Olha Kobylianska Lecture by Roma Franko at UWAC Saskatoon Branch

Olha Kobylianska

Excerpted from a speech delivered by Roma Franko to the Olha Kobylianska Branch of UWAC in Saskatoon, February 13, 2000.

Madam Chairperson, Reverend Father, dear members of the Olha Kobylianska Branch of the Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada, and guests.

I consider it an honour to have been invited to speak to you today. As some of you know, my mother was a member of this Branch, and even though her health does not permit her to be here with us now, I feel very strongly that she is with me here in spirit.

It was my mother who first introduced my sister and me to Olha Kobylianska; when we was growing up there were very few children's books available in Ukrainian in our small town of Canora, Saskatchewan, and I remember very well all the "grown-up" Ukrainian books that Sonia and I had to struggle through as we read aloud to our mother while she worked at her sewing or did whatever else she had to do.

One of the books that we liked best was Olha Kobylianska's Tsarivna-The Princess. Young as we were, we were moved by this author's stirring account of the proud, intelligent, and highly moral young woman who is the story's main character. It was only later, of course, that we fully appreciated the fact that Tsarivna was one of the first attempts by a Ukrainian author to write a psychological novel.

When I went on to study Ukrainian literature, I read more of Olha Kobylianska's works and found that they focused primarily on the unhappy lot of the disadvantaged members of society. In her stories, she spoke passionately about human dignity and the worth of every individual, regardless of gender or status, and vigorously championed the idea of equal rights. Kobylianska saw women from all walks of life as sadly lacking in basic rights, and she wielded her pen with determination and courage to better their lives.

In her stories, Koblyianska spoke passionately about human dignity and the worth of every individual, regardless of gender or status, and vigorously championed the idea of equal rights. Kobylianska saw women from all walks of life as sadly lacking in basic rights, and she wielded her pen determinedly to better their lives.

Kobylianska wanted to see women treated as equals in every sphere of human experience:

  • she wanted them to be free to lead independent, meaningful, and satisfying lives;

  • she wanted them to have the same educational and professional opportunities as their brothers and husbands;

  • she wanted them to have the right to own property, make contracts, vote, and hold office;

  • and, most of all, she wanted to see them spared the humiliation, the abject self-degradation, of being forced to marry "for a crust of bread."

Where did she get these ideas? Where did she get the courage to challenge the fundamental societal values of the day?

After all, even in Canada women at that time were viewed as "the weaker sex," and it was not until 1918 that they became persons under the law and were given the right to vote. Until then, they were lumped together with "idiots, lunatics and criminals," all of whom were denied rights under the law.

Who was this woman that all of us have seen in photographs-the woman with those soulful eyes and unsmiling lips?

To gain an understanding of Olha Kobylianska and to fully appreciate her writing, we have to take a closer look at the family into which she was born-the family that indelibly shaped her, the family whose lives she wove into the fabric of her stories. As she herself said: "My personal experiences played a significant role in my writing."

Olha's father was a descendant of the Ukrainian gentry and was entitled to have a coat of arms. His ancestors, however, had never bothered claiming this patent of nobility, and when the authorities and others nobles advised Olha's grandfather to see to it that his only son received it, he responded indifferently: "He'll get along quite nicely without it; he's got a good head."

Until the age of 14, Olha's father studied in a Basilian school. That year, after his father's death, he left home and earned his living as best he could by tutoring and doing odd jobs. Fortunately, his keen intelligence, superb voice, and exceptional musical talent came to the attention of a priest who took him under his wing. With the priest's assistance, he learned German-the working language of the government, public institutions, and schools in Bukovyna under the Austro-Hungarian Empire-and completed enough courses to qualify for an administrative position in local government.

On her father's side, Olha's mother, Maria Werner, descended from a German family that had emigrated from Germany and settled in Halychyna. Her great grandfather built pianos, and another of her ancestors, Zakhariy Werner was a famous German poet and dramatist who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century. On her maternal side, Olha's mother was a descendant of a well-placed Polish family, the Kuchmanovskys, that had emigrated to Halychyna.

Olha's parents were married on July 20, 1856. Their union was blessed with seven children-five sons and two daughters. All the children were gifted in one way or another-they had obviously inherited the best traits of their ancestors-and all of them were hardworking and ambitious like their father, and loving, kind, and gentle like their mother.

The oldest son, Maksym, was five years older that Olha; he became a lawyer, but he also studied the violin for a few years, and wrote original musical compositions. He became Olha's mentor, critic and supporter, bringing home books from the university for her to read, and teaching her during his summer vacations.

