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 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’.
15 August 1901
To someone beloved, dear, and glorious!
Someone thinks it’s such a nuisance that their long (far-too-long) letter to someone else has been lost in the post. It’s a pity this letter – with all its rubbish writing! – has been lost, and it’s even more of a pity that someone else is probably now cross, thinking, ‘That fairest one is wicked – they couldn’t even get together a single letter!’ Only someone isn’t wicked: they did write the letter; it’s the postal service that’s the wicked one, crawling along like a snail and still losing letters along the way. If the letter had been lost at any other time, then no bother: but now of all times, when someone is so vexed by me, when one must be very attentive to someone and not do anything ‘wicked’ to someone – then this just will not do. Someone doesn’t want their letters going missing – someone doesn’t want this at all!
This letter here will be sent to Chernivtsi; maybe it will get there soon. Oh, this postal service of ours!! If one could tell someone something that could cheer them up, and they would be cheered up, then someone would tell them now with all their soul; but what can one do, when there aren’t enough words to do this… Well, someone will still say this to stop someone else calling themself ignoble, since someone dislikes this so, and it is untrue, so untrue – someone is only saying such a thing out of self-pity. There was no such ignobilité or faiblesse here, and there is no point in torturing and making a martyr of oneself, and if the ‘bear’ really wants to punish someone for one of their letters (doesn’t matter which; none of them deserves punishment) he won’t torture someone at all, whereas he’ll be too ashamed to speak, and the bear will be a true dumb ‘beast’ in the full sense of the word!
No, I wouldn’t have expected a ‘bear’ (I don’t think) to get married in order to ‘kill’ someone: such a French-style ‘marriage of spite’ is far too foolish; well, it’s not even a French sort of thing, because the French only marry out of spite when someone has betrayed them – in this case it’s as if he’s found a wife to spite someone’s love and sincerity, someone’s excessive softness, tenderness and conscience, and that is something truly unheard of on this earth. It is merely either some ‘bearish’ nonsense (some truly awful and foolish nonsense, at that) or the repayment of an old debt to some petty merchant’s daughter, who hasn’t the gentle touch of a certain someone – when she gets her hands on people, she ‘sinks her claws in’!
I worry that someone may find having everything written black and white here, all schwarz auf weiss, rather coarse and uncomfortable. The flowering fern is too extraordinary a plant for those around: this is the chief misfortune, and it is too difficult for ‘bears’ to understand this phenomenon. Someone must not punish themself, but save themself: go to Vienna – they shouldn’t pine after anyone while abroad, but give themself new experiences and new interests. Someone is not forged from the ignoble mass; they are from a noble line, and because of this the fire will only harden them, not break them. It’s not an easy thing to say, ‘I shall endure all’, but someone should say this to themself, like that someone has said in similar circumstances, and then they should spread their wings and fly up high; to a place where not only bears cannot climb but where eagles will not fly, and though it may be a little cold and lonely up there at first, other lofty travellers may still perhaps meet there and light a great fire together, from which sparks will fall all over Ukraine.
Someone shouldn’t torture themself, nor should they think they’ve been humiliated. How have they been humiliated? Because they dared to deviate from the usual etiquette? Because they expressed themself bravely and sincerely? Because they gave up their passive role and wanted to decide their own fate, despite the risk of ruining it? What is so humiliating about that? Has someone ruined someone’s life? Have they made a fool out of anyone? Have they ‘seduced’ anyone? Did they go looking for a partner? There is nothing to be ashamed of, but if someone’s pride has been hurt, then this is only natural and appropriate, since someone has the right to be proud. If someone is unhappy, then they must be proud, otherwise they won’t be able to stand with honour. Not every person finds it easy to be told he is unhappy; but someone can be told this here, since they cannot fear words when they don’t fear the thing itself. Someone oughtn’t say the words, ‘they cannot go on living’ etc., for the fairest one will only cry. Someone must have the courage to live: that is the pinnacle of all human courage. Someone still knows that they have not lost anyone forever, meaning that the worst hasn’t happened. Everything shall pass, and only one truth shall remain, and when someone rises high, high above, then from there all ‘bears’ will seem small. Not everyone has what someone has, someone has a spark in their heart, a fire in their soul, and this may not give them happiness, but it gives them something greater and higher than happiness, something that has no name in human language. Is this not the truth? Surely?
Oh, how detached this is, without any accompanying tone of voice, no body gestures, nor silences, all just written here schwarz auf weiss. And if someone and someone else were here now, they would go together to the river Cheremosh, right now, on this darkest of nights, and they would listen to the roar of the water; they would look at the stars piercing through the dark clouds and they would remember together, silently, without saying a word, the very worst and the very best times of their lives; their gazes and hands would meet in the darkness, and it would be quiet, so quiet, apart from the roaring of the river… Then someone could return home a little less sorrowful. But what about now? Is someone less sorrowful? Does someone hear how much someone loves them? Someone puts someone at the forefront of their mind and tries to defend them from anything that may hurt or offend them, but in vain. Someone shouldn’t despise themself; someone should let themself cry when they are sad; but they should not punish themself, for this causes someone else pain, great pain… No, no, someone need only stroke them very, very gently and say nothing at all, and someone else will know someone else’s thoughts.
