Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866-1934)

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Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866-1934)

Mykhailo Hrushevsky (1866-1934)

A CONVERSATION WITH KRYVONIS For or a long time I walked across the mountains. When I came out onto plowland, there rose before me on the left the panorama of Mount Chorna, the summits of Spytsi and Velyki Rebra with white strips of last year's snow thinly veiled by a violet mist, and the broad valley of the Iltsi River with scattered cottages. On the right, crowded the soft, rounded summits of the black Hrun and Bukivets that seemed to have swollen up in the blue fog, while beyond them spread the broad valley of the Prut River blanketed by a dense fog, through which it was impossible to discern the outlines of rivers and villages. The summer sun shone brightly, but its hot rays were dulled by the considerable altitude of the mountains. A strong fragrance of grasses and flowers stood in the air, and when I crossed the plowland and found myself again in the narrow wedges of fir trees extending into the tilled fields, I was enveloped by an incense-like smell of resin and coniferous branches. The highlands were waterless and dry, and even in the forest I didn't feel any dampness on this arid day of the year. The footpath was familiar to me. I had walked it a year or a year and a half ago, and being engrossed in my thoughts, I didn't pay any attention to where I was going. But then I noticed that I failed to recognize the footpath. On my way I had come upon dense brushwood, in which I lost the footpath. Then suddenly my progress was obstructed by a rather serious obstacle of felled trees. Beyond it was an old clearing densely overgrown with raspberry and blackberry bushes, where I could not make out any human traces whatsoever. I forced my way through the felled trees, bypassing what was left of them, but after half an hour or so, I came upon a new obstacle much more serious than the first. It looked as if no one had ever even tried to overcome it. There was no access to it. Everywhere the barren branches of the fir trees leveled their sharpened ends in grim warning. But the prospect of turning back and reliving yet another struggle through the thickets, which had vexed me enough as it did, urged me on, and I courageously went into attack. I paid a dear price for it this time – both for my skin and my clothes, but in the end I overcame the barrier. On the other side, however, I did not find anything to delight me. There was another obstacle of felled trees, much wilder than the previous one. Huge fir trees that had been felled God knows when barred my way at every step. There wasn't a single human trace wherever I looked. I summoned all my strength to struggle to some kind of clear ground – but after many attempts I found myself facing a new barricade that sapped the last dregs of my strength. This was not an obstacle, but some sort of wonder I had never seen before. It reminded me of 2

an abatis built in place of strongholds and fortifications in Eastern Ukraine in the 16th and 17th centuries, which were described in such detail in the instructions of frontier line defenses of those times. This was an entire felled forest! It was not so much felled as cut. Some of the trees were incised and bent to the ground, their branches intertwined so solidly they formed a real wall that was twice a man's height and several meters deep. That was how the frontier lands had once been “barred” from the steppe. But who needed such a border wall here amid peaceful Hutsul country? Its approaches were extremely difficult to negotiate, but what I had already cleared had also not been pleasant to endure. Couldn't it be that here, behind this ancient forest wall, there was probably something better than this ferocious looking clearing defended by such a monumental fortification for no intelligent reason at all? I decided to negotiate it, but this time I conceived of launching my attack more reasonably and methodically. I sat down, rested and had a snack, after which I lay down and dozed in a shadow. Then I walked along the abatis, choosing the most accessible places that had been ruined by time. After choosing what I thought to be the easiest access, I slowly started stepping from branch to branch and from trunk to trunk. The going was not too smooth. Several times I fell through, along with the rotten branch I would step on incautiously. The number of my battle scars had increased. But after surmounting the obstacle, I took comfort not to have struggled in vain at least. Beyond the abatis there were pastures, tilled field, hay fields, and traces of human activity. There I could have a rest and reach a highroad. I stepped from a last trunk in the end, and walked across a pasture. Beyond it was a tilled field, amid which showed a spring or a brook with dense, green grass around it. But no sooner had I made off in that direction than something that looked like two shaggy sheep dogs tumbled out from behind the neighboring trees and rolled toward me. I stopped lest I tease them. But when they drew nearer, I was stunned by seeing that they were bears! Yes, two gray bears, lumbering heavily on their short paws, were approaching me rather quickly. I did not know what to do – run back to the abatis or try and calm them with my composure and immobility? All of a sudden someone whistled from behind the trees, the bears stopped immediately and turned back. I breathed with relief, but for all that I could not bring myself to move on. Then a human figure appeared from behind the trees. It was a very old man, lean and withered with age, but obviously still nimble and strong. His unusual garb caught my eye. He wore a white shirt embroidered with black silk, broad linen pants girded by a Turkish sash, and on his head he had a short-furred cap with a velvet top. On his right shoulder he easily carried a Turkish rifle lavishly bound with silver and inlaid with gold. Both of the bears were awkwardly hobbling on either side of him like two pups. I walked toward the old man, and taking off my hat, bowed and greeted him. This must have pleased him, because he, too, doffed his ancient cap, and said kindly: “And good day to you, Your Lordship! Whence do you come?” I explained to him in detail who I was, where I came from, where I lived now and, asking his pardon, inquired about his name, since this was the first time I met him here in the backwoods. “Don't you really recognize me, Your Lordship? I'm Kryvonis, Maxym Kryvonis, if you ever heard this name,” he said, and pointed at his sharp aquiline nose that had become crooked from a sword blow long ago. I hurried to apologize for not having recognized him right away, explaining that I did not happen to have seen a good portrait of him, and that all his people in Ukraine remember him to this day, but just do not know that he is still alive. “Yes, I know,” he said, obviously pleased with my reply. “People thought that I died on my 3

Combat between Maxim Kryvonis and Jeremija Wiesniewecki. Painting by Mikola Samokish

way back from Zamość. But that isn't true! I left Zamość when the Hetman wouldn't listen to my advice and refused to advance on Warsaw. Since then I've been living here.” I had never heard about this, I told him, and probably no one of today knew about it as well. “They didn't know it then, too,” the old man said. “I didn't want to produce any discord in the Cossack Host and so left quietly, without anybody, even the Hetman, knowing about it. Small wonder that you, Your Lordship, do not know about it either, although I see that you are a man in rebus nostris versatus*. I am glad to have you as my guest.” He clapped his hands and listened intently for a while. From behind the trees appeared another old Cossack dressed in a zhupan mantle of crimson cloth, and approached us with the manners of an old chamberlain ready to take orders from his master or preceptor. Kryvonis made him a sign, and a minute later two young boys appeared, carrying a medieval Persian kilim. They spread the rather worn kilim on the grass, placed on it a trestle of chased silver, a flask and tumblers of identical workmanship, and started to pack and light a pipe for the old man. “Sit down, Your Lordship, and fortify yourself,” the old man said, sitting down on the kilim in Turkish fashion and inviting me to take one of the tumblers the boys had filled up. “I am glad that people of today are interested in our history. Probably you know how Cicero put it: historiam nescire semper esse puerum**.” The old man gave me a curious look to see what effect a classical maxim coming from his mouth would produce on me. I, however, did not consider it tactful to show any surprise. There were clues of Kryvonis having come from a family of clerics, and so it would have perhaps been impolite on my part to be surprised that he was an educated person. “I am not as fluent in Latin as you, sir, but I try to learn about the glorious deeds of our ancestors,” I said and, wishing him good health and a long life, downed the tumbler. “Thank you, son, for these kind words,” he replied. “You speak the truth. Indeed, ours were *

Versed in our affairs (or: our history) – Lat. He who does not know history is always a dwarf – Lat.