The second son, Julian, was a year younger than Maksym. He became an erudite linguist and lexicographer who wrote high school textbooks, and compiled the first ever Ukrainian-Latin dictionary in 1907, and the first Latin-Ukrainian dictionary in 1912. In addition to helping Olha with her studies, he enjoyed acting, and took part in plays and concerts with his two sisters.

The third child in the family was a daughter, Yevheniya, who was two years older than Olha. Her father, noticing her exceptional talent for music, bought a piano and arranged for lessons for her when she turned nine. Within a few years, she became an accomplished pianist who was much in demand both as a solo performer and as an accompanist for singers. She tried her hand at writing and collected folk songs and stories about peasant life, some of which Olha later incorporated into her works. Unfortunately, Yevheniya was not overly healthy and, after she married and had children, her career as a pianist was cut short.

The fourth and middle child in the family was Olha.

Three years after Olha's birth, the third son, Stepan, was born. He enrolled in a military school at the age of 12 and, during his visits at home, taught Olha how to ride horseback-a physical activity that brought her tremendous enjoyment. Stepan was a talented painter who received formal training in art at the military academy, and a number of his paintings are found in the Olha Kobylianska Museum in Chernivtsi.

The youngest sons, Oleksandr and Volodymyr were, respectively, 12 and 14 years younger than Olha. This age difference, along with the fact that her mother's health was declining by then, placed much of the burden of raising the two boys on Olha's shoulders.

Oleksandr became a lawyer and took an active interest in promoting Olha's career as a writer. Volodymyr, the youngest and, perhaps, the most brilliant of all the children, earned his Doctor of Laws degree, collected folk songs and folklore, and shared many of Olha's interests. He never married and continued to live with Olha and their parents; he was Olha's favourite brother and her soul mate. His death from tuberculosis at the age of 32 was a tragic loss for her.

In the Kobyliansky home Ukrainian was spoken, along with Polish and German. In the schools, however, German was the language of instruction, and so, although all the children spoke what could be called everyday Ukrainian, they used German when they wrote, when they discussed the German books and newspapers that they read, and when they talked about matters of a broader interest with their friends and colleagues.

As a child, Olha was very popular because of her vivid imagination. She would gather other children around her and tell them fantastic stories that fell under the broad title of "What I Dreamt," stories in which riding recklessly on horseback and flying away on the backs of birds figured prominently.

From the time that she was a little girl, Olha also liked to draw and paint, and she remained passionately committed to art until the age of 15, when, despairing of ever receiving any instruction, she gave it up completely. From her autobiography written five decades later, it is evident that she still harboured some resentment that, unlike her brother Stepan, she had not received instruction in drawing and painting, and had not had the time and the opportunity to develop her talent.

Like all her siblings, Olha loved music and had a talent for it. She played the piano, sang duets on stage with her brother Julian and incorporated her fascination with gypsy music into several of her works.

In addition to singing on stage, Olha and her siblings took an active interest in local drama groups and appeared in numerous operettas and plays. One day, when Olha was desperate to earn some money with which to buy books, she decided, on the basis of her stage experience, to write to the Ukrainian theatre in Lviv to see if they would accept her as a professional actress. The letter she received in reply from the director was positive, but there was a little problem-her parents had to sign a consent form saying that she had their permission. Just the *bought of approaching her conservative parents was enough to deter Olha from pursing the idea any further and so, tucking the director's letter into her pocket, she sadly gave up her dreams of becoming an actress.

Olha's desire to buy more books at any cost reveals her unshakeable determination to educate herself. Her parents, like most parents of that time, were committed to ensuring that their sons obtained a higher education even if it was a financial drain on their resources. When it came to their daughters, however, they felt that a minimal amount of schooling sufficed, and therefore Olha's formal education ended at the age of fifteen. Her older brothers tried to help her satisfy her thirst for knowledge by bringing her books and teaching her during the holidays, but, even though this may have been enough for some girls, it did not satisfy for her.

Her determination to gain an education led her to dream up a rather bizarre scheme that she later recounted in her autobiography: "There was a time that, simply for the sake of acquiring an education, I was ready to marry an eccentric old scholar. You see, I had heard about him and knew that he had an extensive library and occasionally went on extended journeys abroad. And so, without ever having seen this old man, I wrote a letter to him in which I proposed marriage to him, justifying my actions by my burning desire to become an educated person who could then serve society. It was only a chance intervention by my sister that this letter did not get mailed to him-otherwise, who knows how my life would have turned out. With my idealistic views on life at that time, there is no doubt that I would have given my hand in marriage to him-and, as I later found out, he would have gladly accepted!-and all because I had such an intense longing to study with this erudite man and to expand my world view."

