“All Ran South, If They Could Manage”: Alexander Voloshin on the Civil War in Ukraine

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Pavlo Skoropadskyi

As I continue work on Andrey Kurkov’s Samson and Nadezhda, which is set in Kyiv the spring of 1919, when the city was (briefly) under Bolshevik control, I try to imagine what it was like for Ukrainian citizens to see, in the span of a couple of years, no fewer than fourteen changes of government. That estimate is Mikhail Bulgakov’s, and it isn’t entirely inaccurate. One of Kurkov’s challenges in this work of historical fiction is to give readers enough particulars to sink into the era, but not so many that they would get bogged down. He rises to it with aplomb, naturally working in references to the Central Rada, as well as to its 1918 dissolution under German occupation and to the installation of the anti-Bolshevik former tsarist military officer Pavlo Skoropadskyi as Hetman of Ukraine by Kaiser Wilhelm II. We also learn about Symon Petliura, President of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the behavior of his Cossack troops.

Yet one can never have too much background. One of the liveliest, most colorful, and most humane literary treatments of this period in Ukrainian history — when long-suppressed dreams of independent nationhood were realized, however imperfectly, only to be suppressed again — can be found in Teffi’s Memories, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, Irina Steinberg, and Anne Marie Jackson. And another, equally lively but more concise treatment can be found in — you guessed it — Alexander Voloshin’s mock-epic On the Tracks and at Crossroads.  Here are three brief Chapters from the first part, in which the Ukrainian-born Voloshin chronicles his escape from the advancing Red Army.

Chapter Two

All ran South, if they could manage,
seeking peace. To our advantage,
Germans came just at that hour
and successfully seized power…

Sweetening the bitter pill,
that old thoughtful Kaiser Wil’,
a “hero” glorious and great,
established a “Ukrainian State.”

This corporal in a German crown
rewarded those whose minds were sound:
He gave the Rada the heave-ho
and put a Hetman on the throne…

Chapter Three

Every ancient church bell rings —
Germans look on from the wings
as, surrounded by elites,
Skoropadskyi takes his seat…

This operetta, plain to see,
had been composed in Germany…
Yet we, who feared the darkening tide
of bloody Red, swallowed our pride.
We had suffered so much pain
that we didn’t dare complain…

Besides, the Hetman, we all knew,
had been in the Retinue…
Sure, this matter had been “fixed” —
still, he hated communists.
We were hoping, as his guests,
we might finally get some rest…

Chapter Four

There was music in the air,
Ukraine feasted without care —
none of us could comprehend
that our feast would someday end.
Misery was drawing near
and in only half a year,
Bolsheviks would come and flank
both the Dnipro River’s banks…
We were desperate to forget…
But the worst was coming yet…
Everyone was acting brave…
Blue and yellow flags would wave…
We all danced and drank, had fun,
tried to speak our mova-tongue…

Conquering our nasty spleen,
that year we could sing — and mean —
words that we’d all come to cherish:
“Our Ukraine has not yet perished”…

Глава вторая

Всяк кто мог — на Юг стремился,
Там — порядок сохранился,
Ибо немцы в этот час —
Оккупировали нас…

Подсластить дабы лекарство, —
Здесь «Украинское Царство»
Основал войны «герой» —
Кайзер, Рекс, Вильгельм Второй …

Благомыслящим в награду, —
Разогнав «Державну Раду», —
Сам нам Гетмана избрал —
Коронованный Капрал …

Глава третья

Окруженный «сердюками»
И немецкими полками,
Под церквей старинных звон, —
Скоропадский сел на трон!…

Правда — не было секрета
В том, что это — оперетта
Made in Germany… Но мы
Так боялись Красной Тьмы,
Так за этот год устали,
Что и спорить уж не стали…

Да, к тому-же, — всяки знал:
Гетман — Свитский Генерал!
Пусть избрание — «не чисто»,
Все-же — враг он коммунистов,
И мечтали мы — «при нем, —
Бог поможет, — отдохнем!» …

Глава четвертая

«Украина» пировала,
И того не знали мы,
Что пируем — в дни чумы,
Что опять близка невзгода,
Что пройдет всего пол-года
И — вокруг Днепра-реки —
Сядут вновь большевики…
Мы забыть спешили горе…
По колена было море…
Все держали хвост трубой…
«Прапор» — желто-голубой —
На флагштоках развевался,
Всяк, по мере сил, старался —
Веселиться, пить, гулять
И — на «мове» размовлять…

Сбросив иго злого сплина, —
«Ще не вмерла Украина»
Пели, громко и вразброд, —
Киевляне в этот год …

8 thoughts on ““All Ran South, If They Could Manage”: Alexander Voloshin on the Civil War in Ukraine

  1. Again, wonderfully done, Boris! Voloshin’s humanizing, light touch helps us to empathize with the experience of undergoing complex political realities, and your own creative riffing on his writing engages us all the more.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s