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Volodymyr K. Vynnychenko was a prominent Ukrainian writer, dramatist and controversial political figure who headed the Ukrainian government — Dyrektoriya — in the years 1918–119.
Vynnychenko was born in the town of Yelisavetgrad in the Land of Khersonshchyna in 1880. Completing his secondary education, he went to Kyiv and matriculated at the Department of Law of St Volodymyr University. Early in the twentieth century, he became politically active and joined radical, revolutionary parties. Starting from 1903, he devoted himself entirely to clandestine activities aimed at stirring revolutionary sentiments among the people. In 1917, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a part, Ukraine gained independence and Vynnychenko took most active part in the work of the Ukrainian government, embracing various high-ranking posts. He was the author of the most important political statements and proclamations of the Ukrainian government which he headed for some time in 1918 and 1919. For his controversial views he was removed from the government and he emigrated to Austria where he formed a group of Ukrainian communists. In 1920, Vynnychenko returned to Ukraine but his attempts to find ways of getting along with Bolsheviks failed, and he had to emigrate again. From the end of the 1920s until his death in 1951 he lived in France.V. Vynnychenko left a rich legacy of prose writings, plays and essays which were not allowed to be published in the Soviet Union. He was branded “an enemy of the soviet people” and “a decadent Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist.” After Ukraine’s independence in 1991, his works began to be published and read. His motto was, “Do all you can for Ukraine.”
Student, a short story by Volodymyr Vynnychenko
The fire started in the village at night. The frightened, pale moon looked down at the fire, and tried to flee in horror, hiding behind the clouds. The trees also took fright and bristled with their naked branches as if in a desperate attempt to bolt. The wind danced over the fire, picking burning pieces and hurling them at the houses close by; the wind raged, spreading the fire, unstoppable and implacable. Puny human figures were seen running around the fire, impotently wringing their hands, appealing to the sky, to the moon and to the fire. They appealed to God, to Satan, to humanity. But the fire kept spreading, the wind played with it, the scared moon took cover among the clouds. There was no rescue coming form the sky, or from the devil, or from the people.
When the moon ran away, the sky turned grey. At the break of day, the wind got tired, and the fire, ignoring the people and their cries as though it had been someone else who had eaten their houses, began to slowly and lazily die.
Smoke was rising from the blackened logs and beams; those parts of straw roofs that had not burned out, were letting up subdued, tired puffs of smoke. The sun, cheerful and vernal, was rising over the village half of which had been burned to ashes. The sun did not seem to notice the smoldering ruins, the people with grayish, blackish faces, the hands of the people hanging down in resignation after a spent, useless effort. The sun looked freshly washed, in good spirits, smiling, majestically climbing into that part of the sky from which the wind had been blowing all night long, and from which the clouds and the moon had been chased.
Salvaged barrels, chests, clothes and other possessions were heaped in the streets which had not been affected by the fire. Women, children and elders hobbled and shambled despondently among these piles; some of the men stood in a daze nearby, glassy-eyed, their eyelashes and beards singed; others shouted something incoherent, flailed their arms as though hoping that by this flailing and shouting they might extinguish the fire of their despair, anguish and grief.
The dogs trotted among the piles and the people, once in a while, raised their heads and howled terribly. They howled as though they were already seeing the horrifying ghosts of hunger, beggary and diseases that had begun to crowd in on the village. The people screamed at the dogs with hatred and fear, and the dogs, their tails between their legs, moved away, but then stopped, raised their heads and howled again. The cows and horses, tethered to the fences, were pawing the ground; the children were trembling and weeping with fright and cold; the women were rocking to and fro and wailing.
Meanwhile the sun continued its majestic and lordly journey across the sky; the earth greeted it in adulation with fogs and hazes, breathing gently like a bashful girl in love. The trees had calmed down but from time to time they would shudder, their naked branches shook, as though in recollection of the previous night’s horrors.
