“Everything was hanging by a thread for a while”
Oleh Panchuk was born in 1932 in Chernivtsi as grandson of the Ukrainian writer Olha Kobyljanska. In this interview he tells us why the Soviet government lionised his grandmother, why he studied chemistry – and about the protests on the Maiden, which in his eyes could have ended differently.
Lopata: You were born in Chernivtsi. It was still a part of Romania in those days.
Panchuk: Yes, when I went to school, classes were of course taught in Romanian. It was only later in the 1930s after the shift of power in Bucharest that the attitude toward minorities such as Ukrainians, Germans and Poles started to change. During my childhood, conditions for Ukrainians were harsh: languages other than Romanian were forbidden in public institutions, including schools. Once, during a school break, I was sitting at a desk with my neighbour who was also Ukrainian. We were whispering to each other in Ukrainian. Someone heard us and told the teacher. I was punished, rather symbolically though – I was hit five times on my palm with a ruler. It didn’t hurt, but it was humiliating. This was when I realised how important it is to let people speak their native language.
Lopata: Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and your grandmother Olha Kobylianska, the famous Ukranian author?
Panchuk: I was born on 17 July 1932 in the house that is now a museum for Olha Kobylianska. I was raised by my mother’s family. My mother was Olha Kobylianska’s foster daughter and in fact her niece. In 1940, I finished the second year or school and it was in June 1940 when the Soviet government was established. They lionised Olha Kobylianska. She was the only living representative of the renewed Ukrainian literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries at that time: Lesya Ukrayinka had passed away as well as Franko and Kotsyubinsky – there was nobody left but Olha [Lesya Ukrayinka, Ivan Franko and Mykhaylo Kotsyubinsky are among the most prominent Ukrainian writers in history, editor’s note]. However, Olha was very sick at that time. She was paralysed and had suffered two strokes. That is why she was not able to leave her house or even her room.
Let me tell you about an interesting anecote: Two days after Soviet troops entered the city, on the 23rd [of June 1940, editor’s note], a Soviet delegation, the party leadership and members of the military came to our house with flowers. Olha was carried to the sofa in the big room. She could barely speak. The officers talked about liberation and she was only nodding. This is when it all began: delegations from different cities and republics were coming to congratulate us on the liberation every day.
One evening, at a dinner to celebrate my father’s promotion as the head of the university library, a representative of the Local Party Committee approched my father: “How are you? Are you satisfied with how the Soviet authorities treat Olha Kobylianska?”. Questions of this sort were unexpected. So this representative gets to the point and says: “It’s been a month and a half since the liberation and we are a little surprised as to why Olha Kobylianskaya does not respond publicly to it”. Father begins to fudge and explains that she is paralysed. “Well, yes, but you could prompt her. She didn’t say thank you to the great Stalin, although she could do it personally. That’s how it is done. All our victories are victories under the leadership of Stalin”. My father fudged again replying that she’s really paralysed. But he was told: “You’d better think about how you could it anyway”. My father came home and asked his wife Olena for advice. They knew what had already started. They knew that the deportations of Ukrainians had begun. They had known what this Soviet power was like for a long time. We didn't have any other choice, you see? Rejection would have led to a catastrophe. [Yet,] acquiescing meant giving up all our beliefs. Eventually, father met with that man again and said: “We have no right to refuse, but we are afraid to make a mistake, please write it by yourself, and we will give it to Kobylianska for her signature”. That’s what they did. To maintain some morality. This letter was given to Olha, she herself was not able to write, but there had to be a signature. Olha asked what those papers were. She was told that those were some domestic economic matters.
That’s how the first greeting appeared. They demanded more and more greetings on a monthly basis: “Olha Kobylianska congratulates some Uzbek writer on his anniversary and does not forget to say how thankful she is to the Soviet authorities” et cetera. We’ve collected some 30 letters of this kind in the course of one year.
Later, the Soviet government decided to raise Olha’s status even higher. It arranged an anniversary [festivity] on her birthday. It wasn’t a milestone anniversary, so the authorities announced something like “on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of her literary activity”. There is a photo from this event in the Kobylianska museum. Ukrainian writers including Ivan Le, Volodymyr Sosyura, Yuriy Yanovsky and others visited us there in our house.
