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Les Kurbas, a theatre genius and a formidable and tragic figure in Ukrainian culture
Les Kurbas is a formidable and tragic figure in the Ukrainian culture of the twentieth century. After many years of suppression of his legacy and of his cultural contribution, he is being slowly brought back to Ukraine’s spiritual world.
“As a matter of fact, all my life has been made up of upsurges of lofty aspirations, faith and spiritual strength and of plunges into the night of spinelessness when the dark forces of my soul get the upper hand and rule the realm of Les Kurbas. And after all these inner battles, even at the time when the darkness reined supreme, I never stopped believing that the part of me which is full of light and has the ability to share the consciousness of the sea, of the mountains, of the clouds and of all the humanity in general, would win over. Somebody wise said, “Once a certain stage of spiritual enlightenment that has been reached, it will stay with us forever.” Even if you fall into a puddle of mud this enlightenment will be with you. The light will shine on and show the way, even if we have to crawl gropingly forward. It is the desire to attain the higher stages of spiritual enlightenment that prods me on.”
From the diaries of Les Kurbas.
Les (Oleksandr) Kurbas was born into the family of actors in the town of Sambir in western Ukraine on February 25 1887. Upon graduation from a hymnaziya (secondary school of advanced studies) in the city of Ternopil, he continued his studies at the University of Vienna, majoring in German and Slavic philology, and later at the University of Lviv; in 1911, he studied at a drama school in Vienna.
In 1909, while still a student, he organized his first theatrical group. In 1912, he began working as an actor; in 1916, Kurbas moved to Kyiv where he, together with several other young actors, founded the Molody Teatr (Youth Theatre), a theatre that promoted young actors. Kurbas’s another theatrical venture, the Kyivdramte, staged Shakespeare’s Macbeth, with Kurbas himself in the title role. In 1921, the Kyivdramte theatre moved to Kharkiv, the then capital of Ukraine, and some time later a theatre association, Berezyl, was formed which included actors’ and directors’ training studios. Later, it was at the Berezyl Theatre that Kurbas staged his ground-breaking plays; in fact, he created an avant-garde theatre with a new approach to staging and acting; Kurbas’ plays combined several visual and performing arts with literature, music, philosophy and psychology, they revolutionized the theatre and gave it a new dimension, and thus were important cultural rather than only theatrical events. The soviet authorities tolerated Kurbas and his theatre for some time but starting from 1931 harassment began which eventually led to his arrest in 1933; he was accused of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism” and of being a member of counterrevolutionary Ukrainian military organization, and in 1934 he was sentenced to a term in a concentration camp. Kurbas was executed in November 1937.
Let bygones be bygones?
Now, seventy years later, can we — or should we? — look at Kurbas and his contribution to the art of theatre and to culture in general only with a dispassionate eye of a culture historian? Theatre critics and historians are studying his theatrical legacy; some theatre directors claim they are followers of Kurbas and implement his ideas in their own work. But in this essay we shall be primarily concerned with Kurbas the witness and participant of the times he lived in, a greatly gifted human being caught in the maelstrom of history.
The tragedy of this person reflects the most tragic period in the history of Ukraine — and of humankind too — but it is hardly possible now, in the year 2007, to fully comprehend what it felt like to be deprived of all the rights of a human being and be shot like a rabid dog for being a theatre director who stages plays in a manner different from the one prescribed by the state.
In Ukraine of today voices, which seem to become a chorus, are heard calling for letting bygones be bygones, for leaving the past alone, for avoiding open discussions of the tragic events in Ukraine’s recent history. But can a nation come to terms with itself without coming to terms with its own history, without exploring the full truth, no matter how bitter or horrifying this truth may be?
This nation has not yet cleansed itself of the destructive burden of the soviet past, and the story of Kurbas’ life and death, one of millions of others who died as innocent victims of the most brutal regime in history, is a step in the direction of fully assessing the past in order to move on without the crippling burden of soviet myths.
Now, after years of silence about the most horrifying tragedies of the soviet past, we can talk freely about millions of deaths in the Holodomor (Great Famine) of 1932–1933, about untold numbers of Ukrainians who died in concentration camps and in Siberian exile, about deaths of the civilian population in WWII, which could be easily avoided, but paradoxically these numbers become meaningless, they lose their emotional impact. If we read, say, about the terrible consequences of the artificially created famine of the nineteen thirties, it is like reading about the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century — the avalanche of information leaves no room for emotional involvement; but when, for instance, you read a letter written by someone who survived the famine and described a nightmarish scene in which an emaciated child is crying because she does not have strength enough to bite off her own finger so that she could eat it, the emotional impact is quite different.
Kurbas’ life, talent and death make it possible for us to move from impersonal tragedy to a very personal one and thus better understand what it was like to be a greatly gifted, honest person at the time when all the cultural and moral values were being trampled under foot. The regime that condemned such a genius condemns itself.
Some personal and theatrical touches
Kurbas was a personality of such a magnitude that it would take immeasurably more than a magazine article to present him and his legacy more or less adequately. Before we come to the last years of Kurbas’ life, a couple of personal and theatrical touches from Kurbas’ life are provided which, hopefully, may help the reader get a little better understanding of Kurbas as a human and cultural phenomenon.
Les Kurbas carried a bullet that was lodged close to his heart until the bullet to his head ended his life. In 1913, Les Kurbas, at the age of twenty six, suffering from the unrequited love, shot himself. We know who the person he loved so much was — Kateryna Rubchakova (1888–1919), a drama actress and opera soprano, who worked at that time in the same theatre with Kurbas. The bullet was fired at close range from a small-caliber handgun. It did not kill Kurbas but it got lodged somewhere very close to his heart. The surgeon did not risk pulling the bullet out and it stayed in Kurbas’ chest until his death, causing occasional pain, particularly when he was excited and distressed.
In the 1920s, Kurbas went to Germany to deliver some lectures. At one of his lectures, which dealt with the art of expressionism in general and expressionism in the Ukrainian theatre in particular, and which was given by Kurbas in German, was present Bertolt Brecht, whose The Three Penny Opera staged in 1928, made him one of the leading theatre directors who revolutionized theatre. Brecht, similarly to Kurbas, was an adept of the synthetic theatre, which combined drama, music and visual arts. In 1935, Brecht went into exile and survived Nazism — Kurbas went to a concentration camp to die.
Among the closest associates of Les Kurbas were Mykola Kulish, a playwright, and Vadym Meller, an artist. Practically all of the plays staged by Kurbas in the late 1920s and early 1930s involved Kulish and Meller. One of their most extraordinary productions was Narodny Malakhiy (Folk Malachi) based on a play by Kulish. It was staged in 1927 and is considered by art critics and art historians to be one of the hundred best plays of the twentieth century. It is hardly possible to find definition for the play’s genre but probably it can be described as a philosophical parable with many layers of meaning.
The theatre of Kurbas, its amazing achievements and breakthroughs deserve a separate article which, hopefully, will be published in one of the future issues of Welcome to Ukraine Magazine.
In 1932, when Kurbas’ theatre was to mark its tenth anniversary, no celebrations were allowed. The financing was curtailed, and critical attacks on the theatre in the soviet press were becoming even more censorious and scathing.
The year 1933 was marked by millions of anonymous deaths of Ukrainian peasants who literally died of hunger. No help was given by the soviet state to rescue them from starvation.
Among those who died by their own hand that year was Mykola Khvylyovy, a remarkable Ukrainian writer, who, in spite of his communist leanings, succumbed under the critical pressure put on him by the soviet authorities. The final push came with the arrest of one of the fellow writers. Another significant suicide was that of Mykola Skrypnyk, people’s commissar (minister) of education, who had been a member of the Bolshevik party since 1897. The stage for purges and terror was set.
Shortly before the play Maklena Hrasa was to be premiered at Kurbas’ theatre, Kurbas was called to appear before the then communist boss of Ukraine P. Postyshev. Postyshev said that he considered Kurbas to be “the only director in Ukraine who would be able to develop the theatre in such a way so that it would be able to reflect the epoch of great transformations in a proper way,” adding that at the same time he (Kurbas) would be expected to revise what had been done by him in the theatre from the point of view of new “socialist understanding and goals of culture” and would condemn such renegades as Skrypnyk or Khvylyovy.
Kurbas replied that he “was an old veteran of the theatre” and as such could hardly change his views on what the theatre should be. The director invited Postyshev to come to see the premier, Maklena Hrasa, if he wanted to fully understand what it was all about.
