Panteleimon Kulish and the cutting edge of contradictions

Insidious, vindictive, ruthless, treacherous, passionate, intolerant and impermanent… Yet at the same time noble, hard-working, intelligent, generous… The traits of a psychological portrait of Panteleimon Kulish, written by his contemporaries, are so contradictory and ambiguous that one does not believe them. He created the first Ukrainian alphabet – but cheated on his wife and described his love affairs in letters to her. He translated the Bible – but spread puny rumours about Marko Vovchok. With one hand he wrote exalted odes to Shevchenko and with the other mercilessly criticized him. He created the Kulishivka alphabet – the basis of the Ukrainian alphabet but changed his lovers like gloves. How can one make a picture of him?

I don’t want a next biography to dust it off. I don’t want artificial flowers for the anniversary. And a portrait with rushnyk either. If only to see a real person – so real that one can imagine it among the contemporaries…

Kulish’s childhood was idyll and bucolic. There was no poverty about which they love to binge-write in the Ukrainian literature textbooks. Father was, though small, a nobleman. Mother was a daughter of the Sotnyk. Perhaps, it was cosy for a kid Panteleimon to nap in the arms of fairy-tales, legends and folk songs, not to know deprivation, not to work as a farmworker. Ukrainian rural idyll with wattles, cocks and mallows. Chernihiv region. XIX century.

At school, he had hard times. There the boy faced his first ‘equation’ that he long couldn’t solve. He was taught in Russian. Panteleimon Kulish remembers there was a lot of trouble until ‘he started talking, as they say in books’. Ukrainian and Russian languages would struggle in him till the rest of his life.

At university, it was even harder. From the end of the 30s, Kulish attended lectures at the Kyiv University. He befriended with professor Mykhailo Maksymovych who encouraged a gifted young man to read and collect folklore. However, Panteleimon couldn’t finish his studies – he failed to prove his noble origin with papers, and ‘peasant’s children’ were not accepted to universities then. This, of course, also stabbed his worldview and made there another dark spot.

Panteleimon Kulish met his future wife due to his friend – Vasyl Bilozersky. Chernihiv region. Vacations. A 24-year-old Kulish basked in his first accomplishments (historical novel Mykhailo Charnyshenko, versed historical chronicle Ukraine and a short story Orysia) and was about to start writing Chorna Rada (The Black Council) in a rural idyll – a separate house with four windows and mallows in the yard. Like Hesiod – works and days. But suddenly… Sanya. Oleksandra Bilozerska. A 15-year-old girl. She shrugged off a young intellectual, a writer. How could it be?

Kulish was struck by her indifference. He started to approach her. He rigged the meetings. He refused his intentions. He neglected her. And again planned the meeting. Sanya, well-mannered, quite restrained, struggled to keep the distance. He wooed and received a refusal from her mother: they say, it’s too early for her, look how young she is. He got offended and left. But the sensible bride blurted out:

“If you, mother, don’t want me to marry Mr Panteleymon – at your will, I wouldn’t do so but no one will ever become my husband.”

Panteleimon lived a year like on the red-hot furnace. He wanted to forget her. He swore no longer to go to the damn Motronivka. But again did went there. He roamed. He hated himself but could do nothing. Went and returned. A year later he again called a respectful mother-in-law for a frank conversation. He explained everything – as judiciously as he could. Madam Motrona called the daughter. Sania finally confessed that she loved him.

“So great! But I don’t allow my daughter to marry you.”

That was a true slap in the face. A bucket of cold water. Kulish swore not to go there anymore. He plunged into the writing. She polished his Chorna Rada. In 1845, the journal Sovremennik began to publish first chapters. It was a real success. Young Kulish was a go-getter. At nights, he muffled the thoughts about Sonia, at daytime, he made a pass at the daughter of his ‘patron’, rector of the St. Petersburg University, Ms Olha Pletnyova. He was confused. Who did he love? Everyone was head over heels in love with him. Offence strangled him. He merely lived.

Petersburg scholars extolled him, promoted his writing. He was sent to West Europe so that a young scholar could deepen his knowledge of history, languages and arts. Before setting off on his adventures he couldn’t but went to Motronivka. On a white horse – not figuratively but literally. Madam Motrona sighed and gave a blessing.

Пантелеймон Куліш на вістрі протиріч

Kulish wrote in his diary, “I was in Motronivka. In vain I told myself the whole year, I don’t love Sasha. When I said goodbye to her, I felt that no one would give such a feeling to my soul. It was a pity to lose a girl so meek, so kind, so exaltedly pure, and I decided to keep her. So, I talked to her mother, and it was decided that I would get married when returned from abroad. Now I am calm. I know who to continue my life with. Ms Olha is a Malorossiyan, otherwise, perhaps, she would garner my heart. I love her tenderly. But Sasha, raised by her mother, will be a better wife.”

