views updated

Kobylianska, Olha (1863–1942)

Ukrainian modernist whose writings are celebrated for their lyrical descriptions and psychological portraits which struck a blow against prevailing populist myths about peasant life. Name variations: Olga Kobilyanska; Olha Yulianovna Kobylianska; Ol'ga Iulianovna Kobylianskaia. Born in Gura Humorului, Bukovina, Austria-Hungary, on November 27, 1863; died in Chernvitsi (Chernovitsy), Rumania, on March 21, 1942.

Olha Kobylianska was largely self-educated in a period when Ukrainian women lived under the dual burden of patriarchical traditions and tsarist Russian attempts to destroy Ukrainian cultural independence. Growing up in the southern part of Bukovina, then a province of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, she was profoundly influenced by German literature and its idealistic values. Her first novellen, dating to the early 1880s, were all written in German, as were the first drafts of her novels Liudyna (A Person, written 1886, published 1891) and Tsarivna (The Princess, written 1888–93, published 1895). The Ukrainian versions of these two works are filled with quotations, imagery and epigraphs taken from German literature and philosophy, including the then-sensational writings of Friedrich Nietzsche. Kobylianska was also influenced by the works of George Sand .

While some critics of the day faulted her for relying too much on German traditions and techniques, at least one perceptive contemporary, the writer Lesya Ukrainka , detected the positive aspects of this influence. "Your salvation was in this Germany," said Ukrainka. "It led you to recognize world literature, it transported you out into the broader world of ideas and art—this simply leaps out at one, when one compares your writing with that of the majority of Galicians." Eager to embrace the new literary techniques of her day, Kobylianska was influenced in her writings by the neoromantic and symbolist currents. Her works depicted the struggle between good and evil, a natural subject for an author with a lifelong interest in philosophy.

Because of her interest in the lives of the Ukrainian peasantry in Bukovina, Kobylianska's writings treat the forces of nature—seen as far more accessible to illiterate peasants than to the most highly educated urban intellectuals—with great sympathy. An irrational world of magic and predestination is central to the storytelling in her important novels Zemlia (The Land, 1902) and V nedilu rano zillia kopala (On Sunday Morn She Gathered Herbs, 1909). The harsh, unforgiving aspects of peasant life were also shown from different angles in her short stories "At St. Ivan's" (1891, published 1896), "Rural Bank" (1895), "The Uncultured Woman" (1896), and "In the Fields" (1898).

Zemlia, a work which attacked a number of myths about the rural peasantry, reveals the harsh, oppressive nature of life in Bukovina at the start of the 20th century. An intellectually probing, even revolutionary work, the novel examines the ways in which the system of private ownership leads to a world in which brother kills brother. It tells an essentially simple story of the destructive power of the most basic element of peasant existence—their land. In Zemlia, land is shown to be a terrible force that enserfs and brutalizes all who desire it. Only the main character Anna, who is landless, is presented as having at least some chance of breaking free from these dehumanizing forces and thus moving to a higher state. In the end, however, she too falls victim to the all-encompassing dependence on the land, and her life is destroyed. Kobylianska showed that village life, rather than being a harmonious organic Gemeinschaft (a social relationship based on friendship or community), was in fact lacking in the most basic elements of peaceful existence. This struck a severe blow against the populist ideology that saw peasant existence in terms of happy patriarchical harmony.

With this one book, the author rocked a major pillar of Ukrainian thinking of the day, the notion that the Ukrainian village was an ideal social system. She demythologized the prevailing notions about the idealized woman by showing that there was little romantic purity in village women's lives. Unconstrained by culture or education, human nature in her Ukrainian village was deformed, cruel, and an abomination made up of raw human instincts, including incest. Family harmony was unveiled as a fantasy, with the village parental authority shown as crude and almost bestial at times. Kobylianska's writings represent important breakthroughs in the Ukrainian literature of the first decades of the 20th century toward a more realistic portrayal of ordinary people's lives.

Shocked and dismayed by the start of World War I, Kobylianska opposed its carnage from the very start. The brutality of the conflict is the subject of her short stories "Judas" (1915), "To Meet One's Fate" (1915), and "He Has Gone Mad" (1923). Although she never subscribed to Communist ideology, Kobylianska was generally sympathetic to the Soviet experiment after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918 gave Bukovina to Rumania, thus transforming Kobylianska into a citizen of that nation. Under Rumanian administration, the suffering of Bukovina's peasants was not ameliorated; if anything, it worsened.

The author's sense of moral outrage at the injustices taking place in Bukovina under Rumanian rule deepened with the passing years, and although her writings never reflected Marxist literary doctrines she was convinced that Soviet rule in the Eastern Ukraine, as she wrote in 1927, was making possible "great strides [so that] Ukrainian culture is thriving and developing." The Soviet government appreciated her positive assessment of the situation in Soviet Ukraine and provided her with financial assistance.

In September 1939, when the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the extinction of the Polish state made it possible for the Soviet Union to annex Western Ukrainian territories, Kobylianska rejoiced at the event, publishing an article some months later entitled "The Fruit of Culture is Developing." In the summer of 1940, Rumania was forced to surrender Northern Bukovina to the Soviet Union. As a result, Kobylianska's citizenship was again changed, and she became a Soviet citizen. She was feted as a veteran writer of social criticism and became a member of the Writers' Union of the USSR. In poor health, she was unable to flee from German Nazi and Rumanian fascist forces in June 1941, when Hitler launched his attack on the Soviet Union and quickly conquered Bukovina. Kobylianska was reviled as a dangerous "Red writer" despite her age and reputation, and the Rumanian fascist administration in Chernvitsi scheduled her to be tried by court-martial. Only her death on March 21, 1942, saved her from a more than likely fate of conviction and execution. In 1944, soon after the liberation of Bukovina from Nazi rule, a Kobylianska Museum was opened in Chernvitsi. Occupying a building where the writer had lived from 1928 until her death in 1942, the museum included exhibits with photographs, personal belongings, papers and editions of her works. Another memorial museum dedicated to Olha Kobylianska was established in the village of Dymka, where she had lived for many years in an earlier period of her life.


Kopach, Alexandra. "Language and Style of Olha Kobylianska." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Ottawa, 1967.

Luckyj, George S.N. Literary Politics in the Soviet Ukraine 1917–1934. Rev. ed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990.

——. Ukrainian Literature in the Twentieth Century: A Reader's Guide. Toronto: Shevchenko Scientific Society-University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Pavlychko, Solomea. "Modernism vs. Populism in Fin de Siecle Ukrainian Literature," in Pamela Chester and Sibelan Forrester, eds. Engendering Slavic Literatures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996, pp. 83–103.

Shabliovs'kyi, Ievhen. Ukrainian Literature Through the Ages. Translated by Abraham Mistetsky, et al. Edited by Anatole Bilenko. Kiev: Mistetsvo Publishers, 1970.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

About this article

Kobylianska, Olha (1863–1942)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article