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Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat

By Ann Komaromi

The Electronic Archive “Project for the Study of Dissidence and Samizdat” (PSDS) includes the database of Soviet samizdat periodicals, electronic editions of selected samizdat journals, illustrated timelines of dissident movements, and interviews with activists. The Project aims to make rare materials more widely available and to provoke questions about the trajectories of groups and individuals within the varied field of Soviet dissidence and nonconformist culture.

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Mykola Riabchuk

Interview with Mykola Riabchuk by Anna Chukur, assistant on the project “The Unofficial Texts of Late Soviet Culture: A Catalogue of Samizdat Periodicals,” directed by Ann Komaromi.

Interview date: 31 March 2008.

Place: Kyiv, Ukraine

Transcript and translation: Anna Chukur

Editing: Ann Komaromi

Published: November 2014

 

Mykola Riabchuk – I think now it is difficult for you to understand how limited the technical possibilities of samvydav[1] were at that time, as there was no access to Xerox machines. Actually, copy machines did exist at the time, but there was no access to them, because they were closely watched by the KGB. Even if someone had access it was too dangerous. It could lead to criminal charges.  We tried to produce SKRYNIA by acting, if not completely legally, at least so as to avoid political persecution. SKRYNIA was altogether avowedly apolitical. However, ideologically it was a modernist almanac and it did not conform to the canon of Socialist Realism – but that was a different problem. We printed SKRYNIA, like the majority of samvydav editions of that period, using a typewriter and thin onion skin paper. There were copies typed on regular paper, but there were also copies made on onion skin paper. We could produce about 4-5 copies using regular, thick paper and around 10-12 using onion skin paper; it depended how we typed, what kind of a typewriter we had...

            As far as I know, we made only one run using regular paper and another using onion skin paper. Halia Chubai typed every copy. She was a professional typist, so Hrytsko [Chubai] had all the technical apparatus at hand. When she was younger, Halia worked as a typist, so she could do it quite well, quite fast and efficiently. So, she had typed the whole thing. I think that the length of the periodical was not that large, about 30 pages or so… That’s about it. The only thing that we really cared about was a hard cover illustrated with drawings. It was drawn by Volodymyr Onyshchenko, a painter who at the time was finishing […] the Lviv Institute of Applied and Decorative Art, it seems to me he was majoring in graphic art. Moreover, Onyshchenko was godfather to Hrytsko Chubai’s children, so there he had his wife, his good friend …

            So, everything was working out quite well. Onyshchenko, as I recall, offered many different models for the cover, but we eventually agreed on the one that we had. It was a stylized folkloric ornamental design that at the same time alluded to 1920s publications of the Narbut school[2]. It was a slight allusion to those periodicals but at the same time the cover had to be quite modern. In fact, the cover design was similar to the Narbut-school covers; it looked folkloric but it was also modern. This cover design emphasized continuity in traditions. The fact that the cover was graphically drawn allowed us to reproduce it similarly to typed texts. I should also add, by the way, that the KGB censors, who later wrote reviews and evaluated the periodical, noticed this. One of the points from their review was that the cover of our almanac was similar to nationalist periodicals from the 1920-30s. They stressed the word “nationalist.” In a way they were right.  

            So, this was the way we produced the periodical; it was bound with regular large staples, as far as I remember. These staples could punch through 30 pages; and then the cover was pasted on top of it. So, the leaves with typed text were bound and then the illustrated cover was attached. This way you could not see the staples, it looked kind of neat. Moreover, we used hard paper for the cover; the graphic art was made on thick paper.

 

Anna Chukur – Did you photograph the journal? Did someone else copy it?

 

MR – No, we did not photograph it. There were only typed copies. Those copies that we did manage to produce, they were only for our friends and acquaintances, only for us. I think that was our strategy. There were no plans to circulate the almanac widely.

 

AC – Did you distribute the journal outside of your circle of friends?

 

MR – I think we did not have enough time for that. The idea was, obviously, to distribute it among friends. In fact, all samvydav was circulated through friends. Everything went from friends to their friends, and beyond, to their friends…

 

AC – Do you know if any of your friends copied the issues…?

 

MR – No…

 

AC – And gave them to other readers...?

 

MR – No, I think that they did not manage to copy anything, because everything that was produced was confiscated at Hrytsko’s house; or Chornovil had a copy, for example, which was taken away. Kalyntsi’s copy was confiscated, etc. There were copies confiscated at people’s places. Almost nothing was preserved. As I recall, Stakh Smyrnov has a copy, someone else had it...

 

AC – You seem to have pointed out that Chubai’s wife has a copy of the almanac. Is it the one that Gabor used for his reprint?

 

MR –  No, no, no... She has a copy, but I do not know whose copy it is. I think some friends gave it to her. Their [Chubai’s] copies were appropriated during house searches. I think no one had time or opportunity to distribute the almanac. Moreover, there were no plans to circulate it more widely. It did not contain any political propaganda – it was an artistic journal. We had plans to produce it for our bohemian community. It would have been ok if it had reached other cities. However, there were no specific plans for mass propaganda. I think the journal did not get far. But rumors about the journal were spreading. SKRYNIA was immediately associated with various rumors, even more so when the KGB started interrogating us and when we were expelled from our universities. It became a kind of a legend; though, in fact, it was a very humble project. We managed to make one issue and there were plans to publish issue No. 2. Materials were collected for the second issue, but it was not published because all the searches of people’s homes happened at the beginning of 1972.

 

AC – When did you produce the first issue – in 1971?

 

MR – We produced issue No. 1 in the fall of 1971.

 

AC – Did you include an issue number on the cover?

 

MR – No.

 

AC – But you planned to produce it periodically?

 

MR – Yes, it was an almanac.

 

AC – So, you were thinking about the second issue?

 

MR – Only the colour of the cover was supposed to be different.

 

AC – But the format was supposed to be the same?

 

MR – Absolutely the same. The format was limited because the size had to be ‘А4’. We had another possibility: we could cut the journal in half. Samvydav books were produced that way. They were cut in half, and they were then format ‘А5.’

 

AC – What did you want to put in the second issue? What materials did you plan to include?

 

MR – As far as I remember, my short story “Dwelling” (“Житло”) was to be there. I know this, because I gave it to the editors. My story “Carry Your Own Nimbus” (“Неси свій німб”) was included in the first one, and “Dwelling” was to be in the second one. It was also a surreal, Kafkaesque short story with certain possibly even political allusions. You can always find political references in Kafka. Then there was supposed to be another poem by [Oleh] Lysheha and Chubai’s translations. Besides those pieces, Chubai really wanted us to give written answers to the "Questionnaire" compiled by Roman Kis’, which was included in the first issue. He articulated certain aesthetic problems there and we wanted to have discussions about it.

            Actually, maybe that is why issue No. 2 was delayed, as Chubai was waiting for us to write our answers. That was the first time in my life that I had learned about the word “questionnaire.” Kis’ always loved such intellectual words. He was the wisest in the circle: he was the most well-read, and he spoke very floridly. I could not get this word “questionnaire” out of my head, since I had never heard it before. It seems so easy now when you know English and French, it’s not even a problem. But back then, I had never heard the word “questionnaire.” I thought, “What on earth is it?” Well, it does not matter now. In any case, we had to answer these questions, and so it did not get to [issue No. 2].

 

AC – Can we [go back to] the very beginning? How did you come to be involved in samvydav production and unofficial culture in general? Can you tell me in more detail how you started publishing SKRYNIA, whose idea it was? Where did that idea originate? 

 

MR – You see, the idea was 100% Chubai’s, as I understand it. He was the soul of our group, the promoter of all our projects. I don’t know how the idea came to be. It was decided. I was told that we were making an almanac. I don’t know with whom he discussed it, the idea of the almanac… I think that he maybe… Kis’ was the most dependable advisor in these affairs, certainly he was a think-tank. However, I think that Chubai also respected Lysheha. Lysheha had taste in art, although he was a sort of an outsider and a little bit of a “maverick,” as they say in English. But he was very perceptive and refined as far as aesthetic questions were concerned.

 

AC – Why this title, why SKRYNIA? Where did the title come from?

 

MR – It is difficult for me to say, I do not know why this title. Maybe we had in mind a subconscious or conscious reference to hermeticism, to being closed, meaning that we have our own skrynia (chest) in our own group. Maybe we subconsciously alluded to “writing into the drawer.” At the same time this title allowed us to play with the folkloric designs that were on the cover; it allowed us to play even with the translation, because SKRYNIA, like all Soviet Ukrainian publications of that time, had information at the beginning, which was translated into Russian (the title of publication etc.). There was also written in brackets there “SUNDUK. In Ukrainian” (СУНДУК. На украинском языке). This was clearly a parody, for this “сундук” [Russian for skrynia] sounded completely ridiculous. It is hard for me to explain why this title was chosen. As I said, I did not participate in choosing the title. I accepted it, and it was sort of natural. This name was later transferred to the entire circle. Although the group as such was not officially established. It was not called “Skrynia” back then, but post factum people started saying: “This is the group ‘Skrynia’,” “Chubai and ‘Skrynia’.” “Skrynia” became a larger name.

            I got involved in it because of Chubai; Iryna Kalynets’ introduced us. My “dissidence” began, practically speaking, when I got to know Iryna Kalynets’. It was pretty easy to meet her since she worked at my school. She was a librarian there. She was not allowed to teach. She was the head of the school library, and she gradually gave my friends and me something to read, books that were not considered desirable [by the establishment] for reading. She started with easier texts which were seemingly legal but not encouraged or sanctioned for reading. First, she offered us works of shistdesiatnyky [Ukrainian poets of the 1960s], then the books that were published in Ukrainian in Presov, Slovakia – by Vynnychenko, Antonych. Those books had good introductions. Aside from the fact that these editions were really good, the introductions to them were high quality as well and they opened up the literary process of the 1920s, the complexity of this literary process. If I am not mistaken, Iryna Kalynets’ introduced Chubai to me and a couple of my classmates probably in 1970. Chubai was at her place and she once introduced him as a poet to us, then she asked him to read some of his works. He was hesitant, did not know what to read and she said: “But of course, read The Puppet Show (Vertep). What else?” It was obvious for Iryna Kalynets’ that Chubai’s most ingenious work was his long poem Vertep, although very soon Chubai became indifferent to Vertep.

            In any case, he read it well and I did not have the slightest doubt that he was an ingenious poet. I had goose bumps when he was reading it. He read it in a mesmerizing voice. He had this absolutely hypnotic way of reading, but aside from that the poem was very powerful. It was a big inspiration for me, the fact and the feeling that there are such people and that you are not the only one, but there are many of us who are likeminded and truly talented – that this is not just a ghetto, but this ghetto consists of strong and prominent talents. So, then he asked me to drop by and gave me his address. I visited him on some occasion and so we became friends. I was truly interested. At Chubai’s place I met Lysheha. I met [Viktor] Morozov there.

 

AC – You mentioned the cover of the periodical and that it was done in a dialogue with Ukrainian periodicals of the 1920-30s. Did you think of SKRYNIA as an answer to some other journal, official or unofficial?

 

MR – No, I don’t think so.

 

AC – Did you think of a wider context?

 

MR – I don’t think so. You see, I was 17-18 years old. I did not know much; I was finishing high school and then studied at the [Lviv] Polytechnic Institute. My knowledge was limited. Chubai knew the 1920s well; the periodicals from the 1920s, so I think he consciously alluded to them. However, as I said, this is my post factum analysis. At that time I did not think why it was this way. Although my intuition told me that there is some continuity, that we are renewing that pre-war literary tradition indeed, only on a different level. I think Chubai and Onyshchenko, who prepared the cover, consciously referred to that tradition.

 

AC – Was Chubai the editor of SKRYNIA?

 

MR – Yes.

 

AC – Was there an established editorial board?

 

MR – No, he selected all the texts himself. I mean, there was no particular strategy as it was an almanac, not a journal; we just took the most recent texts. If anyone wrote anything new, they gave it for publication in our almanac.

 

AC – What were your responsibilities? What were Lysheha’s, Morozov’s responsibilities?

 

MR – We did not have any responsibilities.

 

AC – So you just gave your works for publication?

 

MR – Yes, it was an almanac, and we just gave our texts. You see, I would put it this way: SKRYNIA was a continuation, a formalization of our informal meetings and discussions. Our lifestyle was such that we were always writing something, we would often stop by Chubai’s place; we would get together at his apartment because he had his own little room, an apartment at his father-in-law’s. This was a place that you could always visit, spend some time there, chat, drink some tea, borrow a few books; sometimes we would bring some wine… And if someone wrote anything new, we always knew that we could read it there. There was always an audience there, a few people who would listen to you. It was very convenient, very satisfying to read a new work and test it in front of friends, in front of listeners. SKRYNIA was in a way the continuation of this. If we read each other’s new texts, we discussed them and there was a fruitful discussion on this matter, then why not formalize it by publishing these texts?

            Thus I think that Chubai and Kis’ had an understanding that we needed to institutionalize our get-togethers, capture them in this way. We knew it would cause trouble and did not have any illusions that we would be able to hide this activity. Sooner or later we understood that it would become known to the authorities. Hence, we deliberately tried to avoid any direct political signals in these matters.  Nonetheless, whatever we did – it was not Soviet. It was obvious from the cover to every single line that there was nothing Soviet in that periodical.

 

AC – You wrote that you and your colleagues were expelled from universities not because of the content of the almanac but because you were publishing it illegally.

 

MR – Well, yes, all activities that were not guided by the Party or the Komsomol were illegal, unsanctioned. You see, we were expelled not because of that, but it rather gave [the authorities] grounds for blackmailing and recruiting us, for pressuring us to write information against people whom they wanted to arrest for political reasons, for example, the Kalynets’ family. I personally was required to testify primarily against Iryna Kalynets’ and partially against Ihor [her husband] but again, more against Iryna.

 

AC – So, no one from the SKRYNIA circle was arrested?

 

MR – No, we were not arrested, but we were interrogated. They kept interrogating us for several days. I think they were mostly interested in Iryna Kalynets’. They wanted us to give evidence. Iryna was probably not the only one who interested them, I just happened to know Iryna. Someone like Lysheha, he knew Mykhailo Osadchyi. I communicated primarily with Iryna, so they required and demanded evidence against her. I had not signed anything, and thus they expelled me. They were also hinting that, “If you want to finish your education, sign this, and if you do not want to then… ”

 

AC – I have seen somewhere that there were up to 200 copies of the periodical.

 

MR – No, no, no...

 

AC – I think it was mentioned by Iavorskyi in his introduction to the book [by Chubai] of poetry called Jeremiah’s Lament (Plach Ieremii)…

 

MR – No, no, no, no... There were never 200 copies.

 

AC – How many were there if not 200?

 

MR – I think, there was one run of 4 or 5 copies. There were 5 copies typed on a regular thick paper, and perhaps 10 or so were made on thin onion skin paper. That’s about it; there were no more copies. Maybe 200 is the number of copies published by Gabor at the Stefanyk library; he reprinted SKRYNIA.[3]

 

AC – […] He [Gabor] also mentions in the introduction that the significance of SKRYNIA was immense and that you were considered legends, I mean the authors of SKRYNIA. Why do you think this happened? Was it because students in the 1980s had read SKRYNIA? It was probably unavailable to them. Or was it because they knew about the people involved in publication?

 

MR – Well, I think that this information circulated widely in Lviv. Each one of us was famous among a certain group of people. The story of SKRYNIA was also well-known, because we were expelled from universities, and people actually knew why we were expelled. Perhaps these rumors were exaggerated: people thought if they were expelled maybe there was something serious, something horrible behind it. I know that my dean was even a bit disappointed when he was expelling me (and he did not want to expel me because it was Polytechnic Institute and they had no ideological quirks). He said “Well... I don’t see any criminal offense here” almost with sadness in his voice. I mean, yes, there was nothing like that in the journal, but the legend did spread. Aside from that, I think that after the interrogations we were all more or less active and noticeable. Even if SKRYNIA did not exist, each of us was an extension of this SKRYNIA.

 

AC – You mean through your actions, work, and writing?

 

MR – Absolutely. I mean, Chubai was still alive until 1982. And there were always some people around him and he was active in some circles. There was a lot of youth that gathered at my place. At the time I had my own place where we organized underground art exhibitions and literary readings. I think there was a favorable atmosphere for this legend to exist.

 

AC – Can you compare your bohemian milieu and, for example, that from Leningrad? They also had unofficial non-conformist culture. Did you know about their existence? Did you read their works? Was their any solidarity with them? What were your relationships with Russian unofficial culture?

 

MR – No, we did not know them. We heard about their existence, but we did not know them. We learned eventually about Metropol[4], for instance, which was issued in the late 1970s, or around that time. However, that was much later. We found similar circles in other cities. Because some people studied in Lviv they linked us with similar (nonconformist) circles in their native Uzhhorod or Lutsk; I later met these poets from Bakhmach, first of all Kashka Volodia, but also Moskalets.

            The network was set up this way; we found like-minded people in Ukraine, in Kiev. There were mostly artistic groups in Kiev. Orest Iavorskyi set up some contacts, I do not know how, but he had some acquaintances in Kiev at the Art Institute. We visited each other and our networks spread to artistic circles outside of the institute. What was interesting, for some reason those were primarily artistic circles in Kiev. Maybe it was because all the connections were made through artists, although I recall that some time at the end of the 1970s we met Volodymyr Dibrova [an unofficial writer from Kiev]. I did not know then that he was writing. I was at his place, even read some of his works, gave him to read some of my stories, I had written my Little Tragedies (Маленькі трагедії) at that time. But Dibrova did not “split,” he did not...

 

AC – You did not stay in touch? Did you include works of writers from Kiev in your almanac or did you think of including them in the second issue?

 

MR – No, no, no, that was much later. At that time we almost did not know anyone. Even in Lviv we gradually, with time discovered similar circles of Russian-speaking artists. They were Russian or Jewish, but mostly Jewish nonconformist circles in Lviv. But this also came later because at the beginning, I would say, it was a very amateur attempt.

 

AC – Was there an idea to publish another samvydav journal later?

 

MR – In fact, no. We just learned that the regime is becoming more repressive. The punishment for even innocent activities was very strict. So, we did not attempt doing it again.

 

AC – So, after 1972 no more…?

 

MR – No, we did not publish periodicals, but we produced samvydav books. I published all of my books, stitched and reproduced them on onion skin paper. Well, not all, I had two books. We made similar books for Lysheha, he had his Winter in Tysmenytsia (Зимa в Тисмениці) published in samvydav. What was interesting, we even made translations and published them as books. For instance, we made a samvydav book of Czech conceptualist artist from the generation of 1968, Ladislav Novak. The illustrations were created by Iurko Kokh, if I am correct. Or maybe it was Kaufman, I can’t remember. No, Kaufman. Iurko Kokh did illustrations for Lysheha’s book. We published a samvydav book by Sylvia Plath; it was Lysheha’s translation. So, books like that were distributed in samvydav.

            We also distributed samvydav of other authors, say, poems by Chubai or Vorobiov, Sachenko’s – they were all moving. I single-handedly reproduced and gave them to my friends. This tradition did exist. But we were not trying to publish a journal. We were even suspicious about it. As I recall, one of my colleagues, whom I did not know well – he firmly insisted that we needed to publish. We resisted his pressure maybe because we did not know him well enough. We were a little scared that it might be a provocation. Moreover, this friend was very aggressive and nationalistically oriented. I think he meant to produce a much more forceful journal. I do not know if he was really such a fanatical nationalist or he was provoking us. I still do not know to this day, but in any case I remember that when we were strongly opposing this publication, he almost cursed us and said “You are all infected with ‘Chubaism’.”

 

AC – Did you consciously leave national questions out of your journal, which meant that you were trying to make a purely artistic samvydav periodical?

 

MR – Yes, of course. That was Chubai’s position, and, by the way, one of the reasons for his fight with the Kalynets’. He started from their position but he later distanced himself from them. One of his major concerns and arguments with the Kalynets’ had to do with taking a position in regard to pure art. He would always say that art has to be art first of all. And that a political agenda impedes art. So, they had their misunderstandings. Iryna Kalynets’ always assumed a messianic role. She had in her head the concept of a Christian sermon, martyrdom, and a catacomb culture which was circulating despite repressions and crucifixion...

 

AC – But on the other hand, the fact that the periodical was in Ukrainian… Plus it was totally opposed to official literature. Did that make it political as well?

 

MR – For sure. We were aware that it was illegal behaviour, that it meant a confrontation with officialdom. The fact that we were publishing an unofficial journal, the fact of it being samvydav already meant transgression, for certain. Aside from that, the art [in our journal] was absolutely outside the Socialist Realist canon – it signified a veiled polemic with socialist realism. We had no doubt that the authorities would not like it. On the other hand, we were trying to avoid criminal charges. We expected certain repressions, that we could be expelled from universities and lose jobs; we could sense it. But we did not publish another periodical, because we saw that the screws were being tightened and the atmosphere was becoming quite severe.

            One thing that I did try to continue during the period of Perestroika in 1987-88 in Kiev, when the regime was less severe, we were trying to publish something similar to SKRYNIA. We called it The Literary Fair (Literaturnyi Iarmarok), which was a conscious allusion to the original Literaturnyi Iarmarok [a Ukrainian literary journal published in the late 1920s]. We published maybe 3 or 4 issues of that journal. But later, as Perestroika went further, it became possible to print journals legally and the need to publish another samvydav periodical disappeared. However, the new publication was done on a higher level. We printed more copies, and the extent of materials included was larger too, so the periodicals were more impressive.

            What I am especially proud of is the fact that in approximately 1985 I put together entirely legal almanac Sails (Vitryla), because my friends at the “Youth” (Molod’) publishing house allowed me to be the editor. It was an annual journal of young authors who had not been published before. Young writers would also be appointed as editors of this journal. In 1985, I was assigned as an editor due to some connections I had. Herasymiuk worked there and other young writers, all of “our guys.” Rymaruk worked at “Molod’” at that time and my wife Natalka [Bilotserkivets’] also worked there. In any case, they allowed me to edit the almanac and I was in charge of it. Obviously, I was limited to those young writers who submitted their texts. But on the other hand, I also knew many other beginning writers who did not send their works for publication, so I contacted them and published their texts as well. I spoke to them and convinced them to publish some of their new works in the journal.

 

AC – Was it similar to SKRYNIA?

 

MR – My main idea was to publish and show a new kind of literature. I wanted to choose good texts and not to include, if possible, “Lenin” and “Party,” which was not that easy, but I think I managed to avoid all of that. I also consciously or subconsciously wanted to present it as hermetic literature, to show the hermetic dimension of Ukrainian literature. For this purpose I asked Oksana Pakhliovska to write an article about Italian hermeticism[5] and send me their translations, which she did. This was a certain key to my almanac; it was sort of about Italian hermetics, but those who wanted to understand could figure out what it was really about.

            In any case, the editor of the department (Liuba Holota was the editor back then), she was actually quite liberal. But at the same time she was a Party member, and she was guarding the ideological purity, perhaps not too faithfully, to tell the truth, but she was also not representing the summit of liberalness. So, she noticed my attempts and said: “Oh, here you were hiding it from me, smuggling all your hermeticism into it.” She understood well what it was about, but she pretended to ignore it. She included some authors that I did not want to publish. Holota had requirements from the Central Committee of the Komsomol, which was also pressuring her. “Molod’” was a publishing house of the Central Committee of the Komsomol. So, they included some texts that I did not really want to accept but in general it was a very good collection. In my opinion, at least half of the writers that we published in the journal, they are truly good: they are big names in contemporary literature. This periodical Vitryla fulfilled my dreams: it was SKRYNIA published legally. Well, not exactly, there were some limitations. It was published legally, so it could not be exactly like SKRYNIA, but to a certain extent I did realize my project.

 

[...]

 

MR – You know, I discovered nonconformist art only in Moscow, when I was studying at the Institute [Literary Institute]. I started there in 1977. There were students there from the Baltic countries, from Moscow, Leningrad… It was then through personal connections… then I heard about METROPOL.

 

AC – What year was that?

 

MR – I entered the Institute in 1977 and studied in 1978-79. I had to leave the Institute in 1979. The dean suggested that it would be better for me to leave.

 

AC – Did you bring any samvydav back to Ukraine?

 

MR – No, no, no. It was circulating there, but I could not bring anything back. I read Solzhenitsyn and Co. at my dormitory. It was not as dangerous there as in Ukraine.

 

AC – Did you get any artistic Russian samizdat, artistic meaning non-political?

 

MRMoskva-Petushki[6] was circulating, etc., samizdat of this type. Texts from Metropol, in the main. But there were also students at the Institute writing quite interesting texts. The communication, writing letters and the sense of support was important for me there. I think, at that age, when you are young, it was very important to sense that you were not the only one, that there were others who think like you and that there was a community. And it was very important to feel that there was certain non-conformism, that it was not just a Lviv phenomenon, but that there was a parallel life, so to say. I am talking here about the mass effect, right? That you are not isolated, you are not completely a black sheep. Well, maybe we were black sheep, but there was a big flock of us, a huge population of black sheep. I think it was very important.

            I heard something to this effect when I was recently in Warsaw; there was a very good lecture by Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński. He spoke about the explosion of “Solidarity” and he was very convincing when he explained how a decisive role was played by the visit of the Pope. Not because the Pope was agitating for anything, but primarily because he changed the discourse. He introduced words which were not used by the regime – freedom, solidarity, nie jesteś niewolnikiem (you are not a slave); concepts that people forgot while newspeak was used. Besides, Wnuk-Lipiński said that because of the papal visit thousands of believers gathered. The party did not approve this, the government did not sanction it, but people still gathered and they suddenly saw that there were a lot of them, that there were thousands and thousands and thousands. I also think that this visit had catalyzed all further events. In a sense, we also considered this important.

 

AC – And in the 1970s, did you bring a lot of books from Poland? Did you get any books from them? I think you mentioned a bookstore where you bought many books in Polish translations.

 

MR – Of course, there were bookstores. In every big city, in every regional center there were bookstores called Friendship (Druzhba). In some cities they were even better than in Lviv, because in Lviv they would quickly sell out, there were a lot of people who could read Polish in Lviv. And, say, in Kiev – there was fewer such people, or in cities like Cherkasy you could buy a lot.

 

AC – And they were not banned? Are you talking about the books by modernists translated into Polish?

 

MR – Well, no. In practice, I think, the regime did not understand much about it. One type of periodicals that they did not allow was the Catholic publications, as they knew these were not permitted. Those journals did not get to us. They were even confiscated at the border, if I remember correctly, when someone tried to get them across the border. Because there were clear instructions: such and such publishing houses, Sign (Znak), etc. [should not be allowed]. Similar rules were applied to journals: Catholic periodicals were banned; the rest were allowed. You could get a subscription for those journals for a ridiculously low price. They were treated like Soviet periodicals and had the same subscription price. I did not get a subscription for them, but one could find them at the library. You could go to the library of foreign literature in Lviv, it was very cozy and pleasant. You could even borrow them from the library; bring such periodicals home as Literature in the World (Literatura na świecie), Poetry (Poezja), Creative Work (Twórczość).

 

AC – Could you get similar publications in Russian?

 

MR – They either did not exist or they were published later, or were impossible to get. Some publications did exist. We knew that they were available, as for example Kafka, but no one saw them. It was such a rare edition. Same applies to Camus and others… They existed somewhere, but I repeat, they were very hard to get. One could buy and read Polish editions instead. Aside from that, there were earlier editions of, say, Borges or Cortázar. They was available in Polish translations a lot earlier than in Russian. Even Kafka – only The Trial and his short stories were published in Russian, but The Castle and many other texts were available in Polish. These Polish publications were really important for us. Moreover, Polish authors were very interesting too.

 

AC – Chubai was translating [Tadeusz] Różewicz?

 

MR – He was translating Różewicz, that’s right.

 

AC – Did he translate any other [Polish] writer?

