A romantic in the
era of pragmatism.
Dmytro Dontsov in the context of 20th-century Ukraine
anniversary of this great
By Oleh BAHAN
#24, Tuesday, 29 July 2008
In contemporary Ukraine, Dmytro Dontsov (1883-1973) remains at best a partially acceptable but mostly controversial figure. It is difficult to imagine a non- Galician city that would name a street after this great patriot or a university that would readily agree to hold a conference devoted to this creative personality and his ideas. Yet Dontsov played an outstanding and fateful role in the formation of Ukrainian national ideology, and he occupies a prominent place in Ukrainian culture.
SPIRITUAL LEADER OF AN ENTIRE GENERATION
The contradictory perception of this figure may be attributed to the destroyed nature of Ukrainians’ national awareness and mentality. They are so used to the idea that their leaders must take some “gradualist and humbly entreating” position and be “rank- and-file workers” in the hard daily routine that they are still unable to accept a personality who passionately rejected political indecisiveness and triviality and promoted constant national militancy and expansiveness.
But the most important thing is that Dontsov’s diverse activities were in fact a spur to radical, majestic, and heroic exploits, while Ukrainians are used to following the “middle of the road,” which Taras Shevchenko called rotten and futile. An ethnos that fell asleep at a certain historical stage cannot believe — even in conditions of relative freedom — that it has wings with which to fly.
The greatest obstacle that was slowing down the complete self- identification of the Ukrainian nation was, in Dontsov’s definition, the mentality of “Provencalism,” i.e., the fatal conviction that historically “we can’t do it by ourselves,” “our culture will only develop in a full-blooded manner if it interacts with some other, higher, culture,” and “we should content ourselves with small things, such as ethnography and social stability.” This moral and ideological curse still hangs over Ukraine. Our Provencalism (the deep-seated Little Russian complex) prompts Ukrainians to be conciliatory where they should firmly stand their ground, pacifies them when they must be especially active, and distracts them from what is crucially important.
In the period when Dontsov was engaged in especially dynamic and influential activity — the first half of the 20th century — the Ukrainian nation was facing three major unresolved problems: the formation of the ideology of a modern nation, the achievement of political independence, and the creation of a dynamic model of national culture. In all these areas Dontsov took decisive and strategic steps.
He categorically discredited the Ukrainian Little Russian spirit (his brochure Modern Russophilism , 1913) and the false internationalism of socialist parties and ideologies (his article “Engels, Marx, and Lassalle on ‘Non-Historical Nations,’” 1914), concurrently advancing the concept of Ukrainian national and political identity (his books Regarding One Heresy , 1914; The Present Political Position of the Nation and Our Tasks , 1914; Mazepa and Mazepism , 1919; and a series of articles in the Lviv-based journal Shliakhy in 1913-17).
He conceptually proved the dire necessity for an independent Ukrainian state as a decisive factor in stabilizing all of Central and Eastern Europe at a time when almost all Ukrainian politicians were only talking about autonomy and federation, or did not believe in the very possibility of independence (“Charles XII’s Expedition to Ukraine,” 1915; The History of the Development of the Idea of a Ukrainian State , 1917; Ukraine’s International Position and Russia , 1918; Ukrainian Political Thought and Europe , 1918, etc.).
He radically reassessed the spiritual and mental foundations of Ukrainian culture, pointing out its fatal and strategically important flaws, such as the East-West rift and a Provencal-type orientation to provincial minor problems and sentimental ethnographism. Moreover, Dontsov convincingly proved that Ukrainian culture is Central European in essence, i.e., closer in its deeper meanings to, say, Polish or Romanian than to Russian (Eurasian) culture.
He also proved that in order to develop effectively, a culture should primarily rely on eternal, heroic, and romantic things and inherent traditions, and reject all kinds of negative and corrupting foreign influences (articles and books Russian Influences on the Ukrainian Psyche , 1913; “The Church Union” in Shliakhy , 1916; “The Culture of Depravation” in Shliakhy , 1917; and The Foundations of Our Policies , 1921). These esthetic and culturological ideas were later brilliantly developed on the pages of the journal Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk (LNV) , which Dontsov edited from 1922 onwards (in 1933 the journal was renamed Vistnyk , only to be shut down, like all every other Ukrainian publication and institution in 1939, after the Soviets occupied Western Ukraine).
During the inter-war period, Dontsov was the ideological leader of a new generation. It was under his moral and psychological influence that the first nationalist underground organizations were formed, such as the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) headed by Yevhen Konovalets, which operated both in Western Ukraine and in exile; the Group of Ukrainian Nationalist Youth (Prague, 1922) which was mostly comprised of the emigre intelligentsia; the League of Ukrainian Nationalists (LUN, Prague) whose members consisted mostly of emigres from the Dnipro region; the Union of Ukrainian Nationalist Youth (SUNM) which was popular among Galician students and shaped such prominent personalities as Roman Shukhevych (later the head of OUN fighting units and the commander in chief of the UPA), Dmytro Hrytsai (the UPA’s chief of staff), Stepan Lenkavsky (the OUN’s top ideologist and theoretician of nationalism), Zenon Kossak (the organizer of the OUN fighting network), Stepan Bandera (the leader of the OUN), Stepan Okhrymovych, Ivan Habrusevych, Bohdan Kravtsiv, Volodymyr Yaniv, and others.
In 1923-24 Dontsov was the direct inspirer of the Ukrainian Party of National Work, which was building its network mostly in Volyn and pursuing the goal of organizing an anti-Polish revolution. In 1929 most of these political groupings merged into a single Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) for which Dontsov remained an ideological role model in the next few decades. The OUN, on its part, played an epochal role in the struggle for Ukraine’s freedom.
In culture, too, Dmytro Dontsov managed to do extraordinary things. After the National Revolution of 1917-1920, the young creative-minded generation was seeking new ways of spiritual and artistic development. These people were deeply disappointed with the cultural ideas of populism and positivism, the rationalist concepts of socialism, and the egocentric trends in modernism. They needed new synthetic ideas, a new mood, and the aesthetics of new heroics.
It was Dontsov who responded to this generation’s spiritual hunger. He combined the philosophy of national traditionalism (superbly expressed by Taras Shevchenko) with the concepts of artistic intuitionism (Emil Hartmann, Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, and Friedrich Nietzsche). Aware of the primitivism of realism and the destructiveness of avant-garde art, he discovered new facets of Neo-Romanticism by brilliantly reassessing the creative intentions of Lesia Ukrainka (his book The Poetess of the Ukrainian Risorgimento (1922), was based on many previous studies of Lesia Ukrainka whom Dontsov, even in his young years, considered a prophetess of genius and an artistic and psychological phenomenon).
Regularly publishing scathing articles on all kinds of literary and cultural issues in LNV , Dontsov managed to convey his new esthetic concepts to a generation of wonderfully talented writers and critics, such as Yevhen Malaniuk, Yurii Lypa, Leonid Mosendz, Ulas Samchuk, Oleh Olzhych, Olena Teliha, Oleksa Stefanovych, Oksana Liaturynska, Natalia Livytska-Kholodna, Rostyslav Yendyk, Olha Babii, Bohdan Krawciw, R. Kedro, Yurii Klen, O. Hrytsai, Lydia Luciw, M. Mukhyn, Natalia Gerken-Rusova, Mykhailo Ostroverkha, Mykola Shlemkevych, and many others.
The LNV soon became the most authoritative Ukrainian national ideology-forming journal on which many later periodicals were modeled: Studentskyi visnyk, Rozbudova natsii, Derzhavna natsia, Proboiem (Prague), Studentskyi shliakh, Smoloskypy, Shliakh natsii, Dazhboh, Obrii, Naperedodni (Lviv), Samostiina dumka (Chernivtsi), and others. A whole ideological and cultural phenomenon —
vistnykism — thus emerged, one that was based on nationalism, the philosophy of irrationalism and voluntarism, the idealistic aesthetics of intuitionism and neo-romanticism, eternal heroism and Parnassism, and the moral foundations of traditionalism and Christianity. This phenomenon gave rise to the brilliant psychology and ethics of the emigre and Western Ukrainian intellectual elites and aroused creative aristocratism in the nation.
