Mykhailo Draj-Khmara (1889 – 1939) was a poet, and one of Ukraine’s literary elite, which came to be known as ‘The Executed Renaissance’. His poem ‘Swans’, translated in ‘Poetry and the State’, MPT 3/15, probably led to his arrest and subsequent death in the Soviet penal system.
Ukraine’s literary elite were one of the sections of the population targeted by the Soviet regime during the 1930’s, when they experienced a wave of arrests and executions and hundreds of Ukrainian writers were executed or rendered inactive by the Soviet Police. Yuri Lavrinenko, the critic who compiled the defining anthology of their work, coined the term ‘The Executed Renaissance’ which neatly expresses the energy of the literary revival they embodied and its brutal curtailment. Three of the authors whose work is translated in ‘Poetry and the State‘ (MPT 3/15) died between 1930 and 1940. Svidzinskyi survived until 1941, perhaps by severely restricting the volume of his published work, but was murdered by the Soviets as the Nazi armies advanced across Ukraine. Mykola Bazhan, a supremely gifted author, became one of the first poets to produce an ode to Stalin. The majority of these writers were not opposed to Soviet power; indeed, many of them had supported the Bolsheviks and were fervent communists. If, however, terror is to be effective in subduing a population it has to be directed against both supporters and opponents of the regime to preclude the possibility of any action, almost indeed any thought, that is not dominated by the state. A network of writers might become a focus for potential opposition and so, although it may consist of authors who wrap themselves in the Hammer and Sickle, it could still present a threat. The Ukrainian language itself, which after centuries of repression became the vehicle of a renaissance because, ironically, the Bolsheviks were encouraging its use in order to secure the loyalty of the indigenous population, became a threat simply in that it meant the Soviets were not in absolute control of Ukrainian literary life. The murder of many of these authors and the transformation of their surviving colleagues into the cheerleaders of mass murder were part of a process designed to erode the cultural identity of the Republic and transform its citizens into Homo Sovieticus.
The names of many of these writers were erased from the record and their works were banned. They had remade the Ukrainian language which, having been excluded from public life and its use restricted under a decree pronounced by the Tsar in 1876, now took on the full array of European literary forms. But so strengthening their language, they eroded the party’s control over the literary and cultural landscape, they weakened the power of what Kaganovich described as the ‘highest achievement’ of Russian culture: Marxist-Leninism.
The work of these authors is an affirmation of the ability of human beings to confront and transcend the most terrible circumstances and demonstrates how language and the imagination cannot ultimately be curtailed by any regime however brutal.