In March 1924, a Moscow best-selling author Boris Pil’niak was invited to a literary evening in Kharkiv. Pil’niak was well-known in Ukraine. His recently published novel Golyi God [Naked Year] was highly-praised by both young revolutionary writers and admirers of Russian modernism. Moreover, it created a real fashion on Pil’niak, when a great number of imitators started copying his ornamental style and highly metaphorical use of language. At the same time, some contemporary authors were not considered original only because their style reminded the critics of that of Pil’niak. This was the case of perhaps the most prominent Ukrainian revolutionary writer, Mykola Khvyl’ovyi, who was often called the “Ukrainian Pil’niak”.
Source: The Institute of Manuscripts of the Vernads'kyi National Library of Ukraine
There are at least two considerations that make this mere literary episode important for the study of the early Soviet history in Ukraine. The first one concerns cultural development, while the second refers to the complicated centre-periphery relationship within the Soviet Union. In the mid-1920s, Khvyl’ovyi became widely engaged in the public debate over the future of Ukrainian Soviet literature and culture. The so-called Literary Discussion continued incessantly for almost three years between 1925 and 1928, and at different times involved the most prominent artists and politicians in Soviet Ukraine and Moscow, including Stalin himself. Regarded as the “last free debate” in Soviet Ukraine, 3 the Literary Discussion empowered the Soviet Ukrainian elites to voice their concerns on the status of their republic, on the one hand, and exposed the limits of the central control over the cultural sphere, on the other.
Khvyl’ovyi was probably the most prolific disputant in the Literary Discussion. 4 His main concern was how to make Soviet Ukrainian literature original and self-sufficient. From the Moscow perspective, little had changed since the imperial times, when the Russian capital was the centre of cultural trends, which were copied by, or brought down to the peripheries. Accordingly, Khvyl’ovyi as the “Ukrainian Pil’niak” represented the ‘small’ Ukrainian literature, which was subordinate to the ‘great’ Russian one. Well-aware of this comparison, Khvyl’ovyi resented it bitterly and reacted aggressively.
Instead, Khvyl’ovyi and his milieu regarded the 1917 revolution as a cardinal shift on the artistic map, which would finally enable independent cultural production. To succeed, however, Soviet Ukrainian culture needed first to become independent from the “Russian conductor”.5 Khvyl’ovyi questioned: “By which of the world’s literatures should we [Soviet Ukrainian writers] set our course?” He immediately provided a definite and unconditional answer: “On no account by the Russian. [...] Ukrainian poetry must flee as quickly as possible from Russian literature and its styles.”6
From Khvyl’ovyi’s perspective, this extreme attitude towards Russian culture was well justified. There was simply nothing new for Soviet Ukrainian literature to learn from the Russian one. Firstly, as stated, Russian literature had already exhausted itself during its golden age in the nineteenth century. In addition, even its best examples could offer no positive or useful role-models for a post-revolutionary audience. According to Khvyl’ovyi, the inherent feature of the Russian great literature was “passive pessimism”, represented through “superfluous people, […] parasites, dreamers, people without any given responsibility, whimperers, grey little people of the twentieth rank.” 7 Instead, new revolutionary literature was meant to propagate the value of a civic person and an active citizen, who was ready to take over responsibility and contribute to the Soviet society.
Source: Khvyl'ovyi, Mykola. Tvory v P''iatiokh Tomakh (New York-Baltimore-Toronto: Smoloskyp, 1983), Vol. 4, p. 236
In contrast, Khvyl’ovyi had high hopes for Ukrainian revolutionary literature. He was convinced that the revolution had initiated a distinct literary current, which he defined as romantic vitaism [from vita – Lat. life]. He believed that Ukrainian literature was able to completely divorce from the Russian tradition. Nonetheless, Ukraine’s backwardness was no news to him. He often described Ukraine as a ‘khokhliandia’ (derived from ‘khokhol’, a pejorative exonym widely used to denominate Ukrainians), “classic country of cultural epigonism”, of “servile psychology,” and full of “sluggish artists capable only of repeating what has already been gone before, of aping”. 9
To overcome this cultural backwardness, Ukrainian writers needed to change their cultural orientation and learn from the best examples. These could be offered by “Europe”. Khvyl’ovyi, however, did not just wish to change “the conductor”. As explained:
Source: The Online Encyclopaedia of Ukraine
In the course of the Literary Discussion, Khvyl’ovyi and his followers quickly realised that a separate cultural tradition in Ukraine could only be possible if the centre-periphery relationship within the Soviet Union were redefined. So, they started challenging Soviet political and economic centralisation. In March 1926, in the last essay of the series Apolohety Pysaryzmu [Apologists of Scribbling] Khvyl’ovyi openly demanded political autonomy for Ukraine. He explained:
On the last day of the party plenum, Khvyl’ovyi was given a chance to explain himself. Yet he fully accepted the party criticism:
Olena Palko is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Researcher at Birkbeck College, University of London
1. Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, “Pil'niak, ‘Slovobludie’ i ‘Niekii’ Retsensent,” Kul'tura i Pobut, 11 (1924), p. 3↩
2. Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, “Lysty”, Spadshchyna. Literaturne Dzhereloznavstvo. Vol. VIII (2013), p. 251↩.
3. George Luckyj, Literary Politics in the Soviet Ukraine, 1917–1934 (Durham-London,  1990), pp. 92-93↩
4. Mykola Khvylovy, The Cultural Renaissance in Ukraine (Edmonton, 1986); Mykola Khvyl'ovyi, Tvory v P''iatiokh Tomakh (New York-Baltimore-Toronto, 1978-1986).↩
5. Khvylovy, Apologists of Scribbling, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p. 222.↩
7. Khvylovy, Ukraine or Little Russia, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p. 229.↩
8. ibid, pp. 228-229.↩
9. Khvylovy, Thoughts against the Current, in Khvylovy, Cultural Renaissance, p.124.↩
10. Khvylovy, Apologists of Scribbling, pp. 223-224.↩
11. ibid, p. 222↩
12. TsDAHO, F.1, op.20, Spr. 2248; On Khvyl'ovyi, ark.1-7; For English translation see: Luckyj, Literary Politics, pp. 66-68.↩
13. A. Leites, M. Iashek Desiat' Rokiv Ukraїns'koї Literatury (1917-1927) (Kharkiv, 1928), vol. II, p. 300↩
14. TsDAHO, F.1, op. 1, spr. 208, ark. 45.↩
15. TSDAGO, F. 1, Op. 1, Spr. 208, Ark. 79-zv. - 80-zv.↩
16. Khvylovy, Ukraine or Little Russia, p. 227.↩
17. HDA SBU, Sprava-Formuliar C-183, ark.19.↩