Thirty-one years since Ukraine regained its independence, and six months to the day since Russia escalated its eight-year long war to engulf the entire country, it is high time to hear and believe ‘Ukrainian Cassandras’.
The winner of the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize run by the Ukrainian Institute London in 2021 is Nina Murray’s excerpt from Lesia Ukrainka’s poetic drama Cassandra (written in 1907). In this play, the author chooses to tell one of the keystone myths of western culture, the story of the siege of Troy, from the point of view of a woman, the Trojan princess and prophet Cassandra. For the translator, Lesia Ukrainka’s exploration of the credibility of a woman as a producer of knowledge remains ‘highly relevant and compelling’.
The runner-up of the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize (2021) is Daisy Gibbons who submitted excerpts from Lesia Ukrainka’s tale ‘By the Sea’ (written in 1898, published in 1901). The tale is based on the author’s experience of staying in Crimean health resorts where she crossed paths with Russian tourists and patients. The heroine’s subdued frustration with one of them is in contrast with her contemplative connection to nature. ‘By the Sea’ raises the questions of imperialist chauvinism, national identity, and political solidarity.
Lesia Ukrainka’s correspondence with another pioneering feminist writer of the Ukrainian fin de siècle, Olha Kobylianska, reveals a search for a new model of female solidarity. The letters are a testament of an intimate friendship between two women authors who broke with patriarchal limitations on a professional, personal, and textual level. As the translator Daisy Gibbons explains, Ukrainka’s letters depart from linguistic norms by ‘using the genderless, coded voice peculiar to the authors’ correspondence that confuses writer and addressee. […] This is the first publication of the English translation of this letter that we are aware of’.
Lesia Ukrainka’s first prose drama The Blue Rose explores the vital topics of the European fin de siècle: heredity and madness, female hysteria and sexuality. It is an important example of the New Drama situated at the intersection of Symbolism and Naturalism. As the translator Lidia Wolanskyj explains, the chosen scenes relate to ‘the climax of the play, when the hero’s mother tries to dissuade him from his relationship with a young woman’ who has a family history of madness ‘and then the hero and heroine […] try to hang on to their ill-fated love’. The symbolic blue rose of the title stands for ‘attaining the impossible’.
Lesia Ukrainka wrote her Woman Possessed at the very turn of the twentieth century and at the bedside of her dying friend. An emphatically modernist text, it marks a rupture with the nineteenth-century literary traditions not only for Lesia Ukrainka but for Ukrainian literature in general. In this first of her poetic dramas, Lesia Ukrainka shifts the focus of the founding narrative of Christianity from Messiah to his impassioned disciple, the New Testament’s Miriam.
The poem ‘I wish this stream would carry me away’ was first published in 1901 and then reappeared in the collection On the Wings of Songs (Na krylakh pisen, 1904). Lesia Ukrainka employs the image of Ophelia which, according to the translator Iryna Shuvalova, reveals the writer’s ‘Neoromantic fascination with what in her time would be described as the Western canon’.
In 1896, Lesia Ukrainka wrote ‘City of Sorrow’ about the patients of a mental health clinic. It was published in the collection of her works in 1929. This short story is based on the author’s stay in the town Tworki near Warsaw where her uncle worked as the head doctor at the psychiatric hospital Warszawska Lecznica dla Obłąkanych.
This 1897 poem is dedicated to Mykhailo Kryvyniuk, a Social Democrat, Lesia Ukrainka’s friend and would-be brother-in-law, who was imprisoned in 1896 for his political activism. As the translator Bohdan Pechenyak points out, the poem got a second life when it was put to music by the Lviv band Korolivski Zaytsi.
The Neoromantic Forest Song is the most famous of Lesia Ukrainka’s poetic dramas, first published in 1912. The translator Eriel Vitiaz presents a selected passage about dreams drawing attention to the ability of the Forest Song’s heroine ‘to paint mesmerising pictures with words, pictures that show us glimpses of a different world where everything is more vibrant, more pronounced, and (in a way) more real’.
In Soviet Ukraine, Lesia Ukrainka’s poetic drama Forest Song has been presented as a naïve folk tale, while the more radical aspects of the drama, including Ukrainka’s subtle commentary on female agency, creativity, and embodiment, were overlooked. The translators Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps chose to render the work ‘in an English that would sound natural when spoken by young actors of diverse backgrounds and could easily be understood by an English-speaking theatre audience’.
Having chosen, at the age of 13, the pen name ‘Ukrainian woman’, Lesia Ukrainka went on to reinvent what it meant both to be a Ukrainian and a woman, dismantling the patriarchal foundations of Western literature along the way. In this article, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books to celebrate Lesia Ukrainka’s 150th birthday in February 2021, Sasha Dovzhyk shows how the author used revisionist feminist mythmaking to revolutionalise Ukrainian and European literature.
On the anniversary of the momentous referendum on the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, this special publication of the Ukrainian Institute London takes stock of what makes Ukraine – thirty years young and feisty – a treasure trove of untold stories.
The Ukrainian Studies programme at the University of Cambridge will enable students to study Ukrainian language, culture, and history at the highest level for as long as the University exists. One of the key people responsible for this achievement is Rory Finnin, the Founding Director of Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, whose career became linked to Ukraine in what he describes as a ‘wonderful twist of fate’. Editor of the London Ukrainian Review Sasha Dovzhyk talks with him about the challenges of advancing Ukraine as a field of study on the international level and the lessons that Ukraine can teach the world.
While the thirtieth anniversary of Ukrainian independence invites us to reflect on what has been achieved so far, the issue which is likely to define the next three decades for Ukraine and the rest of the world is climate. For the first time in history, Ukraine has committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and saying goodbye to coal. With the planet already 1.1°C warmer compared to the pre-industrial era, climate negotiations in Glasgow became an endurance test for global efforts to keep the rise in temperatures at a relatively safe level of 1.5°C. For Ukraine, this means modernising the economy, insulating buildings, and transforming whole regions where life revolves around coal.
Why did Ukrainian poets long to die in Paris at the end of the Soviet era? And how did the yearning for Europe manifest itself in the literature of independent Ukraine? Dr Uilleam Blacker explores three thriving decades in the history of Ukrainian literature, from a symbolically significant poem ‘We Will Not Die in Paris’ by Natalka Bilotserkivets and the experiments of the ‘Bu-Ba-Bu’ group to the powerful new war writing by Olena Stiazhkina, Serhii Zhadan, and Olesya Khromeychuk.
Like the country itself, Ukrainian cinema has gone through periods of stagnation in the 1990s and creative search in the 2000s, as well as a remarkable revitalisation after the Euromaidan revolution of 2014. Throughout the years of independence, Ukrainian filmmakers approached the question of national and cultural identity in diverse and surprising ways. Professor Vitaly Chernetsky surveys the films of the last three decades and draws attention to the linguistic and stylistic choices which have shaped Ukrainian identity on screen.
Olena Stiazhkina’s new novel takes the reader to the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, which has been the primary target of the Russian offensive since 2014 and remains occupied to this day. Debunking stereotypes about local identities, Stiazhkina draws attention to the Soviet roots of this ongoing tragedy. Born in western Ukraine, Mariana Matveichuk examines her changing ideas of Donetsk and reads Stiazhkina’s novel as a hopeful roadmap to a personal deoccupation.
On 7 September 2021, the world’s leading contemporary dance theatre Sadler’s Wells hosted a spectacular evening of Ukrainian ballet, brought to the United Kingdom by Olga Danylyuk and Ivan Putrov. The first of its kind in London, the Ukrainian Ballet Gala proved to be an example of how art can shape new cultural narratives and help Ukraine reclaim its cultural identity.
‘Over the years of my life in the UK, I defended my identity, resented it, hid it, altered it. I might not have known how to love my homeland properly, but I knew I loved it’. Olesya Khromeychuk explores migration, identity, and belonging in the opening piece of Ukraine at 30.
‘It is surprising what the prospect of losing your home to the imperialist fit of a neighboring country can do to your sense of the very place you scorned and fled’. Sasha Dovzhyk interweaves her story of homecoming with a history of Ukrainian steppeland.
‘Sometimes, I want my language to be just language. Not a weapon, not a treasure, not the tongue of guelder rose. Not a thing to fight for. Not a thing to fight with. A thing one uses mindlessly, like when we scratch our head with our hand’. Iryna Shuvalova considers the politics and poetics of the Ukrainian language.