AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE (Number 12) “GOGOL AT HOME”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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If you were a 19th century visitor to Vasylivka, the home estate where Nikolai Gogol was born in Velyky (Big) Sorochyntsi, Ukraine, you would be taken into the elegant dining room where his exuberant chatty mother, Maria is waiting for the samovar to steam. Even before she pours the tea, she is ready to tell you all about her life and of course, her genius son, “Nikosha.”

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Portrait of Nikolai Gogol, 1840, by F. Moeller

She would say: “I was 14 when I married my husband, Vasyl—Vasylivka our home is named after him. He first saw me in a dream, you know. He was standing before the iconostasis in church and the Tsarina walked through the gates holding a baby in her arms. She told him, ‘this is your wife.’  Seven months later, he was really at church, and saw an infant exactly as the one in the dream. It was me! I was that infant! We were destined for one another even though he was thirteen years older than me.”

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Portrait of Maria Gogol (1781-1868)

Maria did marry the very romantic, sometimes melancholy, sometimes comedic Vasyl Gogol (Hohol), and brought his child bride to live at the home estate. She had several miscarriages, and before she was about to give birth to yet another baby, she went to the nearby church of St. Nicholas in the village of Dikanka, and prayed to the patron saint’s icon to spare her child. She also made a bargain with St. Nicholas—she would name her son after the saint if it was a boy, and build a chapel in Vasylivka.

Apparently the terms were to the Saint’s approval, because her child, Nikolai (Mykola) was born on March 31, 1809 (N.S). Maria kept her bargain, and sold the family silver for the money to build a chapel, and adorn the icon she prayed to with a golden frame. It’s still in the church in Dikanka although you won’t be allowed to photograph this wonder icon of Maria’s (and if you are a female, you will have to wear a babushka and skirt as I was made to—just a warning). But her icon is still there. Continue reading

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE (Number 11) “‘THERE, THERE! TO KYIV!’”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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In a letter written on December 20, 1833, Nikolai Gogol wrote: “There, there! To Kyiv! In ancient, in beautiful Kyiv! It is ours, not theirs, is it not?” In other words: Kyiv was Ukrainian in Gogol’s view.

The letter was written to his friend, Mykhaylo Maksymovych, a botanist, linguist, and at the time, the first Rector at St. Volodymyr Royal University in Kyiv where Gogol wanted very much to be a professor.

Gogol also wanted very much to live in Kyiv, a city he knew as a student when he first traveled there on a summer holiday from Nizhyn Gymnasium in 1827. It was in this majestic, ancient city where Gogol no doubt reinforced his Ukrainian ethnic heritage especially his interest in Cossack history.

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Kyiv from the view of the Dnipro River and the Podil section. Postcard, 19th century.

Later, in 1833, he visited Kyiv again as Maksymovych’s guest in his apartment overlooking the Dnipro River. Gogol must have enjoyed the view and the long riverside walks which led him to the Podil, the oldest section of Kyiv and must have been inspirational for the young writer who was writing another book of short stories.

In fact, the Bratstvo Monastery on the Podil was the setting for one short story “Viy,” that appeared in another collection about Ukrainians called Mirgorod  published 1835. This story features a trio of seminarians who all have fantastic and rather gruesome adventures, especially Khoma Brut who is trapped in a church while reading prayers for a dead woman who turns out to be a witch.

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Bratsvo ( Brotherhood, also known as Theophany) Monastery, Podil, Kyiv. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

There are several film versions, the most recent came out in 2014, and was a multi-national venture which I have yet to see.

Going towards and up the road (and the Podil is hilly!) on the street called St. Andrew’s Descent, Gogol and Maksymovych were  familiar guests at the home of the Polish novelist and critic Mikhaylo Grabowsky (1805-1863) who lived at Number 34. Many other famous Ukrainian writers visited this literary mecca including Panteliemon Kulish (who later wrote the first biography about Gogol after his death), and the most famous Ukrainian poet then and now: Taras Shevchenko.

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34 St. Andrew’s Descent, Podil Section, Kyiv. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

The building still exists and is located across the street from St. Andrew’s Church which Gogol visited often after his mother complained to him that he hardly went to services anymore.

A few words about Mikhaylo Maksymovych (1804-1873).  He was already well known in Ukraine and certainly to Gogol well before they met since Maksymovych published his first collection of Ukrainian folk songs in 1827–a book the Gogol family owned in their home in Sorochintsy. But it turned out that Gogol knew and shared even more Ukrainian folk songs which were unfamiliar to Maksymovych, so much so that Gogol was mentioned in the acknowledgements in Maksymovych’s second volume in 1834.

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Mykhaylo Maksymovych, Drawing by Taras Shevchenko, 1859.

How did Gogol know so many Ukrainian songs? Probably from hearing them at his home estate in Sorochintsy, where serfs and villagers sang in the fields, and at the “evening parties” as mentioned in Dikanka. He also loved to sing, although I have yet to come across any eye-witness accounts (ear-witness accounts?) describing his voice.

However, the Russian writer Sergei Aksakov describes in his memoirs how Gogol, Maksymovych and a third Ukrainian, the Slavist and professor Osip Bodyansky sing Ukrainian songs at parties. Gogol wears a Ukrainian embroidered shirt and sharavary, those traditional balloon-legged trousers, and Aksakov goes on to say: “It was the usual khokhol [derogatory name for Ukrainains] type music—with whistles and stomps and even Bodyansky almost losing control. He started dancing and practically landed on Konstantin’s [Aksakov’s son] lap.”

Maksymovych did try to help Gogol land a professorship at St. Volodymyr’s—which was later renamed as Taras Shevchenko University (I think Gogol would have been upset over that), but it was never to be. And so, Gogol left Kyiv for St. Petersburg which he disliked, and told Maksymovych in that same letter of December 20, 1833: “I’m tired of St. Petersburg, or better, not it, but the damned climate: it will bake me…”

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St. Volodymyr Royal University, Kyiv. (Postcard, 19th century).

The last time Gogol visited Kyiv was in 1848, and ironically at St. Volodymyr’s  Royal University. He was invited to come as an honored guest and famous writer by the Vice-Chancellor (Maksymovych had since left his post there) to meet with the faculty and students. By then, Gogol was exhausted, having returned from his disappointing trip to the Holy Land, and still harboring the excruciating criticisms for his last published book of essays, Selected Passages from Correspondences with Friends.

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Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (Formerly St. Volodymyr Royal University). (Photo: I.Zabytko)

He was also near-penniless, and frustrated in finishing his second volume of Dead Souls. Most likely, he was also going through another bout of mental breakdowns and physical illnesses, in addition to an overbearing religious mania he acquired in his later years.

Still, he accepted the invitation. It occurred on an unbearably hot day in June. He was late because he went to the University and not to the Vice-Chancellor’s home where they were all waiting for him on the lawn. When he arrived, they applauded and made speeches and then asked him if he could say something to the students—words of advice or encouragement.

He declined.

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Nikolai Gogol Postcard issued in the Soviet Union, 1955.

He was then asked if he would like something to drink.

He said only water which he drank quickly and then handed the empty glass to one of the professors. “I think I saw you once,” Gogol said to the perplexed man. “You were eating in a restaurant. You had onion soup.”

And without a goodbye or thank you, Gogol left and returned to his home in Sorochintsy where he collapsed from heat stroke. It could’ve been worse since a cholera epidemic was raging in Kyiv and environs at the time. His family thought he was dying of cholera when they saw him.

It seems that although Gogol loved Kyiv, Kyiv doesn’t love him, at least not as much. There is one statue of Gogol, and a bust on the façade of the Kyiv Opera House which no one really notices. Somewhere on a wall on the Podil, a Canadian artist donated a small sculpture of a nose and moustache.

At the National Museum of Literature, Gogol has a corner with a replica of his writing desk and a much too long cape—definitely not an original. He pops up here and there in other writers’ exhibits such as the one at the unusual One Street Museum where I first heard of Mikhaylo Grabowsky. Otherwise, there is no Kyivan museum dedicated to Gogol himself (although Pushkin has one, and Shevchenko–three!).

Maybe someday. As Gogol himself famously once said, “No one is a prophet in his own country…” and although Kyiv is now certainly a Ukrainian city, it still isn’t entirely Gogol’s.

Thank you to the guides at the National Museum of Literature, the One Street Museum, Sergey Bilokan, and to Kirill Stepanets for his tour in Kyiv (Kirill’s Kyiv guided tours in Ukrainian and Russian can be found on his Facebook page).

LINKS:

Fulbright Scholar Program: www.cies.org/

English version of the short story, “VIY:  https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61v/

One Street Museum: https://onestreet.kiev.ua

National Museum of Literature of Ukraine:  http://museumlit.org.ua/?page_id=4862

Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv: http://www.univ.kiev.ua/en/

Sergey Bilokan’s Website: http://www.sbilokin.name/Culture/Gogol.html

My Website: www.irenezabytko.com  Join my free mailing list for weekly advice on writing literary fiction.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at: www.irenezabytko.com and http://amzn.to/211kQhZ

NEXT AND LAST POST IN THIS SERIES: Gogol at home.

Copyright © 2017 by Irene Zabytko.  All rights reserved.

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE (Number 10) “DETOUR: IN SCOTLAND WITH GOGOL”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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In the middle of living in Ukraine during my Fulbright grant, I was allowed to take up another writers’ perk: a free month long residency at an honest to goodness castle in Scotland!  This was a great opportunity for me to take my Gogol novel manuscript and give it a good solid read for edits and rewrites. And what better place to do it in than a Scottish castle!

My residency is officially called “The Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers” and Hawthornden Castle is the beautiful and tranquil setting for invited writers to work in bliss and tranquility on their projects.

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Hawthornden Castle, front entrance. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

Hawthornden Castle is located between the villages of Lasswade and Rosewell, but local buses constantly travel to nearby Edinburgh. The only drawback is that there is no Internet service for writers, but I was very glad of that. It forced me to read my manuscript as a book, without distractions by the outside or virtual world. Now that’s a true vacation! Well, for a writer anyway. And actually, there are local pubs down the road (which is also the name of a fine Scottish ale) who offer free Wi-Fi.

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AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE (Number 9), “OH, ODESA!”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.ukraine-small-23600_640

My main purpose in visiting Odesa was to walk the streets where Nikolai Gogol used to inhabit and to visit the Odesa State Literature Museum. I am an absolute literary groupie, and so any city that dedicates an entire museum to its writers—I’m there! Forget the hour boat ride on the Black Sea, or the “Odesa Criminals” tour (I’ll do those another time), but for me, bring on the Literature Museum!

And what a place! It’s an absolute palace (the original owner was a prince after all). None of the writers whose personal effects and books on display in the galleries could ever have afforded to live there—well, maybe Pushkin but he had his own apartment not too far away, and incidentally, Odesa has another museum dedicated only to him.

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Main entrance hallway, Odesa State Literature Museum, Odesa, Ukraine (Photo: website).

I visited the Literature Museum twice on two separate occasions. The first was rhapsodic, delightful, dreamy, and fabulous (I could have written an ode to it). The second—well, it was odious overall—not the Museum of course, but the fact that everything on that trip (which will be a pun in a minute) went wrong for all sorts of unfathomable, even karmic reasons culminating in my falling off the stairs at the Museum entrance while filming the exterior, and breaking my ankle. I ignored my accident and pain until ten days later when I succumbed to going to a doctor in Kyiv and was then bivouacked there for the entire winter (more about Kyiv in an upcoming post).

But forget that—I have now that it is Spring, and my leg cast is off, and I am skipping around Ukraine again. Let’s return to that first lovely visit where I was captivated by the idea that 300 great writers like Pushkin, Bunin, Chekhov, Lesya Ukrainka, Ahkmatova, Babel and Gogol too–have been memorialized and honored in that glorious breathtaking building because they had been to Odesa and Odesa still shows them off in a grand place.

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Concert hall, Odesa State Literature Museum, Odesa, Ukraine (Photo: website)

There is an exhibit dedicated to Gogol although it’s in rather a dark, eerie section in one of the lovely rooms. Above hangs a Ukrainian dress tacked on to the ceiling to represent the whimsical flying characters in his first collection of short stories, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka. In the glass case are rare copies of his books, and a hand written account by someone who actually saw and heard him do a public reading in Odesa. That was thrilling!

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AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE (Number 8) “MUSINGS IN MYKOLAIV”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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After my return from Wales, I went on to the southern Ukrainian city of Mykoliav, where I was invited to present a talk to the students and faculty at Petro Mohyla Black Sea State University about my research on Gogol—or actually anything I wanted to talk about as long as it was in English which was certainly fine with me.

This was my second appearance there, thanks to my wonderful friend Tetyana Ostapchuk who was herself a Fulbright alumna in the States where she researched American writers of Ukrainian descent (including myself) and has even translated some of my short stories into Ukrainian and written articles about my collection of short stories, When Luba Leaves Home.

My first visit to Mykolaiv was back in 2013 when I received an IREX travel grant for a documentary film about Chornobyl I was (and still am) creating, and so was invited to present readings from my novel about Chornobyl, The Sky Unwashed and film screenings of my documentary film short “Epiphany at Chornobyl” at the University and at libraries for the local community. Tetyana also provided top-notch Ukrainian translations of both the book and film. Here is a PDF link to the article I wrote about that visit that appeared in “The Ukrainian Weekly”, “My Impressions of Mykolaiv: The Secret City by the Sea” (page 20): http://ukrweekly.com/archive/2013/The_Ukrainian_Weekly_2013-40.pdf

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Petro Mohyla Black Sea State University, Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

My second Mykolaiv appearance was only at the University for the professors and students studying English at the Institute of Philology. I read from several chapters of my novel-in-progress about Gogol and discussed my research about his life in Ukraine. Continue reading

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE (Number 7) “DETOUR: IN THE U.K. VIA CHORNOBYL”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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I should change the title to AN AMERICAN WRITER IN THE U.K. because even though I am living in Ukraine, I was able to escape for a time to two places in the United Kingdom: Wales and Scotland.

For this post, I will tie in my Wales trip with a bit of my Scotland one by way of Chornobyl (Ukrainian transliteration for “Chernobyl”) because I was presenting my talk in the U.K. about that horrific catastrophe that occurred in Ukraine on April 26, 1986.

And since we have once more commemorated this sad tragedy just a few days ago as I am writing this, I thought it appropriate to mention it now.

In late October, 2016, I was among four authors invited to take part in a wonderful book festival called, “The Hearth Literary Festival” at a glorious place called Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden (pronounced “Hawden”) Flintshire, Wales. I have never been to Wales before and so I was thrilled at the opportunity of visiting at least a small part of this beautiful country.

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Entrance to Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden Flintshire, Wales. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

Gladstone’s Library was founded by William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) who was Britain’s Prime Minister, and in an magnanimous gesture, he donated 32,000 of his personal book collection to this magnificent building which is now a residential library. The story goes that at age 85, Gladstone, along with his valet and daughter, brought those books from his home three miles away in a wheelbarrow to the Library, and also shelved the books according to his own unique system.

Of course, the books have since multiplied over the years to the present day, and I am very honored that my own novel, THE SKY UNWASHED (about the elderly evacuees who returned to their irradiated village after the Chornobyl disaster) is among them.

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THE SKY UNWASHED displayed at Gladstone’s Library. (Photo: I. Zabytko)

It was also a privilege to present a reading of this novel and to feature my short film EPIPHANY AT CHORNOBYL for the Welsh audience who were very gracious and engaged in this topic. Wales was also very much affected by the Chornobyl fall-out, specifically in North Wales (and in Cumbria and Scotland).  The radiation spread over the grasslands and hills where sheep were grazing, and contaminated the animals. A ban was declared against the livestock which caused much economic hardship for the farmers, and was not lifted until 2012.

I returned in mid-November to another part of the U.K. –Scotland where I was invited to spend November and December as a writer-in-residence at Hawthorden Castle, which is near Edinburgh. There, I was able to spend a month working on my novel about Nikolai Gogol, and I will post more about that adventure (and that Castle!) in a future post.

I did want to mention that I was able to do another Chornobyl presentation for the Ukrainian community of Edinburgh. This was a group I was looking forward to meeting again since my first Edinburgh visit back in the late 1980s when I was helping out at a friend’s play during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was then I discovered the Scottish Ukrainians who are better known as The Association of Ukrainians of Great Britain—Scotland (AUGB) , and naturally I was delighted to return this time to read from THE SKY UNWASHED and to also screen EPIPHANY AT CHORNOBYL.

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The AUGB Building, Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo: Website)

The Edinburgh faction of the AUGB is a vibrant and dedicated group of Ukrainians and Scots. They own a beautiful building in the town center where they hold Ukrainian events and even host plays for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve met many fabulous people but wanted to single out one particular person who was kind enough to give me a book of his own about his adventures in helping the victims of Chornobyl: TO CHERNOBYL, WITH LOVE

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His name is Jim Gillies, and although he is not Ukrainian, Jim was so taken by the news of the Chornobyl disaster that he single-handedly made it his personal mission and one man vigil to help out the children who were affected, and as he painfully discovered on his own—were without proper and much needed medical supplies at one of the hospitals near Kyiv. I was enthralled by his book which I read nearly non-stop, and was amazed by his generosity, humanity, and his dedication and compassion.  His book and his heroic work should be known and applauded.

