“Away from Moscow”: a battle against provincialism in Soviet Ukrainian literature
Updated: May 9, 2018
In March 1924, a Moscow best-selling author Boris Pil’niak was invited to a literary evening in Kharkiv. Pil’niak was well-known in Ukraine. His recently published novel Golyi God [Naked Year] was highly-praised by both young revolutionary writers and admirers of Russian modernism. Moreover, it created a real fashion on Pil’niak, when a great number of imitators started copying his ornamental style and highly metaphorical use of language. At the same time, some contemporary authors were not considered original only because their style reminded the critics of that of Pil’niak. This was the case of perhaps the most prominent Ukrainian revolutionary writer, Mykola Khvyl’ovyi, who was often called the “Ukrainian Pil’niak”.
In fact, it was Khvyl’ovyi’s idea to invite Pil’niak to the Soviet Ukrainian capital. The literary evening was organised in such a way that Pil’niak could present his latest prose and the Ukrainian writers could introduce their Russian fellow to the literary developments in the Soviet republic. The event, however, finished with a scandal. The Ukrainian audience did not appreciate Pil’niak’s prose. From their perspective, it was simply not revolutionary enough. Khvyl’ovyi prepared a scathing review of the event, which was published shortly thereafter in the literary supplement to the official newspaper Visti VUTsVK. In the review, he called Pil’niak nothing but “a bard of a moribund noble estate”. 1Khvyl’ovyi also disclosed the intentions behind the invite of the Russian writer to Kharkiv. According to him, the literary evening was intentionally organised to show Pil’niak that Kharkiv was not a Russian (russkaia) province, but the capital of a separate Soviet republic. In a private correspondence from around the same time, Khvyl’ovyi explained that writers in Kharkiv took a militant stand against all “the brazen fellows Mayakovskys […] and all the dandies from the Moscow bohemia”, who denied the existence of Ukrainian literature.2
There are at least two considerations that make this mere literary episode important for the study of the early Soviet history in Ukraine. The first one concerns cultural development, while the second refers to the complicated centre-periphery relationship within the Soviet Union. In the mid-1920s, Khvyl’ovyi became widely engaged in the public debate over the future of Ukrainian Soviet literature and culture. The so-called Literary Discussion continued incessantly for almost three years between 1925 and 1928, and at different times involved the most prominent artists and politicians in Soviet Ukraine and Moscow, including Stalin himself. Regarded as the “last free debate” in Soviet Ukraine, 3 the Literary Discussion empowered the Soviet Ukrainian elites to voice their concerns on the status of their republic, on the one hand, and exposed the limits of the central control over the cultural sphere, on the other.
Khvyl’ovyi was probably the most prolific disputant in the Literary Discussion. 4 His main concern was how to make Soviet Ukrainian literature original and self-sufficient. From the Moscow perspective, little had changed since the imperial times, when the Russian capital was the centre of cultural trends, which were copied by, or brought down to the peripheries. Accordingly, Khvyl’ovyi as the “Ukrainian Pil’niak” represented the ‘small’ Ukrainian literature, which was subordinate to the ‘great’ Russian one. Well-aware of this comparison, Khvyl’ovyi resented it bitterly and reacted aggressively.
Instead, Khvyl’ovyi and his milieu regarded the 1917 revolution as a cardinal shift on the artistic map, which would finally enable independent cultural production. To succeed, however, Soviet Ukrainian culture needed first to become independent from the “Russian conductor”.5 Khvyl’ovyi questioned: “By which of the world’s literatures should we [Soviet Ukrainian writers] set our course?” He immediately provided a definite and unconditional answer: “On no account by the Russian. [...] Ukrainian poetry must flee as quickly as possible from Russian literature and its styles.”6
From Khvyl’ovyi’s perspective, this extreme attitude towards Russian culture was well justified. There was simply nothing new for Soviet Ukrainian literature to learn from the Russian one. Firstly, as stated, Russian literature had already exhausted itself during its golden age in the nineteenth century. In addition, even its best examples could offer no positive or useful role-models for a post-revolutionary audience. According to Khvyl’ovyi, the inherent feature of the Russian great literature was “passive pessimism”, represented through “superfluous people, […] parasites, dreamers, people without any given responsibility, whimperers, grey little people of the twentieth rank.” 7 Instead, new revolutionary literature was meant to propagate the value of a civic person and an active citizen, who was ready to take over responsibility and contribute to the Soviet society.
