HURI congratulates Simone Bellezza for winning the 2020 Omeljan Pritsak Book Prize in Ukrainian Studies, announced by the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) ahead of the annual ASEEES convention.
The book prize, established in 2018 as part of the prestigious ASEEES Book Prize program, recognizes recognizes a noteworthy book in any discipline on any aspect of Ukrainian affairs that was published in the previous calendar year. HURI is pleased to sponsor the cash award for the prize, while the judging is managed entirely by ASEEES.
This year's winning book, The Shore of Expectations. A Study on the Culture of the Ukrainian Shistdesiatnyky by Simone Bellezza, was published in 2019 by the Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies. Currently sold out on Amazon (but still available on the CIUS site), the book dives into the history and legacy of Ukraine's shistdesiatnyky—a group fairly well known, but not well understood and certainly understudied.
Bellezza answered a few of our questions about the shistdesiatnyky and his book upon its recognition by ASEEES and the Pritsak Book Prize Committee.
HURI: Who were the shistdesiatnyky and why are they important?
Bellezza: The shistdesiatnyky were a group of intellectuals (artists, writers, scientists) who at the end of the 1950s started to play a particular role in the development of Ukrainian national culture. Although many of them were convinced communists, they also felt a strong attachment to Ukrainian popular culture and language (many came from the countryside).
In the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, when it was possible to try and imagine a different socialist society, intellectuals fought for the full development of Ukrainian culture as an unavoidable necessity for a genuinely Ukrainian state. They were also the carriers of new civic and ethical values: honesty, sincerity, friendship, solidarity, and happiness were for them not only vague concepts but concrete values that led their lives.
Unfortunately, this cultural stream was not able to transform itself into a real political movement and the repression of the 1970s silenced these extremely acute minds until the mild liberalization of perestroika. The most important legacy for both Ukrainian culture and politics is represented by a new concept of human rights, which revealed itself in the 1970s in the actions of the Ukrainian Helsinki group.
HURI: How did you get involved with this topic? Why was it initially interesting to you?
Bellezza: I turned to the study of the 1950s and 1960s after finishing a research project on the Nazi occupation of Eastern Ukraine. As studying the war involves studying a lot of violence, I wanted to choose a period that was not primarily characterized by physical violence. I had a vague knowledge of the Thaw period and knew almost nothing of the Ukrainian shistdesiatnyky, but I got interested quickly and decided that my next research project would be about them.
HURI: The book description mentions the complexity of the movement and numerous unpublished sources. What are some of the lesser known facts you present in the book?
Bellezza: This is a surprisingly understudied topic in Ukrainian history: although almost any Ukrainianist knows who the shistdesiatnyky were, only a few have more than a superficial knowledge of what happened.
Almost all the documents I found in the archives contained new facts about the shistdesiatnyky. For example, the documents of Ukraine’s Union of Writers, which report the conflict between two sides of the leading cultural elite--one sympathetic toward the shistdesiatnyky (led by Oles’ Honchar) and one more Sovietophile--were previously unknown or simply ignored. I also examined a few documents that I was able to get at the SBU archive in Kyiv. I have to say that the last time I worked in this archive (on another topic) I came across an incredible number of newly declassified documents, to the point that I thought that if I were to write my book now, I would write it in a completely different way. I think it would be great if other historians would continue this research, uncovering the many unpublished materials still available.
HURI: What was the most interesting fact or story you came across while working on the book?
Bellezza: What surprised me the most working on this research was meeting with the shistdesiatnyky themselves. They are all people with incredible humanity; sincere, honest and good. Although my Ukrainian was very bad, they welcomed me and told me even difficult and painful episodes of their life.
I want to underline once again that the most surprising thing about this generation (besides the very high cultural value of their works) is their incredible ethics. During my interviews with them I felt the warmth of their friendship. Discovering that Lina Kostenko was not only a talented poet, but also a woman who worried a lot that I was fed properly during our encounters is not just a funny anecdote. They were (and are) people who care a lot about one another and about other people in general.
HURI: Any interesting personal stories about the process of researching and writing the book?
Bellezza: It was during my research on the shistdesiatnyky that I was properly Ukrainianized: not only did I meet my partner, but I started to consider Ukraine as my second homeland, where I have family and friends.
HURI: What are you working on now?
Bellezza: I am now working on a history of the Ukrainian diaspora in the West. While studying Ukrainian dissent in the 1970s, I noted the growing importance of the relationship with diaspora communities in America and Europe. The story of Ukrainians abroad was so interesting that I decide to focus on it. I am now working on a book about the evolution of the feelings of national belonging in the Ukrainian diasporas in the West during the Cold War.