Kharkiv’s legacy: Slovo House

28 05 2024

As Russian attacks get ever closer to Kharkiv, striking publishing houses alongside megastores, it’s helpful to remind ourselves how important this Ukrainian “second city” is in the country’s history.

Taras Tomenko’s 2017 documentary Slovo House (Budynok Slovo) is a powerful and moving tribute to Ukraine’s Executed Renaissance — the generation of Ukrainian writers, poets, filmmakers, composers, and visual and theatrical artists that flourished for a decade or so in the 1920s before being silenced, many of them brutally executed, by Stalinist persecution in the 1930s. It focuses on the the Slovo (Word) artist’s residence in Kharkiv, then the capital of Soviet Ukraine, which housed dozens of the most creative minds in the country with their families.

A film like this can only be a first stab at documenting its subject matter. Its first half perhaps overfocuses on many of the artists’ bohemian lifestyles at the expense of detailing the ideals that drove them and with which they, in varying measure, hoped to build a new Ukraine. I wish it provided a bit more insight into what historian Mayhill Fowler, in her excellent Beau Monde on Empire’s Edge: State and Stage in Soviet Ukraine (U. of Toronto Press, 2017), calls the “unique connection between the arts and the state in the Soviet Union,” “a place where dictators called writers at home and personally involved themselves in the aesthetics of their work” (p. 3).

But by the time we get to the Holodomor of 1932-33 and the first arrests that began the years of purges, it becomes clear where the story is heading. The climax, to my mind, is the brilliant writer and theoretician Mykola Khvylovy’s 1933 suicide, by which he performatively accepted the blame for “the murder of an entire generation” for the crime of being “the most sincere Communists.” Ukrainian culture never truly recovered until the 1960s, and even then all too haltingly. Today’s arts scenes in Kyiv, Kharkiv, and elsewhere echo the brilliance of what seemed possible for a brief period a century ago. They also go far beyond it. (That will be a topic in my conversation with author Larissa Babij tonight, viewable online at 6 pm Eastern Daylight Time.)

While Slovo House suffers a bit from an underattribution of quoted materials, its formal elegance and rigorous research make it an important document. The film can be viewed in its complete form here:



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