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“My heart is in the village of Maryanivka in Ukraine”


Ivan Kozlovsky in 1923.

Natalka POKLAD went to the village of Maryanivka, 60 kilometers south of Kyiv, to find out what was so special about the village that made the famous Ukrainian tenor Ivan Kozlovsky carry it in his heart until his dying day. Now she shares some of her impressions with the readers.


When I heard a recording of Kozlovsky’s singing I instantly became fascinated with it and wanted to find out more about the singer’s life and his artistic career. When I learnt that he hailed from the village of Maryanivka not far from Kyiv I wanted to go and see for myself the place that produced a great singer. I thought there must be something very special in it to give birth to a great talent.

It turned out that there are many villages in Ukraine which are called “Maryanivka” and I wondered what it is in this name that makes Ukrainians give it to their villages. It took a bit more of research to find out where the Maryanivka I wanted was situated. For some reason I was sure that the village would be a highly picturesque place in addition to being an ancient one. Both expectations proved to be correct.

The sprawling village sits on the bank of the small river Protoka which is a tributary of the river Ros. Not only the surrounding landscape is scenic — the village itself boasts several ponds, age-old trees and a lot of flowers.

On the outskirts of the village, I found several ancient burial sites with large mounds of earth over them. One of such barrows is believed to date from the Scythian times of the mid-first millennium. The archeological excavations began as early as in the first half of the nineteenth century. So far, fourteen burials were unearthed at one of the barrows which was over ten meters (over 30 feet) high, with a lot of artifacts in them — shards and more or less complete jars, ceramic plates, decorations, including those that are made of gold, bronze mirrors, knives, arrowheads, and little gold ornaments decorated with representations of gryphon and other fabulous animals. Incidentally, Taras Shevchenko, the towering figure in the Ukrainian culture of the nineteenth century, took part in the excavations in 1846.

The village of Maryanivka is mentioned in the early chronicles and thus it is a documentary proof of the venerable age of the village.

A child born into the family of the local tailor, Semen Kozlovsky, on March 23 1900, was christened Ivan. This child was destined to become a great singer. The singing trait must have been running in the family since Ivan’s brother, Fedir, had a wonderful voice too.

The fate of the two brothers Kozlovsky seems to reflect, in a certain way, the tragedy of the Ukrainian people in most of the twentieth century — one brother chose to leave the country rather than to live under the Bolsheviks; the other one stayed, never mentioning his brother to anyone (all the same, the KGB knew all there was to know about his brother turned priest in the USA), served in the Red Army, became a great opera singer very much loved by the soviet top leaders — but ended his life sick and lonely.

When he was eight, Ivan Kozlovsky found himself in Kyiv where he joined the choir of the Mykhailivsky Zlatoverkhy (St Michaels’ Golden-Domed) Monastery. He went on to study drama, piano and singing (with the famous soprano Olena Muravyova) at the Mykola Lysenko Institute of Music and Drama in Kyiv. His brother joined him in Kyiv and they sang together in a choir. Those were the chaotic years of revolutions and civil war. Ukraine was fighting hard for its independence. Ivan Kozlovsky got drafted into the Red Army rather than into the army of the independent Ukraine. His voice enabled him to become a lead singer in a military band.

Fedir Kozlovsky left Ukraine with the choir he sang in 1919 and never came back — he refused to live in the country overrun by the Bolsheviks (Fedir eventually emigrated to the USA where he became a priest; he died in New York; throughout his life, Ivan kept the existence of his “American” brother a tight secret — he must have been afraid this fact could land him in trouble with the soviet authorities).

Ivan Kozlovsky, being endowed with a gift of a marvelous voice, made his operatic debut as Faust at the Poltava theatre as soon as he was discharged from the army in 1920. He followed this with engagements at the Kharkiv opera and then in the city of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) opera theater in Russia. In 1924, he had a memorable audition at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow, reportedly reaching the highest notes of the register with ease. Throughout his career, he developed a reputation for singing the highest note possible and hanging on to it. At the Bolshoi, Kozlovsky came under the mentorship of Leonid Sobinov, the leading Russian tenor at the time. Kozlovsky went on to sing in many operas as the leading tenor of the Bolshoi.

It is known that he was a favorite singer of Joseph Stalin, the soviet dictator. Stalin used to invite Kozlovsky whenever he felt like listening to the sound of his voice, even in the middle of the night. The whims of the all-powerful dictator were readily obliged.It should be mentioned that later, when Kozlovsky performed in the Kremlin at the New Year parties, he sang, together with the children choir from Maryanivka Ukrainian kolyadky and shchedrivky (traditional Ukrainian Christmas folk songs), which was a sort of a rather daring challenge to the general soviet policy of suppressing everything that was too overtly “Ukrainian” in spirit.

Kozlovsky gained great renown throughout the Soviet Union, but in spite of his fame, his titles and admiration both of the rulers and of the general public, he was never allowed to leave its borders — the soviet authorities, who knew about his brother living in America, must have thought he could have defected to the west once he found himself abroad.

Kozlovsky was a recipient of many prizes and awards, he was recognized as one of the best tenors ever to sing in the Bolshoi, but his family life was not quite happy. He married the popular actress Alexandra Herzig (1886–1964) who was 14 years older than he and was much better known at the time of their marriage — the public jokingly referred to him as “Herzig’s husband”. Later, when he attained greater fame, Herzig became known as “Kozlovsky’s wife”. This marriage ended in divorce, and Kozlovsky remarried — his second wife, Galina Sergeyeva, an actress, was 14 years younger than he. (Sergeyeva played in several popular movies in the 1930s). Although she bore him two daughters, this marriage also ended in divorce.

Kozlovsky gave many concerts throughout the Soviet Union, singing Russian and Ukrainian songs and romances, as well as songs by foreign classical composers. He taught singing at the Moscow Conservatory from 1956 to 1980. In 1954, for reasons which are not quite clear, he left the Bolshoi, though once in a while he came back to perform on stage. His final appearance took place in 1970 when he played the role of Yurodivy (the Simpleton) in Boris Godunov. He continued to appear in public with performances until the end of the 1970s.

Throughout his life, Kozlovsky was an active proponent of Ukrainian music performing works by Ukrainian composers. He recorded and released many records of Ukrainian folk songs, romances and arias in Ukrainian. Kozlovsky’s voice was distinguished for its beautiful high register and rich palette of shadings. He sang more than 50 operatic roles, and was especially famous as Lensky in Eugene Onegin, Berendey in The Snow Maiden, Levko in May Night, the Indian Guest in Sadko, and many others.

Though he lived most of his life in Russia, Kozlovsky paid many visits to his native place, Maryanivka, and on some of these visits he was accompanied by Ukrainian poets, writers and musicians who were notable figures of Ukrainian culture. On one of such visits, Kozlovsky was accompanied by Maksym Rylsky (1895–1964), a remarkable Ukrainian poet and translator. They planted two oaks in Maryanivka — I’ve seen them and paid my respects.

Thanks to Kozlovsky’s untiring efforts and promotion, a music school was established in Maryanivka at the end of 1960s and early 1970s. Later, Kozlovsky kept an eye on the school for many years, providing it with sheet music, books, and instruments among which there was a piano that once belonged to the composer S. Rakhmaninov (also spelt: Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1873–1943, a Russian-born composer and virtuoso pianist). Kozlovsky also did a lot to help his native village with whatever he could, using his influence of a famous singer to get things done which otherwise would take ages to do because of the red tape. The villagers of the older generations still remember what he did for them and for the village with gratitude.

Kozlovsky organized visits of the students of the music school in Maryanivka to the music conservatories and opera houses of Moscow, Kyiv and other cities. Some of these students sang at gala concerts and major government receptions. At the reception and concert held at the Bolshoi Theater to mark Kozlovsky’s 90th birthday, among the performers was the choir of the music school of Maryanivka. It was the last time Kozlovsky performed at the stage of the Bolshoi Theater. The performance included arias and pieces from works of Ukrainian and Russian composers. The fact that a choir from a village in Ukraine could perform so excellently difficult pieces of classical music amazed and fascinated the demanding Moscow public.

In the 1960s, Kozlovsky had a park laid out not far from the house he and his parents used to live in. In one of his letters Kozlovsky wrote that he kept longing for his native Maryanivka. “I often see it in my dreams… The land of one’s ancestors should be held in great respect…”

The layout of the park was designed by Kozlovsky himself together with the architect Ya. Drutsky who specialized in designing parks. According to the people who were particularly close to Kozlovsky, he was a deeply religious person but concealed his religiosity.

Kozlovsky wanted the layout of the park to symbolically include a representation of the cross with the crown of thorns around it. So the main alleys cross each other at the right angle to form a cross, with lindens, oaks and plane trees forming a circle around it.

Kozlovsky wanted to end his life in a monastery and then be buried at that crossing point, “in the center of the cross”, of the alleys in his park in Maryanivka. Neither of his wishes was to be fulfilled. He, already a sick man, paid his last visit to Maryanivka in 1985 and took his last walk in his park. When he died eight years later, on December 21 1993, he was buried at the Novo-Devichye Cemetery in Moscow.

His secretary of many years, Nina Slezina, visited Maryanivka in 1987, and walking through the park, she, in her words, “listened to the murmur of the trees, and suddenly realized that there was something in that village and in that park that made one love it. I understood why Kozlovsky felt the way he did about Maryanivka…”

One of the photos that Kozlovsky sent to Maryanivka when his state of health did not already make the journey possible, bears these words that he wrote on the back of it: “Do not be surprised that I look sad in this picture. There may be sadness on my face but there are hope and joy in my heart…”

Kozlovsky’s house was restored at the end of the 1980s (a lot of the red tape had to be cut through to have it done), and in the early 1990s, after Ukraine’s independence, the house was turned into a museum. The village music school choir was named after Kozlovsky.

The house has an authentically looking thatch roof and is a good example of what typical Ukrainian peasant houses looked like at the end of the nineteenth-early twentieth century. Among the exhibits of the house-museum there are old photographs, films and recordings of Kozlovsky’s performances which include famous opera arias and Ukrainian folk songs.

Among the exhibits of the museum is Kozlovsky’s book Muzyka — radost’ i bol’ moya (Music — My Ecstasy and My Agony) which was published in Moscow in 1992. A couple of quotations from this book may help better understand what was on Kozlovsky’s mind and in his heart: “As I was standing on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater when my eightieth birthday was being marked, I called to mind the people and the scenery of my native place. The people were so poetical there. Gogol (the nineteenth-century writer of Ukrainian descent, one of the greats of Russian classical literature,) once cleverly observed that the folk songs reveal the roots of people… I remember the villagers sing in sadness and in joy. They absorbed the spirit of the land…”

“Here I am standing on the bank of the pond. I can see little fish darting about in the water, I can spot little, shiny frogs which we, children, feared for some reason… It is sad that the people of today are severed from nature, from the land which can give us so much joy, hope and tranquility… The episode in Goethe’s novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, where Werther falls down on the grass and weeps, overwhelmed by emotions — the smell of grass, feeling of happiness produced by watching the sky and the never-stopping movement of clouds, greatly stirs me emotionally…”

“When I was leaving my native place for the first time, I was weeping. I was about seven then. I did not know what to expect in the world. Now I know — and my recollections become ever more acute. But joy and sadness coexist in me in harmony… And it is art that makes such a harmony possible…”

From the garden of the house, which is dominated by old apple trees, one can go down to the river and to the park. The weeping willows by the riverside must have seen Kozlovsky as a boy who used to sit on the bank “listening to the willows whisper among themselves.” Kozlovsky once said that his voice “was formed by the willows in Maryanivka…”

The place is of an exceptional, paradisiacal beauty. I don’t think anyone can remain immune to its enchantment. Being there, one can’t help thinking that it must have really been this beauty that contributed to the emergence of a great singing talent.



On July 12, 2009, the Feast of Ivan Kupala (a cross between the Orthodox Christian Feast of St John and the ancient pagan summer feast) was held in the village of Maryanivka, at the Ivan Kozlovsky park. The organizers were the Kyiv Oblast State Administration, the Ivan Kozlovsky Memorial Museum, the National Center of Ukrainian Culture Muzey Ivana Honchara, and enthusiasts of Ukrainian traditional culture. The venue was chosen non-incidentally. Kozlovsky liked the feast very much, he used to come to Maryanivka on that day to celebrate it together with the students of the musical school he founded.

Traditional Ukrainian songs were sung, traditional Ukrainian dances were danced, traditional Ukrainian Ivan Kupala rituals were performed. But classical music was also heard — recordings of Kozlovsky’s performances were played almost non-stop throughout the day.

Among the live performers was the choir Dnipro from the Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. Religious choral music by Ukrainian composers — O. Koshyts, B. Berezovsky, V. Bortnyansky — was performed in the Church of the Blessed Virgin in Maryanivka. Ensembles of Traditional Ukrainian Dance and Song — Hulyay Horod, Kralytsya, Roksolaniya and Rozhanytsya were among those who made their worthy contribution to the festive mood of the event.

The flower wreaths were made by girls and thrown, as tradition requires, into the water; traditional Ukrainian dishes were cooked and relished. Young people jumped over bonfires – another traditional ritual at Ivan Kupala.

Said one of the guests of the feast: “It felt as though time has stopped — or rather that I’d been taken hundreds upon hundreds of years back. The enchanting scenery, the songs and dances, the voice of Kozlovsky — all combined to produce an overwhelming impression.”   


Ivan Kozlovsky at age 16.


Ivan Kozlovsky at his 80th birthday.


During the Feast of Ivan Kupala at the Kozlovsky memorial place in Maryanivka.


Ivan Kozlovsky in the Bolshoi Theater 1980s.


The monument to the singer with flowers around it being a most conspicuous feature at the Kozlovsky memorial place.


The Kozlovsky memorial house-museum in Maryanivka.



In the house-museum



Photos have been provided
by the Kozlovsky memorial house-museum
and by Maryna GUDZEVATA

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