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Spiritual search in the Diaries of Oles Honchar, a prominent Ukrainian writer
Oles Honchar (1918–1995) was one of the leading Ukrainian writers of the twentieth century. He was also a prominent public figure. He left a rich legacy of novels and short stories, and his diaries, published in three volumes by the Veselka Publishers in 2002–2004, show that Oles Honchar was indeed a person of high integrity, rectitude and Ukrainian national convictions.
Oles Honchar was born in the village of Sukha in the Land of Poltavshchyna on April 3 1918. When he was two, his mother died, and his father married for the second time. The little boy was sent to the city of Poltava to be raised by his grandmother Priska who was a very religious, highly moral and honest person. She devoted herself to her grandson’s upbringing; she taught him the moral precepts of Christianity, and what was put into him by his grandmother, Oles Honchar preserved in his heart for all his life.
Quite early in life he discovered in himself a talent for creative writing. He studied at a journalists’ training school, then at the Department of Journalism of the University of Kharkiv. When Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine in June 1941, he, still a student, volunteered for the army service. He served bravely and with distinction — his many awards include the Order of Glory, one of the highest awards that was given to soldiers for bravery. He was wounded twice but survived the war to become a writer.
He had many of his stories and articles published in several Ukrainian newspapers and magazines in the late 1930s, and after the war, he resumed his studies, this time at the Department of Philology at Dnipropetrovsk University, and started to write a big novel, Praporonostsi (Standard-Bearers) for which he was later awarded a state prize.
Several more novels and many short stories followed. He was promoted to be head of the Union of Writers of Ukraine (from 1959 to 1971), and in 1978, he was elected academician of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
His novel Sobor (Cathedral), published in 1968, was severely criticized by the soviet authorities for its “nationalistic leanings and religious overtones” and it was the writer’s prominent social position and fame that saved him from downfall and possible ban on writing, or maybe even prosecution and arrest. He continued writing, and in the 1980s his political and cultural stance became even more nationally oriented. In 1992–1993, he was recognized to be “The World Intellectual” by the Intellectual Biographical Centre in Cambridge, Great Britain.
Shortly before his death, he wrote to the then president of Ukraine, urging him to have the Mykhailivsky Zlatoverkhy (St Michael’s Golden-Domed) Cathedral in Kyiv rebuilt (the cathedral was one of the many churches destroyed by the soviet authorities and in the atheistic campaign of the 1930s). A fund was created to promote the Ukrainian national culture and restoration and reconstruction of the ruined architectural landmarks (All-Ukraine Fund of Reconstruction of the Prominent Architectural Landmarks of Ukraine named after Oles Honchar). Incidentally, Mykhaylivsky Zolotoverkhy Cathedral was rebuilt to its former glory — but after Oles Honchar’s death.
Some may say that Oles Honchar was not vocal in defending the dissidents and in supporting the nationalists; some may even say that he was loyal to the soviet regime and for this loyalty — with only some digressions — the soviets heaped awards and honorary titles upon him. But, first, he did serve the Ukrainian national cause in his way, and second — do we have the right now, after the fall of communism, to pass judgment on those who just wanted to survive, or to write books, or to contribute something to the national culture under the inhumane conditions of the soviet regime?
“Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Excerpts from Oles Honchar’s Diaries, dating from various years
“When I hear the prayer, ‘God Almighty, Preserve our Ukraine,’ rising to Heaven, I revel in its spirit, and I am filled, more than ever, with faith in the indestructibility of the Ukrainian people, and with a high hope in this nation’s future!
May Ukraine live under the blue skies of freedom in the family of the fraternal nations of Europe and of the world, and may Ukraine live forever!”
“I have faced death so many times by now. Yesterday I found myself pinned down to the ground by the enemy fire. There was no trench or dugout to hide in. I crawled all the way to the command post with artillery and mortar shells exploding around me and bullets whistling above my head… It was a close call — my head is still buzzing. Must have been some divine force that has saved me.”
July 28 1944
“What’s my life been made of?
As long as I remember myself, I’ve been struggling, like a fairy tale giant, with a terrible and powerful force that has been besieging the fortress which I have been defending… All this multitude of evil forces is dreadful and revolting. I’ve been fighting back, defending my fortress, and my soul has been shining like gold in the bright sun. My soul is youthful, pure and beautiful — but for how long can I go on through these tortures? There must be a limit to my strength — and then, do I have the right to put a bullet through my heart? Those of you, who have been observing my struggles but did not come to my help, do not blame me then for taking my life. I’ve always been on my own — where are my armour bearers?