P.S. Mr Kvitka says hello to someone. Details on our life here will be in another letter – now it is late, it’s time for sleep, and the post leaves early tomorrow.
Someone is healthy enough, and they are well. My sincerest regards to St Anna, your brother, all the family, and to my darkest daughter. I will come in September.
12 November 1901
Now and as always, someone still loves someone just like before, and if they could they would even ‘make the sky bow down’ for someone else, but sometimes they cannot write how they’d like: a limp, a headache, or various unnecessary thoughts might interfere with them so someone ends up writing something pale, apathetic and not at all like how they feel about someone, not in the way they love someone! And if they were with someone now, they wouldn’t need to sit and smear their pen upon the paper, instead they’d lie down next to someone, they would soothe and caress them, without saying much, perhaps, but they’d say more than in this unintelligible letter!
Someone should write to me and tell me how someone is, how their affairs are, how Chernivtsi is or if it really is appalling, and tell me everything they’d like to say to someone else. They should write to someone and tell them if they really are cross at someone – surely they don’t really think someone is that ‘wicked’? Someone is very afraid of this, so afraid they might even cry. But if someone saw my life, then they wouldn’t be surprised by such lethargies… Oh, oh, someone is so tired, someone must go to bed now (not to sleep, it’s daytime, just for a lie down).
Someone dearly asks someone else to send them a card, if they could, or not be too cross with them.
Everyone here and the Drahomanovs bow to you.
Someone asks to send their regards to St Anna and all the family and all other acquaintances. But one does not send their regards to the bear, because they don’t love him, rather like Miriam didn’t love the disciples – oh, how unloved he is!… Hugs and kisses.
P.S. Would someone be so kind as to ask Mr Simovych why he won’t reply to me and what he’s planning to do with my collection of poems? My friend from Lviv wrote to him and he also hasn’t received a reply. I begin to think that either my poems have gone missing somewhere, or Mr Simovych is unwell; either outcome is equally undesirable. If my poems are still to be published, then I ask you to correct one mistake: I forgot to put my ‘Dedication to our comrade L. Starytska-Cherniakhivska’ under the titles of the poems ‘Legends’ and ‘Tragedy’, but that’s what it should look like; I am asking Mr Simovych to put this dedication in at the end in its proper place. I would write to Mr Simovych myself, if I knew whether he was in old Chernivtsi or not, or whether he had changed address. Bow to him from me and tell him to send back at least a word or two to the ‘talentless poet’ whose works he’d apparently like to publish.
1 January 1902
Italia, San Remo, villa Natalia, Corso Cavallotti
…What is my dear someone writing for their short story? Won’t they at least tell someone what the theme is? Or are they afraid of plagiarism?! Is someone’s great novel being printed there? Someone hasn’t seen it in Visnyk journal – what’s happened to it?
Didn’t someone tell someone else that someone dark was not only going to write a lot, but they were going to write even better than before? Someone knows it already… The fern flower hasn’t been totally crushed by a ‘bear’ paw: it’ll wither a while and then bloom once more, when the magic hour arrives, when the spirit reveals its power in the middle of the dark night, when the light-flame rises suddenly upwards from the earth, towards the sky, towards uncharted realms. This always happens.
Someone received someone’s letter in Kyiv, but they had no time to reply, since they were getting ready to travel. Someone wanted to write a whole letter from Venice as well, but couldn’t, since they only stayed a day there and moved on, and they were a little tired. Someone wanted to describe their trip to someone, but couldn’t, because it was very long and couldn’t convey it here well either. Someone will tell someone all this when they see them, and some of this might even appear somewhere in someone’s writing. Someone also would like to see Rome and Florence; maybe they’ll see them on their route back, but they still think these places won’t be much better than Venice, since she seems to be the best place in the world, grand empress of the sea and of beauty.
Someone also thought up another little dramatic sketch to accompany Miriam, but they don’t know if and when they’ll write it, not having the strength now. They’ll write it one day. Someone asks to bow before the whole family and send their greetings. How is St Anna’s health?
Well, one should finish one’s letter sometime. Someone should dash off something quick, then someone else can write back, since they’re ready to write back already.
Someone would like to kiss someone else, and caress them, and say many things, and see many things, and think many things with them…
Image: Olha Kobylianska and Lesia Ukrainka. 1901, Chernivtsi. Postcard series ‘Ukrainian writers’, published by Ia. Orenshtein.