There’s been a tendency to let the story of Ukraine be told by those who know the country only from afar, if at all. A nation without a state, Ukraine was spoken about as an object, and not included in the conversation as an equal. After the country regained its independence in 1991, things didn’t change much: even at the time of Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution, Western media covering the protests were often reporting from Moscow, not Kyiv. Getting placenames spelled correctly in world media was always a struggle: Kyiv, not Kiev. Ukraine, not ‘the’ Ukraine. Odesa and Donbas with one ‘s’. Hear us! That is how we choose to be named.
Everything changed on 24 February 2022. Ukrainian voices started to be sought after. ‘No conversation about Ukraine without Ukraine’ became the new slogan. But as is often the case with slogans, the words and deeds don’t always match. Ukrainians were expected to be emotional while talking about Russia’s brutal full-scale invasion. And ‘emotional’ meant ‘not rational’. They were perceived much like feminists who criticise the patriarchy: they can’t be objective about the thing they are fighting against! And so ‘Western’ experts could be frequently seen to follow the emotional Ukrainian ones to offer an ‘objective’ view of the situation.
In truth, amid the brutality that Russia continues to inflict on Ukraine, it is precisely remaining unemotional that should be surprising. The experience of fighting against oppression should count as a form of knowledge not only because it has emotional value, but for its epistemological significance.
Those who learned the story of Ukraine from Ukrainian sources, both historic and contemporary, were not surprised to see Ukrainians as a nation that has a clear sense of self, that stands united in the face of an enemy. They expected to see Ukraine defiant, because Ukraine’s history, culture and literature are steeped in defiance.
Larysa Kosach (1872–1913), known under her pen name Lesia Ukrainka, is an embodiment of this defiant tradition in Ukrainian culture. A modernist writer, anticolonial thinker, and pioneering feminist, she shook the foundations of Ukrainian literature at the turn of the twentieth century. If her native language had not been suppressed by the empire, her voice would have resonated worldwide.
This special publication of the London Ukrainian Review sheds light on this revolutionary woman’s contribution to the global literatures of resistance. It features eleven original and never previously published translations of Lesia Ukrainka’s work, all of which were shortlisted for the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize, run by the Ukrainian Institute London in 2021 to mark the 150th anniversary of Ukrainka’s birth. These new translations include the winning entry by Nina Murray and two runner-up entries by Daisy Gibbons. This publication would not have been possible without the dedication of the jury members of the Translation Prize: Halyna Hryn, Sasha Dugdale, and Uilleam Blacker. We are also very grateful to Uilleam Blacker for his support in the production of this publication.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was Ukrainka. At the age of 13, Larysa Kosach signed her first published works not with her family name but with the pseudonym which literally means a ‘Ukrainian woman’. At the time of her poetic debut in 1884, the Ukrainian state did not exist. Ukrainian lands were divided between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. In the Russian Empire, literary writing in the Ukrainian language was a risky adventure. Works in Ukrainian went through an arduous process of censoring. Translations of world literature into Ukrainian were banned as it was crucial for the imperial ideology to preserve the status of this language as a regional dialect not fit for ‘high culture’. The pen name chosen by Larysa Kosach linked her fate to the fate of a stateless nation, to a country which the visionaries among her peers were only willing into existence.
The anticolonial defiance of Lesia Ukrainka’s work relates not only to the choice of language but also to the choice of themes. She offered a Ukrainian perspective on the topical problems of the European fin de siècle, including the Ibsenian themes of heredity and mental illness, political questions of chauvinism and nationalism. She probed a new language to express intimate female friendship. She rejected the provincial, rural, backwater image of Ukraine imposed by Russian imperialism and dealt instead with the archetypal characters and themes of world culture, from the Bible to Shakespearean motifs. She accompanied the anticolonial subversion with a feminist one, revising those stories from a woman’s point of view.
Lesia Ukrainka’s poetic drama Cassandra, written in 1907, is a case in point. It rewrites the story of the siege of Troy focusing on the character of a woman who sees and speaks the truth but whose prophecies are either feared or dismissed. Ukrainka’s centring of Cassandra is a knowledgeable undermining of patriarchal expectations. As one of the drama’s patriarchs tells the heroine, ‘you come spinning — this is good, and to be frank, appropriate for a maiden. Much more becoming than to prophesy’. However, the power of Cassandra is the power of knowledge — of silenced history. This history is made by ‘the nameless womenfolk who’d made much harder and unsung-of sacrifices’. Through Cassandra, Lesia Ukrainka rewrites the classical war epic to shed light on the unsung heroines of the past who bore witness to the suffering of others.
For Ukraine, the character of Cassandra is painfully relevant. Since the Russian invasion in 2014, Ukrainians have been warning the world that this war of aggression would grow bloodier and uglier if Russia was not stopped. 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 not only to listen to ‘Ukrainian Cassandras’ but to also lift the curse of disbelief in their knowledge.
Learn more about Lesia Ukrainka
The Unknown Feminist of Fin-de-siècle Europe: Lesia Ukrainka includes highlights from the discussion of Lesia Ukrainka’s life and work. The event was held by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with the British Library on 16 November 2021.
Feminism, Modernism and Resistance to Empire in Ukraine: The Case of Lesia Ukrainka is a discussion between Tamara Hundorova’s and the translator of her latest book Lesia Ukrainka: The Book of the Sybil , Uilleam Blacker. The webinar was organised by IWM and moderated by Katherine Younger.
Lesia Ukrainka: Fin-de-siècle Ukrainian Feminism is part of the short film series 10 Things Everyone Should Know About Ukraine, made by the Ukrainian Institute London in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute and H.S. Pshenychnyi Central State Film, Photo and Sound Archive of Ukraine.