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His passion is hunting—stalking through woodlands and marshes, a dog at his side, a crisp November wind in his face, bringing down a game bird with a well-placed shot, and then going back to the cottage where he’s staying to feast on fried eggs washed down with tea and vodka. He owns a leather coat, cartridge belts, game bags, and thick boots. He knows the various breeds of gundogs and at one time kennels five in a small flat. Later he has a pale setter he calls Pom. He ranges rifles and shotguns in a cabinet and conceals a 45-caliber Browning in a drawer in his study. A stuffed woodcock perches on a shelf over his desk. He titles a novel The Woodcocks. “The goal of his restless journey,” writes one of his friends, “is hunting.”
His favorite color is blue. He writes about the blue storms of civil-war battles and blue stagecoaches careening into the sky-blue distance. He calls a short story “Blue November,” his first book of stories Studies in Blue. His first wife is a blue-eyed blonde. He pays little attention to clothes, but when he dresses up to go out, he puts on a blue satin shirt and a yellow tie.
The “Marche Funèbre” of Frédéric Chopin, the Polish Romantic who died in exile from his native land at the age of thirty-nine, is his favorite piece of music. He can whistle the march or plunk it on his banjo, and he likes to say after a few drinks that he wants it played at his funeral.
He is obsessed — he calls it being in love — with the number thirteen. He knows it brings bad luck. The devil’s dozen, Ukrainians say. But he was born on 13 December 1893. He was thirteen when his father took him hunting. When he fought for the Bolsheviks and escaped being executed for “lack of discipline,” he was serving in the 13th Army. His daughter Irayida was born on 13 January 1920 when he was twenty-six. When he writes a political pamphlet, he divides it into thirteen sections. He often says that he will die on the 13th. Thirteen stands for Jacob and his sons. And for Jesus and his disciples. Thirteen is a symbol of eternal love. The Queen in the Tarot deck. The Spiritual Bride. The Cosmic Mother.
And so early on 13 May 1933, when his daughter is thirteen and he is thirty-nine and has been working as a writer for thirteen years, Mykola Khvylovy calls his closest friends and invites them to come for breakfast and then go for a walk.
The witnesses—those who are there, those who will say they were there, those who report what they heard from those who were there—agree that the day is warm, sunny, and cloudless.
Mykola’s friends don’t have far to go. They all live at the Slovo Building—the word means “word”—in Kharkiv, the ugly industrial city that the Bolsheviks have made the capital of Soviet Ukraine. Writers have been moving there from all over the country, and since there’s a housing shortage, they’ve asked for permission to put up a co-op. The party and government are pleased to oblige them: having the writers under one roof will make it easier to keep an eye and ear on them.
By the standards of the time and place the Slovo Building is spacious and comfortable. Shaped like a U, it has five entrances, each with a massive oak door, and sixty-six three- or four-room apartments. It boasts a walled garden, a volleyball court, and a cafeteria where writers can get a meal when they don’t feel like cooking. Mykola, his wife Yuliia, and her daughter Liuba have a flat on the third floor with four rooms and a balcony overlooking the courtyard.
The guests start to arrive at nine o’clock. Yuliia boils water on the Primus, sets out teacups, plates, and glasses for vodka, and apologizes for not having any sugar.
Mykola picks up a two-string banjo that he has fashioned from a piece of wood and a kitchen sieve. Plunking on it, he recites a quatrain:
Sir, I tell you on the level:
We have strayed, we’ve lost the trail.
What can we do, when a devil
Drives us, whirls us round the vale?
The lines are from Pushkin’s “Devils,” and at one time every child in every school of the Russian empire memorized them. Dostoevsky gave the poem a second life when he used it as an epigraph for his novel of the same name. For weeks now Mykola has been mumbling the quatrain. He knows his Dostoevsky: in one novel, he gave his protagonist, a Ukrainian Communist who is struggling to comprehend where the revolution is headed, the name Dmytriy Karamazov.
