7 women in Ukrainian culture8 min read

 In Blog, Culture, Eastern Europe, Read

The outstanding importance of women in Ukraine’s vibrant cultural landscape cannot be overlooked, especially now, in times of cultural resistance against Russia. Numerous talented voices are rising up and making an indispensable contribution to preserving Ukrainian identity. Alyona Alyona and Jerry Heil are not only well-known musicians, but also authors of viral hits, including anti-war songs that reach people’s hearts. Directors like Nadia Parfan and Ganna Yarosewytsch create impressive films that mark milestones in Ukrainian film history. A look into the past also shows us that today’s flourishing Ukrainian culture would be unthinkable without the labour of women. In a homage to these cultural pioneers, Aleksej Tikhonov, founder and editor of our media partner osTraum, presents the seven most important women in Ukrainian cultural history.

Oksana Zabuzhko (born 1960)

Oksana Zabuzhko is a contemporary writer, essayist, poet, translator, feminist, political activist, and literary scholar. She is considered one of the most important voices in modern Ukrainian literature  and her works have been translated into more than 20 languages. She is dedicated to such topics as Ukrainian identity, politics, and gender. As a winner of national and foreign awards, including the Fulbright Scholarship, and having worked as a Ukrainian studies lecturer at both Harvard and Pittsburgh University, she has contributed significantly to the popularisation of Ukraine and Ukrainian culture on an international level.

The call to involve herself in the literary and cultural world came from her family — her mother Nadija was a teacher of literature while her father Stefan was a literary critic and translator who was exiled to Siberia as part of the political repression under Stalin. Both of her parents belonged to the Shestidesiatniki movement, which fought against official dogmatism and the alleged freedom of creative expression and for cultural pluralism and universal human rights.

Maria Prymachenko (1908–1997)

As a performing artist in the genre of folklore and naive art, Maria Prymatschenko created colourful, amusing, and sometimes bizarre paintings, murals, and figures. Her sources of inspiration were the rich motifs in her home and the songs her mother sang. Prymachenko’s work explored the diversity of Ukrainian folk art, which for centuries found expression in various crafts, e.g. in blacksmithing, baking, weaving, and wood carving. Because her art contains traditional motifs and has been exhibited in galleries around the world, her body of work is considered one of the central symbols of Ukrainian folklore culture. Overall, her artistic oeuvre encompasses more than 800 works. 

She was born and lived all her life in the village of Bolotnya in the Kyiv region. In 1937, after visiting a Prymachenko exhibition at the World Exhibition in Paris, Pablo Picasso reportedly said he was “in awe of this genius Ukrainian woman’s talent.” More recently, UNESCO declared 2009 the year of Maria Prymachenko. In February 2022, Russian troops shelled the village of Bolotnaya (Ivankiv) in the Kyiv region, destroying the local museum where many of Prymachenko’s works were stored and exhibited. While many pieces of art were destroyed, local residents worked together to save 12 of Prymachenko’s paintings from the fire at the last moment. Since this dramatic rescue, many of her works have become symbols of the fight for peace in Ukraine. Her works now sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at art auctions. 

Solomiya Krushelnytska (1872-1952)

The future opera singer was born in 1872 in a village between Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk to the Greek Catholic priest Amvrosii Kruschelnytskyi and his wife Teodora Maria. She appeared in the opera for the first time in Ternopil at the age of 11, and began studying music in Lviv at the age of 19. During her lifetime she was considered one of the best opera singers in the world. Her numerous awards and honours include the title of prima donna assoluta of Wagner operas in the first half of the 20th century; a title that can also be understood as the best of the best.

When Western Ukraine fell to the USSR in 1939 as part of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Krushelnytska’s possessions were almost completely expropriated. While the Soviet government let her remain in her home, it was only in a four-room apartment on one floor that she shared with her sister Hanna. During the German occupation of Lviv she gave private singing lessons to secure her livelihood.

After 1945, Krushelnytska worked at the Lviv State Conservatory, where soon after she began teaching. As part of the Soviet “staff purge of nationalist elements,” she was accused of not having a university degree. However, her diploma was later found in the holdings of the city’s Historical Museum. For a long time, as an Italian citizen, she was denied Soviet citizenship while at the same time denied permission to travel to Italy. After finally signing a declaration transferring her Italian villa and all her property to the Soviet state, she became a citizen of the USSR. The villa was sold immediately, with the new owner compensating her with a small sum. In 1952, shortly before her death, she finally received the title of professor.