But the people could not calm down — they kept listlessly wandering among the blackened remains of their houses, rummaging around the ashes, or staring in shock at the still smoldering ruins.
An old man, hatless, his shirt in burned-out holes, stood by the badly burned carcass of a horse. He stood in silence, the wind timidly and gently tugging at the loose strands of his grey hair. The old man stood motionlessly for quite some time, then raised his head and spoke fiercely, in violent rage, to the sky,
“Is that it? Or you want some more fire? Do you?”
Then he ripped his shirt open, baring his yellow from age, bony chest with yellowish-grayish hair on it. Froth appeared on his lips; his deep wrinkles were black with soot, the faded eyes shone with cold fury.
“If you’ve not had enough, go ahead and burn out the rest! Come on, do it!”
Those who stood closest to him, walked over to him.
“Are you out of your mind? Come to your senses, old man! God gives, and God takes away.”
“Takes away?” screamed the old man scorching his neighbor, who had spoken, with an enflamed gaze. “Why has He taken away from us so much?”
“It’s someone who should be blamed for the fire, not God.”
“Where is this someone? Show me!” shouted the old man looking frantically around.
“It’s none of us, we’ll have to look for those who did it, we’ll find them. Let’s go, join the others.”
The old man did not want to go anywhere, but he was lead to the place where the villagers stood in a group, arguing and shouting. The old man walked, his head bent low, his hair disheveled, loose strands played with by the wind, guiltily and caressingly.
“I know who did it!” thundered the red-haired, freckled Havrylo. “It’s the students, it’s them, and no one else!” And he raised his fist, all in soot, and shook angrily and menacingly at no one in particular.
“I saw two of them yesterday, I did, with my own eyes, I swear!” Kozubykha piped. “I saw them walk by and stare at Domakha’s house! It was from that house that the fire started! It’s them, the students!”
“Where, where are they, these students,” said the old man in a hoarse voice, elbowing his way through the crowd towards Domakha, his eyes sparkling with fury.
“Where? Who knows! Go look for them! You can’t catch them! They are somewhere there,” Domakha said uncertainly, shaking her head.
“Where there?” hissed the old man.
“Yonder in the forest, or with the devil in the bog…”
“With the devil? Let’s get them! Let’s get them! I’ll rip them open, I’ll sprinkle my burned down house with their blood! Let’s get them!”
“Right, let’s get them! Let’s rip them open!” rose a general shout. The fists were raised into the air, the eyes were filled with vengeance. The shout soared to the serenely quiet sky with the cheerful, majestic sun in it. And the dogs raised their heads to the sky and howled with a terrible howl, and the black ruins smoldered, as though hailing the king of nature of the disaster with thin wisps of smoke. But the king of nature just silently smirked.
A man appeared in the street walking hurriedly towards the crowd. As he walked, he kept turning his head back as though looking for something or someone. His clothes and his boots were all splashed in drying mud, his hat was pushed back on his head; sweat rolled from his pale forehead down his sunken cheeks.
Passing among the scattered barrels, bags and other salvaged things and crying children, he slowed down and even stopped, looked back, and then moved on even faster than before, gazing around, his widely opened eyes full of anxiety. His face, lean and pale, seemed to be absorbing the lament of women and the weeping of children.
The closer he was getting to the expectant crowd the less he looked back, the more often he stopped, his eyes, full of anguish, fixed on the trembling children, howling dogs, blackened, salvaged things scattered on the ground. When at last he reached the dense, shouting crowd, his lips were trembling, his eyes were burning.
“Good day to you,” he said in a husky voice.
One voice from the crowd replied, “Good day.”
“What are you standing and waiting here for?” cried out loudly the stranger, running his enflamed eyes over the people’s faces and licking his parched, trembling lips. The momentary hush fell over the people who stared at the stranger in surprise.
“And who are you?” another voice asked severely and threateningly.
