Ukrainian Identity and Mykola Kulish’s Sonata Pathétique

Mykola Kulish, Ukraine’s most famous 20th-century playwright, was known for his formal experimentation and dismissal of contemporary conceits. He was also among many Ukrainian writers forced to couch any reference to Ukrainian national identity in a teleology of socialist revolution, culminating, inevitably, in a Bolshevik victory. 

Kulish was able to find loopholes in devices of characterization, setting, and allusion all the same. In Kulish’s 1930 play, Sonata Pathétique, neither Soviet triumph nor pure Ukrainian nationalism is fully exempt from satire, as Kulish pokes fun at the national cult of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, widely considered to be the founder of modern Ukrainian literature and language. The work is centered around the conflicts between Ukrainian and Russian forces following the 1917 Russian Revolution. In Act Four, a conversation takes place between nostalgic retiree Ivan Stupay-Stupanenko and his daughter, strong- willed Ukrainian nationalist Maryna, as the Bolsheviks march into their sleepy provincial town: 

Stupay (tries to uncover the window): I’ll go to meet them!
Maryna: They’ll kill you.
Stupay: I have arms. 

Maryna: What arms?
Stupay: The Ukrainian language.
Maryna: A language is only persuasive when it’s backed by weapons.
Stupay I will meet them and remind them of Shevchenko’s sacred words: “Embrace,
my brethren, the smallest one.”
Maryna: Who will you remind of it? The Bolsheviks? The bandits? The bloodthirsty barbarians who are destroying our loftiest ideals? (She covers the window.) 

Unlike Maryna, Stupay is consumed by an overwhelmingly romantic, ethnic, and ultimately antiquated conception of Ukraine. For him, Shevchenko and his language are the only hope for national regeneration: “Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of Ukrainians swore before Shevchenko’s picture not to lay down their hands until Ukraine is restored to full freedom. I swear it, too!” Maryna counters such idealism with a more pragmatic approach: the idea that military might holds the key to national defense. The nar- rative warps the attitudes of both into alternatives that are, at best, vaguely unsatisfying. Neither proves a fully suitable emblem around which a divided nation could rally. 


Earlier this spring, Ukrainians celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of their national poet, Sevchenko. The deteriorating relations be- tween Russia and Ukraine, having lowered to a simmer in the Western media, flared up again briefly here and there. Clashes between Russian nationalists and those opposed to secession interrupted commemorative rallies in Sevastopol, while Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a crowd around the Shevchenko statue in Kiev that they wouldn’t “budge a single centimeter from Ukrainian land.” 

Confusion concerning Ukraine’s borders—political and otherwise—is, of course, hardly new. Generations of Ukrainian writers have so com- fortably plodded the terrain of riot and revolution between Russia and Ukraine that the genre—a particular kind of Soviet historical epic—has become a reliable trope. Yet the elevation of Shevchenko as a symbol of a single, united Ukraine belies, as the process of canonization tends to do, the complexities and contradictions that have characterized the country since long before its official birth, long before even the establishment of the Ukrainian language. Sonata Pathétique, in which Ukrainian nationalists, Red Army Bolsheviks, and Russian autocrats collide to the variously steady and frantic tempos of Beethoven’s sonata, is an eerily prescient reminder of these contradictions. 

It was only in 1905 that the Russian Academy of Sciences officially declared Ukrainian to be a language rather than a dialect, thus ending over half a century of linguistic and cultural suppression. Among the Russian literati of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the country was a provincial outpost surrounding the cosmopolitan (though certainly not “Ukrainian”) Kiev. This prejudice eased only with the official establishment of Ukraine as one of the founding SSRs in 1922, after what is now widely considered a civil war between Russia and the Ukraine from 1918 to 1920. Now, for the first time, Ukrainian literature was part of a state enterprise. The early Soviet policy of korenizatsiia encouraged this status, seeking to promote (and monitor) ethnic nationalism, local language, and national literary activity in what historian Terry Martin has called “The Affirmative Action Empire.” A brief but powerful flowering of Ukrainian literature and culture ensued. 

In 1926, riding high on the literary nationalist wave, Kulish helped to found VAPLITE, the Free Academy of Proletarian Literature—a writers’ union that aligned itself officially with communism but took an ironic, often comic, and subtly subversive approach to literature through its magazine The Literary Fair. Kulish himself had fought for the Russian Army in World War I before joining the Bolsheviks. But by the late 1920s, he had become more interested in the question of national communism. How could Ukraine embrace the values emanating from Moscow while still cultivating its own literary tradition? 

