Lecture by Sonia Morris at Literary Workshop at Ukrainian Museum of Canada - Saskatoon

March 11, 2000

by Sonia Morris

People . . . are social beings. We are born in particular time and place . . . into a family, a community, a political structure . . . in a particular corner of the globe, and the settings in which we live . . . like a series of concentric circles . . . impinge upon us and determine who we are, how our lives unfold, and the quality of our life experiences.

The first two speakers this morning have done us a great favour. They have fixed the lives of the authors featured in this series and the stories that they wrote in a time frame, identified the major political, cultural, and social issues that shaped the writers’ own lives and the lives of the characters in their short fiction, and provided a backdrop on which we can draw, in broad outline, a picture of the lives of women in Ukraine at the time of the first mass immigrations of Ukrainians to this country.

The cardinal first rule of writing is: Write about what you know. And clearly, this is what these writers did. As we browse through their stories, we are drawn into a world of stark and disconcerting contrasts, a world dominated by traditional values that defined and determined the quality of an individual’s life on the basis of family of birth and gender. . . and decreed which doors would open and which doors would remain closed, who would enjoy lavish meals and who would go hungry, who would sleep on a hard bench, and who would loll around under silk quilts, who would debate esoteric philosophical issues, often in several languages, and who would use a witnessed cross as a signature.

The economic and social gulf that separated the peasants from their privileged countrymen was viewed as just, for it was rooted n the time-honoured belief that peasants could not be anything but peasants As pointed out in Olena Pchilka’s story The Girlfriends, and in Yevheniya Yaroshynska’s story On the Banks of the Dnister, peasants were considered to have been simply born inferior, and were destined to stay that way. Similarly, women were deemed genetically inferior to men, their subjugation was considered reasonable, and their destiny equally unalterable.

As in most other countries of the time, these factors—socio-economic status and gender—divided people into the illiterate and the intelligentsia, the ignorant and the cultured, the politically naïve and the sophisticated. “A man for every place, and every man in his place.”

Each of these contrasts shaped the lives of our grandparents or great-grandparents who came to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The manner in which they were addressed and resolved in this country is intertwined with the history of all Canadians, and this afternoon our panellists will refresh our memories and remind us of how our immigrant ancestors were viewed by their neighbours in their new adopted land, how they organized and educated themselves, and how they seized the opportunities available to them. The manner in which they were confronted and handled in their homeland, in the “old country” is, of course, another story. And the socio-cultural gulf between us and our Ukrainian relatives, separated by decades of starkly different life experiences, is a painful reality familiar to most of us in this room, and we will have an opportunity to examine aspects of it at the end of the day.

The short fiction of the eight authors we are discussing today sets the stage for both what has happened here and what has happened in Ukraine, for it illuminates the lives of ordinary individuals from every level of society. Much of what these women wrote was based on actual events. Some of it was rooted in their own experiences, even autobiographical. In short, they set out to depict what life was like in their time, and at this task they succeeded very well. Together, their writing creates indelible images of an era that ushered in CHANGE, change that was as painful as it was necessary.

The nature of these changes is described in a particularly moving way in the key story in the first volume, The Spirit of the Times, that sets the tone for the series. Having grown up in a family of priestly lineage, Nataliya Kobrynska provides an insightful and compassionate description of an elderly priest’s wife, who, as she reviews and tries to make sense of her life—a life derailed by the powerful forces of change—re-experiences the heart-rending confusion and disappointment caused by her children’s rejection of time-honoured family values. 

One son had become a teacher instead of a priest and remained a bachelor. A daughter married for love—something that no respectable girl would do—and, in so doing, rejected a suitor from her own class to marry the son of a peasant family. Another daughter got caught up in books, rebelled against the expectations placed upon her as a housewife, and lived her life in misery—angry, restless, discontented.

And the youngest son joined the revolutionary movement, lost his faith, and became a lawyer. But the final, most crushing blow was the wish of a granddaughter to become a teacher and be self-supporting and independent. If allowed to do so, her family would never recover from the shame of being seen as not being able to support her and provide her with a dowry.

