Arguments against ‘The Executed Renaissance’

  • Paweł Krupa
  • Zeitschrift für Slawistik, January 2017, De Gruyter
  • DOI: 10.1515/slaw-2017-0013

Arguments against "The Executed Renaissance"

What is it about?

The aim of this paper is a critical review of the most important topics of the anthology, which has founded the paradigm of the "executed renaissance" era. The work revolves around four issues: a) biographical and historical factors and conditions underlying the anthology and the discourse of the "executed renaissance," b) the issue of criteria for the selection of works, which was the basis of the anthology, as well as a canon and anti-canon of literature of the period, c) heuristic usefulness of the "executed renaissance" metaphor, conceptualization of literary phenomena with constituent figures proposed by Lavrinenko in the title of the anthology ("execution" and "renaissance" figures) d) the impact of the closing essay in the anthology – Literature of vitaism (1917-1933) by I. Lavrinenko on ideological and theoretical-literary image of this period.

Why is it important?

In 1959, the most important anthology of twentieth century Ukrainian literature was published – Rozstriliane vidrodzhennia [The Executed Renaissance], edited by Iurii Lavrinenko (1959). This book, both special and controversial at the same time, has left an incredible mark on the post-war Ukrainian humanities in exile (Hryn 2004-2005: 67-70); moreover, its impact on the broader discourse of the history of literature and art from the period of 1917-1934 is still felt to this day (Haleta 2015: 229-248). The Executed Renaissance – created at the initiative of Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of “Kultura,” the most important magazine of the post-war Polish immigrant community – though not a dissertation, monographic study, or critical summary of the described phenomenon, has nevertheless enjoyed a stunning and surprising career with regards to historical, literary, and culturological research (Berdychowska 2004b: 38-42). Firstly, this book for decades defined the perception of the 1920s, one of the most important stages in the formation of modern Ukrainian literature and art. Secondly, The Executed Renaissance significantly influenced the development of the historical and literary narrative of this phenomenon. The anthology introduced the following basic terminology: it defined both the name of the literary generation and period (“executed renaissance”) and the set of literary trends and phenomena (“literature of vitaism,” “clarinetism”) that have firmly established themselves in the literature. Thirdly, Lavrinenko’s anthology has formulated a kind of literary canon of the 20s. Finally, the anthology has created a superior category which marks the entirety of the complex changes in cultural life (including in literature, theater, art, cinema) of the 1917 to 1934 period, a category that was the foundation of the entire paradigm known as the “executed renaissance” (Hryn 2004-2005: 67-96). Lavrinenko’s work was met with unprecedented acclaim and popularity, chiefly among Ukrainians in exile – the anthology has received more than 50 positive reviews in various scientific émigré publications (Odarchenko 1988: 23-24) – and later in independent Ukraine – evidenced not just by the subsequent re-editions of the book (Lavrinenko’s anthology has had eight re-editions: twice published by Vydavnychyi Tsentr “Prosvita” and six times by Smoloskyp), but also by the publishing series initiated by the Smoloskyp (Seriia 2014) and BAO Donetsk (Rozstriliane 2014) publishing houses titled nomen omen, The Executed Renaissance, which restored until recently forbidden and forgotten works of the 20s. In this regard, the anthology published by “Kultura” deserves special attention and the distinction of the most important anthology of Ukrainian literature of the twentieth century (Haleta 2012: 58). At the same time, it is a book that distorts the image of the era and has not gone through a thorough critique: a book that weighs heavily on the literature of the 20s, reinforces a false historical and literary view (repeated over and over again for years), and promotes assessments and characteristics of the era that have little to do with reality. Iaroslav Polishchuk writes about the phenomenal success of Lavrinenko’s anthology, which although outdated and anachronistic in its comments on the presented literature and biographies of writers, enjoys enduring appeal, and was published and widely advertised at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Instead of modernizing the literary canon of the 20s by publishing new anthologies with works from that period that would compete with Lavrinenko's anthology, this book dating back more than half a century was published instead (Polishchuk 2008: 242).


Dr Paweł Krupa
Jagiellonian University in Krakov

1. "Naive national romanticism" The romanticism of Lavrinenko and his kind revealed itself not only in the insistent search for heroes and martyrs and in the sacralization of writers and their works, but even worse, this romanticism transformed Lavrinenko into a “relentless enthusiast, always ready to follow his overactive imagination, adapting facts to it and not the other way around” (Sherekh 1998: 347). Distortions with regard to Tychyna, Karazin (see: Lavrinenko 1975; Lysiak-Rudnyc’kyi 1977; Lavrinenko 1977) or Bilec'kyi are only a few selected examples of this phenomenon. As a result, false views generated false narratives that became the dominant historical and literary discourse on the 1917–1934 period, emerging first in exile and then, in the late 80s and early 90s, consolidating in Ukraine. 2. Canon and anti-canon. The problem of mass art Lavrinenko’s anthology has formulated a canon of literature of the 20s – reductive and one-dimensional in its essence, reducing the richness and diversity of literary phenomena of the period into a crafted form based on the allegedly universal and universally acceptable standard. Because of ‘The Executed Renaissance,’ the writers and the works that made it into the anthology were present in historical and literary studies, but some literary phenomena and works of the 20s have been unjustly forgotten due to the anthology. Lavrinenko’s work shaped the canon and anti-canon of literature of the 1917–1934 period and was greatly influenced by Kant's theory of aesthetics – a criterion that is inadequate and insensitive to the changes and phenomena of modern literature and art of the early twentieth century. 3. Martyrdom. The “executed” figure The value and impact of the literature of the 20s is measured by ‘The Executed Renaissance’ in accordance with the formula set out in the title of the book – in the statistics of the victims of Soviet terror: the number of writers, critics, actors, and playwrights who were executed, went missing, or died in the gulags. On the basis of the bloated rhetoric of martyrdom, it attempts a kind of “canonization” of artists, absolving them and omitting and marginalizing the sensitive issue of their involvement in the building of the new post-revolutionary order. 4. Myth of an external enemy. Victimization ‘The Executed Renaissance’ reinforces the myth of the victimhood of the artists of the 20s, who, according to Lavrinenko’s biographical narrative, though they initially resisted the new reality (by contesting the Communist Party, post-revolutionary concepts of art, politicization of literature, etc.), in the face of an omnipotent and foreign power system imposed from the outside by “Moscow,” had to inevitably fail. These external circumstances, and above all the changing political situation, forced the intellectuals’ unconditional surrender – both artistic and existential. 5. Protean image of the “renaissance” Undoubtedly, thanks to Iurii Lavrinenko’s anthology, one views the Ukrainian literature of the period of 1917–1933 through the perspective of the “renaissance” category. This figure of speech, in the wider literary and culturological discourse, permanently defined the reception of this period. As a result, the overwhelming majority of academic works in the field of literature, theater, cinema, or art unequivocally qualifies, at the very point of departure, the complex and complicated processes specific to each of these areas by using the “renaissance” concept. This view, highly axiological, deforms the overall picture of the processes of Ukrainian culture and its internal dialectics of transformation. The literary discourse of the 1917–1934 period must be freed from the “renaissance” figure. There are at least four reasons to rethink and reconsider the relevance and legitimacy of Lavrinenko’s concepts. 6. The three sins of the ‘Literature of vitaism 1917–1933’ ‘The Executed Renaissance’ anthology closes with Lavrinenko’s essay ‘Literature of vitaism (1917–1933),’ which was supposed to be a synthesis of the most important phenomena of cultural and literary life of the 20s in the Soviet Ukraine. The ambitious goal leading the author in this work seems to be clear: to define the essence and spirit of the era, and to characterize its most important literary trends that went into shaping its image. Paradoxically, Lavrinenko’s essay deals with neither vitaism nor literature. Firstly, Lavrinenko’s analysis is not focused on the title category of vitaism, which, let us emphasize, is covered quite briefly and marginally, but on the concept of clarinetism. Secondly, the essay of the anthology’s editor does not concern literature, but is instead about politics considered in a literary context. Finally, the author does not analyze the wealth of artistic and literary phenomena of the period, but only focuses on its two characters and the directions they represent. Lavrinenko combines in his deliberations Pavlo Tychyna's “clarinetism” with Mykola Khvyl'ovyi’s “vitaism,” erroneously extrapolating their ideas to the entire literary phenomena of the 1917–1933 period. The problem of the “literature of vitaism” is seemingly a problem of terminology, i.e., a problem of understanding concepts such as “clarinetism” or “vitaism.” In fact, however, this problem entails a fundamental exegetical error contained in the essay: an improper and incorrect set of concepts applied by Lavrinenko in the analysis and interpretation of the literary phenomena of the 20s results in a fundamentally false understanding of those phenomena. Lavrinenko committed three sins in his essay that call into question the foundations of his concept.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr Paweł Krupa