By Simon Maass
I had one of my more ambiguous experiences with literature when I recently read “Stories from the Ukraine,” an anthology of tales by the early twentieth-century writer Mykola Khvylovy, translated and edited by George Luckyj. The book contains five short stories by Khvylovy himself, followed by an abridged autobiographical account featuring him but penned by another Ukrainian communist. As the foreword promises, these snapshots of a life of writing demonstrate Khvylovy’s creeping disenchantment with communism (at least as implemented in the USSR), culminating in the former secret service agent’s suicide at age thirty-nine. The collection is heterogenous in other ways, too: it encompasses works in very different genres, and of steadily improving quality.
Part of what makes Mykola Khvylovy such an interesting figure is that he was one of those rare Ukrainian nationalists who were also socialists. Thus, after the Red Army crushed the short-lived, but politically free, Ukrainian People’s Republic, Khvylovy joined the ranks of the notorious Cheka and the Communist Party. Most of his fellow Ukrainian nationalists held rather different attitudes, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army would later emerge in the turmoil of World War II as “one of the [w]ar’s most peculiar resistance movements in that it received no support from the Allies and battled both Soviets and Nazis alike,” with a hopeless clandestine struggle continuing as late as 1954. In the long run, the conflict between the Soviet Union’s ideology and Ukrainian nationalism had created tensions in this born fanatic’s worldview. According to Luckyj, the writer drifted away from communism “[u]nable to reconcile the dilemma of being a good communist and at the same time a good Ukrainian” (pp.3-4).
This raises an interesting question. Is there something about the Ukrainian character that makes that country’s nationalism naturally opposed to socialism, just as Canadian nationalism seems to have a deep penchant for left-wing policy? That is a question for another time. However, it is interesting to note the abiding influence on Ukraine during its time in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, reflected in the Liublin Triangle. The Commonwealth’s 1791 constitution was inspired by Enlightenment thought and, according to the Polish government, “is widely considered to be the first modern constitution in Europe and one of the world’s greatest documents of freedom.”
One of the most interesting aspects of reading “Stories from the Ukraine” is wondering to what extent Khvylovy really moved away from communism. Was he merely frustrated with Ukraine’s lack of autonomy in the USSR? His satirical piece “Ivan Ivanovich” appears to highlight certain problems that are bound to arise in any communist system, and to make fun of flaws in the Soviet government unrelated to the “nationalities question”:
Comrade Halakta is thinking: how strange, how difficult it is to understand the fact that the common people are still dissatisfied and cannot live joyously. This damned heritage of tsardom. (p.165).
Then again, in the autobiographical story at the end of the compilation, written by Arkady Lyubchenko, Khvylovy interprets the artificial famine that the Soviet government unleashed in Ukraine as a ploy to “settle once and for all the dangerous Ukrainian problem” (p.231) rather than as an “inevitable byproduct of collectivization” (p.230), a possibility he has apparently considered. Of course, both these explanations are partly correct. The famine had a distinctly genocidal quality, but abuses of one kind or another are virtually inevitable during collectivization on the scale seen in the early USSR.
As noted in Luckyj’s preface, Khvylovy was a determined advocate in favor of making Ukrainian literature more similar to that of the West and lessening its resemblance to Russian literature, a resemblance which he considered a product of Russian cultural hegemony. Indeed, Stalin himself criticized the Ukrainians for this agenda. I found this Westernizing passion most apparent in “The Inspector-General,” which is noticeably similar to Guy de Maupassant’s “A Country Excursion” (de Maupassant is mentioned in one of the other stories). A major difference is that Khvylovy had apparently progressed considerably in his political disillusionment by the time he wrote “The Inspector-General,” so the deep cynicism about human nature typical of the French author’s work is here also applied to the system of government. The lonely housewife feels trapped in her provincial life and disappointed in her husband, and nearly commits adultery with the prestigious inspector from bustling Kharkiv before she realizes that he is at least as debased, dishonest, and spineless as her spouse.
The other story that reminded me very much of something else was “Ivan Ivanovich.” This one is in a style that proliferated in Ukraine during the nineteen-twenties and –thirties, many examples of which can be found in the anthology “Odessan Pleiad.” Khvylovy’s story is especially close to the works of Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov, particularly those of their stories that are set in the workplace. Think Soviet “Dilbert,” and you will have a pretty good idea of the style in question. It is very light, very readable, and plays on the hypocrisy and small-mindedness of a devout Party member who preaches selflessness and revolution to anyone who will listen. Even outside Khvylovy’s time period, however, Ukraine has a long history of great comedy.
So how good are the stories in this collection? As mentioned, the author’s steady maturation is evident, and each story is better than the last.