“The sons had risen up against the father, and the daughters against the mother.” This is the human cost of change. And the source of upheaval? Books! “It was the books that infuriated her most. She sensed that something alien wafted from those books, that they were emissaries and the tools of the demon who was her enemy.”

“Wide open spaces, learning! It was the Spirit of the Times! It was taking away and shattering her peace of mind. It was causing the old order to fall. She felt the force of an inexorable change.”

“Everything that the Spirit desired—regardless of how much it went against her will— came to pass. All of her children—her sons, her daughter, her grandchildren—had gone down paths different from those she had envisioned and desired. It shattered the fondest and most treasured hopes of her heart.”

Yet without this rebellion on the part of the children, what would the future have held in store for their children? In retrospect, it is clear that change was as necessary as it was inevitable, and that what needed to be changed most was the world view that made it possible for a rigid class structure, discrimination on the basis of gender, and all manner of social injustice to be seen as “natural” and unchangeable.

The lives of the peasants portrayed in their stories were, as Hobbs put it, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The destiny of women was to marry, beget children, toil endlessly in the house and in the fields, marry off their children, and die. Childhood for them was very brief. By five or six they were tending younger children, and soon after that worked alongside their mothers.

Adolescence had not yet been invented, and was confined to a tantalizing, all-too-short period of attending evening parties for young people, dancing, and if they were lucky, pairing off with a suitor of choice—a period that women recalled with nostalgia and regret as the only happy time in their lives. 

Thus, as Kononykha—the central figure in Hrytsko Hryhorenko’s story She Just Won’t Die—reviews her life, she seeks solace in recalling her youthful years: “Even back then, there had been nothing very special about them, nothing but working in the tobacco fields and joking with the young men. Then there had been her own wedding—actually, two of them—and the children she had found so hard to carry, and all of them except two sons had died. And after this there had been her husband’s blows and more hard work; the deaths of her first and second husbands; the marriages of her sons; seeing one of them off to Tomsk and the other into the army; the birth and death of her grandson. And then there had been other people’s weddings, other people’s births, and other people’s funerals—and that was it! That was it!”

Many of the young women in the stories speak openly about their reluctance to get married and lose their temporary freedom. The most tragic cases were those where the parents, particularly the mother, did not consider the suitor appropriate and forced daughters into arranged marriages “for their own good.”

The traditional ceremonies involved in courtship and marriage left the girl with little say or choice, and the haste with which they were carried out, often within a week of the acceptance of the suitor, speaks volumes about the anxiety level of the parents, i.e. their concern that things get done quickly, thereby avoiding the surfacing of problems that might upset their plans.

As is all too often true in situations of hopeless poverty—it was true then, and is true now—stress and tensions destroyed both people and relationships, and even initially good marriages. Frustrated by their inability to get ahead and provide for their families, men tended to seek solace in alcohol and to vent their anger at the world and their lot in life on their wives. In fact, wife beating was so common that a woman defined her happiness in terms of how she was treated by her husband, i.e. how often he beat her.

And so Hrytsko Hryhorenko states in her story The Father: “And he truly did beat her; he slammed her as you slam a sunflower until all its seeds fall out; but she did not hold a grudge against him.  . . . And people advised Mar’ya to throw Yehor out of the house, but she would not agree to that, saying: ‘All in all, he’s a good man; another man might have killed me by now.’”

And then, as seen in Olha Kobylianska’s story Spring Accord, there were those peasant men who gave up completely and drifted through life in an alcoholic haze.

Unfortunately, two psychological principles tend to come into play in situations of this kind. One is that people become like the person who has power and is abusive. The second is that if abused people attain a position of power, they take out their anger on weaker individuals.

Thus, women who had themselves experienced the pain and terror of beatings, beat their daughters-in-law and urged their own sons to punish their wives physically in order to keep them in line. This point is made vividly in Hryhorenko’s story The Father:

“At times it seemed to Oksana that her mother-in-law was forcing iron rings over her head or pounding nails into it; it was as if she were constantly wielding a threshing flail and beating her with it: ‘Thump, thump, thump!’ Oksana could no longer discern what the words were—there was only a pounding in her head and in her heart. . . . Occasionally Andriy stood up for his wife saying: ‘That’s enough, mother. Why are you tormenting her like that?’ . . . Then his mother would lash out at him: ‘So, you’re turning against your mother, you so-and-so! Why don’t you beat her? Why? May your eyes crawl out of your head, may . . .' And she went on and on, clattering away like a fanning mill.”

The legal system did offer some protection to woman who lodged complaints against a husband who went to extremes in this respect, but few dared to take this step, and those who did were viewed with suspicion by fellow villagers.

And then there were the children. The burden of raising children—often with one coming along every year—under conditions of extreme poverty, was sometimes more than women could bear. And so Khrystya complained in Hryhorenko’s story The Madwoman: “Oh, I’m so unfortunate! It seems I’m always flying around in circles like the arms of a windmill out in the field—cooking, and washing, and sewing, and when the harvest comes, there’s no one to leave the children with, and so I drag them along and go to the field with children hanging on to me like pears dangling on a pear tree.”

Stretched to the breaking point, mothers vented their despair and frustration on their children, and, on occasion, openly wished for their death, as another woman responded to Khrystya: “Of course, that’s a woman’s lot in life—you can’t do anything about it. It’s no wonder that when one of the children happens to fall ill, you think: ‘Oh, if only you would die.’ Because in any event, another one will come along to take its place, or maybe two, or even three instead of one, and there’s no time at all for them!”

And it was taken for granted that the loss of a cow that could feed a family was to be lamented much more than the loss of a child, as seen in the following interchange in Dniprova Chayka’s story Has She Settled her Accounts: “You see, she didn’t wail that way over the loss of her child.” “What a thing to say! That was a useless, whining child, but this is a cow! Just think!”

Similarly, a woman who could not work was a stone around her neck of her husband, and, as described in Lyubov Yanovska’s story The Death of Makarykha, could not die soon enough to suit him. And so he was moved to say: “Oh, Lord, am I supposed to worry about helping you? Anyone would get tired of looking after a sick woman for two months. I have to keep the fire going myself, and do the cooking, and do everything myself . . . and in addition I’m supposed to call in all the doctors and woman healers from all over the world! If only God would take you away, or something! This is very tiresome.”

In such families old age was dreaded, for the old were seen as taking the food out of the mouths of the babies.

Moreover, the daughter or daughter-in-law whose responsibility it was to take care of both the children and aged and/or ill parents often simply could not cope, and the bitter resentment that festered and grew rampant in such situations made death a welcome of relief, emotionally, to everyone concerned. This relief, however, was tempered by the reality of finding the means to arrange a proper funeral—a feat that could leave the surviving spouse or son, or daughter indebted to lords and money-lenders for the rest of their lives.

Widows and women whose husbands were taken to the army were at the mercy of the husband’s relatives, and those with unkind mother-in-law were doubly cursed. The misery and penury took its toll on family relationships, and weaker members bore the brunt of a fierce cruelty fanned by deprivation.

Once established, the pecking order was rarely violated, and what was most horrifying, yet most predictable, was the repetition of the cycle from generation to generation.

Women who had been abused became the abusers, sons who quaked in fear before a drunk and raging father bullied and beat their own sons. The victims of unhappy marriages perpetuated this tradition, calling upon tradition to justify their disregard of their daughters’ tears.

Educational provisions for peasant boys were minimal. For girls they were non-existent. Nor were they considered necessary. As for women who were naturally smart and good managers—well, they were a public embarrassment to their husbands, even though their advice may have been sought and heeded in the privacy of their home.

Work opportunities were confined to physical labour on the lord’s land or hiring oneself out as a housemaid or farm worker on the estates of landowners, positions that were generally recognized as leaving women vulnerable to sexual exploitation. As demanding and demeaning as many of these positions tended to be, they were fought over by the impoverished peasant girls and women, for they offered the rare opportunity to make enough money to buy a skirt or a jerkin, add a few items to a meagre dowry, or keep the children alive over the winter.

