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3 March, 2011  ▪  Vadym Skurativsky

The legacy of Lesia Ukrainka

Lesia Ukrainka figures prominently in Ukrainian textbooks, but when we think we seem to know absolutely everything about her we find this is just an illusion


Ukrainian Cassandra

When the blank pages of her life were finally revealed, an incredible drama opened before human eyes, the drama of her circle of acquaintances not only just after her death, but also the demise of the world she belonged to. Suffice it to say that all of her sisters died in emigration. I remember one shocking photo: the funeral of Lesia’s sister Olha, around 1945 in a camp in Ausburg for displaced persons. The pallbearers were the elite of Kyiv’s pre-war literary and scholarly circles.

Nearly all of Lesia Ukrainka’s relatives and friends, and almost everyone who was close to her, were repressed in the 1920s through the 1940s. I recall the endlessly dramatic life of Klymentii Kvitka, Lesia’s husband who survived her. He worked very much after the death of his wife, and was especially proliferate in the 1920s at the height of in efforts in music. People even said that he was as big a figure in music as his wife was in literature. This was followed by repression. He first lived in exile, later returning to his professional activities under dramatic circumstances. Mykhailo Kryvyniuk, Olha’s husband, also experienced repression and died in exile. And we can only imagine what Lesia’s mother Olena Pchilka felt, especially in the late 1920s, when repressions against the Ukrainian intelligentsia were in full swing.

We need to remember this litany of personal tragedies after Lesia Ukrainka’s death, if we want to understand that the great poetess somehow foresaw all of this in her poetry and dramas in the 1890s through the 1910s. In the course of these years she seemed to have focused primarily on the future: what the future of her country, the surrounding world, and, in general, the entire human civilization was to going to be like.

A human sea, you are the people’s strength.

Of what will you make your weapons?

What will you build in the empty place

Left by the world you will have crushed?

Here Lesia Ukrainka is far removed from the straightforward, simplistic, progressive view of the 20th century we lived in and of the entire time span humanity has at its disposal. She applied herself to studying the foundation of foundations. What are we working for? How are we working as we accumulate these layers of history or other? Will our efforts lead to a positive or a negative outcome?

In her dramas, Lesia Ukrainka shows in a thoroughly convincing fashion how old things are replaced by new ones. Among other thing, she takes a close look at those fatal minutes in the history of mankind when the ancient worlds of the Greeks and Romans came to an end yielding to the era of Christianity. Christianity held out many promises to the world which abandoned its past. But the world was unable to fully incorporate the fundamental theses of Christianity and relapsed into various dogmas, despotism, tyranny, and humiliation, which might even lead to a general catastrophe of culture.

That Lesia Ukrainka thought deeply about these problems in the early 20th century is proof of her profound intuition and the depth of her special, poetic, and theatrical culture. She confidently entered into a discussion of this problem, which is perhaps the most important aspect of that which is the purpose of our life on this earth. And hers is a very esthetically and artistically refined feeling of the future.

However, she was in good company in this endeavor. Since the second half of the 1990s and until the publication of Pavlo Tychyna’s Soniashni klarnety (Clarinets of the Sun, 1918), Ukrainian culture entered the aesthetic dimension we call the Silver Age. This designation is used primarily in reference to the Petersburg, and more generally Russian, culture of the time, but the Silver Age actually encompassed all of Europe. It involved efforts to create literature, plastic arts, and theater along the lines of the highest possible aesthetic quality. What some contemporaries viewed as aestheticism and snobbism was, in fact, an attempt to build a new artistic system.

This is what Lesia Ukrainka tried to accomplish. In 1911, she seems to have completed this grandiose national cultural undertaking, primarily with her Lisova pisnia (The Forest Song), which ranks among the most beautiful masterpieces of world literature. Based on village life in Volhynia and some general plots from Ukrainian folklore, her work is surprising with its riveting description of the very tragedy of human existence in the world. In her drama, it is not the universe and nature that hinder people but the other way around, humans are a liability to the beauty, structure, and systematic nature of the universe. Volodymyr Vernadsky, a great Ukrainian scientist and a very, very distant relative of Lesia Ukrainka, kept re-reading The Forest Song in the 1940s when he was fully engaged in the Soviet nuclear bomb project some of his biographers write. This drama of hers seemed to forecast the complexity of the historical period humanity was about to enter.

As far as Lesia Ukrainka’s Marxist ideas were concenred, her revolutionary inclinations were interpreted in the unabashedly ideological and inadequate way of Soviet times. True, she did not accept the world she lived in and rejected some aspects of Christianity. For example, she was forced by her mother to be married in church, something she could not forgive her until the end of her life. At the same time, we need to understand that the Soviet vision of the poetess within the narrow party context, especially including her among the early Bolsheviks is not just a mistake — it is pure falsification. Lesia Ukrainka could consider herself a social democrat, but the social democrats she was associated with in Kyiv were no Bolsheviks. For one thing, their Kyiv organization was headed by Nikolai Berdyaev, a future philosopher of religion. At the same time, in her dramatic poem “Try khvylyny” (Three Minutes) she spoke in an extremely powerful and convincing manner and perhaps for the first time in both Ukrainian and world literature, about Jacobinism. Moreover, Bolshevism was preceded by the fiercest and most aggressive version of political extremism. It should be noted that this work was written at the peak of the 1905 revolution. In other words, she managed to discern, even at that early time, the danger of this kind of –ism. Therefore, let me repeat, it is an obvious falsehood to reduce her activities to the Russian Bolshevik revolutionary movement. However, a mass of quasi-literature has been written along these lines, and unfortunately, its false constructs continue to resonate in our consciousness and even in the school curriculum.

We need to put aside any political considerations regarding Lesia Ukrainka and study her as she was, seeing the entire landscape of the 20th century at its very beginning. She saw it in a real way. She made multiple trips to Egypt and witnessed the consequences of events in the Bosporus which later became known as the Balkan Wars and which heralded the First World War. She already perceived and felt that the world was shifting into a perilous, problematic direction.

At some point, one landlord said to Lesia Ukrainka: “Why do you keep writing about the figures in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Jews, and again the Jews?” Her mother echoed the question: “That’s why I also say: Lesia, why do you keep writing about these Jews?” Lesia kept silent and finally said: “If this keeps up, mother, it won’t be long before the Ukrainians are eliminated.” Then she got up and left. This conversation took place precisely 20 years before the Holodomor.

These are just a few episodes in the life story of the great Ukrainian poetess, and they need to be most thoroughly interpreted and presented free from any political and ideological biases and without any isms, because Lesia Ukrainka is one of the most powerful figures in world literature.

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