Ukrainian poet 1935-1963
"KURDS'KOMU BRATOVI" (To a Kurdish Brother)
On Septermber 1963 Vasyl Symonenko wrote in his diary:
The organs of the press have become even more useless and arrogant: Literaturna Ukraina castrates my article; Ukraina abuses my poems. Every lackey does as he pleases … in April my poems were removed from Zmina, butchered in Zhovten', and turned down by Dnipro and Vitchyzna.
The Soviet authorities were attempting to silence one of the foremost voices of social comment among the shestydesiatnyky, the generation of the 1960s, a group of young writers and poets who were responsible for a cultural revival in Soviet Ukraine. Symonenko's verse remained largely unpublished during his short life, for he published only one collection of poems, Tysha i Hrim (1962, Silence and Thunder). His works were continually and ruthlessly mutilated and suppressed by the censors. In the works that did appear in print, key words and key lines were omitted, and titles were changed, so that the poems would be stripped of their contemporary meaning, and the poet's protest against Soviet tyranny would be redirected against the long-dead Russian imperial regime. Symonenko reached his audience in samvydav (samizdat) journals.
"Kurds'komu Bratovi" (To a Kurdish Brother) was one of Symonenko's poems that was unpublished in the Soviet Union but eventually made him a national poet, and a mouthpiece of the Ukrainian national opposition of the 1960s and 1970s. In the first three stanzas, the poet addresses a Kurdish friend whose country has been invaded by bloodthirsty oppressors. They came not only to steal the possessions of the Kurdish people but also to take away their name, eradicate their language, and render their children fatherless. The oppressors do not belong to a specific nation; they are a symbolic race, generalized by the poet as chauvinists. Chauvinism for the poet is an ever-hungry, bloodthirsty, pitiless aggressor that understands only the language of bullets. In the fourth stanza, the first person plural replaces the second person singular, and chauvinism is termed the common enemy of all the oppressed nations of the world:
And on the blood of tortured nations thriving
Grows fat our worst of foemen, chauvinism.
There is no possibility of either accord or truce with this tyrant, therefore a struggle is inevitable. Igor Shankovsky has said that in this poem Symonenko "sounds like Prometheus who is about to break his chains". Indeed, the poem is not only an appeal to oppressed nations to guard and preserve their dignity, heritage, and national identity, but also a vigorous call to resistance against oppression. The struggle will go on until "falls the last of this planet's chauvinists".
The poem appeared at a time when Soviet oppression was particularly severe. Symonenko's countrymen could not misunderstand the reference to the Kurds as an oppressed nation. Thus, this poetic address to a Kurdish brother did not disassociate the work from Ukrainian reality, but allowed it to acquire a universal meaning while upholding aspirations for the liberation of Ukraine.
Vasyl Symonenko's premature death, from cancer, made him a cult figure among nationally minded Ukrainian intellectuals, but also marked the beginning of the campaign undertaken by the Soviet authorities against his literary and personal impact. While the younger generation of Ukrainian writers raised money to help Symonenko's family, and organized memorial meetings and readings of his poetry, the Soviet authorities strove to replace his reputation as a defender of the Ukrainian cause with the image of a loyal servant of the Communist Party. They were lavish in praising him in the official media and published two (heavily censored) collections of his poetry. They published a letter, allegedly written by his mother (but probably signed under pressure), in which Vasyl Symonenko is characterized as a loyal Soviet citizen and a true communist without any dissident associations, whose "good name" should be restored. An anonymous answer to this letter, which was circulated in samvydav (samizdat), both commended Symonenko's mother for giving such a son to Ukraine and criticized her for going along with her son's enemies. In 1965, a copy of this letter was used by the authorities as an incriminating document in their prosecution of a group of Ukrainian intellectuals who were accused of smuggling Symonenko's manuscripts abroad.
"Kurds'komu Bratovi" first appeared in print in 1965, in the Munich journal Suchasnist', and then in a volume of selections from Symonenko's verse, short prose, and diaries. This first uncensored edition of Symonenko's works was published in the West under the title Bereh chekan' (The Shore of Anticipation). This may be considered the first Ukrainian samvydav edition to be published abroad. It contains some previously published poems, not only from Tysha i Hrim, but also from his posthumous collection Zenne Tiazhinnia (1964, Terrestrial Gravitation), as well as six restored poems that had previously been mutilated by Soviet censors, and 10 poems that had never been published in book form. "Kurds'komu Bratovi" figures among the latter, alongside "The Gate", "Elegy for Corncob that died at the Depot", and "Ballad of the Outlander". An appendix to this volume contains poems dedicated to Symonenko by his Ukrainian admirers. Since the editor was aware that their authors could be persecuted for having their work published abroad, their names were omitted. This book was not only a tribute to the poet's memory but also a realization of one of his dreams, for before his death Symonenko had attempted to publish some of the poems in Ukraine.
Soviet officials failed in their effort to appropriate Symonenko's name and writings for their cause, and soon reversed tack. After 1966 Symonenko's works were virtually banned in his homeland. Nevertheless, many Ukrainians copied and distributed them-and "Kurds'komu Bratovi" above all-without regard for their personal safety. This poem alone had come to be a symbol of national resurrection and resistance to Soviet oppression.
Bereh chekan' (The Shore of Anticipation), edited by Ivan Koszliwec, 1973
Granite Obelisks, edited by Andrii M. Freishyn-Chirovsky, 1975
Lebedi materinstva: stikhi, poema, skazki (Swans of Motherhood: Poems, a Long Poem, and Fairy Tales), 1985
Norod mii zavzhdy bude (My People Will Always Be), 1990
Z matir'iu na samoti (Alone with My Mother), 1990
Horyn', Bohdan, "Tykhyi i Hromovyi Holos Vasylia Symonenka" (The Quiet and Thunderous Voice of Vasyl Symonenko), Suchasnist', 12 (December 1988): 332
Ianiv, Volodymyr, "Ukraiins'ka Rodyna v Tvorchosti Vasylia Symonenka" (The Ukrainian Motherland in the Works of Vasyl Symonenko) in Symbolae in Honorem Georgii Y. Shevelov, Munich: Ukrainian Free University, 1971
Luckyj, George S. N. (editor), The Discordant Voices: The Non-Russian Soviet Literatues, 1953-1973, Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1975
Luckyj, George S. N. (editor), Ukrainian Literature in the Twentieth Century: A Reader's Guide, Toronto: University Press, 1992
Rich, Vera, "Vasyl Symonenko" and "Diary: From the Prohibited Works of Vasyl Symonenko", Ukrainian Review, 42/1 (Spring 1995)
Shankovsky, Ihor, Symonenko: A Study in Semantics, Munich: Ukrainishes Institut für Bildungsppolitik, 1977