 

MR – He praised [Zbigniew] Herbert very highly, but I do not know if he was translating his works. He was translating Różewicz a lot. I think Różewicz was especially appealing at the time because we were reading about the theatre of the absurd then – it was when information about that appeared. It was an earlier phenomenon, but the discussion about it started only then. A few Soviet books, very critical, appeared, such as When Rhinoceroses are Walking on Stage (Когда по сцене ходят носороги)[7] – but they existed. We bought these books because there was a lot of information, quotations and descriptions of these texts, photographs from the performances.

 

AC – Of the staging …?

 

MR – They just appeared, there was a discourse about them, so to say, and Różewicz was doing the same. I think Chubai was also interested to show [in SKRYNIA] that similar things were done in Poland. This is a classical phrase of that KGB officer who said: “I know what Poland is.” I was trying to play a fool, I said to him: “What’s wrong with it? We are translating fraternal Polish literature, Polish writers…” “We know what Poland is, don’t try to fool us!”

            But it was strange that he did not translate [Czesław] Milosz. We hadn’t even heard about Milosz. I wonder why. For some reason we did not receive any texts by Milosz or [Witold] Gombrowicz. Maybe they were not available in Poland, too; I guess they were not permitted in Poland. Milosz’s book was only published during the period of Solidarity, in 1981 or what not… So, it didn’t get to us.

 

AC – Did you translate Sylvia Plath from a Polish or English edition? Where did you get the English version?

 

MR – Lysheha bought the bilingual edition of her poetry at the “Druzhba” bookstore.

 

AC – And you published it later…

 

MR – Yes, he also translated Eliot, who by the way was unavailable, as well as his essays; he was extremely interesting for us because his aesthetics is absolutely extraordinary. But we had to dig it literally out of the snow. Chubai had a keen sense. He understood aesthetics quite well. I should also mention that he knew what I don’t even know today: classical music, jazz… He had a wonderful collection. He did have a very good grasp of it.

 

AC – Did he buy that at the same bookstores [“Druzhba”]?

 

MR – It’s hard to say how he got it and why... He was very perceptive about all that. He had talent … 

 

Selected Sources

 

Яворський, Володимир. “Все стає справжнім лише під осінь”. Грицько Чубай. Плач Еремiï. Львів: Кальварія, 1998.

 

Літературно-мистецький самвидавний журнал "Скриня" (1971 р.). Упорядн. і авт. Вступ. ст. В. Габор. Львів, 2000. 50 с.

 

Riabchuk, Mykola. “‘I ce vony zapreshchaly?!’ Samvydav iak iavyshche populiarnoi kul’tury”. Suchasnist’ No. 1, 1998, 113-25.

 

Riabchuk, Mykola. “Pol’shcha, pol’s’kyi, poliaky. Sproba filolohichnoho kraieznavstva”. Suchasnist’ No. 11, 1998, 138-47.

 

[1] “Samvydav” is the Ukrainian word that corresponds to the neologism samizdat in Russian.

[2] Heorhiy Narbut (1886-1920) – brother of Russian Acmeist poet Vladimir Narbut, was a painter and graphic designer known for his designs for the Ukrainian National Republic and for his book and magazine illustrations.  

[3] Reprint of SKRYNIA: Літературно-мистецький самвидавний журнал "Скриня" (1971 р.). Упорядн. і авт. Вступ. ст. В. Габор. Львів, 2000. 50 с.

[4] The samizdat anthology was published in the West as Metropol’. Literaturnyi al’manakh, ed. Vasilii Aksenov et al.. (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1979). The work later appeared in English as Metropol. Literary almanac (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1982),

[5] Italian Hermeticism (Ermetismo) was a modernist poetic movement of the early 20th century.

[6] Moskva-Petushki was a samizdat novel from 1969 by Russian author Venedikt Erofeev (published in Vest’, ed. Veniamin Kaverin, Moscow 1989), translated into Polish and translated into English variously as Moscow Circles, Moscow to the End of the Line, and Moscow Stations (trans. Stephen Mulrine, London: Faber and Faber, 1997).

[7] Agnessa Mikheeva, Kogda po stsene khodiat nosorogi: O teatra absurda Ezhena Ionesko, Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1967.