Kharkiv’s Dark Stories, Part 2

The third story I wanted to recount here is more of an urban legend – albeit a fully documented one. It has become a modern Kharkiv phenomenon, and its name is Oleg Mitasov.

Mitasov was an educated Kharkivite who was profoundly affected either by the developments of the late 1980s – the political and social collapse around him – or by the loss of his doctoral dissertation in economics, which he allegedly left in a tram on the way to submitting it. Explanations are several, but the result was one: acute schizophrenia, which poured itself out into endless writing on all available surfaces. Mitasov covered every centimetre of his huge 7-room apartment (a communal flat in which he had stayed entirely alone) with words, often in several layers. He also wrote on all surrounding buildings. Most of that writing is now lost, but some has been preserved.

Inside Mitasov’s apartment. It has since been cleaned, remodelled, and turned into an office. Photo: Pavel Makov

The photographer who took this picture describes it as follows:

Умер Митасов в 1999 году, но его настенные послания до сих пор помнят харьковчане старше 35 лет. […] Люди воспринимали надписи по-разному, многие считали его культовой фигурой, чуть ли не пророком, и видели в его текстах нечто большее, чем просто буквы. В его бывшей квартире после евроремонта – офис. А в интернете до сих пор пользуются популярностью фото его жилища (семикомнатная расселенная коммуналка, в которой остался он один). Прикосновение к чужому безумию многие находят втайне неотразимым.

In 1999 Oleg Mitasov died of tuberculosis in one of the city’s psychiatric clinics. But these imprints of his illness have become a pilgrimage site – a partially preserved recording of troubled times which, almost inexplicably, continues to draw viewers and sympathizers. As the Russian paragraph above points out, an intimate view of someone else’s insanity can be irresistible. Kharkiv’s citytext would be incomplete without it.

When I asked to see the legend with my own eyes, my two guides, Andrei and Yura, were more than ready to oblige. It had been Andrei who, during one of our talks/interviews, had directed my attention to Mitasov by calling him “Kharkiv’s newest myth” and “darkest figure”. As we walked along Pushkinskaya street, one of the main old streets in the city centre, I wondered how one can hide a myth in such a busy area. Soon, however, we turned off Pushkinskaya, and continued for only a few more minutes until, suddenly, we were no longer in the city centre. At least it didn’t feel that way anymore. A half-burned carcass of a two-story building, with bushes growing out of its eyes, sat surrounded by broken glass and last year’s leaves in what had to be the city’s most depressing abandoned back yard. “Mitasov is alive!” shouted big white letters on a brick wall. After a pause, we walked ahead in the falling twilight, until the original faded writing appeared on our left. We spent a long time circling around.

Photo: T.Z.

I want to leave out of this account my own perceptions of the poetry of Mitasov’s feverish wordplay, of which сразу же сужение ума на земле (see above) is a typical example. I would prefer to leave out, too, my own sense of the meaningless or meaningfulness of his messages. This is because, in fact, this memory site is not about Mitasov per se. Writing something on a wall does not make any place significant in itself; its importance is formulated when others make it a site of visits. I doubt that this unfortunate human being’s suffering and collapse into insanity necessarily make him a prophet he is sometimes proclaimed to be. But I do know that it has made him a beloved dark legend of the city.

It’s the phenomenon of this legend’s attraction for our contemporaries that makes Mitasov’s dwellings a memory site. His tortured glance into the past, now a past itself, is like a double-fold in time: here was a man writing out «союз нерушимый республик свободных на земле нет», and now, from where we stand, neither the man nor the союз exist. In this way, the phenomenon of Mitasov is a diary – perhaps the most honest, if not entirely comprehensible, diary of all.

Indeed, the photographer who took these pictures also wrote:

Его роман с жизнью счастливым не был, а уж иллюстрации к нему и подавно. Да и вряд ли то, что вы видите, можно назвать иллюстрациями, – скорее,  это пространство самого романа. Пространство жизни. Свидетельство существования столь откровенное, что меня не покидает чувство стыда всякий раз, когда я смотрю на эти фотографии. […] На протяжении всего времени мое отношение к данному явлению менялось от восторга коллекционера, кладоискателя, к пониманию того, что вещи, подобные квартире Митасова, нельзя превращать в фетиш или музей. […] Скажу честно, что эта огромная семикомнатная квартира, полностью покрытая граффити ее хозяина, произвела на меня очень тяжелое, жуткое впечатление. Про такие места обычно говорят: сколько попов не приглашай, все равно не высвятишь. Даже не представляю, как там живут другие люди, кажется, что и три ремонта не в силах вытравить эту гнетущую атмосферу. Если в молодости Митасов и мог казаться нам чем-то вроде свободного творца, то после посещения квартиры не остается никакого сомнения, что Митасов был настоящим сумасшедшим, тяжело душевнобольным человеком. Именно поэтому повторюсь, что его жизнь и эти надписи ни в коем случае нельзя рассматривать как искусство. Скорее своеобразный дневник душевнобольного, и я подходил к этому как к дневнику.

What I find so essential about this area is that it preserves, for us, clues to what pained someone who was sensitive enough to be this pained at the end of the 1980s. Armed with a mobile phone set on “camera” in twilight, I could not help gravitating towards lines that contained Lenin and modified socialist slogans. And before I knew it, I stood hypnotized by a riddle:

только вперёд ни шагу · назад

Where are we to put a comma?…

Photo: T.Z.

A final thought: Oleg Mitasov’s significance is not rooted merely in the existence of his unique spatial journal. What’s equally important to recognize is the fact that this poignant temporal dissection is in demand today, along with its pain and its riddles. That’s why the site remains revered and unforgotten. We, the contemporaries, need it to be.

Circling the Kharkiv Cheka on Chaikovskaya 16 later that night (as described in the previous post), we exchanged thoughts on how heavy and dark the place seemed to be, how loaded with all the suffering of the past. “Surely that energy can’t just vanish,” said one of the writers who accompanied me. “Surely not,” replied the other. “It stays, somewhere under ground or above, until it explodes. In those particularly sensitive to it.”

And we knew who he was referring to.

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