Others, to prevent their own children from starving, hired themselves out as wet nurses, using their bodies as a means of survival.

And weaving together these strands of oppression was the view of women as incapable of thinking the way men thought, of using reason instead of emotion, and of having to be controlled, by physical means, by their husbands. The pressure was equally intense on men, for if a man failed to discharge his responsibilities in this respect, he was seen as something less than a real man.

An older man, in The Father, a story by Hrytsko Hryhorenko about peasant life, tries to figure out why the lives of peasant and privileged women were so different. What he concludes may not be logical . . . but it captures the essence of the beliefs and attitudes that made the lives of village women difficult.

“Among us peasants, you may show a woman some kindness now and again, but you never let her have her way; after all, a woman is not as smart as a man, not as smart, and weaker. It’s true that occasionally a man takes his wife seriously and repeats at the village meeting what she said at home, but even if he does listen to her, he still retains control by yelling at her and beating her when he’s angry. Given the lives that we lead, it’s impossible not to quarrel and fight; everyone becomes quarrelsome because he doesn’t have this, or needs that, or his horse has died, or the grain did not yield well.

“But the main point is that women are stupid; they’re stupid and garrulous—may they all perish! I certainly wouldn’t want to be a woman—it’s the worst possible fate. Every misfortune descends on her shoulders, and then there are the children.”

How did women cope with these pressures and constraints? It seems that few questioned or dared to question a system that crushed their spirits and bodies. This was the way things had always been; therefore, this was the way it had to be. If they were to ask a question “Why?” the answer would be “Vse tak bulo, i vse tak musyt buty.” (That is how it always was, and that is how it must always be.)

The few who did question and rebel incurred criticism and rejection, and inspired fear and suspicion among their more complaint sisters. They were different, and their differences were disruptive and unsettling. The young girl whose brother teaches her to read is ridiculed by the other girls in the village, and no one seems to understand her need to understand the world around her.

In Olha Kobylianska’s story The Free-Spirited Woman, a Hutzul woman, scorned by her neighbours, finds kindred spirits in a gypsy family. The villagers cannot accept her independence, her refusal to do woman’s work, like embroidery, and her success at men’s work, woodcarving. But most of all, they worry about a woman who likes her pipe and her freedom more than she likes men, who throws men out of her house and even beats them up if they make her life miserable, likes to live alone, and say things like “Hey! Did I come into this world with a partner, that I should now be afraid to live alone?”

In The Madwoman, Hrytsko Hryhorenko relates a story about a woman whose desperate need for a break from her onerous responsibilities as a mother of five young children and the wife of a man she found repulsive—but whom her mother had forced her to marry—leads her to feign madness and gain a measure of freedom and power.

In Lyubov Yanovska’s story Horpyna’s Oath, an old woman swindled out of her portion of the house and land that she and her husband owned, is laughed out of court when she claims unjust and unfair treatment.

And in another story a woman who kills her abusive drunkard husband is judged to be a common criminal and sentenced to three years of hard labour in Siberian prison camps.

It should be noted that the life experiences of these women were, in fact, more or less familiar to most of us in our generation . . . for most of us in this room had grandparents or parents who had themselves experienced the poverty and misery of village life in western Ukraine.

In fact, some of them insisted that there were no cities or big buildings in Ukraine, for their life experience had not extended beyond their home village. We had heard about the endless array of children, the high mortality rates of both mothers and infants, the often painful experience of living with in-laws, the difficulty of eking out a living on small plots of land, the curse of widespread abuse of alcohol, the hopelessness, and the despair that drove people to emigrate in search of a better life.

We were much less familiar with the lifestyles of the landowners, petty nobility, the intelligentsia, and the priestly classes of society, for these groups did not figure prominently in the early mass emigrations of Ukrainians to Canada. When they did arrive, some in the 1920s, more after the Second World War, they were, in many ways strangers, and there was no doubt that they found us strange.

We carolled, we embroidered, decorated Easter eggs, sang folk songs, and revelled in traditional dances—all activities that the privileged groups in Ukraine had considered quaint and “peasantish” way back in the late 1800s. Small wonder it took time for the newcomers to grasp the fact that the descendants of peasants could, in fact, move so quickly, once they had an opportunity, and become business leaders, join the ranks of various professional groups, assume positions of power in local, provincial, and national politics, and, at the same time, treasure and develop the folk arts that several of the writers in this series found equally beautiful and worthwhile.

At the same time, it took us a while to shed our lopsided view of our origins, understand why these newcomers held the views that they did, and accept the fact that the tradition of education in their families often went back several generations.

In a sense, the old-country gulf between the poor and the privileged confronted us in a modified form in the 1950s and 1960s on this side of the ocean. Access to the stories in this series sheds new light on this aspect of our history and allows us to place it in proper perspective.

Compared to the lives of our peasant ancestors, the lives of privileged women in Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were both very different and very similar.

They were different in that they were provided with, at a minimum, the rudiments of an education (some, in the wealthiest families in eastern Ukraine, with an excellent university education), were protected from the ugly realities of life in the village, and were carefully prepared for the roles they were to play in their home and their husband’s social circle. They had governesses and tutors, acquired at least one western European language, learned to play a musical instrument, usually the piano, and considered all these things their inherent right. They were similar, however, with respect to the pressures and constraints that they experienced simply because they were women.

In her story The Judge, Nataliya Kobrynska describes a man’s view of his responsibilities vis-à-vis his wife: “Is not a woman told: “Follow your master in good faith, love him an obey him!” And how is her master to repay her? . . . “Does she have to follow me, even though what I believe in goes far beyond her range of thoughts, concepts, and activities?”

As a rule, they did not have to endure physical abuse, but psychological pain, particularly if they happened to have been born into impoverished genteel families was all too familiar to them.

Like the heroines of 19th century English novels; Jane Eyre, Emma, Wuthering Heights, their lot in life was largely determined by two factors: their socio-economic status and their appearance. If they were wealthy and brought a good dowry to a marriage, appearance was less important. If, however they came from an impoverished upper class family, their appearance could tip the scale to their advantage and secure them a good marriage.

And, as was true of the peasant women described earlier, some accepted their fate unquestioningly, while others struggled to free themselves and break the invisible chains that bound them to what was expected, what was right, and what could or must not be changed.

Thus, in many of the stories, even desperately unhappy women—those trapped in bad marriages, or denied the right to marry the man of their choice, or relegated to the ranks of spinsters or old maids because of their inability to bring a good dowry to a marriage—do not question their predetermined destinies. They simply bemoan their own miserable fate within what they saw as generally acceptable set of rules and social musts and turn to hobbies and “good causes” to make their lives at least somewhat meaningful.

In Nataliya Kobrynska’s story Yadzya and Katrusya, the rejection by a suitor because of what a girl brought to a marriage is vividly depicted. “This traumatic rejection changed Yadza forever. She could not live down this insult . . . her offended pride sought solace in her beauty. From childhood, she had been taught to take great pains with her appearance, and now, a preoccupation with her beauty became the primary focus of her life.” Later she turned to embroidery, and then to philanthropy . . . Finally, disillusioned and chastened be the lack of appreciation of her efforts, she makes a marriage of convenience and lives out her life in a state of depression.

When they do raise their voices in protest, when they wish to go beyond what is acceptable in order to express a natural talent or satisfy their intellectual needs, when they wish to marry for love instead of money, they are not heard, or are accused of shaming the family, breaking their mother’s heart, or not fulfilling their responsibilities as wives and mothers.

Then there were those women who broke with tradition, carved out careers for themselves beyond the traditional position of governess, companion, or tutor, and became teachers, musicians, actresses, writers, and social and political activists. These trailblazers included, of course, the women authors whose works we are exploring today.

Years ahead of themselves, their views are often still considered startling and inappropriate today, even among men and women who are forward thinking, supportive of careers for women and women’s rights, and take pride in their accomplishments.

These women grappled with the question of how motherhood, home responsibilities, and careers might be combined, what sort of balance might be struck, and were just as uncertain about these matters as we are today. In that respect, stories like Olena Pchilka’s The Mistake, Lesya Ukrainka’s The Conversation, Lyubov Yanovska’s Two Days out of a Life, and Dniprova Chayka’s The Shadow of Uncreated Creations are as timely now as they were over a century ago.

Pchilka could not have raised six children and played the role that she did in literary circles if other women had not been employed to tend to the children and the running of the household. Yet this was precisely what the idealistic young woman in Olena Pchilka’s story The Mistake decried as white slavery, and unable to resolve this dilemma in her mind, rejected marriage in favour of a career.

On the other hand, the well-known American anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that if a woman was uncomfortable having someone else move things around in her fridge, she should give up the idea of pursuing an academic career.

Even those of who do combine a career with marriage and motherhood feel it necessary not to be too different . . . and end up doing everything, sometimes, as attested to by Canadian statistics on working women, particularly those in managerial and professional positions, at great cost to our personal lives and even our health.

Clearly, the literary aspirations and social activism of the eight authors featured in this series took their toll on their personal lives. Only Olena Pchilka experienced a woman’s full life cycle as a wife, mother and grandmother. She did not, however, escape criticism for neglecting her maternal duties, even from members of her own liberal and progressive family. Her daughter-in-law, Hrytsko Hryhorenko, lost her husband after 20 years of marriage, and the marriages of Dniprova Chayka and Lubov Yanovska broke down under the strain of differences of opinion on political, linguistic, national and women’s issues.

All three had children and, like many of their heroines, ended up dependent on the good will of relatives or having to fend for themselves, living out their lives under difficult and demeaning financial and social conditions.

Olha Kobylianska and Yevheniya Yaroshynska never married, and Lesya Ukrainka’s brief marriage to a family friend, contracted after the loss, through death, of the one love of her life, was essentially one of convenience. Finally, the idyllic union of Nataliya Kobrynska with her intellectual soul mate, a young theologian who was as committed feminist issues as she was, to the point of their deciding to forego raising a family in order to devote their lives to the pursuit of women’ rights, ended abruptly with his premature death.

In sum, all of these women were privileged, in that they came from families with a tradition of education, and were supported by a family member, a spouse, or a mentor in their efforts to realize their intellectual potential. Although barred, as women, from institutions of higher learning—and in western Ukraine, even from high school—they took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself to educate themselves, from being tutored by their fathers to immersing themselves in world literature by reading books their brothers used in university courses.

Most travelled widely, and were accepted members of the intelligentsia, the intellectual leaders of the day. What is important is that they realized that they were privileged and used their position and their writing to further the cause of social justice, in general, and to address women’s issues at all levels of society. Moreover, they tried to awaken the social conscience of their contemporaries and persuade other privileged women that they had a responsibility to their less privileged sisters.

Their special concern with issues of gender cut across social and ethnic divisions, and their explorations of the power and often devastating consequences of social conditioning document both the promise and the human cost of change. They had a keen appreciation of both the value and the danger of tradition, and encouraged clearheaded analyses of what was worth and what was not worth preserving.

They did not all draw the line in the same place; neither, of course, did their followers . . . and neither do we, but the debate is valuable in and of itself, and it is our hope that these books and events such as this workshop will keep the debate alive.

Whether or not we agree that an unexamined life is not worth living, it is the process of examining our lives that establishes our personal priorities and helps us decide how we live out our lives and where and how we will invest our energy. Life for us is choices. It was less so for our mothers, and even less so for their mothers and grandmothers.

The women whose writing we are examining today worked selflessly to provide a springboard for what we are able to do today. It is our good fortune that we are able to reap the results of their efforts, and it is our responsibility to nurture an appreciation of the freedom that we now enjoy, a freedom that, without the insights provided by these writers, we would not be able to truly understand or appreciate.

Top Back to Reviews & Resources

©1998-2016 Language Lanterns Publications, Inc.
Contact Webmaster Site created and maintained by Cipko Consulting Ltd.