Kyiv novel “The City”: secrets of Kyiv culture

When Stepan walks for the first time at night from Lenin Street to Khrushchatyk, the wonderful street in the center of Kyiv, he feels both joy and awe. He is so engulfed in the ‘roar and chime’ of trams, the ‘loud howling of buses’, the ‘screeching of pickups’ and the ‘faint hum of people on the move’ that he must stop and lean on the facade.

Soldiers in heavy, rugged uniforms, in flying overcoats, and young women with curly hair, sailors from the Dnieper fleet and “scattered lonely people, small villages in the streets” pass through it.
Stepan’s soul is a “delicate photographic canvas,” as Valerian Pidmüheleng says in his 1928 novel “The City”. Full of enthusiasm, he sent his young hero from a rural village to study in Kyiv.

The accuracy with which Bidmuhelenj depicts the city and its inhabitants is sometimes reminiscent of the photographer. Or, in Hidden Object scenes like above, a movie director. Stepan could have been a pioneer of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye Berlin, which he said of himself a few years later, in 1939: “I am a camera with an open shutter.”

Look at the open heart

“The City” is a classic in modern Ukrainian literature, comparable to Dublin’s “Berlin Alexander Platz” in the reckless force of its narrative. It is now credited with appearing in a German translation for the first time to the small Guggolz publishing house in Berlin, known for its rediscovery. Now, at all times, when the war was raging and Kyiv was bombarded with Russian missiles, Pidmohiling allows you to look into the open heart of this city, which flourished as much as it was a hundred years ago and was just as cruel. Beauty.

Stepan approaches a Kyiv glider, on a steamer sailing the Dnieper River. Raised an orphan, he joined the rebels during the revolution and fought against the “white gangs”. After that, he rose up in his village – the “Magic Blossom of the Land” – to become the Guild Secretary, who also built a library.

The city, which stretches from the hill down to the beach, seems charming to him. From Thawra Street, a stream of boys and girls, women and men, flows down a wide staircase to the river, toward a bath in the sun and in the water.

“In this turmoil there was no place for bad moods,” enthuses Stepan. “There, on the outskirts of the city, a new world began, the world of elemental pleasures.” But after going down, everything suddenly became weird and cute. Stepan is one of those cold-blooded creatures, and his enthusiasm can quickly turn into gloom. Nadica also came to Kyiv with him to study. He wants to conquer her as much as he wants to conquer the city, but when he succeeds, his love for her is already tired. This will happen to the narcissist with some other women.

From edge to center

The city is also interesting from a social point of view. As Stepan moves through various circles, from the university to the petty bourgeoisie to the artistic bohemian and the neo-rich, he, of course, also touches upon politics. Topographically, its path leads from the edge to the center of Kyiv. As a person without possession, Stepan has to “bite like a woodworm”.

He starts with the fishmonger Henedy, who spends the night in the barn for the first time, later gets a mattress at home, and has to take care of the cows in the morning. He passed his exams at the University of Economics with flying colors, but at some point he lost interest and stopped going.

Valerian Bidmuehlenig (1901-1937).Photo: wikimedia.commons

The novel is set during Lenin’s New Economic Policy, a phase of economic and social easing. The national characteristics of the united peoples of the USSR are now taken into account. Stepan gets a job as a Ukrainian teacher, gives lectures and runs a study group.

With his salary, he buys a suit and burns the field jacket he was wearing.

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It was once said that soft colors replaced the bright colors of revolution on home walls, posters and magazines. The word “companion” can now be spoken quite loosely, as if it had never been a “symbol of violence and plunder.”

There is some such irony in the book, certainly one of the reasons why Bidmuhiling was involved with the censors. The son of an estate manager, born in 1901 in the village of Chapley, was not suitable for the role of a typical proletarian. Since 1920 he has published stories, and two years later he becomes an editor in the magazine “Leben und Revolution”. In 1930 he was not well liked. Pidmohylnyj loses his position, can hardly publish, and instead translates Maupassant, Anatol France, Stendhal. In 1934 he was arrested and in 1935 he was deported to a camp on the Solovki Islands in the White Sea.

[Walerjan Pidmohylnyj: Die Stadt. Aus dem Ukrainischen von Alexander Kratochvil, Lukas Joura, Jakob Wunderwald und Lina Zalitok. Guggolz, Berlin 2022. 415 Seiten, 26 €]

In November 1937, he was shot along with other Ukrainian authors and artists, “somehow on the twentieth anniversary of the October Revolution,” as the epilogue states. “Die Stadt” was not published again until 1989. The novel has now been translated into German – elegantly and fluently – by Ukrainian Alexander Kratochwil and students of Humboldt University in Berlin.

Script Failed

According to Bidmuhiling, the book was born “unexpectedly”. He actually wanted to write a script for a comedy, but because he failed, he turned it into his only novel. His hero is more fortunate. Stepan becomes rich with a script. Just as he succeeded as a writer in the second part of the story, he appeared as a descendant of Belle Ami and Lucien de Rombre, the riser from Balzac’s Lost Illusions.

He first attracted attention with the civil war story “The Razor”, for Pidmohylnyj as an occasion for satire of revolutionary romance. “Comrade Stepan” is as successful as a literary editor as he is as a lover. His affairs turn into a melodrama. The beautiful Zoya, whom he promised to marry, is poisoning herself. Stepan wants fame as he is writing a novel about Kyiv. One colleague says, “Life is a meat grinder.” “Look what they feed us!”

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