“Who am I?” said the stranger but did not continue. A big lump seemed to fill his chest, straining to get out but could not, and stifled his voice. A moment later, this big lump began to come out in pieces of words, fiery and angrily painful. No one asked again who the stranger was.
“My good man…” a weeping woman began to say; the men who looked lost, loudly sighed, trying to avoid each others’ gazes, looking into the distance. The smoke continued to rise from the ruins in thin columns to the clear sky. In the sudden silence, a dog howled dolefully.
“Police are coming!” a voice barked a warning. The crowd began to disperse and the stranger who was about to say something, shut his mouth and thrust his right hand deep into the pocket and looked around. At the end of the street three riders were seen. They wore grey uniforms, rifles slung over their shoulders. They rode slowly, stopping now and then, evidently asking something the people they rode by in the street.
“See,” the stranger said with a smirk, “your protectors are coming, looking for enemies.”
“What have they come here for?” said the old man, stepping forward, his eyes blazing. “They are not welcome here! We’ve had enough trouble!”
The riders, their horses, snorting, rode up close to the crowd. The riders reined in and stopped without saying a word, their eyes searching the crowd.
The stranger stared at them, breathing hard. His eyes met the gaze of the guard in the lead who raised himself up a little from the saddle, his legs in the stirrups for support. The guard pointed a finger at the stranger,
“Ha, here he is!”
The two other guards looked where their leader was pointing.
“Is it really him?”
“Yeah, it’s him all right, son of a bitch! Hey, you, follow us!” The stranger stood motionless, his right hand deep in his pocket. The old man stepped forward, and challenged the guards,
“Who are you looking here for? Me? Here I am! You want to shoot me? Shoot!”
The old man impetuously pulled open his shirt, revealing his chest, yellow as wax.
“No, old man, we don’t want you, get out of our way, we want that man over there… Hey, you, follow us!”
The stranger turned to the people and asked in a trembling voice,
“Will you let them take me away?”
The crowd stirred uneasily. A defying murmur rippled through the crowd, and several voices cried out, “No, we won’t let him to be taken away. What’s he done to be arrested? Go back to where you’ve come from!”
The guards pulled the rifles from behind their backs fast without a word and trained them on the crowd. The voices died down.
“Will you not let him be taken away? Come on, say something!” shouted the guards’ leader adding angrily a string of filthy swear words.
“A student? Which student? We don’t have any students here!”
But everybody looked questioningly at the stranger. Hostility appeared in the expression on the people’s faces, the eyes cold and probing. The guards began to close in on the stranger.
“Yes, my friends, I’m a student, and it’s me they are looking for, I know,” said the stranger, looking at the guards, his face darkening.
“You a student?” the old man cried out turning to the stranger. Leaning forward, he repeated, “You a student? Why didn’t you tell us right away? You were lying to us!”
The stranger’s face flushed,
“I was not lying! I didn’t say I was not a student, did I? I’ve done nothing wrong, trust me!”
“How can we trust you? You’re a stranger here!” somebody snapped. The stranger turned to the man who had said that.
“It must have been you who set fire to the houses!”
The stranger’s eyes widened in indignation, “Set fire to the houses? I’d never do a thing like that! I’d give my blood to extinguish the fire! I, I… no, people, no, it was not me, don’t you believe me?”
The stranger looked around, an expression of utter helplessness on his face. He peered into the faces of the people around him but saw only sullen hostility in them.
“But… but…just a minute ago you said you would not let them take me away!... So, why…” mumbled the stranger.
“Enough talking,” cried out the guard’s leader and urged his horse forward.
“Now, you, follow us. We’ll show you ‘trust’ and we’ll see what to believe or not believe! Move it, come on, quick!”
And he again urged the horse forward by kicking its flank with the heel.
The stranger whipped a revolver out of his pocket. The revolver flashed in the sun.
A murmur went through the crowd. The guard’s leader pulled at the reins and roared,
“Armed, eh? Don’t you dare to shoot! Just try it!”