I’m a religious person, I believe in God. It could have been only the devil that has demonically brought so much suffering into the human short lives, so much ruin and so much crippling devastation, all into one generation. There’s so much tragedy and horror in it that it would have been enough for hundreds of generations…”
February 17 1945
“Been through very hard times. I was woken up by the frenzied roar of artillery… Artillery shells were howling in the sky, unseen and deadly, coming in droves… One of the shells hit the room I was in… I thought the whole ceiling would collapse on me — but it did not, only clay pieces of it fell down. Someone must have been praying for my survival.”
January 1 1960
“There an icon of the Virgin that I once saw — it had a tear rolling down one of Her cheeks — and there is also an indented mark evidently left by a whip on the same cheek. Where could that icon be now?... It’s our Madonna, the light of my childhood years…”
March 3 1968
“Jesus Christ, that carpenter from Nazareth, a young thinker, remains to be the ideal of moral rectitude. Is there anything in the history of humankind more powerful than his humane teaching?... Faith is wider than knowledge. Faith is more humane. ‘Where Love is, God is.’ Where there is no love there is darkness, deceit and falsehood.”
“After I wrote The Alps, no other book of mine was written with such ‘abandon’ as The Cathedral. It’s the Superior Force that helps me. Or, to use the ancient name of this force — God. I’m so grateful to this Force…”
November 11 1969
“I’ve finished at last the first of the two books that I plan to write. I’ll go to the Cathedral of Holy Sophia and pray before the Virgin who gave me strength to do at least half of my work… I was writing day and night, I was writing even in my dreams, I was writing at home and on board the plane, I was writing in my head as I walked around Kyiv — it was so physically exhausting. I’ll have to take a little rest now, and then go over to writing the other novel that I planned to write….
When I got to the Cathedral, it was already closed but through the glass of one of the windows I saw some lights and movement inside. Must have been an attendant cleaning up. And then all the lights in the central nave were turned on! And I saw the figure of the Virgin in the central apse with Her hands raised in prayer! A favourable portent!”
April 24 1975
“The spring has come — I look at the greenery that has begun to cover the earth, I see all those marvellous things that we call life revived and blossoming. There is a simple and yet unfathomable truth in everything. There seems to be some hidden sapience in everything. There is more mutual tolerance in nature than there is among people. Everything in Nature is so beautifully harmonized! Where does all this mysterious, all-permeating perfection come from? ‘Materialistic’ explanations do not answer this question — they seem to me to be so primitive…
I’m standing before you, Mother Nature — who will explain to me the essence of this harmony that includes in itself a drop of dew and a sun ray, and a cherry blossom? And my soul too!
Everything that I see comes from God — no doubt of it — from God!
April 25 1976
“Today is Velykden (Easter).
I’m listening to Bortnyansky’s music (Dmitry Bortnyansky, 1751–1825, Ukrainian composer), and I recollect the Easter tintinnabulation of my childhood. Angels are singing in the sky, and people are brightening up (or should be brightening up) here on earth. I feel that my soul does belong to this world of Christianity — everything that is the highest and most beautiful is in Christianity.
It has to come to the people — maybe then they will come to their senses.”
October 25 1978
“I’m reading something about Christianity and can’t help thinking — why is it that in this country religion is called ‘a hostile force’? If a religion is not fanatical, not repressive through an inquisition, then why can’t it be accepted? (the soviet regime was militantly atheistic and at first persecuted and prosecuted the priests and the faithful, but at its later stages just frowned upon Christianity and Christians — tr). Why such intolerance? I personally do not feel that the Christian teaching goes against my humanitarian convictions. Christianity was so important for the arts — and the Renaissance gloriously showed it. Or take such Christian writers as Hohol and Dostoyevsky… Vulgar atheism has created nothing of high beauty — other sources of inspiration are needed. It’s enough to take one look at the Holy Sophia of Kyiv or at St Andrew’s to understand the great importance of Christian inspiration. Incidentally, St Andrew’s is being restored now — it looks so fascinating at night! It’s really divine… After looking at that church, you carry the saintly feeling in your heart for several days and you feel yourself cleansed and inspired…”
May 21 1979
“When I was passing by the Cathedral of St Volodymyr, I heard singing that was coming from inside. It was the time of an evening service. I went into the church. What a great sight it was! All the lights were on and the murals looked even more impressive than in the daytime. The figure of the Virgin with Child in the central apse seemed to be walking towards me and to other people in the church. And the choir was singing so beautifully…
It’s grandeur, legacy of Byzantium. It uplifts the spirit.
