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Ivan Bahrianyi: perfect adventure novels, perfect adventure life01.02.2023
“Tiger Trappers” (or “The Hunters and the Hunted”) by Ukrainian writer Ivan Bahrianyi (1906-1963) is a perfect adventure novel about life in the Soviet Union. It has been translated into English, Dutch, German, Spanish, and other languages. The English translation of the 1950s received honorable mention from such papers as “Time”, “Newsweek”, “Associated Press”, “Herald Tribune”, “New York Post”, and “The Saturday Review”. Not only his work, but also Ivan Bahrianyi’s life was full of stunning adventures and unexpected rescues. One can say he managed to make his own asperity in Stalin’s torture chambers, wandering through the Siberian woods and the hell of the World War II into literature. And he was one of those (along with, say, Viktor Kravchenko) who already back in the 1940s told the truth about the USSR in the West.
Beginnings of the risky biography
Ivan Bahrianyi was born in 1906 in Okhtyrka in the northern part of Ukraine. At a young age, Bahrianyi traveled throughout Ukraine a lot, in other words, he was restless and adventurous from the start. As the writer recalled, for some period of time he belonged to a youth political organization associated with the “borotbists” (Ukrainian national communists who joined the Bolsheviks hoping to change their policy in Ukraine), and in 1922-1923, while working in the Donbas, he became close to the left-wing opposition (possibly Trotskyists or people from the “workers’ opposition”). Later he studied in Kyiv and joined the literary association “MARS” (Workshop of Revolutionary Word). Ivan Bahrianyi’s literary attempts at the time were rather modest, but pathetic and journalistic. For example, “Skelka”, his novel in verse about the rebel of Ukrainian peasants against Russian monks in the 18th century, provoked absolutely political reaction: it is said that this book was banned.
Try to count how many times Bahrianyi managed to escape from claws of NKVD
In the 1930s the “vertical” of the USSR as a new empire was being established, Stalin’s dictatorship was being cemented, industrialization, collectivization, and the Holodomor were being launched, and repression became unprecedentedly widespread. In 1932 Ivan Bahrianyi was arrested on a charge of “counter-revolutionary agitation”. Hovewer, in reality of the Bolshevik state he received an unexpectedly modest sentence: three years of exile in the Russian Far East. Just like the character of his novel “Tiger Trappers”, Bahrianyi experienced adventures, including an escape attempt, and met his first wife, with whom he returned to Ukraine. Here, in 1938, he was arrested again for allegedly participating in a “nationalist counter-revolutionary organization”. Would he be lucky with the NKVD a second time? Well, “no man ever steps in the same river twice”, but… It was the time when the conveyors of the Great Terror were working briskly, and the death sentences were being ceaselessly issued (in Soviet Ukraine, according to historians, more than 100,000 sentences were issued in about 15 months), and even those who were “only” sent to camps and not shot, did not always have a chance to survive the unbearable living conditions, insufficient nutrition, and overly hard work. But Bahrianyi was lucky.
That is when the Kremlin decided to reduce the scale of repressions and eliminate the People’s Commissar (Minister) of Internal Affairs Mykola Yezhov, who had been coordinating the terror. The new People’s Commissar, Lavrentiy Beria, eased the pressure.
The “investigation” of the Bahrianyi’s case began at the times of Yezhov and ended under the new leadership. The “Beria” NKVD at the time occasionally reviewed some of the cases of the Great Terror. This included the case of Bahrianyi: he was released in 1940. For this lucky coincidence the writer paid with two years of physical and psychological torture, and his health.
In fiery circle of the war
In 1941 Ukraine was occupied by Nazi troops. A new era of survival in the face of Nazi atrocities and the poverty of occupation has begun. Bahrianyi probably became close to the nationalist “Melnykites”, as he started being published in the Ukrainian press, which was largely controlled by them and was issued in the occupied territories.
In February 1943, the Red Army entered Okhtyrka. As the writer’s first wife recalled, Bahrianyi was mobilized, but the troop train with the mobilized men was bombed, so Bahrianyi returned home. He was arrested, but managed to escape once again! In the case of Ivan Bahrianyi the theory of probability clearly does not work.
The Germans came back again, and Ivan Bahrianyi left for western Ukraine for good, saying goodbye to his wife, son, and hometown. In the western part Ukraine in 1944 Bahrianyi wrote his “Tiger Trappers”, which he later lost and had to rewrite, and also collaborated with the UPA (The Ukrainian Insurgent Army), the Ukrainian army that fought for Ukraine’s independence, creating trite propaganda for them, giving lectures to soldiers, and so on. Now he had to hide from Hitler’s security forces, and you can hardly doubt that he successfully coped with this task.
Next were Austria and Germany. A new marriage, a new family. And a break with the nationalists, mutual enmity.
Assertion in emigration: protest against deportation, Ukrainian artistic movement, managing a party
In 1946, Ivan Bahrianyi wrote his most famous journalistic text “Why I am not going back to the Soviet Union?”. The fact is that, according to the agreements of the victorious powers in World War II, after the end of hostilities, Soviet citizens had to return to the Soviet Union. This applied to prisoners of war, those taken for forced labor, refugees, fighters of anti-Soviet liberation movements, and members of armed groups who fought under the command of the Germans. Of course, a significant number of these people did not want to return, which was not always understood in the West and raised doubts and suspicions. Bahrianyi explained clearly and distinctly the reasons for their reluctance to go to the Soviet Union, spoke about bloody repressions, despotism, and the Holodomor, and showed the mortal threat to those who would risk returning to Stalin’s state.
