Ukrainka, Lesya (1871–1913)

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Ukrainka, Lesya (1871–1913)

Prominent Ukrainian poet whose body of work presents both universal themes and a reflection of her homeland's struggle for greater freedom. Pronunciation: LESS-ya oo-CRYEN-ka. Name variations: Laryssa Kosach; Laryssa Kosach-Kvitka; Lesia or Lessya Ukrainka; Lesëiia Ukrainka; Lesja Ukrajinka; Lesia Ukraïnka; Lesya Ukrayinka. Born Laryssa Kosach on February 26 (sometimes given as February 25), 1871, in Zvyahel' in Volynia in northwestern Ukraine; died on August 15, 1913, in the Caucasus town of Surami near Tbilisi, of tuberculosis; daughter of Petro Antonovych Kosach (a lawyer and landowner) and Olha Petrivna Drahomaniv (a writer and political activist who wrote under the name Olena Pchilka); taught by private tutors; married Klyment Kvitka (an ethnographer and musicologist), in 1907.

With family, moved to Kovel (1878); after her aunt was arrested for political agitation, wrote first poem to protest the event (1879); afflicted with tuberculosis (1881); published first collection of poems (1893); journeyed to Bulgaria to visit Mykhailo Drahomaniv (1894); had first medical treatment in Berlin (1897); made first trip to Italy (1901–02); had further medical treatment in Berlin (1908); made first trip to Egypt (1909); returned to Egypt (1911).

Major works—poetry:

Na krylakh pisen' (On Wings of Song, 1892); Nevilnychi pisni (Songs of Slaves, 1893); Dumy i mriyi (Thoughts and Dreams, 1899); Vidhuky (Echoes, 1902).

Dramas and dramatic poems:

Blakytna troianda (The Azure Rose, 1896); Na ruinakh (Upon the Ruins, 1903); Vavylonskyi polon (The Babylonian Captivity, 1903); V domu roboty—v kraini nevoli (In the House of Labor, In the House of Slavery, 1906); Kassandra (Cassandra, 1907); Rufin i Pristsilla (Rufinus and Priscilla, 1908); Boiarina (The Boyar Woman, 1910); U pushchi (In the Wilderness, 1910); Lisova pisnia (Song of the Forest, 1911); Orhiya (Orgy, 1913).


Starodavnia istoriya skhidnykh narodiv (Ancient History of Eastern Peoples, 1890–91).


Knyha pisen' (The Book of Songs, 1893).

Laryssa Kosach, who wrote under the pseudonym Lesya Ukrainka, was an important Ukrainian writer at the turn of the 20th century. A prolific author of both poetry and plays, she is considered by many critics to be the greatest female poet in the Ukrainian language. Her literary name indicated the major theme of her writing since Lesya Ukrainka means Lesya the Ukrainian woman. In this, she followed other leading Ukrainian writers such as Taras Shevchenko who called himself Kobzar (the Bard) and Ivan Franko who called himself Kamenyar (Paver of the Way). She used a variety of poetic tools, and one critic has counted 20 different "verse forms" in her work.

Her writing embodies both nationalist themes and more universal elements. Soviet-era writers like Semen Shakhovsky have attempted to connect Ukrainka's nationalism with her supposed affinity for Marxist ideas. In contrast, George Grabowicz finds her best work, "Song of the Forest," to be rooted in her Ukrainian native tradition.

The poet's life and work were inevitably influenced by the linguistic and political status of her native Ukraine, which had been under Russian control since the middle of the 17th century. Led by the Romantic poet and painter Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), many Ukrainians starting in the 1840s developed a heightened sense of national identity, a strong interest in the national language, and a feeling of political and cultural oppression at the hands of Russian authorities.

The Russian imperial administration grew increasingly alarmed, especially after the 1863 rebellion in Russia's Polish provinces. Leading Russian officials saw Ukraine as a borderland subject to the same separatist impulses that helped provoke the Polish uprising. Starting in 1863, the Russian imperial government began an attack on the Ukrainian language, banning the publication of educational and religious books in that language.

In 1876, when Lesya Ukrainka was still a young child, the restrictions became even more oppressive. It now became illegal to print any books in the Ukrainian language throughout the Russian Empire. Additional limitations were placed on the use of that language in plays, lectures, and even the words accompanying musical compositions. While imaginative Ukrainian writers and actors sought and found ways to circumvent these limits, the heavy hand of the Russian government severely constricted Ukrainian cultural freedom. Only after the Russian monarchy and government had been shaken by the Revolution of 1905 did Ukrainians regain the right to use their own language freely.

Modern literary Ukrainian had been founded by Shevchenko, who drew upon the folk songs and spoken tongue of the common people. Ukrainka represents one of the generations that built upon Shevchenko's accomplishments. By the close of the 19th century, Shevchenko's stress on folklore and Ukrainian history had given way to a second stage of literary accomplishment that historian Orest Subtelny labels "Ukrainian Realism." This movement sought to examine such questions as the social life of the Ukrainian peasant village and the impact of foreign cultures, drawn from Poland and Russia, on Ukrainian families.

Ukrainka represented a third group of writers who now departed from such Realism. As Subtelny notes, Ukrainka was part of "a new generation of authors [who] emerged by the turn of the century." They were writers who "attempted to go beyond the rigid, utilitarian strictures of Realism, to apply modernistic techniques, and to express individualistic perceptions." In his view, Lesya Ukrainka was at the center of this movement from Realism into the new and exciting genre of Modernism. By contrast, George Luckyj sees Ukrainka as a more transitional figure, "a major pre-modernist poet and dramatist," although he dubs her "the leading writer of her generation."

She was born Laryssa Kosach on February 26, 1871, in Volynia in the northwestern portion of Ukraine. Her father Petro Antonovych Kosach was a graduate of the law school at the University of Kiev and a district officer in the imperial administration. Soon after her birth, Petro Kosach became active in the Ukrainian nationalist movement, joining a secret social and cultural society and serving as an editor of a monthly literary journal. Her mother Olha Petrivna Drahomaniv Kosach was a distinguished Ukrainian writer, who wrote under the pseudonym Olena Pchilka . Olena was the sister of the Ukrainian activist Mykhailo Petrovych Drahomaniv.

Thus Ukrainka, like her five siblings, grew up in a home saturated with Ukrainian national sentiment. The family's sense of intense nationalism grew with Olena's decision to have her children educated by a number of private tutors rather than subjecting them to the public schools. This shielded them from a Russian-style education, and, in the case of Ukrainka, it also permitted the frail and bed-ridden child to become fully educated. Olena herself translated classic foreign literature, including the works of Hans Christian Andersen, into Ukrainian.

She belongs to the poets of the world not only for the wide range of her themes, but also for the great power of her poetic gift which we unqualifiedly call that of a genius.

—Maxim Rylsky

Her family connections gave Ukrainka access to leading figures on the cultural scene such as Ukrainian composer M. Lysenko, and she was also deeply immersed in the Ukrainian nationalist ideas of her uncle, Mykhailo Drahomaniv. He was a scholar from Kiev who had been driven into exile and now worked as a university professor in Sofia, Bulgaria. Drahomaniv's career as a Ukrainian nationalist also included a period of running a Ukrainian-language press in Geneva, Switzerland. The two did not see one another for decades but established a close relationship through their extensive correspondence.

Olena encouraged her children to become proficient in foreign languages, and Ukrainka was found to have a particular aptitude here. By the time she was an adult, she was proficient in a dozen tongues ranging from Ukrainian to English and Latin. Such an ability set the stage for the young woman to work as a translator and to absorb the full range of European literary works in their original languages.

Apparently due to her father's work, the family was uprooted on several occasions. When Ukrainka was seven, they moved to Lutsk and then to a town near Kovel. Despite the cultured nature of her family milieu, Ukrainka enjoyed playing with peasant children in Volhynia. From them, she learned much about rural culture. Eventually the Kosach family settled in Kiev.

Sadly, the poet was frail from birth, and her life was made especially hard when she contracted tuberculosis at the age of 12. "She was plagued by poor health, which never allowed her a painless, carefree day in her life," writes Subtelny. Physical affliction compelled her to spend many years in warm climates away from her homeland and would cause her death at a tragically early age.

Even in her youngest years, the girl began to write verse. Her first poem was a response, in 1879, to her shock upon hearing that a favorite aunt, Aleksandra Kosach , had been arrested by the tsarist police. The child's relative was one of several individuals implicated in an assassination attempt against a leading police official, and she was, as a consequence, exiled to Siberia. Typical of Lesya Ukrainka's later poetry, this early work reflected both her personal feelings as well as a sense of Ukrainian national pride.

The young girl, encouraged by her talented mother, began to submit her poetry for publication at the age of 12, under the pseudonym Lesya Ukrainka. Since Russian law barred the publication of writings in Ukrainian, her works for years to come had to be published in Lviv, a city across the border in Austria-Hungary. A significant portion of the Ukrainian population lived within the Austro-Hungarian Empire and enjoyed a degree of cultural freedom denied their compatriots in Russia. In Lviv, under the leadership of the Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, a thriving center of Ukrainian scholarship and publishing had developed.

In 1881, the child began her struggle with tuberculosis, which first struck her bones, then, in later years, her lungs. The disease soon took a severe toll on her ambitions; as a talented pianist, she had dreamed of a career as a professional musician. Those hopes had to be abandoned. Nonetheless, she fought against the disease with surgery as well as prolonged sojourns in favorable climates. In the view of Natalia Pazuniak , "It was her enormous will power … that kept her alive for her beloved literature." The poet herself spoke at times of her "thirty years war" against the dread disease. Her individual tragedy was compounded when she married in 1907. Tuberculosis also afflicted her husband, a Ukrainian ethnographer and musician named Klyment Kvitka.

From her early teenage years, Ukrainka compensated for her physical ailment and its consequent restrictions on her movement by reading widely. The authors who influenced her and whose themes later appeared in her work ranged from the dramatists of ancient Greece to English Romantic poets of the 19th century. She also took up the task of translating foreign classics into Ukrainian, thereby stretching her own ability to write original verse in her native language.

In the early 1890s, she completed her own first volume of verse, Na krylakh pisen' (On Wings of Song). In 1893, she collaborated in a translation of the poetry of Heinrich Heine, published in Lviv as Knyha pisen' (The Book of Songs). Two years later, her collection of poetry, Nevilnychi pisni (The Songs of Slaves), expressed so ardent a sense of Ukrainian nationalism that it drew high praise from Ivan Franko, her noted Ukrainian literary contemporary. He had already greeted Knyha pisen' with the declaration that Ukrainka's reputation would come to match that of the great Taras Shevchenko. On Ukrainka's consistent concern with her native land, Pazuniak notes, "she never strays far from social themes; she is an integral part of Ukraine, and no personal experience can estrange her from the destiny of her fatherland." In a poem about the medieval king of Scotland Robert Bruce, written in 1893, Ukrainka maintained: "He is no poet who forgets the deep national wounds."

Ukrainka's poetry was also marked by a remarkable element of strength and optimism in the face of the tuberculosis that weakened her and added physical discomfort to daily life. Her courage was particularly evident in her poetry on the subject of hope. Here she wrote, on one occasion, that "through all my tears, I still will smile, Sing my songs though troubles round me loom." Coming from a family of means, Ukrainka was able to seek treatment for her medical needs with prolonged trips abroad. In 1897, she went to Berlin for surgery on her legs, but the tuberculosis now spread to her lungs, then her kidneys. Travel for her health sent her abroad to Italy and Egypt, and to such remote regions of the Russian Empire as the Crimea and the Caucasus.

She approached the task of promoting political freedom in an increasingly broad fashion by turning to a variety of themes concerning oppressed peoples of the past, especially the Jews. In Vavylonski polon (The Babylonian Captivity), she describes the struggles of the ancient Jews in their Babylonian exile. In V domu roboty—v kraini nevoli (In the House of Labor, in the House of Slavery), she takes up the subject of Jewish oppression in Egypt. Her growing interest in themes that transcended strictly Ukrainian topics became evident on the one hand in her practice of setting her work in such locales as ancient Greece and revolutionary France. It became clearer still as she took up such broad topics as the different kinds of love, and the tensions between a poet and society.

By 1907, the year of her marriage, doctors informed the young woman that her health was becoming increasingly precarious. In the face of this grim news, one of Ukrainka's poems of that year, U pushchi (In the Wilderness), stressed the need of the artist to follow his inspiration and produce works reflecting his own creative spirit. Her heightened sense of her own fragile mortality was expressed in such lines as "When will the angel of death call me? I have a premonition that he will come soon."

Her writing took a particularly strong and novel direction during the last several years of her life. Now, while continuing to produce lyric poetry of a high order, she focused most of her energies on poetic dramas. For example, her 1908 play Rufin i Pristsilla (Rufinus and Priscilla) is set in ancient Rome and reflects her longstanding interest in the history of early Christianity. In 1911, she wrote her most famous work, Lisova pisnia (Song of the Forest), in the space of three days. In telling the story of a forest nymph who falls in love with a human and who attempts to adopt human form, the poet eschewed politics to concern herself with the clash between an ideal world of nature and the harshness of human reality.

Nonetheless, much of her work still exuded an irrepressible nationalism. Her 1910 play, Boiarina (The Boiar's Wife), contained particularly harsh and explicit anti-Russian feeling. Set in the 17th century, it presented a young Ukrainian heroine who accompanies her husband to Moscow and encounters the indignities that Russian society placed on upper-class females. She experiences an even greater degree of despair when she realizes that the Russian tsar's government envisions only servitude for her homeland. The Communist government of Russia that came to power following the November 1917 revolution reacted to the vivid patriotism of The Boiar's Wife by forbidding its production. The play was banned from the stage and appeared only in print until 1989.

In his history of Ukrainian literature, modern critic Dmytro Chyzhevskyi notes that his predecessors in Ukrainka's own day failed to understand "the significance of the gigantic step the poetess had taken on to the field of world literature." They could not accept "a total absence of sumptuous costumes, song and dance, drinking and Cossack figures." Chyzhevskyi, by contrast, has nothing but praise for this effort as Lesya Ukrainka "raised Ukrainian literature to the level of a world literature … [treating] themes that are common and important to mankind as a whole." Said Natalia Pazuniak on the centennial of Ukrainka's birth, "Her works are truly universal."

The poet spent the last years of her life fighting off tuberculosis in Egypt and the Caucasus. She continued to write during her final year, and died at the age of 42 on August 15, 1913, in Surami near Tbilisi, in the Caucasus. Her body was returned to Kiev for burial.

At home, a statue in Kiev by Halyna Kalchenko commemorates Ukrainka's work. Following the mass emigration of Ukrainians after World War II, Ukrainians abroad honored her with monuments in the Garden of Culture, in Cleveland, Ohio, as well as in Toronto, Canada. Both were created by the Ukrainian sculptor Mykahilo Chereshniowskiy. Her stage plays have occupied a prominent role in the repertoire of such émigré companies as the Ukrainian Theater of America.


Bida, Constantine. Lesya Ukrainka: Life and Work. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

Chyzhevskyiy, Dmytro. A History of Ukrainian Literature. Trans. by Dolly Ferguson, Doreen Gorsline, and Ulana Petyk. Ed. by George S.N. Luckyj. Littleton, CO: Ukrainian Academic Press, 1975.

Grabowicz, George G. Toward a History of Ukrainian Literature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

Luckyj, George S.N. Ukrainian Literature in the Twentieth Century: A Reader's Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

Pazuniak, Natalia I. "Lesya Ukrainka—Ukraine's Greatest Poetess," in Ukrainian Quarterly. Vol. 23, no. 3, 1971, pp. 237–252.

Rudnyckyj, Jaroslav B. Egypt in [the] Life and Work of Lesya Ukrainka. Slavistica No. 83. Cairo: [n.p.], 1938.

Shakhovsky, Semen. Lesya Ukrainka: A Biographical Sketch. Kiev: Dnipro, 1975.

Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.

Ukrainka, Lesya. Spirit of Flame: A Collection of the Works of Lesya Ukrainka. Trans. by Percival Cundy. Foreword by Clarence A. Manning. Ukrainian National Women's League of America, 1950 (reprinted 1971).

suggested reading:

Magocsi, Paul Robert. A History of Ukraine. Seattle, WA: University of Washington, 1996.

Petrenko, Halyna, ed. Ukraine: A Concise Encyclopedia. Clifton, NJ: Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A, 1987.

Prymak, Thomas M. Mykhailo Hrushevsky: The Politics of National Culture. University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Neil M. Heyman , Professor of History, San Diego State University, San Diego, California