He was a person from another epoch brought up on the values which are not just neglected today but even often laughed at. Other times, ideals, another moral…
He seemed to be one of the “rich kids”, but he had no money to buy food or clothes as everybody then. His mother was from a rich family but far before the Stalin repressions, she married a poor man and managed not to be taken to Siberia. Later, she was appointed the head of one of the biggest collective farms of the Chernihiv region. As for him, he was going to school in felt boots made of three pieces. He strived for normal shoes to wear them to a local club to learn there to dance. But he didn’t get good footwear, didn’t learn how to dance which made girls like him less. Of course, the head of the collective farm was given not only workdays but also money, however, his mother always refused to take it. She thought that if people were without money, she also couldn’t take it.
When he was at university and came to visit his parents on holidays, he wasn’t lying in the garden or near the river. He worked on the collective farm so nobody would be able to say to his mother-director, “Your boy is lazy!”. There were almost no tractors and machines in the fields, only horses, oxen, and our Ukrainian people.
During the 1946-47 famine, the young man worked at a mill. For lunch, people were served a big pot with boiled water and a little flour. He also remembers a bit the 1932-33 famine, he was three years old then. “I was terribly hungry”, he says. This terrible scene had been forever in his memory – together with his brother he saw a dead boy lying on the porch. His little brother was repeating, “Vania, get up!” His family was saved due to an everyday pot of soup. Mother got several jobs at a local hospital: she was a cleaner and keeper.
He could have become a mathematician (his father was a Maths teacher, the boy could cope with any maths problems), but he got into humanitarian studies. He wrote his first tale when he was a student. But he didn’t risk to publish it. He was afraid of people accusing him of graphomania. That’s why at first, he published two short tales in magazines and then turned back to the tale. He was really happy. He got his first fee and feared to leave the building – his pockets were full of money. The sum was paid in 1 ruble banknotes. He bought a suit which he would wear for his wedding later. On the money he got from Semen Palii publishing in Kyiv and Moscow, he bought a flat for his parents.
He told me all this more than ten years ago just before his 80th birthday. Already then, he seemed like he was summing up his life. He felt bad after a stroke, and just before that, he had buried his wife with whom he’d lived together for 53 years. Today morning, he passed away. He was 90 years old.
I talked to Yuri Mushketyk two times when I visited him in Koncha-Ozerna. In the writers’ village near Kyiv, prominent Ukrainian authors were also living not far from Mushketyk’s house: Pavlo Zahrebelny, Oleksandr Syzonenko, Ivan Drach. They had died before Yuri Mushketyk.
Our second meeting took place at the same place almost in 18 months before the 15th anniversary of Oles Honchar’s death (famous Ukrainian writer). We talked about him. Mushketyk said they weren’t close friends. They often communicated as were neighbours (they lived in some houses from each other). When Honchar was very ill, Mushketyk walked with him in the neighbourhood: at first, near the Dnipro river, then near a dry wood, then near a green one, then near a bridge, and finally only in Honchar’s courtyard.
Our second conversation happened to be more hearty. He invited me to the back terrace, we spoke about literature, we discussed that Ukrainian and foreign new books were not let to the market, that modern Ukrainian authors’ strong language was taken negatively. He regaled me with a very tasty liquor his townsman, his fan, from Chernihiv region supplied him. I was flattered that Mushketyk, as he said, served this drink only on special occasions.
Yuri Mushketyk knew many things. As for fifteen years (1986-2001), he was the head of the National Writers’ Union of Ukraine. These were harsh times – last years of the USSR, Perestroika, and the first decade of independent Ukraine. Mushketyk wasn’t a dissident, however, he didn’t get on well with the USSR authorities. He told how he was fired from the magazine Dnipro editor’s position in 1972. The magazine published dissidents. Each issue had censorship problems. They even had to invite a sensor to a restaurant so he could turn a blind eye to some things.
The writer worried about the native land. “It’s terrifying. We have many people who don’t love Ukraine,” I’m citing his words from that interview. Mushketyk despised the behaviour of some parliamentarians, their indifference, the fact that many Ukrainian media are not really Ukrainian, that authorities stole state lands. He complained that it was impossible to come up to the Dnipro coast from Kyiv to Kanev, there are only cottages with guards. The writer found out it when he was collecting material for one of his novels about the war.
Before his 80th anniversary, Mushketyk told me that he was writing his memoirs but they would be published only after his death. I asked why he didn’t want to see them published while he was alive, he answered he didn’t want it. Evidently, it could have hurt many people he had to communicate with. He said almost the same about the memoirs in the interview on his 90th anniversary.
The writer’s heart stopped. His memories are history now. I believe they are as interesting as his historical novels.
Rest in Peace, a Human and Ukrainian!