A Bit of Blood-stained Batting. Kharkiv, Saturday, 13 May 1933

May 2015
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My parents are living in Kharkiv at this time. Years later, when I am beginning to take an interest in the famine of the 1930s—the word Holodomor hasn’t been coined yet—my mother tells me how in 1932, when my father was studying at an economics institute, a fellow student offered to show him something.

The morgue where the student has a part-time job is stacked with corpses from the floor to the ceiling. The militia has been collecting them in the streets. At night it loads them onto trucks and hauls them away. The next day the morgue fills up again.

My mother does not talk about the oval scars that I saw on my father’s midriff and back when we were living in a displaced persons’ camp in postwar Germany and he would get into a tub and ask me to soap his back. I saw them again when we were living in Philadelphia and went swimming in the summer at a lake in Millville, New Jersey, or the ocean beach in Wildwood. The bullet my father had fired into himself because of a failed marriage and a daughter he never got to know had lodged in his body and despite an operation remained there the rest of his life.


At eleven o’clock, after drinking, eating, and talking with his friends for two hours, Mykola announces that he will read his new story, the one in which he will show that he has submitted to the party line once and for all.

He goes to his study, shuts the door, sits down at his desk, and reaches into the drawer. The woodcock peers at him from its shelf.

Does Mykola gaze up at the bird? Is he aware of the feel of the gun when his fingers graze it? What is its weight in his hand? Does the steel have a smell when he lifts it to his face? Does he tremble when the muzzle touches his temple?

Has he fired the gun before? Has he ever tried to kill a man?

These are things we cannot know.


The shot brings the writers to their feet.

“Mykola, have you gone mad?” one of them shouts.

When they burst into the study, the Browning is lying on the floor, and Mykola’s right arm is dangling at his side. His head is quivering, and a stream of blood is flowing from his right temple.

“Get a doctor! Get a doctor!” Yuliia screams.

Someone runs to the telephone to call for help. It isn’t working.

Kulish dashes back to his apartment. “Khvylovy has shot himself!” he shouts to his wife. He phones a doctor and tells Antonina to have Volodymyr Gzhytsky’s wife Maria—she’s a nurse—come give Mykola an injection.

The heart stimulant has no effect. When a doctor arrives, rigor mortis is setting in.

Mykola’s stepdaughter Liuba comes back from her classes at the music school. People are surging up and down the stairs. Hryhoriy and Vira Epik pull Liuba to their flat and refuse to let her go home. Liuba can’t understand anything. Only later does someone tell her that her stepfather has shot himself.


Among the papers on his desk Mykola’s friends see two notes. They are written on sheets of paper torn out of a schoolchild’s exercise book. Mykola bought a portable typewriter when he was traveling in Germany, but he always wrote the first drafts of his stories and novels in black exercise books.

Someone calls the party's Central Committee on Karl Liebknecht Street, and GPU men soon arrive. They go into Mykola’s study and shut the door.

At twenty past one a prosecutor starts questioning Yuliia. She has little to say. In addition to herself and Mykola, only Mykola Kulish and Oles Dosvitniy were present. They agreed that they’d go see a prosecutor at the Supreme Court to ask for an explanation of Myshko’s arrest. Then her husband went to his study. A moment later the others heard a shot. When they ran into the room, Mykola had collapsed in his chair.

By three in the afternoon, the agents have determined the cause of death as suicide and written up a report. When they leave, they take all the papers in the study with them.


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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka