The Many Sides of Yurii Kosach: Q&A with Olha Poliukhovych

February 22, 2018
yurii kosach book cover

Despite his eminent literary works, Ukrainian émigré writer Yurii Kosach (1908-90) is neither as well known nor as well liked as his family members, literary figures Lesia Ukrainka and Olena Pchilka.

Photo of Yurii Kosach
Yurii Kosach
In Ukraine, he is most closely associated with controversy, a label inspired by his collaboration with pro-Soviet and otherwise politically oriented newspapers and journals. As a result, his works have generally been left out of the canon of Ukrainian literature, and many have been forgotten.

However, Fulbright fellow Olha Poliukhovych suggests taking a closer look at the writer, his works, and his circumstances. While the Ukrainian-American community in particular saw his collaboration with pro-Soviet publications as a betrayal of the Ukrainian cause, Kosach's own political views are far less straightforward. Was he pro-Soviet? Should his works be associated mainly with this history? Why has he been treated differently than other writers who contributed to the same newspapers and journals?

On Monday, February 26, 2018, Poliukhovych will present new details from her archival research that might just change our perception of Yurii Kosach. Her talk, Yurii Kosach's Pro-Soviet Stance in the USA, 1950s-1960s, will take place at 4:15 in room S-050 of Harvard's CGIS South Building. All are welcome to attend.

Olha Poliukhovych
Olha Poliukhovych
Olha Poliukhovych

HURI: For the uninitiated, tell us a little about Yurii Kosach and his work.

Poliukhovych: Yurii Kosach (1908-90) was a Ukrainian émigré poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, and editor. He originated from a noble Ukrainian family, the Kosach-Drahomanov family, which was an aristocratic family. He was the nephew of Lesia Ukrainka, who is a classic figure in Ukrainian literature, along with Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko. Yurii Kosach was also a grandson of another Ukrainian classic, Olena Pchilka, who was Lesia Ukrainka's mother.

After being persecuted by Polish authorities for his nationalist activities in Western Ukraine, which was under Polish domination at that time, he immigrated to Europe in 1933. He lived in different cities: in Warsaw, in Paris, in Berlin. He attended lectures at Sorbonne, he studied at Warsaw University, and he had access to European culture and literature. In 1949, he immigrated to the US and he lived in New York, mostly.

He lived a very long life. He was born in 1908 and died in 1990, so he witnessed almost all of the 20th century, and he wrote many, many works of different genres, different styles. It's amazing: Were someone to give me all of his works to read and say they were written by only one author, I would be very surprised. He contributes to Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian literature, but the problem is that even now we do not know all of his works. They are dispersed in different archives and publications, including some in the US. That I see as my task: to collect these works and to research more about his life.

By the way, although he lived in New York, he also attended seminars at HURI. In the 1970s he went to presentations of prominent historians because he was very interested in history.

A post-war publication by Kosach, Aeneas and the Lives of Others, 1947

yurii kosach book 1947
A post-war publication by Kosach, Aeneas and the Lives of Others, 1947

HURI: Did he write exclusively in Ukrainian? I'm guessing he spoke many languages…

Poliukhovych: Yes, he spoke many languages and he had brilliant translations from French, German, English, Spanish, Polish, among other languages. But he wrote his own literary works in Ukrainian only. What is amazing is that he lived here for about 50 years and still managed to preserve the language. He published one of his best novels – Volodarka Pondydy (Regina Pontica) - in 1987, just three years before his death. It's a brilliant novel and the language is just - wow! - perfect. I am impressed by that.

It was important to him to write in Ukrainian because he regarded himself as a Ukrainian writer. He wanted to have a connection to Ukraine. As we will see, all of his works were somehow engaged in Ukrainian topics. He writes about Ukrainian culture, history... these are the main topics.

HURI: Why did he emigrate and what effect did that have on his views, interests, and creative work?

Poliukhovych: As I mentioned, he emigrated because Ukrainian nationalists in Poland were being persecuted. Living in European cities, he knew many languages and he had access to European culture, and then to American culture, as well.

Of course, this influenced his personality as well as his works. At the same time, he does not have an inferiority complex in his works. He demonstrates that Ukrainian culture is organically European. It's not just because of European influence or some imperial influences; it is European just as it is, in its essence.

HURI: You mentioned he's from an aristocratic family and had access to other languages and cultures. Is that something common for the aristocracy in Ukraine at that time?

Poliukhovych: It's a very complicated story. When Ukraine was under Soviet occupation, what did the Soviets do? They destroyed the Ukrainian intelligentsia, the Ukrainian aristocracy. Kosach's family was treated in this way as well. His aunts, like him, migrated to displaced persons (DP) camps after the Second World War. His other aunt, Izydora Borysova-Kosach, who wrote a biography of Lesia Ukrainka, lived in Toronto.

We can see that emigration is a part of Ukraine’s history, our literature, our culture. We should take this into consideration, how this aristocracy proceeded along historical time, how it managed to survive during the Soviet period, and how it managed to manifest itself in different contexts. Kosach did this in a literary context.

Yurii Kosach Za sinim okeanom
Za synim okeanom, the pro-Soviet journal Kosach edited in the US
Za synim okeanom, the pro-Soviet journal Kosach edited in the US

HURI: Your presentation is about his so-called pro-Soviet stance and his collaboration with pro-Soviet newspapers and journals. Can you give us the historical context for this period? What were his political views and why did he work with pro-Soviet papers?

Poliukhovych: Here in the US, Kosach edited a pro-Soviet journal, Za synim okeanom (Beyond the Blue Ocean), from 1959 to 1963. The Ukrainian-American community was in opposition to him. In fact, they boycotted him because of this collaboration. We should understand that his counterparts who came to the US in the aftermath of WWII were political immigrants, as they called themselves. They escaped the Soviet regime, and Kosach collaborates with this regime by his own wish. It was a striking fact, a surprising fact for the Ukrainian community here, and they did not know how to deal with it. They just boycotted him; they didn't try to understand the reasons for this collaboration, the historical circumstances and other factors that could contribute to this collaboration.

This is not a new story. Before coming to the US, Kosach collaborated with a pro-Soviet journal in Lviv, which was under Polish domination at the time. He switched from the nationalist periodical, Literaturno-naukovyi visnyk (The Literary Scientific Herald, which was published by the ideologue of Ukrainian nationalism, Dmytro Dontsov), to the pro-Soviet newspaper Novi shliakhy (New Paths), which was sponsored by the Soviets. However, we must understand that at the time, many artists published their works in Novi schliakhy. In connection to their biographies, this fact is neglected somehow, but in Kosach's case, the Ukrainian community never forgave him this collaboration.

We should also understand that those in Western Ukraine knew little about what was going on in Soviet Ukraine. Some were sympathetic to the left idea that the Soviets were presenting. In the 1920s there was some attraction to the Soviets, but these sympathies dissolved with Stalin’s famine in Ukraine (The Holodomor, 1932–33), as well as the Great Terror and persecutions in the 1936–37.

In the US, he was the editor-in-chief of Za synim okeanom. This journal is not as straightforward and simple as it might seem. The most ideological parts are the editorial columns, but, interestingly, they are not signed, so we cannot claim that Kosach actually wrote them. Bohdan Boichuk, a famous Ukrainian poet of the New York Group of Poets, wrote in his memoirs that Kosach was assigned some authors from Soviet Ukraine. So the question is, why couldn't they assign him editorials as well? It easily could be so.

yurii kosach book signed
Kosach signed a book of his poetry (Lito nad Delaverom, 1980) for Omeljan Pritsak in September 1981.Source: Omelian Pritsak Memorial Library, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Kosach signed a book of his poetry (Lito nad Delaverom, 1980) for Omeljan Pritsak in September 1981.Source: Omelian Pritsak Memorial Library, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

The journal is not homogeneous; there are materials of different value. Along with the propagandistic articles, there are some culturally oriented pieces. For example, the journal published Ukrainian poets of the 1960s, the so-called shistdesiatnyky, because Kosach wanted to have this connection with Ukraine. Kosach’s own literary works in the journal are deprived of propagandistic or ideological messages. In his literary works, Kosach is a modernist who feels the complexity of the world.

One of the reasons he worked with the Soviets on this journal was that he regarded the Ukrainian-American community as his enemies. As Hryhorii Kostiuk remembers, when Kosach moved here, the American-Ukrainian community did not help him to find a job in any Ukrainian organizations, newspapers, or journals. He could not find a relevant job in his field. He knew several languages, he was a brilliant writer, a stylist, he was very well known in Lviv and in DP camps, he had a name before he came to the USA. And when he came here, he had difficulty starting over.

Kostiuk claimed that Ukrainian community had possibilities to help him, but they did not. Maybe this was because the name Kosach was scandalous. He was known for several scandals and for collaboration with the pro-Soviet newspaper I mentioned earlier. He used Za synim okeanom to voice his rage toward the Ukrainian-American community. He wrote brilliant essays where he criticizes the Ukrainian-American community of lacking a connection to the real Ukraine. He had this connection, but they do not; they are living with the ghost of the past nationalist battles. He accuses them of lacking the mechanism to accept the historical defeat, because in reality the nationalist battles were lost and Ukraine remained under Soviet domination.

This is another central issue: For his collaboration, the Soviets permitted him to visit Ukraine, which he did in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. He wanted to have a connection with Ukraine. They also published some of his works there, and he wanted to have Ukrainian readership. Of course, his works were censored.

HURI: What kind of scandals were known to the Ukrainian-American community?

Poliukhovych: Well, he had a very... eccentric personality, in both his personal and professional life. For example, he was a member of the Mystetskyi ukrainskyi rukh literary group (The Artistic Ukrainian Movement, an artistic-literary organization of Ukrainian émigrés in Germany, 1945–48). Yurii Sherekh-Shevolov, Viktor Petrov-Domontovych, Ihor Kostetskyi were also members of this group. Kosach would enter this organization, and then the next day he’d resign, and then enter, and then make a step back. People just forgave him for this. He grew accustomed to being the center of attention. He was really popular, and they valued him as a very talented, prominent writer.

There were some scandals in Lviv during the war period when he was there. You can read more about this in Hryhorii Kostiuk’s memoirs, but Kosach really was well-known by his scandals, and the Ukrainian-American community knew about them.

yurii kosach book cover of ldm
Lykha dolia v Marakaibo, 1976 (short stories)
Lykha dolia v Marakaibo, 1976 (short stories)

HURI: Did the reception of his works vary between the Ukrainian-American community and Ukrainians in Ukraine? How has his reputation and literary legacy changed over time?

Poliukhovych: In America, there were a group of people who really valued him as a writer. The proof of this is in archival materials, for example, at Columbia University. Such brilliant Ukrainian scholars and critics as Yurii Lavrinenko, Yuri Sherekh-Shevelov, Hryhorii Kostiuk, and others preserved Kosach's letters to them. They really valued him as a writer and tried to approach him here in the US.

Kostyuk writes in his memoirs that he created a literary organization here in the 50s -- Slovo (The Word) -- and invited Kosach to join. At the time, Kosach was a night guard at Princeton University. First Kosach accepted Kostiuk’s suggestion to join Slovo, but later he changed his mind, saying that he “does not have any intention to collaborate with the émigrés.”

However, if you look at the names of writers who joined Slovo, they are of much lower talent then Kosach. I think that he realized that.

He could not belong to the New York Group of Poets, either, because they were much younger than him and they were immigrants in the second generation, so in generational and aesthetical aspects, of course, he could not join them. Nonetheless, Kosach greatly valued the literary works of the New York Group of Poets, and they (especially Bohdan Boichuk and Bohdan Rubchak) highly evaluated Kosach. They included his poetry in their anthology of contemporary Ukrainian poetry in the West, Koordynaty. Although they did not like Kosach as a person, they valued him as a poet.

Near the end of Kosach’s life, Ukrainian philanthropist Marian Kots published three of his novels that he wrote in the 1980s: Suziria Lebedia (The Constellation Cygnus, 1983), Volodarka Pontydy (Regina Pontica, 1987) and Chortivska skelia (The Devil’s Rock, 1988). Yurii Sherek-Shevelov also highly valued Kosach's works. Ihor Kostetsky wrote to Shevelov that he was afraid Yurii Kosach's political views could somehow become an obstacle to his literary work, because he's really a talented author. This was how his reception looked in the US. It was really complicated because there was a great boundary between the image of Kosach as a persona and the image of Kosach as a writer.

HURI: And in Ukraine?

Poliukhovych: Now there is an interest in his works in Ukraine, and some of them are published, but mainly he remains an enigma, a mystery for the Ukrainian readership.

It is important to go to archives and to find out what happened in the US because his works are really very good, and they deserve to be in the canon of Ukrainian literature. Other nations do not exclude their authors from their canons just because of their political views. 

HURI: How did you first become interested in émigré literature and in Kosach specifically?

Poliukhovych: Émigré literature is an interesting phenomenon because you cannot imagine the canon of Ukrainian literature in the 20th century without émigré literature. Because of long-lasting period of statelessness, many writers were forced to migration. Being displaced, they had an awareness of two different spaces, two different dimensions. This is very interesting, how they embody these visions in their literary works.

When I wrote my PhD dissertation, one of my characters was Kosach. I was searching for his works, and I was surprised to know that some of his works exist in one copy only, and not in Kyiv, but in Lviv, where they were published. This surprised me. Where were the rest of his works? Some of his works that were not republished exist in only one or two copies. They are spread among different archives, private collections, and libraries. I was interested in finding out more about his works and what he published.

yurii kosach gravestone
Kosach was buried in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

Kosach was buried in Bound Brook, New Jersey.

HURI: During your Fulbright fellowship, you’re researching Kosach’s biography with plans to interview people who knew him, work in the archives, and search for his unknown works. How is that project going? What resources have you found the most helpful so far?

Poliukhovych: The challenge I faced when I wrote my dissertation was that we don't have Kosach's biography. We don't know it. If you look at Western writers and Russian writers as well, they have this tradition of biography; their lives are described day-by-day. But in Kosach's case, we don't know much about what was happening in his life. How can we interpret his works knowing literally almost nothing about him? I decided to collect all I can access here in the US.

Kosach died in 1990. Still there are some people who knew him here in the US. I approached them asking about Kosach. When you read published memoirs of him, you will never find positive memoirs of him. But when you speak to people who knew him personally, they remember him as a nice person, as a kind person, and it changes the paradigm somehow.

At the same time, some people in New York who lived in his times cannot say anything because they did not communicate with him. When I was in Ukraine, I thought, "I will come to the US and I will conduct so many interviews. People will tell me more about Yuri Kosach and his life," but it was not so. They just told funny stories about, for example, when they were walking along the street and saw that Kosach was approaching, they went in another direction because they did not want to face him, they did not know what to do with him or say.

I also found it useful to talk to people about their experience of immigration to the US, about the circumstances, about their everyday life, about their cultural perspectives, about some historical context, about what was happening at that time in the Ukrainian-American community. I’m beginning to understand Kosach's situation much better.

yurii kosach book signed
Kosach also signed a copy of Lykha dolia v Marakaibo, 1976 (short stories) for Pritsak. Source: Omelian Pritsak Memorial Library, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
Kosach also signed a copy of Lykha dolia v Marakaibo, 1976 (short stories) for Pritsak. Source: Omelian Pritsak Memorial Library, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

HURI: Have you discovered anything in your research on Kosach that surprised you or that you find particularly interesting?

Poliukhovych: What surprised me? I will say it once more: the archives. Despite his conflicts and exotic, egocentric personality, Ukrainian intellectuals here really valued him as a writer. They kept his letters. There are not many, but still there are some. From a historical, cultural standpoint, this is very valuable material.

These documents change our perception of Kosach. He writes in these letters that the Ukrainian-American community did not try to understand him. In these letters he does not try to justify himself, but just to explain his position. It's vital to take these materials into consideration when we speak about Kosach.

In the 1950s, Yuri Sherek-Shevelov said that Kosach is a controversial figure. Even now, if you ask anyone in Ukraine who Yurii Kosach is, they will tell you, "Controversial figure, controversial writer," something about his controversies, “politically controversial.” They play around this word only.

But history was much more complicated. Working in the archives, I found that his personal, internal conflict, personal drama, also contributed to his collaboration with the Soviets. He went to the US with his second wife, Mariana Krychevska (later – Perejma), and their newborn son, whose name was also Yurii (George). Shortly after they arrived in the US, Mariana left Kosach and took their son with her. So he was alone.

Just two years before he started to edit the pro-Soviet journal, his older son, Bohdan, who lived in Toronto, died at the age of 20. Kosach often writes in his letters, "You don't understand my drama." Of course, the fact of his emigration, which was painful for him, also contributed to this collaboration.

In one of his letters to Yurii Sherekh-Shevelov, Kosach writes, “I belonged to nowhere, I was not obliged to anyone, I did not swear to anyone, and subsequently I could not betray anyone.” And the most striking line there was: “No, ladies and gentlemen, there will be no rehabilitation as well as there will be no repentance. Ukraine granted me such a strong moral power, which gives me the possibility to overcome my age of neglect.” 

HURI: Is there anything else we should know?

Poliukhovych: I won't tell you about it now, but there are some documents which change our perception of Kosach profoundly. Come to my talk and I will tell you everything!