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

May 2015
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Mykola Kulish takes the loss of his friend badly. Yuriy Smolych and Yuriy Yanovsky are passing through the cemetery on their way back to the Slovo Building. Kulish is lying on Khvylovy’s grave flattened out and with his arms around the mound. He is dead drunk. Smolych and Yanovsky lift him up and lead him away. When they reach the street, Kulish escapes from their embrace, dashes out into the traffic, and raises his hands. He knows that he will be arrested. “I give up!” he shouts. Smolych and Yanovsky barely manage to drag him home.

No headstone is erected on Khvylovy’s grave—people say that the authorities have refused to grant his family permission--and the grave is surrounded by a picket fence on which his name and dates have been carved. The fence soon rots, and the grave becomes overgrown.

Khvylovy’s books are inscribed in the police index, and his name becomes a synonym for “enemy of the people.” Writers get phone calls from the local party committee: they have to come in and explain their attitude toward Khvylovy’s suicide. Do they condemn his action, do they understand that he disgraced himself by deserting the cause?

In September 1933 a GPU troika sentences Myshko Yalovy to ten years’ imprisonment. The following May he is transported to a camp in the Far North. In October 1937 another troika reviews his case and condemns him to the “supreme measure of punishment”—a bullet in the nape of the neck.

In late 1933 the GPU picks up Oles Dosvitniy, the third of the Three Musketeers, charges him with counterrevolutionary and terrorist activities, and early in 1934 a troika sentences him to be shot.

For the writers at the Slovo Building Khvylovy’s death is the beginning of the end. They call the building the Crematorium. Night after night agents take someone away. Few people come back. Most are sentenced to terms in labor camps, often “without the right to correspond.” The term is an obfuscation. It means the prisoner has already been shot. Of 260 writers who were working in 1930, 228 are either executed or dispatched to a slow death in a labor camp. When the German-Soviet war comes in 1941, only six of the original sixty-six writers’ families are still living in the Slovo Building.

During the German occupation the Wehrmacht requisitions the building for officers’ quarters. The wall between two apartments is knocked down to make room for a cabaret. Other apartments are used for a brothel.

Blue-eyed Kateryna, Mykola’s first wife, lives out her life as a village schoolteacher. Irayida, the daughter he carried on a pillow for fear of harming her spine when she was a baby, follows in her mother’s steps and becomes a chemistry teacher.

Yuliia, Mykola’s second wife, and her daughter Liuba flee from Kharkiv to Sverdlovsk in the Urals. Few people there will know who Mykola Khvylovy was. In 1959 a Ukrainian journal publishes yet another attack on her husband. Yuliia reads the article and slices her wrists.

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And then, fifty-five years after Mykola Khvylovy kills himself his suicide notes reappear. Mikhail Gorbachev’s empire is collapsing, and the Communist Party is trying to maintain its grip on power by “rehabilitating” its victims. Rehabilitation is a bit of a trick. The names of the dead can be mentioned in public, and their families can claim a modicum of compensation, but there’s no question of prosecuting anyone for violating “socialist legality” by pumping bullets into the backs of heads.

At a celebration of Khvylovy’s ninety-fifth birthday in Kyiv in December 1988, the first secretary of the Ukrainian party reads the suicide notes that the security service has made available.

Khvylovy addressed one of the two notes to the party:

Yalovy's arrest is the execution of an entire generation. Why? Because we were sincere Communists?

I don’t understand anything.

I, Mykola Khvylovy, am above all responsible for Yalovy’s generation. “Therefore,” as Semenko says, everything is clear.

It’s a beautiful and sunny day.

You can’t even imagine how much I love life. Today is the 13th. Do you remember how I was in love with this number?

It’s terribly painful.

Long live Communism!

 Long live socialist construction!

Long live the Communist Party!

P.S. I leave everything, including copyrights, to Liubov Umantseva. I urgently ask my friends to help her and my mother.

Khvylovy wrote the other note to his stepdaughter. Borrowing the name of a perennial herb that is cultivated for its aromatic seeds, leaves, and roots, he often called her “my golden Lovage”:

Forgive me for everything, my gray-winged dove. By the way, I destroyed my unfinished novel yesterday not because I didn’t want it to be published, but because I had to convince myself: if I could destroy it, then I had found the strength to do what I am doing today.

Farewell, my golden Lovage.

He signed the note, if we are to believe the typed copy, “Your father M. Khvylovy.”

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka