Ivan Kotliarevsky founded the new Ukrainian literature… in jest

Biographies are mostly very serious, sometimes even too serious. The heroes of biographies are silver-haired wise spiritual luminaries, sometimes tormented by their own lives and struggles. Biographies dress their heroes in tapestries, and the dash between their dates of birth and death is kind of a final line that leaves hardly any space for saying anything new about the hero. It is almost impossible to get out of the monumental school stereotypes and see the biography of a living person.

“Ivan Petrovych Kotliarevsky is the founder of the new Ukrainian literature…” And you can’t help imagining him sitting down at the table, carefully laying out the paper, putting the inkwell on the edge, dipping the pen: well, I begin!.. majestic music and flying glitter are in the air, cupids bring a laurel wreath from heaven …

In fact, it wasn’t really like that. In fact, it really wasn’t like that at all!

Ivan Kotliarevsky was lucky to be born a nobleman, not a serf. He was born on September 9, 1769. In the most beautiful place of Poltava, on a high mountain behind the church. Frankly speaking, this mountain looked out (and keeps looking out!) over a beautiful landscape: forests, fragrant green meadows, holiday ribbon of Vorskla. Poltava was only called a town then but in fact, it was a rather big village (people often say even now: Poltava is a big village). But then its population was less than eight thousand people. What a beautiful place! Such a pastoral and bucolic town over Dnipro! It is meant to be celebrated by talented people.

Some impoverished Cossack officer was Ivan’s parents’ ancestor. His father, though a nobleman, did not have much income and was forced to somehow make ends meet, to work as a clerk in the town magistrate. Ivan’s grandfather was a deacon in the Poltava Cathedral Church of the Assumption. In short, if someone has already managed to imagine the candelabra and footmen in livery, you should forget about it. Ivan’s childhood, as professional biographers would say, was spent in conditions close to the life of ordinary people.

The boy began his education like all in those days – with a deacon, and since 1780 he studied at the Poltava Seminary. But he didn’t finish it. Biographers like to idealize and round everything up. Why did Kotliarevsky drop out? The first version is because of the death of his father. The second version is his disappointment in the education of those times. Allegedly the future classic did not want to pave a hard, long and boring way just for the sake of the document. And you can have the courage to assume that Kotliarevsky was afraid of future priest’s fate with its endless fasts, prayers and the like. We can assume that he wanted a free life – parties, salty jokes and laughter over punch and cards…

By the way, his seminary nickname was Rhymer. Even in those years, Kotliarevskiy showed an ardent penchant for poetry. However, he didn’t feel he was a genius – in those Golden years, almost every student tried to write some poems.

As evidenced by biographers, even back in those school years, Ivan delighted his fellowship with witty poems about Aeneas. Over cigars and cards, he read out some excerpts from the future Aeneid for his friends, not knowing that someday these separate pieces of text casually written for fun were destined to turn into something that would become a new phase, a turning point, a historic landmark. He was very surprised that those frivolous rhymes quickly went beyond the confines of close male fellowship and travelled by word of mouth.

Kotliarevsky didn’t even have a thought of publishing his jokes. Friends loved them, they laughed, criticized, offered something different – Ivan Petrovych didn’t have time to notice before he finished three parts of the future famous works. And he was very offended by Maksym Parpura who issued them without the permission of the author and earned a lot of money but Kotliarevsky earned glory. He was so offended that he found a cosy place in his hell for “effigies” – those who take someone else’s things without permission.

After being bored for a while in offices, Ivan abandons his job and earns his bread as a home teacher at the landlords’ families. He goes to parties, is keen on folk humour, sometimes even acts.

Kotliarevsky’s biographers touch upon the topic of love cautiously and somewhat tangentially. Indeed, very little is known about this. Mariia Semykon was the niece of a landowner N. Kotliarevsky taught the children of this landowner. He read excerpts from Aeneid out for her and dreamed to marry her. The young lady was promised to a wealthy widower. Kotliarevsky never married.

In 1796 he fled to the army. He served in the Siversky Police Regiment. As a captain, he participated in the Russian-Turkish war, in the convoy of Izmail. He was engaged not only in the military but also in diplomatic activities. He was awarded the order of St. Anne of the 3rd degree. He retired in 1808.

In 1809, “Virgil’s Aeneid, translated into the Little Russian language by I. Kotliarevsky”. The front page contained the author’s note: “Newly revised and updated against previous publications”. The work immediately becomes very popular. It is devoured. People read it, but for some reason didn’t notice the sharp satire on the society of those times.

“Pedants were surprised and fell silent. Bile people grabbed this book with the intention to rejoice and curse it, destroy the daring writer, but from the first pages, their anger died down – they began to laugh,” a contemporary of Kotliarevsky wrote.

The author himself was surprised by such popularity. After all, he was up to nothing big. He wrote mostly for friends, for purely male company, with relevant jokes about “bitch daughters”. Decent young ladies should have blushed and walked away. No grandeur of idea. But it turned out to be…

He was searching for some work for a long time. Since 1810 he worked as a supervisor of the “House for the Education of Poor Nobles’ Children”. In 1816-1821 he was a director of the Poltava Free Theater. He carefully prepared the repertoire. Attended rehearsals. Often re-wrote dramatic works. He wrote Natalka Poltavka in 1819 – and it was immediately staged. Mykhailo Shchepkin was one of the first to play the role of the elective. By the way, Kotliarevsky helped to redeem the actor from serfdom.

In 1818, Ivan Kotliarevsky was a member of the Poltava Masonic Lodge “Love for Truth” and “Free Society of Lovers of the Russian Literature”. He was very worried about the massacre of the Tsar over the Decembrists, although he wasn’t personally affected by his repressions. Perhaps because of the great popularity – even Tsar himself had a copy of Aeneid. There is another version. In one of the letters, the Decembrist Serhii Volkonsky writes, “Kotliarevsky was saved from forced labour by a woman who loved him”. Researchers suggest that this woman is Varvara Repnina, the wife of the governor-general Nikolay Repnin…

In his last years, Kotliarevsky was ill and almost never left home. But hospitably hosted many guests. Contemporaries claim that everything was simple for him. He often joked, the smile just never left his face. Sometimes he invented “news”, very wittily told them to play jokes on his fellowship. And then everyone laughed merrily – while the joker himself did not even smile.

The book “Ivan Kotliarevsky in the documents, memoirs, studies” describes his appearance: there are traces of smallpox on his face, but in spite of this, the face is very nice-looking, the look is purposeful, energetic. His teeth are white, his nose Roman. He is tall. The clothes are very simple – a black frock coat, sometimes a tailcoat, almost always with a white tie.

Before the death, Kotliarevsky released all of his servants, distributed his possessions between family and friends. Because he didn’t have heirs, Motrona Veklevicheva, a former housekeeper, became a full-fledged mistress of the manor after his death.

He died on November 10, 1838, in the seventieth year of his life. He was buried in Poltava.

Serhii Osoka

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