This Page is dedicated in
memory of  my father,
Wolodymyr Golash

Tragic optimist
The spiritual sovereignty of Oleh Olzhych

In keeping with a decree issued by President Viktor Yushchenko, this month Ukrainians in our country and abroad will be marking the first official celebrations of the centenary of the well- known Ukrainian poet, scholar, and political figure Oleh Kandyba- Olzhych. It is too early to tell to what extent this jubilee will help restore historical justice about this poet whose works were under strict taboo during the Soviet era. Nevertheless, this noteworthy jubilee is another opportunity for Ukrainians to learn about an individual without whom it is impossible to imagine the cultural and political life of the Ukrainian nation in the 1920s-1940s.

Oleh Kandyba-Olzhych was born on July 21, 1907, in Zhytomyr. His father was the well-known Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Oles. In 1909 Oles moved his family to Kyiv and later to Pushcha-Vodytsia, so that he would be closer to work.

Olzhych witnessed the stormy and tragic events of the 1917 Ukrainian Revolution. In 1919 his father was appointed cultural attache of the Ukrainian National Republic in Budapest. This post would later have negative repercussions for Oleh and his mother, who became “enemies of the people” after the defeat of the UNR and the establishment of Soviet power.

In January 1923 Olzhych and his mother left Ukraine for Berlin, where they stayed for a brief period of time. They soon moved to Czechoslovakia, where they settled in Horne Cernosice, 50 km from Prague, and then in Revnice. Kandyba studied at the Prague-based Ukrainian Citizens’ Committee until 1924 and then at Charles University’s philosophy faculty for the winter and summer semesters of 1924-25. He also attended lectures on prehistoric archeology and art history and did research on archeology and social studies.

The young archeologist’s important publications drew the attention of scholars at Harvard University. He was invited to the US and then to Italy, where he delivered a series of lectures. In Rome he met Colonel Yevhen Konovalets, the head of the Leadership of Ukrainian Nationalists (PUN). Olzhych’s biographers claim that this meeting had a decisive effect on the young man, who was destined to become an important figure in the nationalist movement. Konovalets saw that the young academic and prominent poet was familiar with the situation in Ukraine and understood the importance of the spiritual factor in the process of the revolutionary liberation and national rebirth of the Ukrainian people.

In 1928 the young author published his first short story “Rudko” under the pen name O. Leleka. He completed his philosophy studies in 1929, simultaneously attending the literature and history division of the Mykhailo Drahomanov Ukrainian Pedagogical Institute. That year his first poems were published in the journals Literaturno-naukovyi visnyk and Studentskyi visnyk. According to the well-known Ukrainian writer Ulas Samchuk, Olzhych’s publications in Visnyk secured him “one of the first places on the emigre Olympus.”

In 1929 Kandyba joined the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and immediately became one of its leading activists. On instructions from Col. Konovalets he organized the OUN Cultural Branch, which began issuing legal and illegal publications of the Ukrainian nationalists and rallied around itself a number of distinguished cultural and artistic figures. Olzhych was also one of the founders and champions of Carpatho-Ukraine, a state that emerged in March 1939 after the collapse of the Czechoslovak Republic.

A split occurred in the OUN in 1940, when a group of young nationalists headed by Stepan Bandera formed the Revolutionary Leadership. Olzhych strongly condemned the rift and unconditionally sided with the faction led by Colonel Andrii Melnyk.

When World War II broke out, Olzhych set off to Ukraine at the head of the first OUN operative groups and became the leader of the nationalist underground in Kyiv, where he launched the revival of Ukrainian political and cultural life. The Ukrainian National Council was formed as a prototype of the future parliament of independent Ukraine, the newspaper Ukraiinske slovo began publishing, and various Ukrainian institutions were founded in the capital.

To mobilize public support for the building of a Ukrainian state, Olzhych, on the OUN leadership’s instructions, organized mass celebrations in honor of the heroes who were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921 near the village of Bazar, in Zhytomyr oblast. In spite of the active resistance of the German occupational authorities, a large number of people arrived in Bazar from all over Ukraine. Surprised by the scale of this manifestation, the Germans at first adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Soon, however, they began arresting people en masse, especially in Zhytomyr and Korosten regions. Over 200 OUN activists had been arrested by the beginning of December.

OUN activities in the eastern regions eventually provoked mass arrests in Kyiv. Among those who were arrested and executed in Babyn Yar were Olena and Mykhailo Teliha, Ivan Rohach, Petro Koshyk, Orest Chymerynsky, and other OUN leading figures.

As the deputy head of the OUN, Olzhych exercised control over the activity of the nationalist underground in Ukraine and was constantly on the run from the Germans. He left Kyiv and settled in the Carpathians, where OUN and UPA insurgent units were already active.

Aware of Germany’s inevitable defeat in the war and the occupation of Ukraine by the Soviet Union, Olzhych resolved to form the “Battalion of Death,” a volunteer unit that was supposed to stay behind the front line in order to commit high-profile acts of sabotage in the enemy’s rear. Obviously, he was very well aware that the people who had decided on this step were doomed, but he believed that the idea of a new Thermopylae or Kruty would surely encourage future generations of Ukrainians to fight. Yet Olzhych never managed to implement his idea.

The Nazis were hunting for him, and in May 1944 Gestapo agents arrested him at a Lviv safe house. There are three possible versions that may explain why the OUN activist was arrested. According to the first, Olzhych was caught as a result of the capture by the Gestapo of one of his couriers, who betrayed the Ukrainian underground leader. Olzhych’s arrest may also have been the result of the determined actions of the German secret police, which had been searching for the manuscript of the book Revolution Breaks Chains, in which Olzhych had collected facts pointing to Nazi Germany’s crimes against the Ukrainian people. According to the third theory, the OUN activist was arrested after his attempts to contact the Western Allies, who were preparing to open the Second Front. In any case, it is clear that Olzhych’s arrest is one aspect of his biography that requires further research.

As someone who was especially dangerous to the Third Reich, he was immediately flown to Berlin for interrogation and then to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he died after being subjected to cruel tortures. The Nazis were afraid even of the dead Olzhych, so they ordered the hero’s body to be burnt in the camp crematorium.

Olzhych’s creative legacy is small, if one excludes his scholarly publications: he wrote three collections of poetry, a series of political articles, and a few essays on culture. According to Zenon Horodysky, Olzhych’s comrade-in-arms in the national liberation struggle, his oeuvre is “rich in content, for in it he presented an in-depth study of the ideological principles and directions of the cultural policy.”

Olzhych published only two books of poetry during his lifetime: Rin (Gravel) (Lviv, 1935) and Vezhi (Towers) (Prague, 1940). The third collection, Pidzamcha (Near the Castle), was edited by Olzhych but published only after his death.

His poetical oeuvre is inseparably linked with his ideological and political convictions. It was in poetic forms that he tried to crystallize his ideological and political concepts. Before I begin discussing his three poetry collections, I must note that the poet did not have a period of learning and maturing. His brilliant talent burst instantly on the scene, shining with all its colors and facets. His three collections, which at first glance appear to be markedly different from each other, are actually light from the same star. The prehistoric and early medieval motifs of Rin are consonant with the heroic spirit of Vezhi and the philosophical reminiscences of Pidzamcha.

Despite critics’ praise for the artistry of the first two collections, there are still diametrically opposing views on their ideological message. The first collection is considered apolitical, a kind of tribute to Neoclassicism, an example of high style and refined esthetics. Meanwhile, the second collection is interpreted as a socially-engaged work in which calls for the struggle for Ukraine’s independence predominate.

In my opinion, the two collections are closely linked to each other. In Rin Olzhych seeks the historical and philosophical foundations of the Ukrainian nation’s existence, the sources of its bravery and militancy. The Gauls, Antes, and Goths the heroes of these poems are the ideal of valor, nobility, and courage. This is how the rank- and-file fighters of the OUN appear in Vezhi, where the grim prehistoric times give way to the dynamism of contemporary life. The bronzed knights of the past seem to revive, becoming uncompromising fighters for the liberation of their people.

Rin is an apolitical work only at first glance. Olzhych’s historical and philosophical allusions and his immersion into the long-bygone past are not a goal in itself or an imitation of the Ukrainian Neoclassicists. The poet is looking for philosophical validation of the new nationalist outlook that will inevitably replace the alien theories of materialism and determinism. In order to see the future, one must look into the past. This is the law of historical progress. The poet looks into the past to find the eternal and unchangeable foundations of existence on which man, the creator of history, should rely above all.

There is a changeless land, / and everything keeps changing on it. / I see gold at dawn / and silver on a windy day, / and a lake of melted copper /in the evening hours. / At night I see the hardened iron / glistening in cold fogs. / And a restless, eager heart / in mighty human bodies. / And all this is destined / to fly in a never-ending whirlwind.

Olzhych believed that progress and relative material well-being has spoiled humans, while non-spirituality or the false socialist-internationalist culture was killing their creative potential. He wanted to see people qualitatively modernized. Oleh Shtul-Zhdanovych, an associate of Olzhych’s, noted this when he said, “Let us not forget that this man was not spoiled, he could not talk of peace at conferences and in reality prepare for war; he could not speak about struggling for the truth and at the same time sell this truth out.” So Olzhych turned his eye to the image of a morally clean human. This type of “new generation” is illustrated at the level of poetic generalizations by the following lines:

It grew from searching and despair, / joyful and courageous, full of turbulent energy, / in love with your own taut bows / and the bronze of muscled bodies. / It is so sweet to anticipate a battle / without hesitations and qualms, / and feel the humble soil beneath your feet / and drink in the blue skyline.

Olzhych’s reminiscences are also aimed at the quest for the heroic, which the poet associates with the nation’s aspirations for freedom. The poet elevates the category of the heroic to a cult. This is a self-sufficient value that requires self-sacrifice, not just everyday optimism. “From olden times to the present day, poets have been showing self-denial and readiness for heroic sacrifices for the sake of an idea,” he wrote. To cherish the cult of heroism means to foster the national character and spirit: “Whether it is the spirit of princely warriors, or the Cossacks, or Kruty and Bazar, or the Transcarpathian mountain valleys, it is the Ukrainian spirit and character.” This idealistic-unificationist approach is especially evident in Vezhi.

This collection includes two lyrical epic poems: “Horodok ‘32” and “Neznanomu voiakovi” (To the Unknown Soldier). The poet steps from the ancient past into the 20th century and finds himself in the whirlwind of a life- or-death struggle. Here everything serves one goal: that “the nation, mighty and eternal as God,” in vanquishing its enemies, will consolidate itself in its land like an “Iron State.” The extraordinary dynamism and expressiveness of the poetic narrative and the knightly and romantic grandeur emphasize the inescapable fatality behind the readiness of a revolutionary nationalist to die. The laws of struggle demand concrete actions rather than empty phrases and lamentations about an “unlucky fate”:

And we will be worthy not of glory and praise / but action that makes mountains move, / with grenades, petards, and the living arsenal / of the flesh of an unfettered spirit.

Time is compressed; the nation’s will is concentrated in a fist and can only rely on its own strength:
If you want, you will be. / Remember: in man lies / a still unmeasured strength.
Olzhych’s poem “Horodok ‘32” was written in 1940, on the eve of the Soviet-German War, when the OUN seized the opportunity to become actively engaged in the struggle for Ukrainian independence. Olzhych had never harbored any illusions about the upcoming global battles, so he urged the Ukrainian community to mobilize itself and be prepared for inevitable fighting. In this context, this poem may be considered as the poet’s program. The tragedy of Horodok is a little- known theme in Ukrainian literature, for obvious reasons. This only makes Olzhych’s contribution even more significant. In 1932 two fighters of the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Vasyl Bilas and Dmytro Danylyshyn carried out an abortive attack on the post office in the town of Horodok, Lviv region. As the youths tried to escape, they were caught by Polish gendarmes and later executed. But the heroic stance, courage, and chivalrous conduct of the young men during their trial made a lasting impression on Ukrainian society.

How does Olzhych interpret this theme? The poet regards the exploit of the two Galician boys as an occasion for a broader and more important discussion. It is an opportunity to address a number of pressing problems. First of all, it is the formation in Ukrainians of the character of an uncompromising warrior, who is prepared to lay down his life for the liberation of his native land.

In his characteristic manner, which resembles the flashing and clanking of a sharp sword, Olzhych gives no quarter to the enemies of Ukraine. The Rubicon has been crossed and the barrier of moral weakness is overcome: every victim now calls for revenge. From now on, all things personal and associated with comfort must recede to the background. Only the “spirit of the eternal elements,” which unites millions, will lead to long-awaited freedom:

Everyone must work, / and the heart beats like a hammer. / Cursed be my flesh / that is weaker than my spirit.
Although the heroes’ names are not mentioned in the poem, the spirit of Bilas and Danylyshyn pervades it. All the author’s meditations are filtered through the prism of their feat. Even when the poet appeals to the nation, he does it on behalf of those two fallen heroes. Hence his assertive and strong voice, absolute conviction, and faith in the strength and grandeur of his nation.

The exploit of Bilas and Danylyshyn was a model of the courage and sacrificial spirit of the generation to which Olzhych belonged. It was one of the most tragic events that strongly affected the feelings and consciousness not only of the Galicians but the entire Ukrainian nation.

The third collection, Pidzamcha, is full of philosophical meditations. It is a synthesis of the two previous collections, in which the poet presents in wonderful harmony his personal feelings, historiosophical visions, and rhythms of his era. Although the collection’s thematic and ideological range is broad, the leitmotif of the poet’s oeuvre faith in the nation’s mission, man, his virtues and truths is dominant here:

The bright flickering of the cinema. / Ashes of the dead that soar aloft. / You, human, are one and eternal, / the child of the earth and vast expanses. / Neither the dead stones of the city, / nor the brute force of machines / will ever stifle your dream / or curb your passion.

Faith in man is hyperbolized and reaches the limits of pain. Olzhych establishes high standards for the individual when he throws his hero into the inferno of the struggle, but his feat is not only the result of an immense power of spirit but also his awareness of belonging to the spiritual linchpin of the Ukrainian people. He is conscious of being an element that creates a nation of masters, knights and creators.

In his poetry Olzhych actively promotes values that emphasized the heroic essence of Ukrainians and the Ukrainian nation. “Having discovered a heroic life ideal, the nation is no longer afraid of any physical blows. With a blessing felt on its brow, always determined to follow its own way, and born in a revolution, contemporary Ukraine is calmly braving the winds and storms, knowing that they will eventually die out but she will remain behind,” he wrote in an article.

Olzhych was shaping the nature of the Ukrainian person because he wanted the Ukrainian nation to have an iron character.

Olzhych was deeply interested in questions of cultural policy. He wrote several serious articles on this topic, in which he examined the influence of culture on the spiritual life of society and the individual, on the formation and development of nations. In his articles the poet tries to reinterpret “Ukrainian national cultural content.”

Olzhych passionately endorsed the idea of “new Ukrainian spirituality.” He was convinced that “spiritual sovereignty” was the most valuable prize of the national liberation struggle that the Ukrainian people had waged in 1917-22. Unlike most ideologues of Ukrainian nationalism of his time, who harshly criticized the political elite of the UNR period for its failure to respond adequately to internal and external challenges, in an article entitled “To the 20th Anniversary, Olzhych wrote: “Yet the very fact that the Ukrainian nation managed to declare via its legitimate representatives its will in a number of official legal acts in those years laid the impregnable groundwork for its further efforts in the struggle and for making the Ukrainian cause known abroad. After many centuries Ukraine has come forth, delineating its territory as a subject of international law, offering broad links with the outside world, and thereby positioning itself in history.”

