Vasyl Barka: Life and work
I am happy to have written works I had dreamed about, and I know that they will be of considerable help in the spiritual life of my people, especially in the future.
Vasyl Barka is known far beyond Ukraine as a prominent Ukrainian man of letters, religious philosopher, literary critic, and teacher.
Ukraine’s general reading public knows him as the author of Zhovty kniaz (The Yellow Prince), a novel that deals with the 1932-33 Holodomor and which was until recently part of the grade-school curriculum.
During his lifetime, this novel was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature. The French press emphasized its captivating, emotional humanistic message. All that was needed at the time was support from his native Ukraine, then under the Soviets…
Vasyl Barka died on April 11, 2003, along with hopes for the Nobel Prize, which cannot be awarded posthumously. In today’s Ukraine, his merits remain to be officially recognized, even though he has been thrice nominated for the Taras Shevchenko National Prize.
Barka spent the last 28 years in Glen Spey, a scenic resort town north of New York City. He lived for quite some time in a chimerical structure, formerly a water tower, now an ivory one. He was known to the populace as a “holy man.”
Starting in the late 1980s, he began receiving visitors from Ukraine who would return home with touching impressions, interviews, charged with some of Barka’s life-giving energy. They said the man was childishly happy to possess the greatest gift of the Creator, life; that he fanatically believed in the victory of good over evil, that Ukraine’s spiritual rebirth was forthcoming: “Why should one feel sorrowful?… Ukraine will be reborn, it is being reborn, because it is among the structures favored by the Lord.”
He was destined to many travels, some of them quite dangerous and physically trying (e.g., Kuban, North Caucasus, Moscow, Berlin, Augsburg, New York, Glen Spey). Each such venture seemed to put his spirit to the test, and each time he had something to add to his life experience and his self-awareness, his faith, his role in this sinful world. As a genuine Christian, he took everything in stride and with gratitude.
His poetic heritage is immense. It would take up more than 20 volumes in print, yet it is little known in Ukraine. Barka thought that publishing his literary works would mark a homecoming stage on his life’s path. This stage began in 1991, with the publication of the Yellow Prince (1962, 1968), followed by Ocean (1959, 1979, 1992); the epic poem Steppe of Judgment (1992); the novels The Penitent and the Keys to the Earth (1992), The Edemites’ Souls (1994), Paradise (1953), and the drama in verse Caucasus (2 vols., 1993) [all of the abovementioned titles are translations from the Ukrainian. — Ed.].
Deep inside, he never left Ukraine. Before meeting the Creator, he spent a month in a hospital, paralyzed, out of contact with the surrounding world, with nothing but the visitors’ notes (shown to him by the nurses). He remained sound of mind and during that time past realities would come back like raindrops slowly falling before a downpour, his last one…
July 16, 1908. A boy to be baptized as Vasyl was born to the poor Cossack Kostiantyn Ocheretko’s big family in Solonytsia, a village in Lubny district, Poltava gubernia. The family was constantly in dire straits, with Kostiantyn struggling to make ends meet working as a joiner, gardener, making harness for Budionny’s [Red] Cavalry Army. Vasyl and his brothers spent a short period attending classes at Lubny’s bursa high school. Their father had taken ill, so they had to earn a living as hired laborers. It was then Vasyl read Hryhorii Skovoroda, Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko, Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky, Vasyl Stefanyk, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky — books he could borrow from an understanding math teacher. These literary works would leave a lasting trail in his soul. They would make him think over the meaning of life and the magic power of words committed to paper. It was also then Vasyl started on a path that would lead him to the Christian worldview that would subsequently pervade all his works. He admits in his autobiography that he was especially attracted by Dante’s Divine Comedy with Gustave Dore’s illustrations; also, by the Book of Revelation (his parents’ favorite). Eventually, he would translate it into Ukrainian for Rome’s Ukrainian edition of the Bible.