At Kulish’s wedding, Taras Shevchenko himself was a groomsman.

Were they friends in a wider sense? Who knows. Kulish was more educated, though Shevchenko – more talented. For all his life, Kulish tried to recoup with his head what the heart lacked. He buried himself in books. Scrupulous. Careful. Meticulous. Shevchenko was not like that. He crossed the paper with anger and fire and gave it up.

“Kulish exceeded Shevchenko by the force of critical argument and, as a person with more systematic education, knew much more and therefore had greater self-confidence. The style of their relationship undoubtedly developed even then: a certain protectionism and edifying tone from the side of the self-confident Kulish, combined… with respect for Shevchenko’s poetic gift, and from the Shevchenko’s side – there was always a sincere recognition of Kulish’s education and national awards at the same time tinged with critical attitude to his immense ambition and confidence. Shevchenko has always been able to define a certain limit for Kulish’s tendencies to influence him,” researcher Pavlo Zaitsev writes.

Kulish treated Shevchenko’s artworks like everything in the world – first, he brought them up to heaven and then mixed with the dirt itself. From the rapturous “sound of the Sunday trumpet of the Archangel,” “the glow of the spirit,” the “national prophet” to the crushing “drunk muse, supported by the worse rather than better minds of the motherland.”

At times, Kulish explicitly imitates Shevchenko – in rimes, rhythms, images.

Kulish would never write a poem equally strong as Shevchenko’s. However, by the end of the day, he would continue to practice Taras’s romantic tradition. Fanatically. Devotedly. Like a monk. Even the chief of gendarmes, Earl Orlov, said in his report to Tsar Mykola I, “Kulish’s books could have the same effect on Malorossiyans as on Shevchenko’s poems, especially since they were created for elder children.” And Ivan Franko will draw a thick line under this topic, “Until the end of his life, he (Kulish) could not escape from the circle of concepts, images and problems that Shevchenko put with his brilliant hand in front of Ukraine.”

Even more complicated relationship Kulish had with Marko Vovchok. This Ukrainian writer of Russian origin could have opened a rather big museum of broken hearts. Bold, progressive and confident, Mariia left a deep mark in Kulish’s heart. Under the influence of Mariia, he suddenly began to talk about the benefits of emancipation for women, the archaic nature of family foundations – up to the frank ideas of George Sand. Their relationship was purely platonic but Kulish always wanted more. He took up editing her Narodni Opovidannya (Folk Stories). The author boldly refused all the editor’s notes. Kulish was stricken – how dared she! Love and offence, lust and hatred led Kulish to the fact that he spread gossip in the writer’s circles as if Marko Vovchok’s works were actually written by her husband. But she… seemed not to care an iota about this. “Her recklessness and unfaithfulness killed me,” Kulish said in the end. But she again didn’t notice this.

Oleksandra, his wife, suffered heavily from this all. But mostly in silence. Wedlock gradually turned into hell for her. First – the arrest of her husband for participation in the secret Brotherhood of Saints Cyril and Methodius. Three months in remand. After this shock, Oleksandra gave birth to a dead child. She never got pregnant again. The husband often reproached her for infertility. He made scenes. He said she obliterated his dream of becoming a father of many children. He split hairs. Anything could become a reason for the quarrel. Oleksandra – a housekeeper, a cook, a maid, whoever but not a beloved wife – often lost her temper and run out from the house in one dress. Even in winter. Kulish blamed himself later, called names, swore it was the last time. He ardently asked for forgiveness. First hers. Then his friends’ – for the fact that his wife was an uneducated peasant. Against the backdrop of a huge complex of guilt, the severe mental illness started to develop…

In 1856 Kulish wrote to Pletniov, “Oleksandra is getting worse. The life destroyed her, saving me. I, thanks to Lord, feel great and work a lot, not getting tired. If I have something ill, then it’s the heart. It experienced so many different feelings that I wonder how it still exists.”

Manya from Lynovtsi, Lesya from Kaliuzhyntsi. Passion instantly sparked Kulish. And he wrote about this all in multiple details to his wife. She knew about Marko Vovchok, Paraskeva Hlibova and about young Anna von Rentel. She tolerated.

Only in the afternoon of his life, Kulish deserted a bachelor’s life and finally noticed that there was a wife next to him his entire life.

This was all Kulish – he pursued one extreme or another, from scandals he rushed to apologies as if living on the verge of black and white. However, his character traits couldn’t diminish his contributions to Ukrainian culture. And some of his thoughts are of current interest as if they were voiced yesterday.

“There are few of you, my compatriots, in Ukraine; you married any language or those who should lead the way but they turned into something that lives apart from the tribe; you are strangers at home, you are strangers wherever you come. German lives German-wise, Turkish – Turkish-wise, Englishman – English-wise and a Moskal – Moscow-wise; only our fellow brother, a Ukrainian, wears his shirt inside out.”

Serhiy Osoka

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