great and glorious deeds, and they are worthy of being known by everyone. A great force had risen then, but it's a pity that people were unable to avail of it. I felt bitter when the Hetman wouldn't listen to me, as I argued, asked, pleaded, went down on my knees. I saw that our cause was going to ruin, but I could not convince the people, the more so the Hetman. I didn't want to stir up dissension in the troops, nor did I want to stand in the Hetman's way, and that's why I left.” I told him that, to the contrary, it was rumored the Kryvonis had been at odds with the Hetman all the time, which often led to sharp conflicts between them and to some sharp orders against Kryvonis on the Hetman's part. “I know, I know all that,” he said. “But it's not true. Ever since I had joined the late Hetman at the Zaporozhian Sich, I was loyal to him. It wasn't the time to break up forces and incite an uprising at your will. He was fated to take the Hetman's mace, and it wasn't for me to snatch it out of his hands. Well, that's how it came to pass! But I was of a different mind than the late Hetman. He acted circumspectly, and so missed the time when we could have taken Poland into our hands. You must have heard the song composed in those days: Hey ho, fine fellows, spur your horses, Into the fray let's charge with might and main, Let's chase the Pole, the wicked foe, Right to the deep Danube... He sang the stanza in his senile, yet steady voice, and I hurried to assure him that the song was sung to this day. But I also tried to come to the defense of the great Hetman. Yes, he acted circumspectly, that was true, but didn't he have a reason for that? Probably he saw that the people and troops were exhausted by a war he did not want to prolong, he must have been reluctant to bring the Poles to their end and provoke hostilities with their neighbors who surely would have come to the rescue of Poland. “Certainly, the Hetman was thinking!” the old man retorted passionately. “But the thing is that he did it for too long! He thought how to come to an agreement with the lords and retain his mace of power until death and pass on the mace to his sons besides. He thought about the Moldavian palatinate as well as about the Kievan palatinate, and perhaps about something else. As I said, he did too much of the thinking! It was just like with the fox that fell into a pitfall and had a hundred ideas how to get out of it, but in the end failed to choose the best idea. He was too much on his guard! “But I didn't have any second thoughts, because I knew one thing for sure. The Lord God gave us a chance to destroy Poland once and for all and cleanse our land of the lords. And that was the only thing I saw and didn't have anything else on my mind. I didn't think what would happen then, because others would have to take care about that later on. I didn't think what would happen to me or to my children. What had come to pass had to be dealt with! “As for you, son, saying that the troops, or the people for that matter were exhausted, you're too young yet to judge. Mind you, people are not exhausted when they hear that they are to do just what is necessary! Did you hear anything about my letters of appeal? You didn't, because there weren't any. For all that, people came to me in droves, because their spirit realized that I knew what had to be done. I had more troops than I needed, and if I wished, I'd have twice and three times as many. I could have them right now, did you know that?” Suddenly he got up, stamped his foot on the ground and froze in a grand, motionless posture. I, too, got on my feet and looked at him in surprise. He was all attention and tenseness. Then, all of a sudden, a sparkle flashed across his face. I heard a distant and dull clangor. It rolled nearer. The earth rumbled under the heavy, echoless blows of some unknown weight. Then a distant din reminding human voices reached my ear. 5

Moments later, I saw a huge, gray mass of people rolling out of somewhere onto the field. There was no end to them. They moved in a solid, thick-pressed crowd, without any order. As the crowd drew nearer, it strengthened out, gained form, and drew up in a line. Then they separated into sections. Out of the intervals between them, officers galloped on spirited horses. Cross-shaped banners began fluttering over the lines. The old man stamped his foot on the ground again, and the infantry began to move to the right and left, while the cavalry began pouring out into the open space. The Cossacks dashed out gallantly and, reining in their horses, fell into line. Then varicolored pennants appeared in the distance. Drummers struck the kettledrums, and trumpeters blew their horns in time with the drums. The old man stamped the ground once more, and the cavalry also moved aside, while the earth broke into a rumble from the weight of a heavy transport. Shortish, but powerful horses pulled iron-bound wagons with powder and shot covered with roped ox hides. The huge wheels of the Cossack cannon creaked laboriously. Then the gunners with lighted fuses took up position at their pieces. The old man waved his hand, and a minute later a mighty roar of cannon split the air. I gave a start – and was roused from my slumber. Over the hayrick, at which I had dozed off, hovered a low-hanging, blue swollen cloud. In the mountains, the rumble of thunder was fading away, and the first big raindrops began to fall. Translated by Anatole Bilenko Ukraine illustrated monuhly. No.9, 1991


Monument to Mikhailo Hrushevsky in Kiev


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