Although the UNR, as the state of the Ukrainian nation, failed to resist the pressure of foreign forces, above all, Bolshevik Russia, Olzhych believed that the main achievement of its brief existence was that Ukraine ceased to be an ideological province. “Since then its spirituality is distinct and self-sufficient: the mission of this spirituality lies in the future.”

Therefore, appealing to history is a feature of Olzhych’s methodological approach to questions that are linked to the interpretation of the place and role of culture in the spiritual life of a nation. He uses historiosophism as a kind of a magnifying glass to view the strong and weak sides of the national body. His main goal is to find in the past the “fulcrums” on which the nation can rest today in order to gain political sovereignty, in addition to spiritual. “Only a national culture based on spiritual nature and historical tradition ensures the organic manifestation of the creative forces of the individual and the nation,” Olzhych notes in his article “Ukrainian Culture.”

As a painstaking researcher of Ukraine’s history and culture, Olzhych arrives at the conclusion that “heroicalness,” as a characteristic feature of Ukrainian culture and spirituality, has been a reliable linchpin that has allowed the nation to keep its spiritual spine straight throughout the centuries. Analyzing the different stages of the Ukrainian nation’s historical past, he focuses on the fact that the lofty feeling of “heroicalness,” or “heroic spirit,” has never abandoned the Ukrainians and, in the complex situations of an historical impasse, has allowed the preservation of optimism as the basis of national progress.

While Olzhych considered “heroicalness” an integral part of national spirituality, he regarded “glory” as its principal idea: “The foremost idea of Ukrainian spirituality is ‘glory’ during an entire historical perspective.” In a later article, “Nationalistic Culture,” he developed this idea: “The most important idea of the Ukrainian people since the dawn of the ages has been the Idea of Glory, i.e., the indisputable value of the individual’s heroic self.” As an example, he cites The Tale of Ihor’s Campaign, in which the leitmotif is “to seek honor for yourself and glory for the prince.” The Zaporozhian Cossack Army also sought “glory,” and, finally, “the central idea of Shevchenko’s spirit and all modern Ukrainian literature is ‘Glory to Ukraine.’”

Olzhych’s idealistic world perception prompted him to ponder the question of the spiritual continuity of generations. As a result of his comprehensive historical studies, he concludes that Ukrainian spirituality regards a national community primarily through the idea of Origin. In the above-mentioned article the poet stresses that it is the “idea of Origin” that gave birth to the entire “power of the Ukrainian State and renaissance.” Awareness of origin is typical of various historical eras, but this perception was manifested particularly during the Cossack era. “The entire Cossack expansion,” Olzhych says, “grew out of the myth and grandeur of the ‘glorious and great’ Rus’ people.” It is no accident that every new stage of the national liberation movement begins with a consideration of predecessors’ achievements. For instance, Ukrainian artists so admire the princely period because it is the primary source of national power.

Olzhych devised a clear concept of the so-called new Ukrainian spirituality which, on the one hand, mirrored his own philosophical persuasions and, on the other, laid claim to being the ideological basis of the modern-day nationalist movement to which the poet himself belonged.

It is not by chance that he preferred speaking not so much about “Ukrainian” culture as “nationalist” culture. He was convinced that “the spiritual and historical efforts of the Ukrainian nation, manifested in the form of a nationalist movement, are creating a totally new reality for people in all areas of life. This is also creating a distinctly new culture. So we can speak of a Ukrainian nationalist culture.”

An example of this culture is unquestionably the works of Olzhych and an entire school of art that was formed in the 1920s and 1930s under the influence of Ukrainian nationalist ideas. The journal Literaturno-naukovyi visnyk, edited by Dmytro Dontsov, was a center where the new “nationalist spirituality” was being tempered. This publication rallied the young generation of Ukrainian poets whom Dontsov called a pleiad of “tragic optimists.” Besides Dontsov himself, this group included Yevhen Malaniuk, Oleh Olzhych, Olena Teliha, Yurii Lypa, Yurii Klen, and many other artists whose ideological and esthetic principles formed the basis of the concept of nationalist culture. Even today the works of the “tragic optimists” are a model of the heroic style and lofty commitment aimed, above all, at forming full-fledged personalities capable of sacrificially serving and defending the interests of their nation.

The formation of a “new generation” devoid of various national inferiority complexes was a leading idea in the nationalist intellectual milieu. Yevhen Onatsky, a well-known nationalist figure, wrote in the early 1930s: “Parochialism and provincialism are the two main enemies that we must defeat. This is the front on which we should focus all the strength of our character in order to rouse the dormant creative spirit of our people, to make them, especially intellectuals and leaders, understand the real necessity of a true spiritual imperialism.” Drawing the spiritual portrait of a Ukrainian, Yulian Vassyian, a prominent OUN ideologist, noted: “‘A principled approach’ and ‘persuasion’ is often an ostensible pose without any feeling of responsibility, behind which lie laziness, moral cowardice, empty ambition, and a lust for titles. ‘Patriotism,’ ‘Fatherland,’ ‘the common cause’ are often objects for personal use: they exist for a person who may be shouting at the top of his voice about having to absolutely devote himself to the nation.”

As an OUN member, Olzhych had a firm nationalistic outlook. At the same time, he tried hard to develop the nationalist ideology and adapt it as much as possible to the real needs of the nation. Because Ukrainian national history was an inexhaustible source of new ideas and thoughts, he studied constantly and, hence, knew his history well. Thus, he spared no effort to shatter deep-seated myths and stereotypes that projected the image of the Ukrainian people as “sowers of buckwheat” and incurable pacifists.

On the contrary: historical evidence shows, as Olzhych declared in the article “Ukrainian Historical Awareness,” that “the imperial ideal never left the nation” and Ukrainian spirituality rests on a courageous and active way of life. Indeed, “the sword, which the Scythians once deified in the Dnipro steppes and which old Kyiv blacksmiths used to make so well later, became the symbol of Ukraine and her historical destiny.” Yet Olzhych did not have a superficial view of “militarism” or the aspiration of a nation for the “imperial tendency.” He wrote: “Militarism is a universal outlook and moral that forms individuals and peoples. It regards the enemy not as a criminal or a degenerate but also as a person deep, creative, and wise whom the tragedy of life is forced to fight you from the other side.”

This perception of a nation’s historical destiny was reflected in his understanding of nationalism, the characteristic features of which should be “the idea of the perfection and unity of a nation, aspiration for its all-round external expansion, the principle of strong leadership, militancy, with its entire hierarchy of virtues, belief in the mission of the Ukrainian nation, and heroism in serving the national ideal.”

Finally, Olzhych consistently championed the concept of “one’s own forces.” “A nation that believes that a certain neighboring country or empire will build it a state will never be able to stand on its two feet and will always remain a paralytic, and its political groups will be the back wheels of foreign agents,” he wrote in a letter to his father Oleksandr Oles.

He was one of the few Ukrainian politicians who cautioned against the temptation of bringing freedom to Ukraine on the tips of German bayonets. “Germany is a wild boar chased by wild dogs,” Olzhych noted. “He rushes into the densest thickets to get rid of them, but they won’t let him go and they make him bleed. Every now and then he stops, turns around, and tears one of the dogs to pieces, but the rest still won’t let go of him, and finally he will fall down from exhaustion and be a boar corpse.” This categorical statement was made in 1940, when there were rather strong pro-German sentiments among the members of various political circles that wanted to play the German card for Ukraine’s benefit.

The highly regarded literary scholar Yurii Boiko once suggested that it would be worth creating “a cult of the glorious poet and revolutionary.” It is my belief, however, that it is difficult to categorize Olzhych by attaching a clear-cut ideological or esthetic label to him. The words that Malaniuk once said about Mykola Khvylovy are equally applicable to Oleh Olzhych: “He is a figure, a personality, a living person, one of the few people whose physical death does not hinder them from living on.”

#23, Tuesday, 31 July 2007
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