Kulish’s Sonata Pathétique was a response to such a challenge, as well as to the prevailing examples of nationalist theater in Ukraine and Russia. Ironically, given the radical politics of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita— which was not to be published until long after Bulgakov’s death—one of these examples was Bulgakov’s The Days of the Turbins, a play about the White Guard, the Russians intellectuals of the Tsarist Army, which ran regularly in Moscow from 1926 to 1941, and which Stalin himself was reputed to have seen more than 20 times. Kulish took offense at Bulgakov’s characterization of the Ukrainian national forces as anarchic and unmotivated. And he was impatient with the requirements of socialist realism emanating from the Moscow Art Theatre, where Bulgakov staged his work. These requirements would ultimately harden into policy, responsible for a crackdown on modernist experimentation in Ukraine and elsewhere beginning in the early 1930s. 

While he still could, Kulish challenged Bulgakov’s argument through an expressionist rather 

than realist frame, seeking to probe the limits of modernism by folding a different work of art—a musical score, no less—into a theatrical piece. The “early legato of a hoarse cock” presages the capture of Russian soldier Georges by Ukrainian nationalists; the accompaniment to the grave section becomes a fugue of Easter bells as the protagonist, the poet Ilko Yuha, anxiously awaits the return of Maryna, whom he loves. Sometimes the echoes are explicit in the stage directions: “(He can almost hear the sound of horses’ hooves as an echo of the Pathétique).” 


While far from the most appealing character in Sonata Pathétique, the plucky, headstrong Mary- na is probably the most interesting. She uses the love of Ilko—who is gradually converted to Bolshevism, but who, in one scene, proclaims “the way of love!” over “the way of revolution!”—just as she uses the admiration of André, a member of the White Army, to further her own goals of an independent Ukrainian state. These manipulations backfire: by the end, Ilko feels so betrayed that he hands her over to the triumphant Bolshevik forces. 

Of course, history had already intervened in sup- port of Soviet victory. And the success of socialism had to be certain for the play to have any hope of being staged at all. As it was, Kulish was unable to publish it in Ukraine. But Sonata Pathétique went on to be staged in Moscow to an initially favorable response, eventually expanding into regional cities like Omsk and Korsk. By late 1932, though, the Ukrainian literary renaissance had ended. The official Soviet newspaper, Pravda, wrote a scathing review of the play based mainly on his condemnation of it as “nationalist.” 

Kulish would go on to be arrested in the purges and would die in a concentration camp, either in 1937 or 1942—the official historical record unravels, here, into uneasy ambiguity. 

Historian Timothy Snyder has called the contested terrains of Eastern Europe the Bloodlands. The mass killings from 1930 to 1945, he has argued, which we tend to associate with the images of Auschwitz and gas chambers and Stalin’s gulags, were part of a broader, more sustained process of murder. 10 million civilians who never entered concentration camps were shot, deliberately starved (beginning with Ukraine in 1930), or gassed in killing centers unrelated to work and death camps. By the time of Auschwitz’s greatest efficiency in 1943, a vast percentage of the in- habitants of these lands, Jewish and non-Jewish, had been killed. Trampled over by the massive violence, famines, and purges of Stalin’s regime, only to be re-trodden by the genocidal and environmental ravages of Hitler’s empire, in-between lands like Ukraine were condemned to near-annihilation. The search for Ukrainian identity was subsumed under the daily, yearly battle over Ukrainian lives—a battle that Kulish himself lost. 

After being suppressed by Soviet censorship, Sonata Pathétique would not be heard of again until the mid- to late-1980s. It was only with Ukrainian independence in 1990 that a full edition of Kulish’s works would be published, emerging from the rubble of what in some ways had been a lost, foreshortened century. Its reissue kickstarted an- other chapter in the process of national identity and definition whose competing partisans have yet to come to accord. 

Pathos in Ukrainian—?????—means both what it does in English, and also something like “the essence of things.” The structure of theater and music might impose a kind of aesthetic unity, then, for a people and in a land where real, lived unity—or even the freedom to pursue it—has long been elusive. 

“Well, I’ve risen,” declares Stupay as he emerges into the streets of battle toward the end of Sonata Pathétique. “But I don’t know which side I should join.” 

(He thinks and hesitates). Neither this side nor that. (The bullets whizz by.) Wait. There are Ukrainians on both sides. What are you doing? Let me think! 


And as Stupay bends to the ground, still undecided, a bullet strikes him in the chest. He falls, his own vision for Ukraine extinguished between the yellow and blue of the Ukrainian flag and the bright crimson of the Reds. “I suggested red, yellow and blue stripes,” he’d said, “but they won’t listen to me.”