Ukrainian cultural figures: A pantheon of the (un)known and the most prominent

Leonid Finberg

Iryna Slavinska:  This is Iryna Slavinska on Hromadske Radio for the program Encounters, which is made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Today we are speaking with Leonid Finberg, the editor-in-chief of the publishing house Dukh i Litera, who will tell us about an initiative to feature Ukrainian cultural figures.

Leonid Finberg:  We are talking about the most prominent people who comprise the pantheon of Ukrainian culture, a pantheon in my and your understanding and awareness. Ukraine is practically unfamiliar with them. Perhaps a handful of historians, writers, those who are called intellectuals, know about them. Unfortunately, for a certain period of time, during the Soviet era, these were simply figures who were not heroes of Ukraine, who were not the spiritual leaders of Ukraine. Later, there was no one at all. There were dubious leaders, or leaders of the mass media. Thus, the idea emerged—it is very dear to me, that’s why I initiated it—to launch a series of books that would be called Cultural Figures. We went from idea to practice, and today we have a program for the coming years.

Iryna Slavinska:  What books have been published already? Let’s look at what has been done, and at your creative plans.

Leonid Finberg:  We inaugurated the series with a collection of texts entitled To the Gate of Light [Do bramy svitla] by Roman Korohodsky, about distinguished figures of Ukrainian culture in the twentieth century. Roman Korohodsky is a leading researcher of Ukrainian cinema, a writer, and one of the best historians of the Ukrainian dissident movement. He himself was a member of this movement. I think that he was not jailed only because he was ill. After all, he had attended practically all those activities for which people were being imprisoned at the time. But he is an excellent writer, and he has written essays about many Ukrainian cultural figures of that period. And when Oleksii Sinchenko, the chief editor of the series, and I were thinking about how to start it, we chose Roman Korohodsky and his essays about various people of that period.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s name them: Viktor Petrov (Domontovych), Yuri Shevelov, George Luckyj, Serhii Paradzhanov, Ivan Dziuba, Yevhen Sverstiuk, Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska, Opanas Zalyvakha. This number is already quite representative. It speaks to—we touched briefly on this topic—the attempt to create a canon, some sort of alternative collection of essential names. Maybe we can talk a bit about this.

Leonid Finberg:  We won’t talk about a “canon,” but we will say that these are distinguished names. A monograph needs to be written about each of these persons. In fact, this does not exist yet. I think that this is a possible development of our project and that such texts will be published over time. I know that Viacheslav Briukhovetsky is working on a biography of Domontovych, and he promised to submit it to our series. But we have already published several books about Paradzhanov. We published a volume of reviews of all of Paradzhanov’s films, which were translated from various languages. We also published an album of Paradzhanov’s collages. Ukrainian society is gradually being acquainted with these distinguished names. For example, the Shevelov Prize was founded as an alternative, as our response to the barbaric action in Kharkiv, where his plaque was destroyed. I think this competition is quite successful, and this prize has made a name for itself. Taras Prokhasko, Sashko Boichenko, and others who won this prize—these are distinguished names of contemporary Ukrainian culture. But we will be writing about this a bit later.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we continue the subject of cultural figures and the conversation about Roman Korohodsky’s book, To the Gate of Light, this title is also quite telling. How can this gate be connected with the names of Ukrainian writers and civic activists who are discussed in this collection of biographies?

Leonid Finberg:  This title is also a quotation. It’s from Roman Korohodsky’s book on the history of the dissident movement. I think it’s a great title for launching this series. The book discusses bright people, great people without whom the current generation of those who read and think cannot do. But whereas people from my generation or a bit younger know these names because they themselves were contemporaries, younger people barely know anything about them. And our mission is, in my opinion, to ensure that it is precisely these names, not Soviet ones, that will become the symbol of those times, and so that there will not be an orientation exclusively on accidental information posted on Facebook.

Iryna Slavinska:  You say that they should become symbols. Who, today, are symbols of this period, and why are these symbols necessary? Let’s propose a different list of names, the one we are talking about right now.

Leonid Finberg:  If you and I carried out an expert survey, you would get a horrible picture. It’s even difficult to imagine what we would get. At one time I did a superficial analysis [to determine] whom our people’s deputies are in the habit of quoting. They quote Marx, Engels, and Lenin. Who among them cited even once any of the individuals whom we are discussing?

Iryna Slavinska:  You said that these figures have become a symbol of their time. Why these figures, precisely? What is the degree of their importance? 

Leonid Finberg:  For me personally and for my milieu, it is huge. I think we should do much to ensure that [Vasyl] Stus’s name becomes a banner, a sign, a symbol of all that was Ukrainian in the late twentieth century. His achievement—moral, ethical, and textual—is fantastic. He is one of the greatest intellectual poets of the world during that period. What do we know about this? So, in addition to our projects we and our friends from the IT Company issued a calendar devoted to Stus. Every month features a poem by Stus, and the reverse side features pictures by artists from that period. I trust that a certain number of people will at least remember these poems, will read them several times, if not learn them by heart. The same goes for Paradzhanov. We do not have all that many distinguished names that are great names of world culture. And when people talk about Ukrainian cultural policies, I think that we should rely on these very names, these figures.

Iryna Slavinska:  Paradzhanov truly differs markedly from the classic iconostasis, even if we’re talking about the dissidents. His art, his works of absolutely varied genres, reveal a big dose of hooliganism. This differs markedly from the traditional narrative about suffering and torment, which is often misapplied when Ukrainian history is being constructed.

Leonid Finberg:  I agree with you absolutely. I will tell you something else, about another of our projects, which intersects with what you said. At a certain stage we began to issue intellectual cards for the Memory game. I brought this game from Germany and saw that there is European art in it. We created a wonderful game on the basis of images of the Ukrainian avant-garde. Dzvinka Matiash has written about it in a very interesting way. According to her, this game works against the tragic situation of the represented figures. Therefore, it offers a possibility to discuss more than just the tragic destinies of these artists. The tragic factor recedes, it lodges on both sides. You said absolutely accurately, “Enough crying, we have to create and to work.” To work, to bring up these names, to talk about them. They are giants of culture. This heritage is very important for all of us.

Iryna Slavinska:  Can one say that the biography To the Gate of Light is easy reading? There is a vogue for the pop-science genre developing in Ukraine, in which various authors are trying to write about complex issues in a simpler style. To what degree is Roman Korohodsky’s biography this kind of book?

Leonid Finberg:  This book is brilliant. Roman had a fantastic pen, and you read his texts as though they were just written. On the one hand, these are portraits of people, but each one is done in a non-banal fashion. These are researched portraits, not retellings. I don’t believe in a simplicity that does not bear the mark of greatness. I think that genuine simplicity is not simplification but the contrary: the grandeur of an author who writes about this. I think that this pertains to a significant degree to Roman Korohodsky. I knew him, he was a wonderful person, he wrote practically about all his contemporaries, but no one wrote anything about him. So, one of our ideas was to publish a book in memory of Roman. At the present time his archive has been disassembled. The archives are in a literary museum. We worked on this for twelve years; this is a huge archive, and a very good one, that’s true. I hope that we will pay tribute to his memory and tell people about him.

Iryna Slavinska:  Let’s talk about the second book in the new series. This is a biography of Hryhorii Skovoroda, which was created by arguably the best Skovoroda specialist in Ukraine, Leonid Ushkalov. Tell us about this book.

Leonid Finberg:  First, I will talk generally about the panorama of what we have planned. The idea is to create a certain pantheon of Ukrainian cultural figures. This is very important for any nation. It is a part of national memory, without which it is impossible to know one’s history, impossible to feel oneself a citizen and a cultural figure. Where did the idea to create this series spring from? We consulted with many of our colleagues, from the PEN Club, and not just them, and many people offered their advice. It was important to analyze who is working on which topic. And my main partner is Oleksii Sinchenko, a distinguished literary scholar, who worked with Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska and Roman Korohodsky and who is now the editor of this series. So, we focused on a number of names that are very important to us.

We practically have a manuscript about Mykola Zerov from Volodymyr Panchenko, a well-known researcher. Eleonora Solovei helped us discover the poet-genius Volodymyr Svidzinsky, and we have arranged with her that there will be such a biography. Viacheslav Briukhovetsky is preparing a biography of Petrov-Domontovych. We have Bohdan Zholdak’s manuscript about Mykola Lukash. I remember he came over, and I told him about this series and asked about whom he would like to write, and he said: “About Lukash. But I won’t work on this.” Half an hour later he and I signed an agreement. And here we have a wonderful manuscript. Bohdan Zholdak’s mother worked with Lukash and left wonderful diaries that will be published, and his father also collaborated. He knew him too. I confess that it was my dream to write about Lukash, because he was a top-notch person of world culture. His translation of Faust and his translation of Don Quixote are absolutely brilliant translations that are recognized throughout the world.

Iryna Slavinska:  At this point, it is worthwhile going back and placing the book about Hryhorii Skovoroda in this context. The names and books scheduled for publication that you mentioned earlier are much more contemporary figures, yet Hryhorii Skovoroda appears among them.

Leonid Finberg:  First of all, how can one know Ukrainian culture without knowing Skovoroda? At the same time, he is the most mysterious figure in Ukrainian culture of that period. Where was he from, this person who was unlike anyone else? Where did his brilliance come from, this philosophy that was not even close to his surroundings? We know that Leonid Ushkalov is a distinguished researcher of his work. He has created a fascinating story about Skovoroda’s ideas, his life, and milieu. In general, it is necessary to read, read, read about that period.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is there a direct link between the thoughts of Hryhorii Skovoroda and, to put it this way, the more contemporary tradition of the development of Ukrainian thought? In your opinion, that of a person who has published so many essays and biographies and other intellectual texts, to what extent is this a direct inheritance?

Leonid Finberg:  You know, there is a phrase in Hegel. He was asked: “Do you have students?” He said: “There is one, and he writes the opposite.” It’s the same with Skovoroda. I think it’s impossible to imagine contemporary Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian culture of the nineteenth–twentieth centuries in general without the influence of Skovoroda. But it is very difficult to trace this directly because there have been dozens, hundreds, thousands of influences, not just from our national culture but world culture, for the world today is open

Iryna Slavinska:  If we continue the topic of cultural figures and the building of a canon, I think the following: Today we are hearing about some ideas to create a Ukraino-Ukrainian pantheon or canons. This may be called by various words. At the same time, in Cultural Figures, in the collection To the Gate of Light and other planned texts that you discussed there are Ukrainians from absolutely different backgrounds and different cultures to which they refer. Let’s talk a bit about this.

Leonid Finberg:  You know, I will refer to our books because I have already published nearly five hundred. There is much to which we can refer.

Right now we are preparing a book by Oleksandr Strazhny. It’s called The Ukrainian Mentality. I don’t like this word, “mentality,” because to me it is very abstract, and you can include anything in it. But Strazhny has written a very interesting book about the impact of various stages of history on the formation of the contemporary Ukrainian—from the Trypillian culture, the medieval period, to subsequent years. And he has done this very delicately, and this is very familiar to me.

You asked about people from various cultures. In the contemporary Ukrainian pantheon, this is an absolute value for me, and an absolute truth. For example, Taras Voznyak is developing this topic for Lviv very effectively and very fruitfully. Lviv became a Ukrainian city in recent decades, after the Second World War. Before then it was a Polish city, and there was still a large proportion of Jews.

This is one of the biggest advantages of Ukrainian culture: the fact that it incorporates into itself many cultures and peoples that are living, have lived, and will live in this land. I think that these people who see only Ukrainian ethnicity in this or that history impoverish Ukrainian culture..

Iryna Slavinska:  In this situation, what is the glue that helps hold this mosaic together and not disintegrate?

Leonid Finberg:  You know, there is no universal glue here. I admit that subjectivity, the personhood of those who create this or that vision has great importance here. I will be very glad if Smoloskyp Publishers or Krytyka Press add other Ukrainian cultural figures to this series. In the given case, I am talking about the vision, mainly Oleksii Sinchenko’s and mine, precisely these figures, precisely these people, precisely these biographies. Of course, we would want more of them, but this does not always depend on us. Sometimes there are no authors that can write an intellectual biography, and that’s what we are emphasizing.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have been talking with Leonid Finberg, the editor-in-chief of Dukh i Litera, about his series of books on leading Ukrainian cultural figures. I am Iryna Slavinska for the program Encounters. This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. This is Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.
Translated by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.