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Symyrenky — the destiny of a Ukrainian family

 

There are many families with long histories in Ukraine who deserve to be remembered and written about for their various contributions to Ukrainian culture, politics, economy and other human endeavors. But unfortunately, research into the histories and family trees of such families has begun to be done only fairly recently, since Ukraine’s independence. This essay explores the destines of the Symyrenkos, whose roots are traceable to the eighteenth century and maybe even further into the past. This article is an adaptation of a screenplay written by Halyna Kryvorchuk for the TV serial Hra doli (Games of Fate).

 

We shall begin with Stepan Symyrenko, the first in the long line of the Symyrenkos, whose life is documented comparatively well (one could probably go deeper into history, but we would like to stay on the firm ground of reliable historical documents).

Stepan was a Zaporizhzhya Cossack, but when the Russian Empress Catherine II launched her policy of completely doing away with the vestiges of the Cossack liberties and privileges, he refused to swear the oath of allegiance to her. This courageous act of defiance was severally punished: he was stripped of his “Cossack rights and privileges,” his estate was taken away from him, his wife and children were turned into serfs — slaves bound to the land they lived and worked on.

Fedir, Stepan’s son who was born in a hamlet in the Land of Cherkashchyna, managed to earn and save money by renting a water mill from Count Vorontsov, and he got manumitted from slavery by actually buying his freedom. Fedir married Anastasiya Yakhnenko, and in the 1890s, Fedir and Anastasiya’s three brothers formed what now would be called a company, Yakhnenko Brothers & Symyrenko. The company was purchasing and selling grain, and it was so successful that by 1830s, Yakhnenko Brothers & Symyrenko had their stores and warehouses opened all over Ukraine. The owners of the company became rich and respected men — they were among the first highly successful private entrepreneurs in Ukraine.

Fedir’s wife was responsible for maintaining strong family traditions and values; it was a family in which the children were brought up in respect for their parents and for the Orthodox values.

One of Fedir’s sons, Platon, inherited his father’s grain and flour trading business, but the agrarian crisis of the late 1840s made him reorient his business interests and he branched out into sugar trade. Platon decided to build a sugar refinery and in order to purchase the best equipment then available he went to France where he not only looked around for what he wanted for his factory but also studied at the Paris Polytechnic. He brought home a diploma of an engineer, state-of-the-art equipment for his factory and 30 specialists with their families to work at his factory.

His first factory proving to be a great success, Platon had several more factories built. He provided his workers with housing, vegetable gardens and orchids, a theater, a hospital and other “communal services.” The private houses and factories were lit with gas, a great innovation in those times.

Platon had a network of stores and warehouses not only in Ukraine but in many parts of the Russian Empire. His was a smoothly operating big capitalistic enterprise which branched out into other sectors of economy. Platon had two all-metal ships built (Ukrayinets and Yaroslav), the first of their kind in Ukraine to ship the products of his companies; he also established the first ever shipping company on the Dnipro River.

In 1850 Platon married Tetyana Ovchynnikova, a daughter of the head of Odesa Duma (City Council). Ivan Ovchynnikov, a former serf, was a millionaire merchant in his own right. Though it looks like a marriage of convenience, it was a very happy and loving union. Platon and Tetyana went to live in the town Mliyiv in the Land of Cherkashchyna, at the Symyrenkos’ family estate.

Tetyana proved to be a charming and hospitable hostess of the parties that were regularly held at the Symyrenko’s home. Among the guests were local land owners, merchants and financiers, and foreigners too — Britons, Germans, French and Poles. Literature and music were among the topics discussed, not only business. Symyrenkos’ home was elegantly furnished, gourmet food and drinks were served; the hostess never failed to charm the guests.

In 1859, Taras Shevchenko, a great poet who was to become a pivotal and hugely respected figure of Ukrainian culture, visited the Symyrenkos in Mliyiv. He, a former serf himself, was impressed by lots of things: workers of Symyrenko’s factories were provided with free medical care; their children were taught at schools free of charge by carefully chosen faculty; the prices in Symyrenko’s stores were very moderate for Symyrenko’s employees and workers; single workers were provided with accommodation in dormitories. Platon Symyrenko offered Shevchenko to publish the poet’s arguably most important book, Kobzar, at his own expense.

The print run of Kobzar was over 6,000 copies. Shevchenko, without Symyrenko’s knowledge, had the following dedication printed on the title page: Koshtom Platona Symyrenko, that is “[Printed] At the Cost of Platon Symyrenko.” It infuriated Symyrenko — his policy was always to remain anonymous in all his philanthropic deeds, and he considered Shevchenko’s gesture, though evidently taken with the best of intentions, to be a breach of faith.

In 1861, Platon fell ill and he was advised by his doctor to go to Germany for treatment. He went first to Berlin, where he sought consultations from the leading physicians. They advised him to go to a clinic in Hamburg. Unfortunately, the therapy provided there failed to heal Platon and in 1863, shortly after his return from Germany, Platon died at an early age of forty three.

The death of the head of the Symyrenko business proved to be a hard blow both to the Symyrenko family and to the Symyrenko business. However, Platon’s widow Tetyana, who had been left with five children aged from eight to less than twelve months, managed to maintain the family’s status, in spite of all the rumors and innuendos about their financial situation, and provide good education for her children.

Vasyl, Platon’s younger brother (he was fifteen years Platon’s junior) returned to Ukraine from Paris where he had been studying at the Paris Polytechnic (the same school at which his elder brother had been educated). He assumed the post of what now would be called “Chief Executive” of the Symyrenko business, but the economic situation had unfavorably changed and the Symyrenko business went into a steep decline. After struggling to keep it afloat for several years, Vasyl gave up and handed the business to other people, surrendering his share in the business as well. He and his wife Sofiya had to leave Mlyiv and seek a better life elsewhere.

Sofiya was the daughter of Ivan Albrandt, a descendant of French aristocrats who had emigrated to Russia during the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The French family had settled down in the town of Samhorodok, not far from Mliyiv.

Vasyl often visited Samhorodok on business and it was there that he met Sofiya. Her father held Vasyl in high esteem — Vasyl’s impeccable French was one of the things that endeared Albrandt to the Ukrainian who was also well-mannered and full of good cheer. But when Vasyl proposed to Sofiya, her father unexpectedly refused to give his blessing to this marriage.

It came as a shock to the young lovers but Sofiya was determined to go ahead with marriage, and she and Vasyl were secretly wed at the church of the village where Sofiya’s sister Olga lived.

When Aldbrandt finally learned about his daughter’s marrying Platon against his will, he fumed and refused to see her “ever again.” He did not respond to her letters in which she kept asking for his pardon. However, seven years later, he relented and accepted his daughter’s marriage to the dashing but impoverished Ukrainian.

At her marriage, Sofiya was deprived not only of her father’s blessing — she was not provided with any dowry either. Vasyl was also almost penniless — he had given up his share in the Symyrenko business.

Vasyl was a person of great determination — he was determined to get back into sugar making business again. With his savings and borrowed money he bought an abandoned sugar refinery in the vicinity of the town of Kaniv. He worked hard from early morning till late at night, both as a laborer and an engineer. It was a confectionary factory rather than sugar refinery that he wanted to establish. He repaired the equipment, installed new machinery made to his designs. He conducted research in a chemical lab, looking for new ways and substances to make new types of confection of a marshmallow kind and marmalade. Vasyl’s great efforts were crowned with success — marshmallow and marmalade made at his factory were a great hit with all those who had a sweet tooth. The brand of Symyrenko’s marshmallow which was called Ukrayinka (A Ukrainian Woman) was even believed to possess some medicinal properties.

Vasyl’s wife took an active part in running the factory, introducing new sanitary and cleanness standards. Her innovations contributed to the factory’s confectionary products becoming very popular items both at the Ukrainian and foreign markets.

Vasyl finally prospered exporting his confectionaries and sugar to European countries (no wonder Sofiya’s father relented and accepted his daughter’s marriage not to a penniless descendant of serfs but to a millionaire!). About ten percent of his revenues and profits Vasyl spent on philanthropy. In his will, he wanted a considerable part of his fortune to be given to charity and philanthropy. His wife was to be executor of his will.

Vasyl died on December 1 1915 but his wife Sofiya carried on good work. In her own will which she made in 1916, she willed most of the Symyrenko’s millions to the development of science and art in Ukraine, construction of schools and publication of books. The central place in her will was taken by her wish to have a “people’s university” founded in Kyiv with Symyrenko’s money.

Unfortunately, the revolutions of 1917 and the seizure of power by Bolsheviks led to the collapse of the Symyrenko business and loss of both the fortune and hope.

 

Another branch

There was also another branch of the Symyrenko family which was founded by Levko who was the son of Platon Symyrenko, Vasyl’s elder brother.

Levko was born in 1855; in 1873 he enrolled at the Department of Physics and Mathematics of St Volodymyr University in Kyiv. Levko was a man of a revolutionary spirit and joined one of the many “revolutionary groups” that mushroomed across the Russian Empire at that time. For his “seditious” activities, he was arrested and exiled to Siberia.

In 1880, while in exile, he met Aldona Hruzhevska, a woman of Polish aristocratic descent who had been like him arrested and exiled for “revolutionary activities.” They, bound in chains, met at Nizhny Novgorod, one of the stages of their involuntary trip to their destination in Krasnoyarsk. The rest of the way they stayed together. The child born to them in exile died. When their term of exile ended, Levko brought Aldona to the Symyrenko’s estate in Mliyiv where they settled down. Their three children — Tetyana, Platon and Volodymyr were born in Mliyiv but Aldona began to be increasingly dissatisfied with her placid, rural life and she moved to Kyiv in pursuit of an occupation that would be more in line with her aspirations.

Upon his return from exile, Levko, as “a politically unreliable person,” was denied the right to work at any educational establishments or at state-run scientific centers; neither was he allowed to go abroad — in fact, he was obliged to stay in Mliyiv, without the right of leaving it. Being confined to his estate, Levko, who was scientifically minded, poured his energies into setting up what later was recognized to be the foundation of modern horticulture. His “revolutionary” mood proving to be hardly more than a manifestation of the rebellious streak in character that many young men live through, Levko devoted himself fully to a very peaceful horticultural occupation.

Levko developed scientific principles of selection and cultivation of plants and successfully applied them to growing new varieties of fruit. Levko’s findings and achievements were very useful in establishing commercial approaches to growing fruit. One of the varieties of apples which are still very popular in Ukraine (and in Russia too) has come to be called “Symyrenko.” Levko not only enjoyed working in his gardens — he began to earn money after he had established a private business which sold saplings and scions for grafting.

Levko had in his gardens an extensive collection of fruit trees of many species, many species of berries and decorative plants which were sent to him from many countries of the world. Being a man of encyclopedic knowledge, Levko applied himself not only to practical horticulture but to writing books as well. His last book was to be on pomology (scientific study and cultivation of fruit) but he was not destined to finish it.

The political upheavals and revolutions of 1917, seizure of power by the Bolsheviks, which was followed by the Civil War, were hardly conducive to fruit cultivation and scientific study of it. Besides, the Bolsheviks nationalized everything that could be nationalized. Levkos’ estate together with his gardens were nationalized too. He did his best trying to prevent the gardens from being vandalized or cut down for wood. Banditry, lawlessness and pauperization were rampant and claimed untold number of lives. One of them was Levko’s. One evening around Christmas 1920, Levko, who was working in his study, was shot dead. The murder of a horticulturist, who by that time had long abandoned any political interests or ambitions, was not investigated. There were too many such unprovoked murders in those days.

Levko’s gardens were turned into what officially was called the Mliyiv Research Garden Station, and later the Central State Arboretum and Nursery of Ukraine. The directorship of the Nursery was offered to Levko’s son, Volodymyr.

Volodymyr accepted the offer though for him it was not an easy decision to make. But it was the only way to continue what his father had started, and it gave Volodymyr a chance to save and develop his father’s achievements.

Volodymyr was born in Mliyiv in 1891. He grew up to love nature and gardening. When he was eight, he told his father that when “I grow up, I will cover the whole world with gardens.” Volodymyr was educated at the Kyiv Polytechnic, majoring in agronomy.

As head of the Nursery, he faced a daunting task of getting things in what used to be the Symyrenko’s estate and gardens restarted again. After Levko’s death, vandalism and neglect had done a lot of damage — Levko’s library had been destroyed; many trees in the gardens had been cut for timber. A lot had to be started from scratch. But Volodymyr rose to the challenge and in several years turned the Nursery into a flourishing business, even though it was “state-run.” He had a small electric power station and a wine distillery built as well as everything else that was needed for running a plant nursery successfully and without disruptions. He had old buildings restored and new ones built within the limits of what once used to be the Symyrenko’s estate.

Volodymyr, like his father, was an excellently educated person with a fluent knowledge of several European languages. He kept contacts with horticulturists in Moldavia, Georgia, Central Asians republics (then all of them being the “Soviet Socialist Republics of the Soviet Union”) and in several foreign countries. Volodymyr Symyrenko’s scientific and practical work in horticulture was highly praised, he acquired the status of one of the world’s leading authorities in many aspects of horticulture.

But in the early 1930s, at the initial stages of the Great Terror that was unleashed by the Stalinist repressive regime in the mid-1930s, Volodymyr Symyrenko found himself harassed by the soviet authorities. He and his family were forced to leave Mliyiv. They settled down in the vicinity of Kyiv. Volodymyr tried to continue his research and establish a new horticultural station but his work was cut short by his arrest. In January 1933 the NKVD (NKVD was the precursor of the KGB) secrete police agents ransacked the house, searching for “evidence” that would implicate Volodymyr in “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist activities hostile to the soviet power.” The family archives were thoroughly searched and the documents that established Volodymyr’s “nationalistic leanings” were seized. Volodymyr was bundled into the NKVD car and driven off in the middle of the night (it was the NKVD standard practice to make such arrests at night). His wife Mariya and two children — Tetyana, aged 7 and Oles, aged sixteen months — were thrown out of the house. They had to walk all the way to Kyiv where they were given a shelter by Mariya’s mother.

In 1938 Volodymyr Symyrenko was executed. The reasons for his arrest and execution is anybody’s guess but there were millions of such arrests and executions on trumped-up charges in the Soviet Union. Jealousies, rivalries, “wrong kind of ancestry” (if you were not of a good proletarian stock, you faced a potential threat), preposterous accusations of “nationalistic leanings,” “espionage,” “sabotage” or sheer arbitrariness could result in arrests, incarceration, or ultimate execution.

Whatever it was, Symyrenko’s name was not to be mentioned again in books or in the media until the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Symyrenko lived on in the name of a variety of apples!

Volodymyr’s family eventually found themselves in Canada where Mariya died in 1973. Her daughter Tetyana came to Ukraine in the 1990s and visited Mliyiv, but failed to find any traces of the Symyrenkos there — no tombs, no memorial plaques. Tetyana died in 2001, leaving her memoirs.

 

The collection of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry Kobzar,

which was published in Saint Petersburg in 1860

with the money donated by Platon Symyrenko.

 

The sugar refinery in Mliyiv of a very impressive

size which was built in 1860.

 

Vasyl Symyrenko, founder of the sugar refinery

in Mliyiv.

 

Levko Symyrenko.

 

Aldona, Levko Symyrenko’s wife.

 

The first volume of Levko Symyrenko’s book,

The Crimean Commercial Fruit Growing, which was

published in Moscow in 1912.

 

Volodymyr Symyrenko.

 

Levko Symyrenko’s house in Mliyiv where he was

murdered. At present, this building houses a

memorial museum devoted to the Symyrenkos;

it is situated in the territory of the Institute of

Pomology named for L. Symyrenko, Academy

of Agrarian Sciences of Ukraine. 1960s.

 

The delicious apple which was cultivated and grown

by Levko Symyrenko, and named after his father,

Platon Symyrenko.

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