Vasyl kept studying, attending teacher-training courses in Lubny. The courses would be reorganized as a “pedagogical technical college” [one of Soviet bureaucratic appellations that defied analysts’ imaginations in the West. — Ed.] It was then he started writing poems. After finishing study, in 1927, he taught math in Sioma Rota [the place name translates as Seventh Company. — Ed.], a miners’ village in the Donbas, but this didn’t last long. He had to quit because he tried to expose local party functionaries as embezzlers of children’s budget appropriations, so calling it quits was the only alternative to a long prison term.
In 1928, he spent three years in Krasnodar, a city in the North Caucasus, as a student of the local Pedagogical Institute’s philology department.
In 1929, owing to the officially noted Ukrainian poet Pavlo Tychyna Vasyl’s first poems were published by the magazine Chervony shliakh (The Red Way) under the pen name of Vasyl Ocheret that would become his formal first and last names (his son would be given the new surname).
His first collection of verse, Shliakhy (Our Roads), came off the presses in 1930, promptly branded by government-run critics as a “class enemy attack,” and a manifestation of “bourgeois nationalism,” simply because it had nothing to do with standard revolutionary slogans. Instead, it conveyed emotions harbored by the Ukrainian in the street.
The young poet instantly became an outcast in the Soviet literary environment. In fact, he was forced to publicly apologize for his erroneous stand during a meeting of the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP). To strengthen his ideological re-education, Vasyl was sent to the Krasnolit Works, where he was expected to imbibe the proletarian spirit. The result was a book of verse entitled Tsekhy (Guilds, 1932). This time he had favorable press; his poems had passed muster as ideologically correct, with their workshop backdrop.
But soon afterward a special commission was dispatched from Kyiv to Krasnodar. Vasyl Ocheret was offered a “decent reward” for composing a poem about Stalin’s “brilliant leadership.” He declined. His response was officially regarded as “a stand adopted by all those who have not reconciled, who are still having secret grudges [against the shining communist future].” Vasyl put two and two together.
His number one choice was inner freedom. Under the circumstances, this meant his refusal to publish any poems. This period of poetic silence lasted until 1942 (he did write poems, but those were meant for himself, with a large number of the manuscripts lost forever).
As a graduate student at the Moscow State Pedagogical Institute, Vasyl majored in medieval Western European literature, focusing on Dante’s Divine Comedy, while earning an extra ruble lecturing at Krasnodar Pedagogical Institute, in regard to the literary history of Western Europe and medieval literary history. He then worked for the Art Museum of Krasnodar, concentrating on European objets d’art. Once he stepped into a secondhand bookshop, only to learn from the manager that there was a governmental directive aimed at liquidating Ukrainian culture in the Kuban region. As a result, all books in Ukrainian had been withdrawn from the Pushkin Library, taken out of town and burned.
Before long, Vasyl discovered he was targeted by the Soviet system. His lectures at Krasnodar Pedagogical Institute were attended by special commissions; there were attempts to have him relieved of his post, but in each case they had to confront protesting students. Also, no one could handle his class like him, keeping everyone fascinated by quoting, translating, and explaining Greek and Latin passages quotes by Goethe, Dante, Milton. Vasyl Ocheret was unmatched in the field.
On several occasions, while in the museum’s employ, they tried to haul him in on charges of unlawful conduct. Soviet ideologues had promptly discerned “counter-revolutionary” motifs in his art exhibit, including Durer’s The Man of Sorrows; Alexander Ivanov’s Appearance of Christ before the People (1837-57); Raphael’s Madonna and Child and St. George and the Dragon; Antonio Allegri da Correggio’s Nativity (Adoration of the Shepherds, or Holy Night), etc. He found the canvases in a basement, cleansed and framed them. He was spared courtroom hearings, due to the then prominent art critic Feliks Kon’s intercession.
Vasyl appeared to be protected by the Lord. On March 13, 1940, he defended his candidate-of-sciences thesis at a joint meeting of the Lomonosov University and State Pedagogical Institute of Moscow. He would be able to conduct actual research abroad.
After the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union [June 1941. – Ed.], Vasyl found himself in the ranks of the narodnoye opolcheniye [lit., “popular regimentation” or “people’s volunteer’s militia” – Ed.] and completed a course in guerilla training. But he then landed in the trenches where he was gravely wounded and saved by two women who dragged him away, risking their lives.