Secondly, Khvyl’ovyi thought little of Russian contemporary literature. Well-aware of the literary tendencies in Moscow, he was highly critical of the proletarian writers, who were united in the literary groupings of the Proletkult, the Smithy (Kuznitsa), the Octobrists, and On the Guard (Na Postu). Similarly, as seen from his reception of Pil’niak, Khvyl’ovyi was sceptical of Russian fellow-travellers (poputchiki). Overall, he considered the new Soviet capital as a centre of “all-Union Philistinism”, a hotbed of bureaucracy and perverted revolutionary slogans. Unlike Petersburg or Kharkiv, Moscow “essentially never saw the October revolution and its heroic struggle.” 8 So, Moscow, which itself had borrowed the proletarian ethos, could not kindle and sustain the belief in the future of communism.
In contrast, Khvyl’ovyi had high hopes for Ukrainian revolutionary literature. He was convinced that the revolution had initiated a distinct literary current, which he defined as romantic vitaism [from vita – Lat. life]. He believed that Ukrainian literature was able to completely divorce from the Russian tradition. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s backwardness was no news to him. He often described Ukraine as a ‘khokhliandia’ (derived from ‘khokhol’, a pejorative exonym widely used to denominate Ukrainians), “classic country of cultural epigonism”, of “servile psychology,” and full of “sluggish artists capable only of repeating what has already been gone before, of aping”. 9
To overcome this cultural backwardness, Ukrainian writers needed to change their cultural orientation and learn from the best examples. These could be offered by “Europe”. Khvyl’ovyi, however, did not just wish to change “the conductor”. As explained:
“When we steer our course toward Western European literature, it is not with the goal of yoking our art to some other wagon bringing up the rear, but with the aim of reviving it after the asphyxiating atmosphere of backwardness. We will travel to Europe to study, but with a secret idea – after several years to burn with an extraordinary flame.” 10
In the course of the Literary Discussion, Khvyl’ovyi and his followers quickly realised that a separate cultural tradition in Ukraine could only be possible if the centre-periphery relationship within the Soviet Union were redefined. So, they started challenging Soviet political and economic centralisation. In March 1926, in the last essay of the series Apolohety Pysaryzmu [Apologists of Scribbling] Khvyl’ovyi openly demanded political autonomy for Ukraine. He explained:
“Of course, the development of culture is “dictated by economic relations.” But the point is precisely that these relations are not at all “the same in both countries.” […] In a word, the Union nevertheless remains a Union and Ukraine is an independent entity. [...] Under the influence of our economy, we are applying to our literature not ‘the Slavophile theory of originality,’ but the theory of Communist independence. [...] Is Russia an independent state? It is! Well, in that case we too are independent.”11
Needless to say, Khvyl’ovyi’s views quickly attracted attention of the central party leadership. Khvyl’ovyi, a member of the Bolshevik party since 1919, was crossing the line. In April 1926, Stalin addressed the views of “a noted Communist” Khvyl’ovyi in his letter to Lazar Kaganovich, the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party. The letter read:
“At a time when the proletarians of Western Europe and their Communist Parties are in sympathy with ‘Moscow,’ this citadel of the international revolutionary movement and of Leninism; at a time when the proletarians of Western Europe look with admiration at the flag that flies over Moscow, the Ukrainian Communist Khvilevoy has nothing better to say in favour of ‘Moscow’ than to call on the Ukrainian leaders to get away from ‘Moscow’ ‘as fast as possible’. And that is called internationalism! What is to be said of other Ukrainian intellectuals, those of the non-communist camp, if Communists begin to talk, and not only to talk but even to write in our Soviet press, in the language of Khvilevoy?”12