Unfortunately, the views on this phenomenon of Dontsov’s contemporaries were dimmed by falsifications on the part of postwar diaspora scholars. After 1945, Ukrainian culture figures living abroad felt the need to integrate into the fully-liberalized Western world. Naturally, in the West they could not promote the ideas of vistnykism-based traditionalism and nationalism that in many aspects ran counter to liberal, progressive, and cosmopolitan values. Therefore, a group of scholars, including Viktor Petrov (who was later exposed as a Soviet agent), Yurii Shevelov-Sherekh, Ihor Kostetzky (Merzliakov), Yurii Lavrinenko, and others — sought to prove that vistnykism and “Dontsovism” were “outdated” and “erroneous.”
In an effort to undermine the above-mentioned outstanding writers, whose prestige and talent was undeniable, they concocted an artificial “theory” about the “Prague School,” a group of writers without Dontsov and the LNV/Vistnyk . In the 1990s, these utterly tendentious and biased opinions of a group of diaspora academics were uncritically accepted in Ukraine, which resulted in a false and warped vision of Ukraine’s inter-war culture and literature, while the role of Dontsov was belittled. Today the truth must be restored in order not only to rehabilitate this figure but, above all, to gain a correct understanding of the logic according to which Ukrainian national history and culture developed.
This task logically raises the question of explaining the phenomenon of Dontsov in Ukrainian 20th-century culture and politics. What are the international contexts and repercussions of his ideology and aesthetic concepts? What positive things from the legacy of this indefatigable political journalist and ideologist are still valid today?
Dmytro Ivanovych Dontsov was born into the family of an entrepreneur and official in Melitopil, where he attended high school and was shaped as a Ukrainian intellectual. As Dontsov recalled, the cosmopolitan atmosphere of this southern Ukrainian city sparked his lively interest in foreign cultures. He was especially fond of Western European literary works that were marked by a Romantic world outlook and the desire for individualistic and heroic actions. At the same time, life in Melitopil reinforced in him the sense of his Ukrainian identity and dignity vis-a-vis the alien Muscovite imperial world, which was especially aggressive in southern Ukraine.
The fiery, dynamic, and enterprising nature of this boy from Tauria contributed to his early civic activism. At the young age of 20, Dontsov, who was a student at St. Petersburg University, took an active part in the political protests of the local Ukrainian community. He soon joined the Ukrainian Social Democratic Party, the most radical one at the time. He met Symon Petliura, and their friendship turned into mutual ideological support in the sea of the Ukrainian Little Russian mentality and political myopia.
His first articles were published in the Social Democratic newspaper Slovo edited by Petliura. Dontsov’s talents as a political writer were quickly noticed, and he became the editor of the St. Petersburg-based newspaper Nasha duma , the unofficial organ of the Ukrainian faction in the Russian Empire’s 2nd State Duma.
Dontsov was twice arrested in Kyiv in 1905-07 for taking part in the underground revolutionary movement. Released on bail, he went abroad, to Lviv, in April 1908. The move was a truly fateful event: the young, shrewd, and radical political activist received an opportunity not only to see a broader picture of the Ukrainian world and the pulsation of its culture (Ukrainian life was burgeoning in Galicia) but also to acquaint himself with a number of different ideas and attitudes.
At this time Russian intellectuals and urban residents were preoccupied with socialist ideas. In this way it was radically different from other European countries: socialism seemed to have turned into a new morality and faith for that generation. There were almost no viable democratic forces outside the socialist movement, all the others favoring the unpopular and hidebound idea of monarchy. This is why socialists of all hues so convincingly won the democratic elections in 1917. In other words, if you stood for absolutely necessary democratic changes, you simply could not help being part of the socialist movement.
This explains why so many nationalist-minded people, including Dontsov, found themselves members of socialist parties. Meanwhile, in Galicia, where a typical Central European ideological and social situation was emerging, socialism had not become a quasi-religion. There was no Bolshevik or anarchist fanatical destructiveness there at all. On the contrary, socialist ideas were of an agrarian rather than a proletarian nature, and were aimed at gradual reforms, not revolution, and they coexisted with well-developed national democratic, conservative, and liberal ideologies.
All this had an impact on Dontsov: his national outlook found broad support here, his traditionalism received new ideological and theoretical incentives, and there were real opportunities for him to apply himself. An important factor in Dontsov’s change was his meeting with the well-known Ukrainian conservative and historian Viacheslav Lypynsky at the Polish mountain resort of Zakopane in 1909. This was reflected not only in his ideological persuasions but also in his new symbolic pen name — Zakopanets.
In 1910-14 Dontsov right- wing tilt became more pronounced. His publications become more scathing and contained far- reaching conclusions. He criticized socialism from all sides and plunged into the eddy of liberation nationalism. From approximately 1911 onwards he was an “independentist,” i.e., he had a clear idea of building and working for Ukrainian statehood. In 1913, at the 2nd Students’ Congress in Lviv, Dontsov was regarded as the most radical leader of the younger generation. (This was confirmed by Yevhen Konovalets, who attended the congress and took Dontsov’s speech as a testament.) In Vienna in 1914, together with a group of emigres from the Dnipro region, he formed an independence-seeking organization called the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine and became its leader.
No other person exerted himself to promote Ukrainian sovereignty in the world in 1914-17 more than Dontsov. He was a regular contributor to dozens of German, Austrian, Swiss, and Polish newspapers, and some of his translated articles were published in newspapers in other European countries. All of his writings raised urgent problems, made fundamental conclusions, and were stylistically brilliant.
When the 1917 National Revolution broke out, Dontsov was abroad. He could not come to Kyiv for a long time because of strict border security. In early 1918 he could only see the chaos and decline of Ukrainian liberation policies. Cherishing no illusions about the constructiveness of the socialist leaders (Mykhailo Hrushevsky, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Serhii Yefremov, among others), he immediately joined the small conservative Party of Ukrainian Democratic Peasants led by Serhii Shemet and Viacheslav Lypynsky.
He scathingly criticized prominent Ukrainian politicians for their non-statist thinking, blind pacifism, and naive internationalism in the face of the threat of Russian imperial revanchism. For this he was labeled the archenemy of the socialist camp. In May 1918 Dontsov supported Hetman Pavlo Skoropadsky’s coup, which he viewed as a successful response to socialist anarchy and a version of Ukrainian Bonapartism. But in November 1918, after the hetman proclaimed an alliance with monarchist Russia, he became totally disillusioned with Skoropadsky’s policies and soon went abroad again, thus escaping rough treatment by the socialists, who had regained power in the shape of the Directory.
This short biographical sketch shows how Dontsov came to understand the need for a new, strong-willed, mystical, and emotional nationalism as a program and life philosophy for Ukrainians. His conclusions were basically as follows. Historically deprived of their own nobility, a leading stratum that had played a decisive role in the liberation of the Hungarian or the Polish nations, for example, the Ukrainian people could only obtain an historical opportunity if they found a replacement.
The only thing that could replace the leading stratum (elite) in a stateless nation was an ideological and political order comprising not those parties that had degenerated into doctrinairism and endless particularism, but an organization-order based on a new morality and sacrificial heroism, permeated with a Romantic sensitivity and an irrational and voluntarist world outlook, and featuring a multi-vector program of actions. This order should develop not so much in quantitative terms as on the basis of a qualitative selection of members according to the principle of effective action. Its philosophy should never stoop to the level of social pragmatism: instead, it should always emanate boundless idealism, a conviction in the indestructibility of the religious (Christian) postulates of existence, the eternal supremacy of heart over reason and spirit over matter, and the inevitability of a heroic and noble spirit as crucial factors in the progress of the individual and the nation.
Its actions and program must have nothing in common with the philosophy and tendencies of conformity, Little Russian subservience, or social slavery. This order’s essence and strategy must forever eradicate the traditional Ukrainian spirit of reconciliation and concession, blind absorption in details, and escape from historical choice. It should constantly rouse militant and expansive feelings of grandeur and struggle in the people.
The field of culture also needed cardinal changes. The nation must reject its provincial mentality and inferiority complex, understand that its spirit should develop as a result of a profound understanding of tragic existence and feel a fateful optimistic impulse for the Exalted and Eternal (the concept of Neo- Romanticism), rather than remain under the influence of an endless realistic description of our national woes (the theory of aesthetic positivism/realism), personal sorrow at our never-ending misfortunes (everyday Ukrainian sentimentalism), morbid egocentrism, and excessive use of formal and complex methods in art (the theory of modernism).
This kind of spiritual reorientation of the people would radically change their vital foundations: instead of “lackeys” and “cabbage heads” (Taras Shevchenko) and a “nation of paralytics” (Ivan Franko), it would form a dynamic and strong-willed nation rich in its own artistic visions and aspirations. It was in fact the vistnykists , the generation of writers who had been formed by Dontsov, which displayed this kind of artistic impulse.
Their legacy allows one to feel what a strong and precise word is (Malaniuk, Olzhych), how the dynamics of plot can affect the reader (Klen, Lypa, Stefanovych), what national tenacity and energy can do (Samchuk’s novels The Hills Are Speaking and the novelette Kulak , the novelettes collected in Avengers and Rediscovered Paradise ), what national erotica is (lyric poems by Olena Teliha and Natalia Livytska-Kholodna), what the national soul can discover (poems by Liaturynska and Stefanovych), how the national character is forged (novelettes by Mosendz and Lypa, Mosendz’s novel The Last Prophet ), and how the national dream and faith reverberates (Malaniuk, Olzhych, Lypa).
Dontsov and his followers are still criticized for having a one- sided national ideology, their failure to understand modern aesthetic theories, the forcible imposition of their doctrine on others, etc. It should be noted that such complaints have been made from liberal philosophical angles by people who were essentially unable to accept the philosophy of traditionalism-nationalism. But if we compare the concepts underpinning Dontsov’s works with similar European ideological and culturological theories at the turn of the 20th century, we will see that in his synthetic conclusions and penetrating assessments he was on the level of such prophetic thinkers as Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Scheler, Werner Sombart, Georg Simmel, Vilfredo Pareta, Gaetano Mosca, Gustave Le Bon, Charles Morras, Oswald Spengler, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Stanislaw Brzozowski, and Mariam Zdziechowski, the only difference being that he did his conceptual theoretical studies in the Ukrainian context and succeeded in filling the common European ideology with Ukrainian content.
His finest books — The Foundations of Our Politics (1921), Nationalism (1926), Our Era and Literature (1936), Where to Seek Our Historical Traditions? (1938), The Masses and Leadership: Quantity or Quality? (1939), The Spirit of Our Antiquity (1944), Bemoaning the Heroic (1953), The Poetess of the Fiery Limits: Olena Teliha (1952), Russia or Europe? (1955), From Mysticism to Politics (1957), The Bard’s Unseen Tablets (1961), and The Watchword of the Era (1968) — allow the reader to understand the creative style of a thinker and promoter of an idea, a philosophically integrated approach to history and culture, the expressiveness of political journalistic writing, and pulsation of living thought. What is striking about these works is not only the author’s broad erudition but primarily the very depth of the questions that he raises, questions that appeal to Eternity.
For some reason, it is common practice here to claim that Dontsov’s postulates are “unscholarly,” that he was “intolerant” and supported the right- wing totalitarian ideas and movements of the time. True, Dontsov’s works are not scholarly, because he was not and did not wish to be a scholar in the true sense of the word. He was a great political writer and essayist, and these forms of interpreting reality differ from the principles of scholarly research. This accusation is therefore absurd.
He wanted to rouse the slumbering Ukrainian nation with biting words and give it a clear vision of ideological, political, and cultural prospects — and he accomplished this mission. He was only intolerant to those who were either destroying the nation from the inside, maintaining harmonious, albeit concealed, cooperation with its enemies, or distracting it from its urgent tasks through the false theories of “humanism,” “aestheticism,” “cosmopolitanism,” etc.
Dontsov lived in a cruel age, when the Ukrainian nation was perpetually facing the dilemma of “to be or not to be,” and totalitarian and aggressive movements and ideologies, from communism to Nazism, which were dominant in Europe. Under such conditions, therefore, was it a good idea to preach lamblike meekness, complacency, and indecisiveness of action?
There is something truly non- Ukrainian in the personality and works of Dmytro Dontsov, but not in the sense of a “destructive moskal ,” as his adversaries described him, although he was not a Russian. The point is that his firm adherence to principles, his fantastically astute writing talent (a rarity in Ukraine, Franko being the exception) and his ideological leanings to maximalism and “globalism” sharply contrasted with the traditions of national culture building. He instilled a truly southern — Italian — temperament (there was some Italian blood among his ancestors), with its categorical judgments, passionate feelings, and brilliant images and reactions, into Ukrainian culture and public life, which were too mentally inert. Thus, Dontsov’s heritage will always remain a “meteorite” in the space of a nation that has some of the vitality of the South, but which has gone down in history, for some reason, as a characterless and irresolute entity.
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