In addition to Jim Gillies, I also would like to thank the following people for allowing me to present and share my work on Chornobyl:  Linda Allison, Chairperson, and all the members of the AUGB-Scotland; and to all at Gladstone’s Library in particular the Hearth Festival organizers: Louisa Yates, Amy Sumner, and for the initial invitation to Gladstone: Katharine Easterby, and Peter Francis, Warden of Gladstone’s Library.

LINKS:

Fulbright Scholar Program: www.cies.org/

Gladstone’s Library: https://www.gladstoneslibrary.org/

Association of Ukrainians of Great Britain (AUGB SCOTLAND) http://scottishukrainians.co.uk/

Jim Gillies book, TO CHERNOBYL, WITH LOVE (with Murray Scougall) is available on amazon.com: https://www.amazon.co.uk/d/cka/Chernobyl-Love-Jim-Gillies/1849341885

My Chornobyl Documentary Film website: www.lifeinthedeadzone.com

My website with links to my books: www.irenezabytko.com

NEXT POST: Return to Ukraine and the secret city of Mykolaiv.

Need help and inspiration in writing GREAT fiction?  Find both in my writing guidebook: THE FICTION PRESCRIPTION: HOW TO WRITE AND IMPROVE YOUR FICTION LIKE THE GREAT LITERARY MASTERS. Available at: www.irenezabytko.com and http://amzn.to/211kQhZ

Copyright © 2017 by Irene Zabytko.  All rights reserved.

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 6): “Another Gogolian Heir–Bruno Schulz”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.ukraine-small-23600_640

I am very fond of Drohobych, a mid-sized ancient city dating back to the 11th century in Western Ukraine and about 85 kilometers from Lviv. I taught English there in the summer of 1994 and probably the first American to appear before my students after Ukraine’s independence.

Those were highly challenging times for Ukraine— store shelves were empty, lines were long for the few things left on them, and people were confused on how to adjust to a dwindling economy after divorcing Russia and the Soviet Union. The citizens were undergoing tremendous economic hardships in adapting to circumstances that they were not prepared for–many yearned for the end to Communism, but few had the resources to survive its departure.

My personal attachments go even further back in time. My mother went to school in Drohobych in the 1930s. She was a village girl whose natural singing abilities were recognized early, and with much sacrifice from her family, she went to live with a family in Drohobych near the school where she was taught music and voice lessons. Eventually, she proved to be talented enough to go on to the music conservatory in the bigger city of Lviv where she trained as a mezzosoprano before giving it all up to come to America.

Unbeknownst to her, she lived in the same neighborhood as the writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942), and I often wondered if she had past him on her way to her beloved music school, and he to his detested job as an art teacher. If not, then she certainly shopped at his father’s cloth store for the materials she needed to sew her own clothes especially when she appeared on stage or at auditions. Continue reading

AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 5): “The Gogol-Franko Connection.”

Copyright © 2017 by Irene Zabytko.  All rights reserved.

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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My parents and their families came from the Western part of Ukraine—in the area known as Halychyna (also called Galicia in English and not to be confused with the Galicia in Spain).

Unlike Eastern, Central and Southern Ukraine which were dominated by the Russian Empire before the Soviets did, Halychyna had its own parallel history of overlords by another empire–the Austro-Hungarian one.

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Postcard of Lviv  (then called Lemberg and Lwow), c. 1915.

Later, it was given to Poland until 1939 when the Soviet Union annexed Halychyna as part of the Ukrainian S.S.R., and still remains part of independent Ukraine although in many ways and because of different historical legacies (and tyrannies),  Halychyna differs in its identity compared to the rest of the country.

In my mother’s time (she came to the States after marrying my father, a Ukrainian-American in 1937), Polish was the predominant language and Ukrainian was denigrated and prohibited especially in the capitol city of  Lviv which was called Lwow by the Poles, Lemberg by the Habsburgs, and Lvov by the Russians.

These days, Lviv is very much a Ukrainian city although I hear more and more Russian spoken everywhere probably because of the many people who fled to Western Ukraine from the ongoing war in Donetsk. Still, it is a beautiful city and retains much of the Habsburg influence with cafes and cobblestoned streets and outstanding architecture like the Opera House which mercifully was not bombed by the Soviets or the Nazis during the Second World War.

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Lviv Opera House (officially called the Solomyiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet), built in 1897-1900, Lviv, Ukraine.

Too bad Gogol never visited Lviv. He would have gotten around quite well speaking in Polish (which he also knew). He probably wasn’t even aware he had fans in Western Ukraine and that his books—especially those with Ukrainian themes like his story collection EVENINGS ON A FARM NEAR DIKANKA and the historical epic about Ukrainian Cossacks, TARAS BULBA were immensely popular in Halychyna.  No doubt, Gogol’s works were consciousness-raising  mediums for the Western Ukrainians living through their own repressions and who needed a literary icon to resurrect their pride in being Ukrainian—and despite the persistent fact that Gogol’s books were written in Russian, yet another colonial language Ukrainians were forced to know.

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AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 4): “Something More About Nizhyn…”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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Unless you’re a besotted Gogol fanatic as I am, then you probably have never heard of the town of Nizhyn. It’s situated about 100 miles from Kyiv: an hour an half by train, less than that by car if the wheels aren’t blown out by the many, many pock-holes on the highways, and probably about four or five hours by carriage if you were living in the 19th century.

There was a very good reason why Prince Bezborodko decided to build his Lyceum for noble boys (and the school where Gogol attended for eight years) in Nizhyn and not in Kyiv because at the time, in the 1820s, Nizhyn was a very important cultural center and the government seat of the province of Chernihiv. Much much later, Nizhyn had another history under the Soviets when it became a secret city with aerodromes and weapons technology which is probably why you had never heard of Nizhyn much if at all.

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Nizhyn, 19th Century Lithograph by P. Borelya (Gogol Museum, Nizhyn Gogol State University).

It’s very accessible now and the town center is quite attractive thanks to several older and non-Soviet style buildings still in evidence. There are also a lot of churches with the obsequious Eastern Orthodox onion domes making up much of the sky-line. No doubt, many were visited by the young Gogol who may not have been very religious as a student (that was to come later after his fame as a writer) but now and then, he must have been enticed by the sonorous bells, the glorious choirs, and the sacred chants he learned by heart well before he left his village home in Sorochintsy to attend the Nizhyn school at the age of nine.

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AN AMERICAN WRITER IN UKRAINE BLOG SERIES (Number 3): “Something About Nizhyn, OR An American Rushes in Where Fools Fear to Tread.”

Foreword: In 2016, I was awarded a U.S. Fulbright Scholar’s grant to travel and live in Ukraine–a great honor! My project is doing research on the life of the 19th century writer, Nikolai Gogol for a novel I am currently writing about him. Here is a new series of blog posts about my amazing, evolving, always fascinating, sometimes perplexing times in Ukraine.

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I have been to Ukraine many times in the past but never to Nizhyn which is where I was heading on an awful flight from the U.S.A. in early September 2016.

I’ll skip all the tumultuous things that happened en route—suffice to say that everything that could have gone wrong did indeed go very badly–except a crash landing which I truly am grateful did not happen. And so I was grateful to have landed in Kyiv’s Boryspil Airport disgruntled but intact along with my battered luggage (which was brand new when I boarded the plane) and will someday write a post about that adventurous (!) flight.

But I was back in Kyiv! The city had changed and grown so much since I was last there in 2014 as an American observer for the Ukrainian presidential elections. For one thing, there were more bizarre and no doubt oligarchic-inspired skyscrapers that marred and overshadowed many of the still beautiful historical buildings (why is it that oligarchs have such bad taste?), but even so, there is a stalwart soulful core within Kyiv that Gogol also acknowledged and loved.

GOGOL AS STUDENT

Nikolai Gogol as a student in Nizhyn, circa 1828.

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Ah, Nikolai Gogol—the reason for my being in Ukraine. To do research and live in the town of Nizhyn  where the 19th century Ukrainian writer spent most of his childhood years at what was then called Prince Bezborodko’s School of Higher Studies for noble boys. Gogol was 11 when he attended the school in 1821, and remained there as a boarding student until age 19 in 1828. Continue reading