Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Ukrainian Writers’ Colonies: The Subculture of Ukrainian Writers Before and After the Collapse of the USSR

         This paper is written mainly on the basis of fieldwork and ethnographic methods, this being mainly through observing and interviewing. The author grew up in the Soviet writers’ environment, living at the so-called “writers’ village” in downtown Kyiv (Kiev) and spent school vacations in different Будинки творчості письменників (residences where writers can come and write). Later, she herself became a writer and a member of the Ukrainian Writers’ Union, spending many hours interviewing the old generation of Ukrainian writers, on one hand, and actively participating in the literary life of modern Ukraine, on another.
         In Soviet times the social and professional group of writers was mainly a corporative one. By belonging to this corporative organization, called Soiuz sovetskikh pisatelei (The Soviet Writers' Union), in Ukraine – Spilka pys'mennykiv Ukrainy (The Ukrainian Writers' Union), much was shared and learned. The cooperation of Soviet writers obtained the semi-distinctive features of a separate subculture: on one hand, it had very good connections with authorities, but on another, it created somehow an alternative lifestyle, values and communicative system, which gave us a right to identify this group as a separate subculture. Not only were writers a part of this communicative system, but they were also considered a large army of publishers, editors, journalists and even to some extent as - censors.
         The time spent at the Budynky tvorchosti pys’mennykiv was just one episode of how the Soviet writers’ way of life was, but its issue as a subculture is essential one to realize. The specific subculture that was created had appeared only when the members, otherwise its carriers, were located within closed/isolated spaces. For example, one of the most distinctive features of the writers’ corporative subculture was the corporative folklore. It was created, transmitted and shared in the most efficient way at those social institutions.
         In the Soviet Union there were various networks of writers’ residences (as well as composers’, artists’, moviemakers’ residences). Some of them were situated on the territory of the former Ukrainian Soviet Socialistic Republic (Irpin’, Odessa, Koktebel’, Yalta).
Будинок творчості письменників у Ялті
Будинок творчості в Ірпені. Сходи до ставка
Будинок творчості в Ірпені. Перший корпус, про який ходить одна легенда
Будинок творчості письменників в Ірпені
Вигляд на річлу Ірпінь
Будинки творчості письменників were maintained by a government Literary fund (Literaturnyi fond) – the corporative writers' organization subsisted on Writers' Union membership fees[1]. This government literary fund covered approximately 90% of the expences for writers under the condition that they were members of theWriters' Union.
         Budynкy tvorchosti pys'mennykiv might be compared with or affiliated somehow with the North American writers’ colonies – residences providing room, board and the opportunity for uninterrupted creative work (writing). Writers would apply to stay in these residences, costing them a very moderate price. This would be roughly only a ¼ or a ½ of the real expenses incurred. The rest of the costs would be covered by the hosting organization. This would be collected through targeted fundraising.
         For example, the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow is a residency program for writers and composers in the historic arts village of Eureka Springs in Arkansas). The Colony “hosts more than 50 established and emerging writers a year for residencies that vary in length from one week to three months” from mid-March through mid-December. This colony serves either a subsidized general residency or a Fellowship-funded stay. “In the privacy of separate, individual writing suites fully equipped with bedroom, writing area, wifi, a/c, private bath, private entrance and mini-kitchens, and with all meals provided”[2].

Будинок творчості письменників в Ірпені
Сходи до ставка
         Let’s compare this info with what Budynky tvorchosti pys’mennykiv located in Ukraine, obtained from the 1960s until the 1990s.
Будинок творчості письменників в Ірпені,
Шостий корпус
         One Будинок творчості would be able to host 50-200 writers at the same time. Writers could stay there either 1 day or 1 month, or even 1 year (except during the summer and winter holidays. This was the period of ‘invasion’ by the writers’ children and wives. It was almost impossible for them to write during this time). Usually one residence had 5-10 bedrooms, one mutual living room / lounge with comfortable couches and a television. One house usually had 2 washrooms (for ladies and gentlemen). They did not include kitchens because all the writers were fed in the eating/dining house. The Dining house was the central point of Writers’ Colony. It was a place to eat, to read (library), to watch (movies), to communicate, etc. – it was basically the main communal life venue. One of the most important requirements for all of the Writers’ colonies was that they had to be situated in very picturesque localities.  The living conditions in these Soviet writers’ colonies can be identified as a high level of sovok communal life.
Будинок творчості в Коктебелі
         The Writers’ Colonies Life Style was non-ritualized, mainly middle and older aged men came there (except during the summer period). It was seasonal. Its aesthetics were based on a mish-mash of sovok and bohemianism/bohemia.
         There was only one time-regulation at the writers’ colonies.  The times for breakfasts, lunches and dinners were precisely restricted. The writers spent the rest of the day according to their biological or creative rhythms: the daytime or night was assigned for writing, evenings were appointed for communication.
         The process of communication included:
         - customized “promenades”;
         - “fruit and wine” parties;
Місце для променадів в Ірпінському будинку творчості. Алейка
         - tough (or macho) male drinking parties.
Будинок творчості письменників в Коктебелі.
Набережна як місце для променадів
         The process of communication was not only as a news exchange, it was a fruitful field for sharing the corporative folklore, which is an important part of any subculture.
         The dress code in writers’ colonies was informal, practically there was no special dress code for men. During the summer, ladies (both writers and writers’ wives and daughters), had to abide by certain customs. During the day, they wore whatever they wanted, but during the evening, (for promenades and parties) it was appropriate to wear bohemian-style clothing: long romantic skirts, kerchiefs / scarves / shawls, a lot of jewelry, fancy (funky) hair-dos.
         It was expected that everyone be familiar with the literature of the day and all their associated styles. Even the writers’ housewives were expected to have a good grasp of the literature of the day and participate in the literary and arts discussions.
         As we mentioned above, one of the most important parts of the writers’ subculture was folklore. Folklore, performed by writers was of two types: a) general or common (writers love to sing folk songs, romances and share jokes, including political ones) b) corporative. Corporative folklore predominantly consisted of corporative narratives: personal experience narratives, on the one hand, and legends, on the another.
         Personal experience narratives' repertoire contained:
-       scary stories,
-       professional stories
-       and funny stories.
         Legends (predominantly contemporary legends) were of etiological/ explanatory nature.
         Scary stories dealt with such topics as: the ways and means of dying (suicide stories, stories about unusual deaths); the writers' houses, and their «second generation» problems.

         «В нашому бдинку, на десятому поверсі жив письменник NN, який писав про чекістів, кагебістів, міліціонерів... Його книги видавалися величезними тиражами, хоча писав він нецікаво. ВПросто це було "замовлення". Його страшенно не любили інші письменники, вважалося, що він був стукачем. І що характерно: його життя скінчилося відповідно до його життя. Пішов він якось у ліс по гриби і заблукав. Він бродив по лісу, розхвилювався і помер від серцебого нападу. Але коли його знайшли через невідомо скільки часу, його всього з'їли мурахи. Страшна смерть..." [3].

         All suicide stories in the world are very similar. The differences in the plots appeared in reasons of suicide. During the Soviet times the phenomena of depression, overstress, etc. were not able to be discussed. The official version was: he was a drinker; he was a sick person. But Ukrainian Soviet writers' corporative folklore explained the reasons of taking someone's own life by the political/ideological reasons. Within the Ukrainian writers' communicative system, there were stories of gossip and even legends about someone's death. These stories did not contain the expressions about the conflict between the writer and the system (authority), between his patriotic  or nationalistic views and developed socialism «happy» reality, etc.  Folklore and semi-folklore texts contained the statement, like ioho vyklykaly v KGB ( he had an appointment with the KGB).
         In our times all those stories have been told officially and publically[4]. But in 1960s and1970s, they were a part of writers' «secret» folklore.
         The suicide stories within Ukrainian writers' folklore expanded on their children. And this is not done coincedentally. Ukrainian writer's children (children of Ukrainian writers who wrote and spoke Ukrainian at home) often lived in a stressful atmosphere. They were regarded as being different from the other children, of being little lyers and conspirators from early childhood. The frequency of suicide (as well as abnormal behavior) among the Ukrainian Soviet writers' children was also very high.
         Funny stories of the Ukrainian writers' corporative folklore were mainly created and performed by men. The Ukrainian writers community had quite a few exceptionally talanted storytellers and jokers. Some of them were very famous authors, like Oleksa Kolomiyets', while others were practically unknown as writers, like Kost' Volyns'kyi, who was an extraordinary keeper and carrier of Ukrainian Soviet writers' oral history.
         There is one joke which becomes more funny when people are aware of the context (names of personages):

        Якось раз один  відомий прозаїк спитав одного відомого драматурга: "Альошо, скажи мені, яка розницяміж відьмою і бабою Ягою?" - "Та це, Юро, приблизно, як між твоєю жінкою і моєю!" - відповів той, навіть не усміхнувшись. [5]

