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Executed Renaissance: The Erasure of Ukrainian Cultural Heritage in the Times of the Soviet Union

Written by Kvitka Perehinets. Following the destruction of the Ukranian Didactic gospels in 1627 at the command of Tsar Mikhail, a centuries long campaign against the Ukranian language was waged, resulting not long in loss of culture, but in catastrophic loss of life.

‘I am writing to you as the sun is shining outside my window – and, oh goodness, how difficult I find it to restrain myself so as not to scream – about how good life is, about how wonderful the future of a person, who owns the right to that future, is. I’m sending you a kiss, my dear, and ask that you remember the date of this letter as a date of one of my best days.’ 

These words were etched on paper by poet Ievhen Pluzhnyk in a letter to his wife on 28 March 1935, soon after his sentencing by the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union to execution by firing squad. Though his sentence was later changed to long-term incarceration in a Solovki concentration camp, the poet died of tuberculosis the following year, his resting place thousands of miles away from his homeland of Ukraine. 

The early history of Soviet Ukraine would soon become associated with the purposeful elimination of a generation of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, dubbed the ‘Executed Renaissance’ by Jerzy Giedroyc during his initiative on the creation of an anthology of Ukrainian literature of 1917-1933. Comprised of writers and artists, the Renaissance represented a challenge to the consolidation of power by the newly established Soviet Union, a conglomeration of independent thought and faith, an artistic rebellion. The 1920s in Ukraine were defined by an aura of excitement hanging in the air, exuding intense feelings of creativity and determination to embolden the Ukrainian identity by way of outpouring artistry and underground activity by numerous literary circles. 

To understand the Renaissance-like character of the early twentieth century in Ukraine, one must understand the context of its origins. Ukrainians fell victim to persecution as an ethnic group, their culture and language subjugated to persistent attempts of imposed structural erasure as early as 1627 when, under Tsar Mikhail’s orders, all copies of Ukrainian Didactic gospels were destroyed. What followed was an almost 300 year long campaign of attacks on the language, from the issuing of Peter I’s decree banning printing in Ukrainian to the signing of a secret decree titled the ‘Valuev Circular’ in 1863 by the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire Pyotr Valuev, that made most of publications in the Ukrainian language forbidden. It is Valuev’s words that may aptly summarize the rhetoric with which the de-facto process of Russification of Ukrainians took place: ‘The Ukrainian language never existed, does not exist, and shall never exist.’ 

As such, that centuries-old process would have continued, were it not for its temporary interruption by the introduction of the indigenisation (“korenizatsiya”/коренизация) policy by the Soviet Union in the 1920s. As part of its attempts to appeal to the very nations it engulfed and institutionalise social control, the policy sought to promote representatives of the titular nation and their national minorities into administrative levels of local governments and reverse the Russification policies of the imperial period. Established under the banner of ‘Socialist in content, but national in form’, the policy effectively communicated that expression of patriotic sentiments was allowed so long as it lay within an over-arching theme of Soviet utopia. What soon became clear was that instead of satiating the appetite of the people for freedom to live and think as they pleased, the policies whetted it, highlighting the prevalence of a dichotomy of powers Ukraine continuously found itself subjected to: Russia and the West.  

Consequently, the assertion of Russian cultural hegemony through a centralised Soviet regime ensured that any independence-driven ambitious cultural movements saw no exposure on a state-wide level – instead, they faced repression and direct opposition from all governmental organs. Those parts of the intelligentsia therefore found themselves at an implicit “choice” of consequences that lay between suicide, repressions and concentration camps, systemic silencing, emigration, or the writing of “programmed” prose on behalf of the Communist Party. After the policy of indigenisation had served as a social equivalent of water breaking a dam, the only way of stop the overflow was to dry out and eliminate the sources.  

An early example of such efforts was the show trial of the Union for the Freedom of Ukraine v Soviet Union in 1930: beginning with 45 defendants, a total of 474 people were accused of anti-state activities, of which 15 were sentenced to execution, 192 sent away to concentration camps, 87 sent away outside of the borders of Ukrainian SSR, 3 sentenced to probation, and 124 released. The accusations were such that the Union for the Freedom of Ukraine (SVU) was an underground organization, its purpose of existence aimed at liberating the Ukrainian people across their ethnographic territory and establishing an independent parliamentary and democratic Ukrainian republic that would give its citizens the right to private property. As such, the accusations asserted that the SVU was to be held accountable for allegedly inciting and supporting popular uprisings while in close communication with the Ukrainian diaspora. In retrospect, the prevalent theory within contemporary Ukrainian analysis of early Soviet history is that SVU never existed as an organization – it was simply a fictitious body created by the authorities, a metaphor representing the movement of Ukrainian patriots of that time, who channeled their work into the collective efforts of initiating a Ukrainian cultural renaissance. 

What followed the trial was the beginning of a campaign to remove and exterminate any and all members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia that lasted between 1934-1940. The campaign ultimately culminated during the 1938-1938 Great Purge, resulting in 223 writers being imprisoned or executed. A painful mark of twentieth century Ukrainian history; its tragic peak – the mass execution of nearly three hundred members of the Ukrainian renaissance at Sandarmokh, a mass killing site in Karelia, northwest Russia. Some estimates assert that nearly 30,000 Ukrainian intellectuals were repressed during the Stalinist Yezhovschina, and its impact on literary contributions can be seen in the change in publication trends of that decade. While in 1930, the works of 259 Ukrainian writers were published, by 1938 only 36 of those writers remained – the rest were executed, exiled, had disappeared, or committed suicide.  

The story of the Executed Renaissance is one of tragedy, its existence a reminder to us of the privilege that is the freedom to think and express without consequences, to create in the name of art and higher purposes, to have personal convictions. It is, however, a story of hope, for the attempts to silence, repress, and erase any potential sources of a free-thinking Ukrainian culture were unsuccessful – decades later, an independent Ukrainian state that so many of the Renaissance envisioned lives on, its existence a testament to the efficacy of the collective struggle for freedom.  

Written by Kvitka Perehinets

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hirsch, Francine. 2005. Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

Lavrinenko, Yuriy. 2004. Executed Renaissance: Anthology 1917-1933. December 13, 2010,  Kyiv: Smoloskyp,  

Museum of Soviet Occupation. 2009. “Union for the Freedom of Ukraine Show Trial – Chronicles.” http://memorial.kiev.ua/expo/1924_4.html.  

Onyshkevych, Larissa; Rewakowicz, Maria (2015). Contemporary Ukraine on the Cultural Map of Europe. London: Routledge. p. 186 

Pluzhnyk, Ievhen. 1936. “Євген Плужник – Листи”. Збручhttps://zbruc.eu/node/93665. 

Remy, Johannes. “The Valuev Circular and Censorship of Ukrainian Publications in the Russian Empire (1863-1876): Intention and Practice.” Canadian Slavonic Papers / Revue Canadienne Des Slavistes 49, no. 1/2 (2007): 87-110. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40871165

Image: 

Les Kurbas And The Kyiv Youth Theater. 2020. Image. Accessed November 19. https://molodyytheatre.com/istoriya 

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