Modernist, idealist and restless charismatic Mykola Khvylovy


You see an error in the text - select the fragment and press Ctrl + Enter

Mykola Khvylovy was a key figure in interwar Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s. He was one of the leaders of Ukrainian literary modernism and the generation of the Executed Renaissance. He was a tragic, pathetic symbol of the political and cultural movement of the National Communists, who tried to link left-wing radical politics to issues of national identity, national liberation, and anti-colonialism. He was a charismatic suicide bomber of the thirties.



In the Soviet Union, they tried to ban and forget this writer until the late 1980s. Books were confiscated from libraries, and his name was crossed out of rolls. Therefore, Khvylovy’s name was mysterious, controversial, odious, frightening and inspiring. When Soviet censorship began to collapse, Ukrainians’ interest in Mykola Khvylovy turned out to be enormous. Coming out of the shadows, the writer became one of the leading figures in the colorful pantheon of Ukrainian culture. He became indispensable for understanding such a unique and contradictory phenomenon as the literature of Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s.



The rebellious son of a teacher


The future writer was born on December 13, 1893, in the town of Trostyanets in Kharkiv province (then still part of the Russian Empire) in northeastern Ukraine, a region that is located close to the border with Russia and is currently suffering from constant shelling and missile attacks by the enemy. Khvylovy is a pseudonym, he was born with the surname Fitilov.


His parents were teachers. His father, Hryhorii Fitiliov, was both an impoverished descendant of the aristocracy and an eternal rebel freethinker, a revolutionary dreamer, a provincial intellectual with an original mindset. Mykola inherited his father’s sympathy for Russian populism (the movement for peasant democracy and against serfdom), as well as for revolutionary ideas, his love of literature, his Russian surname, and, probably, his hot temper. His mother, Yelyzaveta (maiden name Tarasenko), was also a teacher, but seems to have been much more politically restrained. However, after her parents’ divorce, it was in her family that young Mykola received basic knowledge of Ukrainian culture and literature as well as Ukrainian national sentiment.



Mykola Khvylovy spent his childhood and youth in various villages and towns near Trostyanets. He sometimes traveled with his mother, who was looking for work, or sometimes lived with relatives. During schooling, he quickly demonstrated his rebellious nature and revolutionary heritage. This naturally resulted in his expulsion from the gymnasium in the city of Okhtyrka. As Khvylovy later said, “for participating in the so-called Ukrainian revolutionary circle,” although he wasn’t a member of any political party.


Young Khvylovy set out to wander the cities of the empire, immersing himself in proletarian life. One day he was a stevedore in the port of Taganrog on the Sea of Azov, and the next he was working in a boiler room in Druzhkivka in Donbas. The First World War distracted him from this life. It was a difficult time for the future writer and he remembers it as a “Calvary in a square.”


In Ukraine, the First World War became a revolution, a struggle for independence of the newly formed Ukrainian People’s Republic and several years of chaotic battles involving various troops. Mykola Khvylovy’s bubbly personality required him to participate in the events.


Power changed hands very often in those days, so flags and administrations in Ukrainian cities changed like a kaleidoscope. Mykola also managed to be on different sides of the barricades, fighting for different units and armies. After a series of deadly adventures, he eventually found himself on the side of the Bolsheviks. He stayed with them until the end of the war and later joined their party.



From war to literary bohemia


During the war years, Mykola Khvylovy wrote and published literary works, mostly of a propaganda nature. In 1920, under the pseudonym “Stefan Karol,” his first “serious” publication appeared, the poem “Now I Have Fallen In Love With the City”: a pathetic text with a romantic spirit and a loose form and rhythm that would later turn from student’s awkwardness into an individual element of style. It is a kind of farewell to the steppes and forests of youth and a touching urban declaration:


And now I love the city,
With its vigilant tram bell.
In me, it blossoms soon
As a dear little smoke.
So, forgive me, gray ones,
I’ll live out my age here…
And the sidewalks sing to me
About a distant, beautiful goal.


The native of a cozy province did have a reason to say goodbye to it: after years of wandering, in 1921 he finally moved to Kharkiv, the new capital of Soviet Ukraine. Here he began his new life, in which he became a writer with the romantic pseudonym Khvylovy. He became a prominent representative of the new literary bohemia that emerged after the revolution. A community formed around the active, charismatic, sociable, interesting, intelligent interlocutor. The short, strong, black-haired man also attracted and intrigued with his less obvious features.


Thus, almost all memoirs about Khvylovy mention his insane intuition. For example, he is believed to have accurately predicted the age at which the writer Arkadiy Liubchenko would die. They also recall the case when, at the beginning of a circus performance, Khvylovy said that he felt that an acrobat might die. This is what allegedly happened.



Poetry and prose. Khvylovy did not kill his mother


In the early 1920s, Mykola Khvylovy made his debut as a poet. His impetuous poems oscillated between the poles of neo-romantic sensuality and experiments on the verge of futurism. His admiration for sentimental landscapes or mirages of a utopian future alternates with social themes:


I’m looking at you
you prostitutes
without formal prostitution.
And it makes me feel so cold,
like on the corner of an icy night.
I go to the gate of the factory,
because the snowdrops of our spring
will smell
in the morning smoke of labor.
Do you hear the clang of iron?
They are forging our double will,
They are removing our double weight.


Khvylovy’s poetry attracted some attention and, as they say, “testified to the emergence of a talented author.” However, the real event was not Khvylovy’s poetry, but two collections of his short fiction: “Blue Etudes (1923) and Autumn (1924).


These two collections contain almost all of Mykola Khvylovy’s major prose texts. They were immediately recognized as a new stage in the development of Ukrainian prose, and they had a significant impact on many other authors of the time. First of all, these are short stories: “Editor Kark,” “I (Romance),” “Liluli,” “Arabesques,” “Sanatorium Zone,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Room Part 2.”


What impressed his contemporaries so much about these stories, novellas, and sketches, how did the author himself define them? Perhaps the fact that Khvylovy bravely tackled the topic of revolution and war. Everyone was interested in these topics at that time, and they needed to be comprehended. Writing about the recent tumultuous events, he avoided propaganda. Instead, he combined almost incompatible elements: a sharp, often critical and skeptical eye, attention to detail, psychologism, not diluted by agitation, with a sincere pathos of fanatical idealism, and a tendency towards utopia.


However, his idealism was not without its quirks. When the short story “I (Romance)” was published, in which the protagonist, a revolutionary and a Chekist, shoots his nun mother, some readers thought that the story was autobiographical. This is how the fable of Khvylovy as a murderer of his own mother and a Chekist emerged. The legend was alive and well, and many “naive readers” believed it. That is, until the emigrant publishing house Smoloskyp, which published a five-volume collection of Khvylyovy’s works in America (and now, in Ukraine, has published a complete collection of his texts), published a photo showing a living mother at her son’s funeral.



Mykola Khvylovy’s prose of the first half of the 1920s is an unconventional stylistic mix. There is impressionism, stunningly sublime sentimentalist rhetoric, avant-garde play with form, metaphor, consonances, and word decomposition. Torn phrases. Symbolism of colors (for example, everything dreamy and utopian is always “blue”). A lot of allusions and quotations scholars are still actively interpreting Khvylovy’s intellectual space, looking for Gogol, Nietzsche, Steiner, Spengler, Swedenborg).


A very distinctive, temperamental, and rich example of modernism.



An unsuccessful visit to great Soviet politics


Having “fired” his small prose, the writer found himself in crisis. What to do next? In a letter to the poet, translator, and literary scholar Mykola Zerov, Khvylovy laments this uncertainty and says that he would like to write in a new way. In the same letter, among other things, he mentions his desire to commit suicide. This motif appears regularly in his works. We know from many sources about Mykola Khvylovy’s psychological problems, which worsened over time. The reasons include traumas of the war and revolution, personal problems, alcohol abuse, and political disillusionment.


RELATED: Maria, Marko and Maria Again: How Marko Vovchok Loved and Wrote


As an activist and an enthusiast of the revolution, he saw how poorly the ideals for which so much blood had been shed were realized. He noticed the transformation of revolutionary romantics into indifferent bureaucrats and corrupt officials. It seems that he, like many left-wing intellectuals, was critical of NEP, the name given to the new economic policy in the Soviet Union, which partially restored the free market and was perceived by many idealists as a return of capitalism.


Khvylovy compensated for his creative and psychological crisis with organizational and journalistic activity. He was a member of the literary association «Hart», organized by the writer Vasyl Ellan-Blakytnyi. The group abstractly declared the creation of «Ukrainian proletarian literature.»


In 1925, Mykola Khvylovy and like-minded people (now classics of Ukrainian literature such as Mike Johansen, Pavlo Tychyna, Mykola Kulish, and others) created «VAPLITE» («Free Academy of Proletarian Literature»). This association declared its principle to emphasize the quality of works rather than ideology, theme, or a particular style. In artistic practice, most of the group’s prominent representatives were modernists. In politics, from time to time they made rather restrained but noticeable gestures of an oppositional, national-communist nature. «VAPLITE» became perhaps the most famous Ukrainian literary organization of the 1920s, both because of the concentration of talented authors and their feistiness.


