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Oles Honchar: Собор (The Cathedral)

This might be one of the finest modern Ukrainian novels; it certainly is worth your while reading. It is set in the fictitious small town of Zachiplianka, apparently based on towns in the Dnipropetrovsk area. Zachiplianka is dominated by a cathedral. Of course, as this novel is set in the Communist period, the cathedral is no longer used for worship but has been used as a grain store and is somewhat dilapidated. So when ambitious Volodmyr Loboda proposes knocking it down and replacing it with a more useful building, it is not entirely surprising. However, everyone is opposed to the idea because, though they are no longer religious, the cathedral clearly represents something for them, something that makes Zachiplianka special.

Zachiplianka is a somewhat shabby, dirty town. The local steelwork officials are much happier paying the fines for polluting the river than doing anything about cleaning up their act and a black dust is found all over the town. Yet Honchar’s talent is to make it a special, private world where, despite its faults, everyone more or less hangs together, crime is minimal and things carry on pretty much as they have for years. He is not sentimental about it. There are a variety of problems – relations between the sexes and drink being the cause of many of them. The outside world does intrude – we have several references to the German occupation and to Makhno‘s insurrection – but the Zachipliankians manage to overcome it. There is, of course, a love story. The poor peasant girl, Yelka, who is orphaned and, as a teen, taken advantage of, goes to live with her uncle in Zachiplianka, where she is wooed by Volodmyr Loboda but loves the scatterbrained student poet, Mykola Bahaly. But Honchar’s talent is the portraits of the Ukrainians and how they create their self-contained world, dominated by their cathedral.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Smoloskyp, Baltimore
First published in English 1989 by the St. Sophia Religious Association of Ukrainian Catholics, Washington, DC