Book Launch at Ukrainian Community Society of Ivan Franko, Richmond, B.C.

Ivan Franko Talk

by Roma Franko

Roma Franko and Sonai Morris at book launchDelivered at a book launch on Nov. 4, 2006, sponsored by the Ukrainian Community Society of Ivan Franko, Richmond, B.C.

Пане пресіднику, шановні пані і панове!

Мені надзвичайно приємно бути тут сьогодні, щоб разом з Вами ушанувати пам’ять нашого геніяльгного поета Іван Франка.

Честь і шана Вам, що ви не забуваєте про цього небувалого письменника, про цю людину енциклопедичного розуму, про цього чоловіка, що жив для свого народу, що плакав і радів з ним, що віддав йому всю свою парцю, усе своє життя, що дав світові тi шедеври—його поеми Панські жарти, Смерть Каїна, Іван Вишенський, Мойсей;  ті неповторні Бориславські оповідання; ту глибоко-хвилюючу драму Украдене щастя; ті захоплюючі так звані дитячі оповідання: Лис Микита, Коли ще звіри говорили; ті незлічимі поезії, між якими є його коротенький віршик, яким учив своїх сучасників і нас: не пора, не пора, не пора, Москалеві й Ляхові служить.

Час мій обмежений, і я не можу говорити про всі ті літературні твори,  твори світової слави, що нам їх лишив наш незабутній Франко, але Ви їх знаєте, Ви їх читали, і  тому Ви сьогодні зібралися  тут так численно, щоб ще раз вклонитися перед цим титаном слова перед цим світочом
у нашій часто не дуже веселій історії.

Шира подяка Вам за те.

I must admit that when I sat down a few days ago to gather my thoughts together about what I might say to you today, I really did not know where to begin. The very thought of trying to say something about a man of so many accomplishments was enough to make me want to throw up my hands in despair and say “forget it!” What could I possibly add to all the scholarly works, the books, the articles that have been written about him—why, in one book alone there are 4,830 entries of works that have been published about him  . . . and that includes only publications that cover a span of 18 years, from 1956-1984.

But then I remembered that as a young university student more than five decades ago, when I resided at the Petro Mohyla Institute in Saskatoon—where, by the way, I was destined to meet and later marry my own Franko—we had a society called the Kameniari, named, of course, after one of Ivan Franko’s most famous poems that he wrote when he was a young man of 22, and translated variously as The Stone Crushers, The Highway Builders, or The Pavers of the Way. And I recalled how inspirational that poem had been to us as young students, how for many of us it served as a beacon to guide us along the way as we dedicated whatever talents we possessed to serving our country and to working within our Ukrainian community.

For, as most of you know, Franko’s Kameniari is a poem that depicts men bound together in chains, who see themselves as the voluntary slaves of liberty, men who selflessly undertake the backbreaking and often thankless task of crushing the rocks of, ignorance, injustice, exploitation . . . of shattering the oppressive mountain of autocracy and repression, and of paving the way to a brighter future for their descendants.

And, as some of you are probably aware, it is this most fitting image of a stone crusher swinging a large heavy hammer that serves as a monument on Franko’s grave in Lychakivsky Cemetery in Lviv, for that is who Franko was—a man who laboured mightily, who devoted his talents, his energy, his health . . . his entire life to building a better future for his beloved nation.

As I pursued my studies of Ukrainian literature, I was mesmerized by this writer, this Ivan Franko, this man who, like Shevchenko before him, flashed like a comet into the darkness in which his oppressed people struggled, but who, unlike a fleeting comet, illuminated the skies of Ukraine for more than forty years as he lit and paved the way for his contemporaries and for those who came after him. He was one of those phenomena that appear only rarely in the history of mankind—and how fortunate it was for Ukraine that he appeared when he did.

The more that I learned about Franko and the many, many obstacles that he had to overcome along the way, the more amazed I was at how nothing, absolutely nothing, deterred him from living up to the goals, the commandments, as he called them, that he had set for himself: the first—to never lose sight of the deep and abiding obligation that he felt he had to try to ameliorate the lot of the peasants, the common people from which he himself came, and second—a firm resolve to work, to work unceasingly, unremittingly.

And it is his unswerving commitment to those two commandments, and his amazing accomplishments in the face of adversity, failure and defeat that I want to focus on today.

Given the times in which he lived, Franko’s life started out auspiciously enough. He was born into a peasant family eight years after serfdom was abolished in 1848. His father was a blacksmith, illiterate but natively intelligent, and it was in his father’s smithy, the gathering place in the village, that Ivan heard his father’s stories about the past, about serfdom—stories that he later incorporated into many of his works. And it was from his mother, thirty years younger than his father and a gifted singer that he heard countless folksongs, the rhythms and cadences of which he later drew upon in much of his poetry.

Fortunately for Ivan, his parents recognized his exceptional abilities, and so, at the age of six, they sent him to a school in the village of his mother’s brother, a literate peasant who taught Franko to read in just a few days.

This rapid acquisition of reading skills was tangible evidence of how gifted Ivan was intellectually. In school and through his own efforts, he learned Slavic, Western European, and Classical languages and he could write freely and idiomatically in several of them. He was a voracious reader in all these languages and his photographic memory virtually turned him into what could be called a human computer who could recall whatever he had read.

For example, it took him only a single reading of Shevchenko’s book of poetry, the Kobzar, to commit most of it to memory. And his phenomenal memory stayed with him even in his later years. There is an account of how, in 1912, when he was already quite ill, he was invited to attend a lecture in Odessa about the sources of the ancient chronicles written by Nestor, and after the lecture he quietly rose to his feet and stunned the entire audience when he made his incisive observations about the lecture by flawlessly quoting entire passages from Greek, Latin, and Hebrew classical writers.

And so it was that, thanks to the foresight and support of his parents, his father who died when Ivan was nine, and his mother who died when he was sixteen, he was given the opportunity to scale the heights of knowledge, whereas—and I find this almost impossible to believe—his younger brother Zakhar, who lived until 1941, by his own admission, never even tried to learn to read and write, even though Ivan offered to teach him. Talk about opposites!

While still in secondary school, Franko began gathering folklore, translating from world literary masters—Shakespeare, Goethe, Heine, Zola—and writing his own poems; apparently, he often wrote even his assignments in versified forms. He sailed through his examinations without ever having to study, because he could repeat almost word for word the content of his teachers’ lectures.

When, at the age of 19, he enrolled at the University in Lviv on a scholarship to study classical philology and Ukrainian language and literature, he joined the Academic Circle and the editorial board of the journal Druh, (The Friend or Companion) in which he began publishing his own poems, short stories, articles of literary criticism, and translations of world classics.

And it was at that time that his troubles began. Coming from a peasant family and having not only seen but experienced the great inequities in society, the corruption and heavy-handedness of the authorities, and the hard lives of the peasants, lives marked by poverty, drudgery, and hopelessness, the young Franko readily embraced the ideas of Mykhaylo Drahomaniv who, with his Westernizing views about social justice and his empathy for the underprivileged and the exploited, prodded both the intellectuals and the common people with his impassioned writings and speeches in an attempt to rouse them out of their complacency, to have them look realistically at the evils of the society in which they lived, and to take it upon themselves to address the immediate needs of the peasants, of the common people.

Understandably, these views were not looked upon kindly by the authorities, and Franko’s endorsement of these views and his involvement in the political arena got him arrested three times: in 1877 he spent nine months in jail after being accused of belonging to a secret socialist organization; in 1880: he was jailed for three months for his active political work; and in 1889 he spent two and a half months in jail—and he never did find out what the reason behind that arrest was.

If these arrests and incarcerations were intended to curb Franko’s literary activities and to discourage him from continuing his active involvement in the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party that he helped to found, in actual fact they had just the opposite effect. Remaining true to his self-imposed commandment of work, unceasing work, he spent his time in jail collecting folksongs and stories from his fellow prisoners, reading whatever he could lay his hands on, and writing some of his best-known poems and prose works that were inspired by his prison experiences.

And, upon his release from jail, he plunged once more into the political fray, crisscrossing the country to give talks at meetings and rallies, publishing pamphlets, and writing his hard-hitting articles and his satirical stories about the political, economic and social ills that permeated the society of his day. Later in his life, he actually ran as a candidate of the Radical Party for election as a deputy to the Austrian parliament, but here he met with failure. Thwarted by the underhanded machinations of his opponents, he was unsuccessful in his three bids to become a deputy between 1895 and 1898.

Despite the fact that his three arrests did not curtail either his literary or political activities, they did have a devastating effect on his personal life and on his academic career.

Let us look first at his personal life. After his release from jail, he was shunned by “society” in Halychyna (Western Ukraine), people were reluctant, even afraid to talk to him, and still more devastatingly, his youthful romance with Ol’ha Roshkevych, his first love, was brought to a heartrending conclusion when her father forced her to break off all contact with Franko and marry another man.

Unlucky in love (but then, are poets ever lucky in love?), by the time that he got married, Franko had “lost” three such loves: his first love, Ol’ha Roshkevych; Yuzefina Dzvonovska, a teacher who died of tuberculosis; and Celina Zhurovsky, a Polish woman with whom he fell desperately in love even as he was marrying Ol’ha Khoruzhynska in 1885.

Well, Franko’s loss was Ukrainian literature’s gain, for his three unsuccessful love affairs, especially the last one that haunted him for the rest of his life, gave rise to one of the most intensely lyrical and beautifully crafted cycles of poetry in Ukrainian, and possibly, even in world literature: Ziv’yale lystya: Withered Leaves. In its three fascicles (zhmutky), Franko bares his anguished soul and gives voice in turn to his most intimate, tender feelings of love, his highly charged amorous longings, and finally his yearning for death and the oblivion of Nirvana.

As it turned out, Ol’ha Khoruzhynska, the woman that he married and whom he respected and admired even if he did not passionately love her, was, in many ways, a highly suitable match for him. Certain elements of society in Halychyna never did accept her, because she was from Kyiv, which was then in the other Ukraine, the “Russian” Ukraine. But she was attractive, a good singer, a hard worker, and she shared his views, edited his works, took on the role of publisher, encouraged him to go to Vienna to get his doctoral degree, and helped him financially with her dowry. Unfortunately, a dozen or so years after they were married and had four children, she developed a mental condition and had to be hospitalized for long periods of time, and yet she outlived Franko by twenty-five years, dying at the age of 77 in 1941.

Let us take a brief look now at Franko’s academic career. His arrests made it amply clear to both him and his supporters that, as a person who was politically suspect, he could no longer aspire to a teaching position. Never one to give up a fight, however, Franko persevered with his university studies; when he was not allowed to finish his undergraduate degree at the University of Lviv, he completed it at the University of Chernivtsi.

In 1893 he went on to the University of Vienna where he received his doctoral degree with great distinction. Upon his return to Lviv, he applied for a position at the University of Lviv and gave a brilliant introductory lecture that gained grudging admiration even from his detractors. The University Senate and the assembly of professors enthusiastically endorsed his appointment, but the university administration denied him a position because of his unsavoury political past.

Did this setback—and it was a very real setback, for it not only denied Franko the opportunity to pass on his ideas directly to a younger generation, it also denied him a steady income that would have freed him from financial worries and allowed him to pursue his academic interests—did this setback put a stop to his scholarly endeavours? Not at all. He continued publishing scores of groundbreaking works based on his research in such diverse fields as ancient and mediaeval literature, philosophy, modern literature, economics, literary criticism, sociology, ethnography, folklore, the history of the peasant movement in Halychyna, and Ukrainian linguistics.

It was for his work in Ukrainian linguistics that, on the occasion of his 50th birthday, Franko received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Kharkiv in 1906; but even after this recognition, when he once more applied to the University of Lviv a year later, he was rejected yet again! Ironically, it is this university that now bears his name.

While busily engaged in writing his superb literary works, doing academic research, and being actively involved in politics, Franko eked out a meagre existence by serving as a newspaper reporter and as a hardworking, multitasking editor of various understaffed journals and newspapers, including Polish ones. It was in these publications that he published many of his literary works, his articles and commentaries on every aspect of public life in Halychyna, and his prose and poetry translations from 14 languages. Incredibly, he also found the time to belong to numerous Ukrainian associations and cultural organizations, and, in due course, he became a full-fledged member of a number of the most prestigious learned societies of his day in Lviv, Vienna, and Prague.

In 1908, Franko became seriously ill, and he had to travel to various sanatoriums for treatment. True to his nature, however, he did not let his illness interfere with either his literary or scholarly productivity. He had his eldest son Andriy travel with him, and at those times when he could not write himself, he dictated to him whatever it was that he happened to be working on—either literary or scholarly.

The last three years of Franko’s life were sad ones indeed. In 1913, his son Andriy died of complications from a head injury that he had received many years earlier. Ailing and partially paralysed, and having to spend much of his time in a hospital, Franko had to place his wife in a mental institution and send his daughter Anna to live with relatives in Kyiv. And his other two sons, Taras and Petro, were engaged in fighting in the First World War.

But did any of that stop him from working? Not at all. Now that his right hand was paralyzed, he learned to write, albeit laboriously, with his left hand. In a letter dated March 24, 1915, to his daughter in Kyiv, he wrote:

“I am carrying on with my literary work on a daily basis, and I am happy that I can at least print with my left hand. During the past couple of years, I have completed quite a stack of manuscripts that are ready, or almost ready, to be published. I am working so as not to waste any time; I have no way of knowing what fate awaits the written word in our country, but I remain firm in my belief that a great future lies ahead of it.” 

Sadly, Franko died all alone in his home, but I find solace in the thought that he must have died happy, secure in the knowledge that he was much loved by many and that his work was greatly appreciated, for he had been fortunate enough to have had his mammoth contributions to world literature, culture and scholarship publicly recognized during his lifetime.

In addition to receiving the Honorary Doctorate from the University of Kharkiv, he was made an honorary member of the Shevchenko Scientific Society in 1899, and there were gala celebrations on the 25th anniversary of his literary career in 1898, and on the 40th anniversary in 1913.

On both these memorable occasions he received tributes and accolades not only from his fellow Ukrainian writers and countrymen, but also from distinguished writers and scholars from other countries. At the banquet on his 25th Anniversary he thanked those gathered with a most moving speech, and I have translated a few excerpts for this occasion:

          “When I cast my eye over all those assembled here today, I have to ask myself: Why has such a large and distinguished company gathered here? I do not think that it is because of me. I do not consider myself to be such a great talent, or such a hero, or someone with such an exemplary character that I would be able to elicit such a warm reception. For twenty-five years I was only a baker who baked bread for daily consumption.

          “I always placed the main emphasis on the attainment of universal rights, for I knew that people, in gaining universal rights, gain national rights as well. And as for myself, in everything that I have done, I strove not to be a poet, or a scholar, or an activist, but first and foremost I strove to be a man.

          “Of course, there are many errors in what I have done—but is there anyone who, in the course of accomplishing something, has not erred? But today I am able to look calmly at those errors, because I know that they have served me, and perhaps others as well, as a warning and as a lesson.

          “And as for myself personally, I have always maintained: let my name perish, but let my Rusyn-Ukrainian nation grow and prosper!”

In his talk, Franko still used the term Rusyn nation to refer to Halychyna, but he always maintained that a Ukrainian nation state, uniting Western Ukraine (Halychyna) that was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Eastern Ukraine that was under the control of Russia, was imperative. It was his firm conviction that only if this happened would Ukraine and the Ukrainian language come into their own—a lesson that, looking at the somewhat discouraging events in a now united and free Ukraine, is as timely today as it was then.

Franko’s accomplishments are truly incredible! Present estimates tally his written output at well over 6,000 items, including his lyrical, social, epic, and philosophical poetry, his short stories, novels, dramas, and translations; his scholarly works, his articles, and the voluminous correspondence he conducted with the leading minds of his day.

But a final count has yet to be made, and the 50-volume set of his collected, works published in Soviet Ukraine is said to contain only about half of what he actually wrote. And this was before typewriters were in general use, let alone computers; when he wrote everything out in longhand using a pencil or a straight pen. It’s simply amazing, indeed it is almost incomprehensible that one man living in such straitened circumstances could have accomplished so much!

In concluding, I must say that I was thrilled to find out that there was an Ivan Franko Society in Richmond. I do not know who decided to name your organization in his honour, but I tip my hat to that person or to those persons who did it, for if anyone deserves to be remembered and honoured it is Ivan Franko. And I’m sure that today there is a smile on Franko’s face and a twinkle in his eye as he looks down at this wonderful banquet that you have organized to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his birth

You  know, every year we set aside a special day to commemorate the life and works of Taras Shevchenko, of Lesia Ukrainka, and rightly so, for they richly deserve to be remembered and honoured. And your society remembers and honours Ivan Franko. But I’ve often wondered: what do the rest of us, as a Ukrainian community in Canada, do to honour Ivan Franko, Ukraine’s greatest man of letters? In most of our halls his picture hangs alongside those of Shevchenko and Ukrainka, but why do we stop at that?

I remember our parents (Sonia’s and mine), some sixty years ago, staging Franko’s dramas in the small town of Canora, Saskatchewan. I remember his poems being recited at various academies and concerts. I remember hearing the songs that Ukraine’s foremost composers wrote based on his lyrical poetry. I remember listening in on the heated discussions that our parents engaged in with their friends as they discussed Franko’s often-controversial views on this or that topic.

That generation carried the torch and held it high, and it is our hope, my sister’s and mine, that by adding our translations of Ivan Franko’s works to those that already exist, we will at least, in some small measure, help to pass Franko’s torch to our future generations and to the wider English-speaking world.

Long live the memory of our Kameniar, Ivan Franko!
Long live the inspired works of Ivan Franko!
And long live the Ukrainian Community Society of Ivan Franko!



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