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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #181

The grainy black and white image of Hrytso Chuprinka has stared out at me from a number of places within Lviv, and aside from people being able to tell me he was something to do with the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic that briefly emerged from the collapse of the Russian Empire at the end of World War I, before it was merged into the Soviet Union, nobody seemed to know a great deal about him. So during these days when I have been forced to take much unwanted bed rest to recoup from my injuries, I thought I would try to find out a little bit more about him.

Perhaps the first thing to say about him is who he was not. There was a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator who went by the nickname “Chuprinka”, called Roman Shukheyvich, and initially in my researches I got the two mixed up. Shukheyvich was a leader in the controversial Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a controversial organisation that fought with the Nazis against the Soviet Union during World War II. He held various positions in the Nazi civilian establishment and also organised in substantial part the Galicia-Volhynia massacres of Polish civilians in the later part of World War II. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, serving as a sort of Nazi proxy occupying force for what is now eastern Poland and western Ukraine, undertook its own acts of ethnic cleansing in the region and tens of thousands of Poles died as a result. Shukheyvich was a figure of extreme controversy in the history of Ukraine, was the Chuprinka I have been studying, Hrytso Chuprinka, is properly admired as an early agitator in favour of the Ukrainian national cause.

The real Chuprinka is a figure whose biography is shrouded in some obscurity. I have learned that he was born in Chernihiv province outside Kyiv, in the Russian Empire. He participated in the 1905 Revolution against Russian imperial rule, for which he was imprisoned. There was a subsequent amnesty with the introduction of the Duma (a protean parliament within the Russian Empire that was supposed to placate the Russian middle classes), and he may have been released as part of that amnesty. One of the issues in the 1905 Russian Revolution was the dissatisfaction by various national minorities within the Russian Empire, including the Ukrainians, with their lack of political representation in Russian imperial institutions and their lack of group rights. In the Ukrainian case this complaint was substantially justified as the Ukrainian language and cultural habits had been extraordinarily banned by the Ems Ukaz, a secret decree of Tsar Alexander II, in 1876. Chuprinka presumably participated in the 1905 Russian Revolution motivated by his passion for Ukrainian freedom of cultural and linguistic expression, because he became associated with these causes later.

We also know that from 1910 Chuprinka lived in Kyiv and started writing modernist poetry which espoused Ukrainian cultural and linguistic themes and argued for Ukrainian cultural autonomy. His writings have been described as in the avant-garde category, although I could not assess this for myself as I have been unable to find a translation of any of his works into English. However I did find a copy of his complete works in Ukrainian, and it is here:

It seems that it was relatively rare to write poetry in such extended quantities in Ukrainian at this time, and for that alone Chuprinka deserves remembering as a scholar of the Ukrainian language. He was advancing the Ukrainian linguistic tradition at a time when few were writing in Ukrainian because the language had been banned in the Russian Empire. Chuprinka was an intellectual of some kind, although where he obtained his inspiration from I have not been able to ascertain. It also seems that he wrote a series of songs or ballads popular at the time although I have not been able to tell whether his songs are his poetry set to music or a distinct body of work. If anyone reading this is able to tell me more about the works of Mr Chuprinka, I would be fascinated to hear. Otherwise enjoying his poetry is something that will have to wait until I have learned to speak Ukrainian fluently.

In 1917 Chuprinka participated in the second Russian Revolution and joined Khmelnytskyi’s Regiment, a Ukrainian military force that emerged from the events of 1917 and supported the cause of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, allying themselves with the Mensheviks. It seems that he was some sort of regional political or military leader fighting the Bolsheviks in his native region of Chernihiv near Kyiv. The Bolsheviks overran the Ukrainian People’s Republic in its entirety by 1920 and Chuprinka became a fugitive. There was a magazine advocating Ukrainian independence at the time called Ukrainian Cottage, and he was a writer associated with that. In the summer of 1921 he was caught by Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, and shot, presumably for some sort of treachery or insurrection against the Bolshevik regime. While his political influence may have been limited, it is his authorship of a substantial tome of distinctive Ukrainian poetry for which he will be chiefly remembered. Apparently this work relies to a substantial degree upon words having similar sounds - so it is a form of alliteration or something like this. However until I learn Ukrainian properly, the intricate complexities of Chuprinka’s works will no doubt continue to evade me.

In 1996 Chuprinka was rehabilitated by the Ukrainian intellectual classes in the context of a newly independent Ukraine, and in 2004 he appeared on a series of Ukrainian postage stamps. Gradually, details of this scholar and fighter’s life and works started to seep into the public consciousness. It seems that we still do not know a huge amount about him; but, like his photograph, he is one of the grainy intellectuals of the World War One period who we have learned was seeking to promote Ukraine both as a culture and as a nation amidst the chaotic foment of the collapse of the Russian Empire.


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