A document-and-book exhibit dedicated to the life and oeuvre of the great 20th-century Ukrainian prose writer Pavlo Zahrebelny will remain open at a gallery of the Central State Archive-cum-Museum of Ukrainian Literature and Art (CSAMULA) until November 25. The first publicly-displayed materials (some of them were classified as secret for a long time) prove that we know precious little even about the writers who are household names. Numerous photographs of the writer among friends and colleagues, letters in which you cannot separate the personal from the professional, edited and clean copies of novels, novellas and film scripts, reviews of other authors’ works, internal documentation of the Shevchenko Prize Committee, the Dovzhenko Film Studios and the Ukrainian SSR League of Writers, a staff accounting bulletin, an autobiography… In addition, there are some valuable items which the writer’s widow Ella lent temporarily to the CSAMULA: a towel embroidered by Zahrebelny’s mother in 1913, portraits of his parents, a favorite picture by Oles Semernia (it depicts a small country boy against the blue-black background), icons, a typewriter, glasses, a pen…
Among those who spoke about Pavlo Zahrebelny at the unveiling ceremony were not only project organizers from the State Archival Service of Ukraine and official guests, but also his widow Ella and son Mykhailo. The writer’s daughter Maryna had come to Kyiv from Moscow a week before. In an exclusive interview with The Day, she shared her impressions of the exposition and some very personal reminiscences of her great father.
Ms. Zahrebelna, which of the exhibited documents did you find unexpected and astonishing?
“There have been no big exhibitions like this in honor of Pavlo Zahrebelny before. The exposition astonished me with the materials I saw for the first time. Among them are documents of the Dovzhenko Film Studios with which father cooperated and photographs. What pleasantly surprised me was father’s inscription on a gift to Uncle Vasyl [Zemliak]. Most of the displayed photos are unique!”
Did Pavlo Zahrebelny care about the collection and keeping of his own archive? Or was it the job of other family members?
“Yes, he collected it little by little. Now that we are going through father’s huge library, we find a lot of his letters in books. Mom makes a copy of every sheet and puts it in a special file next to the original. We have taken the whole archive to the dacha, but it is difficult to work there in winter because it is very cold.”
The exhibit displays a typewriter on which Zahrebelny worked. Did he only use the typewriter in all his lifetime?
“In general, yes, but he only wrote by hand in the last years because he had been unable to type from approximately the early 2000s onwards.”
Which of your father’s works are the most precious for you?
“I don’t have the most favorite one. I like Yevpraksia, Bohdan, and Angel Flesh. I found at the dacha an Angel Flesh, which had not been republished since 1983, and took it to Moscow. Sergei Parajanov wanted to make a whodunit film on its basis.”
Pavlo Zahrebelny debuted as literary critic. Did he spend much time on reviewing?
“Rather, he was an editor. But I cannot say that he liked editing. And, later on, he also took rather a dim view of critics.”
Yet, as a critic and editor of Literaturna gazeta, the League of Writers’ mouthpiece, he did very much in the 1960s…
“He had to earn a living in some way and keep up his family. Father always believed that right things were to be done. He usually considered critique as an applied thing.”
Pavlo Zahrebelny’s first book, which came out in 1953, was the collection Kakhovka Stories. Did he finally drop small-scale prose works in favor of monumental opuses at a mature age?
“There were short stories and novellas in the last years, too. He wrote novels and long short stories simultaneously. Some of them were more of an entertainment, but I think some of the small works are even stronger than some of the big ones. I forced mother to write reminiscences about how father worked on each of the novels. I told her: ‘Do this in order not to lose heart.’ Mother remembers every detail! She showed me excellent essays on two novels the other day. Some of what she wrote was totally unexpected for me. It turns out that father hit upon the idea of writing the novel I, Bohdan in Bulgaria, when he was told about some local monk. He immediately conceived some parallel plots.”
And what prompted Pavlo Zahrebelny to take up a certain theme?
“I think this is all a Godsend. Father was really a God-kissed person. He managed to write so much! And he wrote a half of the texts by hand. Can you fancy rewriting at least one novel, say, Roksolana? I can remember well the following picture: father is writing, while we are left to our own devices. He only wanted us not to disturb him.”
So it was mother who brought up you and your brother Mykhailo?
“In a way, we were bringing ourselves up on our own. But we always remembered mother’s words: behave in such a way that you don’t feel ashamed later. I recently found an interesting sheet in father’s papers. Maybe, mom was away on that day, so dad writes: ‘Went shopping, scraped the rust off the faucet, taught Maryna to swim, and cooked meals,’ and so on. He could really turn his hand to anything. There must be no husbands like this any more.”
Did he also care personally about the orchard and the vegetable garden?
“He cared about everything. But the soil is sandy, and nothing grew there for a long time. No matter what grass we sowed, even some from foreign countries, nothing sprouted. But now that father is dead knee-high grass suddenly cropped up. Fantastic! He would personally paint up the trees and trim the branches.”
Did his friends and colleagues often visit him?
“Our dacha’s wicket was always open. In general, father loved people. There were fewer visitors in the last years, but still some would even bring over their acquaintances. He treated everybody as his best friend.”
Was Pavlo Zahrebelny strict with people?
“He always spoke the truth, although he saw that many things could not be changed. Some people we know say he was a difficult person to deal with. Besides, he forced everybody to work. He used to say: ‘How can one just sit without doing anything?’ Laziness angered him terribly. The League of Writers was often visited by strange characters – ‘unrecognized poets’ and ‘geniuses.’ Dad would always buy them a return ticket, give money, and say: ‘Do at least something. Yes, you’ll come back to your city, but what then?’”
What was Zahrebelny’s attitude to the system of art and literature leagues?
“As a longtime first secretary of the League of Writers, he managed to do very much and tried to change things for the better. He cared about the construction of buildings for writers and helped many of his colleagues get an apartment. Mom is saying sadly: ‘Those whom he gave apartments would then write poison-pen letters about him.’ Life is life, you know… Everyday problems consumed a lot of time, and he sometimes said that he wished he had written a couple of novels instead of doing this. The same applies to working at the Verkhovna Rada. He managed to help some people but still was unhappy about having to attend the sessions. Besides, it was physically difficult for him to do so due to perennial coughing. He did not go to theaters in the last years because he was short of breath indoors. Father was advised to be put on a disability list, but said: ‘Cossacks cannot be disabled!’ In the 1990s, he was in fact blind for two years, but a half of his acquaintances did not even suspect this. Mom would accompany him everywhere, and he partially regained eyesight after surgery in the late 1990s.”
How did he endure the time when art and literature leagues ceased to be funded and lost the erstwhile clout?
“Yes, you can’t get an apartment with the help of a league now. There once was a nice outpatient hospital run by the Literature Fund. This fund dealt with writers’ copyrights – it rendered so much assistance in this area. But now we are facing the copyright problem. Now the author himself must watch who publishes or republishes him and, if necessary, take legal action.
“Mom says the exposition runs short of photographs taken in the 2000s – these could be used to hold a separate exhibit. Dad read and very much supported young writers.”
Did you count the number of publications in Zahrebelny’s library?
“It is impossible to count all this. A half of the books are still lying bagged in the garage, and I failed to sort them out in the summertime. There are a lot of publications with presentation inscriptions.”
Did Pavlo Zahrebelny keep diaries all his lifetime? Did you know about them before he died?
“Dad began to keep a diary at the university after being released from the POW camp. He did not exactly advertise doing this. I needed to check the other day a date in the land ownership documents. I opened the diary: everything is recorded almost hour by hour. The diaries can help you keep track of all his lifetime. Naturally, there are a lot of personal things in them. They contain some very interesting things, such as fantastic portrayals of his acquaintances.”
In other words, it is too early to publish them?
“Father himself asked them to be published 20 years later. Three years already passed. He recorded everything: from reflections on the novel he was writing to all that was happening in life. Of special interest are the periods of elections and reelections. So clear-cut and true character references and forecasts… The impression is he foresaw what would happen.”
Did father tell you about the not-so-simple war time?
“Very little… Whenever he saw interviews with former concentration camp inmates, he said that a person who had really gone through all this would not be recalling it. But still he said very much about this in Thousand-Year-Old Mykolai. The novel Yulia, or Invitation to Commit Suicide also includes an autobiographical war fragment. He even said to mom: ‘Read, there’s everything there.’”
After languishing in Nazi captivity, Pavlo Zahrebelny also spent a few months in a Soviet filtration camp. Obviously, a not-so-easy experience, too…
“Yes, it was not so easy. So mom and I were astonished when my brother said in an interview a few years ago that dad had been in SMERSH [a counter-intelligence agency in the Red Army. – Ed.].”
The life story of any celebrity brings forth legends in the course of time…
“A writer is primarily concerned about whether or not he will be read. It is difficult to answer this question. People don’t read at all now. I can judge about this by my students [Maryna Zahrebelna teaches English at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. – Author]: all they care for is the Internet and ‘video footage.’”
How many languages did Pavlo Zahrebelny know?
“He had a fluent command of six or seven languages. He could also read in many others with a dictionary.”
Among the items that the writer’s widow Ella shared with the archive-cum-museum are two icons. Would you tell us about them?
“Mom bought these icons in Dnipropetrovsk almost at a marketplace, when dad was gravely ill. Framed in brass, they look golden. The icons wrought a miracle: father began to feel better. And the little statue ‘Golden Babai’ is a keepsake from the literary contest the brothers Kapranov organized in 1999. They also invited father to head the jury.”
Did cinema occupy an important place in Pavlo Zahrebelny’s life?
“I remember that when Checked: No Mines Left was being made, dad traveled to a location in Yugoslavia which he thought was a fantastic country, an El Dorado of sorts. And I and my family went to Yugoslavia right after the war. My husband worked there, while my daughter and I were in fact the first to be allowed to go there after the bombings. The Americans said: ‘Why have you come? We don’t bring our families here.’”
CSAMULA repositories keep several versions of the script of Kyivan Frescoes which Zahrebelny co-wrote with Parajanov. An ill-fated project, isn’t it?
“Unfortunately, it is. I keep at my Moscow home a gift from Sergei Parajanov – a huge plate ‘of the first Chinese emperor.’ He would always concoct some stories… When Parajanov was imprisoned, some of his friends came five or six times, and we talked on the street. I would give father letters for Shcherbytsky, but he would say: ‘I hand them over, but he is still doing time. They say to me: ‘Stay out of this. It is a matter of our concern.’ You know, it was impossible to break down the system. Dad said about Parajanov: ‘A person like this must not be in prison, for he is a creator!’ He believed that an individual must not be convicted for maladies or genetic irregularities which are beyond our control.
“Another unforgettable story happened with the cover of the book Wonder, which depicts an ancient fresco in blue, yellow, and green colors. Mom told me this was the reason why father was accused of nationalism. But he said in reply: ‘If you had not told me, I wouldn’t know this.’ In reality, he preferred green out of the three colors – it was his favorite color.”
Is there a Pavlo Zahrebelny museum or monument in Ukraine?
“A commemorative room was opened and a plaque was hung in the school of his native village Soloshyne. Mom has not yet been there but is going to hand over some photographs to them. That’s all…”
Olha GINSBURG, chairperson, State Archival Service of Ukraine:
“In connection with the exposition, I would like to ask the writer’s wife and children to join forces with us for establishing a Pavlo Zahrebelny memorial study room at the archive-cum-museum. I hope the current event will provide an impetus for collecting all the necessary documents and museum items and preserving them for generations to come.”
Ella ZAHREBELNA, widow of Pavlo Zahrebelny:
“The Sophia of Kyiv, on the territory of which the archive-cum-museum is located, calls to mind the reminiscences of Pavlo Zahrebelny. He finished a 10-grade school at Ozera, Poltava oblast, in 1941 and, when the war began, he decided to go to Kyiv to defend his Fatherland. This was the first time the country boy saw the golden-domed St. Sophia’s Cathedral. This event left a deep imprint in his heart and soul and helped shape him as an individual and a writer. Then there were the terrible POW camps which Pavlo found too painful to recall even decades later. The experience of those years was used to create Thinking about Eternity, The Sixth Day, Europe 45, and Europe-West.
“His life had very much space and time for books but very little for personal life and human contacts. He always spent his vacations and weekends in the village of Soloshyne, where he helped his old father. His fellow countrymen used to say: ‘Pavlo has always been with a book.’ He began to love books in his childhood, for he learned to read at four. He would read all day and night long. By all accounts, this laid the groundwork for him as a writer. It was the primary basis with which he became part of the great Ukrainian literature.
“When Pavlo was seriously ill, he lay in his study room, where two portraits – of his mother and father – hung (parents were always present in his heart and soul, for they inspired him). I used to say: ‘Look and pray! You are not speaking today, but when you wake up tomorrow, you’ll regain your voice.’ He never complained, for he was an extremely courageous man. His spirit still pervades the places where he was. I am grateful to my husband for having lived a difficult but very interesting life with him.”
Olena KULCHY, director, CSAMULA:
“This exhibit is our contribution to honoring the memory of Pavlo Zahrebelny, one of the most prominent 20th-century Ukrainian prose writers, a Hero of Ukraine. It describes the writer’s creative life for the first time on such a large scale. Today’s Ukraine shows a growing interest in archival documents, and the numerous events held at the archive-cum-museum are supposed to meet this demand. The CSAMULA does not have a separate Pavlo Zahrebelny fund. Assisted by our colleagues from other archives, including the Central State Archive of the Highest Governmental Bodies, the Central State Archive of Civic Organizations, the H.S. Pshenychny Central State Cine, Photo, and Audio Archive of Ukraine, the state archives of Dnipropetrovsk and Poltava oblasts, we have acquired over 300 documents. Most of them were made public for the first time, and they all constitute a unique source base for those who wish to familiarize themselves with the great master’s multifaceted figure.”
Mykhailo ZAHREBELNY, writer, economist, son of Pavlo Zahrebelny:
“We have seen the State Archival Service of Ukraine’s executives and employees do grandiose work in a short period of time. In essence, this exhibit is about several generations of the 1950s-1980s Soviet Ukrainian writers. Some of them failed to live to see our independence. Among them are brilliant personalities whom we do not have the right to forget, such as, for example, Mykhailo Chabanivsky, a prose writer who launched a Green movement in Ukrainian literature, or Yurii Smolych, the author of the splendid book A Tale of Unrest, from which we can learn about the origin of the term ‘Ukrainstvo’ and about the not-so-simple characters of Ukrainian writers in the 1920s-1930s. The letters displayed at the exhibition can tell us how difficult it is to be a writer. For example, Antonenko-Davydovych complained to Zahrebelny that his books were not published and he had no means of subsistence. All this is true… The archive-cum-museum is making a strenuous outreach effort which I hope will help restore interest in the Ukrainian book.”