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

May 2015
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Mykola’s friends form a funeral committee.

Three women wash the body and dress it in clean underwear, white socks, a blue satin shirt, a yellow tie, and dark trousers. They comb the shock of black hair and cover the hole in the temple with cotton batting. A powder burn is visible just below the cotton. The bullet lodged in the skull, and the left temple is swollen.

Then, while someone goes to order a coffin, the others lay the body on the desk in the study, fold the hands on the chest in the Orthodox fashion, and take photographs. When the coffin is delivered that evening, the funeral committee places the body in it, takes more pictures, opens the flat to visitors, and sets up a vigil.

The poet Pavlo Tychyna takes his turn late in the evening. For two hours he stands silent, paying no attention when someone comes into the room, staring in the dim light at the face of the man to whom he dedicated his book Wind from Ukraine in 1924.

I love no one
as much as the winnowing wind
its paths, its pain
and the land,
this land of mine.

Out in the street, GPU agents circle around the building and scrutinize passersby. And inside the flat a police informer consoles Mykola’s widow and commiserates with his friends.

The news of the suicide reaches Alexander Dovzhenko in Kyiv. Sashko has not been getting along with the Kharkiv writers—they accused him of selling out to Moscow when his film Arsenal came out in 1929—but he has respected Khvylovy. Now he gets on a plane and arrives at the Slovo Building late in the evening.

At the apartment he approaches the coffin, without looking at anyone, takes Mykola’s head in his hands, leans over, kisses the bandaged wound, and then turns and walks out.

Mike Yohansen, Oleksa Slisarenko, and Yuriy Smolych follow Dovzhenko, and the four set off for a walk through the wooded ravines on the outskirts of the city.

Dovzhenko is silent. Yohansen recites what he remembers of the suicide note. Khvylovy wrote, he says, that he was killing himself because of Yalovy’s arrest. It was the execution of their generation. Khvylovy didn’t understand anything. “We were,” he wrote, “honest Communists.” Dovzhenko starts up and asks Yohansen to repeat what he said. Yohansen does so and then adds, “We must remember this letter for the rest of our lives.” Sashko Dovzhenko says nothing. Soon he, too, starts hiding a loaded pistol in his desk drawer.

The four walk about late into the night. When they return, they see the Slovo Building darkened except for three windows in Mykola’s flat.

9           

The next morning a white flatbed truck drives into the courtyard of the Slovo Building, startling the tabbies that prowl by the waste bins, and Mykola’s friends bring down the coffin and place it on the truck.

We remember what we want to remember. Mykola’s daughter Irayida will recall that she learns about his death from her aunts Dania and Liusia. They take her to the Slovo Building, push through the crowd, and see Mykola’s mother. She asks them to bring her granddaughter to her. Irayida’s father is lying in a coffin on a white hearse. He named a novel after her, but her mother has never told her anything about him, and she does not know him.

“This is your father,” her grandmother says. “Kiss him.”

Irayida plants a kiss on her father’s cheek.

She will remember that her stepsister is standing at a distance. But Liuba will say that she was not there. She had been taken to stay with her grandmother—“in a state close to a  loss of consciousness (unable to speak),” as she will put it—the day her stepfather died.

The government newspaper has announced that at eleven o’clock the coffin will be opened for viewing at the Blakytny Building, the pre-revolutionary mansion where writers’ organizations are housed. Then a memorial service will be held, and at one o’clock the body will be taken to the city cemetery for interment. Crowds have been milling about the Blakytny Building since early morning.

When the truck arrives, Mykola’s friends carry the coffin up the marble stairs into the building and then up the oak stairs to the auditorium on the second floor. There they place the coffin on the stage and raise the lid.

Mykola is dressed in the blue satin shirt and yellow tie that people have seen him wear so often, and the bluish hole in his temple is covered with cotton batting.

Pavlo Tychyna and Les Kurbas, the theatrical producer, stand guard by the coffin. The party has chosen Ivan Kyrylenko to deliver the eulogy. Khvylovy’s suicide, he says, is his last mistake. How discordant is the sound of his gunshot when the party is leading the way toward socialism, when millions of enthusiasts are creating culture, literature, and art, when the victory of socialism throughout the world is drawing ever closer.

As Kyrylenko speaks, from the lectern that Khvylovy himself used so often, Kurbas clenches his jaw and cries, and the pince-nez perched above Tychyna’s long nose quivers.

The service ends at one o’clock—1300 hours according to the twenty-four hour military clock the Soviet Union has adopted. Mykola’s friends close the coffin, carry it downstairs, place it on an old cart pulled by two nags ready for the glue factory, and decorate it with flowers and red bunting. The GPU agents in the crowd estimate that two thousand people have gathered. The printers’ trade union has hired a dozen unemployed musicians. They strike up Chopin’s funeral march, and the procession sets off for the cemetery on Pushkin Street, at the northern edge of the city.

Khvylovy’s wife and brother Oleksiy walk at the head of the cortège, just behind the coffin. Behind them come the writers, and behind them the musicians.

Students have been cautioned not to cut classes, and writers have been warned to avoid “demonstrating” at the funeral. Yet mourners line the street, and streetcars stop running because so many people are following the coffin. Workers on construction sites throw down their tools and join the procession. At the medical school students leave their classrooms and squeeze into the throng. GPU agents dressed in militia uniforms or mufti mingle with them.

Edema-swollen peasants lie dying, indifferent to the spring weather, the funeral, and the pieces of bread that passersby tear off their rationed loaves and place beside them.

The Italian consulate is housed on Pushkin Street, and the consul can see from his window what is happening in the street. A peasant woman, he writes to Rome, spent the whole day curled up with her two children on the pavement. “She held the customary tin can… and from time to time someone would throw a kopeck into it. That evening with a single gesture she pushed her children away, rose to her feet, and threw herself into the path of a streetcar coming at full speed. Half an hour later I saw a street sweeper scraping up the unfortunate woman’s guts. The children had been standing there watching all the time.”

10        

The procession stops at the cemetery gate—the GPU reports that the number of onlookers has dwindled to five or six hundred—and the coffin is taken down from the hearse and carried inside, and the lid is raised again. Cherry trees are blossoming.

Ivan Mykytenko, Ivan Kyrylenko, and Petro Panch deliver the eulogies. Khvylovy’s death, they say, is a bullet in the back of the revolution. He deviated from the general line. He abandoned life just when Stalin had explained that it was becoming better, gayer. Yet they cannot deny that a generation of writers has regarded Khvylovy as its leader. “We Soviet revolutionary writers,” says Panch, “have nearly all of us entered onto the long and unknown path of literature inspired by the restless, fiery, and romantic Khvylovy. His gunshot has left a hole in his temple and in our ranks as well. A hole that none of us individually will be able to fill.”

Then Khvylovy's brother points at the sun. “Spring has come, the sun is shining, and you are lying in a coffin, Mykola!” Oleksiy says.

The writer’s wife kisses him on the forehead. The musicians play the Chopin march again. Yulia and Oleksiy close the coffin, and Mykola’s colleagues lower it into the sandy soil. Clods of earth resound on the lid.

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka