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Alla Horska, a once and future artist
Yevhen SVERSTYUK, a Shistdesyatnyk himself,
“Shistdesyatnyky (literally — those who lived in the sixties) — a generic term applied to a group of literati, artists and scholars of Ukraine who, having realized the criminal nature of the soviet communist system and rejecting dogmas of “socialist realism”, in the early 1960s, at the time of destalinization and “Khrushchev’s thaw” tried to stir national awareness through their works and public activities, struggled for the preservation of the Ukrainian language and culture, thus contributing to the democratization of social and political life in Ukraine… A lot of pressure was put on them by the soviet authorities and they were denied opportunities to make their works public… From the middle of the 1960s, Shistdesyatnyky began forming opposition to the communist regime and soon became active participants of the dissident movement in Ukraine.”
Dovidnyk z istoriyi Ukrayiny (History of Ukraine: Reference Book),
“There are few women like her in the whole world,” said Rayisa Moroz, a Shistdesyatnyk herself, of Alla Horska, another prominent Shistdesyatnyk. What courage and strength of character were required to go against the repressive communist regime, knowing there were only a handful of like-minded people, knowing they faced a struggle against great odds with imprisonment, torture and death being the rewards. Only those who knew it could appreciate Horska’s heroism in full.
Why do we turn to Alla Horska when there were many others among the Shistdesyatnyky who are better known and who made weightier contributions to the common cause of national revival?
Is it because of her tragic death? No, there is something else in our wanting to keep her name well remembered. There were many murders of talented people, and repercussions of those deaths, little as they were in those times, soon were overshadowed by other, even more gruesome events.
In fact, it was what those who had plotted and committed murders, hoped for — Horska’s death would also soon be forgotten. But her untimely death turned her into a very distinctive figure of the Shistdesyatnyky movement and those responsible for her death discovered to their amazement that Stalin’s pronouncement, “Eliminate a person, and you eliminate a problem,” did not work. Probably it was true as far as the party apparatchiks and functionaries were concerned but it fell short of being applicable to a person who devoted her life to quite a different cause and was prepared to sacrifice her life for it.
Similarly to other people of her circle and of her fate, she did not belong socially to the lower classes. She had more or less secure future established for her by being born into the family of a successful soviet functionary, she was talented, she was well-bred. She was at the top of her class in the art school she went to and at the Art Institute. Her artistic career had a very auspicious start. She married a gifted painter, Viktor Zaretsky; she had an apartment downtown Kyiv.
Everything seemed to have been set for a successful career but in the nineteen-sixties a tormenting question arises before many strong, cultured and gifted Ukrainians — what to do next?
Strong in spirit, that is, because those who were weak accepted their fate and the destiny of their country meekly. Neither those who were well-established in the soviet time were asking such questions.
The really talented people avoid everything which is false and choose the hard way to achieve their goals, eschewing the easy ways of “toeing the party line.”
A highly conscientious person seeks only the truth and will never do with half-truths. A wise person seeks his national and spiritual identity and does everything to reveal it. A courageous person seeks friends among the oppressed and those who are persecuted for the truth. A spiritually strong person moves against the current and even if at the outset conditions in the life of such a person were conducive to a career in a chosen field, moving against the current creates adverse conditions for this person. The fact that you were born into a loyal and successful (from the soviet point of view) family could actually make it worse for you — additional pressure would be put on you “to mend your ways, or else…”
Horska was a person of a strong physique who was reduced at times to work as a labourer. She was a sensitive person of a clear conscience and attempts were made to involve her in implicating people whom she hardly knew in crimes they had not committed. At the time when the wave of the national revival and liberation movement began to subside, she remained adamant in her adherence to the national cause. The soviet totalitarian regime could not stand such people. And after a number of “serious warnings” the regime struck.
It was very difficult in those times to withstand the tremendous pressure the regime put on such people as Alla Horska who, starting from 1963 when she befriended Vasyl Symonenko, did all she could to defend the prosecuted and prosecuted for the Ukrainian national cause. But the thing is that this defence was put up by those who were themselves persecuted and discriminated against. The popularity that such defenders gained could not hold against the vituperative and vicious attacks on “the Ukrainian bourgeois nationalist” coming from the soviet officials and the obedient and subservient media. Not a single word of praise about Shistdesyatnyky was allowed to be said in the press or in any other media.
It was not possible to withstand the coordinated attacks of the regime but it was possible to help others to survive and support them, morally and otherwise. Horska was one of those few who stood up for others knowing only too well that she would face persecution herself. She, similarly to Vasyl Stus and some others like him, was prepared for self-sacrifice.
We keep coming back to Alla Horska because we feel we lack people like her in our present-day society. We want her, posthumously, to continue struggle for the honour of the Ukrainian nation, for the lofty ideals.
Well-fed and well-paid beer guzzlers may laugh at these words. But they are not just words. In real life, quite real people of flesh and blood, who, in some respects, are “like everybody else” but who are stronger and higher in spirit, risk their lives in the minefields of the nation’s self-defense, protest in the face of the regime’s retaliation, and many others looking at them with wonder and respect think to themselves, “If there are people like these, risking everything for the big cause, then not everything is lost yet!” The risk-takers are an evidence of the fact that the spirit of struggle for the common cause and faith in it continues to live.
Cynics and detractors will say, “They’re just showing off. I’ve seen myself how one of them…” People like Alla Horska were no saints. Neither did they want to show off or play heroes. She just did what she thought she had to do and sometimes she did something that could be censured but she did it for achieving a higher goal. And she contributed more than many others.
When she started to learn the Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture, she, in spite of her growing knowledge, always remained an eager student. She seemed not to have been influenced in any way by the atheistic propaganda. She lived a highly spiritual life; she was highly conscientious, always ready to support a good cause; she had an ability to preserve her dignity in humiliating circumstances, she was committed to a noble cause — all of these qualities in her revealed the depth of her truly Christian nature. She knew how to respect things worthy of respect in others, and make others respect her.
Over three decades that passed since her death have not diminished this respect for her. Images engraved on our minds by the spirit are more lasting than the constructions of steel and cement erected by false regimes which, as time passes, begin to evoke mistrust and consternation — Why have these been built at all?
Alla Horska has a lot to say to the present-day generation of Ukrainians by her art and by her life. Her presence among us is both virtual and real. At the time of disillusionment and loss of faith she is a beacon.
Alla Horska and Ivan Svitlychny (poet, translator, literary critic and one of the Shistdesyatnyky — tr.) were age peers and back in 1964 both of them turned 35. Their friends set up in jest the Central Jubilee Committee, headed by Vyacheslav Chornovil, to celebrate their birthdays. There was more to it than an ironic parodying of the Communist Party Central Committee. Nobody at that time celebrated such dates ending with 5, but they did not think they would live long to celebrate their combined 70th birthday. Every person of their circle was aware that life might end soon, and yet they had in them the Cossack-like devil-may-care attitude to their future. Both Horska and Svitlychny felt it was their calling and duty to struggle for the Ukrainian national revival; they had many other things in common — modesty, for example.
In memory of Alla Horska
Rage, my soul. Rage against injustice,
but do not cry.
The sun of Ukraine is in the white frost.
Search for the red shadow the guilder rose
Casts upon the black waters —
Look for that shadow that falls
On a handful of us. Oh there’s so few of us,
Barely enough to say prayers, and hope.
All of us are doomed to die prematurely,
Because the blood of the guilder rose is as bitter
As the blood that is running in our veins.
Alla Horska was born in Yalta, the Crimea, in 1929. Her father, Oleksandr Horsky was a Ukrainian film producer, one of the pioneers of Ukrainian cinema. When the war broke out in June 1941, her mother and she found themselves in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and being unable to leave the city, they stayed there until the end of the Nazi blockade which killed hundreds of thousands. Horska and her mother survived. Later they moved to Kyiv where she went to an art school and then the Kyiv Art Institute to study painting.
In the early nineteen-sixties she joined the national revival movement which involved many intellectuals and artists of her generation. Though she had been raised in a Russian-speaking family (her parents were thoroughly Russianized), she started speaking exclusively Ukrainian. In 1962 she was one of the founders of the Kloob tvorchoyi molodi (Creative Youth Club) which played a significant role in Ukraine’s cultural life of that time (see article The Rebellious Generation). Alla Horska took it upon herself to organize meetings of Ukrainian, nationally minded intelligentsia and spread samvydav (literally: self-published, or published clandestinely) literature. Gradually, she became one of the leaders of the opposition movement (in the soviet times, “opposition” meant opposing the soviet regime in language, culture and the political sphere; it did not have a legal status, of course, and was brutally suppressed by the regime — tr.). Vasyl Symonenko and Les Tanyuk and Alla Horska discovered, after a long search, common graves of thousands of people who had been slaughtered by the soviet secret police in the terror of the nineteen-thirties. Horska was instrumental in providing help to the political prisoners and their families.
In 1964, jointly with other artists (Lyudmyla Semykina, Panas Zalyvakha and Halyna Sevruk), she created a stained-glass composition called Shevchenko. Mother in the Red Building of the Kyiv Shevchenko University. This stained-glass work depicted Taras Shevchenko who with one hand made a protective gesture over an abused woman that symbolized Ukraine, and in the other hand held an opened book with his words inscribed on its page: “These people, turned into slaves, will be glorified, and on their guard I shall put my word.” No sooner was the stained-glass work unveiled, it was brutally destroyed at night with crowbars on the order of the communist party and university officials. Alla Horska and Lyudmyla Semykina were expelled from the Union of Artists of Ukraine.
Expulsion meant she could not find any work in “the capital of the Soviet Ukraine” and she had to look for commissions elsewhere. Jointly with other artists, she created several monumental murals and other works in the Land of Donbas. These works were inspired by Ukrainian Baroque and of Mexican murals. Alla Horska’s art was based on the traditions of the Kyiv academic art school, folk art and Ukrainian avant-garde of the 1920s.
In the late nineteen-sixties she created a number of portraits of her contemporaries (B. Antonenko-Davydovych, V. Symonenko, I. Svitlychny and Yevhen Sverstyuk among them). Though her membership of the Union of Artists was renewed, she never stopped taking part in the dissident movement — she was often present at court hearings of the trials of the dissidents to provide moral support; she wrote protests to the persecuting bodies and the KGB, and was involved in other activities that the regime labelled “anti-soviet.” She was one of those who signed the Letter of Protest of 139 (see article The Rebellious Generation) and she was again expelled from the Artists’ Union.
In December 1970 Alla Horska was murdered in the town of Vasylkiv, in the Land of Kyivshchyna. An investigation that was carried into her murder in the 1990s by a public organization revealed that the soviet KGB was instrumental in her death.
The fact that Alla Horska was one of the leading exponents of the national-liberation, nation-revival and dissident movement overshadowed her achievements as an artist whose legacy includes dozens of murals and a great number of paintings and graphic works. We hope this oversight will be duly rectified.