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Dream, don’t betray me — passions and recitals of Nila Kryukova


In 35 years on stage, she’s prepared and delivered a great many one-woman shows — solo performances based on drama plays and poems and recitals; there were readings of Ukrainian humour stories and poems in factory shops and at the stadiums; live performances on the radio and television; recitals at “gala government concerts” at the most prestigious concert hall in Ukraine; awards, honorary titles and prizes before and after Ukrainian independence — lots of plans for the future — life just begins, there’s enough time for so many more things…

Fame is a fickle and treacherous lady. But to renounce fame and live without it may be a very painful thing to do. One day, Fame knocked at Nila Kryukova’s door and said, Betray yourself and I’ll stay with you some more time. But the actress refused.


On a pastel-pale autumnal morning in the year 1942 when the world was writhing in the convulsions of the most merciless of all wars, close to a village in the Ukrainian land of Kirovohradshchyna, several dozens of Red Army officers, prisoners of war, were walking along a road under armed German escort, most likely to their death. The road ran through the fields but at one point came close to the local peasants’ vegetable gardens, with corn still standing high on some of them. In one of the gardens, a twenty-eight old woman was breaking corn cobs off the tall, prickly stalks. One of the captive officers, noticing attention the guards wavered for a moment, jumped into the corn and holding his breath stretched on the ground. The guards and the prisoners walked away and when the German guards discovered that one captive was missing, it was too late to start looking for him — he had been safely hidden in the manger of a cowshed. From under the cover of fragrant grasses he slipped into the blue lake of the woman’s eyes. Her name was Theodora and his Valery.

Their secret love was one of dark nights in the steppe under the moon. Their wedding photo is extant — Theodora is not wearing a traditional wedding wreath on her head, the special moment marked only by a Christmas-tree decoration attached to the lapel of her one-size too small well-worn jacket; both she and her fiance are good looking, with a hint of apprehension visible on their faces; their heads lean gently towards each other; little smiles are playing on their lips, but there are no smiles in their eyes — their love won’t last long and they know it. A few months later, when one evening several German soldiers were unexpectedly billeted at her house, Theodora, already at an advanced stage of pregnancy, once again had to hide Valery, and at night, she took him out of the house under the cover of her spacious nightgown — into the star-lit garden. This time he was not to return.

When it came time for Theodora to give birth, the Germans chased her out of her own house — her groans bothered and annoyed them, and the child was born in the cowshed, the very same one in which she had once hidden Valery, and was placed in the crib full of hay. Cow Zirka that stood in her stall, stared at the tiny human wrapped in a sleeve torn off from a man’s shirt with her melancholy eyes. It was a freezing November night, so cold that when Zirka sighed, the shed was filled with the vapour of her breath.

The stiff grass blades of the hay were so prickly they pierced the child’s tender skin like hundreds of needless causing pain and leading to inflammations and suppuration. There were so many sores on the tiny body that Theodora’s baby daughter began to die on the third day of incessant crying. One of the German soldiers, young Johann, took pity on her and for several days he kept applying a healing salve to the sores, day and night, every hour, until the sores healed.

The tide of war had turned and the Red Army began pushing the Germans out of the Soviet territory. The Germans rapidly retreated. Before he left for good, Johann took Theodora’s daughter into his arms, kissed her tiny head and giving Theodora a spoon decorated in colourful enamels as a gift, said that the baby’s very dark eyes (her father’s) were gut, but the turned-up nose was nicht gut.

A day later Theodora was told that her Valery was in a hospital in the town of Kremenchuk, wounded but still alive. The town was not too far away but to get there Theodora had to cross the Dnipro River, no mean feat at that time. Theodora put a piece of soft bread into a handkerchief, made a ball out of it, small enough to fit into the child’s mouth — a makeshift baby pacifier, wrapped the child in a warm rag, and walked across the ice-bound river. She wanted to show the child to Valery and tell him that she named her Nila, after that smart and dashing actress that had once come to their village to perform.