         The favorite plots of funny stories were:
-       the jealous wife is coming to Budynok tvorchosti at night to check what her husband is doing there;
-       about iuroduvi (holy fools);
-       and drinking stories.
         Vasyl' Didenko – the author of the poetic masterpiece «Na dolyni tuman» - was about a person with a specific (let's say nomadic) lifestyle and an eccentrical behavior, he lived in his own spiritual world, and was absolutely inadequate and vulnerable in practical issues of society. He himself became a hero for the Ukrainian writers' corporative folklore. Many stories still have been transmitted among the modern writers.

         «Еге ж, Вася Діденко був ще той оригінал! Якось він прийшов в Спілку письменників за матеріальною підтримкою. Йому відмовили. Тоді він сказав, що залізе на дерево перед спілкою і буде гавкати, поки йому не дадуть гроші. Він так і зробив. А треба взяти до уваги, що СПілка була розташована 100 метрів від  ЦК КПУ. Із СПілки повибігали співробітники і почали просити зліти з дерева і перестати гавкати. Це подіяло, поки йому не пообіцяли премію". [6].

         The most popular plots among the professional folk stories were:
-       who and how one became a writer;
-       who and how one used to write;
-       mischief that went on in the writers' colonies;
-       publishing and censorship stories (aesopic language stories; «writing etiquette» stories; honorarium stories);
-       stories about writers' widows.
         «NN дуже любив працювати в Будинку творчості в Ірпені, в першому корпусі. А працював він так: вставляв в друкарську машинку рулон папету і друкував романи. потім він віддавав рулон друкарці і та вже передруковувала текст на окремі листки паперу. В Ірпені він працював денно і нощно, не виходив на прогулянки, лише ходив у їдальню. От хлопці вирішили над ним піджартувати: Поки він їв обід, додрукували йому на рулон усіляких лайливих і непристойних речей, а потім додрукували остаббій абзац, який він лишив. І так робилося кілька разів. ЯКе ж було його здивування, коли машиністка, червоніючи, показала йому "його писання!»[7].

         Other examples of the folklore from the Ukrainian writers’ oral traditions include:
-       etiological legends,
-       everyday life / family stories, gossip (love stories, stories about romances: who and with whom is/was an affair; about animals living in Writers’ colony);
-       legends about origins or how things came to be.

         For example, one of the favorite legends inside the writers’ community was a story about the origin of one of the fancy buildings at the Irpin Writers’ Colony. The legend contains some romantic details, which vary in different interpretations. The history of this folklore text is very interesting. For many years it was a part of the Ukrainian writers’ corporative folklore, and namely the folklore of the mentioned writers’ colony.  But in our days it became a source for tourist business projects as an attraction for the locals. And our writers still like to share this legend with a wide audience[8].

         As we can see, the Soviet Writers’ Colonies created their own sub-culture, which can be correlated with professional subcultures, Bohemian (bogema) subcultures and Soviet spa (kurorty) tradition. The Ukrainian Soviet writers' subculture, on the one hand, contained the general (all-union) features of writers' lifestyle, but on the other hand, had its own national specificity, which was strongly expressed in corporative folklore, by means of humor and so called «Aesopian language».
         After the collapse of the Soviet Union the old system of Writers' Unions was almost ruined, and its subculture (let's say: old writers' subculture) was dissappearing. Old-fashioned writers' colonies lost their functions as places for creative work and professional/bohemian communication, and became commercial institutions, such as hotels or recreation centres for the broad general population of tourists.
         In 20 years the new generation of Ukrainian writers has mutated into new forms of corporative communication called 'tusovky', 'prezentacii', etc. The writers' community is less isolated, that it why it lost the unique features of «writers' subculture». The life of modern writers of today encompass different official and non-official organizations, book-stores, award institutions, publishing houses etc. Today's young generation of writers has strong intentions to incorporate to the broader art-projects, show business, youth movement, etc. For example, the art union Ostannia barykada has incorporated different types of activities: literature, muscis, art, folklore, politics. This has now created its own type of literature-artistic life, but still there is almost nothing in modern Ukrainian literature life to be identified as a writers' subculture.

[3] Interview with Halyna Hrymych, 1997
[5] Interview with Kost’ Volyns’kyi, 1998
[6] Interview with Leonid Kononovych, 2005
[7] Interview with Kost’ Volynskyi, 1998

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