Mykola Khvylovy also launched the “literary discussion” in 1925 which is legendary in Ukrainian history. It all began with a not very interesting, naive article by the writer Hryhorii Yakovenko in support of simple “proletarian” literature. Khvylovy responded with a pamphlet entitled “About Satan in a Barrel, or About Graphomaniacs, Speculators, and Other ‘Enlighteners'” in which he defended “complex” literature and the orientation toward Europe in culture. Many authors joined this discussion, and soon, as if by magic, it turned into a political one.



Khvylovy and his associates asserted the idea of equality between Ukraine and Russia within the USSR, and of Ukraine’s independent cultural development. All this, of course, stirred up the public. Khvylovy’s pamphlets and articles, lengthy and rather “twisted,” anti-colonial, with a flavor of Spengler and a deep immersion in revolutionary theories, are an important document of the era. Khvylovy became a de facto politician because of these pamphlets.


Stalin was struggling against the opposition in Moscow at that time. Outside, it might have seemed like a chance for the democratization of the Soviet Union, a chance for greater freedom of thought and speech, a moment when the central government was vulnerable. But in the confrontation with the opposition, he felt confident and was not going to make concessions, giving freedom to the republics. Moreover, Stalin published a threatening article about the “national bias” in Ukraine, where Khvylovy was mentioned.


This put an end to both the attempts of the Ukrainian left to reformat the government and political regime of Soviet Ukraine and the “literary discussion.” According to the customs of the Soviet Union, Mykola Khvylovyi had to repent and justify himself a lot. Eventually, the VAPLITE organization was dissolved. Khvylovy had previously been considered rebellious and violent, but now he seemed stigmatized and doomed, because Stalin himself was against him. Mykola Khvylovyi had his own “personal” term (khvylovism) in the Soviet Register of Deviations.


RELATED: Ivan Kotlyarevsky. The creator of the central image of Ukrainian culture



Strategic retreat


During the political turmoil of the mid- to late 1920s, Mykola Khvylovy wrote several significant works. For example, the novel «The Woodcocks», which has become a legend among Ukrainian readers because the second part of it was confiscated by Soviet censors.


In this text, the protagonist, Dmitri Karamazov (a name taken from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov), a communist who is disillusioned with the results of the revolution, is looking for a new worldview and a new ideology. Under the influence of his new love for the woman Aglaya, he begins to move towards nationalism. The novel seemed to be a real challenge to the Soviet government, and after the destruction of the second volume, Khvylovyi had to write a penitential article.


Although poignant and topical, «The Woodcocks» was not a revelation in the aesthetic sense. During the second half of the twenties, the writer drifted toward realistic writing. Apparently, this resolved an internal crisis, but the new texts were mostly less artistically vivid. He turned to journalism and political censorship. The blockade had an impact.


The final cementation of Stalinism came in the 1930’s. Restrictions on literature were sharply increased. Khvylovy’s fiction of the thirties was already imitation and commission, attempts not to anger the authorities and sometimes to say something between the lines. His articles were sometimes denunciations. The freedom-loving and restless man found himself tied hand and foot.



Repressions intensified, collectivization began, and the Holodomor, the genocide of Ukrainians organized by the Soviet government and Stalin, disguised under the ideas of collectivism, began. According to some reports, Mykola Khvylovy did not understand the catastrophic consequences of the socialization of land allotments at first: wild famine, the extinction of millions of people, evictions, and the destruction of rural communities. Soon, he traveled to the villages and realized everything.


Khvylovy’s younger friend, the writer Arkadiy Liubchenko, recalled how his friend used to say: “Famine is a consciously organized phenomenon.” All this only increased the writer’s despair. Drinking did not help him forget, but even when drunk, Khvylovy remained an original: there is a story about how he, drunk, beat his head against a world map pasted on the wall at the point where one of the oceans was located – they say, he symbolically “drowned” himself in this way.


RELATED: The Steamship that Carried Valerian Pidmohylnyi


In 1933, one of Mykola Khvylovy’s friends, the writer and revolutionary Mykhailo Yalovy, was arrested. Khvylovy tried to use his connections in government circles to intervene, but to no avail. Perhaps this was the last straw.
Khvylovy was in a desperate situation, shackled by totalitarian restrictions and disappointed in his own political path, which had ended in failure. He saw the beginning of a new powerful wave of repression and obviously expected that they would come for him. Mykola was simply mentally and nervously exhausted in the end. On May 13 of the same year, Mykola Khvylovy gathered his friends, said that he was going to read them a new piece of work, went to another room, and shot himself in the temple.


Khvylovy’s suicide became a loud act. It was understood as a gesture of despair and protest. It grew into myths and legends, such as that Khvylovy was actually shot through the window. The writer’s funeral turned into a silent demonstration. The dark night of the Great Terror and total censorship was beginning to fall over Eastern Europe.



Translation: Natalia Severa
Editing: John G Sennett, Sr