Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature
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
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
©1998-2014 Language Lanterns Publications,
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