No other recent Ukrainian writer has done more to show the world the evils of communism and of Russian imperialism, and to keep the hope of Ukrainian independence alive than Ivan Bahriany. In his commentary on Ukrainian diaspora writers, "On Unclipped Wing" (Donetsk: 2003) Eastern Publishing House, Wolodymyr Bilajiw appropriately calls him the "Tribune of the Republic."
Through his writings and speeches, Bahriany lived and died serving that cause, with deep respect for Ukrainians and strong belief in their inevitable independence. In his novels and poetry he showed that, despite Soviet killings and tortures, concentration camps and famines, Stalin's flunkies were unable to destroy the Ukrainian spirit.
He predicted that, built on lies and preserved by terror and torture, communism and Russian imperialism would self-destruct.
Bahriany was born on October 2, 1906, in the village of Ochtyrka, Sumy province, into a working-class family. He went through the usual, then Russified, schooling that would have led him to a practical vocation. But, influenced by Taras Shevchenko's poetry and Leonid Hlibov's stories, he switched to study art and literature. He started writing poems in Ukrainian early and published them and some of his drawings in the school journal, Hope, which he edited.
Bahriany matured in the post-Revolutionary years during the 1920s rebirth of Ukrainian intellectualism and its efforts to separate Ukrainian art and literature from Russian. He was heavily influenced by some of its leaders, including Borys Antonenko-Davydovych and Mykola Khvyliovyi, actively participating in their efforts and organizations. Their stated mission was to move Ukrainian culture away from Moscow.
However, as their efforts gained momentum and came into conflict with Moscow's ideology and goals, Ukrainian intellectual organizations were liquidated and their members were either shot or sent to the gulag in Siberia. Between 1932 and 1939 the Soviets butchered most Ukrainian intellectuals, including teachers, writers, artists, priests, and military and political leaders. Antonenko-Davydovych was sent to and later died in Siberia, while Khvyliovyi, expecting execution, committed suicide.
Bahriany, too, was arrested and spent eight years in Soviet jails and concentration camps, which left a serious mark on his health for the rest of his life: tuberculosis, diabetes and a weak heart. Fortunately, he was able to escape and after World War II found himself in a displaced persons camp in New Ulm, Germany, which, under his leadership, became a center of Ukrainian cultural rebirth. There he founded Ukrainski Visti (Ukrainian News) and several publishing houses, Ukraina, Prometei and Na Hori, which published his books and those of other Ukrainian writers who were then forbidden in Ukraine.
According to his own account ("Why I Don't Want to Return to the USSR), Bahriany's first exposure to Communism was when he was 10 years old and lived with his 92-year-old grandfather, a beekeeper. One night, armed men speaking Russian came and killed the grandfather and his son, after torturing them in front of the boy. The grandfather, because he was a landed farmer, and his son because he was a soldier in the Ukrainian National Republic's army. Bahriany's second uncle was sent to Solovky for 10 years, extended by another 10, where he died.
Later Bahriany himself witnessed first hand the atrocities committed by Stalin's henchmen. In his writings and speeches, Bahriany pointed out that some 10 million Ukrainians perished between the late 1920s and late 1930s from the Great Famine, tortures and mass executions. With no one to protect them, millions disappeared without a trace; people were shot, then documents were created to support the decision. To the Soviets, he said, a person was not worth anything. The Soviets believed that "It is better to break the ribs of hundreds of innocent people than let one guilty slip by."
After settling in Germany, Bahriany devoted the rest of his life to informing the world of the horrendous atrocities committed by Stalin and the Soviet Union. Over and over again, he emphasized that the Soviet empire was built on lies, tortures, famine and slavery.
After World War II, by the Yalta Agreement, Ukrainians were defined as being either Polish or Russian citizens, and all Russian citizens were forcibly repatriated "na rodinu," to "the motherland." In the brochure "Why I Don't Want to Return to the USSR" Bahriany wrote: "I will return to my motherland with millions of my brothers and sisters, who are here in Europe and there in Siberian concentration camps, when the totalitarian bloody Bolshevik system is eliminated in the same way as was Hitler's. When the NKVD goes in the same direction as Gestapo, when Russian fascism disappears the same way as did German."