Olha never did marry, even though, as her diaries reveal, she was attracted by a wide variety of men-from peasants to lords-and, during her late teens and early twenties, there hardly was a time when she did not have a crush on someone. However, she was not interested in getting married just for the sake of being married. As she herself said, she wanted more from life: "Among my girlfriends and acquaintances-of whom I did not have all that many-there was not a single one to whom I could bare the secrets of my soul. Their goal in life was to find a man, get married, and nothing more. I, however, did want more. I craved a broad education, knowledge for its own sake, and a much wider field of activity than the one my friends dreamt of and talked about."

Olha deeply resented the fact that, just because she was born a girl, she had to spend long hours doing "women's work" for a family of nine.-work that included cooking: (on a wood stove), doing the laundry (by hand), washing dishes (no dishwashers), cleaning house (no vacuum cleaners), working in the garden and putting away fruits and vegetables (no corner grocery with fresh vegetables all year round), sewing, and embroidering.

Whatever time she could spare from these menial chores, she devoted to reading. She had learned to read Polish as a young child, studied German during her brief school career, and then took private lessons for a couple of months to learn how to read and write Ukrainian. The library in the small town where she lived had a fairly good collection of German-language books, but almost nothing in the way of Ukrainian reading materials, and her parents' finances were too limited to permit her to buy Ukrainian books or to subscribe to Ukrainian newspapers.

Finding no one with whom she could share her innermost thoughts, Olha, at the age of fifteen, began keeping a secret diary in which she recorded her thoughts and feelings, as well as incidents that she later used in her stories. It was in the diary that she began writing her first poems, poems that she wrote in German, the language of her intellectual life. "I began by writing verses, but soon turned to dreaming up short stories. The reader will forgive me for using the expression 'dreaming up.' The idea of writing short stories and novelettes awoke within me all by itself-I had no formal instruction in writing, and no guidance whatsoever. I did not even know what the word 'literature' meant, because in the elementary school I attended no mention had been made of the history of literature, and so I turned to literature without knowing what I was doing, just as a blind person instinctively turns to a source of light, warming himself in its golden rays.

"My mind was swarming and bubbling over with ideas until I scarcely knew where to begin. And so, in the dark of the night, when I was certain that no one could see me, I sat and wrote until sunrise. And I can only say now: `God, how wonderful and holy those nights were, those nights that flew by as quickly as birds on the wing.'

"Back then, it was my imagination that dictated my stories, novelettes, and verses. I did not know as yet that a writer must turn to real life for his stories; I was uneducated and young, a wild romantic who was locked up, one could say, in the forests and the mountains, who looked to the depths of the forest for inspiration. And oh that forest . . . no matter how often a young breast called out to it in a yearning voice that longed for life-it continued rustling but did not respond. With a sense of sadness, I gradually came to understand its rustling."

At first, no one in Olha's family was aware that she was writing poems and stories; indeed, Olha lived in fear that her literary efforts would be laughed at by her parents and siblings, so she wrote her works in secret in her little room and kept them well-hidden from prying eyes. It was the arrival in their small town of Dr. Okunevsky and his daughter Sofiya, that opened up a whole new world to Olha. Sofiya Okunveska (her married name later in life was Morachevska), was a well-educated young woman who studied abroad and became one of the first women doctors in the Austrian Empire.

Through Sofiya, Olha became acquainted with a relative of Sofiya's, Nataliya Kobrynska, a leading Ukrainian woman writer who lived in Chernivtsi. Sofiya, and Nataliya were the first two people in whom Olha confided her dreams of becoming a writer, and it was after meeting them that she mustered up her courage to show them her fledgling literary efforts.

The reaction of the two women was positive and supportive, but they both drew Olha's attention to the fact that, as a Ukrainian, she should be writing in Ukrainian, not in German. To encourage and assist her, they promised to provide her with books and other materials written in good Ukrainian so that the budding young author could improve her rather rudimentary knowledge of the language.

Olha took their advice to heart and began working assiduously on her Ukrainian language skills. In the meantime, however, she continued writing in German-she simply was unable to refrain from writing until such Time as she knew Ukrainian well enough. For her, writing was as necessary as breathing-she could not live without it.

Sofiya, who had travelled in Italy, visited Vienna, spent time in Lviv, and studied in Switzerland, acted as a true mentor to Olha, generously sharing with her the experiences and the knowledge that she gained through her travels and her studies. Sofiya and Nataliya also introduced Olha to the women's movement in which both of them were heavily engaged.