Theodora did find Valery — not in a regular hospital though but in the gym of a school which was turned into a hospital ward. Valery, bandaged, with blood patches on the white gauze in several places, could hardly appreciate the efforts Theodora had taken to prettify herself a little — she had donned her mother’s best blue shawl and applied clay dust — instead of face powder — to her freckles. But he did follow her story about the child. The wounded and dying were all around them — on the mattresses on the floor, on the beds, some armless, some legless; others with their limbs suspended on pulleys — groans, wheezing, death rattles. Most of the patients in the late teens or early twenties. While Theodora was telling her story about Nila, the milk that filled her breasts to the bursting point, began seeping through her dress, and a young officer on a bed next to Valery’s, suddenly said, “Theodora, dear, I don’t think I’ll see the light of the day but if I could have some of your milk, probably I’d live…” She squeezed some milk out of her breasts into an empty German food can and gave it to the dying man, holding the can to his lips, weeping and thinking that the man would not live until morning anyway. She also knew she would never see Valery again.

After the war, Theodora worked at a kolhosp — “collective farm”. Every morning she would hop on a wagon that picked other members of her team and took them to the fields in the steppe. Every day Theodora did three times as much work as was required of her. She was known in the village as the best singer of folk songs but it did not add to the miserable rations she received from the kolhosp, and she had to look for every opportunity to procure food for her daughter and herself. She dug out sugar beets from the frozen ground in late autumn and fried them until they turned into something that was called “beet honey” — gooey substance that passed for “candy,” the only sweets Nila had.

Once in a while, when her mother came back from work, completely exhausted and wearied, and saw that not all the chores had been done, she would beat Nila mercilessly and savagely, the way a very unhappy, lonely woman can do it.

Nila, together with other children, looked for any food that could be found — frozen and rotting cabbage, wild fruit, acorns, knotgrass and other weeds — anything that could be turned into food. Acorns were ground and “pancakes” made. At a rare moment between chores she would look up at the sky, or at a flower, or at a butterfly, and sigh dreamily — if only she could have a dress made of blue cotton with flowers and butterflies printed on it!

When she was ten, Nila discovered she enjoyed reading poetry. In late fall and winter when there was much less work to be done in the house and garden, she would avidly read. Reading gave her a great emotional uplift. Once in a while she would tear her eyes away from the book and look through the window, partially misted over, at the pouring rain or falling snow, at the cherry tree close by the house, at the lit windows in the neighbours’ house — and she would experience her first spiritual insights. For a reason she did not quite understand she would be swept by a wave of a feeling of happiness.

“O dream of mine, /You carried me away/ on the wings of thine, /But there’s a better way/ — Lend me your wings fine/ So that I could soar into sky high/ All by myself — and happily sigh…”

Soon she began reciting poems in front of her class in school — and she wanted to do it every day. If the Ukrainian literature teacher did not have time to let her declaim a poem, Nila wept for disappointment, her tears wetting her desk.

At about that time Nila started looking for things that could excite strong, dramatic emotions in her — and then give herself up to them with abandon. Such emotions could be stirred up in her by the books she read, or by the stories about people’s destinies she heard. Her mother’s stories about “Valery” (that was the only way she referred to Nila’s father) were always the source of poignant emotion. Even watching a funeral aroused feelings that fed her deeper emotions. Nila invariably joined the weepers when somebody died in her village or in a neighbouring one — be it a postman of old age, a hooch-hound killed by home-made horilka (vodka — tr.), or anybody else, not necessarily from her native village, Nila’s voice among the mourners was the most piercing and her lament the most heart-rending. A neighbour would say to Nila’s mother, “Theodora, your girl was again the loudest in weeping and wailing at a funeral!” Once Nila was reported to have been seen in the neighbouring village of Kalachivka where “she was keening like a squaw bereft — they actually could not pull her away from the coffin when they wanted to cover it with the lid!”

Nila’s excessive lament in Kalachivka, in the opinion of her mother, deserves punishment — Nila is forbidden to go anywhere. Mother leaves the house, ordering Nila to stay at home, and “not even come close to that gate in our fence!” But it’s so boring to stay indoors or walk around the house! Her heart wants freedom! Nila collects marigolds in the backyard, makes a wreath out of them, puts it on her head, opens her grandma’s hope chest and pulls out the pokrivets (a piece of transparent gauze-like fabric used to cover the corpse laid in a coffin — tr.), wraps herself in it, pretending it is a fancy dress with a long train, walks out to the gate, picking up a basket full of eggs on her way. Standing at the threshold, she begins to shout at the top of her voice, “Ho-ho, everybody, roll on up! The show kicks off! See the show for free! Grand show!” All the kids within hearing distance gather at her gate in a matter of minutes — and the show begins. In a dashing style, Nila picks egg after egg from the basket, breaking the shells and swallowing the contents — several dozens of eggs at a time! Her audience is stunned into an admiring and envious silence — and a moment later erupts in a foot-stomping, whistling ovation.

Nila went to Kyiv in the summer of 1963. She arrived early in the morning, on the platform of a truck that was bringing besoms to be sold at a market. The sky in the east was changing colour to pink when the truck crossed the bridge. The city was still asleep. The majestic panorama of the Kyiv hills with the golden domes of the churches standing grandly against the background of the breaking day thrilled Nila. She, looking at the churches, made the sign of a cross across her chest and said aloud, “My God, that’s a city where I’m going to live, no matter what!”

At the entrance examinations to the Kyiv Theatrical Institute to which she applied, Nila “caught the eye” of Professor Vasyl Kharchenko who saw that “this country girl” definitely had thespian talents. There were 6 applicants per 1 place but Nila got through the exams with flying colours.

There are many photographs in Nila’s archives preserved from the nineteen sixties — in them her student years; roles she played then; Kyiv of that time; parties at the dormitory; joys and fun of youth in black and white.

The seventies took away the hopes and gentle dreams of youth, and brought in the stifling atmosphere of suppression of creative freedom (of which there was so little anyway) and mounting persecution of dissidents. But Nila Kryukova was lucky to find herself in the milieu of Ukrainian intelligentsia, many of whom did not succumb to the Soviet pressure. She thrived on the creative atmosphere permeated with tragic poignancy. It was the best tampering for her heart and soul. Among the people she spent a lot of time with were poets and writers who were being put through the debilitating grind of the Soviet oppressive regime, who hated falsehood, who were subjected to indignity, who had “to face the music” for every little “deviation from the party line,” who had to deal with toadies and informers pretending they did not know who they were talking to — and yet who were not broken down by the regime. They tried their hardest to find at least something in the Soviet life, some tiny bits of decency, to which they could cling and “glorify and sing them.” But falsehood kills art. The best and most decent either drank themselves to death or gave up creative work. Many succumbed. Others spent long evenings at the restaurant Enay, at the headquarters of the Union of Writers, sipping their drinks and crying on the shoulders of stoolies.

Nila Kryukova reminisces: “The first thing that comes to mind — it’s the feeling of tragic elation — and doom. But the high ideals and spiritual values kept us going. The harder was the pressure, the stronger was our resistance — it was spiritual resistance, if you want, that mattered most. It’s very difficult to explain it in words — you had to feel it. It was so great to discover that I was not alone in feeling like this — actors, writers, journalists — all those honest enough to give themselves the trouble to think. The Soviet regime found many ingenious ways to put pressure on you. Once, for example, I prepared a recital based on the works of Taras Shevchenko, and of Vasyl Symonenko, a Ukrainian poet of great talent who died young after a beating he suffered in police custody — he was detained on trumped up charges. When it came time to perform at the Slovo Theatre Studio, nobody told me, No you can’t do it because, well, you know…No, Shevchenko was a classic and Symonenko’s poetry was officially published — heavily edited, of course. But everything was done in such a devilishly cunning way that with no one forbidding it, still you could not do what you wanted to. You could not point your accusing finger at someone and cry out, Why do you forbid it? The whole system, the whole “ideological line” were designed to forbid and ban, not just someone in particular. And of course, there were a lot of things which were branded “anti-Soviet” and as such were not allowed to be made public. In that particular case with Symonenko, I was never told, No, you must not read his poetry at a public performance, but I was advised by someone who did not matter at all, who was just a pawn, a messenger, that I should include into my recital a poem or two of the “Lenin and the Party are our inspiration” kind. But it was hinted in such a way that you immediately realized — either you recite a poem about Lenin, or you lose your job and maybe get yourself into a much greater trouble. Incidentally, something similar is happening these days, in the independent Ukraine. The freedom of speech is supposedly guaranteed by constitution — but can you really make public what you really think of those who are in power? When you say you can’t make yourself heard, those in power indignantly reject your accusations of freedom of speech being suppressed, “What? Who forbids you to say anything you want to? We live in a free country! Give us facts! Prove!” And that’s it.”

When Nila was still a student, she met and befriended Hryhir Tyutyunnyk, a Ukrainian writer, whose short stories, poignant, colourful, honest and moving, remain, unlike so much of the prose written in the Soviet times, good literature even today. Tyutyunnyk played a pivotal role in her life. He was the Master, the Creator, a spiritual teacher in the full original sense of this somewhat worn-out expression.

Nila Kryukova recalls: “It was at the end of the seventies, in the fall. We, a group of actors and writers, went to Azerbaijan to take part in the Days of Ukrainian Culture there. One day we found ourselves on board a pleasure boat taking a ride on the choppy Caspian Sea. A banquet was on — you know, dancing, drinking, toasting. At one moment I discovered Hryhir was not among the merry makers. I went looking for him and found him on deck, leaning against the railing, looking into the grey water, his hair tousled by the wind. He looked gloomy and deep in thought. I came over to him, stood by his side. Without turning his head or saying hello, he asked me, ‘Have you read Lina Kostenko’s poem Marusya Tchuray?’ ‘No, I haven’t. I just could not find the book.’ ‘I have it and I’ll give it to you. Read it and do a public recital. Nobody else would dare. And nobody else would be able to do it as well as only you can.’

But I did not do it then. I recall the end of the seventies as the time of despondency and despair. Loss of hope — Viktor Blyznets, a gifted writer commits suicide; Volodymyr Ivasyuk, songwriter and singer, is found dead; Leonid Bykov dies in a road accident which seems to have been ‘engineered’… Then came the year 1980…It was on March 6, at night, that I had a dream — in a pouring, autumnal rain I water the cabbages in my vegetable garden — I empty bucket after bucket of water on the cabbage. In the corner of the garden I see someone building a house with wet, clay bricks. I come closer and see it is Hryhir Tyutyunnyk. He grabs my hand and says, Come, I’ve built a house, let’s live in it, at least for some time. He pulls me, I resist but follow. When I walk in, the sickening, frowsty smell of a tomb hits me in the face. I pull my hand free from his grasp and — wake up. I looked at the clock — it was 1: 15 in the morning. Later that day I learned that Hryhir Tyutyunnyk killed himself — at 1:15 in the morning.

I felt everything in me collapse — my faith and hopes, spiritual strength. I lost the sense of existence. I did not want to see the world around me. I wanted to stay in bed, oblivious of everything. The people closest to me either died or were in prison, and I could not do anything about it. Lina Kostenko’s words kept coming to my mind, ‘Under the ash of despair is hidden the path.” Once I told my good friend, Halya Menkush, a bandura player, ‘We are nothing, we can’t do anything, we can’t change anything. We are absolutely powerless!” But she said to me, “Wrong, we must never give up, we must struggle — let’s join forces and struggle!”

It was then that I remembered Hryhir’s suggestion that I do a public recital of Lina Kostenko’s Marusya Tchuray. It’s a historical novel in verses about a legendary girl who wrote and sang her own songs. Patriotic and love songs. The Cossacks in the heroic seventeenth century sang her song ‘O it was at midnight that the Cossacks got up to go into battle,’ on their way to confront the enemy. This book has such a great power, such a mighty national spirit that can inspire anyone, probably even the dead. These days, Marusya Tchuray is included into the anthologies to be read in school but in the early nineteen eighties the poem was known only to a narrow circle of Ukrainian intelligentsia. Halya the bandura player and I decided we would prepare a public performance of this novel. I was to recite the text and she would accompany me on her bandura. We planned a two-hour long performance. As I was working on it, learning the text — I had copied it into my notepad — I felt the strength was coming back — and vigour and energy as well. When I read aloud some of the verses my voice wavered — and there was a knot in my chest. Even now, so many years later, it happens again when I read this poem.”

Nila adapted the novel for the stage herself; she was her own theatre director as well. The rehearsals, kept in secret, were held at Halya’s apartment, in the suburb of Kyiv. They knew that they would be able to perform Marusya Tchuray in public at best only once. The premiere was to be staged in the central hall of the Kyiv Philharmonic Society. Nila Kryukova even managed to have bills and posters announcing the performance printed out. One major hurdle remained — “the artistic council” (it was made up of actors, mostly communist party members and party bosses who were to watch the performance and approve it — or ban it — for being shown to the public; in fact, it was a form of censorship — tr.).

Nila Kryukova recollects: “The audition was to take place a week before the premiere. The moment we walked into the hall I felt the atmosphere was tense, and the scared impression in the Society director’s face told me he had been tipped as to a possible unsuitability of our act for a public performance. He shouted, ‘You’ll have to perform the whole piece. No omissions please!’ We did. When the discussion began, the members of the ‘council’, who had also been warned as to what they had to say, said it — wrong emphasis on wrong places, too much ‘preposterous stress’ upon the unhappy destiny of Ukraine, too much of a nationalistic bias — that sort of thing. Every day in the week before the performance we were “invited” to offices of high-ranking officials and all kinds of committees. We were asked the same questions all over again, in Russian, ‘Tell us, whose idea was it in the first place? How many nationalistic bandits are to come from Lviv to cause disturbances at your performance?’ I realized we could be even arrested, and I invited my mother to come to Kyiv to look after my child, in case that happens. Tickets were sold out long before the premiere. At the last moment, the performance was ordered to be staged at a different place, a culture centre of the Arsenal Factory. They thought it would prevent people from coming to see the premiere — the Arsenal was a place where the general public was not welcome. The authorities feared a scandal and were in panic. The top communist party boss, Shcherbitsky, was informed. The word was out — the premiere must be performed but the access to the culture centre must be restricted. I was told — either you agree to perform in that centre or no performance at all. I was brought to the Arsenal factory culture centre in a car and actually was ordered in no uncertain terms to perform. When I walked out onto that stage I saw that the hall was packed — people were standing even in the aisles, many were sitting on the floor right next to the stage, almost on it. The authorities had failed to prevent the news about the performance being relocated from the Philharmonic Society to the Arsenal culture centre from spreading — my friends and enthusiasts stood guard near the Philharmonic Society and told everybody who arrived where the performance was to take place. It was, probably, the biggest victory of my life. A great breakthrough! I recited Kostenko’s verses with such a passion, pain and bitterness! I and the audience were one. It was like a revelation. When I finished, the people kept applauding for a long time, not letting me go.”

The scandal around that performance gradually died down — reports were written, explanations given, files compiled.

