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Scholar Mykola Kostomarov and his 28-year long engagement
Mykola Kostomarov deserves the attention of both scholars and laymen. In their essay, Kateryna BUSHKINA and Vasyl VITER have chosen to concentrate on the events of his personal life rather than on his scholarly contribution, but in this personal aspect we can discern a man of high moral principles and integrity, and of a wide scope of scientific and public interests.
“It was on May 9 1875 that I wed Alina Leontiyivna in the village of Didivtsi in the Land of Chernihivshchyna,” wrote Mykola Kostomarov in his autobiography. He was 57. He and his fiancee Alina Krahelska had been officially engaged to be married 28 years previously.
28 years for an engagement is a long time indeed. But the wedding was delayed not because they wanted to test by time the sincerity of their desire “to be joined in holy matrimony” — it was an arrest, two days before marriage, and exile that put off “tying the knot” for almost three decades.
Mykola Kostomarov was born a serf. His mother, Tetyana, was a serf and consequently her son came into bondage the day he arrived in this world. His father, Ivan Kostomarov, was a land owner, and in the Russian Empire of that time, land owners literally owned the peasants who lived on their land, as they owned inanimate goods and chattels.
The children sired by land owners with their women serfs were legion, but only very few of them were officially recognized by their fathers and were manumitted. Still fewer were those who managed to find their feet and make a career in the world of the free.
Mykola Kostomarov was among these lucky few. His father released Mykola’s mother from bondage and married her in 1817, several months after the birth of their son. Tragically, Ivan Kostomarov was murdered some time after the marriage; from what little we know about the murder, the murderers were his own serfs.
Mykola’s mother could not salvage all of the inheritance left by her husband (there were other claimants, her late husband’s relatives) but what she did get was enough to provide a good education for her son. After finishing his studies at the University in Kharkiv, Mykola joined the army. His army service over, Mykola had a number of teaching jobs, one of them at a school for girls in Kyiv.
It was at that school that Mykola met Alina, one of his pupils. In her reminiscences, Alina described the young and dashing teacher: he was of a medium height, well-built, bespectacled and blue-eyed. The enormous size of his boots did not fail to be commented upon either but this feature did not obscure admiration for the teacher’s vast knowledge or his teaching skills.
No improper relationship developed between teacher and student while Alina was at school. It was only upon her graduation that courtship began. Among her abilities was a talent of a pianist. When Franz Liszt, a Hungarian composer who achieved fame in his lifetime as a piano virtuoso, visited Kyiv, he spoke very highly of Alina’s talent, and even invited her to come to study at the music conservatory in Vienna. She refused because she had another event, more important for her at that time, on her agenda — she was engaged to be married to Mykola Kostomarov on March 30 1847.
“It was an early spring that year. I was eagerly looking forward to the day of my wedding, I was absorbed in preparations for that day, and I did not suspect that dark clouds were gathering above my head and that a thunderbolt from these clouds was poised to strike me,” wrote Kostomarov in his autobiography. Among the guests, invited to the wedding that was to take place on a Sunday, was Taras Shevchenko, also a former serf, and a poet and cultural figure of a great significance.
It is not known for sure whether Kostomarov had informed his fiancee of his membership of the secret Kyrylo-Mefodiyivske Bratstvo (Brotherhood Cyril and Methodius), which had been founded two years previously with the aim of promoting the establishment of an autonomous Ukrainian state within a loose federation of “other Slavic nations”, introducing equal rights and abolishing of serfdom. The Brotherhood numbered only a dozen of persons and its aims were noble but utopian, but the czarist government viewed the clandestine activities as subversive and cracked down hard on the Brotherhood members.
The meetings of the Brotherhood were held at Kostomarov’s apartment and one of his neighbors, a student named Petrov who was loyal to the czarist government, after doing some eavesdropping, thought he should report to police. He did and this act of squealing resulted in the arrest of the Brotherhood members, prison sentences and exiles.
Kostomarov was taken all the way to St Petersburg where he was put into a cell at the Peter and Paul Fortress. He was on the verge of taking his own life but it was the thought about his mother and his fiancee that prevented him from doing so. Alina and her mother did come to St Petersburg to see the prisoner and Alina urged Mykola “never to lose hope.” Her mother, a widow whose husband had been a loyal colonel, and who was not very happy about the prospective marriage of her daughter to “a former surf and now a political prisoner!” right from the start, did her persuasive best to talk her daughter out of following her fiance into exile. The determinate woman even demonstratively threw her daughter’s engagement ring into the Neva River.
Kostomarov spent a year imprisoned in the fortress and at the trial he was sentenced to exile “in a distant province.” He found himself in the city of Saratov, on the River Volga in the east of the country. Kostomarov’s exile lasted for twelve years (Shevchenko, who was also among those arrested, spent ten years in exile as a private in the middle of nowhere). He kept writing letters to Alina and to her mother, asking the older woman to let her daughter go to Saratov and join him there. All his pleas were left unheeded.
Alina’s mother managed, by ruse and feint, to get her daughter sign a document which stated her intention to break the engagement. When the news of the engagement having been broken off reached him, Kostomarov took it very hard. His friends in Saratov thought he was on the verge of losing his mind, but luckily enough he had a teaching job and his scholarly occupations that provided a much needed distraction and purpose.
The engagement broken, Alina’s mother put out feelers and began an active search for “a decent husband” for her daughter. Her efforts were crowned in 1851 with her daughter marrying a descendent of an aristocratic family of long tradition, Mark Kysil. He did prove to be “a decent husband” in all respects. And though it had been arranged, the marriage could be described as quite a happy one.
In 1865, the Kysils visited St Petersburg, and as the mysterious workings of fate arrange such things in the life of some people, particularly those in love or with poignant memories of love, Alina did spot Kostomarov in the street. He, being myopic and not wearing glasses at that moment, failed to see her, and she did not dare to run after him. But she did tell her very tolerant and understanding husband about meeting the man she had once been engaged to. Mark was so good as to find and buy a book by Kostomarov for her. In another mysterious twist of fate, the book, as the flyleaf informed the reader, was dedicated by the author to “A.L.K. (the initials evidently stand for Alina Leontiyivna Krahelska) in memory of 14th June of the Year 1847.” It was on June 14 that Kostomarov saw Alina for the last time.
No, Alina did not leave her husband to get reunited with Kostomarov, as some of the more romantically minded readers might think. She had children, she had marital obligations and she was a good wife. But Fate that seemed to be intent upon bringing Alina and Mykola together, did not leave her alone. In 1870, Mark Kysil died — but Alina did not rush to St Petersburg in search of her former love. She devoted herself to raising her two daughters and son.
Kostomarov meanwhile, his “political disloyalty” in the past and exile notwithstanding, landed a professorship at the University of St Petersburg. His encyclopedic knowledge, his teaching skills earned him admiration of his students, and of his colleagues too. He never married, devoting himself to teaching and scholarly pursuits. There is some evidence to suggest that he kept thinking about the love he had lost so many years ago, that the memory of Alina was indeed alive in him.
A series of rather mysterious coincidences did bring them together again. Once, when Alina and her children were on a visit to the Tarnavskys (a noble family of Ukrainian culture enthusiasts) at their country estate of Kachanivka, Alina had a night dream in which she saw Mykola Kostomarov very vividly. Soon after their return to Kyiv, Alina’s sister Stefaniya whom Alina had not seen for several years, turned up at Alina’s apartment and mentioned, among other things, that she had seen Kostomarov in Kyiv with a friend. This time Alina and Mykola just had to meet. Those romantically inclined probably would be disappointed to read this passage in Kostomarov’s autobiography: “I was so eager to see Alina Leontiyivna again (note the patronymic — the patronymic may suggest not only respect but emotional distance as well — tr.) … But instead of a young girl I remembered so well, I saw a lady of rather an advanced age, a mother of three children. Our meeting was very agreeable but at the same time very sad — we realized only too well that the best years of our life had been spent in separation from each other… My consolation was that in my old age (in the 21st century being in one’s fifties does not qualify as “being old” — tr.) I could maintain friendly relations with the person whom I’ve never stopped loving and having a deep respect for.”
Kostomarov returned to St Petersburg but it was arranged that he would come again and spend some time in the country with Alina. In the spring of 1874 he did come and was taken by Alina to the village of Didivtsi where she had her little estate, not far from the town of Nizhyn. It proved to be a happy month of being with Alina and being exposed to the beauty of nature. But once again Kostomarov returned to St Petersburg.
It was his illness that finally brought him and Alina together in marriage. He caught typhus, and was on the verge of death. Alina arrived just in time to nurse him back if not to full health than to life. In the spring of 1875 Kostomarov moved to live at Alina’s estate in Didivtsi, and in early May of that year he and Alina were wed in the Church of St Paraskeva.
Alina proved to be much more than a wife — she was a helpful assistant in his work. Incidentally, it was she who wrote down his autobiography as he dictated it to her. The couple stayed most of the time in the village, “surrounded by scenic nature that had curative powers.” Once in a while they went to St Petersburg where Kostomarov worked in the archives. In the winter of 1884, Kostomarov, on leaving the building of the archives, was knocked down by a horse-driven carriage. He was badly injured and this time neither the doctors nor the loving care of his wife could restore his health — he died on April 7 1885.
His wife, Alina Kostomarova, survived him by twenty three years. She lived in Kyiv, had twenty volumes of Kostomarov’s published. Shortly before her death in February 1908, she made a gift of Kostomarov’s library to the University of St Volodymyr (now, this university is named for Taras Shevchenko). The university library still has these books.
This article has been adapted from the screenplay
written by Kateryna Bashkina and Vasyl Viter
for the TV serial Hra doli (Games of Fate).
Mykola Ivanovych Kostomarov, one of the outstanding figures in the history of Ukrainian culture, was born in the village of Yurasivka in May 1817. He was educated at a gimnaziya (high school of advanced studies) in Voronezh, Russia, and at the Department of History and Philology of the University of Kharkiv. He wrote two dissertations, the first one of which was destroyed by the czarist censorship, and the second one, “On the Historic Significance of the Russian Folk Poetry,” won him a Master’s Degree in philology. When he moved to Kyiv in the 1840s, he taught at local schools and then at St Volodymyr’s University. Kostomarov was one of the founders of the secret Kyrylo-Mefodiyivske Bratstvo (Brotherhood Cyril and Methodius; its aim was Ukrainian national revival, and as such the Brotherhood was considered by the czarist government to be a subversive organization). In 1847, Kostomarov was arrested and exiled. In 1857, he returned from exile and settled down in St Petersburg, Russia. He was a professor of St Petersburg University and later a member of an archeological commission and of the editorial staff of archeology and culture journals. He was awarded a PH.D. Degree in 1864 by St Volodymyr’s University in Kyiv; in 1876, Kostomarov was elected a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He died in St Petersburg in April of 1885.
Among his works we find scholarly papers, writings devoted to various aspects of Ukrainian history and culture, ethnographic and folk culture studies, journalistic articles, essays on various aspects of culture and history; Kostomarov also wrote and published poetry, dramas, and novels. Kostomarov edited and published a collection of Taras Shevchenko’s poetry Kobzar in 1867. His monumental Russian History in Life Stories of Her Most Important Details, published in three volumes in the 1870s, was a significant step in the development of the then historiography.
It was only in the independent Ukraine that Kostomarov’s legacy began to be properly studied and appreciated.
The house in which Mykola Kostomarov
lived in the village of Didivtsi.
Alina Krahelska, Mykola Kostomarov’s wife.
Mykola Kostomarov’s study in his house
in the village of Didivtsi.
Kachanivka, the estate of Mykola Kostomarov’s
friends, the Tarnovskys; Mykola Kostomarov loved
the place and often visited the hospitable
Tarnovskys who also invited literati and
artists to come and stay with them.
The portrait of Mykola Kostomarov
by the Rusian painter Nikolay Gay.
The Troyitska Church in the village of Pryluky,
another place frequented by Mykola Kostomarov.