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"A Wide and Free Range of Thought..."

 

Toward the end of 1915 several district police headquarters in Poltava Province were ordered to mount a search for a certain Rudhan, alias Rudchan, alias Mirny. The wanted man, who had supposedly gone underground, was described as a "prominent member of the Ukrainian movement." However, these orders were never acted on whether through sheer inefficiency on the part of the imperial bureaucratic machine, whose operation had been becoming increasingly erratic since the beginning of the First World War, or because the local officialdom was not entirely devoid of common sense. Meanwhile, the fugitive from justice, whom the police had not even managed to identify, was none other than Panas Rudchenko, who headed the provincial government's department of finance with the rank of Councillor of State (civil service equivalent of general). A mere handful of his countrymen also knew him as Panas Mirny, one of the Ukraine's most prominent writers. This in itself describes the position of Ukrainian literature, which the czarist officials had been trying to reduce to the status of something suspect at all times and second-rate at best. As a result, Mirny's novels and short stories were usually published long after they had been written, except for a few which were printed abroad.
Reviewing the history of the Ukraine's national literature, ridden with obstacles but by no means lacking in accomplishments and famous names, Ivan Franko praised the objective epic prose of Panas Mirny. He saw him as one of those artistic spirits who, outwardly impassive and seemingly un-involved, "nevertheless are not immune to new ideas and literary forms but perceive them strictly as genuine artists" and use them "to gain a deeper insight into the spirit of society and to portray it more exactly."
But then, Panas Mirny's literary style was but a projection of his modest, thoughtful and conscientious self, shaped by the need to divide his time between the exemplary discharge of his official duties and the writer's desire to "show the tragedy of human life, and man's lofty soul and warm heart as they exist in the world."
Mirny's entire life was spent in the Poltava area: in Mirhorod (where he was born on May 13, 1849), Hadyach, Priluki and Poltava itself. Panas was just 14 when his father Yakiv Rudchenko, a district official, got him a clerical appointment and sent him to work, advising him to do his job well and to get on with his higher-ups. His son was to follow this advice and become extremely thorough and hardworking both as a civil servant and as a writer.
At the beginning, he had an excellent example to follow that of his own brother Ivan (18451905), who combined the civil service routine with other interests. In the 1860s and 70s, Ivan gathered ethnographic materials, published a collection of folk songs and contributed serious critical articles (signed Ivan Bilik) to the Lviv-based magazine Pravda. He was to become Panas's closest confidant and even the co-author of the novel Do Oxen Low when Mangers are Full? and of the long story Fetching Water. Later, Ivan Rudchenko's highly successful career would gradually lead him away from literature, but all through the 1860s the two brothers shared a keen interest in the Ukrainian letters that kept up with the Ukraine's general wave of cultural revival.
This was a time when Russia's capitalist development was spurred on by the czarist reform of 1861, which abolished legal serfdom but failed to quell revolutionary sentiments. As Friedrich Engels noted, the country contained elements of all the intermediate stages of civilization, from feudalism through capitalism, generating the most fantastic and quaint ideas. In combatting liberal tendencies, czarism resorted to the forced Russification of non-Russian peoples. This is why the populist movement in the Ukraine, when many intellectuals went to the countryside to win the peasants over to the revolutionary cause, often intertwined but did not merge with the cultural and educational activities of the so-called Hromadas. These were associations of the Ukrainian intelligentsia campaigning for the unimpeded development of the national culture. While persecuting the populist revolutionaries, the authorities also cracked down on these liberal societies. Panas Mirny, who maintained close contacts both with the Poltava populist group Uniya (Union) and the Hromadas' activists in Poltava (Dmitro Pilchikov) and in Kiev (Mikhailo Drahomanov, Mikola Lisenko and others), thus possessed firsthand knowledge of the intelligentsia's aspirations and collective psychology. And when harsh reaction had set in, he did not waver but continued to deepen his understanding of the basic social issues. This self-possessed finance officer in the employ of the provincial government had extraordinary willpower and, as Mikhailo Kotsyubinsky put it, "a wide and free range of thought."
Panas Mirny's very first story The Devil's Work (1872) is about a village girl, seduced and abandoned by a farmhand just as miserable as herself, whom her own brother throws out of his house along with her baby when she is sick. The story points to the need to examine the conditions that make people so utterly defenseless, both socially and spiritually. The author dispenses with the condescendingly sympathetic tone in portraying the peasantry, preferring to show his heroes in direct collision with an increasingly widespread atmosphere of deception, meanness and demoralization, to which neither the lower nor the upper strata of society are immune. From then on, the problem of the "enslaved personality" would remain central to Mirny's entire literary work.
In most of Panas Mirny's writings, the author's attention is centered upon society's pariahs: a petty clerk, weak of will and ruined by drink, who briefly ceases to be a servile toady only when he plays the violin (The Drunkard. 1874); a peasant to whom robbery is a natural protest against arbitrary rule based on force and inequality (Chipka. 1871); a girl who is driven to prostitution by the atmosphere of falsity and corruption, prevalent among her "betters" (The Harlot, early 1900s). Panas Mirny does not resort to naturalistic descriptions of his heroes; his imagery is based on their resistance, more or less determined, to the adversities of fate.
The writer's greatest success was his novel Do Oxen Low when Mangers are Full? based on the real story of a robber named Hnidka, a corrupted child of the times. Panas Mirny first mentioned him in an article, then wrote the long story Chipka and after that spent a long time writing the novel, which was thoroughly reviewed by his brother Ivan (Ivan Bilik). The latter also contributed several chapters and improved the composition of the novel. The earlier long story deals mostly with Chipka's robberies, whereas the novel, enlarged with numerous parallel plots and digressions, presents an epic narrative of the plight of the Ukrainian peasantry from the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich to the aftermath of the ill-conceived 1861 reform.
The novel covers about a hundred years of Ukrainian history and takes the reader to many places, such as the village of Piski, the district town of Hetmanske, the Ukrainian South, army barracks in Russia, battlefield in Hungary, etc. It presents a broad range of characters, including Cossacks, serfs, the gentry, the upper nobility, local government officials, civil servants, soldiers and declasse outcasts. The action is centered upon the life story of Chipka Varenichenko, a village boy who grows up without a father, suffers humiliations all through his childhood and youth and nurses some very real grievances against "the masters." His attempts to make a living as a farmer come to an abrupt end when his land is taken away from him. His hopes dashed, he gravitates toward a bunch of loafers and thieves. The fortunes of Chipka are followed against the background of another life story that of Maxim Hudz, the descendant of a Zaporozhian Cossack and a daredevil who tries to defeat the deadening army routine with self-enrichment and carousing. The novel also presents the saga of the Polskis, a family of nobles whose widely ramified clan the emancipation reform finds firmly in control of the entire district, which is thoroughly pervaded with their debasing influence. Gradually, the authors lead the reader to the understanding of the true causes behind the rising popular discontent.
The image of Chipka cements the novel, personifying the human spirit which revolts against injustice. Although his life seems to take a turn for the better after he marries the girl he loves and sees himself elected to the zemstvo council, he is greatly discouraged by the commoners' inertia and the bosses' unfair practices. "This world is large and wide but there's no place for me in it! If only I could, I would have demolished it and built up a new one instead..." this cry from the heart sums up Chipka's disenchantment. Unable to combat injustice singlehanded, he turns to crime.
The novel presents a collective image of the common people, who waver between spontaneous outbursts of protest and timid obedience. Among them we find the wise old shepherd Ulas and the three crystal-pure female characters Chipka's mother, his wife Halya, and the thoughtful orphan Khristya. Hritsko represents a new wave of peasantry able and hardworking but blinded by greed. This type is examined in greater detail in the long stories The Trouble of Long Ago and of Today and The Harlot.
But the chief merit of the novel Do Oxen Low when Mangers are Full? lies in the far-ranging epic analysis of those causes which turned the people's strength, the flower of the Ukrainian nation, into the "wasted strength."
With much of Mirny's time and energy being consumed by office routine, many of his projects remained unrealized. His unfinished long story The Hungry Freedom, portraying the peasantry's wide disenchantment with the "emancipation," saw print only in the Soviet period. An interesting image of the "rebel spirit" may be found in the long story Fetching Water. Several characters from these and other works were developed in The Trouble of Long Ago and of Today, which assessed serfdom and the emancipation from the point of view of the common man and warned the working people against disunity, showing the moral degradation of commoners accustomed to toadying to their masters.
But Mirny's literary heritage consists not only of epic works. He left several plays, one of which, Limerivna, continues to be staged in Ukraine's theaters, and numerous translations, including King Lear by Shakespeare, The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow, The Maiden of Orleans by Schiller and The Lay of Igor's Host. He also wrote many articles for the Poltava newspaper Ridniy Kray (Homeland).
After Soviet power had been established in Poltava, Panas Mirny continued to report to work almost until his death, which came on January 28, 1920. Today, his work remains a rich and pure source of profound thoughts about the human spirit. Even though Panas Mirny never graduated from a college or university, this man of duty and high integrity was an intellectual in the true sense of the word, who met the very high standards he set for himself and had genuine respect for the written and spoken word.

Rostislav Mishchuk, Cand. Sci. (Philology)


 

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