“Marusya Tchuray taught me that victory was possible if you tried hard enough, and what’s more it taught me I could be free. It came at the time when I reached an age at which a person begins to do a lot of soul searching, to look for new meaning in life. It was then that the main spiritual principles of my life were firmly established. I became convinced that those who make themselves dependent on convenience and material well-being, who become conformists, will eventually lose freedom. It’s a universal rule which is applicable at all the levels, from private life to high politics. The moment you give in to compromises, a little here and a little there, you begin losing yourself, first in little bits — and then a terrible moment comes when there’s nothing left of yourself.”

At the time the perestroika began, Nila Kryukova was at the peak of her fame. In 1989 she won the Shevchenko Prize, the top honour one can get in Ukraine for artistic endeavour. It was at end of the eighties that Nila Kryukova performed her most interesting one-woman shows based on the works of Shevchenko, Ivan Drach and Oles Honchar. At the very end of the nineteen eighties Nila Kryukova took her Marusya Tchuray to the United States and Canada.

In October 1990 she joined the hunger strike of students who camped on the main street of Kyiv, Kreshchatyk. The main demands were: resignation of the then prime minister; new elections to parliament; refusal to sign the Union Treaty which was to preserve the Soviet Union from disintegrating. The two-week strike in tents on the cold granite sent repercussions across Kyiv and across the whole of Ukraine. Rallies brought together hundreds of thousands of people; the parliament building was besieged, the first gains of democracy were made.

There were hundreds upon hundreds of messages passed on to those who were on hunger strike, living in the tents. “God help you and save you, dear Nila, I pray for your health. I’ll ask for a prayer to be said for you in church! Roman Kyrychenko”; “I often come here and stand by the police cordon, looking at you and the students. I see, dear Nila, that fasting has already began telling on you. But don’t give in! The moment it gets too tough, just look into the crowds around you and you’ll see our eyes full of compassion and love. I am with you. Glory be to Ukraine! Olha Ivanova, journalist” — just to quote two out of so many similar ones.

It seemed to the strikers then that the whole of Ukraine was with them. It has become clear only recently that while back in the late nineteen eighties and early nineties some sang “Ukraine Lives On!” and were beaten by police batons for staging demonstrations in support of Ukraine’s independence, others, behind their backs, were making “business plans” for the future. Today, there are two Ukraines — one of them smiles at you from the glossy covers of magazines, content, complacent. The other Ukraine is that of millions of destitute people who have lost all hope and faith in the future.

Nila Kryukova: “They often ask me these days, Why have you disappeared from the TV screens? Why don’t we hear you on the radio? I still could be both on the radio and on television, I could behave in a way that would get me to perform at ‘gala government concerts,’ to appear on other official occasions, to win nominations of the Actress of the Year kind, or be decorated with all sorts of medals, or be admitted to all sorts of exclusive societies… But in order to get all that I’d have to tame myself, to push my very essence into the darkest corner, to renounce my essential principles. Of course, slaves can find a way of idealizing their lack of freedom, to pretend that ‘unfreedom’ is basically ‘freedom’ but with a little ‘un’ in front, but if you make just an attempt not to betray yourself and reject all this pretence, and do it at least once, then all the rest of your life, you’ll want to experience this feeling of elation at the moment you get a taste of freedom, again and again…”

In the past few years, Nila Kryukova has prepared several new recitals — Dmytro Pavlychko’s poem Petryk, poetry of Vasyl Stus and Tetyana Maydanovych; she has started writing scripts of literary soirees, of students’ meetings with literati. She believes that only “intellectual sovereignty” can save each of us from losing our identities, from depersonalization, and in this manner save our society as a whole. The ability to fully comprehend the times we are living in and find our own place in them is becoming the topical issue of today. Not to see the specific features of our times, not to “feel” them is to lose that place, to lose your destiny.

Nila Kryukova knows how to find the firm ground on which to build her destiny — to live in agreement and peace with herself. Is there anything more important than this?


More photos

Myroslava Barchuk tells a story of Nila Kryukova, an actress

of wide renown, a person of great passion and patriotic feelings.

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