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Ivan Petrovcij and the Rusyns long-lost dirty words

Ivan Petrovcij is controversial figure not only within Ukraine but also in Rusyn circles at home and abroad. A poet best known for his Ukrainian translations of French, Hungarian, Slovak, German and Russian poetry, Petrovcij has also published numerous books in Ukrainian and lately several controversial books in Rusyn, most recently Bytanguski Spuvanky, Rusyns'kyj Eros (Songs of Youth - Rusyn Erotica) last year. In 1998, he won the Aleksander Duchnovyc Award for Rusyn literature.

Arguably, Ivan Petrovcij's most important contribution to Rusyn literature is Rusyns'ka Bysjida, the worlds first Rusyn-language literary journal which he founded in 1997. The journal represents a break with the traditional function of the Rusyn-language press to convey information to the community in its native language and has branched out into exploring the scope of that language.

Language as a weapon of self-defense

Rusyns'ka Bysjida, published in a four-page broadsheet newspaper format, premiered in September 1997 and ran as a monthly until the following March. Since then it has unfortunately appeared only intermittently twice in 1998, three times in 1999, twice in 2001 due mostly to funding problems.

The journal regularly features coverage of cultural events and issues. as well as book reviews. Poetry, however, is its most important feature. Every issue features a significant amount of poetry, and every word serves the purpose of illustrating the breadth of the Rusyn language.

Petrovcij himself has translated works by Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Shakespeare, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sergej Yesenin all into Rusyn for Rusyns'ka Bysjida, proving that Rusyn can hold its own against world languages like English, German and Russian.

Petrovcij has also gone further, translating classic works of Rusyn poets like Aleksander Duchnovyc into Ukrainian, and classic works of Ukrainian poets like Taras Sevcenko into Rusyn. The intention is to show the distinction between the Rusyn and Ukrainian languages, and the result is compelling. Perhaps Petrovcij is stretching to make his Rusyn more different from Ukrainian than it would otherwise be, but still, if Rusyn really were simply a dialect of Ukrainian, it would be difficult to explain the oftentimes huge variances between the translations and the originals.

Rusyn Erotica

Aside from Rusyns'ka Bysjida, Petrovcij has also published thirteen Ukrainian-language books. In 1993, he published Dialektarij abo z myla knyzocka rusyns'ko bysidy u virsach (Dialektarij, or a Dear Little Book of the Rusyn Language in Verse), a dictionary of Rusyn words cleverly defined using Ukrainian-language poetry. With his Nasi Spivanky (Our Songs, 1996) and Nashi i Nynasi Spivanky (Our and Not-Our Songs, 1999), Petrovcij switched entirely over to Rusyn.

Bytanguski Spuvanky, Rusyns'kyj Eros (Songs of Youth - Rusyn Erotica) is Petrovcijs latest book. Published in early 2001, the book is ostensibly a collection of erotic poetry, but the poetry is often better described as dirty, vulgar or even pornographic.

According to Petrovcij's introduction, he collected these poems wherever he could, "in the village, behind the village, in the town...in the offices of the highest officials." He recorded them from "bakers and drivers, from retired people and children, from university professors, from the most well known writers, painters, composers of music..."

But Petrovcij is quick to point out that erotic poetry bears a much more impressive pedigree than many of his sources do. In the introduction, he describes a historical tradition of erotic poetry that includes such luminaries as the Roman Empire's Martial, England's Shakespeare and Russia's Pushkin. He also quotes Simone de Beauvoir and uses epigrams by Sophocles, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Isaac Bashevis Singer, showing clearly that this sort of poetry is found across many cultures and eras.

While it is interesting enough to see the erotic poetry of Bytanguski Spuvanky put into an international context, it is perhaps even more interesting to discover that erotic poetry is not exactly foreign to Rusyn literature either.

U koliby: vybor obhrouble eroticke poesie verchovinskeho lidu na Podkarpatske Rusi (In the Hut: A Selection of the Coarse Erotic Poetry of the Highlanders of Subcarpathian Rus') was published in Mukacevo in 1933, while Subcarpathian Rus' was still part of Czechoslovakia. The book consists of erotic poetry gathered by Czech ethnographers doing fieldwork in Subcarpathia.

Some sixty years later, the topic was explored once again in the book Erotica Ruthenica Erotika Rutenika, published in 1995 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. A major feature of this book is also ethnographical fieldwork, this time conducted by Volodymyr M. Hnatjuk (1871-1926) in the Rusyn villages of Ruski Kerestur, Kocur and Vinkovci in 1897 and 1899.

Today, both U koliby and Erotica Ruthenica have been forgotten. With Bytanguski Spuvanky, however, Rusyn erotic poetry has moved from the field of ethnography into literature and is back with a vengeance.

Ukrainians: Worst lovers in the world?

Given Petrovcijs interest in the erotic poetry of other cultures along with the fact that Bytanguski Spuvanky was published in Ukraine, it would logically follow that the book would at least touch on the erotic poetry traditions of the Ukrainians. On the contrary, a significant part of the book is given over to Rusyn translations of the erotic poetry of the Russians, the Ukrainians' cultural rival.

Petrovcijs explanation, which does not just appear in the introduction to the book but also in the excerpts from it published in Rusynska Bysjida, is simple: the Ukrainians are no model for the Rusyns, since they are the worst lovers in the world!

He sees the Russians as being much more hot-blooded and knowledgeable about the ways of love, pointing to the Russians greatest poet Aleksander Pushkin in particular. Petrovcij also has high praise for Ivan Barkov, one of Russia's earliest and most prolific writers of erotic poetry. Barkov had a major influence on Pushkin, who himself wrote a significant amount of erotic poetry. In fact, a book of Pushkins erotic poetry called Ten' Barkova (The Shadow of Barkov) was recently published in Russia. Bytanguski Spuvanky also includes Rusyn translations of poetry by the Russian poets Lermontov, Turgenev, Mayakovsky, Yesenin and Vysotsky.

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