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Shuhai, Nikolai/Suhaj, Nikola

Shuhai, Nikolai/Suhaj, Nikola (b. April 3, 1898, Nyzhna Kolochava [Hungarian Kingdom], Ukraine; d. August 16, 1921, near Kolochava [Czechoslovakia], Ukraine) — one of the last of the Carpathian robber-bandits. During World War I Shuhai was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, but in 1917 he deserted and hid in the high mountains near his native village, from where he began to rob wealthy Rusyn peasants and Jews. Shuhai was particularly successful during the period of breakdown in civil authority that accompanied the collapse of Austria-Hungary (1918-1919), and he was supported by some local Rusyn peasants who may have shared in his loot. Shuhai himself was an asocial phenomenon and was treated as such by the new Czechoslovak regime. Pursued by the Czechoslovak gendarmerie, Shuhai and a few followers resisted and killed some officers, and a substantial reward was offered by the authorities for the bandit’s capture, dead or alive. In the end, he was killed by one of his own neighbors, supposedly for having mistreated that neighbor’s family.

After Shuhai’s death his persona was gradually transformed by folk legend into a romanticized Robin-Hood-type hero who allegedly defended the interests of the poor and downtrodden Rusyn peasants. In the 1960s and 1970s several of these folk legends were recorded and published by Ivan Sen’ko (Khodyly opryshky, 1983). Such legends had even earlier attracted belletrists. The Hungarian Bela Illes wrote a short story, “Nikolai Shuhai,” first published in a German translation (1922) and later in Russian and Ukrainian, while the Soviet Ukrainian Mykola Marfiievych published an extended poetic work (Mykola Shuhai, 1927). Neither of these were of any literary quality and they were soon forgotten. By contrast, the novel Nikola Suhaj loupeznik (The Bandit Nikolai Shuhai, 1933) by the Czech writer Ivan *Olbracht came to enjoy great popularity and soon became a classic of Czechoslovak literature in the twentieth century.

Since the appearance of Olbracht’s novel, the Czech public has remained fascinated with the Shuhai phenomenon. After World War II, Olbracht himself wrote the screen-play for the first feature-length film about the robber-bandit (Nikola Suhaj loupeznik, 1947), whose persona inspired other films as well as dramatizations for Czechoslovak State Television (see Cinema). In 1974 Olbracht’s novel was dramatized by Milan Uhde and performed with music by Milos Stedron under the title Balada pro banditu at the avant-garde theater in Brno, Divadlo na provazku. That same year a concert version of the novel with music by Petr Ulrych and Ladislav Kopecky was performed in Prague. Ulrych’s musical group Javory released a record album (“Nikola Suhaj loupeznik”), from which the song “Zabili, zabili chlapa z Kolocavy” (They’ve Killed the Young Fellow from Kolochava) became so popular that it became a kind of modern Czech folksong. Ulrych subsequently reworked and added music for a full-scale musical, Kolocava (2001), staged by Stanislav Mosa to great success in Brno. Some of Ulrych’s music was also used in yet another stage performance (2001) created for a theater in Uherske Hradiste by Tomas Mann. The fascination with Shuhai has extended as well to his birthplace in the Rusyn mountain village of Kolochava, which, together with the surrounding forests and meadows where he carried out his “campaigns,” has in recent years become a kind of mecca for tourists from the Czech Republic.

Bibliography: Ota Holub, Vec: loupeznik Nikola Suhaj (Prague, 1985); Ivan Sen’ko, “Mykola Shuhai—u zhytti, fol’klori i literaturi,” Carpatica/Karpatyka, Vol. I (Uzhhorod, 1992), pp. 142-154; Tomas Steiner, Kolocava (Brno, 2001).

Paul Robert Magocsi

Ivan Pop

Entry courtesy of Encyclopedia of Rusyn History and Culture.
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