How a free-spirited country girl from Ukraine became an intrepid adventuress & 1930s travel blogger

Sofiya

Sofiya Yablonska, photographer, writer, travel blogger and documentary filmmaker. Photo collage: Na Skryzhlyakh 

Culture, History, Ukraine Explained

Article by: Christine Chraibi

“In my travels, from land to land, I never encountered the paradise I had hoped for. But sometimes, at least, I captured a few glimpses of earthly happiness from afar, and now this has a greater value for me than any imaginary paradise,” Sofiya Yablonska, 1934.

If Instagram, YouTube, and other social media had existed in the 1930s, Sofiya Yablonska would have gathered the largest number of followers and become an instant hit as a travel blogger. This spectacular adventuress would have posted instant travel blogs and easily captured a global audience with her incredible tales and photos.

Sofiya was a fascinating figure – she was exceptional, fearless, a strong woman who followed her calling and was not afraid to be different.

Sofiya

In Lviv, early 1930s. Photo: open source

Sofiya Yablonska was an inspired Ukrainian travel blogger, cinematographer and photographer, who traveled around the world, lived in China for many years, and died in a tragic car accident in France. In Southeast Asia, she nearly died from the bite of a banana viper, a malaria mosquito, and the juice of a poisonous orchid; in Laos, she hunted tigers, lived with local tribes on Bora Bora for several months, was received by the last queen of Tahiti, fled the prince of Thailand who wanted to marry her and attended the wedding of a Vietnamese prince. Her notes, books, and travelogues are interesting and unique, especially because they are about countries and customs that no longer exist.

A Ukrainian country girl in Paris

Sofiya

There was no stopping Sofiya when she set her mind to something! 1930s. Photo: open source

Sofiya Yablonska was born in a family of priests in the village of Hermaniv (today’s Tarasivka), in the Habsburg Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria on May 15, 1907. When the Russian Imperial army withdrew from Galicia (Halychyna), her Russophile father took the family to Taganrog in southern Russia where they lived for six years, and where Sofiya attended drama classes and a commercial school. Disillusioned with the Soviet regime, the family returned to western Ukraine in 1921, namely to Ternopil where Sofiya studied bookkeeping, sewing, and drama at a gymnasium.

At the age of 20 years, Sofiya refused to assume the traditional feminine gender role in society and traveled to Paris to study at the Louis Paglieri Film School. There, she worked as a fashion and artist’s model and landed small roles in French films.

Sofiya fully integrated the Parisian art scene, which was attracting writers, artists, and bohemians from around the world. In this unconventional milieu, she befriended many famous persons, one of whom was Stepan Levynsky, a Ukrainian writer, orientalist, and traveler, who convinced her to drop her budding film career and travel to North Africa. An emancipated and free-spirited young lady, Sofiya even entered into a common-law marriage with French artist and adventurer Christian Caillard, who mesmerized her with tales of his travels to Morocco.

The pull of Wanderlust

Sofiya Yablonska’s drive and persistence eventually landed her a job with a French film production company. Armed with a movie camera and a notebook, throwing caution to the wind, she packed her bags and made her first three-month trip to Morocco in January-March 1929. It was a revelation for the young woman, who transcribed her impressions in a travelogue published by the Shevchenko Scientific Society, Lviv in 1932 under the title The Charm of Morocco (Чар Марока).

Sofiya

On the road in Morocco and Egypt, 1929. Photo: open source

Arriving in Morocco, for the first time in her life Sofiya plunges into a non-European culture and describes rare scenes of everyday life that catch her attention: fire-swallowers, a snake eater, a Senegalese dancer, or a Berber fabulist performing on a central square. She visits Casablanca, Marrakech, Mogador (now Essaouira), Taroudant, Agadir, focusing her camera at every turn and avoiding the frivolous pursuits of humdrum tourism.

“I still don’t like tourists. Why? Because they capture the beauty of Marrakech with their silhouettes, and their cameras breathe black spots on the clear walls of buildings.”

Perched on a building roof looking over the city, she discovers the city through images, sounds, and scents:

“The wind brings the mixed scent of flowers, vegetables, candles, lamb and honey. Drunken with the smells, the sounds of monotonous music and the chirping of birds, covered with the blue sky, I will draw for you the majestic beauty of Marrakech and the life of the Arabs.”

Sofiya

Children in local market, Morocco, North Africa, 1929. Photo Sofiya Yablonska

Her impressions are both physical and sensual; she captures the mysterious essence of this strange world and refuses to pass judgment on what she sees. She watches and records a Berber fabulist as he performs on the central square, even though she does not understand his words:

“He drew the attention of the spectators with nothing else but his facial expressions and body movements… It was a perfect, flexible dance. He would break the line of his movements or create an accent with the rise of his voice, facial expression, the meaning of his words. He played with all the muscles of his body, fingers, finger nails; he even used the air he exhaled, and he mixed his play with pauses of total immobility, which led to moments of culmination, taking the spectators’ breath away.”

Sofiya

Sofiya Yablonska with her travel notebook, early 1930s. Photo: open source

Wherever she went, Sofiya firmly identified herself as Ukrainian and all her reports were written in the Ukrainian language. Called “the wild Ukrainian” by a French official, Sofiya remained undaunted in her pursuit of the unknown and even used her status as a woman to enter the mysterious world of Arab harems. Describing her visit to this secret place, she relates her conversation with the host:

“I started explaining to him the difference between the Russians and us, drew a map of Ukraine and its neighbouring countries, so that he better understood its location. I told him that there were about forty million Ukrainians and that Ukraine was one and a half times bigger than France. All these explanations I know better than a prayer, because I often have to repeat them to the French and other strangers who know nothing about our existence.”

In the harem, Sofiya also meets a local dignitary (caid), who is ready to give her one of his many wives so that she does not feel lonely during her travels. When Sofiya remarks on the girl’s young age, the caid smiles and tells her that their women are beautiful only when they are young.

– Don’t you think that she’ll long for you and for her home in Africa? inquires Sofiya

– No! Not at all. If you give her a nice dress and some toys, then absolutely not! assures the caid.

– Ask her, please.

– It’s not necessary, madam. Our women don’t know love; they don’t care, and we don’t look for it in their hearts. Why? Because they have no right to choose. Give them freedom of choice and you’ll see that they too will discover love.

Sofiya became an immediate sensation in Halychyna and her travel reports received rave reviews in Galician newspapers and literary journals. Ukrainian writer and literary critic Mykhailo Rudnytsky wrote:

“… The Charm of Morocco: a colourful style, vivid observations, and a cheerful smile on every page. Her style of writing is the most important feature of her work, a manifestation of her talent and skills. Everything else – strange words, grammatical errors, spelling – can be corrected, crossed out, cut from the text before printing. However, how the author looks at a world unknown to us is unique and cannot be inserted by another into the text.”

On more than one occasion during her travels through Morocco, Sofiya throws caution to the wind and ventures into territories that are not controlled by the French administration. She enjoys the excitement of adventurous journeys and avoids luxury hotels, elite cruise ships, local guides, and comfortable vehicles. She shocks both the ‘civilized’ French authorities and the ‘naive’ Berbers when she decides to travel to the Sahara, oblivious of the scorching sun and the dangers posed by wandering nomads and desert creatures.

“The smell of danger has already enlarged the compartments of my heart… The danger looks at me with a hundred of its feverish eyes, attracts me and draws me to itself. Interesting! Can this be the last day of my freedom?”

Asia & China through a camera lens

Sofiya

Hunting in Tonkin (North Vietnam, now called Bắc Bộ), early 1930s. Photo: open source

Sofiya Yablonska returned to France, but she had already been bitten by the travel bug and decided to turn her passion into a profession. She found work shooting documentaries with the Société Indochine Films et Cinéma, packed her bags again, and set off for Asia and China.

Sofiya does not travel directly to Asia and China, as her curiosity and adventurous spirit drive her to visit remote countries along the way. She stops by Port Said, Djibouti, Colombo, Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Huế, Hanoi, Laos, Phnom Penh, Angkor, Bangkok, Penang Island, Singapore, Java Island, Bali, Australia (Perth, Sydney), New Zealand (Auckland, Lake Waikaremoana, Wellington) and Rarotonga Island.

Sofiya

Map of travels drawn with Sofiya’s hand. Photo: open source

She also fulfills her lifelong dream – an expedition to the exotic island of Bora Bora, set on one of the most beautiful and crystal-clear lagoons in the world, colored in a million shades of blue. She stays there for several months, where the natives give her a new name – Teura, meaning ‘red bird’. During her travels, she meets many interesting individuals, namely French author and traveler Alain Gerbault, who enchants her with his tales of distant lands. Although Sofiya returns to Europe via the United States (San Francisco and New York), she ends her travelogue with her lengthy stay on Bora Bora.

Sofiya

Sofiya Yablonska with crew on a Chinese sailboat, mid-1930s. Photo: open source

No one in the cinema community believed that Sofiya Yablonska would be able to shoot or record something in these remote lands, because the local population was very wary of ‘white people’ and even more so of a camera, which the locals believed could capture and destroy a person’s soul. But, Sofiya was a determined woman and using her remarkable ingenuity and beautiful smile, she managed to gain the confidence of some indigenous people and deliver images that no one had ever taken before.

Sofiya approached her subjects carefully, using gestures and the power of her smile to capture them on camera. Realizing that she could not take photograph the indigenous population directly, she set up a clever scheme – a fake shop on a busy Chinese street through which she managed to record daily street traffic and passers-by. She showed a keen interest in faces, facial expressions, and articulation:

“The Chinese would stop, approach close [to the shop window], lift their heads up to the light so that I could take pictures up close of their surprised, admiring, smiling or foolish-looking faces. The expression of their squinting eyes was the most interesting for me.”

In time, Sofiya came to realize that she, like most white people, was molded by “European ‘white’ sensitivity, which plays a great role in my observations, because the Chinese, set in their traditions, perceive life and its manifestations in a totally different way.”

In addition, her Chinese experience not only enriched her with new knowledge but also convinced her that the idea of Western Universalism could not be applied in Asian cultures: “Europe is too far away to serve us here with its example or punish us with its laws.”

Editor’s Note

Western Universalism – a point of view that western (American, European, British) intellectuals have of using their own history as a reference point for all humanity.

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