Olha readily admitted the influence that these two women had on her: "Later, when I was eighteen or nineteen, I fell under the influence of Nataliya Kobrynska and Sofiya Morachevska and was caught up in the idea of the emancipation of women; I dreamt of becoming a great and heroic figure for women, of freeing them from the shackles that bound them."

With time, Olha's romantic, idealistic views gave way to reality; she realised that the path to the liberation of women was a long and difficult one that no one woman could accomplish on her own. She did, however, include the themes of women's rights and the equality of women in most of her stories.

Despite Olha's fervent desire to write in Ukrainian and to devote her talent to her country and her countrymen, there were moments when she despaired of ever learning Ukrainian well enough to use it in writing her stories. At the age of twenty-two she wrote: "I've decided that when I'm in Chernivtsi, I'm going to take Ukrainian lessons so that I can become more proficient in the language. 0 God, I have so much that I want to do, and so much that I have to learn, but I'm already twenty-two years old!"

By the time she was in her late twenties, Olha saw herself as an old woman with no chance of marrying, and she was viewed by at least some of her friends and colleagues as a prissy old maid. There was one writer, Osyp Makovey, a handsome man in the prime of his life, with whom Olha carried on an extensive correspondence and in whom she quite obviously had a romantic interest. However, even though he admired her in many ways, he was leery of becoming involved with her.

When pressed by a friend to reveal his true feelings about Olha, he said that he was not indifferent to her, but he was afraid that if he were to many her he would not enjoy any freedom in his own home. "A man," he said, "wants to walk about in his own house without having to wear a suit coat; he wants to take off his shoes if they're pinching him-but with her, that would not be permitted! And, to make matters even worse, a man would have to walk around the house on tiptoe."

While the image conjured up by Makovey may have been exaggerated, there is no doubt that Olha's refined sensibilities did set her apart from other young women from an early age. Even as a child she was repulsed by coarse or vulgar words and actions, and, to escape from the harsh realities of small town life, she often escaped into the mountains and the forest where she communed with nature.

By the time that Olha was in her mid-thirties, her novelettes and collections of short stories were beginning to attract more and more attention. One of her fans was Lesya Ukrainka, who was then in her late twenties. Wanting to send Olha a letter, but not knowing her address, Lesya enclosed a letter addressed to Olha to one of her friends and wrote him a note asking him to forward it: "I beg you, please forward my letter to Miss Kobylianska. I'm sure you know her address. She probably has no idea as to who I am, so please be so good as to tell her a bit about me. I've been following her literary progress for quite some time now, and I find her very interesting, both as a writer and as a person. Her writing is true literature, and not the work of a dilettante. When I read her collection of short stories, I felt uplifted-as if I had broken free of the hospital in which I'm now lying and scaled the mountain heights."

Upon receiving Lesya's letter, Olha replied at once, and thus began a close friendship, and a most interesting, intimate, and voluminous exchange of letters that lasted until Lesya's death in 1914. Unlike some Ukrainian writers and critics who chided Olha for her close ties to German literature and for having written some of her works in German, Lesya rose in Olha's defence, as indicated in her rebuttal to one of them: "As for Olha Kobylianska's close association with German literature, I am of a different opinion than you. Her knowledge of German literature did not destroy her as a writer-it opened up to her the wider world of European philosophy and literature; it permitted her to have access to ideas, it taught her about elements of style; and, by stimulating and enriching her intellect, it prepared her to serve her people consciously and wisely."

At the age of forty, Koblylianska suffered a stroke, became partially paralysed, and had to use a cane. Although her physical disability curtailed her participation in community activities, it did not dishearten her or keep her from her beloved writing.

In her lifetime, Kobylianska experienced many bitter, heart-rending moments, not only in her personal life but also in her career as a writer, as there were many times when she was accorded a less than favourable reception by conservative literary critics. In addition, even though she herself was not a healthy woman, she found herself in the unenviable position of burying, over the years, all the members of her immediate family as well as many of her friends and more distant relatives.

That Kobylianska managed to survive physically and keep up her spirits, despite all her losses and the poverty to which she was reduced in her later years, is a tribute to her innate courage and her unwavering belief that the good moments in one's life will always outweigh the bad. As she herself said: "We should never have any regrets that fate has taken away from us something that we wanted; never!-because fate never takes anything away from us without giving us something in return. At times, we may not notice that we have been given something else, because often this something new does not arrive until long after we've overcome our grief and our sense of loss for what was taken away. Or we may not notice it simply because it comes in very small doses, pike tiny little pearls. But those pearls can be so precious that they become a veritable treasure to us, a treasure that lasts our entire lifetime."

There is no doubt that, for Kobylianska, the treasure that sustained her all her life was her writing. She poured tier heart and soul, her hopes and her dreams, her moments of joy and her times of despair into her stories. Whether writing about the intelligentsia or the peasantry, she wove into her prose her boundless love of nature, tier intolerance of all forms of oppression, her belief in the inherent goodness of humanity, and her passion for truth, justice and equality.

Her stories are not meant for light entertainment. Carefully crafted and thoughtfully presented, they must be read just as carefully and just as thoughtfully if one is to appreciate fully the genius of this most original of woman writers.

In reading Kobylianska's works, we must keep in mind that, in addition to the personal tragedies in her life, she also lived through the turbulent years of the First World War, the Revolution, the formation of the Soviet Union and its dire consequences in the 1920s and 30s for Eastern Ukraine, the incorporation of Western Ukraine into Soviet Ukraine in 1939, and the beginning of the Second World War. No wonder she made the following observation about her writing: "If a reader is struck by a painful note of sadness in my writing, he should understand that it simply reflects the age-old sadness of an oppressed nation, that this sadness flows in our veins, and we do not know how to liberate ourselves from it. This note of sadness may be seen as a fault, but it characterises both my nation and me. As things stand now, Ukrainians and their writers still speak sadly."

Like her good friend Lesya Ukrainka, Olha Kobylianska was a highly principled woman, a true Ukrainian patriot, and a dedicated writer who rose above her physical limitations to leave us a legacy of inspired literature-a legacy that is more than equal to the one that women writers in other European countries have left behind. When she died in 1942 at the age of 79, her readers and her friends called to mind her words that were like a clarion call to them: "So then, get involved in some endeavour, do something, engage in work of some kind-work that will turn you into a beacon for others, that will make you feel good about yourself, that will transform you into a person of strong character and firm will-a person who is worthy of the respect of others . .. I would like Ukrainians to become eagles."

At this point I would like to take a moment or two to mention a Saskatoon connection to this renowned author. As you all know, in 1923, a group of forward looking women in Saskatoon organised a women's society that was named, at the suggestion of Savella Stechishin, in honour of Olha Kobylianska, and, in 1926 it became a branch-your branch!-of the newly-formed Ukrainian Women's Association of Canada.

In 1928, Savella and her husband Julian, travelled to Western Ukraine where they had the good fortune to meet with Olha Kobylianska and to initiate a correspondence with her. The story of that trip and of their meeting is recorded in the 1971 November issue of Promin, along with a poignant letter from Kobylianska written in 1930, in which she expressed both her gratitude for money sent to her by your Branch and her hope that one of her novels might be published in Canada. With the $350 that she hoped to receive from this publishing venture she wanted to travel to a health spa for treatments and to make repairs to her house so that she could continue living in it.

It was because of this unique Saskatoon connection with Olha Kobylianska, that Sonia and I decided to dedicate to Dr. Savella Stechishin Volume III of our series Women's Voices in Ukrainian Literature. This volume also includes some of the works of another, lesser-known woman writer from Bukovyna, Yevheniya Yaroshynska; however, the title, But . . .The Lord Is Silent, is taken from a powerful short story written by Kobylianska in 1927, the year in which she celebrated the 40th anniversary of her career as a writer.

Olha Kobylianska is not easy to read in Ukrainian, and I have to admit that it was very difficult to translate some of her works into English. A number of the earlier works that she wrote in German were translated into Ukrainian by such well-known authors as Ivan Franko and Osyp Makovey. From a translator's point of view, I have to admit, that these stories were much easier to read and translate into English than the ones that Olha later wrote in Ukrainian by herself. That being said, my sister and I hope that our translations will make it possible for you to become more familiar with some of the works of this eminent author whose name your Branch so proudly bears.

In my talk today, I have been able to introduce you only superficially to this superb author. If you want to learn more about her and about the other women authors included in the series "Women's Voices in Ukrainian ',literature," and if you would like to gain a deeper understanding of the age in which they lived, I encourage you to attend a workshop that the Ukrainian Museum of Canada is sponsoring on Saturday, March 11.

I want to assure you that you need not have read all four books that have been published in our series thus far to participate in the workshop. However, if you are planning to read the books at some future date, you will be able to appreciate them much more after hearing what the six presenters have to say at this workshop, and after you have had the opportunity to raise questions and to participate in discussions.

Once again, thank you for honouring me with your invitation to speak to you today.

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