The guests are talking about Mykhailo Yalovy. Myshko is a writer and the director of a publishing house. He is also Mykola’s closest friend. Everyone calls Mykola, Myshko, and their fellow writer Oles Dosvitniy the Three Musketeers.
The GPU, as the secret police is known at the moment, came to Myshko’s apartment the night before. Agents went through his books and papers, examined the household furnishings, tapped on walls, and tore up floors. Early in the morning they took Myshko’s Kodak camera and Browning and led him away.
Chain-smoking, fidgeting, jumping up and down, Mykola pours another round of vodka and assures his friends that everything will be all right. He recites Pushkin again. The gathering becomes roisterous.
Pom, who has been lying on the floor by the bookcase, issues a friendly bark. Mykola runs over to him and tousles his ears. “Pom, you’re here too?”
The dog yelps, jumps up, and puts his front legs around his master’s waist.
Mykola strokes Pom’s head and then removes his paws. “That’s enough. We’ll go, we’ll go!” he says.
The company laughs. “He’s always like that before a hunting trip,” Mykola explains.
Yuliia, who has been bustling about in the kitchen, is displeased with his drinking.
Mykola tells her that he won’t drink anymore. She doesn’t believe him.
He responds oddly. “I give you Khvylovy’s word of honor.”
For years Mykola Khvylovy has been filling his stories with allusions to suicide and murder. The playwright Mykola Kulish, who will become one of his closest friends, observes in 1924 that Khvylovy will face an “internal crisis.” In an autobiography that he writes for the Communist Party that year Khvylovy himself admits that he is dealing with an inner struggle. And he confesses that he is in a state of “dostoevshchina,” or mental imbalance. “I went out into the fields twice, but both times came back alive and unharmed,” he writes in a letter to the literary scholar Mykola Zerov. “I’m obviously a coward, a good-for-nothing.”
In 1927, while he is traveling in Austria and Germany, Khvylovy tells a Communist from western Ukraine that “something terrible” is happening in Soviet Ukraine. “The despotic great-power spirit is spreading… and he is ready to commit suicide in order to show what is really happening,” the Communist, who is an agent for the GPU, informs his masters.
In January 1931 an informer—more than twenty people are sending information about him to the GPU—reports that Khvylovy said to three of his colleagues that he couldn’t go on any more. He pulled out his Browning and threatened to kill himself. They paid no attention.
Mykola has long been drinking. His friends know that before he sits down to write he downs a glass of vodka. In the last few months he has been hitting the bottle even harder.
“He always liked to drink,” Ivan Senchenko will recall. “With friends, in a gay noisy crowd… Now if there was an occasion to drink with company, he would drink. If there was no occasion, he would drink by himself… He was seen sleeping off a binge by a fence at the Shatyliv hospital. The winter of 1932–1933 was approaching. The streets of the city were taken prisoner by emaciated people who wandered from one building to another, rummaging through waste bins and sitting down to rest by fences. Most of them died there. Khvylovy turned gray. He shrank. He behaved like a hunted animal.”
The next spring, the actor Yosyp Hirniak spots Mykola brawling with a workman outside a beer cellar. When Yosyp comes closer, Mykola falls to his knees and kisses his hands. He has just traveled through the countryside and has seen the ravages of the famine, and now he is drinking. Yosyp takes him home.
And when Mykola goes into town with Ivan Dniprovsky—he wants to get a beer and a shave—Ivan tells him that he’s “an alcoholic in a major key.” Mykola takes Ivan’s left hand and pulls it toward himself. Ivan transfers the books in his hand to his right hand, and Mykola places it on the gun in the back pocket of his trousers.
This is the third time Mykola has done this, and Ivan knows what it means. “This is all good,” he says. “But when you decide to end everything and have chosen the day, bring your friends together, drink something, look around, say good-bye, and go to another room.”