After his talk with Postyshev, Kurbas invited the Berezyl actors to a get-together which proved to be a farewell party. At the party, Kurbas told the actors that his days at the theatre were numbered and called upon them to remember what they had achieved together and what their goals were, making it clear that there were hard times ahead. Those who survived “the hard times” later described what had been said at that party in their reminiscences. One of the actresses, Natalya Uzhviy, who was to become one of the leading figures of the Ukrainian theatre of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, cried, with tears streaming down her cheeks, “How can the theatre exist without Kurbas?”
No matter what, they decided to go ahead with the premiere. On September 23 1933, the square in front of the theatre was cordoned off by the police; secret police agents were everywhere. The top soviet and communist bosses, among them S. Kosior, V. Zatonsky and P. Lyubchenko, and the soviet secret police boss in Ukraine V. Balytsky came to see the premiere (in fact this first showing of the play was meant specifically for the soviet and communist bosses to see and pass their verdict whether it should be allowed to be shown to the general public). The audience was mostly made up of high-ranking soviet apparatchiks with a sprinkling of lesser mortals; the attendance of journalists was limited to a chosen few. There was no applause, and no comments.
Without receiving a go-ahead signal, Kurbas nevertheless announced that the play would be performed again on the next day. It was a full house and the play was awarded a rapturous and prolonged applause. The soviet authorities called it “a hostile act of anti-socialist forces” but for some reason they were rather slow in banning the play — Maklena Hrasa was performed several times before it was banned.
Punishment was soon to follow. On October 5 1933, Les Kurbas was removed from the directorship of the Berezyl Theatre, and his latest play and Kurbas himself were subjected to fierce criticism in the vituperative soviet style of the 1930s.
In spite of the direct threats to Kurbas and his theatre, three people proved to be courageous enough to support Kurbas and his theatrical ideas. Their names should be mentioned — in the atmosphere of massive terror one had to be extremely courageous to defend someone who was being criticized by the soviet regime. They were Ivan Maryanenko, a leading actor of long theatrical experience, Roman Cherkashyn, another actor, and Borys Balaban, a theatre director. But unfortunately their heroic moral and valorous support could already change nothing.
Several days later, one of the party bosses at the central committee of the communist party of Ukraine, Kileroh (Horelyk) invited the Berezyl actors to come to his office. The actors were treated to a sumptuous meal at which this Kileroh said that Kurbas would be returned to the theatre — as soon he understood his mistakes and changed his views. Quite unexpectedly, Natalya Uzhviy, who only several days before, lamented Kurbas’ dismissal, began, again with tears in her eyes, to thank the communist party for removing Kurbas and Kulish (the dramatist) from the Berezyl Theatre. She said that these two had led the theatre astray and that their experiments were “formalistic” and out of tune with the soviet socialist culture. She added that those present should not be surprised to see her tears — “these are tears of gratitude to the [communist] party,” which “cleansed the theatre of the enemies of the people.”
Uzhviy was indeed a very talented actress but her moral stand stood in startling contrast to that of those three brave men who publicly supported Kurbas. However, it would be probably wrong to accuse the actress of lack of moral fortitude now, so many years later. The 1930s were the times of unimaginable cruelty and terror and the absolute majority of people preferred survival to death — and the only way to survive then was to “follow the party line.”
Incidentally, many years later, on May 14 1962, at a memorial gathering dedicated to the 75th anniversary of Les Kurbas’ birthday (those were the times of a brief “thaw” in the cultural life of the Soviet Union when certain things, strictly banned before, were allowed — within certain limits, of course), Nalaya Uzhviy, again with ready tears in her eyes, thanked from the stage of a central culture centre, “the dear communist party and the soviet government for giving us back, at last, the name of our dear teacher, unforgettable and talented Oleksandr Kurbas.”
Arrest and death
Les Kurbas was arrested on December 28 1933 in Moscow where he had been invited to come to stage King Lear at one of the Moscow theatres. Kurbas refused to recognize any guilt at many interrogations he was subjected to. Torture was applied and no later than in February 1934 he was made to sign “confessions” in which he accused himself of joining all sorts of conspiracies aimed at killing the prominent members of the government and the party, and at overthrowing the soviet rule.
