In Ukraine, the foremost woman poet and playwright is Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka, but she is much better known by the pen name her mother gave her: Lesya Ukrainka (Lesya of Ukraine)—a name as highly recognizable as her famous braided hair. Lesya Ukrainka is seen everywhere on statutes, postage stamps, paintings, films, and certainly in books by and about her.
Her very name “Lesya Ukrainka” was itself a brave and radical act for identifying as a Ukrainian during the oppressive regime of Imperial Russia which considered Ukrainian nationalism and the language as subversive and treasonous.
Lesya Ukrainka was born on February 13, 1871, in Novhorod-Volynsky, Russian Empire (now Ukraine), in a family of intellectuals, political activists, and writers. Her mother, a feminist, wrote short stories for children and poetry in Ukrainian.
Lesya was a brilliant child who learned to read at four, and easily learned several languages including German, Russian , Polish, Greek, Latin, and English, but she spoke and wrote in the forbidden Ukrainian language at home.
At eight years old, she wrote her first poem, “Hope” for her Aunt Olena who was arrested for her anti-Tsarist politics.
At twelve she contracted tuberculosis of the bone. She studied to be a concert pianist, but was unable to practice for long periods and turned her full attention to writing and translating. She published her first poem the following year. At seventeen, she and her brother translated Dickens, Shakespeare and other classic writers into Ukrainian and gave private readings—another subversive act.
In 1893 at age eighteen she published her first book of poems in Ukrainian, On the Wings of Songs. She was not allowed to publish it in the Russian Empire, and instead had it published in Western Ukraine which was then under the Austo-Hungarian Empire. Risking her life, she had the book smuggled into Kyiv.
Lesya’s illness prompted her parents to seek cures in Western European countries, in the Caucasus, and Egypt where she keenly observed the different cultures, especially how women were treated—all of which heightened her political awareness towards issues of social alienation, feminism, loneliness, and in particular, national liberation.
In 1902, while at a sanatorium, she fell in love with a young man who was also afflicted with tuberculosis. At his deathbed, she wrote a masterful poem in one sitting, “The Possessed.” The following year, she translated “The Communist Manifesto” into Ukrainian, which led to her arrest and imprisonment in 1907.
Inspired by Biblical and other ancient texts, Lesya wrote several plays that reflected the Ukrainian struggle, but is best known for directly including Ukrainian history, folk legends, and songs in the play, Forest Song (1912), followed by The Noblewoman (1914). She was also instrumental in preserving Ukrainian folk songs along with her husband, Klyment Kvitka.
Lesya died in Surami, Russian Empire (now Georgia) on August 1, 1913 at the age of 42 as Ukraine’s foremost woman writer and global shero.
Written for Sheroes of History by Irene Zabytko. She is the author of the Chernobyl novel, The Sky Unwashed, and the short story collection, When Luba Leaves Home (both by Algonquin Books) and is filming a documentary about Chernobyl (www.lifeinthedeadzone.com). Her one-act play about Lesya Ukrainka is part of the 365 Women a Year project, which is an international playwriting project involving over 200 playwrights who have signed on to write one or more one-acts about extraordinary women in both past and present history.
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You can hear Lesya’s actual voice singing here.