Lesia Ukrainka - Restoring a Ukrainian Icon

Sasha Dovzhyk hails a Ukrainian writer whose powerful resistance to Russia more than a century ago has even more relevance today

In February 2021, Ukraine celebrated the 150th anniversary of the iconic feminist and anti-imperialist writer Lesia Ukrainka (1871–1913). To mark the occasion, the Ukrainian Book Institute published her Complete Works, collecting her entire output of poems, plays and prose fiction. The books were distributed to 223 libraries across the country. And yet, several things got in the way of my encountering the edition in its physical form: first the pandemic, then Russia’s all-out escalation of its criminal war against Ukraine.

I finally saw the fourteen volumes in April this year in the Children’s Library of the frontline city of Slov’iansk in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. The library’s windows were blown out and covered with plywood. The sound of not-so-distant fighting was discernible during the periods of silence between air raid alerts. The library was not in operation. Lesia Ukrainka’s Complete Works were proudly displayed between world and Ukrainian classics but there were no young readers around to discover them.

The comprehensive scholarly edition of the canonical Ukrainian writer was much needed after decades of Soviet censorship followed by decades of financial constraints on publishing in a newly independent Ukraine. Unable to disregard the author of Lesia Ukrainka’s magnitude entirely, the Soviet ideologues belittled her significance by reducing her to a fighter for the rights of the proletariat and an author for kids. In 1970, a literary prize named after Lesia Ukrainka was established for the best works in children’s literature. Although a collection of children’s folklore was among her myriad activities, they were nowhere near the centre of her achievements.

Among other works, the academic edition of 2021 reproduces the poetic historical drama Boyarynia (written in 1910), Lesia Ukrainka’s critique of seventeenth-century Muscovy, its chauvinistic barbarism, and its subjugation of Cossack Ukraine. The drama’s heroine Oksana travels to Moscow with her new husband who believes he can advance Ukraine’s political interests while serving at the tsar’s court. The couple’s path is that of disillusionment and disempowerment.

Lesia Ukrainka’s anti-colonial message is sharpened by her feminist approach: it is women's freedoms which she presents as a core split between Ukrainian and Muscovian cultures. Able to lead an active life in her homeland, Oksana is deprived of her voice and agency in the profoundly alien Muscovite society where her status is reduced to that of a wife. Looking at Muscovy with Oksana’s eyes allows Lesia Ukrainka to shatter the colonial myth of eternal kinship between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples which was honed by the imperial ideologues at the time of writing.

Boyarynia was unsurprisingly excluded from the post-war Soviet editions of Lesia Ukrainka’s writing. It appeared in the 2021 Complete Works with extensive academic commentary next to previously censored or little-known letters and articles which were filled with the writer’s witty, erudite, and disdainful remarks about the Russian Empire.

During her lifetime, the Russian Empire dominated most of Ukraine. Lesia Ukrainka’s essay titled ‘La voix d’une prisonnière russe’ (‘The voice of a prisoner of Russia’) is an illustration of her attitude to Russian culture. Ukrainka wrote it in response to the grand celebrations of Nicholas II’s visit to France in 1896 but the piece was only published in Ukrainian translation in 1947 when it could be presented as a critique of tsarism.

Since the full-scale invasion, Ukrainka’s critique remains relevant as a response to the admirers of the ‘great Russian culture’ globally who use it to absolve the Russian people of collective responsibility for the slaughter of Ukrainians:

“My glorious brothers, do you know what poverty is? The poverty of a country which you call great? This is your favourite word, this poor word ‘greatness’, the taste for which the French are born with. Yes, Russia is huge, one can send a Russian into exile to the end of the world without throwing him outside his country’s borders. Yes, Russia is huge: starvation, ignorance, villainy, hypocrisy, and tyranny with no end in sight, and all these great misfortunes are huge, colossal, and grandiose.”

In the tenth year of Ukraine’s current resistance to Russia’s neo-colonial invasion, these mocking words of the turn-of-the-century Ukrainian writer read as true as ever.

Ukrainka’s literary disciple and member of the Complete Works’ editorial team Oksana Zabuzhko described the publication as “the completion of Lesia Ukrainka’s de-communisation”. Another editor, the prominent literary critic Vira Ageeva, called it the “evidence of the maturity of Ukrainian culture”. Clad in noble blue velvet with Ukrainka’s name embossed in silver font, the fourteen volumes present Ukraine’s national pride incarnate.

In May 2023, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence published a photo from a military hospital. It showed two famous lines from Lesia Ukrainka’s poetic drama Forest Song (1911) tattooed on a soldier’s bandaged arm: “No, I’m alive! I'll live eternally. I have that in my heart which cannot die!” (translation by Percival Cundy). The writer, who described living with tuberculosis of the bones as her “thirty years’ war”, was intimately familiar with the transcendence of physical limitations and overcoming bodily suffering. This experience has become familiar to her entire nation as it resists Russia’s genocidal onslaught.

Today, Lesia Ukrainka speaks to us not only from the cloth-bound volumes but also from half-destroyed Ukrainian libraries for children and the bleeding bodies of Ukrainian defenders. With the exception of Nina Murray’s translation of the poetic drama Cassandra (2022), two North American collections of 1950 and 1968, and a dozen excerpts published in the London Ukrainian Review in 2022, she still speaks to us in Ukrainian alone. For more than a century, Lesia Ukrainka’s voice has been silenced and her greatness veiled by a culture which uses its literature for imperialist propaganda and justifications of genocide.

While Russians put up the portraits of imperial and appropriated writers we are accustomed to calling ‘great’ over the sites of mass murder, such as the air-bombed Mariupol Drama Theatre, we in the temporary safety of the West have a duty to finally uncover the culture of Ukraine which Russia has been trying and failing to erase for the past 300 years.

Dr Sasha Dovzhyk is special projects curator at the Ukrainian Institute London and Associate Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, UCL. She is a researcher on a Visiting Fellowship, sponsored by the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna