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A story of an almost miraculous survival
Halyna Nevinchana, an artist, tells the story of her family, a story of an almost miraculous survival in the terror of the soviet regime, and probes into the world of spirit that helped her parents to maintain human dignity.
The roots of my family go deep into the Ukrainian past and it is their Ukrainiannes that was the cause of their happy moments and of their misfortunes.
According to our family legend, which has been passed from generation to generation, one of our forefathers, Hnat Nevinchany, a Ukrainian Cossack, moved to the village of Parkhomivka in the Land of Kyivshchyna after the self-proclaimed Cossack republic of Zaporizhska Sich had been disbanded by the Russian Imperial government. He was said to have admired the scenic landscapes of the village vicinities — dense forests and a fast-flowing river, but in all likelihood it was the charms of a young widow, whose husband had been a miller. Hnat settled down, married the widow, turned into a land tiller, but preserved some of his Cossack habits.
In 1909, one hundred and twenty years later, a boy was born into the family of a village teacher, Ivan Nevinchany, who lived in Parkhomivka. The boy was given the name of Viktor. Ivan, a young and ambitious teacher who was enamored of Ukrainian culture and knew Ukrainian literature and folklore very well, could play the bandura (traditional Ukrainian musical instrument) and sing Cossack ballads. He wrote down Ukrainian folk songs and collected an extensive library of books by Ukrainian authors. It was these books and his notebooks with folk songs that he kept hidden in the basement of his house during the Second World War and during the years of intensive soviet “anti-nationalist” campaigns. Ivan fostered the love of Ukraine and everything Ukrainian in his son. He taught the red-haired and blue-eyed boy that the most precious things in life were freedom and dignity. The boy was a good learner, and the notions of freedom and dignity were firmly embedded in his consciousness.
It was from his grandfather, who was an icon painter well known in Kyivshchyna, that Viktor inherited a talent for art. The boy painted imaginary flowers, horses at full gallop, Cossacks with their sabers drawn, on the walls of the house and the stove — but his murals were not quite appreciated by his mother who took active measures to prevent him from using the walls for his art.
When he came of age, Viktor went to Uman to study at a construction technical school. The famous park in Uman, Sofiyivka, became a source of inspiration for Viktor who drew and painted its scenic views. When he was drafted into the army, he continued to draw and paint whenever and wherever he could. After his term of service was over, he was sent to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) to study engineering at a technical school. He fell in love with the architecture of this northern city; the Hermitage, one of the greatest museums of the world, and other art museums were the places where he spent a lot of his time free from classes.
Viktor came back to Ukraine and worked for some time in the town of Bila Tserkva, dreaming of a career of an architect. In June 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union and the German forces gained a very considerable initial success — they pushed deep into the soviet territory at an alarming speed. The soviets began to evacuate whole factories and equipment further east, into the Soviet Central Asia and even Siberia, from the cities and towns which were likely to be captured by the invading German forces. In early July, Viktor was appointed to supervise the evacuation of some equipment from Bila Tserkva to the town of Mari in Central Asia. He did what he was required to do. Once, in a private conversation he was asked a provocative question — Why is it that the soviet troops are being beaten by the Germans and are retreating so fast? Viktor bluntly answered that it was because of poor command, low fighting spirit, mismanagement and lack of proper preparations for the imminent war. His words were duly reported to the secret service agents and Viktor was arrested the next day.
He was accused of “anti-soviet propaganda” and “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and sentenced to ten years in a concentration camp. Viktor Nevinchany was moved from camp to camp — from Central Asia he was taken to a camp in the north of the country where he was to cut timber in bitter cold. Viktor Nevinchany proved to be lucky — he was singled out for his qualifications as an engineer and sent to work at the construction of a hydroelectric power station.
His “luck” proved to be not a blessing but a misfortune — though his job was less physically demanding, he had to work side by side with convicted criminals. And he could not hold his tongue in situations when he should have — it cost him another four years in the camps.
In the camp Nevinchany met a medical doctor whom he had known from the pre-camp years. The doctor was not a convict — he worked at what passed for a local hospital. The doctor introduced his friend to a nurse, Leya Martin of German descent, and it proved to be a fateful meeting. Love affairs of any kind were frowned upon by the camp authorities; the children born of illegal camp liaisons were taken away from their mothers and sent to orphanages without the grieving women being informed where their children had been sent.