Ironically, many of those who instigated the purges among the Ukrainian intelligence either committed suicide or were arrested and executed by the soviet authorities after they had done their dirty and bloody job (Postyshev was among them — he was executed a year later after Kurbas). Some of those who “revealed the hostile nature of Kurbas and his theatre” and actively supported the measures taken by “the dear communist party” survived to become leading figures of the Ukrainian theatre, Hnat Yura among them. In 1934, he published an article, Natsionalistychna estetyka Lesya Kurbasa — Nationalistic Esthetics of Les Kurbas, in the magazine called For Marxist-Leninist Criticism, in which he “exposed all the stages of Kurbas’ pernicious nationalistic directorship of the theatre.” Yura claimed that practically all the plays staged by Kurbas were “a far cry from the progressive theatre of realism,” and that Kurbas catered to the lowly tastes of bourgeois philistines, and promoted obscurantism.
Kurbas was sentenced to five years in a concentration camp. The sentencing was done not by a court but by a triyka — three persons authorized pass verdicts and give sentences. There were thousands of such triykas in the then Soviet Union who sentenced millions of people to death or terms in concentration camps and in exile.
At his first concentration camp where Kurbas found himself in the end of 1934, there functioned a theatre — there were quite a few inmates who used to be actors and singers. An old building that happened to be situated in the vanity of the camp was transformed into a theatre. Dramas, operas and operettas were alternately staged there. This theatre allowed by the authorities to function in the otherwise inhumane conditions of the camp was both a cruel irony and a perverted mockery but at the same time it was the only respite from the horrors of the concentration camp life. It was not long before Kurbas took over the directorship of the theatre. But the first play he directed never premiered — Kurbas was moved to another concentration camp, on the Solovetski Islands in the White Sea, not too far south from the Arctic Circle.
Little is known about Kurbas in the Solovetski Islands. Archives and stories of some of those who miraculously survived show that Kurbas ran a sort of a theatre there too, but after several plays were staged, the theatre was closed and Kurbas was moved to a place which had much stricter and more severe conditions of detention.
One of the inmates, Pavlo Monakov from the village of Kalynivka not far from Kyiv, who was one of the seven inmates in the same cell with Kurbas said, in his recollections, that Kurbas who was full of energy and always ready with good advice and encouragement, was greatly respected by the inmates. “Once, after Kurbas had been moved to some other place, I saw one of the guards wearing Kurbas’ boots… When I saw that I immediately thought that Kurbas had been executed…”
Back in 1961, Kurbas’ widow received an official notification about her husband’s death, which stated that Kurbas died in November 1942 of brain hemorrhage. The recent research in the archives proved that Kurbas was among many who were executed in October 1937 when twenty years of the Bolshevik revolution was celebrated.
The special NKVD (Narodny Kommisariat Vnutrennich Del — People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) committee made up of Grigorovich, Zelensky and Kashketin, was authorized in October 1937 to give out death sentences to political prisoners — and hundreds of thousands were doomed to die then. To save bullets, many prisoners were herded into barges, which were then towed into the sea and sunk.
In 1997, the director of the Memorial Research Centre in St Petersburg, Russia, V. Yoffe discovered documents about the execution of 1,116 prisoners in the Solovetski camps, which were carried out at the end of October and in the first days of November 1937. Captain Matveyev was responsible for the death of one thousand one hundred and eleven people whom he shot with a handgun into the back of the head. The list of the prisoners executed on November 3 1937 contained the names of Les Kurbas — Number 177, and of Mykola Kulish, Number 178.
Matveyev was awarded with a vacation at the Black sea for his exertions; later he was given the Order of Lenin, and though he did get a term in prison “for abuse of power,” he was soon released and was given a big pension.
Should all of this be forgotten and consigned to oblivion?
Les Kurbas, his legacy and his death have become symbols of cultural and personal challenge and achievement which no political and human brutality could suppress.
Based on Les Tanyuk’s book Talan i talant Lesya Kurbasa —
Talent and Fate of Les Kurbas, which was published in Kyiv in 2007; Les Tanyuk
is head of the National Union of Theatre Workers of Ukraine and member of parliament.
Photos have been provided by Les Kurbas Center
A scene from the play Narodny Malakhiy;
Les Kurbas. Kharkiv, 1920s.
The last known photograph of Les Kurbas