The first, “Puss in Boots,” is chaotically written and difficult to read, and does not have much of a plot. However, it may be of value to readers interested in the Russian Civil War, the emotional side of which it captures, presumably, quite well. What captivated me was the author’s tendency to describe the war in very abstract terms and to place individuals he mentions into archetypal categories. Witness the last paragraph of the story: “Puss in Boots – a type. Full stop. Concise! Clear! that’s all” (p.30). This penchant brought to mind Roger Woods’ book on the German Conservative Revolution. Woods argues that the conservative revolutionaries, and especially Ernst Jünger, would seek to cope with the horrors they had experienced on the frontlines of World War I by thinking about them abstractly, viewing themselves and the real occurrences they had undergone as mere manifestations of archetypes. Perhaps this is a psychological maneuver to which soldiers of all ages and areas have resorted.
The prose of “My Self (Romantica)” retains some of the first story’s bewildering quality, though it is not nearly as bad. This narrative is strong in its chilling content, which leaves one wondering how much of it is taken from real life. The main character, a member of the Cheka to which Khvylovy himself had belonged, executes his own mother. We also encounter a theme that reappears in “Ivan Ivanovich” and “A Sentimental Tale,” of characters who treat communism almost like a religion. The narrator interrogates two theosophists:
“I: ‘Then according to you, the time has arrived for the coming of a new Messiah?’
The man and woman: ‘Yes!’
I: ‘Then why in the devil’s name don’t you make the Cheka into this Messiah?’” (p.43).
“A Sentimental Tale” involves a great deal of emotional subtlety. The story is written from the perspective of a young woman who leaves her native village for a big city in pursuit of a dream, then gradually despairs of attaining it. This is the first of these stories to present so clearly the theme of disillusionment, but it is not yet tied to the Soviet system and is more about the flaws in human nature. The protagonist’s lecherous boss, for instance, is a relic from before the revolution rather than a devoted communist. This tale also reveals something I had noticed while reading “Odessan Pleiad,” namely that Soviet citizens in the early post-revolutionary years were awestruck by the magnitude of historical change they believed was happening, and saw the generation which was just coming of age as destined to be virtually a different type of human compared to what had come before. One character, for example, declares: “I envy you because you belong to the new generation, and because to you our worries are meaningless” (p.76). This story is in large part about living in the countryside versus life in the city, and it is this one that comes closest to conveying some of the magical ambiances of the Ukrainian village. For a taste of that, see this clip from the 1967 Soviet film “Viy.”
“The Inspector-General” is fairly unremarkable. It is competently put together and will please readers who like bittersweet stories, but I found it a touch too dry.
Finally, “Ivan Ivanovich” is a delightful piece of comedic brilliance, and one of the funniest depictions of a champagne socialist I have ever seen. The titular character and his wife are superficially committed warriors for social justice, but in reality, they would work as caricatures of the bourgeoisie, with several servants, multiple-course meals, and luxurious furniture which may or may not has been looted from “some landowner” (p.173) by acquaintances of Ivan Ivanovich. Khvylovy’s use of irony is priceless, and the social conditions portrayed here are oddly familiar to today’s “woke” culture. Thus, the main character defines himself primarily through others’ perception of him as ideologically virtuous (p.164). He attends a meeting of his communist cell where the attendees shout down a member rumored to have disagreed with the idea of self-criticism, preventing him from responding to the condemnation that the chairman has leveled at him (pp.195-196). He even loses his Party membership in the end, mostly because it is simply in the Party’s nature to conduct purges.
As mentioned, the last item in the anthology was not written by Mykola Khvylovy. It comes from a friend of his and describes Khylovy’s last days. Following the blossoming of Ukrainian culture during the nineteen-twenties, Stalin’s crackdown on all things distinctively Ukrainian had begun, accompanied by a genocidal famine. This story shows Khvylovy desperate to find a solution to the humanitarian catastrophe, giving alms to a starving peasant woman, finding a lost child’s father in a packed train, and standing up for a peasant family about to be kicked out of a train compartment. They say that the only good communist is a dead communist, but in reading this account it would be hard not to conclude that Khvylovy’s heart had in some sense been in the right place all along and that he had cared most of all about helping the needy, even though we may disagree with the political model he had chosen to this end. At the last, he shoots himself.
History is repeating itself in other ways than the resemblance between “wokeness” and life in the USSR. Once again, tanks bearing the hammer and sickle roll through Ukraine. Once again, the Kremlin intends to “solve once and for all the dangerous Ukrainian problem.” Once again, a despot in Moscow cannot accept Ukrainians’ westward drift. I have explained the civilizational dimension of the war in Ukraine before. I cannot recall a more poignant illustration of it than the moment when a Ukrainian commander pointed at the badge on his uniform bearing the image of an eagle and expounded its meaning to an interviewer. “This is the eagle of the Roman Republic,” he said, “which symbolizes that we belong to the civilized Western world. […] And we are defending, fighting the barbarians in order to remain part of the civilized world.”