Stalin’s criticism initiated a campaign against Khvyl’ovyi and his literary circle. At the 1926 party plenum, Khvyl’ovyi was accused of promoting the views of “the Ukrainian petite intelligentsia”, of advocating “a bourgeois restoration” of Ukraine and its orientation towards a capitalist Europe, and of “distancing from the fortress of the international revolution, the capital of the USSR, Moscow”. 13 These views were linked to the weaknesses of his proletarian consciousness. As explained by Volodymyr Zatons’kyi: “one cannot be born a Bolshevik, instead one becomes a Bolshevik. Out of Khvyl’ovyi and Khvyl’ovyis we should harden communists […] we should train people, who are useful for the revolution, who would not spread the poison of disbelief and liquidationism, but who would instead help the proletariat in its arduous everyday battle.” 14
On the last day of the party plenum, Khvyl’ovyi was given a chance to explain himself. Yet he fully accepted the party criticism:
“I can see that some of my points were somewhat exaggerated. However, I believe that there were also some grains of truth. […] Nonetheless, if the entire Plenum thinks I’ve got mistaken, then I should acknowledge my errors and stop. First of all, I am a disciplined member of the Party.” 15
It is interesting that even at the time of the fiercest critique, Khvyl’ovyi did not see a contradiction between his national position and party affiliation. Indeed, he was convinced that Ukraine was a separate state. In 1924, Khvyl’ovyi invited Pil’niak to prove that Kharkiv was not a province, but another Soviet capital. Two years later in his censored pamphlet Ukraїna chy Malorosiia [Ukraine or Little Russia?], he declared that
“We are indeed an independent state whose republican organism is a part of the Soviet Union. And Ukraine is independent not because we, communists, desire this, but because the iron and irresistible will of the laws of history demands it, because only in this way shall we hasten class differentiation in Ukraine.” 16
At the same time, he never doubted his party membership. In a private letter to his close friend Mykhailo Ialovyi dated from 7 February 1928, Khvyl’ovyi refuted any rumours about his political dissent: “I not only was not thinking of giving back my party card, but I will appeal to Stalin himself if anyone should think to take it from me.” 17 It seems that Khvyl’ovyi himself did not regard his views as a deviation from the party line. Instead, he represented the Ukraine-minded faction in the Communist party, which saw no contradiction between being Ukrainian and Soviet at the same time. This faction continuously and successfully attempted to reorganise the power relationship in the Soviet Union and ensure a separate cultural development of Soviet Ukraine. It only ceased to exist after the Stalin’s Great turn of 1928/29 and forcible centralisation of the Communist party and the Soviet Union.
Olena Palko is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Researcher at Birkbeck College, University of London __________________________________________________________________________________
1. Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, “Pil'niak, ‘Slovobludie’ i ‘Niekii’ Retsensent,” Kul'tura i Pobut, 11 (1924), p. 3↩ 2. Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, “Lysty”, Spadshchyna. Literaturne Dzhereloznavstvo. Vol. VIII (2013), p. 251↩. 3. George Luckyj, Literary Politics in the Soviet Ukraine, 1917–1934 (Durham-London,  1990), pp. 92-93↩ 4. Mykola Khvylovy, The Cultural Renaissance in Ukraine (Edmonton, 1986); Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, Tvory v P''iatiokh Tomakh (New York-Baltimore-Toronto, 1978-1986).↩ 5. Khvylovy, Apologists of Scribbling, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p. 222.↩ 6. ibid.↩ 7. Khvylovy, Ukraine or Little Russia, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p. 229.↩ 8. ibid, pp. 228-229.↩ 9. Khvylovy, Thoughts against the Current, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p.124.↩ 10. Khvylovy, Apologists of Scribbling, pp. 223-224.↩ 11. ibid, p. 222↩ 12. TsDAHO, F.1, op.20, Spr. 2248; On Khvyl'ovyi, ark.1-7; For English translation see: Luckyj, Literary Politics, pp. 66-68.↩ 13. A. Leites, M. Iashek Desiat' Rokiv Ukraїns'koї Literatury (1917-1927) (Kharkiv, 1928), vol. II, p. 300↩ 14. TsDAHO, F.1, op. 1, spr. 208, ark. 45.↩ 15. TSDAGO, F. 1, Op. 1, Spr. 208, Ark. 79-zv. - 80-zv.↩ 16. Khvylovy, Ukraine or Little Russia, p. 227.↩ 17. HDA SBU, Sprava-Formuliar C-183, ark.19.↩