On February 25th Ukraine celebrates the 150th birthday of one of its most remarkable female intellectuals.
Lesia Ukrainka (1871-1913) is the pen name given to Larysa Petrivna Kosach-Kvitka by her mother, who encouraged her writing and creative passion. Her uncle, Mykhailo Drahomanov wrote that he wanted to make Lesia into “a fully mature person and a fighter”.
On the 150th anniversary of her birth (February 25, 1871), the last seven years of which have been spent fighting a war against Russian invasion and aggression, Lesia Ukrainka’s poetry translates the patriotic, albeit sorrowful, words of all Ukrainian soldiers when she writes:
“Our death will teach others how they ought to live.”
Historically, passages from Lesia Ukrainka’s writing have often been used to boost the morale of the Ukrainian soldier. An interesting aspect to the self-identity of Ukrainian soldiers is that in their courage, humility and devotion they have always placed themselves under female patronage.
In her iconic poem Against all Hope I Hope, Lesia speaks of “laughter through tears” and “singing in the midst of misfortune”. The laughter she has in mind is not irrational or vulnerable, but rather a strong defence against violence and pain. It is a catharsis that moves one to action, similar in defiance to Shevchenko’s “I am punished, I suffer, but I am not repentant”.
Yes, I will laugh despite my tears, I’ll sing out songs amidst my misfortunes; I’ll have hope despite all odds, I will live! Away, you sorrowful thoughts!
Lesia’s “laughter through tears” is likewise more universal and relevant to the Ukrainian experience than what is sometimes referred to as the source of that phrase, a quote from Mykola Hohol’s Dead Souls about his solitary life as a writer in which he is fated “to survey (life) through the laughter that all can see and through the tears unseen and unknown by anyone”.
Simon of Cyrene, From Where Will Come Our Strength? with its theme of resilience in the face of enduring hardships could be applied to the determination of the Ukrainian soldier who fights for his Homeland and saves his wounded brothers-in-arms in their time of need.
From Where Will Come Our Strength?
“You, there!” cry the praetorian guards
“Get up at once!”
“Did you fall asleep?”
Their whips unfurl through the air like serpents
Red streaks emerge as stains
Seeping through his clothes
The unfortunate man manages a belaboured reply
“The cross is too heavy for me…
I have no more strength.”
He then collapses face first into the dusty road
The praetorian guard raises his whip,
But halts mid-swing when
Someone unexpectedly grabs
“And who are you?” shouts the soldier
“How dare you?”
“I am the carpenter.
This cross is so heavy
Because of me
That is why I must carry it now
Let me take it!
I won’t charge any money for this work.”
No one stops him
He reaches for the cross
The hunch in his carpenter’s back
Now distinctly straightens
His taut and leathered hands engage the task,
His eyes ignite once more
With a gaze that had only just recently
The worker directs the cross
With the vigorous fire of a deep
And profound grief,
Step by step,
Everything he has ever known
Pales in comparison
To this task.
Edited by: Christine Chraibi
Lesya Ukrainka monument in Lutsk.
Article by Jeffrey Stephaniuk