When her pregnancy became obvious, Leya Martin, who was my mother, was sent to another camp for women in the steppe of Central Asia, and my father, Viktor Nevinchany, was dispatched further north. The child — who was my elder sister — miraculously survived, to a great extent thanks to a local Kalmyk woman who brought my mother milk to feed the child. Another miracle happened when my grandmother, who came from Ukraine to take the child away to her home back in Ukraine, was allowed to do so by the camp authorities.
My father learned about this incredible case of good luck only from the letters written to him by my grandparents. I have one of the letters he wrote back. He drew a picture on one side of the sheet of paper, and on the other side he wrote, “To my dearest and most beloved daughter whom I will probably never see. You should know that you have a father who loved you dearly.”
Among the things that helped my father survive under the inhuman conditions of the concentration camps was a book, Taras Bulba, by Mykola Hohol (better known as Nikolay Gogol, a nineteenth-century Russian writer of Ukrainian descent). After many readings, it was a well-thumbed book and it gave my father an inspiration to create illustrations for it. During his work at various construction sites in Karelia — laying railroad tracks and building a hydroelectric power station, Viktor Nevinchany found time — and what is even more surprising, watercolors and paper! — to create illustrations for Taras Bulba. There were altogether 45 illustrations of various sizes that he made then.
Viktor did return to Bila Tserkva in Ukraine after he had done his term in concentration and labor camps. He joined his wife Leya, who had come to live in Bila Tserkva earlier, and, after all, saw his daughter. And then it was my turn to come to this world. My father found work in construction and in 1955 he won a contest for the best design of a hotel in Bila Tserkva, proving it was not only the best architecturally but would be the cheapest to build. The Hotel Kyiv, which was built in 1957, still graces the center of Bila Tserkva. His designs were used for the construction of several other buildings in Bila Tserkva and in Kyiv Oblast.
He never stopped drawing and painting too. His legacy included over 800 watercolors and drawings. He continued to paint until he was almost blind — cataracts in his eyes gradually robbed him of the precious gift of sight. But cataracts was only one of the many health problems that had been caused by his confinement in camps. He dreamed that one day “when Ukraine is free at last, I will walk along the central street of Kyiv wearing a traditional Ukrainian dress,” but his dream never came true — he died at the age of 67, succumbing to his illnesses.
During his lifetime, my father’s works were shown at an exhibition only once, at the time when one hundredth anniversary of N. Gogol’s death was marked. Later, they were shown in Bila Tserkva and in the town of Nizhyn at a school where Nikolay Gogol had studied.
In 1996, an exhibition was held at the Art Museum of Dnipropetrovsk which showed lesser known or previously unknown portraits of the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries. A catalogue of that exhibition was published and in the catalogue which was presented to me by the museum curators, I discovered a reproduction of a portrait of The Zaporizky Scribe I. Nevinchany, painted by Ivan Shildenko in 1770.
It was the first documentary proof of the existence of a Nevinchany, a Zaporizki Cossack, which thus substantiated the family story. Incidentally, the portrait bore an amazing similarity to my father. My later research produced another Nevinchany, Vasyl, who was a supporter of Hetman Mazepa. Vasyl’s name is mentioned in a letter which, dated June 2 1710, was written by one Yosyp Kyrylenko, a leader of a unit of Zaporizky Cossacks, to Hetman Ivan Skoropadsky. I discovered still another reference to another Nevinchany in a report submitted to a Cossack committee on July 21 1752.
These historical links convinced me that it was not accidental that my father turned to Cossack motifs in his art. Neither was it accidental that he chose a Gogol’s novel to illustrate — one of the ancestors of Nikolay Gogol was a seventeenth-century Cossack colonel, Ostap Hohol, who, in fact, was the prototype for the protagonist of the novel, Taras Bulba.
When I look at my father’s illustrations, it seems to me my father had actually seen the events described in the novel with his own eyes and depicted them truthfully as they unfolded. His watercolors are a panorama of Ukrainian and Cossack life of the seventeenth century.
The Nevinchany family: Viktor, his wife Leya
and their children. 1958.
In Kola Peninsula.
Cossack scribe Ivan Nevinchany.
Portrait by Ivan Shyldenko. 1770.
A camp on the coast of the White Sea. 1952.
Leya and I in Altay, Siberia.