Olha Kobylianska (1863–1942)

Olha Kobylianska was a novelist, essayist, and translator, and a close friend of the Ukrainian national poet Lesya Ukrainka. At the beginning of the 20th century she was one of the most influential figures in Ukrainian literature. Her works often dealt with social injustice.

From today’s perspective, her pro-Russian stance is problematic: In 1894, she was one of the key people in founding the “Society of Russian Women in Bukovina.” However, as early as 1902, she was co-founder and leader of the “Circle of Ukrainian Girls” in Chernivtsi.

Kobylianska must also be positioned linguistically more broadly, because she was influenced by Romanian and German-language literature and wrote not only in Ukrainian, but also in German. Some of her most famous works include: Hortense, or A Picture from a Girl’s Life (1880), Destiny or Will (1883), Pictures from the Life of Bukovyna (1885) and She Got Married (1887). Overall, Kobylianska was a highly talented personality. Though she only had four grades of schooling, she wrote over 60 works, focusing much of her literature on family slavery and the social slavery of women.

Marusia Churai (circa 1625-1653)

Churai has the status of a legend in Ukrainian folklore and literature. She is best known as a poet, singer, and composer. There are only fragments of verified information about her as a historical figure, which makes her life something of a mystery. According to legend, she was born in Poltava to the Cossack Gordyj, one of the leaders of the anti-Polish uprising. She is credited with, among other things, the authorship of the songs “Oi Ne Khody, Hrytsiu,” (Oi, don’t go, Hryts) “Kotylysia Vozy z Hory” (The Wagons Were Rolling Downhill), and “Za Svit Staly Kozachenky” (The Cossacks Were Ready to March at Dawn). The first song is said to have inspired Franz Liszt’s “Ballade d’Ukraïne.”

Marusia Churai is celebrated in many traditional songs and stories, and is often seen as a symbol of national identity and pride. She is said to have waited four years for her lover, who took part in the Khmelnytsky Uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. She may have died at just 28 years old as a nun in a Ukrainian Orthodox monastery due to the mental anguish she suffered after the death of her lover. 

Hanna Barvinok (1828-1911)

This author, journalist, and activist was strongly committed to women’s rights and equality. She was a pioneer of the Ukrainian women’s movement and helped establish several organisations dedicated to promoting women’s education and social well-being. Barvinok’s works are primarily about family and domestic grievances that a woman experiences. As a result, Barvinok became one of the most prominent voices in the fight against the oppression and abuse of women. In her groundbreaking works such as House Disaster (1861), Women’s Poverty (1887) and Father’s Mistake (1902), she revealed the sad existence that many women faced during this time, such as living with alcohol-dependent husbands or through forced marriage. However, Barvinok also created characters of remarkable will, as in Victory (1887) and Youth Struggle (1902). In these stories, the main characters embody the spirit and determination of women who rebelled against social restrictions.

Barvinok’s stories were not only appealing in terms of content, but also outstanding in terms of language. Her writing style is colourful and imaginative, interspersed with lively proverbs and colloquialisms of the period, as well as the Chernihiv and Poltava dialects. But her greatest literary triumph was undoubtedly the unpublished drama Mother’s Revenge, in which she addressed the bitter reality of oppressed women. In 1887, two short stories by Barvinok were published in The First Wreath, Ukraine’s first feminist almanack — published by Nataliya Kobrynska and Olena Pchilka (mother of Lesya Ukrainka) in Lviv — gaining widespread attention. 

Lesya Ukrainka (1871-1913)

Lesya Ukrainka was a writer, translator, poet, cultural activist, and co-founder of the Pleiada literary circle and the Ukrainian Social Democrats group. Born as the commoner Larysa Kosač (after her marriage: Kosač-Kvitka), she gained fame under her pen name Lesya Ukrainka, and is now the most famous woman in Ukrainian cultural history. She was a polymath and wrote poetry, drama, prose, and journalistic texts, and developed the genre of dramatic poems in Ukrainian literature. She worked intensively in the field of folkloristics (she knew around 220 folk songs by heart) and took an active part in the Ukrainian women’s movement, national rebirth, and emancipation from Russia. Born in Volhynia, she died of tuberculosis at the age of just 42 during a treatment in Surami, Georgia.

Unfortunately, anyone who looks for English translations of Lesya Ukrainka will find that there aren’t that many, which is an enormous deficit. We can, however, look forward to a translation by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps of Ukrainka’s poetic play The Forest Song, scheduled to be published this year by Harvard Press.

This article was originally published in German on 22 July 2023 by our media partner osTraum.

Feature Image: Canva / Wikimedia
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