Lesya Ukrainka – Gifted Writer and Loyal Activist

Best known by her literary penname, Lesya Ukrainka is remembered as the foremost female writer in Ukrainian literature, as well as being counted among the top poets and writers of either gender in Ukraine. She was also known as an activist for the advancement of political, civil and women’s rights. Her place in Ukrainian history is commemorated with a number of monuments and statues in Ukraine, as well as in other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union, and even as far afield as Canada and the United States. Her likeness also appears on the 200-hryvnia banknote issued by the National Bank of Ukraine in 2007.

Born Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka on 25 February 1871 in the Ukrainian town of Novohrad-Volynskyi, to Petro Antonovych Kosach and Olha Drahomanova-Kosach, Lesya Ukrainka had a number of influential people to mentor her from a young age. Her mother was better known by her penname Olena Pchilka, and was a publisher, writer, interpreter and civil activist, and her mother’s brother (Lesya’s uncle) was renowned scientist, philosopher, historian and public figure, Mykhaylo Petrovych Drahomanov. Lesya’s father, Belarusian by birth, was a strong advocate for the progress of Ukrainian culture, providing financial support for publishing Ukrainian literature. Her brother, Mykhaylo, also gained recognition in the literary world where he was known by the penname of Mykhaylo Obachny.

During Lesya’s childhood, Russian was the primary language in public education. To ensure that their children gained a proper appreciation for the Ukrainian language, it was the only language spoken in the Kosach home, with Ukrainian tutors seeing to their educational requirements. With such individualized attention, Lesya Ukrainka could read by the age of four, and learned to read in a number of languages, enabling her to read great literary works in the languages in which they had been written.

Lesya was eight-years-old when she wrote her first poem Hope, and by the time she was thirteen her poem Lily of the Valley was published in a journal in Lviv under her penname. When she was seventeen-years-old, Lesya and her brother worked together to establish a literary association to promote Ukrainian literature and culture, as well as to encourage translation of great literary works into the Ukrainian language. As a prolific writer, many of her works were published in her lifetime, with her love poems inspired by Serhiy Merzhynsky whom Lesya met in 1897, but sadly died of tuberculosis in 1901, being published after her own death in 1913.

As a member of Ukrainian organizations and actively opposed to Russian tsarism, Lesya Ukrainka completed the translation of the Communist Manifesto into her mother language, and was under surveillance by tsarist police after her brief arrest in 1907. In 1907, she married Klyment Kvitka, living for a time in Crimea before moving to Georgia. The life and works of Lesya Ukrainka are well documented and remain as a tribute to her contribution to Ukrainian literature and identity.