The stranger wiped the sweat from his face with a trembling hand, and turning to the people shouted, his eyes pleading, “Why don’t you believe me?”
“How can that be? Why don’t you believe me? How can I prove to you that I’m innocent of any wrongdoing?... Look,” and he put the muzzle of his revolver to his temple. The hand trembled, the revolver flashed in the sun. A woman in the crowd cried out in fright.
“Look, right here, before you, I’ll blow my brains out to prove my innocence. Will you believe me then? Will you believe then that I’m not an enemy of yours?”
“You only make believe you’ll shoot yourself! Get him, beat him!”
“You don’t believe me?” the stranger screamed hoarsely, his face turning white. “You want me to prove to you I can do it? Do you?”
The guards exchanged several words among themselves in low voices. The stranger, breathing hard, lowered the revolver as though he had no more strength to hold it up. His eyes, widened, full of confused frenzy, searched the people’s eyes.
“Don’t listen to him!” suddenly cried out the old man. “Let’s do him in! Let’s rip him open!”
“Grab him!” “He’s lying!” “He wants to soften us up!” “Let’s get him and give him to the guards!”
The people in the crowds surged forward but froze a moment later — the stranger again lifted the revolver to his temple.
“I won’t do it, you say?...You don’t believe me?” he said slowly, his voice husky. His eyes became round, there was a mad streak in them, his hand, holding the hand, trembled a little, then steadied itself — the revolver jumped and a deafening shot rang out. The stranger’s head jerked to the side and the stranger collapsed, his face to the ground.
A dead hush fell over the people who froze in horror. But in the next moment they rushed to the prostrate man, bent over him, eyed him, stared at his blood that was oozing into the liquid mud. Then the people straightened up and began talking, all at the same time, looking into each others’ eyes — and then back at the stranger on the ground. His blood, his motionless body, his rigidly bent arms exuded something that penetrated into their hearts and souls and made them do what he wanted them to do — believe him.
The guard’s leader who had dismounted, also bent over the stranger. Then he straightened up and said, shaking his head,
“Dead… Too bad! Well, he’s lucky to be dead!”
From a tense hush of the crowd a voice in the back said fiercely,
“I wish the same luck to you!”
Someone else exclaimed, with tears in her voice “A good man died for nothing! He was innocent!”
The sky was clear, gloriously serene, with not a single cloud in it. In the street of a village, blackened and half destroyed by fire, stood a crowd of people, huddling around a dead body that lay in the mud; the people’s gloomy faces were taught with tension, angered eyes downcast.
“Who said that?” asked the guards’ leader very loudly. “Come out!”
The people stirred, letting the old man who began to push his way towards the guards, pass through.
“Where are they? Step aside!” the old man was screaming, his eyes glazed with mad fury. “Let me get him! This one?”
The old man stretched his arms forward, his yellowed hands with talon-like fingers ready to grab.
“Cool it, old man,” said the guards’ leader in an uneven, worried voice, stepping back.
The old man, ignoring the guard’s words kept on moving on to him.
“Old man! Stop it!” bellowed the guard.
The old man, screaming wildly “I’ll get you!” jumped forward and his hands closed on the guard’s neck. The horrified guard wriggled, struggling to fight the old man off, but his struggles for some reason inflamed the crowd and the people flew into a black, uncontrollable rage.
“Right! Get him! Beat the hell out of him! Give him his luck!” people were screaming and shouting, all at once. The other two guards turned their horses and fled, knocking down people who happened to be in their way, overturning bags and scattering piles of salvaged possessions.
The sun in the broad, clear and serene sky was looking down and laughing.
Vynnychenko’s story describes a situation of the early twentieth century in Ukraine, and in the Russian Empire in general, when a certain number of university students or young people of the student age, were involved in revolutionary or terrorist activities. The attitude of rank-and-file people, particularly in the countryside, was often hostile to all the university students in general who were suspected of involvement in such activities.[Prev][Contents][Next]