Over the last several weeks I have seen much material in both digital and hardcopy media about Lesia Ukrainka, it having been the 150th anniversary in February of her birth back in 1871. If you are Ukrainian, the name should be familiar to you as she has been long revered as the foremost female Ukrainian poet in all of that country’s history. As I was growing up, I can recall numerous commemorative events held in her honour at the local Ukrainian Hall where she was lionized not only as a titan of Ukrainian literature but as a leading exponent of Ukrainian nationalism at the dawn of the twentieth century.
Of course, as a youth, I had little appreciation of her as a real person or her influence or role in the greater scheme of what was happening in Ukraine at that time. She was just another almost mythological Ukrainian literary hero in the same pantheon as Shevchenko, Franko or Skovoroda. I would read excerpts of some of her works in my Ukrainian school classes or listen to someone recite her prose or poetry at a cultural event, but at that age, it might as well have been in another language.
It was only much later when I was taking some courses in Ukrainian literature in University and did some more research that I began to see past the hagiographic icon and understand her a little more clearly. She was a much more complex and multidimensional figure than I had first thought.
Her life was relatively short and beset with more than a fair share of challenges and difficulties. She was born Laryssa Kosach in 1871 in Novohrad-Volynskyi which was then part of the Russian Empire. Both of her parents were highly educated and reasonably well-to-do. Her father was a lawyer, civil servant and political activist; her mother was a poet and writer. Not wanting to have their daughter brought up in the Russian dominated school system, she was privately tutored as well as self-taught.
She proved to be a linguistic and literary prodigy, mastering almost a dozen languages before reaching adulthood, including Latin, Greek, English, French, Italian, German and most of the Slavic languages. She wrote her first poem at the age of eight and was being published by the age of thirteen. Through exposure to the various political and intellectual circles that her parents belonged to, she quickly became a strong advocate of Ukrainian nationalism and critic of the Russian regime then dominating Ukraine. Because publishing in Ukrainian was illegal in Russian occupied Ukraine, she adopted the pen name Lesia Ukrainka, and published her works in Lviv which was then under less repressive Polish control. As well as poetry, Lesia wrote plays, essays and was a prolific translator of works by Shakespeare, Hugo, Homer, Byron, Mickewiecz and Turgenev amongst others. It is even said that she translated Marx’s Communist Manifesto.
Tragically, she contracted tuberculosis at the age of ten, and spent most of her life travelling to various European and southern spas seeking treatment. She spent considerable time in Germany, Italy, Austria, Crimea, Georgia and even Egypt, though a cure proved elusive. Eventually the disease claimed her life at the age of 42 while she was undergoing treatment in Georgia.
Aside from her literary works, Lesia was quite the activist, promoting Ukrainian independence, feminist, socialist and modernist causes. There is little doubt that she was a socialist at heart, and some would even claim that she was a Marxist. Whatever the case, it is fact that she did belong to a number of what were then considered radical, socialist organizations in Ukraine. In 1897 while being treated in Yalta, she met and fell in love with a Marxist revolutionary from Belarus named Serhiy Merzhynsky. Tragically he died shortly thereafter. Needless to say, many diaspora Ukrainian nationalist organizations tend to downplay or discount her socialist leanings and focus only on her role in promoting Ukrainian independence. I would think that if she were alive today, she would be dismayed at this type of unidimensional assessment of who she was. She was much more complicated and multi-faceted than most people give her credit for. Regardless, there is much to admire in what she managed to accomplish in such a short time and in exceedingly difficult circumstances.
I will end this with a brief excerpt from one of her best-known poems Contra Spem Spero, translated into English by Vera Rich:
“In the long dark ever-viewless nighttime
Not one instant shall I close my eyes,
I’ll seek ever for the star to guide me,
She that reigns bright mistress of dark skies.
Yes, I’ll smile indeed, through tears and weeping,
Sing my songs where evil holds its sway,
Hopeless, a steadfast hope forever keeping,
I shall live! You thoughts of grief – away!”