Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature
Olha Drahomanova-Kosach, known by her literary name of Olena Pchilka, was
born into a privileged family of landowners in Eastern Ukraine—a family that actively
opposed the oppressive political and cultural policies of the Russian Empire. Her father
was a lawyer who tried his hand at writing poetry and short stories, while her mother
pursued interests in Ukrainian literature, songs, folk tales, customs, and traditions.
Her older brother, Mykhaylo Drahomanov (1841-1895), an eminent scholar,
historian, political publicist, literary critic, and folklorist, served as her mentor.
After the death of their father, he enrolled her in an exclusive girls' school in Kyiv,
where she studied world literature and mastered German and French. In her brother's home,
she met the leading intellectuals of the day.
In 1868, at the age of nineteen, Olha married a lawyer, Petro Kosach. A
devoted mother, she instilled in her children—two sons and four daughters—a fervent
love of country, a passion for knowledge, and a special interest in the study of languages
and literatures. Her eldest son, who became a mathematician and a professor of physics,
wrote under the pseudonym of Mykhaylo Obachny; her eldest daughter, Larysa, using the
pseudonym of Lesya Ukrainka, became Ukraine's greatest woman poet.
Despite heavy family responsibilities, Olha's favourable financial
position enabled her to continue pursuing her intellectual interests. In 1872, she visited
her brother in Bulgaria where he was a visiting professor and, a few years later, stayed
with him in Geneva, where he had settled as a political emigrant. At this time, she
travelled widely in Europe and established contacts with writers in Western Ukraine,
among them Ivan Franko, a renowned author, critic, publicist, and political activist, and
the feminist author, Nataliya Kobrynska.
The first focus of Olha's national consciousness was Ukrainian folklore
and ethnography. During the years that the Kosach family lived in smaller centres outside
of Kyiv, she collected local customs, folk songs, and embroidery samples, and began her
career as a writer in 1876, by publishing articles about Ukrainian folklore.
In the course of her career, she translated literary works from several
languages into Ukrainian and wrote original poetry, plays, short fiction, and stories for
children. She also published biographies, essays of literary criticism, literary reviews,
and commentaries on current affairs. In addition, she compiled and edited journals, books,
Certainly, her pen name "Pchilka," which in Ukrainian means
"little bee," was a most felicitous choice, for she gave up a life of leisure
and assiduously fostered the development of Ukrainian literature.
Her literary activities intersected with her involvement in the Ukrainian
women's movement and her political activism in the cause of unifying Eastern Ukraine (in
the Russian Empire) and Western Ukraine (in the Austro-Hungarian Empire). In 1887 she
joined forces with Nataliya Kobrynska from Western Ukraine to publish the widely acclaimed
Pershy vinok (The First Garland), an almanac that took the bold step of
featuring only women contributors.
When the Kosach family settled in Kyiv in the 1890s, Pchilka, by then a
well-known writer, became an active participant in the capital's cultural life and
delivered lectures about Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish authors. In 1901 the Ukrainian
literary establishment celebrated the 25th anniversary of her writing career.
In 1905, Pchilka participated in a successful effort to lift tsarist bans
(1863 and 1876) on Ukrainian - language publications in Eastern Ukraine. This same year,
in the province of Poltava, she founded an organization which fought for women's rights
and issued a manifesto demanding autonomy for Ukraine.
The next decade in Pchilka's life was marked by personal tragedy. Her son,
Mykhaylo, died in 1903; her husband, in 1909; and her daughter, Lesia Ukrainka, in 1913.
She also lost a number of her closest friends and political allies, including Mykhaylo
Starytsky (1840-1904), a renowned author, and Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912), a gifted
During the First World War, Pchilka edited newspapers in her native
village of Hadyach in Poltava. In 1924, she returned to Kyiv, where she worked in the
ethnographic, literary, and historical sections of the Academy of Sciences of the
Ukrainian SSR. Even though she had been persecuted for her anti-Soviet views and
activities, in 1925, in recognition of her many achievements, she was made a Member of the
Academy. Despite her advanced years and frail health, she continued writing until her
death in 1930.
In her thematically fresh depictions of the lifestyles and concerns of the
upper classes, Pchilka was among the first Ukrainian authors to record authentically the
speech patterns and conversations of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. A highly principled
woman, she challenged deeply ingrained norms governing the status of women in society,
played a leading role in the struggle for Ukraine's reunification and independence, and
made a noteworthy contribution to Ukrainian literature and the enrichment of the Ukrainian
©1998 Language Lanterns Publications
Sketch by Roma Franko; Edited by Sonia Morris
Volumes this author appears in:
The Spirit of the Times
Warm the Children, O Sun
©1998-2016 Language Lanterns Publications,
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