Dmytro Zerov (1966).

In this issue we meet the Zerov family, distinguished representatives of Ukrainian intellectuals among who we find remarkable poets, scholars and scientists.

Their home, similar to homes of other Ukrainian intellectuals, with shelves of books along the walls, is permeated with the spirit of benevolence, culture, high education and long traditions. It inspires one to learn more and more about such families that have survived all the vicissitudes of fortune, repression, wars. The Zerovs trace their origin to the lands of Poltavshchyna and Chernihivshchyna. It was a big family of intellectual pursuits and harmonious relations. The family members studied art and sciences. They even had their own home theatre. Kostyantyn Zerov from the town of Zinkov in the land of Poltavshchyna had five sons — Mykola, Mykhaylo, Dmytro, Yuriy and Kostyantyn, and two daughters — Olena and Valya. Mykola and Mykhaylo (whose pen name was Mykhaylo Orest) became poets, Dmytro — an eminent botanist. These three brothers were the best known and most prominent among the Zerovs. Mykola Zerov, brilliant Ukrainian poet, translator, literary critic and historian of literature, lived a rich, full life that ended tragically. He was born on April 26, 1890. After attending local primary schools in Zinkov and Okhtyrka, he was taken to Kyiv and placed in the famed Kyiv First Himnaziya (privileged high school). Upon graduation he went to study at the Department of History and Philology of the St Volodymyr University in Kyiv. Completing his studies at the University, he went to the town of Zlatopil where for a short period of time he taught in a high school. He returned to Kyiv to be caught in the turbulent revolutionary events of 1917. In the years of the Civil War and short-lived Ukrainian independence Mykola Zerov continued teaching. In 1919-1920, he published a literary magazine. In the early twenties, when life in Kyiv threatened starvation, he moved to the tiny town of Baryshivka where he taught in a local school (the building of the school where he taught has survived wars and revolutions and still stands). When the food and general situation in Kyiv improved a little he returned there to teach Ukrainian literature at the Kyiv University (which was renamed the Institute of People’s Education). Zerov’s first book was published in 1920. It was an anthology of his translations from Horace, Vergil, Ovid, Martial, Catullus and Propertius. In 1924, Kamena (“Rocks”), Zerov’s first book of his own poems, appeared. It included also a section of translations from the Latin poetry, so much beloved by him. Zerov found himself the leader of a group of Ukrainian poets, literary critics, translators and literature teachers who were known as “neo-classics.” The group included Maksym Rylsky (one of the most distinguished Ukrainian poets and translators of the twentieth century), Pavlo Phylypovych (in one of the previous issues of Welcome to Ukraine Magazine we featured an article about the Phylypovyches), Mykhaylo Drai-Khmara and Yuriy Klen (Oswald Burhardt).
The repressive communist regime later killed Phylypovych, Drai-Khmara and Zerov.
Klen died in immigration. Rylsky was miraculously spared and he lived all his life in a concentration camp, also known as the Soviet Union. The “proletarian” power of the Soviets did not need intellectuals, highly educated people who could carry on old traditions and develop culture, people who cherished their Ukrainian identity, people of high human and national dignity. In the early thirties, political pressure on Zerov increased and he was forced to quit teaching at the university. In the fall of 1934, on November 3, his ten-year-old son died of scarlet fever. Four years later, Mykola Zerov, who had been arrested and dispatched to a concentration camp in the Solovetski islands in the north of Russia, was shot — by a weird coincidence, on the very same day of November — by a firing squad “to mark the 20th Anniversary of the Great October revolution” as the concentration camp documents describe the occasion. At the same time 300 more Ukrainian intellectuals and cultural figures were shot in the Solovetski concentration camps. The name of one of the executioners is known: Matveyev, from the Leningrad secret service department. Zerov’s father kept sending letters to Stalin, asking for any information about his son without receiving a single reply. Kostyantyn Zerov then addressed himself to Kalinin, the formal head of the Soviet state, who was reported to be a more responsive highly placed official. This time, surprisingly enough, Kostyantyn Zerov did get an answer. He was informed that his son “died in imprisonment of tuberculosis.” It was discovered in recent years that even in the inhuman conditions of the concentration camp Zerov managed somehow to continue writing and translating. In his letters to his wife he kept asking for pencils to be sent to him. He liked to sharpen them to a needlepoint.

The Zerov family; in the centre — the Zerov parents. Kyiv, Botanical garden, 1934.

Mykola Zerov with his wife Sofiya and son Kotyk (early 1930s)

In 1990, many years after his death, a three-volume edition of his works appeared in Ukraine and it shows that his translations of poetical, drama and prose works of Roman, French, Belgian, British, Italian, Polish, Belorussian and Russian authors should be placed among the top achievements of Ukrainian literature. “I know we are all bibliophages, Our wisdom is shelves with books. We are sparing words, We are adherents of the art of balance,” wrote Zerov somewhat ironically about himself in one of his poems. Maksym Rylsky, reminiscing about Zerov, said in his memoirs: “He was a man of great knowledge and of refined, well-developed taste.” Zerov, a man of great humanity and profound education, refused to believe that the nightmarish blood-thirsty regime of Stalin would destroy innocent people, and told his friends shortly before his arrest — he felt it was coming — that one, if arrested, should agree with all the absurd accusations and charges that might be brought against him by the secret service and they would see immediately that the man arrested was absolutely innocent. Alas, he was badly mistaken in his views about the Bolsheviks who wore the uniforms of NKVD secret service officers. His brother, Mykhaylo Zerov, also a fine poet, was arrested by the NKVD secret service twice and did not admit to any wrongdoing. Strangely enough, he was released both times shortly after the arrests. We know he was to be arrested the third time right before the war with Nazi Germany broke out in 1941 and in all likelihood would not be released, but the war threw everything in turmoil in which he escaped arrest. Mykhaylo Zerov (1901-1963) who used a pen name Mykhaylo Orest studied at the university in Kyiv, then taught and wrote critical essays. Though he did write excellent poetry he refrained from publishing any of it in the prewar years. Maryna Zerova (who later became a prominent zoologist and entomologist), the daughter of Dmytro Zerov, an Academician, remembers how her cousin Orest turned up in Kyiv after his second arrest in June of 1941, several days before the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union on June 22. June 10 or 11 he walked into his brother’s apartment in Tarasivska Street wearing shabby clothes and shoes that were falling apart. His body was all in bruises and boils. He kept hiding in the apartments of his brothers for some time. Then the Nazi Germans occupied Kyiv and when they were forced to retreat two years later, Orest, realizing he was on the Soviet secret service black list and the moment the Soviets recaptured the city he would be arrested, escaped to the west. Living in Munich, Germany, he set up an Institute of Literature, continued writing poetry, translating and publishing books. Later he moved to Augsburg where he died (the circumstances of his death remain unclear). In the late forties and early fifties, he published several books of his poetry (Echoes of the Years; Soul and Destiny; State of the Word; Guests and Hosts) and the collection of his poetry titled Pizni Vruna (“Late Verses”) which included many of the verses written throughout his life, was published posthumously. Literary critics said his poetry revealed a refined versification talent and excellent handling of the language. Orest’s translations from German and French poets and prose writers appeared in publications almost every year while he lived. Orest also translated from English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish and Russian languages. Some of his poetic translations are real gems of poetry. Orest was greatly pained to hear that many historical and architectural landmarks had been destroyed by the Bolsheviks in their anti-religious campaigns. He wrote a book devoted to the ruined churches and monasteries, titled Destruction of Cultural and Historical Monuments in Kyiv in 1934-1936 and published it in Munich in 1951 (under the pseudonym of “B. Mykorsky”). Much of his time he devoted to looking for and collecting works of his brother Mykola Zerov and of other “neo-classics” in order to have them published. Thanks to his efforts several books by Mykola Zerov were released (Sonnetarium, 1948; Catalepton, 1951; Corollarium, 1958; New Ukrainian Writings, 1960). The Immortals, the book about the neo-classics, edited by Hr. Kostyuk, was published by Orest in 1963. He collected works by Pavlo Phylypovych and published them in a book titled Literature. Mykhaylo Orest was an aristocrat of spirit, an intellectual of the European orientation. Some words about the rest of the Zerovs. Dmytro Zerov (1895-1971) studied and taught botany at the Kyiv University in 1920-1957. His scientific works in the fields of systematics, floristics, phylogeny, botanical geography, paleobotany, history of botanical sciences in Ukraine established him as a prominent scientist. In 1946-1963 he headed the Institute of Botany of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. For his achievements he was elected a full member of the Academy of Sciences and awarded a state prize. His brother Yuriy (1908-1956) was an experienced engineer. In the early months of the war the factory he worked at was evacuated from Kyiv to the city of Sverdlovsk in the Urals and he died there without ever seeing Ukraine again. Another brother, Kostyantyn (1899-1979), was also a botanist. Working at the Institute of Hydrobiology he studied the problem of algae choking water reservoirs. Their sister Olena (1903-1939), after graduation from a medical college in the city of Kharkiv, worked the rest of her life as a druggist in the town of Zhashkiv. Her career was thwarted at its early stages: her husband, a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature in a Polish school in Kyiv, was arrested and executed in 1937 after the school had been closed down and the Polish community persecuted (though Olena’s husband was not Polish — he was a Ukrainian — teaching in a Polish school turned out to be an extremely dangerous occupation in those times). Members of several generations of the Zerovs now live in Kyiv, Ukraine, and in St Petersburg, Russia. But their lives deserve a separate story.

By Oles Ilchenko
Photographs from the archives of the Zerovs are published for the first time.