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Ivan Bohun Military School in Kyiv: traditions and innovations

 

Is it the lingering memory of "the army glory" and traditional respect for the army that make the Kyiv Military Young Cadet School still a coveted institution to study at? Myroslava Barchuk investigates.

 

The Ukrainian army, according to the official figures, is about 400,000 people, out of whom 310,000 are military men and 90.000 are civilians employed by the army. By the NATO standards, 5 or 6 million dollars would be required annually to maintain such an army but since it would constitute about half of her entire annual budget, Ukraine cannot afford to spend so much on her army. Consequently, Ukraine applies her own, very modest standards. And a reduction of the army personnel is imminent — by the year 2005, the Ukrainian army will have been reduced by a hundred or hundred and fifty thousand men. Today’s situation in the army is tricky, if not to say precarious.

The house I live in sits right opposite the Ivan Bohun Military School, and these days, every morning, sipping my cup of coffee, I see a crowd of excited women and their neatly dressed sons — awkward teenagers in starched white shirts, standing in front of a board with sheets of paper pinned to it. The papers display information about conditions of admittance to the school — entry exams, requirements, lists of those who have been admitted to the next round of exams. This year there are 2 applicants per one place. What brings these young people to a military school? Respect for tradition? Old stereotypes?

 

This fall the Kyiv Military Lycee named after Ivan Bohun (thus goes the official name of the school) will mark its sixtieth anniversary. There is something fascinating in the school’s massive building with its dark-purplish-red thick walls; in a bravura monument to Alexander Suvorov wielding a saber (the famous Russian eighteenth-century military commander, after whom the school used to be named before Ukraine’s independence); in the arches in long corridors reverberating with echoes; in sumptuous Soviet-style curtains on the windows; in parquet polished to a gloss on the floors, in all those little and not so little things that are witnesses and reminders of the time past.

Walking into the school’s museum, you find yourself stared at by the eyes from two portraits — one that of the NATO Secretary General George Robertson surrounded by the Bohun School cadets, and the other one that of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, looking solemn but not at all bloody. Between the two of them lie turbulent years and momentous events that separate the two eras — the Soviet past and independent present.

The Suvorov Military School (it was the way the school was called before it was renamed the Bohun Lycee) was founded back in 1943 when the Second World War was still raging. In fact, there were nine similar cadet schools founded in the Soviet Union, all of them bearing the name of Suvorov. The one that was later to move to Kyiv (and still later to become the Bohun School) started its existence in the town of Chuhuyev, in the land of Kharkivshchyna, shortly after that area was liberated from the Nazi occupation. The school enrolled about 500 cadets to be trained as officers. A special August 21 1943 Resolution passed by the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party said, in part, about “parental care of the Soviet communist party and government for the Soviet children” and about “the necessity to prepare the young generation for the armed defence of the Motherland against the aggressive schemes of the imperialists and their abettors.” The young generation to be thus prepared were 500 cadets of the newly founded schools aged 8 to 14. Out of the 500 cadets of the Suvorov School in Chuhuyev about 250 were orphans or had only one parent, their parents having been killed by the raging war; the parents of about 200 children were in the Red Army, and about 40 children were, in the Soviet parlance, “participants of the war,” “sons of regiments” and “members of partisan detachments” — that is, they took direct part in fighting at the front. They faced death, they killed and saw people dying, they took part in reconnoitering, they put mines on motor and rail roads. The five hundred children singed by war.

Among the Bohun School Museum exhibits I saw yellowed sheets of paper with former cadets’ expressions of gratitude written in the very special Soviet style of those days, but even through the obscuring fog of the Soviet pervasive and anti-humane ideology I could discern personalities or faint glow of their souls.