It was then that he finally decided to part company with the Soviet regime. He knew about Stalin’s directive whereby all who survived the Wehrmacht’s onslaught and found their way to Soviet troops, or who surrendered to the Germans were automatically to be regarded traitors to the Soviet Fatherland. Anyway, he was now in Nazi-occupied territory, and hence a traitor. Dim prospects, but he had to make do and survive. Released from hospital, Barka started looking for jobs and found one at the local candle factory. Later, he edited the local newspaper Kuban.
In fact, all Ostarbeiter people were treated by the Nazis as prisoners of war — except that no POW conventions were respected. They traveled to Germany on flatcars, being closely watched by Nazi guards and exposed to the elements. Many perished on the way. Barka sustained a grave case of pneumonia. He fought his way to Berlin via Kryvy Rih, Mariupil, Bila Tserkva, Kyiv, Warsaw. He wanted to stay sane amidst the insanity, so he wrote poems, where and when he could. It was then that he adopted the pen name of Vasyl Barka.
If not for escaping the internment camp in Berlin, Vasyl would have died. He was very ill at the time, both physically and morally. Strolling down [West] Berlin streets, he spotted a bookstore owned by an emigre by the name of Serdenenko. The proprietor noticed him and struck up a conversation in the course of which Vasyl revealed his life story. Serdenenko suggested contacting the Holos Ukrainy publishing company, saying they needed a proofreader. Holos’ manager, Mr. Kravtsiv, helped Vasyl avoid immigration authorities by concealing him in a narrow mansard.
On lonely nights, Vasyl gazed at the stars through the only small window. The stars seemed to grow in size and get warmer to the touch. The sky was so very much like the one he’d watched in Ukraine. He was in Berlin, under constant Allied air raids, and could have his long-cherished dream of a Faust-like Europe fulfilled, there and then.
He then worked for Voice of America, but not for long. Vasyl knew he had to take another sharp bend on the road of his life. There was the danger of repatriation, so he went to Augsburg and ended up in a DP camp (there were lots of such camps in Europe after the war). All bunks in the barracks were occupied, so he had to pick loose boards, nail them together to form a rough rectangular box in which he slept.
At the time, he wrote a number of poems subsequently included in the Apostoly (Apostles, 1946) and Bily svit (The White World, 1947) collections of verse that came off the presses in West Germany. Yu. Korbut, one of Vasyl’s close friends, describes this “Weimar period” in Barka’s life: “He would get up at six in the morning to walk to the park with Goethe’s summerhouse at the foot of the hill. He would stay there to listen to the singing of the birds and compose his poems to the accompaniment of the rushing water. This self-styled hermit and daydreamer would take off his shirt and wash it in the current.” Not surprisingly, people of his kind never lose faith or give way to despair. Vasyl Barka wrote in his Tsareborets (The Anti-Tsar): “This world is pure, like a child’s tear, /Like an orchard blooming, /Tended by a loving child…”
This poetry is still charged with Tychyna’s pan-music spirit, with the folk code of creative ethics, but then you become increasingly aware of Barka’s presence, with his singular vision of the “white light” of life. He is firmly — and rationally — resolved to learn more about this world and realize his self-sufficient place in it. The poet’s creativity is nurtured by past tragic events, wounds that never heal. He misses his Ukrainian homeland, and is increasingly nostalgic. He keeps remembering his family, all those faces and names long since gone, rendering them symbolic. All this prompts Barka to make contrasting comparisons between what is up there, in the shining heavens, and down in this sinful world, with all human vices, famine, soaring death rate, orphanhood, loneliness, lasting sorrow, and enslavement. These books are dominated by Barka’s way of thinking, his poetic perception of reality through his own fictional images. His images are symbols, they are transparent. They appear to convey some of the author’s realities, some experiences learned the hard way.
Remarkably, he shares his painful experiences in an unobtrusive manner, juxtaposing man’s inner world with the immense surrounding one. Barka sees nature as a mind-boggling diversity of phenomena. He tries to solve the mystery of its harmony and expediency. He tries to project his small discoveries onto this big enigmatic and increasingly hostile world. He believes that it requires reasonable composition and order, rather than chaos.
It was for all these reasons that Barka published his novel Rai (Paradise, New York, 1953). Yurii Sherekh stressed in his review that the novel has a modernistic trend; that this trend made the novel stand out from other Ukrainian Diaspora writings; that it was a “challenge to our times, like swimming against the current.” This novel is based on a number of real events. In a number of places the author clearly shares his own experiences. He wants to refute the myth that the USSR is a paradise on earth. While boldly voicing his anti-imperial moods (following in the footsteps of contemporary creative emigres, among them Bahriany, Samchuk, Osmachka, Humenna), Barka never hesitated to expand the boundaries of creative analysis and synthesis. He purposefully headed for deep-reaching philosophical generalizations, and went contrary to the novel-writing tradition by introducing quite a few symbolic characters.
Barka’s thirst for creative work was never satiated. Like all those in it, he wanted to have a peaceful home — something he couldn’t have in Europe after the end of the world’s most devastating war. First, he tried to get to France, a country present in his daydreams. He tried to cross the border illegally, but was caught. Barka sadly recalls: “We were arrested, tried, and given prison terms. I’d had no choice and I’d done it without the slightest malicious intention. I had no secret objectives. What I did I did out of despair, like a man who, after years in prison, is desperate to have a glimpse of the world outside, to have an opportunity to keep working on his research project.” As an inmate of a DP camp, he eventually received an official premission for his flight to Paris, but he was no longer interested.
And so America was the only Promised Land for an ailing, physically and morally exhausted poet. He was formally allowed to settle there in 1950, precisely at 82 West NY Street, a district dominated by African-Americans. He rented a small room from a Jewish emigre, right under the roof of the building, closer to the stars. Shortly after, he moved to a Basilian monastery. Later, he lived with ethnic Ukrainian friends. Vasyl Barka never had a home of his own.
His first years in New York were marked by hunger and gloom. He couldn’t apply his full creative potential and he wasn’t sure about what would happen tomorrow. But the situation changed for the better.
“Even the worst happenings can produce good results,” Barka used to say. He wrote in The Yellow Prince: “He could see past events coming up front…” Barka was painfully aware of the 1932-33 famine in the Kuban Region and Poltava oblast when visiting his brother. What he had seen inspired him to write the Prince novel — the more so that he was on the verge of starvation. He also had numerous eyewitness accounts collected during WW II, and a notebook with a tragic story about a Ukrainian family that perished during the famine. In fact, this story served as groundwork for Barka’s Yellow Prince. The novel was first published in New York, in 1963. At the time people said it was better than Knut Hamsun’s Nobel-Prize-winning Hunger.
Barka landed an orderly’s job at a hospital under the Sacre Coeur Convent. Now he could live a little better. He had a small home, even if given for the duration of service. It was there he somehow learned about the death of his beloved wife, Doveletkhan, in 1956.
Later, he headed the Ukrainian department at Radio Liberty in New York.
In the 1960s, he joined the Ukrainian community in Glen Spey. His home was near the church and Verkhovyna cultural center, in that former, dilapidated water tower. Not so long ago, Vasyl Barka watched what was happening in Ukraine’s political and cultural spheres. He was convinced that the Ukrainian people would eventually shed the yoke of their colonial past and embark on the road leading to its progress and prosperity. A simple concept easily comprehended by one and all. He wrote in the essay Zhaivoronkovi dzherela (The Sources of the Lark, 1956): “Everything will change! There will be no violence, poverty, falsehood… Because there is the sun in the sky, as sure as the Gospels are in your mind. This omniscient shining power is manifest in this sphere, in the first place. Everything will happen as this power wants it to occur… Everything will change to make everything happen in accordance with the Law of the Sun.”
Barka’s faith doubtlessly played the key role in his self-revelation. His religion helped him survive and then be re-born. Proof of this is found in his creative legacy, particularly in his poetry. His poems are a mirror reflection of his soul, emanating that life-giving energy which can only exist in the presence of true faith, says Paris-based literary critic Leonid Pliushch, thus determining Barka’s role in the 20th-century literary process in Europe.
Barka’s life in America turned out to be the most prolific stage in his literary career. At that time, he constantly wrote poems and focused on the history of Ukrainian literature and national spirituality. This resulted in literary criticism and the weighty religious-philosophical essays Khliborobsky orfei abo kliarnetyzm (The Agrarian Orpheus or Clarinetism, 1961), Pravda Kobzaria (The Kobzar’s Truth, 1961); three collections, Zhaivoronkovi dzherela (The Sources of the Lark, 1956), Tvorchist (Creativity, 1968), and Zemlia sadivnychykh (Earth of the Gardeners, 1977), and the collection of essays Vershnyk neba (The Horseman of Heaven, 1965), along with numerous articles carried by foreign periodicals and manuscripts kept in his archives.
Barka made a tangible contribution to world literature with his Ukrainian versions of The Revelation of St. John the Divine (1963, co-edited by Ihor Kostetsky and Mykhailo Orest/Zerov), Shakespeare’s King Lear (1969), and excerpts from Dante’s Divine Comedy (1978).
The American period in his creativity is marked by the appearance of the collections of verse Psalom holubynoho polia (The Psalm of the Dovelike Field, 1958), Okean (Ocean, 1959, 1979, 1992), Lirnyk (Lyrist, 1968), Ocean-II (1979). In 1952-77, he wrote the monumental 4,000-strophe epic novel in verse Svidok dlia sontsia shestykrylykh (The Witness for the Sun of Seraphims) that won him the Antonovych Foundation Prize (1982). He wrote the two-volume drama in verse Kavkaz (Caucasus, published in 1992). In that period Barka also completed the epic poem Sudny step (Steppe of Judgment), addressing the man in the street and his destiny during the World War II. All of this Ukrainian lyrical-epochal legacy was combined in Barka’s trilogy in verse, Brama smyrennykh (The Gate of the Meek). The author would later admit that he had tried to build “a large and clear sphere of spiritual treasures” in Ukrainian culture that had been formed over thousands of years, and which was brutally taken away by the communist regime. He was convinced that this trilogy would help carry out a deep-reaching reform in Ukrainian literature, setting innovative trends, reaffirming its national status. None of today’s Ukrainian literary critics can say whether he was right or wrong. Vasyl Barka’s immense creative legacy has to be studied at length; it requires a singular insight and comprehensive, transparent interpretation. This will take time, lots of preparatory work.
Barka’s works doubtlessly belong to the world’s literary treasure-trove. One can only appreciate them by a step-by-step approach, reading one work at a time, the way one reads the Scriptures, the way a badly afflicted patient is administered medicines, in carefully measured doses. His works will never be popular with the general public, which was not his intent. Instead, he cast a beam of light into one’s dark mental void, unobtrusively reaching and healing Ukrainian hearts and minds.
Barka’s poetry was meant to carry out this mission, and the man kept his inner spiritual world intact while changing literary genres and adopting different styles.
What makes Barka’s literary heritage unique is the fact that he sacrificed his own self for the sake of the art. One finds in his poetic works what everyone badly needs in Ukraine these days: the awareness of one’s own national identity.
Barka the poet regarded his Gate of the Meek as the number-one creative achievement, a message conveying the purity of his soul, his rich life experience he was willing to share, his idealistic Weltanschauung, a world view that would always help him out of dangerous situations and direct him toward a life path blessed by love of thy neighbor, love of the world created by the Lord. The following quote from Barka’s Paradise reflects the author’s credo: “A poet who wishes to answer for all the curses showered on him, who accepts his pariah, pauper, vagabond, reclusive or itinerant monk’s status… is equal by the strength of his spirit to any given zealot or hero, in that he selflessly keeps the path lit for one and all to follow. A poet must be disobedient, dissenting; he must follow the only pathway granted him at birth; he must become an inveterate enemy to all those who commit acts of violence.”
Raisa Movchan, Ph.D., is a leading research fellow with the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine