, or George Soros–funded Jewish Banderite Nazis, or maybe it was the threat posed by “dozens of genders” and cancel culture. Russia’s armored convoys entered Ukrainian replete with parade uniforms, riot police, hit lists, and lots of body bags, but from Snake Island to Sumy, the Ukrainians fought back, and have been holding their own ever since, with the vital aid of their Western allies. In the run-up to the invasion, Putin notoriously referenced a repugnant Russian rhyme concerning necrophiliac rape, telling Ukrainians, “Like it or not, take it, my beauty,” implying that Russia’s neighbor was a corpse that would soon be ravaged. (Lovely.) That did not come to pass. However many people it has lost, however many of its buildings have been destroyed, however many of its precious works of art have been stolen, Ukraine is more alive than ever, while its enemy is rotting from the inside out. Ukraine’s repudiation of Russian imperialism resulted in a terrible campaign of revenge, but one with no hope of ultimate success.

Mykola Hohol, in his 1835 Cossack adventure novel Taras Bulba, wrote of how “the future is unknown, and stands before a man like autumnal fogs rising from the swamps: birds fly foolishly up and down in it with flapping wings, never recognizing each other, the dove seeing not the vulture, nor the vulture the dove, and no one knows how far he may be flying from his destruction.” We may not know the future. We may now know how the war will play out in all its particulars. We do know one thing: Ukrainians are following the example of the Sloviany who exhorted their countrymen to get “away from Moscow,” while heeding the lessons of the cautionary tale that was the Executed Renaissance. Ukraine, like Slovo House, remains an “unfinished novel,” but it is one being written by Ukrainians, not their age-old tormentors, and that alone is revenge enough.

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Matthew Omolesky is a human rights lawyer and a researcher in the fields of cultural heritage preservation and law and anthropology. A Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, he has been contributing to The American Spectator since 2006, as well as to publications including Quadrant, Lehrhaus, Europe2020, the European Journal of Archaeology, and Democratiya.
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