“When, under the mandate of the [communist] party and personally Comrade Stalin to establish Suvorov schools, these institutions came into being, I, following advice from friends, applied for admittance to one of these schools… Now, in full honesty, I can say — I’m very glad that I have been admitted. The school has substituted for me my house that was burned down by the Germans, and my parents who were shot by them. The school is my home and I have no other, my schoolmates and teachers are like my closest relatives… I have been well educated, I have learnt a lot… I am very thankful to the party and personally to Comrade Stalin for the care shown by them for the Soviet children…” Ivan Voronin, 1949.

“My mental scope and knowledge have been widened. I have come to greatly love literature, I have begun writing poetry and prose. The school encourages us to write creatively; literary soirees, discussions and contests are held… The school has fostered in me love for our great Motherland, for the great leader of nations comrade Stalin. I have clearly understood the tasks to be fulfilled by our state and I clearly see what we are fighting for.” Mykola Starostin, 1949.

“My father, who took part in heavy fighting defending Leningrad, was badly wounded. He spent much time in hospital getting treatment for his shot-through lung. Then he worked hard in agriculture, reconstructing what had been destroyed, and then — death. The luminous image of my father will stay in my heart forever. It [father’s death] caused me much grief, but when I entered the Suvorov school I found a surrogate father — the company commander Lieutenant Colonel Maryanenko. Being a modest person, he did not tell us much about his being a reconnoiterer at the front in his young years. And if he wanted to, he could tell us so much indeed — he, for example, carrying out an order of the battalion commander, destroyed an enemy’s gun emplacement when he was only seventeen… And now when he sends for me to come to his office, I report to him, and standing in front of him, and knowing that actually I have not done anything wrong, I feel as though I am standing in front of a god. He looks silently into your soul with his black eyes and turns it inside out.” Viktor Yatsyna, 1949 year.

 

The Suvorov school was set up as both a military unit and educational institution. The children were mostly taught by officers who had returned from the front, often enough maimed and wounded, having to move around on crutches. The electric power was supplied by a dynamo which was driven by the engine stripped from a tractor, and was available only from seven to eleven in the evening. On dark mornings and days wick and oil lamps, often makeshift, were used to provide some light in classes. Cadets wrote things down in their pads or on pieces of paper, read books, studied a map of the world, the only one available in the school, in the unsteady and failing light of rough-and-ready oil lamps. They even wrote “poetry and prose,” keeping warm hugging close to the crude small stoves.

 

The style of uniforms the Suvorov school cadets were to wear was specified in a September 21 1943 Order # 287 issued by the People’s Commissar of Defence (Defence Minister): “Coat black, cloth, with stand-up collar; single-breasted; cuffs and collar with red edging; ends of collars red with golden embroidery. Cadet’s blouse for summer — made of flax linen with stand-up collar, five buttons in front. Warm things: fur hat with earflaps; sweater semi-woolen; gloves woolen; insertable insoles made of felt.”

This instruction and the conditions at the Suvorov school in the 1940s I have briefly described can give us some idea what a Suvorov cadet looked like and how he lived.

Another detail adds an additional touch to this picture. On April 7 1944, at five o’clock in the morning, a telegram was received from Joseph Stalin, the Supreme Commander as he was styled then. A couple hours later, all the cadets, washed and neatly dressed, were lined up for a solemn ceremony. The Head of the Suvorov School Major-General Yeryomin read out the telegram in a stentorian voice: “Pass my combat greetings and the Red Army’s gratitude to the cadets, officers, teachers and employed personnel of the Kharkiv Suvorov Military School who have collected and donated 22,000 roubles for the construction of a military airplane, Young Suvorov Cadet.”

 

In 1947, the Suvorov school was transferred from Kharkiv to Kyiv. It was only in 1956 that the school began admitting children of “employees, workers and collective farmers” — earlier children only of military parents were enrolled. New subjects to study were introduced, military translation being one of them.

From the 1960s and all through the 1970s and 1980s, the Suvorov School was “a smithy of military cadre” for the Soviet Army. Leafing through a book about the school published in 1983, I was flabbergasted at the preposterous epigraph, so typical of the Soviet times: “ ‘Our slogan must be one and the only one — study military science properly.’ V. Lenin.”