Bahrianyi managed to avoid deportation, and became active in the West now. He wrote new novels (including “The Fiery Circle” and “A Man Runs Over an Abyss”, which are related to events of World War II). He became one of the organizers of the emigrant Artistic Ukrainian Movement, MUR.
Ivan Bahrianyi “Why I am not going back to the Soviet Union?”
And then Ivan Bahrianyi founded a political party (not alone, of course, but together with Hryhorii Kostiuk, Ivan Maistrenko, Borys Levytskyi, and others). The Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party was a center-left party, aimed at fighting for Ukraine’s independence and building a social state with different forms of ownership, freedom of speech and convictions. Bahrianyi was also the editor of the party newspaper, “Ukrainian News”. In his political journalism he, among other things, “predicted” the way Ukraine would gain independence in 1991: as Bahrianyi argued, this would not happen through an uprising, but gradually, due to the fact that the communist elite would change its orientation. To a large extent, this is exactly what has happened.
Of course, Ivan Bahrianyi’s political activity led to conflicts. There were constant disputes with nationalists. Pro-Soviet movements and the Soviet secret services also made accusations and provocations. They tried to kidnap Bahrianyi, so he carried an ampoule of potassium cyanide with him so that they couldn’t take him alive. And then the Soviets conducted what is now called an information and psychological operation: they forced the writer’s son from the first marriage (don’t forget that he remained in Ukraine) to speak out against his father on the radio. Oleksandr Shuhai, a researcher of the life and work of Ivan Bahrianyi, wrote that this had a bad effect on Bahrianyi’s already undermined health. By the way, even after the fall of the USSR and proclamation of Ukraine’s Independence, his son refused to honor his father’s memory.
Writer, politician, and publicist Ivan Bahrianyi died in 1963 in New Ulm, Germany. He was a man of amazing destiny and amazing capacity for work. An incredibly integral and optimistic personality against the background of the chimeras of the 20th century.
Hunting for tigers and people
“Tiger Trappers” (also translated as “The Hunters and the Hunted”) is the most famous book by Ivan Bahrianyi (1906-1963). It is one of books that is often read in Ukrainian universities and schools even by those who are not fond of reading at all. It is regularly reprinted. And if it is sometimes said about literature of the 20th century that in order to perceive it, one must immerse oneself in the political, ideological, social, and historical context of the time, and this is not easy for everyone, then this is definitely not the case with “Tiger Trappers”. Bahrianyi wrote an absolutely universal adventure novel.
Hryhoriy Mnohohrishny, a prisoner, arrested during the Stalin terror of the 1930s, is being transported by the troop train to the Gulag camps in the Far East of the Soviet Union, but the rebellious prisoner escapes. He finds himself in the pristine forests near the Amur River. Mnohohrishny experiences a whole bunch of adventures, meets a family of Ukrainian immigrants who hunt for tigers, and even finds his love. But not only tigers are hunted for in the taiga — NKVD Major Medvin is on the trail of the fugitive…
You cannot call this adventure novel templated and primitive. It is very imaginative, and its pathos is balanced by existentialism. The same can be said about other books by Ivan Bahrianyi.
Life-affirming space in prison cell
While writing adventure prose in the vast scenery of pristine forests is only fitting, it is not so easy to create a dynamic, of the most intense interest, and witty text that takes place almost constantly in a prison cell. The novel “Garden of Gethsemane” is extremely lively, full of amazing stories and jokes, and very life-affirming, even though it is full of absolutely tragic events. After all, “Garden of Gethsemane” tells the story of people, arrested during the Great Terror of the 1930s: about their lives and deaths, the crazy life in crowded cells, where, however, there was time and space for lectures and book recitation, torture and rebels, attempts to strategize “suspects” during interrogations where they were brought to absurd accusations (investigators were then only interested in statistics of exposed “conspiracies” of random people and the general atmosphere of terror).
Once again, the novel is based on biographical events, and is a reinterpretation of the author’s stay in the prisons of Kharkiv (the capital of Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s). And many of the characters have real prototypes. And again, there is a morally unbreakable character who is able to overcome incredible obstacles. Such a person is in the center of most of Ivan Bahrianyi’s remarkable works. The title of one of his novels is about him: “A Man Runs Over an Abyss”. However, it is interesting that in Bahrianyi’s novels such “superhumans” do not acquire Nietzschelike or other “voluntarist” traits. Curious enough is that the writer and politician was in conflict with radicals, both right and left. Although he had experienced cooperation with both.
The material was created and published as part of the project “MC2C (Media City to City): Creating city-to-city media connections for local and Ukrainian diaspora audience needs”. It is implemented by Lviv Media Forum in partnership with Thomson Media and with the support of the Federal Foreign Office of Germany.
The information or views expressed in this material are the responsibility of the authors.
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