Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature

Lesya Ukrainka

Lesya Ukrainka
(1871-1913) Biographical Sketch

Lesya Ukrainka is the literary pseudonym of Larysa Kosach - Kvitka, who was born in 1871 to Olha Drahomanova-Kosach (literary pseudonym: Olena Pchilka), a writer and publisher in Eastern Ukraine, and Petro Kosach, a senior civil servant. An intelligent, well-educated man with non-Ukrainian roots, he was devoted to the advancement of Ukrainian culture and financially supported Ukrainian publishing ventures.

In the Kosach home the mother played the dominant role; only the Ukrainian language was used and, to avoid the schools, in which Russian was the language of instruction, the children had tutors with whom they studied Ukrainian history, literature, and culture. Emphasis was also placed on learning foreign languages and reading world literature in the original. In addition to her native Ukrainian, Larysa learned Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Greek, Latin, French, Italian, German, and English.

A precocious child, who was privileged to live in a highly cultivated home, Larysa began writing poetry at the age of nine, and when she was thirteen saw her first poem published in a journal in L'viv under the name of Lesya Ukrainka, a literary pseudonym suggested by her mother. As a young girl, Larysa also showed signs of being a gifted pianist, but her musical studies came to an abrupt end when, at the age of twelve, she fell ill with tuberculosis of the bone, a painful and debilitating disease that she had to fight all her life.

Finding herself physically disabled, Lesya turned her attention to literature - reading widely, writing poetry, and translating. She shared these literary activities with her brother Mykhaylo (literary pseudonym: Mykhaylo Obachny), her closest friend until his death in 1903. When Larysa was seventeen, she and her brother organized a literary circle called Pleyada (The Pleiades) which was devoted to promoting the development of Ukrainian literature and translating classics from world literature into Ukrainian.

As a teenager, Larysa's intellectual development was further stimulated by her maternal uncle, Mykhaylo Drahomanov, the noted scholar, historian and publicist. He encouraged her to collect folk songs and folkloric materials, to study history, and to peruse the Bible for its inspired poetry and eternal themes. She was also influenced by her family's close association with leading cultural figures, such as Mykola Lysenko, a renowned composer, and Mykhaylo Starytsky, a well-known dramatist and poet.

Lesya published her first collection of lyrical poetry, Na krylakh pisen' (On Wings of Songs), in 1893, a year after her translations of Heine's poetry, Knyha pisen' (The Book of Songs) appeared. In the Russian Empire, Ukrainian publications were banned; therefore, both books were published in Western Ukraine and smuggled into Kyiv.

From the time that Lesya was a teenager, she often had to go abroad for surgery and various treatment regimens, and was advised to live in countries with a dry climate. Residing for extended periods of time in Germany, Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Crimea, The Caucasus, and Egypt, she became familiar with other peoples and cultures, and incorporated her observations and impressions into her writings. An inveterate letter writer, she engaged in an extensive correspondence with the Western Ukrainian author Olha Kobylianska that led to an exchange of sketches both entitled "The Blind Man." (See Volume III of this series.)

In addition to her lyrical poetry, Ukrainka wrote epic poems, prose dramas, prose, several articles of literary criticism, and a number of sociopolitical essays. It was her dramatic poems, however, written in the form of pithy, philosophical dialogues, that were to be her greatest legacy to Ukrainian literature. Only one of Ukrainka's dramas, Boyarynya (The Boyar's Wife) refers directly to Ukrainian history, and another, an idealistic, symbolic play, Lisova pisnya (Song of the Forest), uses mythological beings from Ukrainian folklore. Her other dramatic poems issue from world history and the Bible. With their sophisticated psychological treatment of the themes of national freedom, dignity, and personal integrity, they are a clarion call to people the world over to throw off the yoke of oppression.

In 1901, Lesya suffered a great personal loss - the death of her soul mate, Serhiy Merzhynsky. She wrote the entire dramatic poem Oderzhyma (The Possessed) in one night at his deathbed. A few years later, in 1907, she married a good friend of the family, Klyment Kvitka, an ethnographer and musicologist. It was he who transcribed and published the many Ukrainian folk songs that she had learned as a young girl in her native province of Volyn.

Despite many prolonged periods in her life during which she was too ill to write, upon her death in 1913, at the relatively young age of forty-two, Ukrainka left behind a rich and diversified literary legacy. While it is the deep philosophical thought and the perfection of her poetic form that have assured her a place among the luminaries of world literature, her prose works, which she continued writing throughout her literary career, provide a fascinating insight into the inner life of this gifted, multifaceted writer, and reveal her perceptions of the multi - layered society in which she lived.

©1998 Language Lanterns Publications
ISBN 0-9683899-3-7 (v.4)

Sketch by Roma Franko; Edited by Sonia Morris

Volumes this author appears in:

From Heart to Heart

Warm the Children, O Sun


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