He pointed out that the USSR was a huge concentration camp, built on slavery, physical and mental torture, terror and starvation. Criticizing the government in the West is acceptable, while in the Soviet Union it is a crime. He carried a cyanide capsule to end his life in case he were forced to return home.
Bahriany wrote novels, poetry and political statements, and delivered speeches in Europe, the United States and Canada. In all of them, his message was always the same: that there was no freedom in the USSR and that the evil Soviet empire's terror had no limits. In his 1952 speech before the Congress of Free Press in Berlin and his 1954 statement on "Ukrainian Literature and Art Under Communism's Russian Terror" for the U.S. Congress, he listed the many dozens of Ukrainian writers and artists (his friends) who were executed or sent into exile by the Soviets. For what? For creating in their own language and national heritage, he answered. There is no difference, he emphasized, between the old Russian and the new Soviet imperialism. The aim of both was to create one Russian nation and both used art and literature to engineer that Russian nation in all their occupied lands, including Ukraine.
In his poems and novels, Bahriany created a national hero for Ukrainians who were demoralized by Soviet persecution and the aftereffects of World War II. His heroes go through difficult trials, challenges and tortures, but never give up and continue fighting the system. They face challenges bravely and honestly, never loosing their beliefs in humanity, justice and freedom. By showing that his heroes were not victims, but were morally triumphant, he kept the Ukrainian spirit and quest alive. He raised his heroes from oppression and tortures to a positive, optimistic level.
This was true about Hryhorii Mnohohrishnyj in the novel "Tyhrolovy," (Tiger Hunters), Andrii Chumak in "Sad Hetsymanskyi" (The Garden of Gethsemane) and Anton Bida in the poem "Anton Bida - Heroi Truda" (Anton Bida - Hero of Labor).
In "Tyhrolovy," Mnohohrishnyj escapes from a heavily guarded train taking him, and many others like him, to Siberia. After almost starving to death, he is rescued by a Ukrainian family of tiger hunters who accept him as if he were their own son. The novel is set in a treacherous but scenic Siberia, with many hunting adventures, and some encounters with Mnohohrishnyj's Soviet pursuers. He falls in love with the family's daughter, Natalka, and, as the pursuers come closer to capturing him, he and Natalka heroically escape to the Far East.
Bahriany strongly believed in the value of human beings and freedom. By nature, he was a writer and a poet, but he was forced to become a politician by circumstances. He was the leader of the Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party (URDP), the aim of which was the destruction of the Soviet empire and the re-establishment of Ukrainian independence. In his political statements, he clearly underscored that the URDP was "against all kinds of slavery and social and political constraints on people. The party stands against communism and Soviet Russian imperialism and for independent Ukraine, for our national freedom."
He called on all Ukrainians - eastern, western, Orthodox, Catholics - people from different backgrounds to unite and form their country so that it could find its destiny. Ukraine was unable to regain independence because of the division that was instilled in us by our occupiers, he said. We need to overcome our differences. Unity, he believed, could be achieved through democracy.
In recognition of his capable writings and strong stands, Bahriany was elected president of Ukrainian National Council in exile.
Although attacked furiously by the Soviets and even some of his own compatriots, he pursued his goals to the end. Bahriany died prematurely from a weak heart on July 25, 1963, and was buried in New Ulm. On his monument, which was created by Lev Molodozhanyn (who also created the Taras Shevchenko monument in Washington), is written "We are. We were. And will be. And our motherland is with us."
Bahriany was a very talented writer and his writings gained wide recognition while he was still alive. His novel "Tyhrolovy," for example, was translated into German, French and English (The Hunters and The Hunted). He was posthumously awarded Ukraine's Shevchenko Prize in 1992.
According to Bilajiw, during a visit to the United States and Canada in 1959, Bahriany told a small group of friends about his encounter with a Belgian writer at a worldwide exhibit in Brussels that, we believe, summarizes his mission in life.
The writer asked Bahriany to tell him who the Ukrainians are. And, after Bahriany explained, the Belgian writer commented that he was envious because some day Ukrainians would have a great country in Eastern Europe, while most other countries' futures have already been defined. Belgium can only be Belgium, while your country's future is still wide open, he said.
Bahriany encouraged us to keep focused on the goal and to move in that direction.