Ivan Franko’s Timeless Words Craft a Ukrainian Portrait

Trudging along a Kyiv street, a man in a long dark coat with books and newspapers swinging from the buttons, whispers madly to no one in particular. Crowds of people along the pavement separate like water around dangerous rocks allowing the lonely man to pass.

It is 1914 and the man is Ukrainian writer, Ivan Franko. Tormented by physical pain and insomnia, with his sight failing rapidly, Franko, the man people skate around on the street was not mad in his final years but desperate. “My main torment is not the physical pain that I continuously suffer from – my torment lies in my inability to finish the work I have begun. There are so many ideas and projects that have accumulated in my head – and they do not want to go with me into my grave,” Franko once argued passionately.

Born to a village blacksmith and a mother with the blood of petty nobles, Ivan Franko is perhaps the most prolific Ukrainian writer ever to live. Author of over 4,000 books, essays, articles, scholarly musings and epic poems, Franko believed that being a writer was not simply a calling but a form of sacrifice to the culture of one’s nation, and was fiercely committed to the Ukrainian nation. Indeed, more than any particular brand of political ideology, though, Franko, like the poet Taras Shevchenko, embraced Ukrainian patriotism and sought to spread the complexity of Ukrainian culture and art throughout mainland Europe. Ironically beleaguered by doubts about his true calling as a writer, Franko still believed in the unrelenting power of the artist and poet to save the human condition from the devastating volcanic emotions of life, he wrote: “Life is short but art is eternal. And the creative potential is boundless.”

Franko’s poem, Moses, written in 1905, is considered to be Franko’s own autobiography, identifying with the biblical character’s punishment before reaching the Promised Land. Progressive paralysis of his hands and failing eyesight may have contributed to his passionate display on the page. When Franko’s Moses declares – “All my life I have been giving you my labors with irrepressible vigor – And you will go on your journey through the centuries with the stamp of my spirit on you.” – perhaps, this tired and distressed writer was looking into a crystal ball seeing the beginnings of an independent future for his beloved country.