Mykola Bilyashivsky (1867-1926)
Mykola Bilyashivsky was born into a family of a long
genealogy. Among all the Bilyashivskys his own contribution to
Ukrainian culture was the greatest. His parents were descendants
of several generations of the clergy. Upon graduation from a
prestigious Kyiv school, he went to study law at St Volodymyr
University. But he was inclined more to learn archaeology. At the
end of the eighties, he started writing articles for one of Kyiv
newspapers, Kyivska Starovyna (“Kyiv Antiques”). It was then
that he decided he would devote himself to promoting Ukrainian
culture and Ukrainian national identity.
When still a student, he took part in archaeological excavations of an ancient site in the vicinity of the town of Kaniv.
As soon as he was able to, he began collecting art objects, icons, folk paintings and prints, paintings by professional artists. Soon enough, his collection included paintings and graphic works by T. Shevchenko, N. Guy, D. Levytsky, M. Vrubel, V. Borovykovsky, H. Narbut, O. Murashko, V. Krychevsky, Ph. Krychevsky, S. Svitoslavsky, A. Manevych and many other prominent Russian and Ukrainian artists of the 18th and 19th centuries. Danylo Shcherbakivsky, a friend of Bilyashivsky’s and a notable scholar himself, wrote that this original collection built a solid foundation for a would-be Ukrainian national gallery. Naturally enough, Bilyashivsky became one of the founders and first curator of the first municipal Museum of Kyiv, on the basis of which many other national museums in Ukraine sprang up and developed. In order to be always close to his exhibits, Bilyashivsky settled down to live in an apartment in the basement of the Museum’s building.
Bilyashivsky was the scholar whose opinions radically influenced the general attitude towards folk and primitive art. Some scholars went even as far as to deny any merits of folk art, claiming it was not art at all. Bilyashivsky went around villages, looking for things that could be valuable additions to the collection. But when he did find something valuable he had to persuade the owner to sell the item or give it to the Museum as a gift. His power of persuasion was a great one indeed. Nobody could do it better than he could. Once, he was invited to go to the town of Katerynoslav to attend a conference on archaeology. D. Yavornytsky, curator of the local museum and a great expert in Cossacks history, also known for his ability to persuade people to part with objects that turn out to be collector’s items, took the guests to the town of Nikopol, a place rich in history connected with the Zaporizhian Cossacks. A visit was paid to an old church where Yavornytsky showed the guests many things which had been preserved in the church from the Cossack times and which were greatly revered by the parishioners. Among these things was a precious icon made of cloth with the image on it embroidered in silver and gold. After the demonstration Yavornytsky called a keeper and several times repeated sternly an order not to give this or any other things to anyone, no matter how much money would be offered. Everyone returned to the ship on which they had arrived. Bilyashivsky lingered behind saying he wanted to see something else in town. When he returned to the ship and the ship set sail, Bilyashivsky produced the icon which he had managed to get from the keeper, by hook or by crook he never explained. And then he solemnly presented the icon to Yavornytsky to be kept in Katerynoslav’s museum.
Bilyashivsky worked out a programme, which he followed himself in collecting items for his museum. He organized exhibitions devoted to major figures of Ukrainian and Russian cultures — P. Kulish, M. Kostomarov and M. Vrubel among them. Thanks to Bilyashivsky a number of Vrubel’s works stayed in Kyiv for safe keeping in museums.
Bilyashivsky was particularly eager to collect Shevchenko memorabilia. He wrote articles to local newspapers about Taras Shevchenko’s visits to villages and towns of Ukraine. In 1911, the first ever exhibition devoted to Shevchenko, took place in Kyiv despite the stiff opposition to it on the part of the Russian chauvinists. The exhibition marked 50 years since the bard’s death. A lot of exhibits were transferred afterwards to Bilyashivsky’s museum and thus a whole section devoted to Shevchenko was formed.
Bilyashivsky was one of the founders of the Society for Protection of Antiques and Art whose members worked not only in Kyiv but also in many parts of Ukraine.
Bilyashivsky welcomed the revolutionary changes in 1917 and Ukraine’s independence, albeit short lived. He goes ahead with his archaeological work, ethnographic studies and, of course, with collecting new items for his museum. He manages to get a new status for his museum which was put under state protection. At the same time he does his best to save private collections whose owners fled or were killed in the whirl of revolutions and Civil War from being plundered or destroyed in fires.
In 1917, despite all the political instability, Bilyashivsky organized an exhibition of folk art from western parts of Ukraine, the first of its kind. The exhibition amply demonstrated the ethnic unity of all the lands of Ukraine. In those years Bilyashivsky was an active member of the All-Ukrainian Committee for Protection of Antiques and Art, and protection of art was a thing very badly needed in revolution and war. He took an active part in creating the first Ukrainian National Theatre and Ukrainian Ethnographic Society. In 1918, he was elected a full member of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and in 1919 a full member of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. He headed the Department of Archaeology, supervising at the same time the work of the Department of Museums and Protection of Historical and Architectural Landmarks and Monuments.
Once, he, with the help of local peasants, saved the cross which had stood on Shevchenko’s grave in Kaniv and which the Red commissars and atheistic young communist activists had toppled and thrown down the hill. The cross landed on the sandy beach and it was intended to get rid of it by pushing it further into the water but Bilyashivsky and the peasants arrived just in time to save it.
Mykola Bilyashivsky did not live — fortunately for him — to see the Bolshevik destruction of Ukrainian culture in Kyiv, destiny spared him that. Other members of the big family of the Bilyashivskys many times were in mortal danger in the turbulent years when different powers were contending for the supremacy over Kyiv during the Civil War. But they, almost miraculously (with the exception of his wife’s sister), survived.
Bilyashivsky’s elder son, Mykola (1914-1980) was an engineer and he and his sons have continued cultural traditions of the Bilyashivsky family.
By Oles Ilchenko
Photos from the archives
of Mykola Bilyashivsky, Jr.,
are published with his permission.
and peasants near
Taras Shechenko’s grave;
M. Starytsky in the centre;
M. Bilyashivsky to the left of him
and B. Hrinchenko above him.
Taras Shevchenko’s grave.
In Pompeii, Italy. 1910.
At the Knyazha Hora with relatives. 1924 or 1925.
Mykola Bilyashivsky. 1910.