There was a reception in the evening and there was a plan to organise a solemn gathering in the theatre the next day. They wanted to see Olha perform there at the theatre. Our father explained that Olha could hardly read, and that her private doctor had strictly forbidden her from leaving the house. This was after her second stroke, she hadn’t left the house for three years. But the authorities wanted to hear Olha Kobylianska’s voice anyway. Just imagine: they ended up running a telephone line all the way from the theatre to our house. She was given a microphone and she read a tribute that my father edited.
Lopata: That’s almost 2 kilometres between the theatre and your house!
Panchuk: Yes, the phone line was stretched all the way up here. The party ordered it, so it had to be done.
Lopata: I understand the importance of us talking about Olha Kobylianska. She is considered one of the most important authors in Ukrainian literature but the Soviet authorities exploited her name and used her. Given that you have always been a politically active person and Olha Kobylianska was your grandmother, you could have been a writer, if not a politician, but you dedicated your life to chemistry.
Panchuk: The story is straight-forward. My brother was in the war. After he returned he had to enrol in university in 1945. Front-line soldiers were accepted into university without exams. When our father was released from the Romanian camps, he tried to earn some money: he had a small dairy shop on Kobylianska Street. But it didn’t work out because of strong competition and excessively high taxes. Then he wanted to rent a field for one year, sow some beetroot seeds, then deliver it for sugar and sell it. Life was difficult at that time, we didn’t even have bread. So my father didn’t succeed in business, but his friend had a chemical workshop. My father advised my brother to study chemistry, my brother obeyed and I followed my brother. That’s how it happened.
Then I pursued a career in teaching, but in the 70-80’s there was a turning point when I became interested in public matters. Although I was always interested in it, my brother’s life story had a great influence on me, too.
When he became a postgraduate student, some party members nominated him for a position on the City Council. He could not refuse. And then the Chairman of the Party Committee gathered all of the deputies together: “If you have been chosen by the people, then you have to work for them. You will have reception days and you have to help the people.” With a pure and sincere soul, my brother took this job. After six months he came to me and said that some people whose window had been broken by hooligans had come to him for help. It was impossible to buy the materials to repair it. My brother called some building organisation, the same with boards and cement. My brother said that he was practically able to help no one. Years passed and at one of the sessions all of the deputies admitted that they had the same problem. All they said was that it was because the country was rising and being built, it's communism … And it was all the same afterwards. My brother went to the Chairman of the City Council, and said: “If you don’t help me then you don’t need me. What for? To come once a year and listen to your instructions?” Next time, when the regular session took place, I remember, a postcard came from the City Council: “We request your presence since you are not fulfilling your obligations”. But my brother didn’t come any more and eventually he was discharged. One needs some courage to do it.
There were other cases where my brother showed courage. When his son went to a Ukrainian school in which PE was taught in Russian, my brother went to the principal and asked to find a teacher who spoke Ukrainian. The principal asked him to come back in two weeks. And when my brother did so, he said that he hadn’t found a teacher: “PE is conducted in Russian all over Ukraine. I cannot do anything.” Then my brother said that he would take his son out of school and he would go to school in Mamayivtsi village. My brother would give him a ride every day to and from school. A new teacher of PE appeared in the next 10 days. These were very courageous deeds at that time. My brother, that's who I learned from. My brother was my teacher in life as well as for my sense of civic duty.
It is too hard to change our people, especially middle-aged and older generations
Panchuk: I think things are going well. You and thousands of people like you are out there and take action on your own initiative. You have not been coerced or bribed by anyone. And this gives impetus and motivation to the rest. We have to feel happy that things happened the way they did. Everything was hanging by a thread for a while, for example in those days of 2014, when Moscow advised Yanukovych to simply send tanks to the Maidan. Putin would do it. Yanukovych was afraid of the consequences, perhaps there was still some humanity left in him. I do not know the reason why it didn’t happen. That could have been the end. The best of the nation’s youth could have died on the Maidan. We were hanging by a thread and we survived.
Lopata: Does Ukraine have a future in Europe?
Panchuk: You know, it is a debatable question. I refuse to give predictions. Europeans would obviously want to have Ukraine. Something like France but in the East. At least, something like Poland. However, it is too hard to сhange our people, especially middle-aged and older generations. The majority will remain of the same mindset. People will remain passive because the Soviet power made them accustomed to it. Romania and Poland quickly got over it, but our parents still taught us to “keep quiet, otherwise I’ll have problems”. Today it has changed. There has never been such freedom of speech in Ukraine like today.
Lopata: Thank you for the conversation, it was really very interesting.