Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:


February 25, 2021, marks the 150th birthday of the modernist poet at the top of the Ukrainian literary canon, Lesya Ukrainka (Larysa Kosach, 1871–1913). Having chosen, at the age of 13, the pen name “Ukrainian woman,” she went on to reinvent what it meant both to be a Ukrainian and a woman.

. . . .

“I am quite well aware that this is impudence,” she admitted with a sense of delicious irony in a letter to a friend, interlarding her mock-confessional Ukrainian with German words and quotes from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, “yet ’tis ‘has been pronounced on high’ that I must mit Todesverachtung throw myself into the maze of global themes […], which my countrymen, except two or three brave souls, dare not enter.”

As a modernist, she broke with literary tradition in two significant ways. First of all, she rejected a provincializing paradigm imposed upon Ukrainian culture by the Russian Empire. During her time, the only acceptable image of the colonized people was that of ignorant peasants, and stir Ukrainka’s fancy it did not. A polyglot in command of nine European languages, she populated her poetic dramas with archetypal characters from classical mythology, Scripture, medieval legends, and Romantic poetry. Twining Ukrainian anticolonial subtext and European cultural context, Ukrainka also undermined the masculinist underpinnings of some familiar plots. A turn-of-the-century writer in a ruffled-collar blouse, she revised the key myths of Western culture from a woman’s point of view, venturing into literary territory later to be explored by second-wave feminists.

. . . .

Ukrainka’s poetic drama Stone Host (1912) became the first story of Don Juan in European letters written by a woman. Tirso de Molina, Molière, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Lord Byron, and Alexander Pushkin were among her predecessors. Ukrainka’s version transforms the fabled libertine, the great Romantic sinner and seducer into his supposed conquest’s plaything. Donna Anna is the unmistakable New Woman of the fin de siècle, albeit dressed in Spanish courtly garb. Confused by her rationality, Ukrainka’s Don Juan cries out, “You are indeed stone, without soul or heart,” only to hear in response, “Though not without good sense, you must admit.” Don Juan agrees to sacrifice his freedom and become Donna Anna’s sword in the fight for the throne. Donna Anna’s manipulative power compensates for her overall powerlessness within a male-dominated society, which can silence her no longer. Ukrainka’s heroines seize the right to tell their stories.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG doesn’t wish to rain on the triumphant parade of Ukrainica’s heroines, but must point out that Joseph Stalin did a pretty thorough job of crushing millions of Ukrainian women and men during the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine (The Holodomor, “to kill by starvation” or Terror-Famine).

Powerlessness is not always gender-related.

Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933. In Famine in the Soviet Ukraine, 1932–1933: a memorial exhibition, Widener Library, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard College Library: Distributed by Harvard University Press, 1986. Procyk, Oksana. Heretz, Leonid. Mace, James E. (James Earnest). ISBN: 0674294262. Page 35. Initially published in Muss Russland Hungern? [Must Russia Starve?], published by Wilhelm Braumüller, Wien [Vienna] 1935.

1 thought on “Lesya Ukrainka’s Revisionist Mythmaking”

  1. “Joseph Stalin did a pretty thorough job of crushing millions of Ukrainian women and men during the 1932-33 Ukrainian famine” Indeed, and kept Ukrainians from discussing it in public until Ukrainian independence. I once gave a copy of Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow, along with some other Western books about Ukrainian history, to a Ukrainian scholar. Later she said, without a trace of sarcasm, and with a bit of sadness, “You know more about our country than we do.” Of course I didn’t, but it was another lesson, to me, of how one of the original “cancel cultures” was able to “dumb down” its citizens.

Comments are closed.