The church was full of people, but there was no feeling of overcrowding — there was an atmosphere of high spirituality.”
January 7 1980
“It’s Christmas (according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar — tr.). The day is full of sunshine — the white snow everywhere sparkles and the golden crosses on St Volodymyr’s shine magnificently…
Then I heard the sound of the bells. My friend and I stood listening. The tolling was like music that goes to your soul…
I would stand there forever, listening…”
April 27 1981
“ Easter — the greatest feast of all Christian feasts. It brings light and brightens up the heart. It’s such a pity that later everything returns back to what it was before and things will go on in their routine manner.”
April 18 1982
“It’s Easter morning. In the air, filled with the fragrances of spring blossoming, I hear the echoes of the Easter singing that I heard in my childhood.
I recalled that when I was a third-grade pupil of a four-year elementary school in Sukha, someone important — heavy-faced, haughty and superior, came to my class and together with our teacher began to encourage us, the schoolchildren, to join ‘a hobby group of young atheists,’ sort of the then soviet Hongwei Bing (or Hung-wei Ping, or Red Guards — in China, groups of militant students formed into paramilitary units as part of the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 — tr)… My heart was in turmoil, I felt I was to enter a new phase in my life. There was excitement and challenge — and fear in it. What will my grandma say when I tell her I joined that atheistic thing? Will she beat me? When I came home and told my grandmother about my new atheistic status, she burst into tears. She did not scold me, neither did she tell me, like parents of some other kids did — ‘Go back and tell them you quit,’ nothing but quiet tears — tears of love and worry…
I stopped going to church but once my grandmother told me, “My dear Oles, go to the church in the village of Ulynivka, no one knows you there, take communion, nobody will report on you.”
She said it in such a beseeching voice that I realized that her heart ached and that it was very important for her that I do it. And next Sunday I did go to that village where I had never been before and took communion.
My grandmother and what she instilled in me proved to be stronger than all that atheistic teaching. I remember that when I came back from Ulynivka, I felt that my soul had been cleansed and my heart was light. After that we — me and my grandma — became even closer to each other. She made me do what she wanted me to do without pressure, without shouting at me, without any threats… And we maintained that secret heart-to-heart understanding until she died…
People do need religious feasts like Easter — it cleanses the soul.”
January 7 1985
“Christmas! It’s snowing — and from what I heard on a weather report, it is snowing all over Ukraine. Yesterday, as I was walking along Shevchenko Boulevard, in the light of the street lamps, the snowflakes cast falling shadows. Flurries of snow driven by gusts of wind were like moths around the lamps. The snow on the ground was so clean and white … And then I heard singing that came from St Volodymyr’s; the hymn “Earth, rejoice! The Son of God has been born!” was being sung. I stopped and listened, and felt a lump in my throat — all this beauty and singing made me want to cry… The world will go on living, no matter what those doomsayers say… The human soul can express itself in a very powerful way — I have not had such an upsurge of hope for a long time. I want to go on living on and on!”
January 14 1990
“Good news — a church that was taken away from the local religious community by the state, God knows when, has been returned to them. I’m happy that such things have begun to happen. Besides, I made my own little contribution to the decision to give this church back to the faithful.
Religiousness and spirituality are as thin as the thin and easily destroyed ozone layer in the atmosphere of our planet — and as important. Without it, there’d be no life on earth. When there appears a hole in the layer of religiousness and spirituality, people die; when there appears a hole in the ozone layer, then the planet dies.”
January 1 1990
“Believers see in the trials and tribulations that their destiny makes them go through a God’s grace! There’s a great truth in this. People who have experienced suffering can cleanse themselves of evil, can discover the gift of mercy in themselves, they can acquire the gift of sympathetic response — they come to a realization what is truly the dearest, truly beautiful, they come to know what makes them truly human.”
June 3 1990
“The Feast of the Holy Trinity — the green feast of my childhood memories. How nice the houses in my village of Sukha looked then — people’s homes were decorated with branches of trees with green leaves on them; mint and other fragrant herbs were spread on the floor…”
November 20 1990
“God, save us! The Satanic forces must be repelled!..
Jesus and his apostles gave the world their great wisdom. The issues they raised remain pertinent today — how short, it turns out, is the time span of two thousand years… With God’s help my spirit strengthens — how I wish I would be able to preserve this strength to prevent myself from sliding into the dark pit of despair… I’ll keep on praying …”
Photos from the archives of the Honchar family