A romantic struggle of freedom and conscience against all odds

“And I am, an absolute stranger, a bandit – from one terminology and insurgent – from other terminology” – “I am (romance)” by Mykola Khvylovy.

Mykola Khvylovy was an author, a leader of Ukrainian cultural renaissance, and a passionate believer in “Ukrainian bolshevism.”

He used two ribbons – a red one and a yellow-and-blue one – to represent the duality of his political views. Being a member of the Communist party, he became famous for his urge “away from Moscow” and its mass appeal, provinciality, lack of culture, and inferiority of the contemporary literature.

Khvylovy identified a “psychological Europe” as an alternative to the literary.

He sensed that the USSR would one day lose Ukraine. The danger was not even to be found in the political slogans of Ukraine’s separation and independence. It was manifested in Ukrainians’ very desire to be a highly-cultured nation.

Thus, cultural issues became politics. The fear of losing Ukraine prompted aggression on the part of Stalin. Because of the repressions against his friends in the pro-Ukrainian Communist movement, Khvylovy committed suicide on 13 May 1933 in front of his friends in his apartment in Kharkiv.

“In a word, it’s Dostoevsky style, pathology, but there is no way I can shoot myself. I went out into the field twice but came back safe and sound both times: evidently I’m a big coward and good for nothing.”– Khvylovy, in a letter to his friend, Mykola Zerov.

Rebellious, full of doubts, brave, and afraid may describe Khvylovy, but they are also the key attributes of the main character – “I” – of “I am (romance)”. In the short story, the protagonist is a Cheka security officer, head of the commune’s court-martial, the main function of which was to decide on and enforce capital punishment of those who went against the Soviet regime.

We get to know the main character through his friends – Dr. Tagabat, Andryusha, and degenerate. Andryusha was stationed at the commune by the “heartless revolution committee,” against his own will. He is disturbed each time he must sign the death order. Thus, he always takes his time, never writes his own name and surname on the document, just draws something incomprehensible.

While discussing the death penalty of shopkeepers, Dr. Tagabat laughs, spills his drink on the velvet carpet, and wildly shouts: “Kill them!” This was the moment when “I” understood that Tagabat was his “hopeless master” and “animal’s instinct.” He was a “nobody in his hands” who finally “surrendered to the will of the wild element.”

“But where is the escape?” “I,” asked himself once realizing the gravity of the work.

Here we find one of the most crucial episodes in the story, as “I” begins doubting his freedom, and his free will. Or maybe he just discovered unknown parts of himself, from which there was no escape? Or maybe he was just afraid of making this choice?

When Andryusha asked to let him go to the front because he couldn’t stay there anymore, “I” had finally stopped restraining himself and lost his temper. “He wants to go to the front? He wants to throw off this dirty business? He wants to wash his hands and be innocent like a pigeon? He gives me “his right” to swimming in this pool of blood?” “I” even wanted to kill Andryusha had he decided to leave.

But why would he do that? Was this the “wild element” and thirst for death that he learned from Tagabat? Or was that just his fear of losing a part of himself, which believed that all they were doing as security officers was “foul”, “perverse” and totally inhumane?

“…I’m lost in narrow streets. And finally, I come to the lonely house, where my mother lives. The yard smells like mint. Behind the barn lightning rages, I can hear the rumble of strangled thunder. She comes to me, takes my exhausted face in her withered old palms and bows her head on my chest. Again she says that I am her restless son, and have surely tortured myself.” – “I” was dreaming at night. Thoughts about his mother Maria had always followed him. It is in thoughts about her where he lets himself be weak, tired, and free.

Later, “I” would admit that his mother was “a part of my criminal “I”, whom I give freedom. Here, in a remote corner, on the edge of the yard, I hide from the guillotine one of the ends of my soul.”

When “I” saw his mother among those who had to be sentenced to death, he became overwhelmed with agony.

“Yes! – finally grabbed the other tile of my soul! I won’t go there, to the edge of the town to criminally hide. I now have just one right: nobody, never and anything to say how broke my own very self. Can it be true, I’m the soldier of the revolution, and will miss this crucial moment?” Idols and romanticism of the revolution or mother? Andryusha asked to let her out. When “I” came up to the door to look through the small window, where his mother was sitting, degenerate – “the keeper of his soul” – took “I” by the hand. Dr. Tagabat was quietly sitting on the couch and drinking wine.

“I” was left alone. Alone with the burden of choice – the burden of freedom.

“I” recognized how miserable he was standing there fully free to make any choice he wanted. “I suddenly feel myself wretch and worthless and understand, that I’m losing the last feeling of the liberty.

“But it was a reality: predatory and cruel like a pack of hungry wolves. It was hopeless reality inevitable as death itself.” No matter, “I” made a choice. “I” shot the part of his soul – the part, which turned him against the communist revolution. The part which restrained him. The part, which was his home. “I” destroyed by himself all his primary ties. Now “I” was free. He chose to have Dr. Tagabat, Andryusha, and degenerate – the commune and revolution – in him. Not his mother Maria.

“I” am (romance)” is a personal tragedy of Mykola Khvylovy, who was inspired by the idea of revolution, always considered as something higher, something deserving sacrifices, but he couldn’t surrender to it.

He was as brave and cold-blooded as Tagabat, full of doubts and fears like Andryusha and was guarded by a degenerate. But unlike “I” Khvylovy lost his great faith in revolution when he saw it trying to ruin other parts of him – his wish to see Ukrainian literature throwing off Soviet chains and becoming the literature of freedom. “I” killed his weakness and self-doubting. Weakness and self-doubting killed Khvylovy.

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