 

In 1991, the Soviet Empire collapsed, and its myths and ideals began to crumble. The piercing stare of Lenin, the dusty portraits of the Soviet communist party top brass still hanging on the walls of the school, Russian field marshal Suvorov’s saber raised in a dashing style, representations of Soviet Orders with their red stars, hammers and sickles, red banners — all of the things that these symbols represented suddenly became worthless and ridiculous junk, and the official ideology to which the school had been oriented for half a century was scrapped. The breaking down and dismantling of spiritual and ideological values, which have become household items and which you have to come to take for granted is a process fraught with great dangers. For so many it is also something very frightful. Particularly so when the transition is so sudden and you have to explain to five hundred teenage boys that everything that they have been taught to believe is no good any longer.

After Ukraine regained her independence, the Suvorov school was renamed and it became Kyiv Military Lycee named after Ivan Bohun. Colonel Ivan Bohun was a seventeenth-century Ukrainian military leader of great talent and distinction, and an ardent patriot into the bargain. He took part in all the major battles of the 1648–1657 war for national independence fought under the general leadership of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In January 1654, after a treaty of alliance with Moscow, that had such disastrous consequences for Ukraine, had been signed, Ivan Bohun refused to swear allegiance to the Russian tsar. He remained up to his dying day a staunch champion of Ukrainian independence.

The Bohun School switched over to a new ideology and began training cadets in the spirit of Ukrainian national patriotism, so that the Ukrainian army would have nationally-conscious officers dedicated to Ukrainian independence.

 

At present, the Bohun School’s enrollment is 600 cadets who come from all the Oblasts of Ukraine. The cadets call themselves “future defenders of our native land.” To qualify for enrollment, you have to complete nine grades of ordinary secondary school, to pass entry exams (math, Ukrainian and foreign languages), and to pass a physical (pull-ups and a 1,500 meters running race) and a psychological test. Orphans and children of servicemen who died in discharge of duty applying for admittance to the Bohun School are enrolled without having to take entrance exams (it is one of the few traditions that have been kept). For two years it takes to complete the course, cadets are provided with tuition, uniforms, sleeping quarters, food, and other things free of charge, at the expense of the state. In addition to completing the full programme of secondary education, cadets study military subjects necessary for going on to study at military establishments of higher education.

 

Many of us, the post-Soviet people, have come to distrust the powers that be, solemn promises of politicians of all political colours, curricula and claims of schools that they provide top-level education, bureaucrats telling us “it’ll be done within a week,” slogans of political parties, honesty of MPs, President’s election promises “all will be well,” and all the way down to the “best before” dates on foodstuffs and other products. And when, preparing this article, I learnt that the Bohun School ran hobby groups of dance, poetry, drama, sports, and even an amateur brass orchestra, my suspicions began to stir — could things be really as they are claimed to be? What if it’s all like in the Soviet times — “exemplary” but only for showing off purposes, with the reality being appallingly different?

My suspicions and doubts were dissipating all but slowly. The signs that indicated that things were different indeed from what I had expected them to be in a military school with a long Soviet past — these signs revealed themselves in the way the school head’s voice quivered from an apparently heart-felt emotion as he was addressing the cadet graduates at the “last bell” ceremony; in the way the teachers I talked to calling the cadets “our children” and addressing them by their first names; in the way cadets spoke about their teachers, using politely and respectfully both the first name and patronymic when the teacher were not even present— never monikers as it usually happens in regular high schools. I was equally surprised to hear everybody talk Ukrainian, both in class and in the breaks. I liked the way Deputy Head Colonel D. Matviychuk, during my interview with him, apologized for interruptions but patiently explained something to the cadets who came to him with their problems which needed urgent seeing to. In the museum I found an address to the cadets and faculty by the Hetman of the Modern-day Cossacks of Ukraine General Ivan Bilas, which read in part: “I have been very pleasantly impressed by the Cossack spirit that permeates the School… The Cossacks have never been and never will be indifferent to raising fighting efficiency and combat value of the Ukrainian army, to upbringing young people in the true spirit of protectors of the native land and people. The Cossacks and the army are one. God and Ukraine are with us!”

I did not feel in the atmosphere of the Bohun School any traces of Sovietism, or of military narrow mindedness or coercion. I was eager to talk to some of the cadets without any teachers hanging around, and I stopped two cadets in the corridor, explaining who I was and what I wanted. One of them was Dmytro Sychov from Kyiv and the other one was Yaroslav Lysenko from the town of Zhytomyr, both seventeen-year old graduates. They said the school had taught them “the feeling of true brotherhood.”

“No ordinary school would be able to teach that. In this school you just can’t hide your weakness, laziness and lack of ambition. Everybody is exposed to everybody else. It’s not your mother who wakes you up gently in the morning, but the reveille and the loud voice shouting ‘Company, get up!’ wake you up immediately. In several minutes you have to be out of bed, to make the bed — and there are very strict prescriptions that regulate how the bed must be made, up to a millimeter. Also, the school gives you a great sense of responsibility — you know that you must never let anybody down, and you depend on them not letting you down. It gives you maturity. You cannot hide away if you’ve done something wrong or something dishonest. You are never alone, round the clock you are among other cadets — it’s like in the army,” said Yaroslav Lysenko.

“We are very much different from our age peers. In which sense different? We can do anything. Like what? All right, a couple of examples for you — we, the two of us, can lay tables for a hundred diners in a matter of minutes and then do all the dishes — and do it well! — in a very short time. We, our company that is, can march through the central street of Kyiv in perfect order at a military parade. We can handle all kinds of weapons, we know all there is to know about military planes and armoured vehicles, but we also can sing and dance modern dances and tango and waltz, we can put on our uniforms in a matter of seconds, while, say, a match is burning. And we know and can do so many other things. Here, in this school, everything is honest and everything is in earnest, everything comes from the heart. We sing songs and we write poems straight from the heart. If mobilization is ordered, we, our company that is, can win any battle, we are not afraid of anything as long as we stay together as a close-knit unit,” said Dmytro Sychov.

It was so uplifting and moving to listen to the inspired words of these two teenagers, to look at their open faces, at their snow-white Sunday uniforms — and at the same time my heart was heavy. What future awaits these young men in our country where you are never sure what happens tomorrow?

I addressed this question to the Bohun School’s Head, Major General Leonid Kravchuk (no relation to the first president of Ukraine of the same name), and this what he, an orphan raised in an orphanage, and a military man who devoted thirty years of his life to the army, and the last four to heading the Bohun School, said:

“I would dodge a straight answer if I started telling you that all of our graduates faced a rosy future. Their destinies will be different. We are doing our best to give them solid knowledge, lofty ideals, ideas about the military honour, courage, and a sense of patriotism. We come to love all of them and it’s so hard to see them leave when they complete their studies. We teach them a lot of things but life outside the school is much harsher, there is a lot of injustice and there are a lot of wrongs out there.

But I am honestly optimistic. In recent years I’ve been observing the formation, growth and consolidation of the Ukrainian national military tradition. There are enough highly responsible, patriotically minded people in the army who work hard at making the Ukrainian army truly Ukrainian, at renovating it ideologically and at equipping it with the advanced weapons and combat material. Believe me, I’m saying this not to impress a journalist but in all honesty. Heorhiy Konynsky, a Ukrainian philosopher of the eighteenth century, whose ideas are very close to me spiritually, wrote, ‘When hope gets to be bigger than fear, then it engenders courage.” It’s what we teach our cadets.”

 

Photos by Ivan Dudkin

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